4 August 2011

A few weeks ago, a friend asked for recommended podcasts. It's taken me a while to answer, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to suggest what I like listening to.

This American Life is the one that would probably win the joint vote for Cindy and I. It's a weekly one-hour show which usually includes three or four short stories with a (very) loose theme. The stories are mostly true, but occasionally fictional; usually lingering on the quirkier aspects of everyday life in the United States. The show does a really good job of the storytelling aspect in this, which makes it such a pleasure to listen to. As well as their usual fare, they also occasionally do some outstanding investigative journalism. Their show The Giant Pool of Money, is the best explanation I've heard for how the mortgage bubble crashed the world economy.

The contender for our joint favorite would be Radio Lab, which we first ran into when they did a guest spot on This American Life. Radio Lab focuses on science stories, especially cognitive science, doing a really good job of explaining the material. It's also remarkable for a very innovative approach to their audio design, which involves a lot audio tricks to help bring out the science. Probably my favorite episode of theirs is Stochasticity, which helps explain how people really don't understand randomness (another episode makes you feel sorry for a cockroach). Although they mostly do science, they've done a couple of exceptional arts-oriented stories on Wagner's ring cycle and how Welles's War of the Worlds contributes to the decline of thoughtful media.

The Giant Pool of Money was such a hit for This American Life, that the people involved span off their own podcast: Planet Money. This is a bi-weekly podcast of around twenty minutes, focused on explaining economics to interested non-specialists. They cover a good range of economic material and I find it a good way of keeping tabs on the broad economic news.

When I'm taking my afternoon walk, one of my favorite programs to listen to is In Our Time. The show focuses on the history of ideas. The format is simple, the host Melvyn Bragg (a well known UK broadcaster on arts topics) invites three academics and leads them through a discussion of the topic at hand. These topics vary widely, I particularly enjoyed The Industrial Revolution, Suffragism, Pythagoras, and The Enlightenment in Scotland.

A History of the World in a Hundred Objects is a joint effort between the BBC and the British Museum. During Britain's imperial glory, much of the world's antiquities were saved/plundered and brought to the British Museum. Whatever you think of that, it does mean the British Museum has a remarkable collection of objects in one place showing human development through the ages. The podcast takes a hundred of these and weaves them into a narrative of human development, one that manages to avoid much of the Euro-centric perspective of the history I grew up with.

If you want to geek out on software topics, my favorite podcast is Software Engineering Radio. The format here is to have one of their interviewers, who are usually pretty knowledgeable, interview a leading figure in the software world. So we've had such episodes as Kent Beck on testing, Brian Goetz and David Holmes on Concurrency, Matthew Wall and Erik Doernenburg on building the Guardian's Website, and Rich Hickey on Clojure . Despite the understandable lack of code examples, I've found the podcast has provided a good way to keep on top of a range of developments in our industry.

If you enjoy good fiction, then you should take a listen to Why I Really Like This Book - a quirky sail through the lesser known waters of English Literature. The pilot is my good friend Kate Macdonald, who teaches English Literature but was frustrated at the limited range of books she could cover. Each podcast spends ten minutes or so exploring a single suggested book. Her first series was a random alphabetical wander, now she's taken to talking about sets of five books with a common theme. Recent sets include Five Appalling Fictional Women and Five Classic Detective Novels. If you're looking for ideas for books to curl up with, this is an excellent source of suggestions.

Only a few readers of this will have the slightest interest in Test Match Special, and I suspect those who do already know about it, but I can't help but mention it. I fast forward as soon as they start the content-free interviews with the players from each team, but would never want to miss the interplay between Aggers and Geoffrey Boycott.