Don’t Ask Me About My Thesis:
Podcast Recommendations to Keep You (Not) Busy

By Jessie Gamarra

My thesis is maybe halfway done and I still have heaping piles of digital, as well as literal, research material to sift through—but I’ll get there (and so will you).

Writing a thesis can pretty much be described like any other part of graduate school: assignments and responsibilities rush at you with varying degrees of speed and strength, leaving you exhausted at the end of each day, eager for a moment of respite. In academia, it is often those moments of peace that are the most wicked and cruel reminders of what you could be doing, of time being wasted. A healthy work-life balance can thus be difficult to maintain when your work overlaps with personal interests and hobbies, as is often the case in our graduate studies. But it’s wise to find a strategy for easy, guilt-free distraction between all the tasks that need to be done. This is where podcasts come in.

For those who read a whole lot as part of their job, podcasts are especially valuable tools for managing stress and timed measures for breaks from work. The best time to listen to a podcast is when you’re already doing something else: commuting, cooking, cleaning, etcetera—it has to be something passive, something that doesn’t acquire much attention. There are countless options available online: the Apple Store, Soundcloud, and many private hosting services offer a variety of shows from talk shows, to narratives, to documentaries, that can provide days upon days of entertainment.

As a commuter, podcasts are my heaven. They can turn a seemingly endless journey into an episode of a zombie action thriller, or an opportunity to catch up on current events, or a lesson on literally anything—which is much more productive than staring out a window watching the snow drift by. Below I’ve listed a couple of recommendations to trick yourself into a break while still satisfying the need to be productive, and a couple to help you forget about work completely. I hope you enjoy. Happy podcasting!

Podcasts to Make You Feel Productive:

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History []

Recommended episode: “Food Fight [],” July 13, 2016

Revisionist History is just what it sounds like; this podcast about “things overlooked and misunderstood” began in 2015 and now has two complete seasons available online. It’s a real easy listen for such a content-heavy show; which is probably due to its host, writer and journalist Malcolm Gladwell. His varied personally-driven and academically-minded strategies of cultural analysis are pretty motivating, and may even inspire you to get moving on a research project of your own.

Every episode Gladwell guides listeners on a short but detailed study of an event, person, practice or idea. Structured around information relayed from research and primary source material, Gladwell includes his own anecdotes, personal observations, and his recorded interviews. His interview style is much like an investigator who prods his subjects with a meticulous interest in different perspectives, the way things work, and why they do so. With a clear and determined voice (as well as some effective background music), it’s often his own frustration and disbelief which provides the most entertainment.

I was actually going to recommend a different episode (“McDonald’s Broke My Heart [],” a heartbreaking tale of how the franchise’s mouth-watering original fries recipe has been lost to generations), but Gladwell’s incredulous rants in “Food Fight” got me on this one. It plays into a larger discussion on access to opportunity by taking a close look at the financial politics of higher education in the United States. Largely dedicated to the moral implications of budgeting for things like eggplant parmesan pancakes and fresh venison during dear season in the dining hall over financial aid, this episode plays into a larger discussion on access to opportunity. Whatever episode you choose, this show is bound to make you feel quite studious for your listening choices.

99% Invisible (99PI) []

Recommended episode: “Coin Check [],” March 3, 2015

99PI is pretty well-known in the world of podcasts. It’s one of the few popular shows out there that’s dedicated to the examination of designed objects, environments, and experiences. Host Roman Mars weaves in and out of interviews and sound clips with quick but steady pacing and nuance for detail to explain how design can reflect its context or embody cultural meaning.

This one is surprisingly visually-driven for a show delivered through a primarily audio-based medium, and additional resources online for each episode certainly do add to this. The production team employs a rather scholarly strategy that uses a range of sources including professionals, academics, and experts, and often the actual subjects of the episode. Clearly able to put together a well-researched episode, the show also sometimes features fascinating studies by other productions (see “The Athletic Brassiere []”).

This episode is both about an object, as well as the practices and meanings embodied by its materiality. Inspired by an encounter at a conference, this episode examines ‘challenge coins.’ These heavy metal coins are a surprisingly simple reminder that humans just love their stuff, and that anything can be studied to reveal meaning, 99PI makes a stimulating distraction for an art history student.

Honourable mention: The Cracked Podcast

Podcasts to Make You Forget About Being Productive:

The Read []

Recommended episode: the most recent

Everyone should probably be tuned into the Read. Released on Thursdays, hosts Crissle and Kid Fury update listeners on the latest in pop culture news with charm and sincerity. Formatted as a discussion between two friends, the duo’s analyses of the comings and goings of celebrities usually delve into larger issues of race, sex and gender, among other topics. With segments dedicated to listener letters and the weekly “read” of either a frustrating personal situation or current event, this show is the greatest break from a long day of work. Their rants and reactions are thoughtful, insightful, and thoroughly entertaining checks of privilege, power, and ignorance that can satisfy the need for some kind of justice in a world that sometimes makes little sense.

This is probably the easiest show to incorporate into your weekly schedule. Described as “an on-air therapy session for two friends trying to adjust to life (and rats) in the big city,” Crissle and Kid Fury’s musings on their own lives and those of others are indeed comforting to hear. Often running over two hours long, their honest exchanges make time go by pretty quick. There’s really not much else to say without gushing over these two, so, just go listen to the Read.

I Was There Too (IWTT) []

Recommended episode: “Inglorious Basterds with Paul Rust,” February 18, 2015

Hosted by Matt Gourley, an actor, comedian, and a pretty established podcaster, I Was There Too is a gem of a show. The premise is pretty unique—Gourley interviews actors who’ve made brief appearances or played background or secondary roles in some of the best scenes in cinema history. This makes it real easy to approach! You can choose episodes by film, or by actor, or just randomly go about it and have fun. It’s a pretty mixed bag, but every episode is bound to be a good time.

The show’s success is largely driven by Gourley’s genuine enthusiasm and fascination, which allows you to enjoy any episode regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the film in question. Featuring a mixed range of experienced actors who engage in a variety of roles, the show offers many perspectives into the film industry through these “periphery” subjects. Gourley guides discussions through the audition and film process; questions actors about their characters’ stories and experiences on set; delves into movie trivia; and even, at times, attempts to settle long-standing movie myths.

The episode I’ve recommended is unfortunately locked in an archive on Sticher (you can maybe find it somewhere on youtube…), but I couldn’t help it—it’s my favourite one. Paul Rust is a silly man full of charm and fun stories about being on set with Quintin Tarantino and filming with Brad Pitt. Their easy conversation is a trademark of Gourley, whose relaxed dialogue and soothing voice makes any activity a little more fun.