‘Serial’ may not be the new frontier that some commentators have claimed, but it has certainly brought many more listeners to podcasts. I listen to lots, and I’ve had a couple of requests for recommendations, so here goes.
These are the podcasts I listen to every week, in alphabetical order:
It took me a little while to find headspace for 99% Invisible. The first episode I listened to, after a reference from Helen and Olly on ‘Answer Me This’, was about some aspect of industrial design so esoteric that I struggled to grasp what I was supposed to be listening to. It probably didn’t help that I was doing the washing up at the time. Now it’s a treasure trove, prying into the environmental design that surrounds us every day and uncovering illuminating and surprising stories. All this, and Roman Mars – the most mellifluous voice in podcasting. Radiotopia, which he fronts, threatens to brings a step-change in the quality of the medium.
All Songs Considered (NPR)
Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton bring in mostly new music to inspire and delight each other. Their easy banter is a pleasure and their affection for and wonder at the tracks they are playing is infectious. Like most of the music podcasts I subscribe to, All Songs Considered is a great way to hear music that lies adjacent to my usual choices.
Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann answer questions from listeners and rip the piss out of themselves, each other and their correspondents as they go.
The Danny Baker Show (BBC)
It’s rare that I get two hours to listen to the BBC Five Live show as it goes out on a Saturday morning, so the podcast is perfect. Danny’s cavalcade of everyday exuberance is as good as its ever been. He may court an atmosphere of ramshackle piracy but he’s the consummate broadcaster and his callers, expertly shepherded, build up a patchwork of British life that’s hard not to love.
Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver’s weekly satirical podcast is not quite the regular fixture it used to me, mainly because they haven’t been able to keep up a regular schedule for the last 6 months, mainly thanks to Oliver’s new weekly HBO show. Still their dumbfounded take on the week’s news is silly, cutting and infectious and always very, very funny.
Or ‘Wittertainment’ as it’s known to acolytes. I listen religiously even though we get to the cinema about twice a year these days. I could cope without the increasingly forced bickering, which is just a little unnecessary, but like ‘Answer Me This’, this is like spending time with friends, again something I do much less of than I’d like.
More Or Less (BBC)
From the BBC Radio Four show, exploring the numbers behind the news. Usually revealing and an important reminder that all is not always as it seems.
A recommendation from Pop Culture Happy Hour. Pitch is a short podcast about music which pokes around behind the loose corners of the art, the business and the culture and tries to answer questions you never realised you had. Like, why the hell is dancing illegal in New York bars?
Politics Weekly (Guardian)
From the Guardian. I seem to listen to mainly American podcasts, and I do so mainly in the car, so the Today Programme on Radio 4 has had to make way. Politics Weekly gives me the illusory sense that I am keeping up with events and the entirely factual sense that I am so far behind in my grasp on UK politics that I may as well be hibernating. Warning: regularly features Michael White, the single most irritating contributor to any of the podcasts listed here.
Pop Culture Happy Hour (NPR)
One of the great affordances of podcasts is the opportunity to hang out with people who are like you only just a little bit smarter and more insightful. If you’re interested in books, films, TV or music there’s nowhere better to be than round a table with Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon and Stephen Thompson. If I ever hung out with my real friends, i’d be ripping off PCHH opinions left, right and centre.
One of the iron horses of Podcasting, Radiolab puts out relatively few episodes – just 58 since inception in 2002 – but they are almost always worth an hour of your time. Essentially a collaboration between experimental musician Jad Abumrad and Science Reporter Robert Krulwich that took root, it blends rationalist science with beautiful production values and, in common with the best in the field, a sharp instinct for storytelling. The most recent episode on the concept of ‘Patient Zero’ is a case in point. Frequently jawdropping, moving and enlightening.
Snap Judgment (NPR)
Think of it as This American Life without the implied coverage of the national state of being. Snap is an hour of personal stories told straight to the microphone without interviewers or additional editorial content. They are almost always interesting and sometimes absolutely remarkable. As I write they have just re-run an episode with three totally diverse stories loosely around the theme ‘Unrequited’. Any of the three might be the best think you hear this week.
Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot present music news and album reviews bookending a longer feature piece which could be a classic album dissection, a genre exploration, a live performance and interview or a consultation with the Rock Doctors. Their opinions veer from the staid to the surprising, but they are good guides and, like most music podcasts, the exposure to unheard stuff is the thing i’m after.
Now 7 episodes in, I look forward to StartUp as much as Serial. in it;’s own way it’s a comparable look at an often unheard aspects of a story we think we already know. Alex Blumberg, host of Planet Money and sometime This American Life presenter, is starting his own company. He has no idea how to do this, but he has an idea for the business and he’s recording everything he does.
There are two cute aspects to StartUp. Firstly, Blumberg is starting a podcasting corporation, intent on developing content and platforms to take podcasting to the next level in quality and exposure. When he started, Serial was just a TAL email list and he had to spend a lot of time evangelising for the format. Now the case has been made for him, and his business idea, with the likes of Radiotopia coming up on the rails, is starting to seem less novel as others get there first.
Secondly, as he tells the story of the birth of his business, he is also building advance interest, photo-loyalty and, as the episodes progress, interest from investors. His podcast about the process of building a podcasting business is building his business whilst he podcasts the process.
Meta textual narrative, cunning marketing ploy, or both, StartUp is fascinating, compelling and fun to listen to.
Tech Weekly (Guardian)
From the Guardian. This is my gesture towards keeping up with news in the tech sector. It sort of works, but it’s better at exploring the arena. This year they have been picking away at the dark web, crypto-currencies and Edward Snowden’s revelations.
Thinking Allowed (BBC)
Laurie Taylor’s weekly BBC Radio 4 show covers two recent contributions to the social sciences. That may sound dry, and initially the interviews with academics can seem daunting, but this soon drops away, to leave a series of almost random plunges into the cultural and social forces behind modern life. Professorial in tone, but nontheless accessible and revealing.
Goes to places not many others visit, brings back stories not many others do and tells them like no-one else does.
A newcomer, just a few weeks old, but interesting and revealing. Each episode spends time discussing the intricacies of the working life of one specific subject. After kicking off with Stephen Colbert, we’ve heard from a medic, a porn star, a waiter and one of the John’s from They Might Be Giants. Not quite as dependent on the job in question as you might imagine, the trick here is the fascination for detail. When this is high, it’s a good listen.
David McRaney’s long-form exploration of the science of self-delusion and cookies. In each episode he talks at length to an author or researcher on some aspect of the way our brains constantly prove themselves to be unreliable witnesses. His passion for his subjects and their areas of expertise comes through loud and clear and the results are revelatory. They’ll make you think differently about the way you think. And then he bakes and eats a cookie.
And that, surely, is enough for any week?