Brain wearing headphonesFor many of you, part of this will be old news…especially if you’re already a fan of NPR (National Public Radio). I’ve been a sporadic listener for over 15 years now…having first noticed them in September 1991 during the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, when they were the only place I could hear the proceedings on the radio.

Public radio has been criticized over the years for its plodding style and its left-leaning political views. To be sure, you can find plenty of both there. But there are a number of other wonderful things there as well that…in my experience…make it a resource well worth delving into. There are at least four public radio programs that you should know about (and I’d bet you haven’t heard of two of them), plus one other cool audio book.

1.) This American Life – OK, this one is not such a well-kept secret anymore. Ira Glass and his merry band of intrepid storytellers weave magic on a weekly basis from we might view (from a distance) as the mundane experiences of life in America. I would waste way too much time trying to describe these shows by citing examples, but they are endlessly fascinating and frequently informative. And now that the show is available as a podcast, I NEVER miss it. If you’re an iTunes subscriber, you can listen for free each week…and all the archived shows are available for about a buck apiece. The stories on this show are probably the one thing that I share with my friends more consistently than any other…it’s just that good. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, you’ll find that it’s always among the top podcast downloads each week on iTunes. There’s also a Showtime TV version out there, but I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t tell you anything about it.

2.) Fresh Air – I’ll admit it. I actually enjoy Larry King…or I used to…once upon a time. Before his CNN TV show became a “kissup-fest”, he used to be on the radio overnights. It was pretty interesting stuff. Now…not so much…it seems to be more about him than the guests or the topic. But if you want to know what it means to IN-TER-VIEW someone, you have to hear Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air. The show, which is created at WHYY in Philadelphia, is so well done…so intimate and revealing (but not in a “celebrity kitsch” sort of way), that you frequently forget that Terry and her guest are not sitting face-to-face (they are normally nowhere near each other geographically). The biggest compliment I can pay to Terry is to say that she asks the questions that YOU would want asked if you were sitting there. There have been very few cases where the interview wrapped up and I was left feeling unsatisfied. She talks to a lot of big-name guests, but the greatest thing about the show for me is that it also allows me to become engaged by a variety of people and topics that I don’t know a thing about…and to which I would not normally take the time to listen. It happens so often that I can’t even cite a single outstanding example. This show is aired 5 times a week (and has been for over 20 years!)…which keeps Terry very busy with show prep. She claims not to be much of a friend to her own friends, because she’s always cutting conversations short to get back to work reading a book or watching a movie for the next day’s guest. If you haven’t heard it, you need to at least a few times…to see if it clicks with you. To me…it seems to me like she was born to do this for a living. This show is also available for free as a podcast on iTunes.

3.) Radio Lab – I hadn’t even heard of this show a month ago, but part of a segment was broadcast on This American Life…and even though it didn’t really grab me right away, it certainly did once I actually listened to an entire show. Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad are our hosts for this delightful journey into the world of science. Science becomes the stuff of fascination, not some stodgy old set of facts. It’s beyond my vocabulary to really capture the texture of this show…it’s a mix of interviews, in-your-face audio editing (which I feel is actually the one major weakness of the show…it’s hard to listen to when you’re relaxing), questions-that-you-wouldn’t-have-thought-to-ask-for-yourself-but-you’re-glad-somebody-did…in short, this is the science class you WISH you’d had in high school. I’ve only heard 5 episodes so far, but was excited to discover today that all 3 years of the show’s existence are available for free download from the show’s web site. You should listen. Your older kids should listen. This is REALLY GOOD. Here’s an interesting article about the show.

4.) The Sound of Young America – If you enjoy good interview shows, this is worth a spin. It’s been on the air for the past few years, and was recently picked up by Public Radio International. Like most people, I enjoy books, movies, television, music and comedy when they’re well done….and guests in those genres make up the bulk of the interview guests for these shows. Jesse Thorn is your host, broadcasting from his living room (no, really!)…and he does a very solid job for a guy in his mid-20s. He’s well-read and asks good questions…which is pretty much what you want in an interview show, eh? My one beef with the show is the occasional uncensored profanity and even more occasional racy subject matter (usually due to the guest comedians), which limits the number of places where I can listen without earbuds. And, probably because it’s tilted toward a younger audience, I don’t find quite as many of the show topics as interesting as…say, Fresh Air. But, it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s been one of the nicest surprises in my adventure into podcast-land. All the shows are freely downloadable from iTunes.

5.) One last thing (same idea…just not on public radio). I recently bought the unabridged audio book of Bill Bryson‘s “A Short History of Nearly Everything“. What a treat! Much like Radio Lab, Bryson brings science to life…but in a different way: by following the threads of developing scientific thought throughout history…and believe me, this has as much intrigue and as many incestuous relationships as a couple seasons of Days of Our Lives. It’s utterly fascinating stuff…and the unabridged version is read by British narrator Richard Matthews..whose delivery suits the material perfectly…despite the fact that it’s over 18 hours long. Your kids may well have read this already, as I understand that some schools have begun to incorporate it into their curriculum. If you like non-fiction delivered with gentle humor, this is a great way to go.