I’ve probably whinged about it before. My commute is pretty long: door to door, if everything goes more or less smoothly, it’s over an hour. If there are hiccups, it can be up to two hours, as it was last night, for example. It’s been longer in the past – when I lived outside London and travelled in, it was three trains and one-and-a-half hours, minimum. The point, of course, is that this leaves a lot of scope for stupidity, and, in turn, frustration – people cramming onto already full trains, people shoving you out of the way, people invading your personal space. People smacking you with their bags, treading on your feet. Delays, cancellations, disruptions.
All that can leave a person mentally exhausted by the time they get to the office.
What, then, is the solution, or at least the best protection from fits of sub-psychotic rage? Podcasts, that’s what. I’ve tried other distractions – reading, games, music – but podcasts have been by far and away the most successful. Unlike music, you really have to listen, to pay attention to what’s being said. Unlike reading or games, you don’t need a seat or even that much personal space.
It’s taken me an awfully long time to get on the podcast band wagon, but now that I have, I don’t ever plan to get off. On that note, here’s a rundown of a few of my faves, in no particular order:
You’ve undoubtedly heard of this, even if you haven’t heard it. It’s presented by Sarah Koenig and is an offshoot of the public radio juggernaut that is This American Life. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, superb. It’s unbelievably well-researched, engaging and compelling. I binged my way through the first season, waited anxiously for each new episode of the second season, and now am extremely excited for the third.
- Welcome to Night Vale
It’s hipster-tastic. I’m reasonably sure creator Joseph Fink is based in Brooklyn, it’s self-consciously and self-professedly “weird”, and its merchandise branding is based on selling stuff that no one else has and marks you out as a member of an elite (albeit pretty big) club. But I love it. There’s something very earnest about this fictional tale of America’s strangest town, and it consistently obeys its own internal logic, which pleases me. Also, Cecil Baldwin’s voice is actually addictive.
- Alice Isn’t Dead
A new one from the same team that created Welcome to Night Vale, this is an altogether darker, creepier, more adult podcast. It follows an unnamed narrator as she travels through the US in a big rig in search of her missing wife. The great thing about this one is that it could be read as another straightforward fantasy, rooted in magic realism – but it could be something else. It could also be that this narrator has been driven mad by her own grief and everything she’s reporting is mere hallucination. Very enjoyable so far.
- This American Life
Serial’s parent podcast, it’s an hour-long weekly show, covering facets of American day-to-day living as disparate as life in middle schools, to the struggles of migrant workers, to door-to-door canvassing on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. The problem with this one, and it’s fairly minor, is what I’ve come to describe as “podcast voice”: there’s a certain cadence, tone and rhythm that seems to be employed by every reporter, and it can get a pretty grating. This is outstanding reporting, though, and worth a listen if you can get past that.
Beautiful stories from anonymous people. Also a bit of podcast voice in this one, but less so, because it’s a call-in show. Comedian Chris Gethard invites members of the public to call him and talk about…whatever. Anything they’re thinking about or worried about. Regrets, hopes, dreams. There are rules – the caller has to remain anonymous; they have a maximum of an hour to chat; only they can end the call before the end of their slot. In that time, Gethard can question callers, guide them, maybe even provoke them a little, but ultimately, they’re in control. It’s about them. The great thing about it is that it demonstrates just exactly how extraordinary seemingly ordinary people can appear when they tell their stories without any personal context.