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Lend yourself to a podcast that’s stranger than fiction

Amrita V Nair | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

Sometimes, make-believe can’t compete with real life. Here is how you can listen in to bring alive the magic of true stories that range from serious and sad to hilarious and heart-warming

In a 2015 seminar, writer Neil Gaiman said, “We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.”

This is perhaps why throughout history and across the globe, a good raconteur has always had a captive audience. While fictional stories are, of course, overwhelmingly popular across all media — tales of extraordinary turns in ordinary life are no less beloved.

Podcasts are an especially effective medium for these stories. Listening to podcasts is more often than not a solitary activity. Even if one is listening to a podcast in a crowded train, podcasts can create a sense of intimacy between listener and storyteller that lends itself especially well to real-life stories and confessionals. Here are some of the best non-fiction feature podcasts out there.

This American Life

This American Life (TAL) is a weekly radio programme and podcast that has been on air since November 1995.

Created by the high-priest of American radio, Ira Glass, TAL is a cultural institution today, with an estimated 4.7 million people listening to it every week. Both the show itself and Glass, who continues to host it, have won numerous awards, including multiple Peabody Awards, the highest honour in American radio.

Each episode of TAL presents real-life stories centred on a common theme. These stories can range from serious and sad to hilarious and heart-warming. If you are intimidated by the number of episodes and don’t know where to begin, start with Episode #109: Notes on Camp. Listen at www.thisamericanlife.org.

The Moth

The Moth is a weekly podcast created by the eponymous non-profit group that seeks to develop and spread the art of storytelling amongst the public.

Episodes of the podcast are recordings of stories told by Moth storytellers on stages across the US. The stories are as diverse as the storytellers. Some are hilarious and will have you laughing out loud while others can only be listened to with a box of tissues at hand. All of them are riveting. A great starter is the episode titled PTSD, Lost Art, and the Berlin Wall. Listen at themoth.org/podcast.

Culture Chaos: Stories of an Indian Abroad

Hosted by Isha Soni, a Mumbaikar who has been living abroad for the last five years, Culture Chaos features short biweekly explorations of expatriate life.

Besides insights drawn from her own experiences living abroad, Soni also talks about art, food and culture and delves into contemporary political issues such as gun control and climate change. Well-scripted and earnest, the podcast is slowly but surely earning attention and acclaim. To get a taste of what the podcast has to offer, start out with Episode 53: The Inheritance of a Pressure Cooker, which recounts tales about the ubiquity of the pressure cooker in the Indian kitchen woven together with tales from Soni’s childhood. Listen at audioboom.com/channel/culture-chaos.

Heavyweight

Created and hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, Heavyweight is a podcast that helps people deal with and make peace with their regrets.

The first season of the podcast began in 2016 with Goldstein trying to reconcile a feud between his father and his uncle. He then moved on to the regrets held on to by his friends and acquaintances. Currently, the show takes on contributions from listeners who write in with past events from their own life that they would like to seek closure on. With empathy and humour, Goldstein helps the people featured in his show to go back and confront these crucial moments in the hope that resolving these regrets could have a significant and positive impact on their lives. Beautifully scripted, Heavyweight is often hilarious and occasionally heart-breaking, and its episodes deliver important life lessons with grace and compassion. Listen at gimletmedia.com/shows/heavyweight.

Imagined Life

Delivered in the second person, Imagined Life is a podcast that describes itself as “part mystery, part deeply immersive story, and part inspiration for how to weather life’s unexpected trials”.

Hosted by Oscar-nominated actress Virginia Madsen and acclaimed voice actor Robbie Daymond, each episode features one of them narrating important details of the life of a famous person — but as “your” story. One of my favourite episodes, The Ballerina, for instance, begins with “Imagine, you are sailing through the air in a jeté leap — your legs nearly making a straight line as you float across the room”.

Clues about “your” identity are dropped along the way but who “you” are is revealed only at the end of the episode.

The podcast treats its subjects with empathy and poignancy and is a wonderfully immersive way to learn from the lives of extraordinary people. Listen at wondery.com/shows/imagined-life.

Amrita V Nair is a freelance writer, public policy specialist and podcast enthusiast

Published on October 18, 2019
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