Turn on the radio these days and most of the time you might as well be piping horse manure into your lugholes. Thankfully, modern technology means you never have to touch that dial again.
We’re talking about podcasts – basically the best bits of radio, cut out and presented to you in a form that you can listen to anywhere at any time.
But with thousands of these things around, where do you get started? Right here, that’s where. We’ve picked out our favourite new(ish) pods and bundled them together with some of the long-running must-listens. So, whether you’re a key worker looking for some audio entertainment on those commutes or staying at home looking for something to pass the time, we’ve got you covered…
Words by Matt Tate, Sam Kieldsen, Craig Grannell, Jessica Derwent and Jason England
Intrigue: Tunnel 29
This riveting BBC Sounds series (or rather subseries, since it’s technically one 10-episode “season” of Intrigue, which now consists of four self-contained true stories) tells the tale of a young East German man who escapes across the border to West Berlin in the 1960s – only to be persuaded to go back in order to help more people flee. At the same time, a Stasi undercover informant is ordered to dig up information on Westerners aiding potential escapees – placing the two men on a collision course.
If fascinating true stories are your thing, Tunnel 29’s mixture of political intrigue, espionage, romance, heroism and peril is sure to appeal.
Alan Partridge: From the Oasthouse
Steve Coogan’s in-character podcast as his most beloved creation, failed talk show host and Norfolk icon Alan Partridge, is a true blessing for the ears. As he moves from middle age into his more senior years, Partridge has changed slightly: he’s moved with the times (or at least wants to be seen as having done so), so of course he would start his own podcast from the comfort of his rural home, an imitation oasthouse in the Norfolk countryside. Fans shouldn’t fret, because underneath it all he’s still the same old Alan: a pompous Little Englander who never misses an opportunity for self-aggrandisement.
Over 18 episodes totalling almost seven hours, this podcast provides a brilliantly diverting insight into Partridge’s world in 2020, along with a running storyline about his ongoing troubles with an Internet troll. The only downside? It’s an Audible exclusive that requires purchasing (it’s £19.99 alone, or one Audible credit for subscribers).
Download Alan Partridge: From the Oasthouse on Audible
Each episode of Script Apart focusses on a beloved movie’s screenplay, or to be more precise the first draft of it. Presenter Al Horner talks to the film’s screenwriter about the process of getting their ideas down on the page, and then bringing those words to cinematic life. It’s a film geek’s dream, essentially. Guests so far include Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and David Hayter (who wrote the Watchmen screenplay, but might be more famous for being the voice of Solid Snake in the first three Metal Gear Solid games).
The Last Archive
Truth is becoming a rare commodity in the Western public sphere. From Brexit to Trump to COVID-19, the rising tide of misinformation, obfuscation, spin, fake news and downright lies from those who wield power has left millions of people unsure of what’s fact and what’s not. The Last Archive is an episodic podcast inspired by this crisis – a sort of detective story where the victim isn’t a person but the entire concept of truth. So who killed it? Historian Jill Lepore looks at what has brought us to our current post-truth moment by examining past events through the lens of knowledge, evidence and proof.
The Town That Didn’t Stare
This star of this arch, entertaining six-part series isn’t a person but the seemingly normal Sussex town of East Grinstead. Nestled in the Weald less than 30 miles south of London, it has become something of a haven for alternative religions and spirituality in England: the UK HQ for Scientology is here (and its late founder L. Ron Hubbard lived in the town until 1967); there’s a Mormon church in the town centre; ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei has a conference centre nearby. Is there a reason behind this? Something in the water (or the ley lines?) that marks East Grinstead out as “different”? Host Nick Hilton keeps things funny throughout, but his investigation into the weird and wonderful history of the town is deeply fascinating.
An entertaining and well-researched deep dive into the weird world of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Bunga Bunga tracks the rise and fall of a man who rose from nightclub singer to broadcaster to football club owner to one of Europe’s most powerful politicians.
With his expensive fake hair, permatanned skin, knockabout style and background littered with expensive divorces and suspect business deals, Berlusconi has a lot in common with a current world leader across the pond. That might give this eight-part series, engagingly presented by comedian Whitney Cummings, an added layer of appeal and relevance – but Berlusconi’s fall from grace is quite enthralling on its own terms.
The idea of making wads of cash with minimal effort is endlessly appealing, which is why get rich quick schemes are still knocking about. We all know how pyramid schemes work, that they’re unsustainable and that they’re illegal – but did you know that there are clever “twists” on them that are widespread, popular and operate within the bounds of the law?
The Dream‘s first season is an exploration of multi-level marketing (or MLM), a type of pyramid scheme that, because it involves the sale of goods or services, is perfectly legal. Despite that, the overwhelming majority of participants in MLMs will make zero profit or lose money – because, as with any pyramid scheme, their whole structure is based on people at the bottom paying upwards. When you run out of people to recruit, you lose out. This podcast looks at the ways MLMs disguise this unavoidable fact in a fascinating dissection of the industry.
Son of a Hitman
Woody Harrelson’s father Charles was a convicted murderer who assassinated a federal judge (apparently on behalf of a drug trafficker) and has been implicated in numerous other killings – including that of John F. Kennedy. This 10-part series, produced in cooperation with Woody’s brother Brett, delves into the man’s past, examines the three murder cases he was tried for and looks into other crimes he may have committed. Presented by journalist Jason Cavanagh, it’s a thorough investigation that goes to some weird places – and at times risks angering those who’d rather see Harrelson’s secrets left buried.
Chef and author of modern cookery tome Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (and presenter of the Netflix documentary series of the same name) Samin Nosrat co-hosts this culinary mini-series. Sensibly timed to coincide with a time in which we’re all finding ourselves stuck at home more often, Home Cooking is an appetising mixture of recipe inspiration, entertaining chat (guests include Yo-Yo Ma and Nadiya Hussain) and general tips that’ll level up your home-crafted dishes. Nosrat and co-host Hrishikesh Hirway are easy-going, funny, knowledgeable and endlessly enthusiastic – but we don’t suggest listening on an empty stomach.
The Thing About Pam
This slick true crime podcast from American news show Dateline NBC almost tells like an audio drama – but of course it’s all about something that really happened. In this case it’s about the murder of Betsy Faria, the conviction of her husband for that murder and his assertion that he had nothing to do with it. An assertion that seems to hold more and more weight as the series moves on and we hear more about Betsy’s friend Pam, a woman the police had no interest in charging but who seemed to have a clear motive for the crime. Many true crime podcasts are a bit low rent, but the presentation of this one is first rate.
20 years on, the Iraq War is almost universally regarded as a massive failure: a brutal and unnecessary campaign by a reckless, hawkish White House more interested in securing Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves than his (non-existent, as it turned out) WMDs. Even back in 2003 a majority of people thought it was unjust and unjustified, prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretences (that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11) by people with no forethought for what might happen once Saddam was gone. And yet once the gears started to move, it was impossible for us to do anything to stop them.
This superb podcast presented by Noah Kulwin and Brendan James takes an honest, unflinching and surprisingly funny look at the background of the conflict, its major players and what the hell happened when the US, Great Britain and a host of allies invaded. Its irreverent approach makes a refreshing change from traditional media takes on the war, without diminishing any of its anger at the sheer tragic needlessness of it all.
The Sopranos is probably the greatest television series of all time, so 20 years after it first appeared on the screen it seems apt that it gets its own in-depth episode-by-episode podcast, presented by stars Michael Imperioli (who played Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirippa (Bobby Baccalieri). The dynamic between the pair (who were supposed to be recording the podcast together, but have been forced to record remotely by COVID-19) makes this a light-hearted affair rather than academic-style breakdown of the show, in which their own reminiscences about fellow cast members and shoots add colour to their discussions of plot points, characters and subtext.
Anyone who loves The Sopranos will likely love this. But if you haven’t watched the show, go and do that first – this show is for fans rather than the uninitiated.
Wind of Change
Best for: Cold War and hair metal enthusiasts
The CIA has been behind all sorts of bizarre, outlandish and downright evil stuff over the past few decades. The US intelligence agency’s clandestine activities in Latin America alone would provide enough material for 20 podcast series – but this particular one doesn’t look at coups, assassinations and agitators: it focusses instead on a hit rock song and the tantalising rumour that it was actually written by the CIA.
Yes: according to agency insiders, German hair metal band The Scorpions’ famous power ballad “Wind of Change” was a psy-op engineered in Langley – part of a concerted propaganda operation to bring down the iron curtain, end the Cold War and banish communism from the world. Over eight episodes, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe talks to ex-spies, rock fans, pop stars and more in his efforts to uncover the truth. It’s a wild ride.
Best for: Internet culture casuals
To call this a technology podcast would be doing it an injustice. This, instead, is an ongoing series of incredibly fascinating human stories that involve technology in some way. Modern life is put under a microscope, exposing some of the parts of our technological world that we take for granted. What is on the other end of a telephone scammer’s line? How easy is it to hack someone? Where on Earth did Pepe come from? This is a gateway to internet and tech culture like no other.
Fall of Civilizations
Best for: history buffs
What’s the one thing all historical empires have in common? None of them are around anymore. From ancient Rome to the Mayans to the Han dynasty, every great civilisation has eventually fallen into ruin. Each episode of Paul Cooper’s podcast series – well researched, sharply written and impeccably produced – tells the story of a single society’s collapse: why it happened, how it happened and what it might have felt like to watch it all disintegrate.
The Catch and Kill Podcast
Best for: would-be investigators
The story behind journalist Ronan Farrow’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s history of sex crimes is full of incredible twists and turns, and it’s all detailed in this podcast (and Farrow’s book of the same name). This isn’t just about Weinstein, his crimes or his victims (although that’s all sensitively explored here), it’s about the means by which powerful members of our society hold sway over those they perceive as weak. Money, intimidation, blackmail and more – it’s all in the playbook, as Farrow himself found out when Weinstein’s “people” sent a bunch of shadowy private investigators to follow him around.
Pilot TV Podcast
Best for: TV binge watchers
Pilot is a small screen-focussed monthly from the people behind the long-running Empire movie magazine, and its weekly podcast is required listening for telly addicts. Its entertaining hosts look at new and upcoming releases, interview star guests and generally shoot the breeze about what’s going on in the world of quality television. And with so many different ways to watch these days, it’s great to get a few pointers from the experts.
Best for: the extremely online
Like any place where thousands of people gather, social media provides a fascinating insight into the breadth and depth of humanity. One moment you’re cursing Facebook’s existence as Uncle Keith clicks out yet another bit of questionable boomer bait into the ether, the next you’re howling with glee at someone else’s incredibly witty reply.
Blocked Party is a podcast that delves into the hilarious underbelly of social media culture, particularly that of Twitter. Each guest comes on to regale Canadian hosts John Cullen and Stefan Heck with their own Block Tale – the story behind them being blocked by a celebrity, brand or other social media heavyweight. If you find social media interesting in an of itself, Blocked Party provides a hilarious insight into how it’s turning us all crazy.
Best for: Food fanciers
POPPADOMS OR BREAD?! It’s one of the first questions that all guests are aggressively asked on Off Menu, the brilliantly entertaining food-based podcast hosted by comedians James Acaster (a genie here) and Ed Gamble. On each episode, a celebrity guest invited to an imaginary restaurant is asked to outline their dream meal, from the water on the table (still or sparkling) right up to dessert – and if you’ve ever tried to do something similar with friends, you’ll know how contentious it gets. You really get the full spectrum of grub love here: from Scroobius Pip’s tribute to Domino’s on the inaugural episode, to the predictably eclectic tastes of Jay Rayner, it’s always a good listen. Just don’t do so on an empty stomach.
The Missing Cryptoqueen
Best for: Mystery lovers
If you’re still not sure what blockchain is or how it could revolutionise finance, you’re not alone: thousands of people gleefully invested in the OneCoin cryptocurrency only for it to be unmasked as a Ponzi scheme that wasn’t even backed up by blockchain. This BBC-produced podcast tells not only the story of OneCoin’s rise and fall but that of its messianic founder and figurehead Ruja Ignatova, who conveniently disappeared before she could be arrested. Is she in hiding? Kidnapped? Dead? You’ll hear plenty of hair-curling stuff over the eight episodes.
Best for: Audible subscribers
Yet another true crime podcast in an article that’s not short of them, West Cork is nevertheless a fantastic listen – and not just because of its grisly and mystery-shrouded subject matter. The presenters delve into an old, unsolved crime in a remote coastal area of Ireland favoured by outsiders, artists and free thinkers. It’s a place full of interesting characters – at least one of whom may be responsible for killing Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan du Plantier outside her holiday home in 1996.
There’s no shortage of twists and turns in this investigation, but one fact that isn’t revealed right at the beginning is that many people already think they know who did it – while the person in question maintains they are the victim of a Garda stitch-up. At the end of the 13 episodes, you’ll be left to make your own conclusions…
Note: while free to download, West Cork is an Audible exclusive, so you’ll need an account with Amazon’s audiobook service to listen to it.
Not Another D&D Podcast
Best for: Geeks in need of a giggle
This list is filled with serious shows and interview-based podcasts. They’re all great, but what if you fancy trying out something different? The answer is simple: Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, the venerable tabletop RPG has exploded onto the podcasting scene via a gaggle of truly hilarious shows, our favourite being Not Another D&D Podcast.
With the hilarious spontaneity that comes only from the random chance of a 5E paired with the comically geeky skills of the DM and players (of CollegeHumor fame), you’ll be left laughing out loud on public transport (our apologies to those sitting around you). From the main campaign in Bahumia to a recent Donkey Kong-themed one-shot, give it a subscribe and watch those hours fly by with a massive grin on your chops.
The Infinite Monkey Cage
Best for: Armchair astrophysicists
Science? Pfft! Haven’t we all had enough of experts? Nope. Not a bit. And The Infinite Monkey Cage deftly proves that by making mind-bending concepts approachable and friendly. Hosts Brian ‘sky pointer’ Cox and Robin ‘sidekick’ Ince are in each episode joined by a couple of boffins and an inevitable comedian, tackling everything from whether humans are still evolving to questioning if we live in a simulation.
Occasionally, hilarity ensues. But mostly, this is a stepping stone to greater wonders – a show that will leave you with a laundry list of inspiring facts about our planet and the universe you’ll want to dig into deeper. You’ll wish the extended runtime of the podcast version over the original radio broadcast was hours rather than a handful of extra minutes.
The Teacher’s Pet
Best for: Investigative types
Another true crime podcast that never feels exploitative or salacious and, without wanting to spoil anything for would-be listeners, has actually led to some major developments in a case that has been cold for over 30 years. Said case is the disappearance of Australian wife and mother Lynette Dawson, who vanished from her home north of Sydney in 1982 and has not been seen or heard from since.
Despite a plethora of circumstantial evidence hinting at foul play and pointing the finger at her husband Chris, Lynette’s family have never had any satisfying answers – and that’s what this podcast, hosted by award-winning journalist Hedley Thomas, set out to find. Thomas is thorough, sensitive and relentless, giving this series the sense of scope and depth not seen in many other podcasts of its type.
You might have spotted Netflix’s recent drama series of the same name and not realised that, yes, not only was Dirty John a podcast originally, but it’s an entirely true story. In fact, the podcast is a lot more interesting and involving than the TV show precisely because it features the real participants (“victims” might be a more appropriate term) rather than a bunch of well-known actors offering up an approximation of them.
Made in very slick fashion by the Los Angeles Times, the series tells the story of Debra Newell’s relationship with John Meehan, an outwardly charming doctor with a mysterious past and a habit of disappearing for long periods without explanation. Her children immediately hear alarm bells, but Debra is besotted and beguiled – and thus begins an emotional tug-of-war that escalates into something far more sinister. Addictive, compelling stuff – and at six parts it’s not as drawn-out as many other serial podcasts.
Root of Evil
The 1949 Black Dahlia murder is one of America’s best-known cold cases, but this podcast has a very convincing argument as to whodunnit: none other than the great-grandfather of the two half-sisters by whom it’s hosted.
A well-researched, creepy and fascinating deep dive into the lives of various members of the highly unconventional Hodel family, taking in such subjects as race, police corruption, incest and, yes, horrifying murder, Root of Evil is a darkly compelling series that we heartily recommend.
Up and Vanished
Best for: Mystery solvers
A veritable phenomenon within the popular true crime podcast category – so much so that its first season is being remade as a television show – Up and Vanished takes a deep dive into two different cold case disappearances in an effort to shed new light on them. Did Tara Grinstead and Kristal Reisinger just decide to disappear, or was foul play involved?
Creator and presenter Payne Lindsey leaves us with little doubt that, in both cases, it’s the latter. In the course of his investigations, he not only manages to provide detailed insight into the events surrounding the women’s disappearances, but into their lives, their worlds and their characters. We won’t spoil anything, but Up and Vanished goes to show that investigative journalism, whether it’s in traditional media or podcasts, is capable of helping cold cases turn hot once more.
Your Kickstarter Sucks
Best for: Irony lovers
Being the knowledgable gadget fans that you are, you’re likely familiar with Kickstarter, Indiegogo and their ilk. You probably know that tech pioneers, game designers, artists, writers and more often turn to these crowdfunding platforms to secure the necessary readies to get their product made, marketed and on the shelves – but have you ever noticed how the vast majority of these projects are either dreadfully conceived, poorly designed, knock-offs of existing products, repackaged cheap tat from Alibaba or some combination of the above?
Just the sheer number of lazy Cards Against Humanity rip-offs is enough to drive a sane person off the edge – and that’s the concept behind Your Kickstarter Sucks, a podcast from Weird Twitter favourites Mike Hale and Jesse Farrar. This pair of loveable deadpan dirtbags use each week’s show to pick over the bones of six godawful crowdfunding projects, revisit in-jokes, discuss their fast food preferences and opine the general state of the world we live in. The format is loose, the language blue, the content frequently infantile – but always hilarious.
Someone Knows Something
Best for: Quality true crime obsessives
Like Up and Vanished, Someone Knows Something is a serialised true crime podcast that re-examines cold cases in the hopes of uncovering fresh clues and answers.
Presented, written and produced by award-winning Canadian filmmaker and writer David Ridgen and created for Canada’s public service broadcaster CBC, it displays a distinctly Canada-focussed bent over the course of its five seasons, each one of which takes on a different case.
While Ridgen doesn’t always find the answer he (and the listeners) are hoping for, his sensitive, amiable, empathetic, detailed and dogged approach puts this podcast in marked contrast to some lazier, more lurid true crime efforts we could mention. The depth he goes into and the amount of people he manages to interview (even managing to get murder suspects to talk) make this one of the most authoritative podcasts in the genre.
Films to be Buried With
Best for: Reflective film fans
A product of Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces Network, this all new podcast presents us with a straightforward scenario: a celebrity (usually from the world of comedy) has sadly died (but not really). Before they’re buried, the guest gets to select a number of films that they’d like to take with them in the coffin.
Thankfully, it’s nowhere near as morbid as it sounds. In the first episode, the brilliant stand up James Acaster talks us through The Rescuers Down Under, the underappreciated Final Destination franchise, and why Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the greatest movie ever made – even though he didn’t really like it.
We’re looking forward to digging (ahem) into the rest of the series.
How I Built This
Best for: Inspiration seekers
Ever had a wacky business idea? Most people have but not many actually go through with it, and even less make it work, but what is it like for those lucky few? Guy Raz, of NPR, has found the individuals who have done exactly that.
Guy talks to an impressive array of people behind well-known brands. He gets the full story, constructing a narrative web of idealists, entrepreneurs and visionaries. Highlights include Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger; Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard; VICE’s Suroosh Alvi; and Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia.
This series is more about the personal journey than the business details. The stories are surprisingly dysfunctional and fluky. The entrepreneurs are also unexpectedly humble, personable and warm; which makes them all the more inspiring.
This is best for those of you who haven’t quite given up on the idea of the American dream, or those who are just wanting to know more about the faces behind brands that dominate our society.
Best for: Louis Theroux lovers
20 years on, Glynn Washington looks into one the strangest cults of all time – Heaven’s Gate, aka the ‘UFO cult’. Washington talks to the family members of the deceased members and the remaining members of the cult; weaving in sound bites from old news reports and archives, creating a phantasmagorical atmosphere to accompany this extraordinarily weird story.
In 1997, 39 partially decomposing bodies were found in a palatial mansion in a San Diego suburb. All the bodies were dressed in a black top, black tracksuits, complete with black and white Nike Decade trainers and draped in a purple shroud. This was the largest mass suicide in American history, which seemed to come straight out of a J G Ballard novel, and gripped a nation.
Washington takes you on a wild ride into the world of the peculiar and the occult. Best for freaking yourself out and giving you a fresh perspective on American society.
Best for: Pop Psych aficionados
‘Hidden brain’ is hosted by infamous science correspondent and journalist Shankar Vedantam – writer of a popular column called The Department of Human Behavior at none other than The Washington Post.
Shankar offers a panacea to many modern-day problems and topics that you’ve probably never given a second thought to (until now). This long-running series looks at a myriad of topics that relate to society, psychology and behaviour – from fake news and memory, to hunger (a personal fave) and the ‘summer melt’ phenomenon.
He’s also somewhat of a philosopher, with an infectiously calming voice, and gives us additional nuggets of life advice, making this podcast not only didactic but also uplifting.
Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate
Best for: those who live for drama/ Politically-inclined drama queens (or kings)
A Slate Plus production, ‘Slow Burn’ looks at the most insanely colossal political scandal of the 20th century that made a President Nixon resign and altered the course of America’s relationship with corruption and secrecy.
Leon Neyfakh presents this in-depth look at the largest corruption case America has ever seen in eight meaty episodes. The aftermath has been dubbed ‘the Watergate effect’, with the suffix ‘-gate’ added onto the end of a word to describe a scandal, such as ‘piggate’. But what really was Watergate and what happened? Neyfakh is here to answer everything Watergate.
Listen to Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate
Best for: paranormal investigators
Have you ever wondered what’s real and what’s not? If you have then look no further. This long-running podcast series looks at unsolved real life mysterious and perplexing events. Weirdly absorbing and hypnotic, it’s hard to stop listening.
It’s hosted by Richard MacLean Smith, who describes himself as a screen writer and ex musician. His voice is so smooth and relaxing you’ll have to be careful not to listen to this when you’re lying down.
But don’t be fooled by his dulcet tones, this is a podcast packed with spooky and chilling revelations which will keep you up all night, as Richard pulls you further into his search for the answers to the unknown.
A Very Fatal Murder
Best for: Podcast obsessives
Trust The Onion to create the best parody podcast we’ve ever heard, a fake true crime series that jabs a mocking finger at everything from patronising podcast producers slumming it in rural flyover states to intrusive ad breaks to dramatic musical cues. A Very Fatal Murder is the perfect follow-up material if you’ve just binged on an earnest podcast like Serial, S-Town or basically anything made by NPR.
When intrepid Onion Public Radio correspondent, the scent of a Pulitzer Prize in his nostrils, travels from New York to Bluff Springs, Nebraska in order to investigate the unsolved murder of 17 year-old Hayley Price – shot, stabbed, strangled, smothered and drowned, with dirt of the same composition as Mars found under her fingernails – he discovers a town full of suspects.
You Must Remember This
Best for: Silver screen lovers
Consider yourself a film buff and a history aficionado, all rolled into one? Then You Must Remember This should be slapped on your “to listen list” forthwith, because it weaves both together in a beautifully-produced manner.
Exploring the often untold history of Hollywood over the past century, writer/researcher/narrator/creator/editor Karina Longworth lifts the lid on tales of Tinseltown, be there bizarre, brutal or both. Longworth’s writing creates a real sense of Hollywood’s importance as bearer (and barer) of America’s soul, and the collection of episodes devoted to Charles Manson, his cult and the murders they committed is a miniature masterpiece of storytelling.
Death, Sex & Money
Best for: Big issue ponderers
Death, sex and money – three things many people find it difficult to talk about (especially in America), so WNYC Studios naturally decided to make a podcast about them.
In each half-hour episode, host Anna Sale invites a guest or guests on to delve into their personal experience with at least one of the trio of issues, leading to some interesting explorations of those all-important, all-too-often avoided subjects.
50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
Best for: Bite-sized knowledge seekers
Looking for some interesting listening material (and pub quiz fodder, for that matter) to get you through those short commutes? This BBC World Service-made series fits the bill snugly, with each episode exploring a single modern day “thing” in ten minutes or less.
Want to know how insurance services came about, how the s-bend made city life more bearable or why shipping containers are all the same size and shape? You’ll find all that info, and so much more, here.
The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson
Best for: Twists and turns
Writer and journalist Jon Ronson’s latest investigative project was initially limited to Audible subscribers. Now freely available on podcatchers everywhere, this one should be top of your to-listen list.
The seven-part series focuses on the porn industry, beginning in Brussels many years ago, with a teenage techie who decided to get rich by giving the world what he suspected it wanted: free pornography.
But that’s just the beginning. As Ronson begins to delve into the titular butterfly effect of this online revolution, he finds himself unravelling a constantly surprising (two words: stamp collection) and at times moving story about people. He’s always curious and never judgmental – the sign of a great documentarian.
Try this episode: Episode 1 – A Nondescript Building in Montreal
Best for: The gaming lowdown
How many podcasts in your feed can rely on your download each week purely because of the intro music? For us, that’s the case with Kotaku Splitscreen, a gaming podcast featuring Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton and Jason Schreier. The stupidly catchy theme in question is played by Hamilton himself, who has a background in jazz.
But wait! Before the weird sax-haters move on to the next entry, we should mention that the podcast is pretty great too. The two co-hosts bounce off each other well, and they go pretty deep into lesser known indie gems as well as the big hitters.
Kotaku has always approached video games media a little bit differently to its competitors, and this podcast stands out from the crowd too.
Try this episode: Episode 106 – Fall Mailbag Spectacular
Soundtracking with Edith Bowman
Best for: Musical journeys
Here’s a fact: it’s actually impossible to hear the thunderous intro to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and not immediately think of a scrawny Ewan McGregor pelting it down Princes Street in the Scottish capital.
When we think about movies, we nearly always think about music too, and this rather excellent pod is all about that marriage. In each episode, Edith Bowman sits down with a different person from the world of film (often it’s a director), who then takes us through their inspirations and creative process when choosing what music to use in their films. Excerpts of the tunes in question are seamlessly weaved into the interview, so you’ll regularly find yourself toe-tapping as you listen.
A standout ep last year saw guest Edgar Wright talking about how he chose the songs featured in Baby Driver, many of which are the original versions of tunes that have since been sampled by chart-topping artists. It’ll make you appreciate the movie even more on your next rewatch.
Try this episode: Episode 47 – Edgar Wright
Truth & Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast
Best for: Cinephiles
One weekly James Richardson-featuring podcast not enough for you? We have good news: the man himself also sits in the hosting chair for movie mag Little White Lies‘ (the one with the really pretty covers) Truth & Movies.
It’s a straightforward premise: Richardson and a couple of the magazine’s reviewers sit in a room and discuss the latest releases, and there’s always plenty of lively debate. You’re bound to find yourself passionately disagreeing with some of their opinions, but that’s half the fun of pop culture. Just try not to shout at your phone in the middle of Tesco.
Try this episode: Episode 35 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi/Mountains May Depart/Brick
The Totally Football Show
Best for: Footie nuts
The most scandalous news of 2017? Not Bake Off going to Channel 4, but James Richardson walking out on The Guardian Football Weekly to set up The Totally Football Show. With a familiar bi-weekly round-up schtick and similarly turncoat contributors like James Horncastle, Michael Cox and Rafa Honigstein, this is a great pod for getting your fix of Premier League, Champions League and continental football analysis. Jimbo might have jumped ship, but The Totally Football Show is very much more of the same minus Barry and Sid. Yep, that means a cavalcade of side-splitting puns too.
Try this episode: Irish hangovers, Chinese takeovers, and the king of crumbles
Best for: Conspiracy theorists
It’s going to be another cracking year for fiction podcasts is this is anything to go by. Homecoming follows a therapist and army veteran, who are thrown together by a new government program that helps soldiers readjust to civilian life. At least, that’s what the government claims. Without any narration, the series weaves together recorded phone calls and therapy sessions that slowly start to hint at more sinister motives.
This intimate approach, plus some excellent performances and sound design, give it a real authenticity as it starts to muse on the personal cost of erasing traumatic memories. With each episode coming in at a tight 20 minutes, it’s an essential commuting soundtrack. The ‘making of’ segments are well worth a listen too.
Homecoming has proven such a hit, in fact, that’s it just been made into an Amazon Prime TV series starring Julia Roberts.
Try this episode: Episode 1 – Mandatory
Best for: The perenially nosy
Davy Rothbart is so obsessed with solving the mysteries behind notes, letters, lists and doodles that he finds or, increasingly, gets sent, that he’s set up a whole magazine – and now a podcast – about it.
Each episode documents some of his favourite investigations, as he tries to track down the person whose life he caught a tiny glimpse of via a discarded or lost piece of paper. He tends to get great guest appearances along the way, with Nick Nolte and David Cross giving the excellent second episode a hefty dose of weirdness and humour.
Try this episode: Looking for Love
BBC Radio 4 Seriously…
Best for: Documentary addicts
Radio 4’s archives were clearly bursting at the seams with fascinating audio docs, so the BBC released some of the pressure by funneling the best into this new podcast.
Brighter and breezier than the more forensic In Our Time, its covers everything from Roald Dahl to South Korea’s obsession with Starcraft. Whatever your niche hobby, there’s likely to an episode for you.
The lack of a regular presenter or running time (they vary from 30 minutes to an hour) means Seriously… is more like a greatest hits than your favourite album ever. But it’s perfect for coming off the bench when your first choice podcasts need a rest.
Try this episode: The Camera Never Lies
The Hilarious World of Depression
Best for: Unexpected mirth
Podcasts have a special way with taboo subjects that don’t tend to reveal themselves under the glare of TV lights. And so it is with The Hilarious World of Depression, which pokes fun at the illness using one-to-one chats with comedians who’ve learned how to live with it.
Luckily, that doesn’t mean Jimmy Carr firing glib one-liners at your ears. The ‘hilarious’ tag relates more to the overall approach – using its guests’ comedic eye to jab mental illness in the ribs and so remove some of its power. Whether you’re the owner of a black dog or not, it’s an enlightening listen.
Try this episode: Episode 4 – Dick Cavett Tells Tales of Hollywood’s Secret Shame
The Adam Buxton Podcast
Best for: Making you smile
There are two types of people in the world: those who know and love Adam Buxton, and those who lead sad, unfulfilled lives. Once one half of The Adam and Joe Show on telly and Saturday mornings on 6 Music, Adam’s finally launched his own podcast in which he meets up and chats with a pretty diverse bunch of people, from Louis Theroux to Kathy Burke to Jonny Greenwood.
He might not be a ‘proper’ interviewer, but there’s a lo-fi charm and openness to everything Adam does that makes him great to spend time with. In fact, the intros and outros, recorded while he’s out walking his dog, Rosie, are probably the best bits.
Try this episode: EP. 11 – Joe Cornish