By Katie Rosso

Taking over our headphones and revolutionizing how we spend our free time, podcasts provide everything from information and enlightenment, to entertainment and enchantment. The best part is, they appeal to such niche audiences, you’re sure to discover one that specifically caters to your needs. To save you some searching, here are our top-three recommendations.  

Oh No Ross and Carrie

Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy recorded the first episode of their incredibly dynamic investigative podcast, Oh No Ross and Carrie, on $40 USB microphones at their local book club meetup.

Six-and-a-half years later, Oh No Ross and Carrie is still showing up “so you don’t have to,” just now to a much bigger audience — encouraging all of their listeners to keep an open mind in all situations.

Blocher, a trainer at Disney Animation, and Poppy, an investigative journalist, join forces to dig into “fringe science, spirituality, and claims of the paranormal.” The pair join religions like Mormonism and Scientology, try out fringe groups like Ordo Templi Orientis and the Raelians, and test therapeutic claims like cryotherapy and Reiki.

Blocher and Poppy always emphasize that they go into these investigations with an open mind, and if they find convincing evidence that the claim is true, they will be willing to believe it.

For Blocher, keeping an open mind isn’t something he has to try hard to do. “I feel like it comes naturally, like if I’m engaged with someone and they’re talking to me and they’re telling me something, then I’ll just naturally be open,” he says. “My natural inclination is to agree with someone until I get that moment of reflection where I can say, ‘OK, well let’s compare that with what I already know.'”

Photograph from Amy David Roth

Poppy credits part of the pair’s open-mindedness to their Evangelical backgrounds. “I think what Ross and I have to offer is that we know exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes,” she says. “So we might find the beliefs funny, but we also know exactly what it’s like to be the believers. So I could never look at those people and think, ‘Oh, you’re crazy,’ because I know exactly how you got there, I’ve been there. There’s this sort of empathy that’s built-in.”

Poppy and Blocher came up with the idea for the podcast when Poppy asked their Center for Inquiry book club if anyone wanted to accompany her to a Kabbalah Center open house that she had received a flyer for. Everyone in the group said no except for Blocher, who thought it was “awesome” and was excited to try it out. Although no one else wanted to go with them, Poppy says they all wanted to hear about it afterwards! 

“They kept asking more questions and asking more questions until it took up like half the book club,” Poppy says. “That’s kind of when the light bulb went off. This is a service we can provide because we’ve had a great time.” For Blocher, he says it was “the ‘ding’ moment where [they] realized [they] might have something.” A week or so later, Poppy asked Blocher if he wanted to host a podcast, exploring topics similar to the Kabbalah Center open house, and of course, he agreed.

Poppy and Blocher started with a list of 10 or 15 things they wanted to explore, but now the list is over 10 pages long. “We definitely won’t run out of things to do,” Poppy says. “I look at that list [and] it will definitely outlive us.” She says the plan is to just keep doing it until the duo is “old and gray.”

The experience of not knowing everything about the group going into it is the lifeblood of the show. It’s the personal experiences that make the show so unique. “We try not to overload ourselves with information going in, just to kind of stay unbiased and have this organic experience we can talk about on-air,” she says.

Blocher says Oh No Ross and Carrie can help de-stigmatize the conversation about religion, spirituality, the paranormal, and fringe science. He says that people can take these ideas and interact with them, have a little fun with them, and not be threatened by them, showing the importance of exploration.

Poppy says, “The show is just about human belief — why we end up believing things sometimes against rationality, but also what do these beliefs have in common, what do they offer all of us, and what things don’t overlap between these different belief sets?”

For more information, visit ohnopodcast.com.


Dear Sugar Radio

“For the lost, lonely, and heartsick, Sugar is here, speaking straight into your ears.”

The opening line to Dear Sugar Radio, a straightforward and honest podcast hosted by “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed and “The Rumpus” writer Steve Almond, is a perfect beginning to a fantastically sensitive podcast. It’s a podcast that teaches you a lot about radical empathy, and a lot about yourself, too.

Both Strayed and Almond were anonymous advice columnists under the pseudonym “Sugar,” and continue to give advice to those who write them incredibly touching and personal letters, this time through audio.

Photograph from Cooper Lee Bombardier

In one of the most poignant episodes, “Transgender Man Seeking Acceptance,” the Sugars talk to Cooper Lee Bombardier, an artist, award-winning writer, and transgender man. The letters that Strayed, Almond, and Bombardier discuss in the episode are about two transgender men who were searching for acceptance and love.

Bombardier, a self-proclaimed “big fan” of Dear Sugar Radio, says that when he read the letters, he felt “a ton of compassion and recognition, as well as a reminder that no matter how much advancement trans and gender-variant people make in the West, it is a very individual and sometimes overwhelming journey for each person.”

“I read those letters and thought: been there,” he says. “I also was reminded that, for me, no matter how much support was around me during my ‘coming out’ phase, it still felt like an incredibly lonely process. I still had to be alone with the thoughts in my head, the feelings in my heart, and the very singular experience of inhabiting my changing body.”

In one letter, a transgender man is searching for acceptance from his “chronically unhappy” mother, and in the other, a different transgender man worries that he’ll never find love.

Bombardier says that in his own experience, he “feared rejection, being unlovable, loss of community and family, and even feared [he’d] be ramping up the gender-based harassment and violence [he’d] already experienced,” but ultimately the only thing he can control in the world is himself.

“Not living to shelter myself from fear was not really living,” Bombardier says. “If someone were to ask my advice, I’d ask if what they were most afraid of truly outweighs all they are missing out on while worrying about what other people think.”

Bombardier is careful about foregrounding any opportunity to share his story with the fact that his story is “but one of countless, variegated, beautiful, diverse, and unique stories of what it means for any one person to be trans.” And his own stories change — over time, topic, focus, theme, what is being asked, who is asking, and what he says. So, the more specific and nuanced we keep the conversation, the better it is for everyone. This is where Dear Sugar Radio, and other podcasts that uplift a variety of voices, find their place.

“I think it is important for trans people who can and want to share their stories to do so, to widen the range of representation, and to always seek to expand the number of voices we are willing to hear from in terms of what being trans means,” he says.

As for the Sugars, Bombardier says that being on Dear Sugar Radio was different than other podcasts he’s been on because he “got to be in the studio with two authors who are among my pantheon of literary heroes, and yet, it ended up being just a really fun and engaging chat with two kind, down-to-earth, emotionally intelligent people.”

For more information, visit npr.org.


The Turnaround

In Jesse Thorn’s new revolutionary podcast, The Turnaround, the longtime interviewer interviews interviewers about interviewing.

While it may sound confusing, the smart new podcast features expert tips, tricks, and advice from interviewing powerhouses like Ira Glass, Audie Cornish, Larry King, Susan Orlean, and more.

Thorn has been interviewing professionally, or semi-professionally, for more than 15 years, but he says he had never read a book, an article, or even seen anything about the art of interviewing. He says he was just “making it up as [he] went along” — and he assumed others were doing the same.

Cue The Turnaround. The podcast is an incredibly fascinating look into the science of interviewing, for journalists and non-journalists alike. “I know these people who I admire for their interviewing — people like the first two guests on the show, Susan Orlean and Ira Glass — and I thought, ‘I’ve never really asked them what they do,’” Thorn says. “But maybe I should, and if I’m going to do that, it should probably be a show, so that it exists as a resource for other people.”

Photograph from Zac Wolf

Thorn is the founder of Maximum Fun, an independent podcast network with over two dozen podcasts; he has his own podcasts, Bullseye and Jordan, Jesse, Go!; and he co-hosts and produces popular Maximum Fun podcasts like Judge John Hodgman. Despite all of this, he stills finds time for this innovative new show because he says he wanted it to be a resource for anyone who wanted to get into interviewing, no matter their background or economic status.

Thorn says that he only expected 10 or so interviewers to want to participate, but the podcast ended up with 16 episodes. “Nobody wanted to keep secrets, everybody wanted to help,” Thorn says.

With a lot on his plate already, and a bigger-than-expected response to The Turnaround, Thorn was determined to not get stressed about everything. “[The Turnaround] was a side project that I was not getting paid for, that I was doing for my own benefit and the public good, and I was like, ‘I am not going to worry about this,’” he says. He wanted the shows to be conversations that could double as both entertaining and useful.

“Ira Glass essentially delivers a journalism masterclass that reflects the fact that this is a guy who gained his success by making really thoughtful choices every step along the way,” Thorn tells us about the first episode of The Turnaround. Glass wants to share everything that he’s figured out on his own by trial-and-error so that other people can make the kind of incredible work that he makes.

The Turnaround is one of many podcasts on the Maximum Fun network that tries to improve the world, whether by providing a service or simply making people laugh. One of Maximum Fun’s goals is to “be the change we want to see in the world,” Thorn says. He’s not trying to build a company that dominates the industry, he’s trying to build a sustainable company that makes the world a better place.

Thorn says podcasting is a special business because it has an “open, equitable architecture.” Apple and others have left the medium open to anyone, “and the minute that they start building walled gardens or they start charging for shelf space, to use two completely different metaphors, that is threatened.” He wants to keep podcasting open and fair to people who were in positions just like he was 10 years ago while making one of his first podcasts, The Sound of Young America — just a person with a great idea and a microphone.

If listeners of The Turnaround take only one thing from the show, Thorn says he wants everyone to learn to be curious and truly listen. “Those are the things that came up over and over and over again, with every single person [I interviewed],” Thorn says. “It was, ‘Are you actually listening and are you actually opening your heart and lowering your defenses and being genuinely, truly curious? Are you caring about other people and what they have to say and what their lived experience is?’ If you’re not, you’re sunk from the beginning.”

Thorn says that curiosity is the thing that ties together Audie Cornish, who is the “most homework-doer of all homework-doers, a woman who has an extraordinarily careful plan for everything,” and Larry King, “who prides himself on not having a plan for anything.”

“They are both deeply, profoundly curious and really care, and when other people talk, they listen,” Thorn says. “It’s easy to go on autopilot. I like talking and goofing around, but one of the things that came of this for me was me asking myself very sincerely, ‘Are you opening your heart? Are you willing to look stupid? Are you willing to ask the questions you really want to know the answers to? And are you willing to listen?’”

For more information, visit maximumfun.org/shows/the-turnaround.

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