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Great Podcasts for Life-Long Learning

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

When I can't get my audio learning fix from our many Modern Scholar courses, I turn to podcasts. Podcasts are audio or video-based shows available for download, streaming, or online subscription. Many of them regularly update in weekly or monthly installments, so there is almost always a new episode to catch up on or many past installments to explore.

When I am in the car, podcasts often help me get to my destination. They are great tools for keeping up on current events or entertainment. After listening to podcasts for over a decade, I have a few recommendations of my favorites. You can subscribe to all of these podcasts in iTunes, or choose to listen at their respective Web sites.

Bullseye with Jesse Thorn started as a college radio show called The Sound of Young America at USC-Santa Cruz. In almost fifteen years, the show has developed into one of the best cultural interview shows around, recently breaking into the world of public radio.

Host Jesse Thorn explores a wide swath of entertainment, interviewing personalities from film, television, books, music, and stand-up comedy. In-between the interviews are cultural recommendations from people such as BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder who visited our library last year!

Thorn is one of the most insightful, earnest interviewers that you could hope for. You can tell that he takes genuine pleasure in talking to his guests and actually listens to their responses rather than simply waiting to ask his next question.

A fantastic sampling of guests on Bullseye, including Dolly Parton, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mavis Staples and Jeff Bridges, can be heard in the video below.

You can hear Bullseye live on WAMU 88.5 on Sundays at 11 PM, or listen online at your convenience.

This American Life has been a public radio staple for so long that it can be easy to take it for granted and forget just how good it is. Each week, the show picks a theme and host Ira Glass presents a handful of stories built around that theme. 

Founded in 1995, the show has raised the bar for entertainment in public radio and was one of the first to release podcast versions of their episodes. The stories fall across a wide emotional range, and you can experience laughter and heartbreak within a matter of minutes.

People who would like more real-life stories in smaller doses should also seek out The Moth, which specializes in releasing live storytelling performances. These personal anecdotes are told without notes and are good when you need a bit of bite-sized entertainment. If you like what you hear, you should also check out Tell Fredericksburg, our local take on live storytelling which has its own podcast as well.

History buffs need look no futher than The Memory Palace. Nate DiMeo's short episodes feature curiosities from the past couple centuries. DiMeo's gentle voice is perfect for telling strange and somber examples of history's forgotten tales. A nice, quick episode is Secret Kitty where the CIA tried to use cats for spying, with less than successful results.

For fans of classic radio serials, Welcome to Night Vale is a monstrously silly blend of H.P. Lovecraft's frightening creatures and Garrison Keillor's small-town coziness. Aliens, men in dark suits, and mysterious glowing clouds are just some of the peculiar visitors to this quaint, little desert town. Since the story has been developing over the past couple years, it's probably best to start with the first episode

The Truth describes itself as "Movies for your ears." That's just what they sound like. Actors share dialogue while background noise helps convey the idea that you are witnessing a scene plucked from real life.

The attention to detail makes for engaging theatre. Start with the adaptation of the bizarre 1991 short sci-fi story, "They're Made Out of Meat," in which interstellar travellers find themselves absolutely disgusted with the inhabitants of a certain blue and green planet.

The Dissolve is the least narratively-focused of the shows I have mentioned, but as a film geek, its pleasures run deep. The podcast is an offshoot of the Chicago-based film criticism Web site which launched last year. If the phrases Criterion Collection, auteur theory, or Manic Pixie Dream Girl mean anything to you, you should probably be listening.

Staff writers of The Dissolve discuss trends at the box office. Debates include the value of American remakes of foreign films or the notable examples of actors transitioning to the director's chair. 

One fun feature of The Dissolve's podcast is their games. A moderator quizzes the staff over the details of two similarly plotted movies which came out within months of each other while writers buzz in with barnyard animal sounds. Recent challenges include asteroid flicks Deep Impact and Armageddon, or the dual cinematic eruptions of Volcano and Dante's Peak. The Dissolve enjoys discussing movies from all walks of life, giving high profile indie films and mega-blockbusters equal consideration.

What I like most about all of these programs is that they manage to be simultaneously entertaining and challenging. They engage your intellect and offer new perspectives. Many of us hope for the same goals when reading, so why should listening be any different? Give these shows a try today!