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.