Podcasts are no substitute for conversation, but they’re a rewarding supplement.
By the good graces of The Living Church, I have been a telecommuting editor since joining the staff in late 2009. There’s much to be said for telecommuting: no daily headaches with traffic, as much quiet or sound as you choose, and a freedom to set your own priorities for the day.
One great hazard of telecommuting is isolation. I cope with this by running errands, talking with my closest friends by phone, and being the guardian of cats. What I miss most about office work is coffee-break chatter, which offers the opportunity to talk about faith, politics, TV shows, and movies. These are the routine details of life that bind us together.
Podcasts do not substitute for conversation, but they’re a rewarding supplement. The podcasts I highlight here help me feel connected in an age of atomization. Through them I hear from kindred spirits and from people who espouse very different core beliefs. They enrich my mind and my soul.
The Axe Files — David Axelrod, former political adviser to President Obama, hosts guests at his new headquarters, the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, or sometimes on the road. The Axe Files, more than Axelrod’s punditry on CNN, highlights the lively curiosity of a man who began his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Axelrod treats his guests with respect, makes frequent and witty asides, and draws on a wealth of experience in politics.
Beeson Divinity School — The Rev. Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, is a gifted interviewer. He often highlights elegant sermons by Beeson’s guest speakers or its graduates, or on occasion by luminaries he has known and respected (such as the late Peter J. Gomes of Harvard).
The Bookmonger — John J. Miller, national correspondent for National Review, evinces a deep love of books and writers. Interviews average about 15 minutes and most authors opt to be called by their first names, which makes each episode feel like an informative chat between friends.
The Chicago Way — John Kass succeeded Mike Royko at the Chicago Tribune, and combines a gimlet eye for politics with affection for individuals. He is one of the wittiest newspaper writers of this era, and a natural radio talent. Kass is a Greek Orthodox Christian, which informs his perspective on pretty much everything.
Conversations with Bill Kristol — The cofounder of The Weekly Standard spends a leisurely 90 minutes, on average, with his guests. If you expect Kristol to limit himself to predictable talking points, think again. His visit with Paul Begala, a career-long campaign manager for Democrats (most prominently for Bill Clinton), was a snark-free immersion in mutual respect. Lots of people give lip service to bipartisan friendship. Kristol lives it.
Curious City — An outstanding example of local radio’s potential. A few reporters at Chicago’s public-radio flagship, WBEZ, answer questions about the city’s landscape, its hidden masterpieces, and its many characters.
Domacast — Doma, in this case, does not refer to the Defense of Marriage Act. Mary Ailes produces this voice of the Anglican Church in North America’s Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic. You’ll hear lively sermons covering a wide terrain, not least from Bishop John Guernsey.
Frederica Here and Now —Frederica Mathewes-Green reviews movies, discusses miracles, explores the history of saints, and illuminates the theology of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
Fresh Air — Host Terry Gross’s guest list is too often monochromatic. Rather than interviewing Clarence Thomas, Gross prefers the latest author who has depicted him as a gargoyle. But she’ll occasionally land a brilliant exception: the gay man who moves home to care for his mother and speaks highly of the church members who visit her regularly; the gay man who produced Lisa Kudrow’s HBO comedy, The Comeback, and poked fun at “yoga blessing thank you hands”; and actor Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on The Wire, speaking of how a pastor and a church transformed his troubled life.
GodPod — A monthly discussion produced by St. Paul’s Theological Centre, London, that includes Michael Lloyd (principal of Wycliffe Hall), Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington, and president of St. Mellitus College), and Jane Williams (assistant dean and lecturer in systematic theology at St. Mellitus College). If you associate Holy Trinity Brompton only with emotionalism and happy-clappy music, listen to this program.
Intelligence2 U.S. — A monthly show that brings the debate tradition of Oxford University to the United States. The format is so deeply fair and open-ended that this team ought to oversee at least one of the presidential debates.
Just Thinking and Let My People Think — The shorthand mission statement of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries is “Helping the Thinker Believe. Helping the Believer Think.” Zacharias grew up as a Hindu in India and became a Christian after attempting suicide by poisoning himself. He addresses both heart and head, and speaks hard truths with compassion. His team includes Anglicans Os Guinness and Amy Orr-Ewing. Their messages never fail to deepen my love for God.
L’Abri | Southborough, Mass. — In its several branches across the world, L’Abri is a model of evangelical Christians interacting with art, philosophy, ethics, and theology. For some in the mass media, the late Francis Schaeffer has become a stickman of Dominionism, a cause he never championed. If you want to meet the real thinking of Schaeffer, and a community of adults who keep his spirit alive in New England, start here.
Maltin on Movies — Leonard Maltin and his adult daughter, Jessie, share a deep love of movies, talented actors, and storytellers. Leonard Maltin’s recent solo interview with Kevin Pollak was a tour de force, ending with Pollack’s imitation of Christopher Walken (tuxedo cats are “overdressed for every occasion, which is nice”). On most archived episodes, actor Baron Vaughn (Cloverfield, Grace and Frankie) is Maltin’s cohost.
Martini Shot — Satirist and TV producer Rob Long offers a weekly three-minute taste of Hollywood culture in all its absurdity and glamour.
Masterpiece Studio — This show began its life during the final season of Downton Abbey. Now it offers behind-the-scenes details on Endeavour, Wallander, and other programs on Masterpiece PBS.
Eric Metaxas —Metaxas balances political opinion with playful interviews and eclectic guests (his longtime friend Dick Cavett, Morgan Freeman, Malcolm Gladwell, Adam McKay, and Leslie Stahl, among many others).
92Y Talks — From the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, the cultural heart of Upper East Side liberalism, comes a series of fine discussions between celebrities and thinkers. A few favorites: Larry King and Regis Philbin, Sens. Cory Booker and Kristin Gillibrand, Don Henley and Billy Joel, and Ted Koppel and Charlie Rose.
Presidential — Lillian Cunningham of The Washington Post produces a weekly profile of every president in the history of the United States. She began with George Washington on Jan. 10 and will reach Barack Obama on Oct. 30. Cunningham interviews biographers, historians, and (when fitting) specialists from the Library of Congress. Her running question of what a given president would be like on a blind date is brilliant and revealing.
Q&A | Hosted by Jay Nordlinger — Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, loves classical music, some pop music, ideas, and freedom. His voice sounds patrician, but his interviewing style is unpretentious and sometimes discursive. It’s a winning chemistry.
Milt Rosenberg — Rosenberg hosted a weeknight radio show for 40 years on Chicago’s WLS. (By day he was a professor of psychology at the University Chicago.) He’s 91 now, and WLS cancelled his show a few years ago. Both in his archives and his occasional fresh programs, Rosenberg asks honest questions of leading intellectuals and politicians. Listen to this national treasure while he’s still with us.
Signposts with Russell Moore — Moore, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, quotes regularly from the works of Wendell Berry and Walker Percy, and he sees straight through the culture of death. He is plainspoken enough to have run afoul of Donald Trump. On Signposts he mostly addresses pastoral questions posed by his audience.
SpyCast — This lively podcast is produced by the International Spy Museum in Washington. Spycraft weaves through most aspects of American culture, including entertainment and politics. One recent highlight: an interview with Steve Ross, author of the forthcoming Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews and their Spies Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America.
Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson — Robinson played an important role in President Ronald Reagan’s epochal “Tear Down This Wall” speech in West Berlin. Now based at the Hoover Institution, he interviews advocates of economic and political freedom. He is an observant Roman Catholic, and it shines through.
Word on Fire | Sermons — Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the former rector of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. To call him the Fulton Sheen of the 21st century probably understates his importance. Here is a master of translating theology into the language of people in the pews, as reflected in Catholicism, his acclaimed video study program.
The World Over — Raymond Arroyo is creator and host of The World Over Live, a weekly news magazine on Eternal World Television Network. His guests have included Mel Gibson, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Placido Domingo, and Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI). Arroyo loves showbiz, so he once devoted most of the hour to interviewing Jerry Lewis. Go figure.