My favorite episodes of “Overheard at National Geographic,” which presents sophisticated stories about fascinating and far-flung realms, take place underwater.
Summer, with its bright sunshine, improved strolling conditions, and new vistas, is a great time to get perspective on contemporary life, podcast style—that is, through narrative satisfaction, with a forgiving ratio of insights to bummers. A good place to start is “Against the Rules,” hosted by Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of “Moneyball,” “The Big Short,” and so on; it explores the concept of fairness, in realms ranging from art authentication to consumer finance, and in doing so it gets at bigger questions about structural inequality. (An episode that delves into the forces that conspired to keep public servants out of a student-loan-forgiveness program, and in debt, stops just short of soul-crushing, and may inspire you to take action.) Lewis has never hosted a podcast before—the series begins with his gung-ho description of a parking lot in Secaucus—but, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s very good at it. In the first episode, “Ref, You Suck!,” he convincingly suggests that the skyrocketing level of outrage about unfair refereeing, even as refereeing has improved, is connected to an increasing sense of general unfairness in modern life—and to the resonance of the-system-is-rigged messages by politicians from Trump to Sanders to Warren. He also talks to his young son, a fledgling basketball player, whose thoughts about referees became the show’s tag line: “Don’t pick sides. Unless it’s my side.”
If you, like me, prefer not to contemplate artificial intelligence but find yourself surrounded by it nonetheless, wondering where this is all heading, “Sleepwalkers,” hosted by Oz Woloshyn and Karah Preiss, might, like Siri or Alexa, be able to provide some assistance. Each episode investigates eerie future-is-now realms of A.I.: autonomous weapons, medical diagnostics, smart robots, brain waves flying a simulated plane. Woloshyn’s curious, thoughtful narration and interviews guide us through it all in a way that manages not to be terrifying, even when he says things like “Today, we look at transhumanism—becoming cyborgs—not just to restore function but to upgrade and enhance ourselves.” It consistently prompts realizations about what it means to be human—even as a defense against what we’ve created. In the Season 1 finale, the show’s guest Yuval Noah Harari advises us to protect ourselves against A.I. manipulation by looking inward. “On the individual level, it’s more urgent than ever to get to know yourself better,” Harari says. “Because you have competition.”
I worried at first that the offhandedly titled “Overheard at National Geographic” would make for a blasé listening experience; I like eavesdropping as much as the next person, but there are perhaps enough podcasts lacking in narrative deliberateness. But the show, hosted by Vaughn Wallace, presents sophisticated stories about fascinating and far-flung realms, just as the magazine does; my two favorite, so far, take place underwater. “At times they can sound like a creaking door, like something you’d hear in a spooky movie,” the veteran photographer Brian Skerry says in “Humpback Whale Song of the Summer.” “Other times it is more melodic; it has more of a song quality to it. And the sound is just vibrating inside of you.” As a child of the seventies, I thought I knew all the whale song I needed to know, but I was startled to discover that these vocalizations not only have specific structures but that they’re communicated culturally—often originating, Bee Gees style, around Australia. The most recent episode, equally startling, takes us to a site called Nuri, in the Sudanese desert, where the writer and underwater archeologist Kristen Romey takes us scuba diving in the murky waters beneath a pyramid—better her than me—and into an exploration of the ancient kingdom of Kush.