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best free audio podcasts

Over the years I’ve developed a pathological fear of boredom, and subsequently a fear of mundane activities that lead to boredom, like waiting at the airport (especially at night), exercising (if it’s routine and not, say, a hike in an unfamiliar area), or cooking and cleaning in the kitchen. I like to keep my mind occupied; sometimes my own thoughts are enough, and sometimes they’re just not. For when my thoughts aren’t enough, and there’s nothing good on the radio, I listen to my favorite podcasts.

The irony? Alas, there is simply not enough time — even counting the stretches of boring time during aforementioned mundane activities — to listen to everything I want to, so the podcasts not yet listened to stack up in a sometimes overwhelming queue. I’ve realized that podcasts are like books or recorded TV shows: I probably won’t get to everything, but it comforts me to know they’re there, promising a rich intellectual landscape in which to escape from a wasteland of ennui.

Most radio programs are podcasted these days, although listeners often have to pay for podcasts of commercial radio programs. Fortunately, public radio — National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Radio International (PRI) in particular — for many listeners, represents the epitome of quality radio programming; and the podcasts are often available for free.

My absolute favorite, can’t-miss program is the quirky, compelling This American Life, hosted by affable mensch Ira Glass. (And it occasionally includes David Sedaris reading his own short stories.) A podcast of this weekly program is available for free, but keep in mind that it’s only available for download for the week after it’s been broadcast on the air. After that, the podcast is available for $0.95 through (You can listen online at any time for free, but, of course, that keeps you chained to the computer for fifty minutes or so instead of allowing you to travel freely with your listening device.) If you don’t use iTunes, and your podcatcher doesn’t automatically acquire the latest installment of This American Life, you can download the MP3 file manually (find the show at the top of the radio archive and click "Free Download"). New free MP3 files are posted every Thursday, replacing the previous week’s file. (I figured this out over time because I’m obsessed with not missing a single episode.)

My second favorite program is the podcast of Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross, who, in my opinion, is the best interviewer in any current medium. She is plainly comfortable with all her subjects (famous and not), asks questions that range from standard and expected to thoughtful and spontaneous, and, as far as I know, always conducts background research meticulously. Gross is herself interviewed in twice, as well as a by site called Frugal Fun.

For those eager to keep abreast of current events, the Commonwealth Club podcast of its weekly broadcast is a must-download. Founded in 1903, the Commonwealth Club of California is the oldest and largest public affairs forum, hosting a wide variety of speakers on politics, culture, history and economics. (If you’ve missed a particular podcast, you may check the broadcast archive to listen online.) The podcasts of the speeches (which include a brief question-and-answer period with the live audience afterward) are often fascinating, and, in my mind, qualify as can’t-tear-myself-away listening. For topics of interest to the under-35 crowd, the Commonwealth Club launched INFORUM, which offers speeches by and discussion panels with rappers, actors, young activists, filmmakers, writers, and other influential personalities. A separate podcast for INFORUM is also available.

I am especially drawn to "thinking radio": audio programming that engages my mind and challenges my intellect. While "thinking" programs slow me down during exercise, they’re perfect for tedious household tasks. Two of my favorite programs are New York Public Radio’s Radio Lab, which investigates scientific and philosophical questions in a fun, conversational, almost storytelling format, and Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, which explores similar topics via interviews with various writers and experts. In addition, PRI’s The Changing World offers a series of in-depth radio documentaries, each covering a single issue affecting people around the globe.

If you’re interested in science, Scientific American offers two podcasts: 60-Second Science for tidbits and the more in-depth Science Talk. NPR’s documentary series The DNA Files explores the science of genetics and its impact on learning, culture, society and the environment. Also, check out Earth & Sky: A Clear Voice for Change; despite its New Age-sounding name, Earth Sky brings you a few minutes of fascinating news in the natural sciences, such as recent discoveries in human evolution, climate, plants and animals, space and more. Earth Sky also offers slightly extended interviews with scientists through the Clear Voices podcast, as well as Kids Earth & Sky: Science News for Kids.

While many long-time radio programs have recently become popular podcasts — simply because of the convenience factor for listeners — there’s a new phenomenon that happens once in a while: the creator of a popular podcast is asked to host a radio program. This happened to Emily Morse (who I should disclose is a personal acquaintance) with her podcast, Sex with Emily, a program that piques interest just via its tongue-in-cheek (so to speak) name. It’s probably not as salacious as you might think: Sex with Emily is a fun and lively discussion about sexuality and adult relationships. Topics include dating, sexual health, personal hygiene, and celebrity culture.

For computer technology enthusiasts, there’s a growing genre of short-segment podcasts that offer industry news bites. Because they’re each only a few minutes long, I tend to store them up and listen to one after another every month or so:

Along with tech news, discussions about "personal productivity" is another geek fascination. One worthwhile podcast in this genre is The Merlin Show, hosted by 43 Folders creator Merlin Mann. I haven’t yet listened to Stever Robbins’s Get-It-Done Guy: Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More, but it’s garnered good reviews from iTunes listeners. And I have yet to try Gaiam’s Lime, which provides a number of audio programs that appeal to those with a "green and healthy" lifestyle.

If you’re still podcast hungry, you can build your own listening library from these podcast directories:

Interested in creating your own podcast? Start here:

Posted January 5, 2008 by Mariva in education, entertainment, news, resources, technology

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2 Responses to “best free audio podcasts”

  1. Jim says:

    Here are even more:

  2. Mariva says:

    Great find, Jim. Although I have to wonder how author Dave Conabree can possibly listen to podcasts while mowing the lawn (you’d have to have really good sound isolating earphones for that), he offers a bunch of detailed descriptions ("iPinions") of Canadian and U.S. programs, some of which I’ll be adding to my podcast download list:

    Big Ideas, presented by TVO (TV Ontario), which offers many other programs in its podcast directory
    – American Public Media’s Word for Word
    TED Talks
    Open Culture educational university podcasts

    Ah, so many podcasts, so little time! If only I had more dishes to wash! On second thought, maybe not. ;-)