If you grew up with radio, try podcasts, too - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

If you grew up with radio, try podcasts, too

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen

Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives is Huntington.

I grew up with radio. The first time I heard Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles, they were all crooning, howling, soaring from inside a warm and glowing box, though, of course, the box itself changed over the years.

Radio started out in my world as the lunch box-like yellow plastic box that my mother fired up each morning as she started breakfast. In a heartbeat or two, it shrank to a playing-card-size blue transistor that traveled in my shirt pocket, wiring the music directly to my ear and thus to my brain.

And it wasn't only music that arrived by air and wire. I heard the death of John Kennedy from the dashboard of a Ford Fairlane as a silenced car of us rode home from high school on the worst Friday afternoon of our young lives. But it also was radio that let me listen to the voices of men in space and to the sounds of war and peace in lands about which I was only then learning.

In other words, my youth — and yours too, I imagine — had a soundtrack.

That's why when we finally arrived to brave new worlds online, one aspect of it already was so familiar. Audio was, and still is, everywhere online. Unlike video, which had many stumbling steps on its way to the Internet, audio has been at home on the Web from the beginning. It's not surprising when you consider that people nursed by radio — versed in listening while driving, eating, reading, even sleeping and waking — would feel just as comfortable listening to audio while at work and play at a keyboard.

And now the work and play, and audio along with it, goes far beyond the keyboard. Our ever-greater mobility — as the Internet increasingly is visited, not from keyboards tethered to computers, but from iPhones, Androids, tablets — has generated a new kind of radio, one that we couldn't have imagined a decade ago.

Enter the podcast.

Podcasting is a portmanteau word combining "broadcasting" and "iPod." It refers generically to any of the tens of thousands of shows that are produced by professionals or amateurs and posted to the Internet for downloading. Most podcasts can be played on your desktop computer, but they are really intended to trundle along with you on your smartphone.

Many podcasts are made available for free, though some must be purchased. Some podcasts are electronic companions to popular radio shows (NPR favorites, Studio 360, This American Life, Freakonomics) while others exist only in the podcast medium, some with positively cult-like followings. 

Podcasts can be downloaded individually, but even better, they can be subscribed to so that each new episode of the podcast automatically is downloaded to your phone or computer. You can subscribe to a podcast at the Apple iTunes Store, the corresponding online stores for competing phones, or websites for the podcasts. 

I'm hooked on podcasts. I wake up each morning with new episodes of shows to which I've subscribed, and audio I'll listen to throughout the day. It's much like a radio of old, but with more targeted, specific content. Think of the cable TV model, where channels exist for everything from sports and home improvements to animals and sci-fi.

Also, podcasts conveniently come in various lengths that can fit neatly into the nooks and crannies of a day. For instance, as I take my short drive up the hill to teach my English classes each afternoon, I listen to "Marketplace Tech Report," which gives me a quick hit of computer news, told in a breezy, often light-hearted fashion. Once a week, as I make a longer drive across the river for my Saturday morning get-together with friends at Starbucks, I listen to The New York Times' Book Review podcast, with original interviews and stories from the paper's weekend book review staff. It runs about 25 minutes, perfect for that trip. And the content usually gives me a few tidbits for the coffee-fueled conversation to come.

In addition, podcasts are much more flexible than traditional radio. With DVR-like facilities, my phone lets me listen to a show any time I want, and I start and stop it at will, replay some sections, zip past parts that don't interest me. I may listen to an hour-long podcast over a period of days, a few minutes at a time. I might hear the first segment during my walk to the alley to retrieve the garbage cans. Another segment of it may air in my head the next day on a drive to the grocery store.

So, how do you find some podcasts you might like? Well, it's not hard, but the specifics get a little convoluted because the directions differ from smartphone to smartphone. Fortunately, there is great guidance on the web. Check out Andy Boxall's online article in Digital Trends, "How to Download and Listen to Podcasts on Android or iOS." Find it by Googling "Andy Boxall podcasts." If you have a different smartphone, use Google to find instructions; just enter the model of the phone and the word "podcasts."

Once you've got your phone set up to receive, Google "Emily Bibb podcasts" for a very good article in the "GeekSugar" column about finding podcasts of interest.

Here are my top 10 favorites, any of which you should be able to find with your newly podcast-empowered phone:

"Backstory with The American History Guys", a weekly broadcast hosted by Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh. The show takes a topic and finds stories to give the topic context through three centuries of American history. 

RadioLab, with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, weaving stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries. 

The TED Radio Hour, a journey through fascinating ideas: astonishing inventions, fresh approaches to old problems, new ways to think and create. It's based on talks given at the renowned Technology-Education-Design conferences in Monterery, CA.

The New York Times, with a number of fine podcasts, from current events to science. My favorite is the weekly Book Review podcast with book editor Pamela Paul. 

On the Media, an hour-long weekly radio program, hosted by Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, covering journalism, technology, and First Amendment issues. It is produced by WNYC in New York City. 

Marketplace Tech Report, hosted by Ben Johnson, a daily quick-hit produced by Marketplace from American Public Media exploring the world of technology. 

The Writer's Almanac, hosted by Garrison Keillor, and sometimes by poet Billy Collins, recounting the highlights of this day in literary history.

The Moth, featuring professional and amateur storytellers from New York and from its "story slams" around the country.

Selected Shorts, storytime for adults with Public Radio International's award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen.

The Memory Palace, from award-winning public radio producer Nate DiMeo, with short, surprising stories of the past, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, always super-great.