Information Management 3 - Podcasts

This is 3rd entry in a 3-part series on how I consume news and information for my interests and career. Content for my weekly urbanism and transportation news digest primarily comes from these sources. The introduction in part one includes Twitter and Twitter lists (available here). The second part about blogs and RSS feeds is here.

Podcasts are my secret weapon for information gathering and non-screen based productivity. Unlike my use of Twitter lists and blogs, my podcast interests spread across the nerdiness spectrum and are less focused on urbanism/transportation.


Quick Introduction

If you're not familiar with podcasts, you could read this article, but basically it's a form of downloadable Internet radio show. The concept became popular through Apple's iPod and iPhone devices. You download individual shows/episodes or you can subscribe to a series, which will automatically download and sync to your device when a new episode is available. There are thousands of content providers which cover a wide range of topics and episode lengths range from minutes to hours. If you don't have an iDevice, there are third party apps that you can use.


So why are podcasts my secret weapon? Three reasons.

The first is that it gives my eyes a break. In this day and age, most content and entertainment is screen-based and because I work in front of screens, enjoy TV and movies, and still play some video games, it can be challenging on a daily basis to step away. I don't always find that reading paper based content is a good substitute because it still uses your eyes to focus. I also find video content (assuming I could close my eyes) has too much graphical low-value fill and is too slow. While other people fill their non-screen based time through exercise and sports, my leg injury has limited my activities to walking for now, which I do with my dog (usually while listening to a podcast).

The second is the range and quality of the content available which shows up on my device. Most podcasts are pre-meditated and production quality is quite high. Many of the hosts/curators spend hours researching and writing detailed scripts prior to recording. The content is normally not focused on day-to-day or even week-to-week news (which Twitter and the blogs cover), but broader concepts and topics. I feel this type of reporting is a good contrast to what we're used to online these days and results in better, deeper information. It's also a nice diversion from music, which I do love, but I do go through phases where I find time wasting/filler.

Lastly, I like the flexibility of the content; especially the playback options. Because it's not temporally centric I can choose to pop in and out of various shows and series and skip episodes. I can listen on my commute, while I work, while I want to relax at home, and even sometimes when I'm driving. For iPhones the app has built in jump forward and back buttons in 15-second increments, but the real value for me is the playback speed. I listen to all podcasts at 2x speed. This takes some getting used to, and not everyone's brain functions this way, but I love it. It allows me to churn through a large amount of content faster and it works because I care about the overall lessons, themes, and/or the essence of the content and not every anecdote.


Favourites & Recommendations

Below is a list of the topic areas and specific podcasts I listen to which some colour if I think the show is special.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire
    • History of Westeros
    • Radio Westeros

If you watch Game of Thrones or have indulged in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, I can't recommend anything more than the entire library of content from these two shows. They dive into the mystery and details of the novels to a level I've not seen anywhere. I realized early-on how much I missed through GRRM's writing style and these shows summarize and fill gaps by character, topic, and/or family. They cover episode summaries of the TV show and how they tie to the books. They also dive into the meta, relating to fan theories and popular predictions. I am blown away by the world GRRM has created, and I'm not normally that into fantasy (besides Lord of the Rings)


  • Economics & Finance
    • Planet Money
    • Freakonomics Radio
    • 50 Things that made the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

The first podcast I listened to was Planet Money in 2012. They had been going for a few years and I was looking for something to fill my 1-hour commute every day. I ended up going back to the beginning where they were reporting on the intricacies of the financial crisis in 2008 and have been through 1000+ episodes over the last several years. They've changed gears a bit to answer questions about various aspects of the economy, but it's light and a good listen if you aren't deep in the financial system's weeds every day. Some of their series on health care in the US, disaster aid/relief, the t-shirt economy, etc. are fantastic. Freakonomics is a good mental exercise and covers topics most people don't normally think about. Tim Harford's 50 things are short history lessons on the world's most influential inventions.


  • History
    • Dan Carlin's Hardcore History
    • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell

These two are some of the newest podcasts on my list. Some call Dan Carlin the father of the modern radio show/podcast and he's usually very highly rated in the iTunes store. I love his in-depth take through history. The episodes are very long and slow, which is where the power of my 2x listening kicks in. I have loved his individual episodes (Alexander the Great vs. Hitler), as well as the super-series that covered the Great War which shaped the modern world.

Revisionist History is another diamond in the rough. He retells 10 historical stories by going behind the scenes. Love love love. My favourite episode is around strong and weak link sports.


  • Personal Growth
    • The Tim Ferriss Show

The Tim Ferriss Show is my latest podcast favourite and frankly is the reason I relaunched the blog. Many of my life/productivity tips are based on the interviews he's had with many famous people, asking their secrets to success. I'll be writing posts later about how one of his first episodes has really helped me balance work, life, and the Internet.


  • True Crim
    • Serial
    • CBC's Someone Knows Something

Serial is a cultural phenomenon and SKS is a Canadian version. Literary true crime/detective fiction is one of my favourite genres and the cliffhanger nature of the stories utilizes the podcast medium masterfully. Serial season one set a new standard in podcasting (and other media) and was incredible.


  • Urbanism & Transportation
    • Talking Headways - A Streetsblog Podcast
    • ITE Talks Transportation
    • Metropolic - A Liveable Cities Podcast
    • Spacing Radio
    • Invisible City
    • Cities Alive
    • The Cities Podcast
    • Placemakers

While this category is the largest, and most closely aligns with my career, I typically de-prioritize this content versus other episodes. The information and stories are good, but I cover a lot of similar ground through Twitter and blogs.


In Summary

Podcasts are awesome and very different to most other content. I would highly recommend them for commuting instead of low-brow radio (most of which is host and ads) or the same music every day.