Podcasts to Try in 2013

If it's true, as some sage said, that thoughts shape actions and actions shape habits and habits shape character and character shapes destiny, the obvious question is: What shapes thoughts? Well, lots of things, and one of them is... podcasts! So as you begin the new year, one way to shape your destiny is to amend your podcast lineup.

To help you, I offer the Bobbies, awards given annually (for one year in a row now) by me (Bob) to notable podcasts. I don't claim that I've scoured the planet and that these are truly the "best" podcasts in the world. But of the ones I've examined--and I've examined quite a few, because I take nightly walks and like accompaniment--they stand out.

Best Podcasts about Public Affairs

To the Point with Warren Olney. I'm not aware of any podcast that lives up to its name more fully than this one. Olney is extremely good at steering the conversation to the crux of the issue and highlighting the key points of contention. And he's good at choosing guests who help him do it. Olney doesn't win a lot of style points--he's not real zesty, and he doesn't try to impress you with his erudition, and he only occasionally indulges his (not bad, actually) sense of humor. He kind of reminds me of Jack Webb in the old Dragnet TV series saying, to anyone who started to meander, "Just the facts, please." If you listen to only one analytical podcast about public affairs, and your goal is efficient comprehension, this is the podcast for you.

On Point with Tom Ashbrook isn't as on point as To the Point. Ashbrook is a good interviewer, but he's less laserlike than Olney. That's partly because his show features listener call in, a format that isn't laser-friendly. He handles the challenge with aplomb, but if you're not a fan of listener call-in, there's only so far aplomb can go. I listen to his opening conversations with experts but sometimes bail out when the listeners start calling in, depending on whether the ratio of passion to reason gets offputtingly high.

Best High-Brow Podcasts

In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. This BBC product is the closest podcast I've found to a college seminar run by an Oxford don. But instead of students being seated around the table, there are several professors--new ones each week, depending on the subject--and the don isn't a professor but rather a broadly curious radio guy who prepares well for each conversation and deftly orchestrates the exposition. Bragg does mainly history, including a fair amount of intellectual history. So episodes might focus on, say, an appraisal of Bertrand Russell or Maimonides, or an exploration of Minoan Civilization or of Martin Luther's experience at the Diet of Worms. (And the people doing the discussing are so sophisticated that it doesn't even occur to them to make a pun about the Diet of Worms!) The podcast is weekly, but because its subjects are timeless, you can make it effectively daily by plundering the archives.

Partially Examined Life. This podcast faces some self-imposed obstacles: (1) It features four, sometimes five, people, and since the regulars are all American males without distinctive regional accents, it's not immediately easy to tell them apart, so their personalities take a while to crystallize. (2) It's about philosophy! And I mean real philosophy. Most of the regulars did graduate work in philosophy and were headed for academia before they "thought better of it," as their web site puts it. So their idea of a good time is an in-depth, sometimes even technical, discussion of Wittgenstein or Quine. If that doesn't scare you off, this is your podcast.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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