For most of human history, if you wanted to sound smart about something, you had to devote all of your life to the study of that thing. You could become wise in the ways of, say, plant genes, or mathematics, or brewing beer, but not all of these things. Then came the Renaissance (with its “Renaissance Man”), and eventually public education, newspapers, magazines, mass media, and then, that notorious series of tubes, the Internet. Suddenly, that chatty guy at the party who knew a little about a lot of things seemed to think he knew a lot about everything. The generalist was born. So was mansplaining.
Point is, we’re in a golden age of knowledge, and it’s never been easier to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t. Among the modern Renaissance Person’s surest fountains of knowledge? The podcast, those online audio programs that cover every conceivable topic, from true-life crime stories to the entirety of U2’s recorded output. Some will make you laugh. Some will make you weep. Some will, frankly, make you feel a little bit dumber. Not these, though. These are 10 podcasts that will make you smarter, whether you’re new to the genre, or someone who has already spent hours absorbing knowledge through your earbuds.
Econ for those unfamiliar with economics
Freakonomics, hosted by Stephen J. Dubner, co-writer of the beloved book and column of the same name, covers economics. Of the freaky variety.
- Start with: How Stupid Is Our Obsession With Lawns?, an exploration of the financial and environmental costs of having a patch of grass next to your house.
- Ideal listening situation: Your evening commute, so it can serve as a reminder of what you’re currently working for.
- If you like Freakonomics, you might also appreciate Planet Money, NPR’s insanely digestible dive into the complicated world of finance.
If you like your newspaper read to you
The New York Times’ The Daily distills the news of the day into 20-minute episodes. Host Michael Barbaro, along with a slew of his fellow reporters at The New York Times, provides informative and insightful takes on the headlines, alongside notable anniversaries.
- Start with: The most recent episode (so you’re caught up). Then hit a two-parter on Roe v. Wade, and how it went from a mostly unnoticed ruling to arguably the most controversial in recent history.
- Ideal listening situation: Your morning commute or with your first cup of coffee at your desk.
- If you like The Daily, you might also appreciate: Today, Explained from Vox.
The definitive sports podcast
Whether you’re a sports junkie or a casual fan, The Bill Simmons Podcast (from the revolutionary sportswriter and founder of The Ringer and Grantland) merges sports and pop culture in the host’s famously idiosyncratic way.
- Start with: A recent interview with Denzel Washington, in which the legendary thespian breaks down… what it’s like to shoot hoops with Allen Iverson.
- Ideal listening situation: While taking your lunch at work.
- If you like The Bill Simmons Podcast, you might also appreciate: Effectively Wild (baseball); The Lowe Post (NBA)
Deep insight on some of your favorite deep cuts
On Song Exploder, music of all varieties, from pop and rock to classical, is explored one song at a time. Host Hrishikesh Hirway, a musician with an impressive Rolodex, talks shop in a way that even the uninitiated can appreciate and understand.
- Start with: The episode in which composer Ludwig Göransson explains the research that went into his score for Black Panther.
- Ideal listening situation: While the kids are napping in the car during a long weekend drive.
- If you like Song Exploder, you might also appreciate: Sound Opinions, from two authoritative Chicago-based music critics; Who Charted?, the amusingly named podcast in which comedians discuss their favorite new songs
How to succeed in business (by really trying)
On The Tim Ferriss Show, successful people discuss tips and tricks you can apply to your everyday life. Imagine grabbing a drink with Richard Branson (or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or any of the show’s many other guests) and asking him how he got where he is.
- Start with: Ferriss’ recent interview with author Michael Pollan, who details his experience with psychedelics.
- Ideal listening situation: During your cardio at the gym
- If you like The Tim Ferriss Show, you might also appreciate WTF with Marc Maron.
What our brains are thinking
Hidden Brain delves into science and the human mind—psychology and neurobiology explained through gripping, amusing storytelling. The charming host is Shankar Vedantam, a longtime science reporter whose enthusiasm is palpable.
- Start with: What does the way you park say about you?, an oddly revealing examination of driving and psychology.
- Ideal listening situation: While taking a hike or pushing a stroller
- If you like Hidden Brain, you might also enjoy: Radiolab; 99% Invisible.
Exploring space with an expert guide
Perhaps you’ve heard of mustachioed astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. He hosts StarTalk, where he explains the mysteries of the cosmos, with occasional detours into sports and physics.
- Start with: The state of space exploration, with special guest Bill Nye.
- Ideal listening situation: Late nights and red-eye flights
- If you like StarTalk, you might also enjoy: Quirks & Quarks; The Infinite Monkey Cage
All about the way we speak
On Lexicon Valley, host John H. McWhorter examines the English language and its various humiliations. A typical episode might investigate humankind’s eternal quest for a universal language.
- Start with: Why profanities are on the rise.
- Ideal listening situation: In the shower and/or while you’re getting ready in the morning.
- If you like Lexicon Valley, you might also enjoy: The Allusionist
Brief histories of the world
If you secretly wanted to major in history, here’s your fix: Hardcore History, which takes on underexplored areas of human history with borderline insane thoroughness. Host Dan Carlin is a longtime journalist who adopts a suitably intense approach to researching the show’s topics.
- Start with: A five-parter on the Khan dynasty, naturally dubbed “Wrath of the Khans.”
- Ideal listening situation: Binge-listening on a road trip.
- If you like Hardcore History, you might also enjoy: The History of England by Michael Crowther
How to do just about everything
The podcast name says it all. How to Do Everything is hosted by Mike Danforth & Ian Chillag from NPR, and while the show is no longer airing new episodes, the archives are deep and wonderful. And besides, advice on how to open a velcro bag quietly—with tips from the military!—is timeless.
- Start with: How to keep your fries crispy.
- Ideal listening situation: When you’re doing housework.
- If you like How to Do Everything, you might also enjoy: Stuff You Should Know
So that’s ten shows, plus a few bonus recommendations that should help make you an expert, or at least an interesting dinner party guest, in no time. Suffice it to say that, with roughly 300,000 podcasts (and more every day), there’s no shortage of ways to learn more about the world and about yourself.
Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.