In celebration of the first installment of The Yarn, created by School Library Journal blogger Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp, teen librarian Robin Brenner has curated a roundup of podcasts to recommend to young adults who are both new to and well-versed in the format.
Recently, a father and his 12-year-old son were in my library looking for ideas to entertain the boy while he recovered from an upcoming eye surgery. The father pulled out a few audiobooks, but his son was less than enthusiastic about that format. I had a sudden inspiration. I checked to see if the tween would be able to download and listen to podcasts (either via computer or smart phone), and suggested WNYC’s Radiolab. I pitched this science-centric podcast as a funny, smart exploration of questions, such as why we laugh, or why we see colors the way we do. When I mentioned that there was an entire episode about digestion and guts, the young man started grinning. The two left excited.
Podcasting started as audio programs produced exclusively for the iPod (hence the name). The format has been around for more than 10 years, but it’s only recently that listeners have discovered the convenience, quality, and diversity of available content. In a world of on-demand media—from streaming movies to Netflix’s loading of entire seasons of content at a drop—traditional radio’s requirement that you tune in at a particular time to listen to a program is a major impediment for many. Podcasts allow listeners the freedom to decide when and where to download and listen.
Given the thousands of podcasts available, where should teens start? As with any reader’s advisory, librarians should consider the individual teen, his or her interests, and device.
Are they already listeners? Listening to a narrative flexes different muscles than reading the same story on the page. Encourage teens new to the format to first try shorter episode podcasts and to choose topics that especially interest them so that they can give the medium a fair shot. Once they figure out how they listen best, whether it’s walking or doing the dishes, they can test out longer narratives.
How much time do they have? Dan Carlin’s in-depth nonfiction podcast, Hardcore History, will occupy listeners for hours. On the other hand, episodes of Nate Dimeo’s history podcast, The Memory Palace, range from five to 20 minutes in length. Savvy listeners keep different programs for different breaks in their day, choosing installments to suit their mood or available time. Listeners embarking on an hour trip can tune into one episode of This American Life, two episodes of Welcome to Night Vale, or four episodes of the Allusionist.
Are they restless listeners? If you know teens who would like to give podcasts a try but complain that they don’t want to “just sit there,” give them something to do with their hands, such as coloring or origami. Avid podcast listeners are often people who tackle other tasks or are engaged in other activities while they listen whether it’s exercising, commuting, knitting or drawing.
Do they want to start with something with a definite finish, or dive into an ongoing podcast? Think through what style of show they might prefer. There are programs built around reactions to weekly events, from news summaries (BBC News: The World This Week) to popular culture discussions (NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour). There are also single topic productions, (Radiolab or 99% Invisible) that limit each episode to one question or concept. As podcasts have become more established, shows, such as Serial, have been created as seasons, covering one story over multiple episodes.
Do they want to keep up with new episodes? Many podcasts update with new episodes weekly monthly, or when they have something new to say. One of the most convenient aspects of podcasts is that you can subscribe via applications, such as iTunes, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. Podcasts can be set up to automatically download new episodes whenever they become available, ensuring that listeners never miss an episode of their favorite shows. With the best apps, you can skip over dead air or even adjust the audio levels, helping to smooth over a less-than-perfect production.
What kind of content are they (or their parents) comfortable with? Keep in mind that podcasts are created for a range of audiences. Some will feature salty language as part of the banter between hosts, while others steer clear of four-letter words or explicit discussions. Explicit content warnings are included in most episode descriptions, and at the start of each individual episode. I’ve found radio podcasts to be the most reliable in providing listeners a heads-up when they venture into potentially disturbing territory, while other podcasts, especially those of the entertainment variety, presume that if you’ve signed up for their brand of show, you know what you’re getting into.
Recommended Podcasts for Young Adults
Here are a few top picks that have the potential to capture your teens’ attention.
Roman Mars’s smart, insightful episodes focus on the many ways that design impacts our lives. The title comes from the idea that good design should be mostly unnoticed. We all benefit from good design from our cell phones’ rings to stackable chairs, but we rarely think too hard about the who, the why, or the how of those particular designs. Each episode tackles the history, usage, and innovation of a design, from flags to fonts. Why did the hashtag become the character we now use in social media (and just what did we use it for before, anyway)? Did the inventor of revolving doors really hate people? How terrible is your state flag? For more like this, try Design Matters
Teen-friendly episodes: #8: “Free Parking,” #43: “The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators,” #44: “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” #93: “Revolving Doors,” #140: “Vexillonaire,” or #145: “Octothorpe.”
Do you have any word nerds in your library? Helen Zaltzman’s irreverent, sharp-witted podcast investigates the weird and wonderful history of language. Each episodes opens with the etymology of a familiar word or phrase, but the meat of each 15-minute episode digs into a particular aspect of language. Why are puns difficult to pull off and groan-worthy? How are crossword puzzles created? What on earth is a mountweazel? For more like this, try History of English.
Teen-friendly episodes: #1: “Ban the Pun,” #3: “Going Viral,” #7: “Mountweazel,” #10: “Election Lexicon,” or #13: “Mixed Emojions”
THE MEMORY PALACE
The Memory Palace shines because of Nate Dimeo’s carefully written, periodically heartrending tales of overlooked moments and people in history. I have used this podcast during school visits to show off just how much you can learn, for example, in the six-minute story of the first elephant to arrive in the United States (# 32: “Gigantic”). Like the nonfiction authors Steve Sheinkin and Deborah Heiligman, Dimeo is most interested in the human stories behind the dates and places students are required to memorize. For years, Memory Palace episodes arrived irregularly, but now the show is a part of the growing Radiotopia network and has a steady release schedule. For more like this, try Radio Diaries.
Teen-friendly episodes: #25: “I Have Not Yet Begun to Rot,” #32: “Gigantic,” #42: “What They Saw,” #45: “Heard, Once,” #60: “400,000 Stars,” or #72: “The Run of the River.”
It’s a good bet that anyone willing to listen to stories is also a fan of music. Pitch explores how and why sound works on our ears and our hearts. It features episodes that look at how careful pauses and silence are built in to songs, as well as how one change to CD packaging revolutionized the music industry. For more like this, try Everything Sounds, or to dig into how individual songs are created in Song Exploder.
Teen-friendly episodes: #1: “The Clearmountain Pause,” #3: “Rock the Longbox,” #6: “Karaoke,” #9: “Somewhere in My Memory,” or #11: “Paintings to Sing”
Whether they are science geeks or not, curious teens will appreciate Radiolab‘s determination to unpack science in all of its uncertainties. As noted above, the show has done everything from investigating why humans laugh (and whether we’re the only mammals that do) to just what makes space worth exploring. The two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, approach these questions from opposite sensibilities but when they disagree it’s with respect and a healthy sense of humor. For more like this, try Science Friday or Invisibilia.
Teen-friendly episodes: #2.2: “Musical Language,” #2.5: “Space,” #4.1: “Laughter,” #10.1: “Colors,” #10.5: “The Bad Show”
PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman host a weekly look at life on the Internet. As with all the best Internet searches, their investigations often lead them down rabbit holes to people and discussions they could never have anticipated when they first began searching a particular issue. The process and their serendipitous discoveries are related with humor and insight. Whatever happened to the first webcam star? How does an investigation of the Girl Scouts cookie empire lead to an internment camp during World War II? For more like this, try Hello Internet.
Teen-friendly episodes: #6: “This Proves Everything,” #9: “The Writing on the Wall,” #18: “Silence and Respect,” #23-24: “Exit & Return Part I and II,” and #28: “Shipped to Timbuktu”
Perhaps the most famous podcast of the last year, the first season of NPR’s Serial explores one criminal case over 12 episodes. Host Sarah Koenig retraces the investigation of the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee to discover if there is room for doubt in the conviction of Lee’s classmate (and ex-boyfriend) Adnan Syed for the crime. This is investigative journalism at its best from reporters who know how to tell a story and keep listeners coming back for more. This is a perfect introduction to the format, giving listeners a definite beginning, middle, and end to an episodic narrative. A resolution to the crime is not guaranteed, but energetic discussion definitely is. For more like this, try its parent podcast, This American Life, or for more true crime, Criminal.
STUFF YOU MISSED IN HISTORY CLASS
Two journalists and history enthusiasts, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, romp through the past and pull out all of the best bits—all true but it’s the stuff that’s usually left out of textbooks. Topics range from the doomed attempt to introduce hippos as a new source of protein in America in the early 1900s to overviews of the history of peanut butter or time capsules. The episodes are well-researched, and the hosts take care to note where historical ambiguity exists and discuss the ways that events can be read and interpreted. Most episodes are stand-alones, but the hosts will also tackle more complex issues in several linked episodes such as the history of the Freedom Riders (both in the United States and later in Australia) or the Lindy Hop. For more like this, try Backstory or, for much longer but no less interesting histories, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.
Teen-friendly episodes: “The Freedom Riders,” “The Long Winter,” “13 Reasons for the American Revolution”
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE
Welcome to Night Vale burst on to the podcast scene in the summer of 2013, and rapidly zoomed up the listening charts to the top spot. One of the rare story podcasts to gain a widespread, devoted audience, this eerie show presents itself as the local community news from a small town somewhere in the desert (think Prairie Home Companion meets X-Files). However, this small town is a burg where blood sacrifices are common, there are hovering helicopters tracking citizens on behalf of multiple secret organizations, and the library is the most dangerous place in town (be very careful of those librarians). The mix of horror, humor, rich world building, and unforgettable characters will entrance fans of stories that hail from somewhere between here and The Twilight Zone. For more like this, try The Thrilling Adventure Hour.
Teen-friendly episodes: #1: “Pilot,” #13: “A Story About You,” #19A-B: “The Sandstorm,” #28: “Summer Reading Program,” #33: “Cassette”
Are you recommending podcasts to your students or patrons? If so, which ones? Please add suggestions in the comment section below.
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