Podcast Fever!

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I had to master many forms of public transport before I became interested in podcasts. Two summers ago, I was interning at the National Museum of Natural History, re-vialing and databasing Tennessean spiders. Baltimore to Washington, D.C. on the train took more than an hour. While I was prepared to make the long commute, I didn’t know that I would run out of books to fill the time.

The first podcast I listened to was “Welcome to Night Vale.” I had been introduced to the program by two good friends but had never had the time to listen to the thirty hours of programming. I was pushed to first listen to podcasts when I finished the book I had packed for the day early on the ride to D.C. Instead of staring out the window on the way home or rereading my book, I downloaded the Overcast app, on which I could listen to almost any podcast I wanted to for free. That day, I listened to the first two episodes of “Night Vale,” “The Glow Cloud” and “The Shape in Grove Park,” and was immediately hooked. The show centers on a radio host named Cecil who lives in a southeastern American small town where things are not right. An omnipotent glowing cloud rolls in across town, rains dead animals, demands subservience, and then becomes president of the local high school PTA. A man with no name and a deerskin suitcase filled with flies appears in town and starts asking questions. A group of winged figures who emit bright light and are definitely not angels moves in with a local old woman. To me, what makes this show special is how in this world of absurdity, Cecil acts in a manner that suggests that all this strangeness is just routine. Through this medium, the show tackles complex themes like loneliness, the shaping of one’s character, and the beauty of the universe. “Night Vale”’s extremely fleshed-out characters, who bare their souls and motivations for the audience, add depth and relatability to the storyline. “Night Vale” is the story of ordinary people trying to live amid the extraordinary.

Towards the end of that summer, I started getting into more serious shows like “RadioLab,” a science show. That was the beginning of my shift in podcast taste. This past summer, when I interned at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, learning about medical entomology, I had an opportunity to listen to new podcasts. I took the Baltimore Metro from end-to-end every day, giving me a little over 40 minutes each way. What separated the Metro from the train was that over half the trip was spent underground, where there was no sunlight to supplement the weak light of the Metro. I found myself squinting while trying to read on the train. I started listening to “Planet Money,” an economics show produced by NPR, even though I have no experience with economics and don’t listen to NPR on the radio. I looked forward to each new episode because it taught me something new that I might even be able to apply to my own life. Their in-depth coverage of the national budget and President Trump’s plan to change the Affordable Care Act helped me understand what I saw on the news and kept me interested. I listened to the two-hour interviews of “WTF,” an interview and discussion podcast created by Marc Maron, comedian and legendary interviewer. His interviews with actors, politicians, musicians, and celebrities focused on current events. These conversations give me a chance to hear unfamiliar perspectives and put celebrities into casual conversation, humanizing them in a way that a press conference or statement never could.

At first, podcasts were entertainment for me. Cecil’s exasperation at City Council, a horrifying, Lovecraftian monster, for not doing their job correctly was something to relax and enjoy. But I now listen to podcasts to hear new perspectives and to be educated.

 

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