It’s been a while since I recommended a few nonfiction podcasts, the reality programming that accompanies me on walks and drives.
So, here’s some audio entertainment, whether you need to distract yourself on Thanksgiving or amuse yourself while shopping on Friday.
The selections in this edition have all been out for a while, which means there are quite a few episdoes to listen to:
- Two podcasts that debunk ideas that have taken hold in our brains
- A podcast where people you may know tell their stories of hilarious and horrific dates
- A new season of one of my favorite podcasts of all time
Found a new—or new to you—podcast that you love? Share it in the comments! I love recommendations, and I hope you love these.
If Books Could Kill & Maintenance Phase
If Books Could Kill, which debuted a year ago, tackles a different “airport book” in each episode.
Those are nonfiction books that have broken into popular culture and imagination, such as Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus; The 4-Hour Workweek; Freakonomics; and Malcom Gladwell’s catalog,
Its hosts, journalist Michael Hobbes and lawyer Peter Shamshiri, take turns researching a book and then telling the other what they’ve found. They break down the book, focusing on its effects on our society, and what the book actually says beyond what’s on the cover.
For example, while I understand the central idea of The Five Love Languages, I’ve never read it, so I had no idea how misogynistic the examples in the book are, nor about the history of its publication.
Hobbes and Shamshiri do give credit to ideas and information that make sense, such as the idea that people show love in the way that they’d like to receive it.
But they also frequently illustrate how 1) how the big ideas can shape public policy despite 2) the books actually saying a lot of awful shit.
In the episode about Atomic Habits, Michael says:
“It’s too bad because there’s such a need for this kind of thing in society. A lot of people are really suffering, but the only thing that is available is this generic, take-the-stairs-instead-of the elevator-style advice. The core problem of these things is that you cannot meaningfully help people unless you understand the specifics of their situation. And these books, by definition, can’t. All they can do is broadcast these messages into the ether.”
That is also the central thesis of Michael Hobbes’ earlier podcast, Maintenance Phase, which he hosts with the writer Aubrey Gordon, author of You Just Need to Lose Weight: And 19 Other Myths about Fat People and What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Fat.
Maintenance Phase has been around for three years, and so I am very late to it, but also very glad to listen my way through those three years of episodes.
Its episodes focus on subjects related to wellness and fatness, from Snackwell cookies to The Biggest Loser, Dr. Oz to Super Size Me, and how they’ve produced ideas and policy that doesn’t match science or reality. The Keto Diet, Halo Top Ice Cream, Ozempic, and BMI all get their own episodes.
Like If Books Could Kill, Aubrey and Michael alternate taking the lead on episodes. They’re also fair to what they uncover, such as when they discuss the person who developed the idea of BMI never imagining it would be used to assess people medically. (BMI actually has nothing to do with health; it’s just a blunt math equation with arbitrary categories.)
I love thinking about what’s real and what is not in reality TV, so I love and appreciate the information, discussion, and analysis of Maintenance Phase and If Books Could Kill offer.
The Dream season 3
If someone asks me to recommend a podcast, The Dream’s first two seasons are first on my list.
Jane Marie’s explorations of multi-level marketing and the wellness and supplement industry are insightful and entertaining, and crafted with care.
Season three is very different, taking a turn into the personal in its second episode.
It seems to meander a little more than the other seasons, not quite locking in to its target or central subject.
Now part of Pushkin Industries, the podcast’s dynamically inserted ads are rather intrusive. While I’d never blame a creator for automated ads—I have no idea what ads you’re being shown, or where they appear in this text, after all!—it interrupts the narrative flow. Some of the ads I heard were for wellness startups, which is too ironic.
Perhaps that’s because it’s broad: The Dream described its third season as “getting to know the gurus and life coaches who claim they know the secret to living our best lives. Is it all in our mindset? Or our privilege? Or are we all under a spell?”
It does, though, especially in episodes nine and 10, which complete a story that starts in episode one, and take a few dramatic turns.
And season three, which isn’t yet complete, does what The Dream does best: exposing cons that are part of our everyday lives.
This summer, Bad Dates with Jameela Jamil filled the hole in my podcast playlist left by the gap between seasons of Normal Gossip. (The new season of Normal Gossip is also leaving me wanting more, because it seems to be missing the, uh, gossip, but that’s another story.)
In each episode of Bad Dates, two or three celebrity guests—comedians, drag queens, actors—share stories of bad dates.
I’m really not a fan of shows where celebrities just talk to each other for hours, but this won me over because there’s a focus for the conversation.
The stories often take surprise turns and feature some hilarious behavior. The guests interact, throwing out questions and jokes, and it can quickly get chaotic. Jameela Jamil comments and shares her own stories, in addition to keeping things moving.
Because the stories are about dates, sex, and other kinds of romantic interaction, there is explicit language, and way too much poop and vomit for my personal taste.
The thing about telling stories is that some people, well, cannot actually tell stories—not even talented comedians! The show could probably use better pre-screening to ensure that there is actually a story. I felt embarrassed for some guests.
Still, while the stories—and even episodes—can be very hit or miss, they’re quick: a half-hour for three stories, maybe a bonus story from a reader.
Episodes 6 (Celeste Barber and Jinkx Monsoon), 13 (Tig Notaro, Susan Yeagley, and Kevin Nealon), and 21 (Matteo Lane, Bob The Drag Queen, and Margaret Cho) are good starting points to see if you’ll like the format and the types of stories.