Turn on the radio these days and 99 percent of the time you might as well be shovelling horse manure into your lugholes - but thankfully technology means you don’t ever have to reach for that dial again.
We’re talking about podcasts, of course: 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 podcasts around, where do you get started? Right here, that’s where…
The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium
Best for: Production values
The name Jermaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame, might be the thing that draws your attention to this, but it’s the awesome sound design that justifies its US$4.99 per month Howl subscription. The surreal seafaring story is marvellously brought to life by location-recorded effects, music by the artist Lawrence Arabia and memorable voices and accents.
It’s best listened to with headphones, to catch all the action happening ‘off-stage’. What you might not hear, however, is the sound of your own laughter. The writing is slick, the plot and characters superbly silly, but somehow Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium fails to be as listenable and endlessly quotable as, say, The Mighty Boosh. Or, indeed, Conchords.
Try this episode: Episode 1: Cheese Dreams in Gravy Isles
Shut Up & Sit Down
Best for: Board game buzz
If you think a podcast about board games sounds like the perfect sleep aid for a long haul flight, ‘SU&SD’ will change your mind. Its three mega-informed hosts discuss the design and mechanics of board games with such frenetic enthusiasm that you can’t help but go and pre-order their latest role-playing recommendation.
They have a background in video games too, so expect some fascinating chat about the frequent crossover between the two (and the people who make them). But this is ultimately about the tactile, social joy of the tabletop game, and why it’s good to occasionally switch off your PS4 to revel in a game of Dead of Winter.
Try this episode: Podcast #35: Rebellion in an Airport
No Such Thing As A Fish
Best for: Trivia pursuers
Looking for some emergency trivia bombs to fill your next awkward silence? This weekly, 40-minute show from the Q.I’s research team is here to arm you up. The four hosts take it in turns to reveal their favourite fact from the past week, with each one prodded and probed until it flowers into a ‘quite interesting’ conversation.
The effect is similar to clicking on ‘random’ on Wikipedia – think subjects like ferret copulation and postbox design – so it’s a bit like listening to a vodka-fuelled edition of ‘In Our Time’. But the next time your dinner party chat turns to aircraft carriers, you’ll be ready to chime in with a mesmerising fact about how they work.
Try this episode: Episode 72: No Such Thing As A Bacon Telescope
Alice Isn’t Dead
Best for: Creeping yourself out
You want weird? You’ve got weird! This is the story of one woman driving a truck across the United States in search of a wife she previously thought dead. On the way she encounters some sort of deadly man/creature who seems intent on stopping her and apparently has the police on his side.
The whole story is narrated by the woman via the truck’s CB radio, which enhances the already eerie, other-worldly nature of the events described. Probably one to listen to during the commute rather than in bed - assuming you want to avoid the chills.
Try this episode: 1: Omelet
Best for: Next level gamers
Taking its cue from Desert Island Discs, Final Games puts games industry veterans in a similarly uninhabited but somehow electrically-powered place, and asks them to explain which eight games they’d choose to take with them.
Ex-Rockstar employee Liam Edwards hosts from the floor of his Japanese apartment, talking to journalists and developers across the world about the games that have defined them, influenced them or got them into the games industry in the first place. Key episodes include Bastion designer Greg Kasavin discussing why DOTA 2 is the perfect video game, and the journalist Rich Stanton talking about cult classic God Hand while explaining why a major outlet’s 2/10 review was way off the mark.
Try this episode: Episode 16: Greg Kasavin (Bastion / Transistor)
The Adam Buxton Podcast
Best for: Making you smile
There are two types of people in the world: those who know and love Adam Buxton, and those who lead sad, unfulfilled lives. Once one half of The Adam and Joe Show on telly and Saturday mornings on 6 Music, Adam’s finally launched his own podcast in which he meets up and chats with a pretty diverse bunch of people, from Louis Theroux to Kathy Burke to Jonny Greenwood.
He’s not a ‘proper’ interviewer, but there’s a charm and openness to everything Adam does that makes him great to spend time with. In fact, the intros and outros, recorded while he’s out walking his dog, Rosie, are probably the best bits.
Try this episode: EP. 11 - Joe Cornish
My Dad Wrote a Porno
Best for: Putting your own familial dysfunctionality into perspective
What would you do if your dad suddenly (and seemingly drunkenly) self-published an erotic novel, despite the fact that he’s a pretty terrible writer and evidently has no concept of what’s sexy or even a basic understanding of female anatomy?
The answer probably isn’t read it to the world chapter-by-chapter, but that’s exactly what James Morton did, and he brought his two horrified and bewildered friends along for the ride. The result is a 13-part podcast that’s at turns hilarious and so cringe-inducing it hurts. Who knew the ‘pots and pans’ industry could be so debauched?
Try this episode: Episode 4 - The Maze / The First Client
Best for: Hardcore musos
Like a director’s commentary for music, Song Exploder’s 15-minute episodes take individual tunes, break them down to their constituent parts and ask the artists responsible to tell the stories behind them. That means it’s not a podcast you’ll necessarily want to listen to every episode of, more likely picking and choosing the ones that feature bands you’re into, but the insight is frequently fascinating.
Whether it’s Joey Bada$$ revealing that his producer finds samples on YouTube, Warpaint sharing an alternative ending to Love Is To Die, or the original guitar-only demo for The National’s Sea of Love, Song Exploder is a music nerd’s dream.
Try this episode: Episode 47: Warpaint – Love Is To Die
Best for: The US Presidential Election
To misquote a blond-haired buffoon (not Boris), ‘It’s been a yuuuuge year for politics.’ Following on from the UK’s Brexit referendum and both the US Republican and Democrat primaries, it’s almost time for 2016’s greatest face-off yet: Clinton vs Trump. Will the land of the free soon be ruled by a man whose enthusiasm for casual xenophobia is rivalled only by his adoration of fake tan?
This podcast will tell you. It’s about the polling of elections, not the media narrative surrounding them, and is run by Nate Silver. He’s a statistician who correctly predicted the 2010 general election result in all 50 states. When this guy talks about politics, it’s worth listening.
Try this episode: DOC: Obama and his Pastor
Best for: Tech without the specs
A lot of tech podcasts examine their subject with a surgeon’s knife, delving into specs and release dates, but this one takes a refreshing step back by discussing how it fits into everyday life. Its two hosts also live on either side of the Atlantic (hence the title’s dual spelling), which helps it unearth the subtle differences between how the US and UK use their gadgets.
Not that it’s just about subjects like Instagram versus Twitter – the unstructured feel and range of topics means it fits more into the ‘two guys talking’ genre. But the fact the one is a developer and the other a full-time podcaster means it often returns to subjects like the unexpected benefits of Skype’s fake dialling tone.
Try this episode: Episode 67: Don't Blame The Coffee, Blame The Moron
The 2000 AD Thrill Cast
Best for: Comics fiends
Home of grim-faced lawman Judge Dredd, 2000 AD has been flinging oddball British sci-fi your way since the late 1970s. The 2000 AD Thrill-Cast is packed full of insight and interviews, chatting with some of the industry’s biggest creators.
The podcast has a kind of restless energy, and its sometimes lo-fi discussions are frequently entertaining and interesting. Fans will also welcome the chance to win some comic-related bling and get to hear exclusive announcements about upcoming strips and merchandise. Just don’t let Dredd hear you listening, or he’ll hurl you into the Iso Cubes. “Accessing subversive audio casts. Five years, creep!”
Try this episode: The John Wagner Interview: Part One
The (still great) classics
These classic 'casts might not be new year, but they're still going strong with regular episodes topping up their bulging back catalogues...
Science and philosophy are the chief concerns of this podcast and radio show from New York public station WNYC, but it’s certainly not dense or exclusive – the idea is to make topics within these areas accessible and approachable.
There’s a lot of talking, obviously, but the tight editing style and use of experimental music keep things moving along swiftly and enhance the stories being told. If you like This American Life, you’ll find Radiolab sits very much in the same category. Thought-provoking and compelling.
Scouse songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor make up Sodajerker, and when they’re not locked in the studio crafting music for movie scores and pop artists they’re making this fascinating podcast about the art of songwriting.
Most episodes feature Sodajerker (the name refers to the person operating the soda fountain in a US drug store, apparently) in conversation with a noted musician, with recent instalments picking the note-filled brains of Loudon Wainwright III, Suzanne Vega, Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, and Billy Bragg.
Guardian Football Weekly
Now that the football season is close to getting underway, it’s the ideal time to start tuning into James Richardson and cohorts’ in-depth look into the week’s games and goings-on.
A world away from the blustery, sweaty, laddish and loud-mouthed world of sports-focussed talk radio, the always-amusing Richardson and his highly knowledgable guests offer the sort of witty, erudite and analysis-based view of the beautiful game that’s seemingly impossible to find anywhere else.
Sticking with sport, this is BBC Radio 5 Live’s weekly panel-show-cum-news-review, in which guests compete for points by dispensing well-informed nuggets of punditry. Ill-informed comments, meanwhile, see them penalised by having points knocked off.
It might be weighted more towards being entertaining and amusing than being an all-knowing look at the world of professional sport, but it’s nevertheless a lighthearted way to keep up to date with the past seven days’ of sporting happenings.
The podcast of the radio show of the bestselling book, Freakonomics digs into the world from an economist’s point of view.
What do we mean by that? Well, we mean that it examines and analyses interesting subjects by applying economic theory to them – and often comes close to explaining them in ways that may not have occurred to you. Religion, child-rearing, diet, tipping, foibles of human behaviour – when put through Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s witty, entertaining prism, these subjects become all the more enthralling.
Stuff You Should Know
Did you know that the Male Pillow Octopus will sometimes break off one of his arms and use it as a sword to defend himself against bigger fishes? Have you ever wondered about the chemical properties in Play-Doh?
We didn’t, until we started listening to Stuff You Should Know, a twice-weekly podcast by American bloggers Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, who like to talk about absolutely everything under the sun. Affiliated with website Howstuffworks.com, this podcast is wonderfully easy listening, and packed full of information you’d never learn otherwise. There are 600+ SYSK podcasts to get stuck into.
Listen to Stuff You Should Know
Pop Culture Happy Hour
Do you like pop culture? Of course you do (or you probably wouldn’t be perusing this list) – and therefore you should consider becoming a regular listener to this podcast from NPR (essentially America’s answer to the BBC).
Looking at mainstream films, television, books, music and more with a level of erudition, depth and intelligence rarely found on US broadcast media (there’s very little shouting going on here), it’s a fantastic way to keep up with what “da kidz” are into.
Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour
Quite simply, this podcast consists of stories. True stories to be exact, told to a roomful of strangers by a single person standing under a single light (hence the podcast's name) and recorded for everyone else in the world to listen to.
Sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching (and sometimes both) – but almost always totally gripping. The storytellers are a diverse bunch: some are famous, some are ordinary people, but all have extraordinary tales to tell.
Listen to The Moth
Welcome to Night Vale
More stories – but this time certainly fictional. Welcome to Night Vale is an episodic tale told through the medium of a community radio broadcast. Drily, darkly humorous, its fortnightly instalments of news, weather and bizarre adverts create a vivid picture of a small American desert town where weirdness is commonplace. If you loved Twin Peaks, you’ll appreciate its offbeat tone. And you can keep up to date with town goings-on between episodes through the podcast’s Twitter feed.
Listen to Welcome to Night Vale
After finishing the incredible first series of satirical news show Brass Eye, Chris Morris returned to radio to create Blue Jam, broadcast on Radio 1 in the early hours of the morning between 1997 and 1999.
Mixing surreal comedy sketches with ambient soundscapes and disquieting monologues delivered by Morris himself, Blue Jam was unlike anything else that had ever been – or ever would be – on the nation’s premier radio station. You can download all 18 episodes in MP3 or OGG format from the archive linked below.
The Flop House
There’s not exactly a shortage of geeks-making-fun-of-terrible-movies stuff on the web, but The Flop House stands out from the pack due to its presenters, a trio of friends whose quick-fire interactions with each other immediately make you feel like you’re part of the group.
They know a lot about terrible movies, too. Each of the 150+ episodes concentrates on one bad film, generally a new release – and dissects its awfulness in hilarious fashion.
Again, there’s plenty of retro gaming-related content available on the web, thanks largely to YouTube “Let’s Play” videos, but if you can’t or don’t want to stare at some form of screen for an hour and half, it’s good to know that there’s a podcast that’ll cater for your 8- and 16-bit needs.
And Retronauts is that podcast. For better or worse, its indepth-ness verges on the nerdy at times, and it’s lengthy – but as an exploration of brilliant games from a bygone era, there’s nothing to beat it.
All Songs Considered
Another podcast from NPR, All Songs Considered is a frequently updated radio show-type podcast in which host Bob Boilen plays new music and chats to artists about their work and influences.
It’s been running since 2000 and became a podcast in 2005 – and it’s simply a great way to keep up to date with what’s going on in music (particularly indie rock, although other genres do feature). A must for anyone who knows their Ariel Pink from their Air Supply.
Listen to All Songs Considered