Noodle Podcast of the Month: Stuff You Should Know (December 2015)

Though podcasting as a medium has existed for over a decade, it’s only gained mainstream popularity in the past few years.

In fact, Pew reports that 33 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to a podcast, up from about 11 percent in 2006.

While the number of listeners has grown, the number of options seems to have skyrocketed. For those wanting to dip their toes in the waters of free, Internet-based radio, the number of available podcast (Pew estimates there are 22,000 regularly updated shows) can make it impossible to know where to start — or where to go next.

There’s no shortage of educational programs that aim to teach you all about stuff you should know, but one show — the aptly titled Stuff You Should Know (SYSK) podcast — has built its name and reputation on that very objective.

Stuff You Should Know

What is it?

Published twice a week by the website HowStuffWorks.com, the podcast features hosts Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant giving listeners roughly 20- to 40-minute primers on all manner of topics (seriously — memorable episodes cover self-experimenting scientists, cheese, coffee, art heists, and the lottery). The show, which has been downloaded or streamed more than 100 million times, is one of the most popular programs featured on iTunes.

Clark and Bryant, both of whom write for HowStuffWorks, have a friendly rapport that they’ve been cultivating since 2008 over the course of more than 700 episodes. They’re funny, warm, opinionated, and sensitive, and they’re always ready with movie and music references without being in any way snobbish or exclusive.

Clark studied anthropology in college, worked as a journalist, and is a voracious reader of longform reporting (he often praises The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and especially Harper’s). At the risk of being reductive, he’s the more analytical, skeptical, and outspoken of the two. Bryant, on the other hand, is more willing to be silly on the mic. He seems easier to please, and is definitely less cantankerous than Clark. Bryant’s pre-podcasting experience includes work in the restaurant and film industries (he was a screenwriter and studied English as an undergrad). The two also bring with them loads of knowledge that they’ve gained from years of contributing to HowStuffWorks and recording hundreds of podcast episodes.

A typical SYSK episode opens with an anecdote — a personal story, something in the news, or a discussion of an historical event, movie, or magazine article — that serves as an introduction to the topic at hand. Then the hosts (almost always) work through an article that’s been published on HowStuffWorks.com, summarizing important points, contextualizing material, and presenting relevant statistics and findings. They always close with a section called “listener mail,” in which they field feedback, both positive and negative, from their audience. (It's not rare, in fact, for them to read a letter from a teacher who's used one of their episodes to introduce a class to a new subject.)

SYSK doesn’t claim to be an in-depth guide to or investigation of any subject, and its hosts acknowledge that they can’t cover every aspect of subjects like the placebo effect or ocean currents in half an hour. Instead, they provide listeners with enough info to pique their interests and impress their friends with cool facts.

Who would love it?

The show is totally safe for kids of any age, but some topics simply may not appeal to young children (like recent episodes on lobbying and online gambling, for example). The sheer breadth of material ensures that anyone seeking out a slightly nerdy radio show will find something of interest.

Taking a step back from individual episodes, the podcast manages to strike a satisfying balance among science, business, urban legends and conspiracies, and the humanities. Topics the duo (with the help of stalwart producer Jeri Rowland) have covered from multiple angles are death, psychology and the brain, crime and law enforcement, medicine and drugs, sharks, the human body, and the economy. That said, it’s pretty evident to longtime listeners that the hosts are more comfortable talking about stuff like the history of Tupperware than, say, the physical and chemical makeup of the sun.

What makes it great?

Clark and Bryant don’t prepare episode scripts in advance, opting instead to spend a few hours studying and reading up on a subject independent of one another. While there tends to be overlap in what they’ve planned to speak about, they’ve usually checked out different supplementary materials, so they’re often teaching each other — and not just the audience — about what they’ve learned.

The pair also run a website spun off from their show, StuffYouShouldKnow.com; it includes a blog, short videos, and a section called “additional stuff” where there are loads of resources on the subjects that different episodes cover.

What are some standout episodes?

As mentioned above, there are hundreds and hundreds of episodes available, but for recommendations from the last 18 months or so, you’ve got some great options. If you’ve never listened before, give a few of these a try:

Noodle has no ties to or affiliations with Stuff You Should Know.

Are you interested in interesting stuff? Check out our new series of Noodlings for intel on everything from encrypted texts to hyperpopulated settlements to babies in the mail.