*Actually* Looking Forward to my Commute

Or, my newfound love of podcasts
Jun 2020
Neha
K.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

Remember when iPods first became popular in the early 2000s and included an innocuous purple icon for the “Podcasts” app that hardly anyone paid attention to? Flash forward to 2019, when podcasts experienced a large resurgence of popularity, with nearly 32% of the US population listening to podcasts monthly, and 22% listening weekly. The podcast audience has grown steadily at a rate of 10 to 20% per year. As of an early 2020 study, there are 700,000 active podcasts composed of 29 million episodes and spanning 100 languages.

The meteoric rise of podcasts can be attributed to a variety of factors. The format of podcasts is conducive to “storytelling” narrative, which psychologists agree is the most suitable for the human mind. These stories can be especially enthralling given the format of podcasts, which allows listeners to stay engaged week-to-week. These weekly releases also foster a sense of community amongst listeners, particularly when the subject of the podcast is a story that is being developed, keeping listeners on their toes about what will happen next. Furthermore, the absence of visuals allows listeners to stimulate their imagination and form their own mental picture of the story, making podcasts generally amenable to multitasking. Finally, since podcasts tend to range anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour, they can easily fit into one’s schedule.

My interest in podcasts mostly stems from the aspect of multitasking. My commute ranges from a 15 min walk to class to a 30-minute bus ride to lab; these segments of time are perfect for fitting a podcast into my day. Being part of the generation that falls awkwardly between millennials and Gen Z, I am used to being overly stimulated. Even while listening to music, it is easy to fall under a hypnotic spell when you take the same route to and from home every day. Since I know the route so well, my mind often wanders to all the struggles or worries of the day, easily becoming preoccupied. Listening to podcasts provides a dedicated amount of time for me to immerse myself in a new topic, whether it is educating myself about the top news highlights of the day or raptly following along a new investigative journalism case. Plus, if I do happen to miss a few moments, I can easily rewind--unlike audiobooks, which require a bit more focus, making it harder to reorient myself.

To pay forward my love of podcasts, I’d like to share a few of my favorite shows:

  1. Serial, season 1 (aka the OG podcast), 35-60 minutes

Serial is often considered THE podcast for novice listeners to get hooked onto this new form of entertainment. This is an investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig detailing the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year old high school student in Baltimore. Her body was found and identified shortly after. The case was immediately treated as a homicide, with Hae’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed as the prime suspect in her death, eventually getting sentenced for the crime. However, he has unequivocally sworn his innocence, causing Koenig to take a deeper dive into his trial and the underlying story. Throughout the podcast, she sorts through a trove of documents, trial testimonies, and police interrogations, in addition to speaking to      many people related to the case. Bit by bit, she learns the complicated backstory of Adnan and Hae’s relationship, as well as Adnan’s relationships to other key witnesses. I was on the edge of my seat as these developments unfolded. When the season ended, I watched the HBO documentary entitled “The Case Against Adnan Syed” because I still could not get enough. The tenuous nature of Adnan’s sentencing and insistence on his innocence has also spurred on numerous online communities and fan theorists.

  1. To Live and Die in LA, 30-60 minutes

I have never binged a podcast until listening To Live and Die in LA. Imagine the feeling of intense rapture of watching a show on Netflix and automatically queuing up the next episode after. It was that good. This is an investigative and true crime podcast hosted by journalist Neil Strauss following the disappearance of 25-year-old aspiring actress Adea Shabani. She was last seen alive leaving her Hollywood apartment with her boyfriend, Chris Spotz. Through the podcast, you follow Neil’s journey as he gets new information, interrogates witnesses, and finds skeletons in the closet. A unique aspect of this podcast is that it was recorded in real time as Neil was investigating Adea’s disappearance, updating the public about leads, and soliciting any relevant leads and tips. As the story unfolds, you feel like you are right there in the action, traveling the west coast and learning new information that leads to shocking twists every day. You even are privy to Neil’s inner thoughts about the case, hearing him get choked up when tragedy arises or when he needs to have tough conversations with loved ones involved in the case. The podcast covers more than a year of investigation and not a single episode is disappointing. Hands down my favorite podcast ever.

  1. NPR’s Up First, 10-15 minutes

One of my goals has been to stay up to date with current events, particularly in our current political climate leading up to the 2020 election. NPR’s Up First is the best way to start my day.  It summarizes the three biggest stories of the day in 10 or so minutes. The podcast gives a brief overview in a digestible fashion so that I can stay informed about the relevant issues and dig deeper into specific current events that are of interest to me.

  1. The Daily, 25-35 minutes

 The Daily is another great podcast for staying up to date with the news. In contrast to NPR’s Up First, The Daily is a 20ish minute podcast that provides an in-depth summary and analysis of a single story. Hosted by The New York Times (NYT), the podcast features interviews with NYT journalists who provide a reporting of the day supplemented with recordings or interviews with people from the story. Some of my favorite recent Daily podcasts have been one-on-one interviews with frontrunners in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Other recommendations for those wanting to broach the world of podcasts:

Suspense/Thriller

Weirdly enough, there are more podcasts than you’d think that fall under this category

  • Dr. Death

  • Dirty John

  • The Clearing

Business/Money

  • The Journal

  • Freakonomics Radio

  • NPR How I Built This

Human Behavior

  • NPR Hidden Brain

Politics

  • Pod Save America

  • FiveThirtyEight Politics

  • The NPR Politics Podcast

Race and Culture

  • Code Switch

Academia and Culture

  • PhDivas

Science

  • Science Rehashed

Lifestyle

  • Call Your Girlfriend

  • Girls Gotta Eat