Monday, February 22, 2010

Podcasts I Dig

I have heard of studies in which people were asked what purchases they have made that have made them happiest and are then asked which purchases have cost them the most. The interesting thing is there is usually very little overlap between the two lists.
For me, a recent purchase that has brought me a great deal of pleasure has been a 2GB Sony Walkman MP3 player... purchased dirt cheap since it was a store display model. It has brought me countless hours of enjoyment while doing housework, walking the Maltipoo or just lounging around.
While, like many MP3 listeners, I enjoy my share of music, the majority of my listening time is devoted to podcasts. Not that anyone has asked, but I figured I would share my list of favorite podcasts in case you would like to know why I’m the way I am.

So, in no particular order:

WORLD OF RADIO – While I now listen to this program in podcast form, my experience with it goes back for decades before podcasts were even invented. Having been a dedicated listener to international shortwave broadcasts since the 1970’s, I remember hearing this program, with host Glenn Hauser, since it began airing on shortwave in the 1980’s. Glenn’s take on the world of international broadcasting is clear and detailed. It is by far the best resource for anyone who likes listening to shortwave or other international broadcasting. While his delivery style may make the average golf announcer seem hyperactive in comparison, Hauser delivers the goods in a no-nonsense manner that is a refreshing change from many “style over substance” programs. He does have a wry sense of humor, but you have to listen closely or you might miss it.

FREETHOUGHT RADIO – Sponsored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, this weekly podcast is derived from a radio program aired locally in the Madison, Wisconsin area and on a few other radio stations throughout the nation (and had previously been on the Air America network before its demise). This podcast deals with state-church separation issues, primarily ones in the United States. They usually interview guest authors and activists who are often fascinating and offer views not usually heard elsewhere. I can’t tell you how many books I have read after hearing their authors interviewed on this program.
This program is a good source of information on current events involving religion, the civil rights of non-believers and the intersection and entanglement of religion with politics.

PLANETARY RADIO – The weekly podcast of the Planetary Society. This podcast provides the latest news about space exploration both current and planned, manned and unmanned. Geeky yet accessible. They feature a weekly space trivia contest on which yours truly once won a Mars T-shirt. How can I not love a show like that? They also offer tips on “What’s Up” in the night sky for the current week. Listen. Then stargaze. Heck… listen WHILE stargazing!

ASTRONOMYCAST – Hosted by Fraser Cane and Dr. Pamela Gay, this podcast is perfect both for the astronomy geek as well as those with a more casual interest in the subject. The latter, though, should be warned that a few listens to this podcast will likely transform you into the former. The hosts of this podcast know their stuff and aren’t afraid to tackle complex subjects in such a way that it becomes understandable to an intelligent layman. (Well… usually. I fear I may have injured something in my brain after hearing an episode on the expansion of the early universe.) Although my interest in the subject matter would make this podcast a “must listen” for me anyway, I must now confess one of my darkest secrets: I find Dr. Gay’s voice incredibly sexy. The fact that she uses its bubbly velvet softness to explain such things as binary stars and multiverses only increases her siren-song irresistibility. Go ahead… call me a sexist male chauvinist pig. I defiantly and shamelessly choose to luxuriate under the warm blanket of her techno-verbage. I’ve written before about how I think nerdy women are totally hot… and Dr. Gay is the alpha nerdess. I willingly submit to her geekdom!
Oh… and even if you are somehow waxen-eared enough to be immune to the charms of Dr. Gay’s dulcet tones, you’ll probably like this podcast anyway. Lots of good astronomy info. It’ll help your brain “get its geek on”! Dig it.

QUIRKS AND QUARKS – Since NPR killed “Sounds Like Science” years ago, this Canadian offering is now probably the best weekly science show in an audio format. On each episode, host Bob McDonald presents several interesting stories from the world of science and technology. This is always cool stuff. There is never a dull story. This program has a way of making things you thought you didn’t care about sound interesting. This is another of those shows that help keep bookstores and libraries in business since many of the people interviewed on the program have written books about their work. Like science itself, you never know what’s going to happen next. One story may be about feathered dinosaurs, the next could be about algae and the next could be about advanced particle physics. If variety is indeed the spice of life, you can think of Quirks and Quarks as the “General Tso’s Chicken” of science podcasts.

SKEPTICS GUIDE TO THE UNIVERSE – AWE! SOME! This show is a geek’s dream come true. It takes media coverage of science news and subjects it to a good dose of critical thinking. It also shamelessly smacks down stupidity in the popular milieu. It’s smart, fast-paced, irreverent and always cool. This is one show that will not only make you smarter, it’ll make you cooler and make your breath minty fresh! Well, okay, maybe not… but it IS a really amazingly groovy show. They have great interviews with guests who are always interesting and informative, the hosts are bubbling over with delicious nerd-cred and their look at the science headlines and regular features such as “Who’s That Noisy” and “Science or Fiction” will give your gray matter a workout. Listen or be condemned to eternal suckage!
(By the way, the SGU has a companion podcast called “5x5” in which the hosts of the SGU discuss a given topic of interest for about 5 minutes. Also very cool.)

SKEPTICALITY – Hosted by Derek & Swoopy, this is one of the pioneering skeptical podcasts. Just to put things in perspective, back in the day, the mainstream media usually presented “both sides” of an issue in the interest of “fairness”. While in the field of political opinions this may have some merit, the media unfortunately thought this template would work when reporting the field of science as well. It doesn’t. Science isn’t about opinion; it’s about methods of determining truth. There generally aren’t “two sides” of an issue in science. You either have the evidence to back up your assertions or you don’t. If, for example, I don’t have evidence to back up my hypothesis and you do, then my opinion ISN’T “equal” to yours. The evidence gives your view more validity. And if I am intellectually honest, I will readily concede that you are right and I am wrong in that case. The process of winnowing truth from bullshit is what skepticism is all about. Derek & Swoopy were one of the first if not THE first to present skeptical ideas in a popular podcast form. Many have followed their lead and many of these successors are great in their own right, but Skepticality still deserves credit and still delivers the goods!

SKEPTOID – A real cool weekly program hosted and researched by Brian Dunning. This program typically examines some sort of mysterious/unexplained phenomenon and uses science, investigation and critical thinking to get to the truth. Very detailed, very thorough and very entertaining. Each episode usually is 10-12 minutes long and this convenient length makes it a good listen for me just before bedtime.

ARE WE ALONE – Although this weekly podcast is produced by the SETI institute, (you know… SETI as in the folks looking for extraterrestrial life) this show is about much more than seeking out little green men.
This program features much more ambitious audio production standards than the typical podcast. Whereas some science podcasts deal with several different stories that are in the news, Are We Alone tends to go with a theme and stick with it for the entire show. These folks seem to have access to great guests who know their stuff. I have a feeling we can expect some great episodes from these folks in the future.

AMERICAN FREETHOUGHT – Two guys from Atlanta discussing current topics in freethought and conducting interviews. Good stuff! I haven’t listened to this podcast as long as I have some others, but what I’ve heard thus far has been well worth the listen.

SECULAR NATION – One guy from Atlanta presenting articles from Secular Nation magazine. This one is sometimes more of an “audio book” than a discussion or interview program, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The articles are always thought-provoking, in-depth examinations of issues of interest to the atheist/freethought community and well worth a listen.

NON-PROPHETS – This one has been a favorite of mine for years. The format is simplicity itself: a group of atheists from the Austin Texas area sit around a microphone and discuss current events from an atheist perspective. Opinionated and informed, this show is at its best when discussing current happenings in the news. Sometimes it can get into some rather philosophical discussions such as the nature of free will and the like which – to me – devolve into an atheist version of the old “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” debate. But when they get going on current topics in the news, they’re great. One thing that makes this podcast interesting is the fact that the hosts don’t always agree on the issues and their sometimes spirited debates can expose listeners to opinions one might not have previously considered. This podcast underscores that atheist opinions are not monolithic and there are a wide range of ideas within the movement. Worth checking out!

RATIONALLY SPEAKING – I can’t say too much about this podcast yet because at the time of this writing it is still brand new, with only a couple episodes having been produced. One promising thing this podcast has going for it is host Massimo Pigliucci, whom I have heard interviewed on other podcasts in the past. Dr. Pigliucci is both a scientist and philosopher which allows him some fascinating insights not only into what the science is, but why it matters and how it may affect us. This one has some real potential!

FOR GOOD REASON – This is another new one. Sort of. Unless it isn’t. Host DJ Grothe used to host the “Point of Inquiry” podcast for the Center for Inquiry. He is now the head honcho of the James Randi Educational Foundation and is doing this podcast… which is kind of like his old podcast but with a different title and different theme music. So it’s new. Or old. Or… whatever. All I care about is it’s good. DJ Grothe has a way of booking great guests though he doesn’t fawningly lob softball questions at them. He asks tough questions that get to the heart of complex issues and that’s what makes this podcast stand out.


For those who don’t yet know about it, is one of the greatest websites out there. In the past, the question was “which five books (or records) would you take with you if you were to be stranded on a desert island?” Nowadays, I suppose the question would be updated to “if you were trapped on a desert island and had to choose only five websites you could access, which sites would they be?” would be a no-brainer choice for me. has a mind-bogglingly immense treasure trove of printed material, scanned books, audio and video offerings of all sorts. Just how much stuff do they have? Let me put it this way, they had some song demos I myself had recorded years ago which I didn’t even have copies of!

I can’t mention without giving a shout-out to Aaron Stengel, who is the supreme overlord and main worker bee of the Flint Underground Music Archive (see the ad/link at the top of this blog). Many of the audio offerings on the FUMA are also available on I’m not a techie-nerd so I don’t know how that all works, but if you’re looking for cool Flint toonz, the Flint Underground Music Archive as well as can get ‘em to ya.

Another of my favorite search items on are the audio compendiums of someone going by the name Norelpref. I have no idea who Norelpref is and, perversely, I have no desire to find out. If I were to learn anything about Norelpref it would be like learning the Tooth Fairy is really your mom or that the Wizard of Oz is just Some-Guy-Behind-a-Curtain. I prefer the blissful ignorance of believing these amazing audio collages will just sort of appear sui generis on the website.
How does one describe the Norelpref compendiums? Well… you can’t, really. Each one is approximately an hour’s worth of sliced-up manipulated audio strangeness that is immensely fascinating if you give it a chance. Let's just say this: imagine having a demon-possessed radio that switched stations at random, recording its output, running that tape through a high-speed blender and then listening to the resultant audio under the influence of mescaline. That just begins to describe this show’s weirdness.
Alternately nightmarish and hilarious. Always compelling. If you want audio art, this is the real deal. Just download one and listen for yourself.

Another cool feature at is a gigabyte-bustingly-huge collection of old time radio shows. I sometimes like to just pick one at random and listen to it. By doing so, I’ve discovered some real gems I may not have otherwise known about. The old series “Vic and Sade” is one example. If I may digress to make a point, I’ve always felt the way to distinguish between a late Baby Boomer and an early Gen X-er was whether or not they thought the TV series “Seinfeld” was great. If they did: Gen-X. If not, like me: Baby Boomer. Those who drone on about the greatness of “Seinfeld” generally make a big deal about how the series was “about nothing”. Well, “Vic and Sade” was doing that back in the 1930’s. And doing it far better, in my opinion. Vic and Sade is a quirky, low-key but strangely compelling series. Sadly, many of the original recordings were destroyed prior to 1940, but luckily the recordings which survive are easily accessible on There are a gazillion other old radio shows to choose from, too, so look around!

One final thought before I complete my rambling for the day: you may have noticed that a number of the podcasts I listen to are from an atheist or freethought perspective. The fact that I myself am an atheist, of course, has a lot to do with that, but despite the fact that many of these programs have been around for years now, with others constantly starting up, their very existence is still a source of fascination to me. Those of you readers who may be decades younger than me may not recall a time when an atheist viewpoint could not be expressed openly in the media without it either being sensationalized or the atheist view being presented as part of a “debate” with a religious person since the presenting entity somehow felt a need to “balance” the atheist’s views with a religious viewpoint. (Of course, the hypocrisy of that view was easily exposed when it was pointed out that when, say, Billy Graham or a Catholic bishop were interviewed, the media outlets never seemed to deem it necessary to book an atheist onto the interview for “equal time” or “balance”.)
The fact that the internet allows open unfiltered expression of atheist viewpoints BY atheists via podcasts is, I think, a major contributing factor in the recent significant increase in the number of Americans openly embracing atheism, especially among younger people.
It’s wonderful that atheists can openly express their opinions and that I am free to blog about it. Yet another reason to love the internet!
Those of you who have grown up with the internet should realize what a wonderful thing it is. Imagine a world where there were only three TV networks and the only easily available up-to-date printed matter was the local newspaper. It wasn’t that long ago, kiddies! Please don’t take it for granted!

No comments:

Post a Comment