On Podcasts

I did my undergrad from Ferguson College, Pune (’01-’04) and then my masters from Gokhale Institute, Pune(’04-’06). The only way for us then to access what economists were talking about was by reading newspapers/academic papers/textbooks.

Blogs had started to make an appearance on the scene by then, but weren’t all that popular a forum. And podcasts were virtually unheard of (or at least I and my friends then had never heard of them). One thing I really and truly envy about people who want to learn economics today is the mind boggling variety of resources that are available for free online.

In fact, if anything, the problem today is one of too much, not too little. There is easily accessible material online, but it can often get difficult to figure out what one should start with. Which is the idea behind this current series of posts: books you might want to read to start learning about economics, how to read stuff apart from books – and now, podcasts that you might benefit from.

With one important caveat: this series of recommendations isn’t just about economic podcasts, but about stuff from elsewhere as well. But all of it is fun, informative and free.

In this post, I’ll provide a brief overview of what podcasts are, how to listen to them and why they are useful. And on the five succeeding days, I’ll speak about one particular podcast, and specific episodes from that podcast that I have enjoyed more than others.

I don’t know (nor care) what the technical definition of podcasts is. To me, they are audio blogs. And by that I mean two things: podcasts can be subscribed to, the way you can subscribe to a blog. But in addition, there is a level of informality that a podcast naturally has, which makes it more accessible, friendly and approachable than a stuffy academic paper.

It is one thing to read a paper titled “Using Big Data to Estimate Consumer Surplus: The Case of Uber” and quite another to listen to Steven Levitt talking about it with Stephen Dubner, for example.

And that, to me, is why podcasts are, at the same time, insanely awesome and grossly underrated. Insanely awesome because there has never been a time before in human history where you can take a walk in your neighbourhood while listening to a Nobel Prize winning economist joke around with a journalist, and in the process teaching us about behavioral economics. And grossly underrated because schools, colleges and workplaces ought to be outsourcing a large amount of learning to podcasts – they’re free, freely available, and ridiculously accessible (same with blogs, of course, and YouTube videos).

How should one listen to podcasts? Use an app on your phone is the easiest answer. I use an app called PocketCasts, but it is a paid app. Google has an app called Google Podcasts which is free. If you are an Apple user, your phone ought to have a Podcast app, which is free. Or if you like paying for quality apps, then you might want to try Overcast. Each podcast also has a website, if listening to podcasts on the computer is your thing.

Here’s the thing: humans have, for the longest time learnt by listening to stories. In other words, we listen to people talking, and we learn. Today, you, I and everybody else has the opportunity to listen to the best and the brightest people in the world talk, and therefore learn. And the more we do not tap into this resource, the more criminal the waste.

Strong words, perhaps – but justified ones, in my opinion.