Podcasts For Curious Minds

Rapid change comes with many questions, and rarely has the need for information – reliable information – been greater. Here’s a list of my favorite podcasts: all excellent sources of fresh insights, from science and technology to business, politics, and the world in general. There’s no particular order or ranking. Just dive in and give them a try. I’ve included samples where possible.

Inspired by the hugely successful TED conference, the Radio Hour takes ideas from four or five speakers per episode and centers them on a common theme. That can be anything from “The Meaning of Work” to “The Food We Eat”, Earth’s finite resources or “How We Love”. I find that even when the subject is not immediately appealing to me, there’s often a segment that broadens my mind in unexpected ways.

Sample episode: Anthropocene: Have we entered a new geological age…?
Intelligence Squared is an organization in London that regularly organizes public discussions about a variety of topics. You’ll find authors like Yuval Noah Harari interviewed about their latest work but also events with former U.S. presidents, scientists, artists, and plenty more. The podcasts are usually hourlong recordings of the events, and often available as video recordings as well. If you like this format, be sure to check out the Commonwealth Club of California’s podcast, too.
Sample episode: The Rise of Nationalism Across the Globe
There’s the political scientist who’s been correctly predicting for decades who would win the U.S. presidential elections – even this time (Episode 51: “What Happened?”). The sociologist who recommends a little more chaos in our daily lives – because it forces us to rewire our brains and stay agile (Episode 53: “Embrace the Chaos”). Or the theory that crime can effectively be prevented by paying attention to little things like broken windows – only, it turns out, it’s a little more complicated than we’ve been led to believe (Episode 50: “Broken Windows”). NPR’s Hidden Brain is full of of topics ranging from science and sociology to politics and business and never fails to surprise, inform, and look beyond the obvious. Highly recommended.

Sample episode: What Are The Odds? Why coincidences are not quite as magical as they seem…

No reason to start yawning: Planet Money manages to make stories about business and the economy engaging, fascinating, and even entertaining. Don’t take my word for it – just listen to the episode about flower vendors preparing for Valentine’s Day or Can a Game Show Lose? The archive is here, indulge yourself!
Sample episode: The Miracle Apple

A weekly helping of science news presented by the British journal Nature, next to Science probably the best-known magazine of its kind. The podcast is typically 25 to 30 minutes long and presents topics like gene editing, artificial intelligence, climate change, and human evolution in a lively, easy to understand fashion – no need for a PhD in biology or physics to enjoy this show and learn about the wonders of nature.
Famous (in tech circles) for its 10,000 Year Clock and other futuristic projects, the Long Now Foundation also produces a series of public discussions – called seminars – that invite the audience to think beyond the next Tweet or Facebook post a bit further than usual. You can hear people like WIRED co-founder Kevin Kelly speak about The Next 30 Digital Years, author Susan Freinkel talk about Eternal Plastic: A Toxic Love Story or neuroscientist David Eagleman explain The Brain and the Now.
This one’s for techies who want to know what’s going on in the world of bits and bytes. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a.k.a. a16z) has made a name for itself by investing early in Silicon Valley stars like Airbnb, Facebook and Pinterest. In its podcast, the company asks startup founders and venture partners to talk about technologies of tomorrow – from biotechnology to the Blockchain and, of course, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. This can be a bit tedious at times when the conversation plunges too far into geek talk or founders get lost in self-promotion, but in more episodes than not I find the podcast highly engaging. Plus, for boring bits, there’s always the skip-ahead button in pretty much any podcast app.

Sample episode: Clean meat from new tech

A side project by TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, this relatively new podcast focuses on successful entrepreneurs and, well, how they built this. “This” being, for example, their airline (Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines), their blockbuster website (Angie Hicks of Angie’s List) or a little brewery that showed Americans how tasty beer could be if it wasn’t called Budweiser or Miller Light (Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch). How interesting you may find any given episode will depend on your familiarity with the people and their businesses, I suppose, but much of what I’ve listened to so far has been both entertaining and full of insights into what it takes to build a successful business, often against all odds and many vagaries along the way.

Sample episode: Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines

I saved one of the best for last. Wait, Wait… provides news – and comic relief from the news – in the form of a weekly quiz that involves both panelists and audience members who call in. Often hilarious, at times a little silly, the show features a roster of regular panelists such as Peter Grosz, Bobcat Goldthwait, Maz Jobrani, and Paula Poundstone who manage to squeeze jokes out of any headline in any week – even when you might be wondering what on Earth this world is coming to.

Sample episode: November 12, 2016

You may have noticed that many of these podcasts are produced by NPR, a public broadcaster that largely relies on donations to keep investing in sound journalism. If you like you can make a donation via NPR stations such as San Francisco’s KQED, Chicago’s WBEZ, WNYC in New York, and many more.

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Further Reading

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