If you’re anything like me, you probably like running things in the background: Firing up Netflix, starting a Spotify playlist, or just finding a video on YouTube, only to leave it running in the background while you find something else to do. Humans are stimulus-oriented, and we live in a world where we have the power to set up the stimuli in our environments however we like. You don’t have to choose between listening to traffic outside your window or whatever happens to be on the radio at the time — if you don’t want to listen to Today’s Top 5,000 Country Hits, you’ve got options.
But while you’re playing video games, it’s not always easy to find something to run in the background. Maybe it’s okay to start watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine while you’re playing a turn-based game like Divinity: Original Sin, but if you’re playing Heroes of the Storm or 1,001 Spikes – or some other game that requires all of your attention and reflexes – you can’t afford the time to watch a second screen to monitor for sight gags. Music is usually a good choice, but sometimes you just don’t have the right playlist, or maybe the music is already good – a la Shovel Knight or Cave Story.
Here’s my recommendation: Listen to a podcast. There’s nothing for you to miss while you’re monitoring the top lane, and since most shows only have music in their intro, you’re not cutting into Rocket League‘s sweet electronic riffs. Here are five of my personal recommendations to make it feel like you’re spending quality human time with other people while you put off writing that paper that’s due tomorrow:
Three brothers (Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy) host My Brother, My Brother and Me, advice/comedy podcast. They spend “roughly five-sixths of an hour each week” answering questions sent in from listeners seeking advice about the small problems in your life: What do you do about a boss who is overly-touchy with your laptop screen? Your sons have attempted to domesticate a wild coyote by feeding it cheddar cheese and it won’t go away, now what? How do you keep your roommate from finding out you vacuumed up his charger? How do you politely tell your dad he is a terrible piano player?
The show also answers questions pulled from Yahoo Answers, the important, hard-hitting quandaries of life: Could Baby Clone-bama run for president? Are you too strong to responsibly learn Krav Maga? Is it okay to want to gently kiss stamps? The McElroy brothers answer all these questions, and so many more.
Every episode is incredibly funny, and although much of My Brother, My Brother and Me is dedicated to hilariouis tangents inspired by the questions (building a tiger pit in your office or Tim McGraw dipping a shuriken into some bean dip for his new Krav Maga dojo’s billboard), some of the advice is surprisingly thoughtful. The chemistry between the brothers combined with their exuberant personalities and tendency to come up with creative solutions to problems come together to make a massively enjoyable podcast.
The Adventure Zone is a Dungeons & Dragons podcast feature the previously-mentioned McElroy brothers and their father, Clint McElroy. Running 5th Edition, Griffin takes the role of dungeon master while Travis, Justin and Clint fight giant trees, tear the arms off of robots, seduce vines and eat sandwiches while their friends are in danger as Magnus Burnsides, Taako the Lesser (Son of Taako Supreme), and Merle “Hightower” Highchurch.
The Adventure Zone starts with the 5th Edition starter campaign, where the company murders large numbers of “gerblins” and eventually teams up with fan-favorite Barry Bluejeans to track down Magic Brian and his giant spider, Magic Bryan. The story then moves through various magical locales of Griffin’s devising, including a murder mystery on a speeding train, a “battle-wagon” chariot-race, an Ice-nine-esque tourmaline epidemic, and intermittent trips to the Fantasy Costco.
Most Dungeons & Dragons podcasts feature their respective dungeon masters building and populating their own world, but Griffin takes it a step further in The Adventure Zone in an attempt to keep the audience engaged: Listeners can tweet about the The Adventure Zone with the #TheZoneCast hashtag for a chance to be included as non-playing characters in the adventure, or send an email with an idea for creative magical items to be purchased at the Fantasy Costco. Griffin also creates his own brief music clips or soundbytes to include in the campaign to make it more atmospheric.
The Adventure Zone is an absolute treat; The brothers and their dad bounce perfectly off of one another, and each character has their own traits to make the show come alive – whether it’s Magnus rushing in despite obvious danger, Merle casting Zone of Truth, Taako trying to progress his quest to invent the fantasy-taco, or the entire party dumping a body off of a cliff after promising not to murder anyone, the charming personality of The Adventure Zone is off the charts.
The Flop House is a podcast about bad movies. There are plenty of those floating around the internet already, but this one has Dan McCoy, who won has an Emmy for his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; Elliot Kalan, who is a three-time Emmy Award winner and, until recently, was the head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; and Stuart Wellington, noted Cool Dude with his own recently-opened bar.
Although The Flop House is billed as a podcast about bad movies, it comes with a caveat. This excerpt from the website sums it up fairly well:
“Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington are friends who’ve decided to express that friendship not by doing productive or enjoyable things, but instead by watching critical or commercial flops, and then discussing those terrible movies for you to enjoy in your ear-holes. Although, honestly, most of the time they just talk about random bullshit.”
Each episode covers the plot of the movie, with a rating of either “a good-bad movie,” a movie that’s bad, but in a way that makes it fun to watch; “a bad-bad movie,” movies that are so boring/confusing/aimless that they aren’t fun to watch, even with friends; or “A movie you kind of liked,” movies that were a critical or financial failure but still manage to worm their way into your heart. After that comes the Letters from Listeners segment, where Elliot sings a song and Dan sighs and they all respond to fan-mail. The Flop House closes with recommendations for movies that you can watch instead of the one they talked about. The amount of focus varies from episode to episode, usually corresponding to how bad the movie was. Really terrible movies lead to Dan, Elliot and Stuart spending more time on the strange, odd, or just downright-bad aspects of the movie’s plot, while the “so bad they’re good” movies tend to inspire less critique and entertaining tangents, like Stuart’s cartoon eyes falling out of his head.
With that said, before you start your first episode, bear firmly in mind that although The Flop House follows the formula for “a bad movie podcast” in an overarching way, don’t be surprised if a 20-minute tangent about Popeye (the sailor or the chicken) comes up. If you like Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Rifftrax, you’ll probably enjoy The Flop House. Dan, Elliot and Stuart work well together with their own distinct personalities that tend to clash or combine in hilarious ways.
Stuff You Should Know features Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant as they explain a plethora of topics: How fecal transplants work, how sushi works, how the placebo effect works, how animal camouflage works, and more than five hundred other topics for your learning pleasure.
The earliest episodes were simple, 5-minute overviews of topics, but now each episode pushes between 30-60 minutes of knowledge. They’re packed full of interesting facts, statistics, and unpronounceable names of scientists or inventors or notable figures. Josh and Chuck break ideas down into smaller bits that are easy to understand without glossing too far over things.
Stuff You Should Know‘s topic vary widely, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something that you’re interested in. Or maybe you’ll find something that you didn’t even know you were interested in. You might listen to the episode “Maggots: Good for Healing Wounds, Turns Out” out of sheer curiosity and discover that maggots are more fascinating than you thought.
Josh and Chuck are both affable and tackle even serious topics – nuclear winter, torture, or murderers, for instance – with the likability of a layman. They never take things too seriously, and it always feels like a friendly conversation instead of a lecture. If you’re into learning and you want to expand your repertoire a little bit, give Stuff You Should Know a look.
Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is an NPR podcast hosted by Peter Sagal. It covers recent news in a gameshow-style question-and-answer format. Alongside Peter Sagal, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! also features three panelists, which vary from a fairly expansive pool (including Faith Salie, Mo Rocca, Roxanne Roberts, Paula Poundstone, Maz Jobrani, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Tom Bodett, among other), celebrity guests, and listeners that call in to participate.
Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is broken down into different segments, with questions for the panel in-between. A few examples of those segments: Who’s Bill This Time, where Bill reads a quotation from a recent story for the caller to identify; Bluff the Listener, where Bill Kurtis reads three news stories and a caller must choose which one is a real story from the recent news; Not My Job, where the celebrity guests answer questions, typically in the same fashion as Bluff the Listener.
Peter Sagal is very charismatic, with the type of friendly-but-powerful voice that seems almost tailor-made for this type of show. He’s always a pleasure to listen to, whether he’s poking fun at the panelists’ answers or just having a conversation with the current caller. The panelists of the show are always entertaining, regardless of who you end up with (although personally I always hope for Maz Jobrani, Mo Rocca or Bobcat Goldthwait).
You won’t get the same comprehensive understanding as actually watching the news, but Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is a fun and entertaining way to keep on top of current events as well as strange and/or interesting news story.
In a similar vein, Trends Like These – co-hosted by Travic McElroy (mentioned above) and Brent Black (of “What If [x] Had Lyrics” YouTube fame) – is a podcast that focuses on recent trends and events. Unlike Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, Trends Like These mostly focuses on issues that appear in social media, whether its the presidential race or Kanye’s latest insane Twitter update.
Travis and Brent take the time to become more familiar with the story, instead of just reading the headlines for you. They explain the context surrounding the story, and dig through different sources to further explain the details. They don’t just explain “Broncos Win the Superbowl,” they talk about why it was important to Peyton Manning (it marks his 200th win, giving him the all-time win record), as well as describing how Lady Gaga repeating a line to end the national anthem has serious consequences for people betting on how long it will last.
Trends Like These doesn’t just tell you what’s going on in the world, it equips you with the knowledge to actually participate in those conversations by giving you a deeper glimpse into the topic. It can’t cover absolutely everything, but you’ll definitely be getting a better grasp of things than by glancing at Fox or reading the headlines on Twitter.
Travis and Brent are both pleasant to listen to – They approach the topics in very friendly, amiable ways that makes the issues much more entertaining to listen to than the sterilized tone of most news outlets. If you aren’t interested in following popular culture on your own, give Trends Like These a whirl while you’re grinding out rifts in Diablo 3. Next time you’re standing at the water cooler, you’ll be able to do more than roll your eyes when the election comes up.
And there you go. If you find your mind wandering while you’re playing your game, give your eyeballs a rest. You already have to keep up with the frenetic pace of a video game, let your ears do a little bit of the legwork.