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. They might just make the commute your favourite part of the day...
Words by Matt Tate, Sam Kieldsen and Jessica Derwent
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