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
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.
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.
The Virtual Pub
Best for: people missing the pub in this particular pandemic
“Pub?” It’s that one enticing question we’re all missing right now. A cold pint in a beer garden with friends, sharing how we’ve been getting on, having a laugh about select news stories across the globe and taking part (usually doing terribly) in a pub quiz.
That’s where the The Virtual Pub comes in - bringing the best of being at your local in one digestible episode, every Friday at knock-off time. Plus, for an unedited version, they record live on Twitch.
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.