- Written by Bob DeLaurentis Bob DeLaurentis
During the COVID era, I depended on podcasts to support my mental health. It was easy to focus my thoughts on something useful while cleaning or exercising. Locked indoors, often I found myself looking forward to the hours when I could escape into conversations about everything from screenwriting to Civil War history.
Whatever topic you find interesting, there is a good chance that someone is discussing it on a podcast. This is especially true of topics that might not attract a large enough audience for radio.
The definition of what constitutes a podcast is disputed from time to time. I listened to podcasts before they were called podcasts, and this has been true since the beginning: Podcasts are audio programs delivered to you on a regular schedule, which you can play back at your convenience.
Most shows are about an hour or so in length, although they can be as short as five minutes or stretch on for several hours. Behind the scenes, they rely on a suite of standards similar to email. No single company has been able to monopolize podcast distribution (although some continue to try). Without gatekeepers, there is a healthy and vibrant community of creators and listeners.
Podcasts have similarities to radio, and in fact some podcasts are simply radio programs delivered online. However, a good podcast delivers an essential experience that is unique to podcasting.
The real magic of podcasts is found in smaller, personal shows that feature one or two people who are simply fascinated by a topic. As a new listener to podcasts, you may not instantly recognize the difference between a redistributed radio program and a show that only exists as a podcast, but that distinction will become clear after you have sampled several programs.
Getting started listening to a podcast can be as easy as a Google search and a few clicks in any web browser. Most shows have a website, and the shows can be streamed directly from the web. But to get the full value of podcasting, you should try a podcast app.
Podcast apps all contain basically the same three components: the show directory, subscriptions, and playlists.
The directory allows you to search for podcast episodes. When you tap a podcast show name, you can read a summary about the show, download a single episode, or subscribe to future shows. Apple has begun calling the “subscribe” feature “follow,” because the word subscription has become associated with in-app purchases.
Each show has its own playlist, and you can mix and match a series of shows into personal playlists.
Like podcasts themselves, there are a host of great choices for podcast apps. Some are free, some cost a few bucks a year. All of them will help you create a personal playlist with all your favorites.
It is just a matter of finding an app that suits your personal taste. Some of the better options are Pocket Casts, Overcast (my personal favorite), Castro, Podkicker, and RadioPublic, just to name a few.
To keep things simple at the start, every Apple device has an app called “Podcasts,” and most Android devices come with the “Google Podcasts” app already installed.
Finding podcasts is easy. They are everywhere. Good ones, however, take a little luck and patience to discover. One excellent indicator of a quality program is the length of time it has been around. Longevity is not the only measure of quality, but a show that has released hundreds of episodes has found a loyal audience.
Most shows are supported by advertising, and there is a growing trend toward pay-to-unlock bonus programs as well, but these are still the exception. When it comes to free entertainment, today is podcasting’s golden age.
I hope I have convinced you that podcasts might be worth your time. I am going to end with a list of suggestions for good programs. They are not in any particular order, and they represent a tiny subset of the worlds waiting for you to discover:
• Scriptnotes (screenwriting)
• In Our Time (the history of ideas)
• You Are Not So Smart (social psychology)
• Hardcore History (war)
• Levar Burton Reads (short stories)
• You’re Wrong About (history)
• The Flop House (humor)
• Mac Power Users (Apple tech)
• 99% Invisible (design)
• Robot or Not? (language)
• The Incomparable (geeky media)
• Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda (interviews)
• Road Work (rumination)
Here are a few more high-quality shows that I have only sampled briefly, but they underscore the breadth of topics available: Aviation News Talk, Love to Sew, Orvis Fly Fishing, Lingthusiasm, the School of Greatness, and finally, the Zoological Wild Science Podcast.
Bob has been writing about technology for over three decades. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.