From the first time my brother's transistor radio rocked our Wisconsin farmhouse with a late-night, Top 40 broadcast from WLS in Chicago, I understood the world-expanding power of sound. More than 40 years later, I still open my ears to broaden my horizons, but now the medium is spoken-word podcasts.
I began downloading them a few years ago to catch up on NPR favorites -- Terry Gross' Fresh Air interviews, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me's news quizzes, Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion monologues -- I had missed on-air. I still do that, and I still listen to public radio in the kitchen and car, but thanks to iTunes' "Listeners also subscribed to" cues, I've pieced together a crazy quilt of entertaining, edifying, sometimes oddball podcasts.
I listen to them on morning walks, workouts and swims (with a waterproof iPod case and ear buds), while trimming hedges or ironing clothes -- anytime I need diversion from a mostly mindless task. And at the end of the day, when I'm too tired to read, there's something soothing and almost hypnotic about listening to a podcast while playing Solitaire on my iPad.
The golden age of radio may have ended 70 years ago, but audio entertainment seems made for the mobile, multitasking 21st century. You can take podcasts with you almost anywhere and listen to them when you want -- the audio equivalent of the television time-shifting that DVR players allow.
And did I mention they're free? At least the ones I download are. The same "information wants to be free" ethos that is undermining the newspaper business has moved thousands of podcast producers to post their work online gratis.
Here's a sampling of the podcasts I regularly download. It goes without saying that they reflect my particular tastes and barely scratch the surface of what's out there, but I'd be surprised if at least one of them doesn't pique your interest.
Fun and games
The Bugle: Hosted by Daily Show regular John Oliver and, from London, British comic Andy Zaltzman, this "audio newspaper for a visual world" offers smart, salty, often hilarious commentary on the week's events. A friend was put off by their penchant for laughing at their own jokes, but I'm usually laughing along with them.
Ask Me Another: This hip, nerdy quiz show is noteworthy for the clever questions, the terrific song parodies, and the face-saving good cheer with which host Ophira Eisenberg ushers off losing contestants.
TED Radio Hour: Host Alison Stewart uses interviews to amplify "ideas worth spreading" from TED Talks, speeches by leading thinkers presented at a renowned series of global conferences. Recent topics: "Our Buggy Brains," "The Future of Cities," "Where Ideas Come From." (The talks themselves are also available for download.)
In Our Time: Hosted by Melvyn Bragg and produced by BBC Radio 4, this weekly show brings together scholars from British universities for erudite, often lively discussions of "the history of ideas." Recent topics: James Joyce's Ulysses, game theory, Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz's seminal treatise On War.
Hard Core History: History enthusiast Dan Carlin chooses a topic that interests him, takes a deep dive into the literature (really deep -- there are 30 titles in the bibliography for the current show), and creates a compelling, conversational podcast. He takes you deep, too -- 13 hours over six installments for the Roman epic "Death Throes of the Republic." The latest post: A nearly-two-hour initial installment on the 13th century Mongol invasion of Europe.
History Extra: The editors of BBC History Magazine present extended interviews with historians that are filled with fascinating tidbits, from the importance of makeup in allowing the aging Queen Elizabeth I to project a vital public image to the Japanese military's long-hidden World War II policy of cannibalism in the South Pacific.
New Yorker Fiction: Each month, the magazine's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, invites a current writer to select, read aloud and discuss a short story from the New Yorker archives. Three of the 50 delectable offerings: Louise Erdrich on Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri on William Trevor, Junot Diaz on Edwidge Danticat.
The Writer's Almanac: Each day, Garrison Keillor presents five soul-nourishing minutes of "on this date" notes about literature and culture capped by a poem.
Lives and love
Great Lives: BBC Radio 4 host Matthew Parris shares the microphone with a guest who has "nominated" a favorite historical figure and a scholar who has studied the nominee. The diverse perspectives make for engaging conversations about subjects from Gracie Allen and John Ford to Winston Churchill and Michel de Montaigne. (Fun fact: At his father's insistence, the 16th century French essayist was spoken to from birth in Latin.)
Savage Love: Columnist Dan Savage's phone-in podcast is an eye-opening (and X-rated) primer on sexual practices, but more than that, it's a platform for his wise, if often wise-cracking, advice on interpersonal relationships.
Boxcars 711: It requires editing to enjoy this vast repository of radio dramas and comedies from the 1930s, '40s and '50s. But if you delete the lame shows and fast-forward through the host's inane introductions, you can enjoy gems like Frank Sinatra as the debonair n'er-do-well Rocky Fortune, Dick Powell as the suave Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and Humphrey Bogart as a Havana hotelier who plies the Caribbean aboard the Bold Venture with Lauren Bacall at his side.
Lexicon Valley: In this Slate magazine podcast, hosts Bob Garfield (On the Media) and Mike Vuolo explore the marvels and mysteries of the English language, from the (fading) proscription against ending a sentence with a preposition to the study of "stylometry." Interviews with linguists add meat to this feast for word freaks.