I didn’t realise it at the time, but my decision to start listening to podcasts a couple of years back was one of the most consequential lifestyle choices I made since I began university.
It may seem like an odd choice of words – you don’t hear people say they “chose” to start listening to music, or watching television, or reading books. Podcasts lie in a fascinating section of the media landscape. They’re a relatively new medium, so not many people are familiar with them, and they’re insular, since people tend to listen to them when they’re on their own.
Despite this, there’s an incredibly strong podcast culture, one that lingers just under the surface of the mainstream. Or more accurately, there’s a massive, intricate network of podcast cultures that interlink, communicate and reference each other. It takes a bit of time to navigate it, and bit of dedication to get into the routine, and embracing the world of podcasting does seem like more of a “choice” than it might for other media.
But it’s a choice worth making. Since diving into the giant podcast bin, I’ve grown to spend more time listening to podcasts than I do listening to music, or watching TV. I listen to them while I’m making a meal, while I’m alone in the house, or when I’m out for a walk – I’ll sometimes go out for a long walk for the sole purpose of catching up with podcasts.
So, for the benefit of people who are looking for a place to start, or for those who are just looking for a few new recommendations, I’ve written up a list of my top ten favourite podcasts. I know that all of these are available on the app that I use – CastBox – but it’s worth checking if they’re up on your preferred platform.
If your favourite isn’t here, it may be because I didn’t enjoy it so much, but it’s probably because I don’t know about it. Don’t be shy with your recommendations!
10. Distraction Pieces Podcast with Scroobius Pip
Spoken word poet Scroobius Pip has been making his podcast for quite a few years now, and he’s good enough at it to attract some very high-profile guests. Recently, he’s had guests like Will Poulter and Michael Fassbender, and in the past he’s welcomed Simon Pegg, James McAvoy, Kathy Burke and Alan Moore. Part of the reason for his success is his easy-going, casual style – he’s just as comfortable having a laugh with his guests as he is discussing the most troubling parts of their lives and their personal philosophies. Pip is a very talented interviewer – even if he does have an annoying habit of speaking over people.
Recommended episode: #169, Souad Mekhennet
9. The Empire Film Podcast
I was a very keen reader of the film magazine Empire until I left home for university and my subscription ran out. Soon, though, I discovered the magazine’s podcast, hosted by the very amiable Chris Hewitt and a bunch of other talented film journalists including Helen O’Hara and the de Semlyen brothers. The podcast includes recorded interviews with directors, actors, composers and others in the industry, as well as reviews of the latest cinema releases and movie news. Every so often, they’ll put out ‘Spoiler Specials’ where the hosts discuss every aspect of a recent release, talk to the people involved with it and give their verdict on it. It’s hard to imagine a more definitive movie podcast.
Recommended episode: #283: Ridley Scott, Denis Villeneuve
I’m probably recommending this a bit late, since I’m sure most people will have heard about S-town by now. It was released earlier this year, and quickly became a sensation: everyone had listened to it, and if you hadn’t, you were planning to. The podcast begins with Brian Reed, the narrator and host, visiting a clockmaker named John B. McLemore in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama. McLemore refers to Woodstock as ‘Shit Town’, and he has brought Reed down to investigate a murder. What follows is one of the most moving, shocking and spectacularly told stories I’ve experienced in any medium. Do not look it up online, and do not read anything more. Just dive straight in, if you haven’t already.
Recommended episodes: All seven, in as few sittings as possible
7. How Did This Get Made?
The only reason I haven’t listened to more episodes of How Did This Get Made? is its labour-intensiveness. The concept behind the podcast is simple: the hosts watch a really dreadful movie, then pick it apart and discuss its more eccentric features. It’s great fun, and the comedians featured on it are generally excellent. Host Jason Mantzoukas, in particular, has a talent for eloquently and hilariously vocalising both his joy at a film’s insanity and his despair at its shortcomings. The only issue is the fact that the jokes and references work best if you’ve made time to watch the film first. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, this is one of the most entertaining podcasts out there.
Recommended episode: 171 Miami Connection (I can’t recommend this movie and episode highly enough)
6. The Bugle
I began listening to The Bugle (“Audio Newspaper for a Visual World”) last year, when it restarted after a hiatus caused by the departure of one of the two hosts. The exiting host was John Oliver, who now presents Last Week Tonight and is one of the most prominent political comedians in the USA. He left behind Andy Zaltzman, a man with the strangest natural hair I’ve ever seen on a human being and a comedian who really ought to be better appreciated than he is. His satirical skill lies in his manipulation of the ridiculous, and his long, bizarre fantasy monologues. Andy is joined each week by a guest co-host from somewhere around the world, often someone little-known but usually very funny.
Recommended episode: Whichever the most recent is, it’s difficult to go wrong
5. No Such Thing As A Fish
In each podcast from this point on in the countdown, I make an effort to listen to every single episode that is released – No Such Thing As A Fish is the first of these. The hosts of Fish are elves for the TV panel show QI, whose job it is to research unbelievable facts to put into questions for the show. The craziest facts that don’t get used for the show are used for the podcast. Each week, the four hosts (usually Anna Ptaszynski, James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray and Dan Schreiber) read out their favourite fact, and then the group discusses it. It’s very interesting, but it’s also good fun to listen to, since the four are clearly great friends. It’s difficult to think of a podcast I’ve enjoyed more consistently.
Recommended episode: Episode 184: No Such Thing As Dinosaur Diaries
4. Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast
I can’t remember how or why I got into Comedy Bang Bang, but I’m glad I did. It’s a difficult one to recommend, because the humour is often incredibly niche and surreal, but if you are into it, there’s a lot to get into. The American podcast recently passed 500 episodes, and over that time it has crafted vast mythologies and complicated storylines from a fairly uncomplicated format. The host, Scott Aukerman, introduces a real guest, and talks to them for a while. He then introduces a couple of characters played by improv comedians, and they all play off each other. This is the podcast that introduced me to some of my favourite American comedians, including Andy Daly, Lauren Lapkus, the aforementioned Jason Mantzoukas, and the great Paul F. Tompkins. From time to time, there are episodes that are stinkers, but the good ones are really excellent.
Recommended episode: A good place to start is 511 Nick Kroll, Jason Mantzoukas, Seth Morris
3. 99% Invisible
99% Invisible is an American podcast highlighting the enormous work that goes into designs that we hardly notice as we go about our daily lives. Again, it’s a simple idea, but one with limitless potential – almost everything that we use in our daily lives was designed by someone, and that person was inspired by someone or something. 99% Invisible follows the most interesting of these stories in each twenty-minute-or-so long episode, and it’s very easy to consume them like chocolates. Highlights from this year include the stories behind the taser, the Brazilian football shirt and the sports bra. The podcast also covers stories you might not think would fall under this remit – escaped slaves making a life for themselves on a swamp, for instance, or the removal of Lenin statues in Ukraine. Never less than fascinating and brilliantly told, and it’s presented by Roman Mars, the man with the coolest name and most relaxing voice in all of podcasting.
Recommended episodes: 280- Half Measures, 268- El Gordo
2. The Adam Buxton Podcast
Adam Buxton was already familiar to podcast fans before he started up this one in 2015 – he was half of the comedy duo Adam and Joe, hosting a BBC Radio 6 Music show that was also released as a podcast until 2012. This was a whole new concept, though: Buxton would be spending an entire episode interviewing someone, not just pissing about with his mate and having fun. It became quickly apparent, though, he is brilliant at this too, with a wit and friendliness and charm that allows him to immediately connect with his guest. The first few months of the podcast saw the death of both Buxton’s dad and his musical idol, David Bowie, which prompted some extraordinary ruminations on death that were unlike anything else I’ve listened to in a podcast. Combine his skill, his curiosity, and his supreme talent for writing catchy jingles, and you’ve got the best British podcast of the moment.
Recommended episodes: Ep.51 – Johnny Marr, Ep.49 – Louis Theroux
I’ve always thought of podcasts as a new medium, so I was a bit surprised when, earlier this year, Radiolab released a special episode to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary. This podcast got in ahead of the competition, and it shows in the quality of every episode. Ostensibly, the show (presented by the brilliant Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich) is about science and recent scientific developments, but episodes have covered subjects such as a transgender gondolier, the powers of the American jury, and an outsider candidate in a New York council election. Really, the show just provides a home for the highest-quality, most interesting and most enjoyable radio documentaries out there. An episode from April on nuclear weapons, called ‘Nukes’, might be the best podcast episode I’ve ever listened to. If you’re not listening to Radiolab, you’re missing out on some of the best journalism to be found anywhere today.
Recommended episodes: Oliver Sipple, Revising the Fault Line, Nukes
Honorable mentions: It would be remiss to write a podcast article without mentioning This American Life, the grandaddy that has inspired and been imitated by more podcasts than it’s possible to count. Australia’s Hamish & Andy are reliably hilarious in their daily radio show podcast, and Marc Maron and Richard Herring both bring unique interview styles to their respective shows.
Also, at some point in November, Jon Ronson is going to release his podcast series The Butterfly Effect to free platforms like CastBox. I’ve already listened to it via Audible, and it is absolutely superb – catch it when you can.