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Staff picks for podcasts: It's time to binge-listen

We have some hardcore podcast addicts in the Mail Tribune newsroom, but rather than reform our ways, we decided to get you hooked with podcast recommendations.

My favorite podcast series is “Ear Hustle.”

Now in its fifth season, the inspiring, heartbreaking, intriguing series is created inside San Quentin prison in California and details the lives of inmates inside as well as after they leave.

Topics range from keeping a snail as a pet to getting along with a cellmate in a tiny space to running a marathon in the prison rec yard.

These aren’t stories about innocent people locked up, but instead a look at how humans adapt, grow and change — or don’t — after committing sometimes terrible crimes.

For something more light-hearted, try “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Three women who work for Popular Science each tell an odd but true tale, then they vote on who found the weirdest tidbit for each episode.

Weird stories have included tumbleweeds terrorizing whole towns, fashion trends inspired by syphilis and cases of animals being put on trial.

Ryan Pfeil, reporter and web editor for the Mail Tribune, also is a fan of science podcasts.

His current favorite is NPR’s “Short Wave.” Episodes run for just 12 to 15 minutes, but Pfeil promises they’re always clear and thorough despite their short length.

“Hosts Maddie Sofia and Emily Kwong look at a variety of science news features, stories that are easy to sometimes miss in the midst of so much other news,” he said. “Some of the notable and memorable episodes include looks at the recent Australian brush fires, honeybee die-offs, medical advances with the new CRISPR gene-editing treatment, and, of course, plenty of good information on the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Another recent episode looked at the surge in popularity of science-oriented board games like Wingsan and Terraforming Mars — two of Pfeil’s favorites.

On the opposite side of the length spectrum is “Hardcore History” with host Dan Carlin.

Pfeil recommends going in to each 3- to 6-hour episode as if you’re listening to a short audiobook.

Carlin’s delivery is what you might imagine from a college history professor who chugs two pots of coffee, then dives into historical events that often center on war, Pfeil said.

“I’ve only listened to one series thus far — I’m a new listener — on a pretty thorough examination of World War I,” he said. “The series title ‘Blueprint For Armageddon,’ is beyond apt. Carlin’s passion is impossible to ignore, and the seemingly unscripted nature of his talks makes it even more compelling.”

Next up on Pfeil’s “Hardcore History” playlist is an episode on the Asia-Pacific War of 1937-1945 titled “Supernova in the East.”

If you’re looking for movies to watch while holed up at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mail Tribune Editor Justin Umberson has a podcast pick that will set you on a journey of cinematic exploration.

In “Unspooled,” actor Paul Scheer and film critic Amy Nicholson break down the American Film Institute’s top-100 movies with actors from the films and special guests who are experts in their fields.

“Before this podcast, I had only seen about 30 of what are considered the best American films, and now I am close to finishing the list,” Umberson said. “The hosts keep the listeners involved with call-in shows and even a texting app.”

You can gain behind-the-scenes insights on movies like “Vertigo,” “Rocky,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Pulp Fiction.”

After the success of the true-crime podcast “Serial” helped launch the podcast explosion, countless other true-crime podcasts have followed.

Umberson recommends “Atlanta Monster,” a reexamination of dozens of child murders in the Georgia city from 1979-81.

“Host Payne Lindsey has numerous fascinating conversations with the investigators and the man who was later convicted of two murders — and who still maintains his innocence nearly four decades later,” he said.

Umberson also is a new fan of “Truth & Justice.” He jumped in on season five, which focuses on a triple murder in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas.

“Three 8-year-olds were murdered, and three teenagers spent nearly two decades in jail for what local law enforcement officials called satanic murders,” he said.

The podcast continues the story after the three were released from prison and reexamines the evidence in hopes of finding who killed the three boys, Umberson said.

My own favorite true-crime podcast is season two of “In the Dark,” a fascinating, meticulously researched look at a case involving a quadruple homicide in a small-town furniture store in Mississippi in 1996.

The man originally convicted of the crime has been tried six times by the same prosecutor after courts keep overturning the convictions on appeal.

Listeners get to know the people in the small town, the convicted man’s family and family members of the victims — all while pondering newly uncovered evidence and the far-reaching consequences of a case in which a prosecutor used questionable tactics to doggedly pursue a man who may be innocent.

Do you have some podcast picks? Send them to Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com with a brief description and we may feature them in a future article about reader recommendations.

Maddie Sofia speaks on the “Short Wave” podcast presented by National Public Radio, which Mail Tribune reporter and Web Editor Ryan Pfeil describes as 12- to 15-minute segments that “look at a variety of science news features, stories that are easy to sometimes miss in the midst of so much other news.” NPR PHOTO