Last night a podcast saved my life
Here are the science, culture, and gossip shows that help me escape pandemic blues
My pandemic days are measured out in walks, and my walks are set to the soundtrack of podcasts. In the dead of winter, as the covid quarantimes continue, I wanted to share the pods that give me comfort. I’m deliberately leaving out political news and commentary. Today let’s take care of our brains with some warmth, culture, and deeply nerdy shit.
Science & tech
Science news is my antidote to political updates. I’m not saying science isn’t political, and indeed many of the pods I’ll list below have a strong political component. But they don’t center politics, and that makes all the difference.
Every week, I tune into the podcast from Science magazine, hosted by Sarah Crespi, where scientists and science journalists break down two or three interesting discoveries from the past week. I supplement it with Science for the People, which features long, freewheeling interviews with scientists about their work and their lives.
I’m also a big tech nerd, especially when it comes to digital security and privacy. If you want real talk about how safe you are online, there’s Risky.Biz, where infosec journalist Patrick Gray dissects the week in computer security news, often delivering deliciously deserved mockery to companies making incredibly foolish mistakes. I also love the show Cyber, where host Ben Makuch tackles infosec from a hacker perspective, and revels in digital disobedience.
The bite-sized pod Short Wave is a balm for my soul every day. I call it the “lesbian dad joke science podcast,” and you’ll soon see why -- host Maddie Sofia mingles delightfully corny jokes with well-reported stories about everything from virus mutations and spider superpowers, to environmental racism and the weirdness of superfluid materials. And it’s always less than 15 minutes long, so you’ll want to listen every morning with your coffee.
For science delivered with a dose of fiction, Flash Forward takes deep dives into highly speculative questions like what would happen if we met aliens -- or, on a more serious note, what if everyone had a place to live. In each episode, host Rose Eveleth presents a piece of flash fiction about an alternate future, then brings in experts to explain the reality.
Arts, history & culture
There is honestly nothing more soothing than listening to academics and experts getting way out into the weeds on weighty topics. This is why I find myself tuning into the BBC’s Arts & Ideas podcast pretty regularly. Recent episodes included academics disagreeing very politely over the legacy of John Rawls, a conversation about 18th century sex workers, and three famous lecturers discussing the history of the lecture (very meta). If you like history, you must listen to the Fall of Civilizations pod. Hosted by historical fiction author Paul Cooper, each episode is a lushly-produced, detailed exploration of an ancient civilization, recounting its rise and transformations, as well as its lasting impact on human culture.
Another beautifully produced pod is the CBC’s Unreserved, about the culture and history of indigenous people in North America. Hosted by Falen Johnson, who also co-hosts the amazing Secret Life of Canada pod, each episode tackles a big topic like indigenous astronomy, music, or the Land Back movement, and explores it from all angles, with voices from many nations. Funny, incisive, and fascinating, Unreserved will introduce you to a ton of new books, artists, and thinkers -- and podcasts!
If you’re looking for an intersectional show about race in the United States, though, you must listen to Code Switch from NPR. Hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby have great chemistry, and their show has honestly has kept me sane through the Trump years with episodes about when the media is allowed to call politicians “racist,” what the BLM movement means, whether we all need to start saying BIPOC instead of POC, and much more. In conversations with many guests, they have tackled everything from civil rights history to Desi dating apps.
Pure therapeutic fun
Every week, I get two doses of podcast therapy. First I listen to author Danny Lavery’s wisdom on Dear Prudence, an advice column in podcast form. Sometimes snarky, sometimes deeply moving, his answers to each letter are always relatable -- and often help me sort through my own issues. Danny is the queer friendly, anti-racist etiquette adviser you always wanted. My second therapy session comes from feminist talk show Call Your Girlfriend, where influencer Aminatou Sow and journalist Anne Friedman chat about politics, pop culture, and how to find our way out of dark times. Sow and Friedman are close friends, and hearing them gossip and support each other always makes me feel better about everything.
Speaking of people gossiping, I survive the week with podcasts that make me laugh about the absurdity of pop culture -- while also giving me a pretty nuanced perspective too.
Who? Weekly is hosted by entertainment writers Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber, and its tagline is “everything you need to know about the celebrities you don’t.” It’s a wholesomely bitchy look at celebrity news, unpacking all the latest drama and nonsense for your amusement. Bobby and Lindsey’s jabs fall on the gentler side of snark -- they have some genuine sympathy for thirsty influencers, and they also give us an inside look at the gossip industry machine that creates them.
Keep It breaks down the entertainment news of the week, with top-notch banter from hosts Ira Madison III, Louis Virtel, and Aida Osman. Sometimes this show is the only thing that can make me crack a smile on a tired Wednesday. Every episode features arch commentary on shitty celebrities and new pop culture, plus an interview with someone from the world of entertainment. And it’s where I’ve discovered lots of new TV, movies, and plays (Ira and Louis are obsessed with theater).
Interspectional is a brand-new podcast from fan Latisha Jones, which explores speculative media — fantasy, horror, scifi, and more — from a feminist, intersectional perspective. I was immediately won over by the first episode about the crack-turned-trainwreck that was the show Sleepy Hollow. Jones brings on guests who are WOC creators, journalists, influencers, academics, and fans whose opinions are on point.
If you want more from the geeky world of fandom, you have to tune into Fansplaining. Hosts Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel are veterans of fandom who grew up to be rulers of it. Klink runs Chaotic Good Studios, and consults with entertainment companies about worldbuilding, fandom, and more. Minkel is an entertainment journalist. Each episode unpacks fan dramas, and explores what it means to love pop culture so much that it becomes part of your identity.
Other stuff that’s going on!
Last week saw the release of my book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, which took me seven years to research and write -- so it’s a big deal to have it out in the world. The Doubleclicks created a musical book trailer for it!
You can see me on book tour in the coming weeks. Coming up next week, I’ll be speaking (virtually) at Mountain View Public Library and I’ll be in conversation with The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang for the Books in Common NW lecture series.
You can also check out two of my talks from last week: I talked to award-winning fantasy author Rebecca Roanhorse about the indigenous metropolis Cahokia, hosted by Left Bank Books in St. Louis, and I talked to climate reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross about how climate change affected Angkor, hosted by Politics & Prose in Washington, DC.
I also wrote about how cities die in The Atlantic.
My new book is Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. You can find information and ordering links for it and my other books on my website, helpfully organized into science fiction and journalism. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram — or listen to Our Opinions Are Correct, the fortnightly podcast I co-host with Charlie Jane Anders. If someone forwarded this email to you, you can subscribe to it here.