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