3 Podcasts That Will Make You Smarter

Like you, I spend a significant amount of time commuting. I can get to work in 30 minutes, door to door, and back home in 45. It’s the reverse commute – I live in the city and work in the suburbs. Every morning on the other side of I-90, however, I see an endless column of cars crawling along at a snail’s pace. For their sakes, I hope they’re listening to something informational. One hour a day, five days a week, can really add up.
In the 2 ½ years I’ve done this commute, I’ve passed the time in different ways. Sometimes I drive in silence and think. Other times I listen to the radio (92.9, 104.1, 107.9, 106.7, 89.7, 102.5). There was a brief period where I listened to audiobooks. My two favorites were Free by Chris Anderson (which is free to download on iTunes) and The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.
The one medium that has passed the test of time is the podcast. When podcasts first came out, I was a bit intimidated by the name. It sounded so technical. In reality, it’s quite simple – a short audio episode that is part of a series and can be downloaded and listened to on demand.
I’m slowly expanding my podcast horizons. Here are my favorites – the ones you shouldn’t live without:


It stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. The TED conference brings the worlds’ greatest minds on stage to teach the rest of us what the latest and greatest innovations are. Each talk is limited to 18 minutes – an arbitrary number, but the perfect bite-size chunk of information. Each talk will inspire or teach you in a different way.


I enjoyed reading both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, so I was excited to listen to the podcast. Dubner and Levitt started recording in late 2010, and it’s more of the same: interesting facts that seem somewhat contradictory and fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
My biggest complaint about the podcast is that a) it has an extremely lame intro, which I have to sit painfully through each time, and b) it has long advertisements and lots of show-related messages which distract from the content. It is by far the most commercialized podcast I’ve ever listened to.

Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know is a podcast produced by How Stuff Works, a website owned by the Discovery Channel. This podcast is extremely long-running and covers every topic under the sun. The content is interesting and informational, but the highlight of the podcast is the banter of the presenters, Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant. They’ve been recording podcasts together for so long that they’ve perfected the art of back-and-forth. I found the informality of the podcast slightly annoying at first, but now I see it as a great addition.

Did I miss any? What podcasts do you recommend?

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  • Tim March 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    I would suggest Radio Lab by some guys at WNYC. It’s very information, and kinda geeky. My other favorite is the NPR Planet Money podcast. Those guys to a really great job of finding interesting and timely topics and reporting on them in an objective manner. They also have a pretty good time. My all time favorite though is This American Life, but I guess it’s not that information-heavy, just entertaining for when your mind needs a break.

  • Sylvia March 18, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for the info about the Freakonomics podcast! Will have to start listening to that one. I tried out Stuff You Should Know, but the hosts’ chattiness that you grew to like was too big a hurdle for me. And TED talks are always great.

    Agree with Tim ref: WNYC’s Radio Lab. Some of these podcasts are about an hour long, but they also have shorts that last about 20 minutes. Fantastic stuff.

    Also mostly agree with Tim ref: This American Life. I love this show because I love stories about people – especially when those people are way interesting. TAL has also done several really good shows about the economy and about health care; I actually feel like I know at least a tiny bit about them now.

    So the “mostly” above is because TAL was my favorite NPR show… until I started listening to Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, which is both informative and hysterical. Peter Sagal is always funny, and Paula Poundstone and Moe Rocca haven’t yet caused milk to spurt out of my nose, but that’s only because I’m careful not to drink anything when I’m listening to them.

    For more stories (I tend to be more interested in the personal than the technical), check out Selected Shorts (an hour of short stories by different authors, read onstage in NYC every week) and the Moth (amazing true stories that are usually about 20 minutes long).

  • Derek March 20, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Thanks for the suggestions! I tried listening to This American Life a few times and never got into it, but I’m willing to give it another shot. Sounds like WNYC’s Radio Lab is a must add. I’ll try and check out the rest as well.