By now, you may have already binge-watched several TV series, caught up with the books sitting on your nightstand, perhaps even learned a new skill or two. But what about when you want to feed your brain while also getting some other things done? Or maybe you’re looking for a strictly auditory experience? Enter podcasts. Ranging in subjects from pop music to history to personal pasts and so much more, here are some of our Seattle Times features staffers’ favorites.
Megan Burbank, outdoors/general assignment reporter
“The Dream,” hosted by Jane Marie
I can’t imagine a better or more necessary time to listen to “The Dream,” the scam-busting podcast hosted by former “This American Life” producer Jane Marie. The first season is all about the dubiously unregulated, arguably predatory world of multilevel marketing schemes, from Amway (and its connections to Betsy DeVos) to LuLaRoe (purveyor of unattractive leggings). “The Dream” uncovers a world of grifters and the unsuspecting people who end up forking over their cash for the promise of a robust side hustle that — surprise — never materializes. The second season looks into the also dubiously unregulated world of wellness, from the scientifically marginal statements on vitamin bottles to the vague, questionable health claims of Moon Juice and the dangers of skipping vaccinations. During a pandemic, getting the facts about how to actually protect yourself from illness or manage being sick is more important than ever, and it’s crucial that treatments and public health recommendations be evidence-based. Jane Marie will help you avoid the scammers — like the hucksters trying to sell essential oils by saying they treat COVID-19. Fact check: They don’t. But “The Dream” will help you stay calm — and appropriately skeptical.
Brendan Kiley, arts and culture writer
“Fall of Civilizations,” hosted by Paul M.M. Cooper
Like many people, I have a pathetically sketchy understanding of ancient history. The Sumerians? Old + cuneiform. Early China? Unification, then chaos, then unification, repeat. Easter Island? Giant stone heads. “Fall of Civilizations,” by calm-voiced Brit Paul M.M. Cooper, has been filling in my embarrassing knowledge gaps with long episodes (one over four hours long), each dedicated to a civilization that came up, got big, then fell apart. I didn’t know much about the massive Songhai Empire in West Africa, or the nauseatingly heartbreaking story of Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui), or literally anything about the Vikings of Greenland. Cooper has a historian’s cool about what we know and what we don’t (and takes a few swipes at the reductionist, unified-field-theory-to-culture approach of people like geographer, anthropologist and popular science author Jared Diamond), but a novelist’s eye for vivid details. He also finds students of the relevant languages and music, to give a sense of what those worlds might have sounded like.
In each episode, Cooper asks what it must have looked and felt like to be one of those people from the past — from the Songhai Empire or the Han Dynasty or the Romans occupying Britain — watching the end of their world. I prefer listening to “Fall of Civilizations” on long bike rides, cruising around the city living through its own moment of crisis, and wondering what Seattle might look like as ruins.
Some people have been streaming their way through the pandemic — I’ve taken a hard turn toward podcasts, which feel like a lifeline to the conversations we used to have (being honest: a smarter version of the conversations we used to have) before all anyone could talk about was virology and unemployment. There are podcasts to scratch all itches, and while the following are well known and not in any way obscure, they make up my vitamins and minerals.
The news, but with a pulse, and a glimpse into the lives of people making it and breaking it: “The Daily” by The New York Times. News with an eye toward race and culture (plus historical questions like “when and why did Black American voters switch from being majority Republican to majority Democrat?”): “Code Switch.” Intimate international stories that don’t usually make the papers: “Rough Translation.” Odd eddies of the internet and the people who live there (plus hosts with an endearingly prickly chemistry): “Reply All.” The surprising power of design choices (from symbols to architecture) on daily life: “99% Invisible.”
Again, lots of people already know about these podcasts. But when the mind gets stuck in a rut, usually a shot from one of the above does the trick.
Stefanie Loh, features editor
“Revisionist History,” hosted by Malcolm Gladwell
If you’ve been following our Features Staff Picks series, you’ve probably noticed I’m a giant history nerd. Know what’s even more fascinating than history as it happened? Revisionist history. Or to quote from this podcast’s fitting official description: “‘Revisionist History’ is Malcolm Gladwell’s journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Each episode examines something from the past — an event, a person, an idea, even a song — and asks whether we got it right the first time.” Gladwell is quite the storyteller, and in this podcast, he challenges you to critically analyze things we accept at face value as “facts,” and helps the listener understand how stories and things that happen in one era become acknowledged as historical “fact” in the next. But above all, this podcast taught me that Bowdoin College has the best food in the country, and made me mourn that McDonald’s fries are no longer fried in beef tallow. I’ve since pondered the question of how and why golf is a rich person’s game, and contemplated the faultiness of memory and the philosophical question of whether it’s fair to doubt a person’s character based on perceived memory lapses. Oh, and it’s great drive-time listening. In my past life as the Washington State University football reporter for The Seattle Times, this podcast got me through several seasons of driving back and forth from Seattle to Pullman.
Tan Vinh, food and drink writer
“Sugar Calling,” hosted by Cheryl Strayed
If you miss Cheryl Strayed’s advice column on The Rumpus, have I got a treat for you. The Portland writer returns with “Sugar Calling,” where she seeks wisdom from other writers during this pandemic. Luminaries such as George Saunders and Margaret Atwood dish on how they’re coping during isolation and offer their lockdown reading lists.
I choked with laughter on my morning eggs over how the eccentric 80-year-old Atwood fended off squirrels on her roof, and I got choked up over Saunders’ reading of Wendell Berry’s love poem “The Wild Rose.” Damn you, Saunders.
“The Bill Simmons Podcast,” hosted by Bill Simmons
That Bill Simmons can make his sports podcast so entertaining at a time when there are no games on TV underscores what a gifted storyteller he is. He’s known more for geeking out over box scores and basketball, but Simmons can hang with the best interviewers on a range of subjects from tech to pop culture. Also, Simmons’ eclectic roster of podcasts (at The Ringer), from “The Rewatchables” to “The Dave Chang Show,” is one of the most talked about in the industry. Speaking of which, check out the 43rd episode of Chang’s show for an interview with New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz about envy and failure — you know, all the fun topics. But really, this inspiring, therapeutic, thought-provoking chat is a wonderful distraction to all that is wrong with the world now.
Yasmeen Wafai, news assistant
“The Other Latif,” hosted by Latif Nasser
Host Latif Nasser had never heard of someone else sharing his name. Until he learned about Latif Nasser, Guantánamo Bay detainee. The podcast takes listeners through the journey of the other Latif’s life, starting with his upbringing in Morocco and explaining how he became Detainee No. 244. I enjoyed this podcast because not only did it explore whether the other Latif did what the U.S. government said he did, but the story prompted the host to reflect on his own life and examine how “a fellow nerdy, suburban Muslim kid” went on a very different path.
“Switched on Pop,” hosted by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding
If you love pop music, this podcast will make you love it more. If you don’t like pop music, this podcast might make you realize that you actually do like it. Hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding explore specific songs, artists and techniques in pop music and explain why we should be obsessed with them. The episodes are informative but fun, and sometimes the hosts bring on artists and experts as guests, which always provides a unique perspective. This is a great podcast for these times because it’s entertaining, but with over 150 episodes, it’ll also keep you busy.
“Dissect,” hosted by Cole Cuchna
This podcast is pretty much essential for music fans, particularly hip-hop heads, who love to dive deep into the lyrics, history and artists behind their favorite albums. Host Cole Cuchna has dissected “To Pimp A Butterfly” and “DAMN.” by Kendrick Lamar, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Kanye West, “Channel Orange” and “Blonde” by Frank Ocean, and “Flower Boy” by Tyler, The Creator. Cuchna also did a miniseries on Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” There’s plenty to learn. Prepare to have your mind blown.
Amy Wong, features producer
“Heavyweight,” hosted by Jonathan Goldstein
Do you have any memories, or lingering questions from years past that continue to haunt you, and wish that there were some way to revisit them? That’s what podcast host Jonathan Goldstein sets out to do in “Heavyweight.” In this podcast, Goldstein investigates missed connections, misunderstandings and unsolved mysteries from people’s pasts, ranging from things as small as a woman trying to figure out why her foster mom made her quit the basketball team in high school, to stories as big as a man attempting to find a distracted driver who almost fatally hit him during an accident years ago. “Heavyweight” does lengthy investigations delving into people’s pasts, and reveals much about change, growth and humanity.