This is Your Brain on Podcasts

Scientists studying how the brain reacts to storytelling have found that listening to podcasts, especially ones that tell stories, can make time pass much quicker than music can.

“Consider the case of just the word ‘dog,’” Dr. Gallant said. “Hearing that is going to make you think about how a dog looks, how it smells, how the fur feels, the dog you had as a kid, a dog that bit you on your paper route. It’s going to activate the entire network for ‘dog.’”

And so it goes, for each word and concept as it is added to the narrative flow, as the brain adds and alters layers of networks: A living internal reality takes over the brain. That kaleidoscope of activation certainly feels intuitively right to anyone who’s been utterly lost listening to a good yarn.

I know that podcasts have been indispensable to my commute for years, never more so than now as my commute has lengthened to 2-1/2 to 3 hours per day.

Secrets of Star Trek

In our latest episode of “Movies, Games, and Television Secrets”, Fr. Roderick and I discuss the news and rumors around the new Star Trek movie coming this summer, “Star trek: Beyond”, and the untitled TV series coming next January. We also discuss our hopes and fears, what we like about what has happened with Star Trek and what we don’t like. I reveal my favorite Star Trek captain, while Fr. Roderick has a surprise guess at who the ultimate villain in the ST universe is. And we also discuss my Star Trek fan fiction.

Let’s Talk… Writing

The first episode of the new podcast at SQPN, “Let’s Talk”, is now available. Let’s Talk is a community show, in that it depends on community input for its topics and content. Each episode will be on a different, single topic and will be hyper-focused. The host will be joined by a couple of guests and they will discuss a couple of questions about that topic and take audience questions. Then the audience will be asked, during the week, to vote on the next topic to be discussed.

Our first episode included Greg Willits and Maria Johnson, both published authors, along with me and Capt. Jeff Nielson, our host, discussing the craft of writing as well as some picks of the week. I hope you’ll give it a try, subscribe if you enjoy it, and recommend it to others.

I’m joining SQPN as it’s Managing Director

I’m happy to announce that I have joined the fine folks at the Star Quest Production Network (SQPN) in their Catholic new media ministry work and have been named Managing Director/Chief Operating Officer.[1]

I’m looking forward to helping Fr. Roderick Vonhögen and everyone at SQPN to advance the mission by creating even more new, wonderful content and growing the audience and community surrounding our shows. Stay tuned for all the great things that are coming and follow everything we’re up to at and the SQPN Facebook page.

I’ve been a part of the SQPN community for a decade now, going back before it even existed. I remember listening to those first episodes of The Catholic Insider with Fr. Roderick chronicling the last days of Pope St. John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. I also remember listening to Fr. Roderick outlining his pre-SQPN vision of a future network of Catholic media professionals creating first class content to serve a large audience with a variety of interests.

In 2010, I learned that SQPN might be interested in coming to Boston for its Catholic New Media Celebration, its regular gathering of the community surrounding the podcasts that it produces. Working for the Archdiocese of Boston’s newly created Secretariat for Catholic Media, I brought the idea to my boss of officially inviting them to partner with us to put on the CNMC. It went off great and many people still tell me it was the best one. As just one measure, we’re still seeing the fruit of seeds planted that weekend coming forth today. Then we invited them back again in 2013 for another phenomenal experience.

I do want to acknowledge the great shoulders I stand upon in my new position, including Greg Willits who helped found SQPN with his wife Jennifer and Fr. Roderick back in 2005 and Steve Nelson who picked up where Greg left off with a lot of the organizational work and putting together several CNMCs in his tenure.

The future of SQPN and Catholic media in general is pretty bright. We’re going to take some time to pray and think about our roadmap for the future, but in a general sense look for us to continue to what has worked well, while also expanding into areas that show great promise, like video. I hope you all will join us and give us your support.

  1. This is a part-time professional position and I will also be continuing my full-time work as Director of Communications for the Matthew 13 Catholic Collaborative in Walpole, MA.  ↩

Learn the Secrets of Star Wars in a new podcast


I’m happy to announce a brand-new project, something I’m very excited about. I will be co-hosting a new podcast with SQPN’s Fr. Roderick Vonhögen called “The Secrets of Star Wars”.

With the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney and the news that new films are planned, including a major installment in the primary mythos directed by J.J. Abrams and due out in 2015, there hasn’t been so much excitement among Star Wars fans since the prequels were announced nearly two decades ago.

This isn’t going to be just a fan-geek podcast. We’ll be delving into the latest news and rumors about the movies, including Episode VII, but we’ll also look at the stories behind the films, the deeper meanings, the worldviews and philosophies from which they gather their strength.

Of course, it won’t be so heavy the majority of the time. We’ll also find the fun creations by both fans and those involved in stewarding George Lucas’s legacy. And Fr. Roderick and I will have fun as only two guys whose lives were changed at 9 years old by seeing Star Wars for the first time can.

So subscribe via iTunes on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch (and, okay, your Androids too) or keep an eye on our website to listen to the latest episodes on your computer.

In fact, our first episode, “SSW001: Thank the Maker!”, is now available for your listening pleasure. So check it out and let me know what you think. Can you tell how excited I am?

Better iPhone Audio for My Commute


I used to spend a lot more time in my car each day than I do now. When we lived further from my office, I would spend an hour in the morning and as much as two hours in the afternoon commuting back and forth to work, but now we’re just 15 minutes from work and perhaps 30 minutes when there’s traffic.

How does one stay sane while sitting in the car all that time? I know that most people listen to the radio, but I get bored by that. I prefer podcasts, lots of podcasts of many types, from economics to politics to general interest to Macintosh to productivity to, of course, Catholic. Because I have an older car, a 2000 Honda Civic, my options for playing the podcasts have always been somewhat limited. Back in the beginning, I connected my iPod–and later my iPhone–to a cassette adapter to play them through the car’s stereo. But that’s always been a second-best option and more so now since the stereo’s speakers are really going and sound awful.

So I thought I’d share a little of how I make listening to audio in my car work today. It all starts with the iPhone and an app called Downcast. (I wrote about Downcast a couple of years ago.) I have it set to download update my list of podcasts each day automatically before I get in the car. It does it again when I leave work through the use of the iPhone’s built-in geofencing features that Downcast accesses.


Rather than leave my iPhone sitting on the car seat where it can slide all over the place when I’m driving around, I use a mount to keep it in place and at hand. There are all kinds of iPhone mounts available on the market. Some of them clip to your air vents, but I’ve found that blocks the air and you can redirect the air flow. Others go in your cup holder, but then you’re out a cup holder and plus my cup holders are in an awkward location. Most either attach to the dashboard or to the windshield via suction cups. I’ve had back luck with those, mainly because the suctions cups refuse to stay attached, especially when it’s either very hot or very cold out. But I’ve finally found one brand that works very well.

RAM Mounting Systems sells a complete line of mounting products to all kinds of customers, including police forces, and they can mount anything in vehicles from laptops to fishing rods to GPS’ to phones and tablets. There are a couple of options, but the best one is the Universal X-Grip, [Amazon link] which has two spring-loaded arms that will grip just about any phone, whether or not it’s in a case. The way RAM Mount works is that you choose the working end that holds the device and then select the other bits and pieces that make it work for your car. In my case, I got two articulating ball-and-socket arms and suction cup window mount. (You can also get bicycle arms mounts, plates for attaching to surfaces with screws, and arm that attaches to the passenger seat frame rail and more.)

I know I said suction cups have not worked for me in the past, but this one is different. This is one tough and durable and solidly built suction cup. It’s not perfect, but it stays attached long after lesser suction cups have refused to stay attached. If you haven’t experienced the fun of your phone falling off the windshield at your feet while driving on the highway, let me tell you that you haven’t lived. As long you keep the windshield glass clean under the suction cup, you’re good to go.

I keep the iPhone mounted just to the left of the steering wheel, close enough that if I reach out with my pointer finger from the place I normally keep my hands on the wheel, I can operate the phone quite easily. This has been great and keeps distraction to a minimum.


Because I don’t use my stereo for playback, I need something other than the phone’s built-in speaker to listen. I used to have a small cheap speaker that connected via a headphone cable, but the cable was so short that it made keeping the speaker in a convenient place difficult and it just didn’t sound very good. So I moved up a little bit to a Bluetooth speaker, specifically the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox, which not only works as a speaker, but also as a speakerphone. This has been a rock-solid addition. The battery life is great, going weeks before needing a recharge and setting up the Bluetooth was very easy. If there’s any negative about it, I could wish it could go a littler louder because when I’m driving with the windows open the wind noise can drown out some of the speaking voices in the podcasts.

I keep this right in front of me on the instrument cluster, in front of the tachometer. Since the Honda is an automatic, I never look at the tach anyway. And because it’s Bluetooth, I no longer have a dangerous headphone wire snaking around and through the steering wheel to potentially get tangled.


Finally, I did also get a RAM Mount for my iPad. There have been times when I wished I had a larger display for, say, Maps when navigating to a new address, and so being able to mount my iPad in view is very useful. The mount I got isn’t available anymore and that’s probably for good reason since I ended up breaking the mount while trying to get my iPad in and out of it, which is better than breaking the iPad, I guess. They’ve since re-designed this style and at about $20 on Amazon it’s a good deal, but they’ve also recently added a version of the X-Grip, which should work beautifully but costs three times as much at $66 on Amazon! (There’s also a $20 X-Grip for 7" tablets. The cost of having being popular.)

As I was taking photos for this post, I had to manhandle the iPad out of the mount and this retaining pin broke off.
As I was taking photos for this post, I had to manhandle the iPad out of the mount and this retaining pin broke off.

Keep in mind, as well that you need to add in the price of the other components, so you’re looking at about $50 total for the mount. It sounds like a lot I suppose, but when you’re in your car every day, how much are you willing to pay for your sanity and for the safety of not blindly flailing for your phone that fell off the windshield or slid off the seat?

In any case, this setup make at least my comute at little more pleasant every day.

Worlds Collide – Scot and Fr. Roderick in St. Peter’s Square

Courtesy of Fr. Roderick Vonhogen
Courtesy of Fr. Roderick Vonhogen

I can’t tell you how surreal it is to listen to Fr. Roderick’s Catholic Insider podcast and hear my boss, Scot Landry, talking to Father about how our Catholic Media office at the Archdiocese of Boston is covering the papal transition.

Eight years ago, I was listening to this quirky podcast by this Dutch priest who happened to be in St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul II died and when Pope Benedict XVI was elected and thinking how cool it is to be able to hear it from a firsthand view.

And now, we’ve come full circle. So much of what we’re doing in new media in Boston is a result of what Fr. Roderick has done with SQPN.

Man, I wish I had been able to go.

App review: Downcast podcast management and playback

Downcast playlists

I’ve been listening to podcasts on various iPods and iPhones since 2005. My first podcast was SQPN’s The Catholic Insider with Fr. Roderick, listening to him walk through the snow outside his parish church and then entering to the sound of a choir singing Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew. It was beautiful and stirring that I had to hear more and I was hooked from that moment on.

Podcasts have become one of my primary means of entertainment and education. I regularly listen to more than 20 different audio podcasts plus another handful of video podcasts. The topics range from Catholic content to self-help to humor to Mac/iOS to pop culture to news to economics and on and on. These podcasts became my lifeline when I was commuting more than an hour each way, morning and evening, sometimes keeping me sane when traffic kept me on the road for two hours. Lately, they accompany me at work and while I’m doing work in the yard.

I’ve always used the built-in, Apple-supplied apps for listening to them and iTunes to download and manage them. It’s never been ideal, but it’s done the job. But now, I think I’ve found a new app that will once again revolutionize my podcast listening.

Downcast downloading

The app is called Downcast and it’s available for $1.99. Here’s how it improves on the podcast experience.

First, I no longer have to keep any of the files in iTunes on my computer taking up hard drive space. And once I’ve listened to an episode, I no longer have to remember to delete it from the computer. Best of all, I don’t have to sync the iPhone or iPad to my computer to get new podcasts.

Downcast lets me subscribe to podcasts, either with the feed URL if I know it (perhaps copying it from an email or website) or by searching an internal directory of podcasts. That worked fine for me, finding all of my podcasts with ease. It then downloads the podcasts in the background with an option to download only over WiFi, a good option in these days of bandwidth limits by wireless providers.

Downcast will add new podcasts as they download and delete ones I’ve listened to already if I’ve set the preferences that way. Other preferences allow me to download only the most recent podcast automatically (so I don’t have to fill my iPhone’s hard drive), but also download other individual episodes manually. I can tell it to play continuously, starting the next podcast when the current one finishes; and prevent my screen from locking while the app is open so I can pause and restart with ease.

Downcast playlists

The app allows me to set up smart playlists, grouping my podcast episodes and sorting them in various ways. I have four playlists at the moment: All, Mac (for all my Mac-related shows); SQPN (for all the shows from the SQPN network); and Weekly (for all the shows that update weekly or more often and thus need to be listened to first.)

The player controls are very nice as well, allowing me to skip ahead 30 seconds or two minutes at a time (for when Leo Laporte does one of his never-ending commercials in the MacBreak Weekly podcast) or back 15 seconds or 30 seconds, if my attention has wandered and I need to hear it again. (The iPhone’s built-in player only does the 30-second back-skip.) And while the iPhone can play the podcast at double-speed (good for powering through a whole bunch of podcasts in my now 15-minute commute) or at half-speed, Downcast can play at half-speed, double-speed, and one-and-a-half-speed for those times when a speaker has an accent and double-speed is too fast.

Downcast is a universal app so it has interfaces tailored to both the iPhone and the iPad. The iPad version has a very nice layout, putting everything right in sight without drop-down interfaces or panes or menus (I’m not sure what Apple calls them) for the various functions. I don’t listen to podcasts on my iPad, but I assume it works just as well.

Downcast for iPad

If you’re a podcast listener, whether casually or as a power user, it’s worth your while to check out Downcast.


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