10 Commuter Podcasts for Ravenous Thinkers & Learners

For a brief moment in time I’ve found myself with a long commute to work. As an avid reader (actual reader, not audiobook lover–no judgment on audiobooks, just my personal preference) I quickly became frustrated with this “wasted” time. I’m used to reading a book a week. Ever since I started this commute, I’ve dropped down to a book a month. I’ll be honest, it’s a blow to my ego. But more than that, it was a blow to my ravenous need for constant learning.

But no more! I’ve found myself a small group of podcast connoisseurs and they have opened up my tiny listening world! I went from having 2 podcasts I listened to regularly, to now having 10 casts I subscribe to, and at least 15 more that were either finite and came to a timely end, or that I continue to check in with on a regular basis. And thanks to my new super-sized commute, I’m generally able to get through all of these amazing shows.

Right here, right now, is truly a Golden Age of Podcasts.

Here are my 10 favorite smart, funny, thought-provoking podcasts you should be listening to.

  1. The Longform Podcast
    If I could only listen to one podcast, this is the one I would keep. Every week hosts Aaron, Max, and Evan interview a different person in journalism. And not just written journalism. Past interviewees have included editors, bloggers, documentary filmmakers, photojournalists, other podcasters, and more. But the best part about the Longform Podcast? The show notes. The. Show. Notes. Comprehensive and chock-full of links, this is where 90% of my non-book reading comes from. If you aren’t listening you are missing out.
  2. The West Wing Weekly
    If you are like me and live in a fantasy world where Jed Bartlett is president then you’re probably already listening to this podcast. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you need TWWW and Netflix STAT! Hosts Josh Malina and Hrishi Hirway watch and discuss a new West Wing episode every week. In almost every episode they bring in a delightful and relevant guest to shed new light on each episode, but the best part is just feeling like you’re sitting around with your friends talking about your favorite TV show.
  3. NPR’s Up First
    Okay, I don’t listen to this one on my commute. Each episode is only about 12 minutes, so I listen to this one while I’m having breakfast and coffee, and that’s about all the news I can handle at the beginning of my day. Hosted by familiar NPR personalities, this podcast hits on the major news events of the previous day or week, gives some background and expert commentary, and moves on to the next event or issue. If I want more information about a story I can do my own research during the course of the day (and often do).
  4. Imaginary Worlds
    Hosted by Eric Molinsky, this podcast about Sci-Fi and other fantasy genres, “how we create them, and why we suspend our disbelief”, is more than a look at the science behind the story (although it is sometimes that), it’s a philosophical and cultural look at some of our favorite stories–in written, film, and television format– that provides some often very personal insight into what these stories mean, and why they appeal so strongly to us. Each episode has made me look at some favorite world in a new light. Now I have to go re-read all my favorite sci-fi and fantasy books. Thanks Eric!
  5. Ear Hustle
    This fairly new podcast is made by Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, current inmates at San Quentin state prison, in partnership with Bay Area artist Nigel Poor. Each episode is an eye-opening revelation. They’ve made me laugh, they’ve made me cry, and they’ve made our criminal justice system feel closer to home (in a good way, not a fear-mongering way) and a little less like some distant “other”.
  6. On Being
    Hosted by Krista Tippet, this philosophical podcast takes up the big questions of life and meaning with scientists and theologians, artists and teachers. The hardest part about listening to this podcast is that I ALWAYS want to write things down, and I’m usually in the car and have no pencil or paper nearby. The best part about this podcast is that it’s not just a podcast. If you follow the link above you’ll find it’s a whole community of thinkers sharing their thoughts in myriad different ways–all available in one lovely educational, inspirational space.
  7. NPR’s Rough Translation
    This podcast takes things we’re talking about here in the U.S. and researches the way they’re being talked about somewhere else in the world. Again, fairly new (only 3 episodes thus far) it has given me some great context and insights when I feel like I’m living in some kind of Bizarro America. There are plenty of people and organizations that want us to feel isolated and helpless right now, Rough Translation shows us we’re not. “At a time when the world seems small but it’s as hard as ever to escape our echo chambers, Rough Translation takes you places.”
  8. Song Exploder
    The best word I have to describe this podcast is FUN! I’m not a music geek by any stretch of the imagination, but I always love listening to Hrishi Hirway’s Song Exploder. A fantastic look at the creative process and the inner lives of the musicians we love, the musicians we hate, or the musicians we don’t know about but should. Thank goodness I have a subscription to Google Play Music, because I’ve discovered a lifetime of new artists and music thanks to this podcast. (Also thanks to this podcast my attitudinal teen still respects my music knowledge, if nothing else.)
  9. 99% Invisible
    I know, I know, I don’t need to tell you about this one. Everyone loves this podcast. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock until recently, now that you’ve crawled out into the light you should definitely be listening to this. Hosted by Roman Mars, 99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world. And honestly, it’s just damn interesting! Who ever really thought about how the President gets his mail? Or why so many computer screens on sci-fi television shows are blue? Roman Mars has thought about it, and now you will too. The only way to get that thought-worm out of your head is to listen.
  10. What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law
    As law professor and co-host Elizabeth Joh says, “Trump is stress-testing the U.S. Constitution” and dammit, I want to know if it can take it! Another brilliant brain child of Roman Mars, each episode focuses on some crazy thing Trump has done recently (and let’s admit it, there’s plenty!) and delves into the legal aspects of it, and how it holds up to legal scrutiny of the Constitution of the United States. I’ve only recently found and started listening to this, but it has been a comfort to me. Our Constitution has been around for a long time, and it’s pretty durable. We’re living in interesting times, but the more educated we all are, the better we can weather this storm.

Some of the other podcasts I don’t actively subscribe to, but enjoy enough to check in on a regular basis are…

  • Fresh Air
  • This American Life
  • Strangers
  • Terrestrial
  • Flash Forward
  • Radiolab

And a couple of finite podcasts that are finished, but if you haven’t experienced them you definitely need to find them and listen include:

  • Serial
  • S-Town
  • Gilmore Guys

So, what have I missed? Let me know your favorite podcasts in the comments.


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