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‘The Mastercast’s’ best finds of August 2021


Podcasts covered in this episode include Surprisingly Brilliant, I Spy, Convicted Across Borders, The Offensive, Word of the Day and more.

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“Surprisingly Brilliant”

“Surprisingly Brilliant is about science history, covering the hidden stories and unsung heroes of some of the greatest accomplishments of science. For iHeartRadio and Seeker, passionate hosts and writers Maren Hunsberger and Greg Foot take turns telling each other the origins of fascinating scientific ideas from all disciplines of science in a way that is not only easy to understand but jaw-droppingly entertaining. 

You don’t have to have a background in science or have had gotten top marks in school to enjoy the topics. The detail in each hour-long episode is made greater by an esteemed guest from the field who helps tell the story lost to history books. It’s so nice to hear a show coming from people who genuinely love science and have a dynamic that makes them sound like they grew up friends.

Apple Podcasts has an average of 4.5 stars, 365 ratings and 80 written reviews. The 2020 show has two seasons so far and a total of 30 episodes, and Hunsberger confirmed via Twitter the show’s third season is in the works.

When releasing, episodes usually come out on Fridays. The most popular episodes according to OwlTail are “The Puzzle Beneath Your Feet” and “The Electronic Ear.” I LOVED the electronic ear episode also. As a huge fan of audio, I thought it was fascinating to hear about implants and the preferred terms and language associated with them. I think it’s so important to make the medium of podcasting more accessible.

Music is subtle and comes in and out at important parts of the story. The commercial amount is average. I can’t express how much I’ve enjoyed the show. I can’t wait for season three to come out. If you’ve been a fan of Hunsberger ’s YouTube, Seeker or “Science in General,” this podcast is a must-listen.

Similar Pods: “Short Wave,” “SideDoor,” “99% Invisible” and “Ologies”

“No Strings Attached”

It’s April 5, 2015, and Vicky Cilliers, an army captain, loving wife and mother goes to jump out of an airplane like she has so many times before. The experienced freefall instructor has completed 2,600 jumps safely, but on this Easter Sunday her parachutes have been tampered with causing them to fail. Will she survive the 4,000-foot fall? What looks like an accident leads detectives to uncover a story of infidelity, debt and manipulation when Cilliers’ picture-perfect life turns out to be not what it seems.

From ITV News and hosted by Rob Murphy, “No Strings Attached, the 2020 podcast has 4.8 stars from Apple Podcast, 17 ratings and only 2 written reviews. The hidden gem is completed with eight episodes total that average about 32 minutes in length. Each contains interviews from those involved with the case as well as insight into how the British legal system differs from the American system.

Extra video content can be found on their website. No commercials and minimal music.

Trigger warnings for abuse and violence.

Similar podcasts: “Conning the Con,” “The Sure Thing” and “Culpable”

“I Spy”

“I Spy” offers an amazing inside peek into the world of espionage and intelligence agency operations. It’s produced by Foreign Policy, the makers of the news magazine and website by the same name.

Each half-hour well-produced episode is a first-person account of a specific event they were involved in, and the subject is something completely original. What other podcast has behind-the-scenes access to secret missions? It’s hosted by Margo Martindale who plays a very minimal role, doing only the intro and outro. The interview questions seem to be edited out, resulting in the guest telling a seamless, detailed story much like what’s heard in “This is Actually Happening.”

The tales come not only from American agents but spies from other intelligence programs. No matter how you feel about some of the things done by different governments, it’s neat to see how the inside functions. It’s suspenseful but not true crime. The show will have you sitting in your car to finish an episode and frustrated anytime someone interrupts you.

Gripping and binge-worthy, the stories cover a wide range of perspectives, such as politics and history, while being real-life action thrillers. So far there are 22 episodes from three seasons and no word if we can expect a fourth.

Apple Podcasts has 4.7 out of 5 stars, 2,443 ratings and 216 written reviews. My favorite episodes have been “The Sleeper Agent” and “The Counterspy.” OwlTail’s most popular listed episodes are “The Man With the Antidote” and “The Narc part 1.” There is music that I didn’t find bothersome, but some do.

Trigger warnings for violence.

Similar pods: “American Jihadi,” “Wind of Change” and “Spy Affair”

“LeVar Burton Reads”

As a kid, I was a loyal “Reading Rainbow” fan. I never missed it, and now I can continue curling up to enjoy more of LeVar Burton in “LeVar Burton Reads,” done with Stitcher.

The show has 4.9 out of 5 stars for a reason. Every Tuesday, solo host Burton (with the help of his team, whom he never fails to credit) reads one of his favorite fictional short stories from a diverse selection of contemporary and classic writers. I’ve found so many more authors of color from this pod than I would have on my own. The support and inclusiveness is a goal to emulate.

Production is excellent across the board with voice and soundscaping expertly done. Equal parts soothing and familiar, Burton’s talented reading is another great staple of the show. It’s perfect for every character regardless of which emotion is being conveyed, and the selection of stories always challenges listeners to think critically.

Just a warning for those who are looking for happy ever after endings: The stories read usually spotlight science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, which sometimes results in suspenseful, unresolved conclusions. Despite this, one similarity between the tales is that they are all brilliant. So much so that I listen to them twice: once as I go to sleep and then again the next morning to hear what I missed. They’re too good to be only for sleep.

Beware of episode notes about content, which he reminds listeners of every episode. There is swearing, and once I heard a slur, but again it’s all in the show notes and a part of the read story. At the end of every story, Burton gives his own opinions about the reading in a short debriefing that wraps everything up nicely.

146 episodes so far, all about 45 minutes on average with new episodes coming out weekly on Tuesdays. My favorite episodes have been “‘Dark Spaces on the Map’ by Anjali Sachdeva” and “‘Jump’ by Cadwell Turnbull.” OwlTail’s most popular are listed as “LIVE! in DC: ‘A Dark Night’ by Edward P. Jones” and “‘Multo’ by Samuel Marzioli.” The commercial amount is average but never wakes me up. This pod is for anyone who considers themself a lover of books or fantastic narration.

Similar Pods: “Fictional,” “Book Cheat” and “Phoebe Reads A Mystery”

“Convicted: Across Borders”

This 2021, five-part series is about some of the 3,000 Americans that are imprisoned abroad every year. “Convicted: Across Borders” is all about showing how a person doing what they think is living a normal life can cause them to be imprisoned by a legal system they know nothing about in a language they don’t speak and with no one to help them, all of this while being told they’ll never be able to leave. It’s very similar to “Locked Up Abroad;” however, it features more wrongfully convicted stories.

Produced by L.A. Times Studios and Treefort Media, it is funded by Focus Features and was made to accompany their new Tom McCarthy-Matt Damon film, “Stillwater,” the same production Amanda Knox spoke out about as fictionalizing her murder trial in Italy. A few promos for the movie play throughout the series but aren’t any longer or more bothersome than regular commercials.

It’s hosted by famed lawyer and bestselling author Marcia Clark who was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I don’t recommend Clark’s previous pod “The First 48,” but as mentioned, this one is well done. A big part of that comes from how the stories are told in the first person from the men and women who lived through these nightmares. Additional guests are sometimes family, international affairs specialists or lawyers who helped with the case. The stories of suffering and heartbreak from everyone involved are upsetting but also inspiring.

It has 4.9 stars, 86 ratings and eight written reviews on Apple Podcasts. Episodes were 33 minutes long on average. The show doesn’t have the twenty episodes required for OwlTail to do the most popular calculations, but my favorites were “Nightmare in Nicaragua” and “Villian of Venezuela.” Music wasn’t disruptive and the show had an average amount of commercials.

Trigger warnings for wrongful conviction and hopelessness.

Similar Pods: “The World Beneath,” “Kremlin File” and “Heist with Michael Caine”

“The Offensive”

“The Offensive,” an award-winning show by Stak, is a mockumentary sports podcast that follows the fictitious premiere football club Ashwood City through the eyes of the CEO, sports director and director of communication with some help from a narrator. The show is absolutely hilarious but not for kids.

I wasn’t sure how a mockumentary would go on just audio because so much of my favorite shows depend heavily on visual cues, but I can confirm this pod nails it. It’s what I put on when I’m having a really bad day. I actually tried not to binge it too quickly because I didn’t want to run out of episodes, and that’s the first time I’ve ever done that for any podcast.

I kept thinking the show would fall off, but with 121 episodes and new episodes coming out every Monday, it doesn’t look like the comedy is waning anytime soon.

One of the best parts about the show is that if you’re a fan of football, this show is accurate, but if you aren’t, you’re in luck as well because the rapid-fire snark is mostly about the relationships between the main characters that anyone can enjoy. There’s so much backstabbing, scheming and stupidity that it’s very much a combination of “The Thick of It” and “The League.”

Writers of the show credit weekly happenings in real-life football as inspiration for some of the crazier calamities in the pod.

The show has 4.8 out of 5 stars, 553 ratings and eight written reviews. As of August 2021, the show had reached over a million downloads, making it one of the most popular fiction comedy podcasts available.

The content is exceptional, and the voice talent is as well with over 80 actors having parts throughout the show. Sometimes they’re even recording in the same room. The show has a pretty creative Twitter account that is managed in-character with live tweets from “games” being made. Fans of the podcast respond in kind by tweeting back abuse. There’s also a very well-done merch store with home and away shirts as well as mugs, hats, pop sockets and a few other items. Personally, I’m waiting on the scarf.

Commercials start off really rare and then increase to average over time. The music is on-theme and usually comes after a cold open. I will mention that along with profanity there, is a fire alarm that sounds in one of the earlier episodes. I don’t think it’s excessive, but it could be a trigger warning.

Similar Pods: “A Very Fatal Murder,” “Dead Authors Podcast” and “Hello from the Magic Tavern.”

“Word of the Day”

The “Word of the Day” podcast by Merriam-Webster is the audio version of their Word of the Day email newsletter, written to educate listeners on a fresh word every day. It covers the word’s etymology and other fun facts about it. I really enjoy queuing a few at the beginning of my day’s feed. All of the context for the words makes them really easy to remember. Even if I know the word, I can still learn something new about it. It might be one of the most useful podcasts I follow.

Hosted by Peter Sokolowski, the show is 4.4 out of 5 and 952 ratings. Apple Podcasts only seems to have the latest 10 episodes, but through I was able to find every episode back to the show’s air date on October 24, 2006. Since then the show has posted a word of the day every single day including holidays for 5,389 three-minute-long episodes total.

The pod had some technical issues in the distant past but has since cleared them up including download issues, mistitled episodes and uneven volume for intro and ads. The pod is 15 years old, so some growing pains are expected. Ads seem to be the chief complaint among listeners, but I think they’re fine, especially if you only listen to one or two a day.

Similar Pods: “Spectacular Vernacular,” “The Allusionist” and “A Way with Words.”

Remember to share the show with the pod lovers in your life and tune in next month for the best of September. If you would like your music to be a feature on the show or a podcast to be recommended, send us an email at

Marie Tanksley, KCSU’s podcast director can be reached at