How and why I’ve spent 377 hours listening to podcasts since June 2012

Bill Simmons - The BS ReportThat’s almost an hour a day. Yes, it’s made-up, but the real number isn’t far off.

I think everyone should listen to podcasts, and it’d be sweet to host my own someday. So let me explain how I got into them, why they’re so great, and which shows are my favorites.

How I got into podcasts

I’ve always enjoyed audiobooks. Audible is expensive but I’ve never regretted a purchase.

Like an Economist subscription or a Skritter membership, the price you pay pales in comparison to the value of what you learn. I’m a firm believer that knowledge – of any kind – increases life satisfaction and improves your view of the world.

Yes, it can make you more cynical at times, but ignorance is definitely not bliss. It’s just lazy. You wouldn’t operate on a sick patient or create a web app without learning everything you can about it, so why the heck would you take a hands-off approach to the bigger and tougher problem of understanding the world around you?

Plus, random knowledge makes me more interesting at cocktail parties, which I need since I’m good with cocktails and bad with social skills.

It wasn’t until recently that I began listening to podcasts. In some ways they’re better than audiobooks – they’re shorter and they’re free.

Podcasts have exploded in variety and quality, driven by smartphones, broadband, and marketplaces like iTunes. Like Spotify is doing for musicians and Kindle Direct Publishing is doing for authors, podcast creators (ranging from educators to comedians to entrepreneurs) can now reach a large audience and make enough money to support themselves.

Listening to podcasts used to be a hassle. I would search the internet haystack, find the mp3 needle, load it into iTunes, and sync it with my iPhone, all before I listened to a single second.

I’d often remember the podcast was in my phone after the fact, then mentally flog myself for spending half an hour driving in the car, listening to Selena Gomez or some mindless EDM crap, when I could have been using my time productively.

The Stitcher app removed all that hassle and made me into a podcast fanboy. I could easily find the best shows. Stitcher would automatically download them to my phone. The app would resume playback from where I was last.

Ironically, I switched from Stitcher to Apple’s Podcasts app in the last 6 months (the main reason: Stitcher has ads and Podcasts doesn’t), but I’d already spent 150 listening hours (Stitcher tracks that data) and it’d become a habit. Now I automatically open the Podcasts app when my ears have 5+ minutes to spare, like when I lift weights, or drive somewhere, or do laundry. It’s probably saved my life, because podcasts keep me awake when I’m driving home at 2am after carousing with friends. I like that word, carousing.

Why they’re great

You learn unique stuff. Since 90% of my reading time is spent on blog posts about startups or China, I don’t branch out much. But with the Podcasts app, I listen to everything from Dan Carlin discussing the Mongol rise under Genghis Khan to Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal predicting NFL lines to This American Life interviewing people at popular highway rest stops. It’s intellectual potpourri.

You learn in a different way. My preferred learning style is reading. That’s why I’m obsessed with clipping articles and with my Kindle ebooks. It’s also why in elementary school I was named the “person who always had a book in his hand”. You can tell I was quite the popular 3rd grader. Podcasts force me to learn by listening, which balances out the mindless feed-reading and email-surfing that I do on my laptop and stretches my brain.

You’re more productive in your downtime. This is a harder argument to make, because you could argue that downtime is necessary for your brain to relax and free-associate, which is why Gretchen Rubin has a rule that she doesn’t use her phone when she’s on the subway, bus, car, or taxi. She says it’s because all her best big ideas have come in that downtime. But its harder to argue listening to that Hardwell set for the 27th time is equally productive.

What I listen to

Every episode of these:

1. Bill Simmons’ BS Report (except when he discusses Breaking Bad, because I usually haven’t seen the latest episode…there’s too much good TV!)
2. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (in particular, his mind-blowing 5-part series on Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire)
3. 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Health (improve your life in 60 seconds? I’m there!)
4. New York Times Book Review (I skip the boring reviews)
5. This American Life (there’s something about Ira Glass’s voice and the way he tells stories)

Some episodes of these:

1. The Adam and Dr. Drew Show (I was obsessed with Loveline but this podcast is sometimes too “Adam Carolla bitch-fest”)
2. 60-Second Space, Earth, and Science
3. Freakonomics Radio
4. NPR: TED Radio Hour

Pick-and-choose from these:

1. Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin
2. Common Sense with Dan Carlin
3. The Dr. Drew Podcast
4. Dan Pink’s Office Hours

Occasionally, I’ll go through Loveline, This American Life, and Fresh Air with Terry Gross archives and download interesting episodes. I would share a list with you, but it’s a pain to find the right links and I usually delete the mp3s when I’m finished.

Starting today, I’ll keep a current page of subscribed podcasts. Check there for the latest, since there’s an ~5% monthly turnover.

Pretty please?

The worst part of podcasts is that if I hear something great, like this beautiful Jesus and MLK story, it’s difficult to clip that section, annotate it, and share it. Written text wins here. Can someone please solve this problem?

Alrighty readers

I hope you give podcasts a shot, and if you do, try the Podcasts app or Stitcher. Perhaps audiobooks will be the topic of a future post. Here’s one of my favorite audiobooks, courtesy of Tim Ferriss.

If you listen to great podcasts not mentioned here, please share. Thanks for taking 6 minutes to read this post!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.