With a daily commute that takes 1 hour door-to-door, I find myself on the train a lot these days, which adds up to a lot of free time. And while reading or studying would pretty much always be the ideal use of my time, at 4:30 in the morning, usually on about 5 hours of sleep, my attention span really isn’t addequate for processing detailed information. So, this begs the question: how do I fill this time?
Sleeping may seem a logical conclusion given the generally fatigued state that I currently exist in. But remember, I’m on the El, and from a common sense point of view, sleeping on public transit is never quite a good idea. Rather, the answer, for me at least, has proven to be podcasts.
To be completely honest, it took me a while to come around to the idea of the podcast; I don’t know exactly why, but I never felt totally comfortable with the medium. At least part of my initial gripe sprung from the fact that I am a PC user and didn’t like feeling trapped in a system in which there was no good way to bypass iTunes. The program was slow on my computer and was just plain inefficient when it came to updating podcasts that renewed their content daily. And this paired with the fact that I seldom actually plugged my phone in to update it, led me to believe that podcasts just weren’t for me… that is until recently.
Enter: Stitcher Smart Radio
This little app for the iPhone and Android platforms transformed the way I consume news and other media, and completely changed the way I felt about podcasts. This free app allows users to search for their favorite podcasts — as well as live radio stations — and organize them into separate playlists that update free of any physical computer connection, all the while streaming the content so that it stays off of your hard drive. What is more, the interface is incredibly user-friendly and saves where you left off, and allows you to go back to archived episodes, both tasks that are much more complicated if done through iTunes.
But enough about the technicalities, and on to the content itself. If I had to ascribe an overriding theme to the podcasts that comrpise my “Favorites” playlist, it would be programs that force me to think or question what I think I know. The following is a short blurb about a few of my favorites:
The Moth: A favorite from NPR, “The Moth” is a podcast of live story-telling performances (think a poetry slam, but with narratives instead of poems), each revolving around a different theme each week. Sometimes the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes more somber, and often some combination of the two. Regardless, they never fail to give you a glimpse into someone else’s unique experiences and the bits of wisdom they gleaned in the process.
In Our Time With Melvin Bragg: Recommended to be by a friend who spent a good deal of time in England, this podcast comes from a radio show that airs on the BBC4. Apparently, the numbering system for the various BBC stations indicates how mainstream their programming is, with 4, as you may guess, being the most esoteric of the bunch. And the podcast is no different. Each week the host, Melvin Bragg, chooses a random topic (and I do mean random: everything from dark matter to Nietzche, to Chinese trade during the Ming Dynsasty) and invites experts in the field from some of the premier English and American universities to contribute to the discussion. For someone who enjoys knowing a little bit about everything, this podcast is a must.
This American Life: Another NPR favorite, “This American Life” takes on a different theme each week, and develops anywhere from one to three stories around it, often incorporating original pieces by authors such as David Sedaris and others in the process. It’s another one of those shows that never fails to make me think about the uniqueness of our experiences in shpaing who we are and how we view the world.
RadioLab: The only bad thing I can say about this podcast is that it doesn’t update nearly enough. “RadioLab” takes seemingly random topics in various fields, be it science, or literature, or general interest, and over the course of the show, weaves an incredible storyline centered around a given idea. If that sounds confusing, it is. But it’s also pretty amazing when all is said and done, and always leaves me with my wheels turning.
If any of these sound intriguing, or you sound like something you might want to give a try, then by all means, download the app. And if that’s not a possibility, google some of these shows and visit their respective websites. Often you can stream or download the podcasts for free, and if not, the various NPR syndicates around the country air these shows, and offer free streaming themselves, (Chicago’s local iteration of this can be found at www.wbez.org).
So give it a try! Happy listening!