Arts

Boston’s podcast scene offers something for every listener

Globe Staff Photo Illustration

On Dec. 10, the podcast Serial launched its second season, about former Taliban prisoner
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, following its explosively popular 2014 investigation into a 1999 Baltimore homicide. But Serial — which became the most successful podcast of all time, and the one that put the medium on the map for many Americans — is just one in a generation of streaming or downloadable audio broadcasts expanding the media landscape. More listeners are tuning in; according to an Edison Research survey released in February, 17 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast in the previous month, up from just 9 percent in 2008.

In this new world of podcasting, the Boston area is a focal point. Public Radio Exchange, which distributes shows including The Moth and This American Life, is based in Cambridge. Public radio training organizations AIR and Transom, both of which offer resources to podcasters, are respectively located in Dorchester and Woods Hole. And Boston’s well-established public radio stations have been fertile ground for new projects; for instance, WBUR recently teamed up with The New York Times to produce a podcast based on the column Modern Love.

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“A lot of the producers who are making podcasts around the country and the world are turning to organizations in the Boston area to provide advice, community, and other services,” said Rekha Murthy, an Arlington-based consultant who helps individuals and organizations develop new podcasts. “Boston has actually been almost a source of jealousy for a lot of podcasters who are off in different parts of the country, because we have such a vibrant radio scene.”

That scene includes a myriad of local, independently produced shows — on history, science, sports, music, and more. What follows is a tour through some highlights of our local bounty, with shows for every taste available to listeners anywhere.

For curious eaters

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Gastropod’s high-energy segments on the science and history of food and drink have earned it accolades from Wired and The A.V. Club, but the show is still recorded and mixed in co-creator Cynthia Graber’s Somerville apartment. Since they launched Gastropod last year, Graber and collaborator Nicola Twilley have visited laboratories and even archeological digs to delve into topics as far-flung as American Chinese food, the difference between tequila and mezcal, and why some people can’t stand the taste of cilantro.

“Everybody eats,” said Graber, a former Boston Globe correspondent and MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow. “I hope most people are curious about the history of their food, how it interacts with the world, where it comes from, and what the science of it is.”

For lovers of haunted tales

A spooky piano riff plays at the beginning of Lore, a podcast in which the North Shore’s Aaron Mahnke digs into the history behind folk tales in a somber voice that sounds like a cross between Ira Glass and Marilyn Manson. The heart of the show, which recently received an iTunes “Best of 2015” award, lies in Mahnke’s skill at distilling dry historical accounts into gripping and often morbid storytelling. In one recent episode, Mahnke investigated the tale of a pair of lighthouse keepers who, though they were often trapped in close quarters, couldn’t stand each other. When one of the two unexpectedly died, the other was forced to store the body on the cramped porch of the lighthouse for weeks, waiting for a ship to come, as he watched it slowly decompose.

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Mahnke describes his show as having “sort of an old campfire format.” “I think people crave good stories,” he said. “Oral storytelling has been a tradition that dates back tens of thousands of years.”

For fans of new music

Berklee College’s official podcast, Sounds of Berklee, highlights the music of the school’s students, faculty, and alumni. Their output ranges from funk and soul to rock, electronica to acoustic folk, including sounds you can’t hear anywhere else, as in one recent episode featuring a tune by jazz accordionist Victor Prieto. The show blends new music, interviews with performers, and information about Berklee-affiliated shows, skillfully curated in a way that makes it rarely feel promotional.

When it launched in 2007, producer Rob Hochschild says, the primary goal was to reach prospective students. Increasingly, he’s realized that the show is drawing listeners from the Greater Boston community and beyond who want to discover fresh new music.

“We want everyone to check this out,” Hochschild said. “Almost anybody would want to hear what our students and faculty are working on.”

For aspiring business gurus

The Harvard Business Review’s podcast, HBR IdeaCast, posts concise interviews with business leaders and other public figures. The show’s impressive guest list — episodes this year have featured journalist Katie Couric, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, and author Salman Rushdie — now draw about a million downloads per month, according to producer Sarah Green Carmichael.

“I always try to zero in on one interesting piece of an idea, because 20 minutes isn’t a lot of time,” said Carmichael of how she develops interview topics. “Instead of covering the whole book, you just find one chapter to focus on.”

For science fiends

This past March, Museum of Science education associate Eric O’Dea traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to interview an immunologist, a neuroscientist, and a human factors engineer about the health risks associated with long-term space travel. O’Dea wasn’t researching a new exhibit; rather, he was working on a new episode of the museum’s surprisingly ambitious podcast, Current Science and Technology, which it has produced for nearly a decade.

Sometimes the team ties episodes into upcoming exhibits at the museum, but they’re also given the flexibility to cover other topics they find interesting. They’ve recently covered subjects as diverse as exoplanet discovery, the Ebola outbreak, nanomanufacturing, and genetic engineering.

“I think audio podcasts are great because it’s easier to talk than to write, and it’s easier to listen than to read,” said Susan Heilman, who produces the show. “It’s a way to reach people who aren’t local.”

For Celtics followers

John Karalis and Jay King coanchor Rainin’ J’s, a lively podcast about the Boston Celtics with a rock and hip-hop soundtrack. The show debuted this past October, drawing on both creators’ experience blogging about basketball — Karalis for RedsArmy.com and King for MassLive.

The duo, who spar about strategy, team composition, and game-to-game analysis, are clearly invested as fans — though that doesn’t stop either one from periodically slipping into apparent resignation after a defeat.

“They’re just the Celtics,” King said in a recent episode. “They can beat anyone, they can lose to anyone, they can look great, they can look awful, all sometimes in the same game.”

For digital innovators

Dave Gerhardt, who works in marketing at the Boston startup Driftt, spends his free time chasing down subjects for his podcast Tech in Boston, a popular series of informal interviews with prominent players in the innovation and venture capital sectors. Recent interviews have included Bridj CEO Matt George, Instacart general manager David Schloss, and Globe correspondent Scott Kirsner.

Two months after he launched the show in 2014, Gerhardt recalls, he became overwhelmed and stopped recording new episodes. But an outpouring of e-mails, many from strangers, convinced him to start again. The rest is history; he recently posted the show’s 55th episode.

“Everyone says they’re doing something awesome, and I never disagree,” he said of his interview subjects. “I’m not a media outlet, so I think it’s important to be a megaphone for the startup community.”

For those who need a laugh

On Improv Saved My Life, a podcast affiliated with the acclaimed performance group ImprovBoston, host Tom Boyer explores the craft of comedy by interviewing performers with connections to Boston’s entertainment scene — such as Evan Kaufman, Rebecca Vigil, and Rachel Jane Andelman — about their projects, techniques, and philosophy. The show also sometimes takes on serious subjects. In one recent episode, Boyer spoke candidly about his struggles with depression and alcoholism — issues, he believes, that affect many comedians.

“I started this podcast because improv did save my life,” he said during that episode. “It really did. I probably wouldn’t be here without it.”

The show, which during lighter episodes occasionally devolves into shouting and laughter, has been on hiatus since September, but the 96 episodes in the archive provide a candid window into Boston’s independent comedy scene.

Jon Christian can be reached at jonathan.a.christian@gmail.com.
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