Podcasts to Try in 2013

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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.

Best Tech Podcasts

The Vergecast. I have my complaints about this weekly conversation among 3 or 4 tech writers from The Verge, but what the show has in spades is chemistry. The three mainstays--Josh Topolsky, Nilay Patel, and Paul Miller--have distinctive personas and perspectives, and there is the right amount of playful tension among them, and they're funny and smart. Do they spend too much time on jokey tangents with no relevance to the tech world? Occasionally. Do they sometimes, in their diatribes against tech companies, exhibit a youthful disregard for pragmatic constraint? Yes. But it's their unconstrained imaginations that make this podcast a good stimulus for thinking about the future of digital technology. Their conversations can be engrossing even if you have no interest in buying the products they're talking about.

Engadget. If the aforementioned eccentricities of the Vergecast rub you the wrong way, try the podcast from the people at Engadget. It spends a bit less time in zany mode, and more time offering concrete information about products, and when it does venture into business strategy, it evinces more practical understanding.

If you like narrowcasting, try Leo Laporte's TWiT Network. Though the network's first show, This Week in Tech, was (and remains) broad-gauged, the network's offerings now include more than 20 shows with names like This Week in Google, Windows Weekly, and iPad Today. Laporte, one of the pioneers of tech broadcasting, is a baby boomer, and the generational sensibility of his shows--in terms of cultural references, etc.--is accordingly different from Engadget and the Vergecast. But, like pretty much all tech podcasts, his are lighthearted and irreverent.

Speaking of narrowcasting: Best Buddhist Podcasts

Buddhist Geeks. Occasionally I wish this podcast were a little less... Buddhist. By which I mean: Buddhism counsels accepting reality as it is, and I sometimes want the host to intervene in a guest's lengthier utterances (maybe occasionally asking for an example that might illustrate some abstract assertion). Still, the interviews are smart and knowing, and certainly congenial, and the guests are diverse and interesting--at least, if you, like me, have an interest in Buddhism. And if you don't, then you haven't read this far anyway.

Buddhist Geeks is big-tent Buddhist, encompassing Zen, Tibetan, and so on. My own focus (to the extent that I have focus, which comes and goes) is within the Vipassana tradition. Dharma Seed, though not a regular podcast, is a rich archive of downloadable talks by teachers in that tradition.

Best Podcast Whose Quality I'm Not Fit to Impartially Judge

A little-known fact about my website Bloggingheads.tv (even littler known than the website itself) is that, should you ever tire of looking at the heads, you can just subscribe to the podcast. What's more, you can subscribe not just to the overall Bloggingheads feed, which will get you about one podcast per day, but, individually, to any of the dozen or so shows, ranging from weekly to sporadic, that air on BhTV.

If any readers want to share their own podcast preferences, or take issue with mine, there's plenty of space for that below. Happy New Year!

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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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