Happy New Year! It’s Dry January and you’ve committed to going sober for the month so good luck to you, friend, especially if you’re one of the many binge drinkers out there. According to the CDC (you’ve heard of ‘em, yeah?) binge drinking is “the most common, costly and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the United States.”
One in six adults binge drinks about four times a month, the national public health agency says, adding that most people who binge drink don’t have what they classify as a severe alcohol use disorder.
If binging is in your nature, you can fill your suddenly free time away from the bars and breweries with podcasts. Here are some selections, in no particular order, from a variety of media companies and on most streaming platforms we think you’ll devour. Binge podcasts, not booze!
Dark Air with Terry Carnation
This Audioboom fiction podcast, starring The Office’s Rainn Wilson as a grieving late-night paranormal radio show host, is hilarious. Coast to Coast AM geeks will appreciate the setup - it pokes fun, but it’s a loving homage to these dead-of-night syndicated radio stalwarts - and serious comedy fans will appreciate the jokes, which are so abundant you might need to binge it all a second time to just to catch everything. Highlights include the show’s eccentric callers dialing Carnation with bizarre, unexplainable and humorous tales. It features a compelling storyline too, anchored by regular cast members Yvette Nicole Brown, Aaron Lee, Karan Soni, Al Madrigal and Jennifer MacLean. Best of all, regular podcast listeners will dig how the show inventively incorporates product ads for real companies like MeUndies and Mailchimp in its wild mix.
Start With This and Binge the Rest: Since this podcast is a comedy series, you sort of have to start with episode one, but if there’s a single episode that stands out it’s the one introducing comedian Tom Lennon as Wes Poppovitz, a thinly-veiled, over the top Alex Jones doppelganger.
Gimlet's Crime Show isn't your typical true crime podcast
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True crime podcasts are ubiquitous and, as with anything in abundance, quality tends to seesaw toward the low end. If you're a fan of the genre you've endured plenty of badly-produced, rambling regurgitations of court records and news clippings. Crime Show is on the high end of the seesaw, able to rise above thanks to exceptional writing, a common thread woven through Gimlet Media shows. There are other strengths, too: the show's host Emma Courtland is a masterful and steady guide through each tale and the tales themselves don't focus on the sensational, done-to-death crimes of which we've all heard. Plus, it's not all muuuurrderrrr (please read in sinister voice). There are episodes on fraud, Internet crime and one forgotten Texas school shooting that are as gripping as the salacious serial killer stuff. There's even a two-part episode on a British money heist that plays like a Guy Ritchie film.
Start With This and Binge the Rest: If you really need your murder fix to be sold, begin with the two-part tale “Better Take Some Shovels.” You'll be properly mortified but you'll also get a well-rounded view of a crime’s lasting impact on victims and the notion we could all do better at seeing true crime as something to act upon instead of just a form of entertainment.
Pushkin is producing some of the highest quality podcasts in the business, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History to Broken Record, a stellar music podcast we featured in early 2021. Since many of us are focusing on self-improvement with the new year, The Happiness Lab isn’t just entertaining, it’s a practical and timely choice. Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos shares the latest scientific research and taps special guests to focus on how we can find ways large and small to build and sustain happiness in our lives. Tips on shelving our smartphones, practicing forgiveness, not getting stalled by nostalgia and engaging in kind acts all are subjects of the self-help program. The show is kicking off 2022 with a mini-series on managing negative feelings.
Start With This and Binge the Rest: Season 1, Episode 3 features Olympic skater Michelle Kwan in an installment focusing on life skills to lean on when our best laid plans go awry. It’s fine storytelling and a good listen for anyone taking on difficult New Year’s resolutions.
If those year-end listicles taught us anything it’s that you all love horror films. Before they were movies, many of your favorite creep-outs were short horror fiction pieces, the very sort showcased by PseudoPod. Produced by Escape Artists Media Company, whose tag line is “One Story, Told Well,” the long-running weekly program features original short horror fiction from new talents like Christi Nogle (“Resilience,” episode 704), Gary McMahon (“My Boy Builds Coffins,” episode 664) and masters of the craft like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe. The show streams on all the usual podcast platforms, but it's worth visiting the PseudoPod website for background info on the authors and text versions of the featured stories.
The show is expertly hosted by Alasdair Stuart, co-owner of Escape Artists and a Hugo Awards finalist, and its strength is combing through the crowded genre to find quality stories to match with talented narrators. Take frequent reader Dave Robison, he of the “buttery man voice.” His presentation of Hal Ellson’s 1956 yarn “Blackout,” (episode 714) is pulp fiction jumping right off the page and sinisterly burrowing into your brain. A good binge of PseudoPod (or its sci-fi siblings PodCastle and Escape Pod) reminds us we’re surrounded by imaginative thinkers who see terror or the unexplained in fascinating ways that help us grapple with the inexplicable and horrific in “real life.”
Start With This and Binge the Rest: There are so many great episodes to choose from, but a favorite is PseudoPod’s presentation of the August Derleth classic “The Lonesome Place” (episode 725). The story is a timeless look at the monsters in our lives and the lasting fear the create. Narrator Andrew Leman’s reading of it will linger with you.
Heavyweight delivers some of the best writing in the entire medium
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It's no secret we love Heavyweight. We featured a lengthy interview in 2021 with Jonathan Goldstein, the show’s creator and host, wherein we discussed writing, music and why Heavyweight is the perfect podcast for these imperfect times. The setup is simple: Goldstein takes callers’ pleas for help rectifying some unresolved matter in their lives. Frequently the matter is a loose end between people that Goldstein helps tie, sometimes neatly and sometimes not. Each journey is funny, touching and entertaining. Driven to isolation over the last couple of years by a global pandemic, Heavyweight helped anchor the idea that people need each other and that the connection between us all is vital.
Start With This and Binge the Rest: "Maura." This is the latest episode of the program and proof that only Heavyweight could turn the tale of visiting the DMV for a driver’s license into an emotionally-fraught story filled with moments of levity and grace.
Conviction: Seasons 1 and 2
What makes any podcast binge-worthy is the art of storytelling. It's not enough to have a tale that grabs audiences, it needs to unfold in certain ways that make you crave more. When it's done in expert fashion, you'll drive an extra mile while listening in the car just to hear what comes next. Seasons 1 and 2 of Gimlet's Conviction kept the odometer spinning with two captivating stories filled with fascinating, complex, real-life characters. Each season is like a limited series told in jaw-dropping episodes that reveal a lot about self-interest, authority, mass hysteria and the idea of American justice, all topics we've had to stare hard at over the last two years.
Start With This and Binge the Rest: Episode 1, Season 1. But stick around for Season 2, which is set in Texas.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.