Listen up! Podcasts provide spiritual sustenance, too

Picture this: A group of folks are huddled around a speaker listening to a drama series' final episode, hoping to find out "whodunit." Except this is not the 1930s or '40s, and the murder mystery is not fictional. And the speaker is not from a radio; it's on a computer.

With tens of millions of downloads, the podcast "Serial" made headlines last fall not only for casting doubt on a murder conviction, but for reviving a media form most people considered deceased as well. Video may have killed the radio star, but serialized radio shows are primed for a comeback -- this time as podcasts.

A podcast is simply an audio show made available for digital download over the Internet. Podcasts are one of the "multi" in multimedia -- another option for news, entertainment and, yes, even spiritual sustenance.

As someone with a long commute and a desire for distraction while I walk for exercise, I've long been a fan of audio journalism. While my car radio is tuned to my local NPR station and I've been known to rent audiobooks from the library, more and more I listen to shows downloaded to an app on my phone. My podcast feed includes everything from the daily NPR "Fresh Air" interview to the monthly knitting podcast from KnitPicks.com. It also includes a number of spiritual and religious shows NCR readers might want to check out.

I'm not a fan of the title, but "On Being" is my favorite spiritual podcast. Formerly called "Speaking of Faith," the show was broadcast on public radio stations before it went online. Now produced by a nonprofit owned by host Krista Tippett, it is still available on air via public radio, though usually at an ungodly (pun intended) hour or when many of us are at our houses of worship. The podcast reaches a global audience of 1.5 million listeners a month and was named one of iTunes' top 10 podcasts of 2014.

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With those numbers, Tippett is able to book big-name interviewees, from the Dalai Lama to poet Mary Oliver. (Though not yet Pope Francis!) Her perspective is decidedly interreligious, or could more accurately be termed "spiritual." Prominent Catholic guests have included Jean Vanier of L'Arche, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister and Jesuit Fr. James Martin.

Each hourlong episode of "On Being" features an in-depth interview with one guest by Tippett. One of my favorite features is that listeners can download not only the edited version but also the raw audio of the entire interview. The entire 10-year history of "On Being" is available for free.

The Christianity section in iTunes (there is no separate Catholic section) is dominated by evangelical names like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. On the more progressive end -- and a favorite of mine -- is Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who podcasts her weekly sermons at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.

Bolz-Weber, best known for her tattoos and as a leader in the so-called "emergent church," was also interviewed on "On Being" last year. Each podcasted sermon is about 10-15 minutes; downloads are free.

If you're looking for a specifically Catholic podcast, EWTN and Ave Maria Radio offer a number of shows that reflect their more traditionalist and often apologetics perspective. Vatican Radio also has an almost-daily English-language podcast, and there are a number of podcasts offering Liturgy of the Hours prayers. As is the case with Catholic blogs, there are more conservative than progressive voices.

One definitely middle-of-the-road Catholic podcast, not surprisingly, is produced by women religious. Immaculate Heart of Mary Srs. Julie Vieira and Maxine Kollasch started A Nun's Life Ministry in 2006. It hosts three monthly podcasts: the Q&A show "Ask Sister," the interview show "In Good Faith," and "Motherhouse Road Trip," which profiles various women's communities. The shows have a vocations slant, but also offer spiritual advice for all.

Some diocesan and archdiocesan communication directors have gotten on the podcast bandwagon. The editor of "Today's Catholic News" for the Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., diocese, for example, does a podcast promoting the upcoming issue of the newspaper. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan also does occasional podcasts, while Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., offers his weekly homilies in podcast form.

Over the years, NCR has produced podcasted interviews on everything from the Catholic Worker movement to industrialized food production, most created by publisher Tom Fox. Would you listen to NCR podcasts? What or whom would you like to hear about or from in an NCR podcast?

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. She is the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practice Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).]

This story appeared in the April 10-23, 2015 print issue under the headline: Listen up! Podcasts provide spiritual sustenance, too .

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