The great thing about listening is that you can do it while you’re doing all sorts of other things: driving a car, washing dishes, walking to the bus stop, picking raspberries, and so on. Back in 2009 I got started listening to audio books, but I quickly found that there were relatively few free audio books that I liked. Then in 2013 I decided to plant a garden. It was a pretty small garden, but it had more than its fair share of weeds. I quickly realized I needed something to do while pulling weeds and watering and decided that podcasts were just what I needed.

I was not impressed with some of the first ones I tried. The iOS podcast I listened to was way too specialized and talked about all sorts of trivia. The Android one was even worse because there were a lot more devices to talk about. I tried a writing podcast that was okay but too vague and rambling to stick with very long. I liked a few of the “Stuff You Should Know” episodes that I listened to, but most of their topics are too obscure to be interesting to me. The only podcast that I listened to back then and still listen to now is Writing Excuses, which is a classic.

What podcasts do I listen to now? I’m glad you asked. Without further ado I will present my top five list of podcasts (with apologies to David Letterman for not making it a top ten list):

1. Writing Excuses

“Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart”.

I like writing, or maybe I like to pretend that I like writing, so the subject matter is interesting to me, and it is usually educational and entertaining.

One nice thing about this podcast is that the ads are (or were) for books. Really they were ads for Audible, but that amounted to one or two sentences about starting an account and getting a free audio book. Now days they are supported by Patreon so they have a book of the week but no ad.

Speaking of ads, here’s a compensated link to amazon.com for my favorite book by Brandon Sanderson, who is one of the hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast: Elantris

2. The Allusionist

For a while I listened to Grammar Girl fairly often. Most of the episodes are about grammar and usage and punctuation, which are at best mildly interesting to me. The episodes I really liked were about linguistics, and those are relatively rare. The other thing about Grammar Girl that I didn’t especially like was the ratio of advertisement time to content time, which seems a little high to me. For the most part I don’t mind advertisements and usually just tune them out, but for some reason I found GG’s ads to more obtrusive than the ads in my favorite podcasts.

Then I found The Allusionist, where every episode has the kind of things that I liked in occasional Grammar Girl episodes. The title is great and I like the way the episode titles are shown in Boggle boards. Every episode begins with an “in which”, like

“This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, make the leftovers of language into a big sandwich.”

3. 99% Invisible

The web site has this description of the podcast:

“99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.”

There are definitely some episodes about architecture and design, but to me it seems like some of the episodes are just random. Which is fine with me.

4. Freakonomics


Freakonomics had a series of episodes on productivity that was especially interesting. In particular, the episode about “How to Become Great at Just About Anything” was great. It talked about talent versus practice, and told the story of a lady in Denmark who became a singer in her 40s.

Here’s a compensated link to amazon.com for the book that Stephen Dubner, the host of the podcast, and Steven Levitt, an economist, wrote: Freakonomics

5. Planet Money


Don’t ask me why numbers 4 and 5 are related to economics. In general I would say that Planet Money is less academic than Freakonomics. I particularly liked the episodes about truffles and about buying 100 barrels of oil.

Honorable Mentions

Here are a few more podcasts that I like. I suppose I could have just made a top ten list, and then I wouldn’t have had to apologize to David Letterman.

The TED Radio Hour

This podcast covers a lot of territory. In some ways it reminds me of This American Life, which I used to listen to occasionally, but I like The TED Radio Hour better. I guess that’s because This American Life is interesting, but I wouldn’t really change what I think or do because of what I hear (or heard) in the episodes. When it comes right down to it, I probably don’t really change what I think or do because of the TED talks, but it seems to have a lot more potential in that regard.

I would like to watch video of some of the TED talks, but the time I have for watching video is much less than the time I have for listening.

Lexicon Valley

Like The Allusionist, this is a podcast about linguistics, but it’s more from an academic point of view. It has more information but isn’t as whimsical or entertaining.

NPR Politics

I started listening to this podcast fairly early in 2016 and really liked it during the primaries. The “Can’t Let It Go” part is interesting and amusing. However, for some reason when it got into the general election I lost interest. I guess it seemed like they were rehashing the same things. Maybe I’ll give it another try…

Story Grid

This is a writing podcast where an unpublished writer consults with the author of The Story Grid book. It’s interesting to hear them discuss different aspects of the story. I bought the book in ebook format. I like it pretty well, but I didn’t finish it. At least not yet. Maybe if I could listen to it…

Here’s a compensated link to the book on amazon.com:
The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

The Naked Scientists

This podcast covers a lot of territory in terms of science. One thing I like about it is that it’s produced in the UK, so it has a different slant. For instance, in this podcast and in Naked Astronomers, they talk a lot about the European Space Agency, which I wouldn’t normally hear much about.