I’ve been a fan of podcasts, since, well…before there were podcasts. As a kid, I created and recorded “radio” shows, and later worked with teens on a literacy project that involved them doing the same around the topic of career exploration. One of audio storytelling’s appeals is that it engages memory and imagination in a unique and dynamic way. Tilly Brooke of National Literacy Trust writes, “When sharing aural stories we can engage in conversations, provide children with scaffolding words and sentences that help them contextualize and above all feed their imagination for further creative and emotional exploration.”
I grew up with strict rules about television watching and maintained a similar attitude when my own child was born. Instead, we binged on audiobooks and podcasts daily. Not only can podcasts improve critical thinking, listening comprehension, and the art of storytelling skills, but they’re sheer fun. Emma Rodero, a communications professor in Barcelona, concludes that, “like reading, listening to audio allows people to create their own versions of characters and scenes in the story… listening, unlike looking at a written page, is more active, since the brain has to process the information at the pace it is played.”
We live in a public transportation heavy city, and when we take the occasional car trip, there is something immersive and exciting about listening to a podcast together (after the usual debate about which one to listen to). We listen on our desktops, on our phones; sometimes during dinner, chores, workouts, or when we just want to chill out. Here are a few of our family favorites.
For Music Lovers
Sticky Notes is a classical music podcast that takes a deep dive into well-known and more obscure pieces, composers’ lives, and offers a mini history lesson as it gives context and more.
Meet the Composer offers in-depth interviews with modern composers like Meredith Monk and Nico Muhly, and a rich examination of their music.
Aria Code, hosted by Rhiannon Ghiddens, who is well-known for her blues, country, and roots music, but who is also an accomplished opera singer, is a joy. Each episode is a deep examination of some of the most famous (or famously challenging) opera arias around. Right before we were to take our nosebleed seats at the Metropolitan Opera for La fille du régiment — featuring Javier Camarena hitting a gazillion high Cs — we listened to the episode in which Camarena himself talks about how he accomplishes this remarkable feat.
Song Exploder features a variety of music — from pop to film scores, rock to hip hop, and more. In each episode, an artist breaks down the creative process and concept behind a particular song, and then the song is played in its entirety. We’ve found many new favorite artists this way.
Afropop Worldwide, is an adventure in history, geography, culture, and more. It focuses on music from Africa and the African diaspora around the world, features one of the most enthusiastic hosts, Georges Collinet, and, according to the podcast’s site, “it bridges continents and cultures through the power of pop, telling some of the most important stories of our time along the way.”
For World Travelers
Speaking of bridging continents and cultures, Travel with Rick Steves is informative, exciting, and somehow comforting at the same time. An hour-long show, it features conversations with travel experts and scholars, Q&As with listeners, and is jam-packed with tidbits and facts that are not readily available in mass market travel guides.
If you’re looking to explore languages, the free versions of the Coffee Break podcasts, in French, Spanish, Italian, and German, are a delightful beginner level exploration of language and culture. Instead of simple rote lessons and practice, they feature entertaining stories, characters, and conversations with native speakers about a language and the culture that produces it. Additional features, including transcripts and grammar instruction, are available for purchase.
For Science Nerds
Science geekdom rules in our home, and so does Bill Nye the Science Guy, so it’s no surprise that his Science Rules podcast gets high marks. Listeners call in with all kinds of science questions and suggested topics, from “The Right Drug for the Right Bug” to what it really means to “take after your father.” Ane Nye, joined by experts, celebrity guests, and friends, answers with a lively and informative conversation.
Everyday Einstein is short, sweet, and chock full of information. From “Do Aliens Exist?” to “Can You Smell Fear?” and “Is Screen Time Bad For Kids?” extragalactic astrophysicist Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt breaks down big ideas into accessible bites that encourage further exploration.
If the “why” questions are getting to you, turn on But Why, “a podcast for curious kids” — and adults. With “Why Is Sugar Bad For You?” (I haven’t listened to that one yet, I’m still in denial) and “Do Skunks Like Their Own Smell,” it’s fun, often funny, and always thought-provoking.
Wow in the World explores things from “The Science of Four-Legged Facial Mimicry” to “the musical taste of cheese” — leaving no stone, or asteroid, unturned.
For Those Who Want to Discuss
For incredible storytelling, look no further than the brilliantly produced Snap Judgment. Each episode is themed, and sometimes contains multiple stories — some true, some fiction. Some are laugh-till-you-cry hilarious, and some are just heartbreaking. The music production and sound design are top notch, making this a truly riveting experience. Note that some episodes may not be appropriate for young children, but warnings about violent or sexual content are announced at the beginning of those episodes.
Stuff You Missed In History Class is a remarkably enjoyable examination of things that you may not have ever known, or just learned wrong. The Good Humor vs. Popsicle rumble, the “cursed” tomb of King Tut, and How the Emancipation Proclamation Worked are just a few of the fascinating stories explored.
As race continues to be at the forefront of public discussion, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s About Race podcast is a welcome addition to the conversation. A companion to her book Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Lodge and her guests examine history, current politics, and anti-racist activism of today.
Book Club for Kids is a by kids, for kids conversation about their favorite books. Young writers will appreciate the bonus “Writers on Writing” segments with published authors talking about their craft.