Writer and editor, June Thomas has worked at Slate for 23 years. She has been podcasting since 2005 and is now the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts. She lives in Brooklyn.
Slate makes more than 20 podcasts, and they’re all outstanding, but they’re like family members, so it feels wrong to play favorites. Instead, here are some non-Slate shows that regularly soothe, provoke, inspire, and inform me.
I used to be embarrassed about liking opera. So elite! So olde-worlde! So out of touch with the world we live in! Aria Code has rekindled my opera pride. Hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, the show manages to highlight the art form’s heightened emotions as well as the beauty of the music. If you ever need to conduct a test to confirm that your body is able to produce tears, I recommend everything except the title of December 2019’s “Don’t Look Back in Ardor,” which uses Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice to examine the enduring power of love, even beyond death. Being extremely cultured, I always listen to the arias that conclude each episode—recorded at the Metropolitan Opera, which produces Aria Code in partnership with WQXR—but the show is so beautifully made, you can experience emotional catharsis even if you hit Stop before the singing starts.
I grew up in Britain, and although I’ve lived in the States for more than 35 years, nothing gets me more riled up than Tories behaving badly. A Venn diagram of my political values and those of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine, which produces Coffee House Shots, would have almost no overlap. Nevertheless, I adore this podcast. Its rotating cast of commentators displays amazing concision—episodes rarely exceed 15 minutes in length—and commitment, producing episodes at the drop of a news headline. In the crazy days of Brexit, they were producing two or even three episodes per day. The week before I wrote this, they made a mere seven. Slackers!
Listen closely to the first episode, which appeared on April 7, and you can almost hear months of plans being shredded. Instead of the scheduled topic, Carroll scrambled to put together an episode about “the pandemic through a non-white lens,” and it was magnificent. The two conversations—one with a close friend about how sheltering in place was affecting their black families, and one with epidemiologist Dr. Camara Jones, about the looming public health crisis—were both eerily prescient and incredibly catalyzing. Whether talking to actress/writer Issa Rae, faith leader Bishop T.D. Jakes, or journalist Don Lemon, Carroll always focuses on the important questions. Come Through lives up to its billing of “essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever watched an entire professional basketball game—including the one I attended at the Barclays Center—but being an absolute sucker for expertise, I rarely miss an episode of ESPN basketball writer Zach Lowe’s interview show. Lowe knows how to lead a good conversation almost as well as he knows basketball.
Back in the 1980s, Eric Marcus traveled around America talking to pioneers of the LGBTQ movement for his ground-breaking book Making Gay History. Being meticulous, Marcus sought advice about the recording equipment he should use, and armed with the best that was available at the time, he came away with beautifully recorded interviews. Four decades later, those tapes form the core of one of the most moving podcasts around. Marcus’ voice crackles with an almost otherworldly kindness, and even though all too many of the episodes end with news that the subject passed away before the episode aired, their angry, funny, spirited voices ring through the decades loud and clear.
This BBC podcast has done something I never thought possible—it made me wish I’d paid attention in Latin class. Haynes’ passion for the ancient world led her to abandon a career as a comedian, but Latin and Greek literature and history is a perfect fit for a stand-up’s sensibility. There’s a slight awkwardness to the show’s format—half soliloquy, half interview with classics professors—especially in the latest, pandemic-era episodes, which are recorded from Haynes’ apartment rather than in front of a live audience, but the content is so fascinating, I promise you’ll be reading Juvenal and Livy before you’ve finished the podcast’s back catalog.
As you may have gathered by now, I like to listen to smart people engage with art and ideas. Poem Talk, recorded at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, is the apotheosis of this format. Always delightfully informal—host Al Filreis helps the distinguished guests develop their ideas without ever resorting to EngLit jargon—this podcast always makes me feel smarter. It’s also the most effective poetry-marketing project ever devised.
Which came first, my stationery addiction or this podcast, which has aired more than 415 weekly episodes? As it happens, I’ve been a pen, paper, and pencil snob since childhood, and The Pen Addict makes that seem perfectly normal. Host Brad Dowdy, who runs a blog of the same name, is another lifelong stationery nerd, but over the show’s six-year run, he and co-host Myke Hurley have gone on a fountain-pen journey that has cost them both thousands of dollars. Rather them than me! I know what you’re asking: Can you really talk about pens for an hour every week. Oh, ye of little stationery. The answer is yes!
Given how obsessed journalists are with their own profession, media criticism is a surprisingly thin podcast category. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis and David Shoemaker define their beat broadly—they talk about politics and sports and culture as well as how the media covers those things, and their willingness to talk baseball as well as MLB coverage prevents the show from slipping into inside-baseball tedium. The hosts are witty and wise, but it’s their obvious love of newspapers, magazines, and even train-wreck cable news networks that makes the show unmissable. Listening is like hanging out with two very old friends who love journalism and the weirdos who produce it even more than I do.
Since Today in Parliament appears on BBC Radio 4 every night when the U.K. House of Commons is in session, some might cavil with my describing it as a podcast. Those people need to take a listen to this masterpiece of daily deadline editing. Rest assured, you’ll always get the biggest debates of the day—but you’ll also hear from the House of Lords, and from parliamentary committee hearings. I know, I know, it sounds like a sleep aid. It is amazing!
OK, I have to mention one Slate podcast. On Working, Rumaan Alam, Isaac Butler, and I talk to creative people about their jobs. How does an opera singer learn a new role? How does an actress find the perfect accent for her character? What does the director of a TV drama do all day?. Learn how novelists come up with plots, how composers get jobs and get paid, and how YouTube creators learn to look into the camera lens.