Your new favourite podcasts


If I had a pound for every time I have been asked to list my favourite podcasts… well, I would be no richer than I was at the start. However, just in case you have always been too frightened to ask, I thought I would take you through some of my favourite podcasts. Perfect for revision breaks, these!


Serial is so stunning it could surely rival any of its competitors in TV or film. Season 1 is about the case of Adnan Syed, who, at time of recording, has served 15 years in prison, for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig explores the facets of his case, the demons of Adnan’s defence attorney, and whether a miscarriage of justice has actually taken place. It’s very similar to the TV series Making a Murderer, and perhaps even more riveting. Season 2 is similarly compelling in its exploration of Bowe Bergdahl; held by the Taliban for 5 years, the US military have now decided to put him on trial for desertion.

This American Life

Go listen to episode 580 now; go on, do it, and I’ll be here when you get back. I can’t stress how significant an impact this episode had upon me. It’s called That’s One Way to Do It, and focusses upon those who find unusual solutions to problems. The main story is about a black, gay Donald Trump supporter. An 18 year old boy, in fact. Buffeted around the care system for years, he is eventually adopted by his third grade teacher. Yet, grounded in literalist Christian teaching, she refuses to accept his sexual orientation. What follows is a poignant, heart-breaking story of how this boy starts to support Donald Trump, the only candidate he believes can bring together his conservatism and his strong advocacy of gay rights. And then Donald Trump changes his mind: he opposes the right of same-sex couples to marry. The sense of tragedy is intense. I think we tend to assume that all Donald Trump supporters are racists, and indeed many of them are. Yet this is a story of isolation, impotence and naïvety, but, for this one supporter, it has nothing to do with racism. In its abrupt challenge to our ingrained sense of self-righteousness, this should be compulsory listening.

The podcast conveys the same sense of cosiness, yet at the same time encourages us to abandon our passivity in the face of the world’s problems

The New York Public Library Podcast

For all those bibliophiles out there, the NYPL podcast is incredible. When I was younger, I remember visiting the New York Public Library (lions, marble, maps). On the top floor was the Rose Reading Room: a sprawling space, packed full of books, tables and academics bent over ancient tomes. Something in that room bred security, as if it was a warm refuge or safe-house, insulated from the daily terrors the world retches up. The podcast conveys the same sense of cosiness, yet at the same time encourages us to abandon our passivity in the face of the world’s problems. Every week, writers, poets and artists are interviewed about their work. Perhaps my favourite discussion is between Paul Holdengräber and Azar Nafisi, a university lecturer who fled Tehran. Their talk is suffused with the idea of literature’s potency; as things fall apart around us, literature and the community it creates can become the greatest vehicle for empowerment that we have. Or as Kafka said, literature “must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Stuff You Should Know

This one was only recommended to me a couple of weeks ago, but it has become a firm favourite. It’s perfect for all those fact junkies out there, of which I am —proudly— one. Useful preparation for the next episode of Pointless or University Challenge, perhaps. Josh and Chuck, the presenters, cover topics as diverse as make-up, mass hysteria and reverse psychology — each episode is incredibly interesting. Without this podcast, for example, I never would have learnt the extent to which maps are distorted representations. Russia is ½ the size of Africa, but pictured as much bigger on most maps. And if you find this stuff really engaging and exciting (don’t judge me people), it’s definitely worth a listen!

In brief now, other great podcasts include The Bugle, Friday Night Comedy and the Guilty Feminist. All three take satirical looks at the world around us. The former, presented by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver (Last Week Tonight) is a brilliantly anarchic take on the chaos of the world. Perhaps The Bugle 292, in which the hosts have a meltdown after the 2015 general election results come in, is one of the best. Friday Night Comedy is usually very similar to —and just as funny as— TV programmes like Mock the Week, while The Guilty Feminist challenges popular misconceptions about feminism. All three stay true to George Bernard Shaw’s mantra, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

All these podcasts are available on iTunes and online. If I’ve missed any really good podcasts out, please let me know below. I’ll give them a listen!

Photograph: César Astudillo via Flickr

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