This is a quick blog written while in transit with iffy wifi, so links are minimal and the information contained within potentially unreliable.
I don’t know when it happened but at least five or six years ago I became a true podcast aficionado. Podcasts are the ideal mechanism for infovores like me to continually learn about the world as I travel, exercise or simply lie in bed. I find that my professional practice as a researcher and consultant is refreshed and enhanced by what I hear on these shows.
Below is a list of podcasts that I wholeheartedly recommend to others in a similar situation to myself, working in research, or in the arts, or transatlantically, or with an insatiable interest in understanding political and social systems that get only the most cursory examination in the regular news media.
Some of the podcasts here come from major broadcasters, some are from small outfits who are simply a passionate and committed to sharing and exploring, and the rest come from an increasingly important group of Podcast Networks (such as Gimlet or Radiotopia) which may in turn displace and replace the traditional radio broadcast networks.
I’ve grouped them in the following idiosyncratic categories:
- Essential for artsy folk
- Essential for social sciencey folk
- Wonderfully crafted human stories
- Sundry delights
1: Essential for artsy folk
The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is not just a way to listen to stories from the archive of the New Yorker. It’s a chance to hear from contemporary writers who select, read, and reflect upon a story of their choosing from the archive. They are guided through this process by the sweetly voiced fiction editor at the New Yorker, Deborah Treisman.
The Spectator Books podcast (and there are many just like it from other magazines and newspapers) is part of the carousel of media appearances and interviews that are made by authors of new books in print. Sam Leith makes for a well-informed and impish host, and it’s never overly long.
99 Percent Invisible is a podcast all about design. It is so committed to the principles of good design that the sound-rich and warm tones of the podcast are a delight to listen to. Everything from systems design, architecture, advertising and transport are covered. It’s an insightful and jargon-free way to understand the profound ways in which we are shaped by the world around us.
In Our Time is a public service broadcasting at its best. Host Melvyn Bragg can often get grumpy with his academic guests (specially selected for each show) if they aren’t able to be clear or decisive in what they are saying, but every episode is like a mini-primer on the subject chosen that week. There are interesting episodes on science and technology, but I think it works best when the subject is connected to art, culture, philosophy or history. Dive into the archive.
2: Essential for social sciencey folk
Freakonomics is the podcast brought to you by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the guys behind the Freakonomics books. Despite its puntastic name the show is about all varieties of social science: psychology, anthropology, sociology, and it does a fantastic job of explaining things in a jargon-free way.
The Ezra Klein Show is hosted by the frighteningly young editor of Vox. His instincts and ethics seem to match my own, so his well-crafted 1:1 interviews with politicians, academics, journalists and other assorted eggheads always seem to take a satisfying (if depressing, this is 2017) turn.
Philosophy Bites is the long running project Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds. They do a fantastic job of breaking down complicated philosophical concepts into little bite sized chunks, and they have a helpful habit of beginning every show with a request that the guest explain exactly what they mean by the term or phrase that is the subject under consideration.
Planet Money is the finance and economics show on NPR in the US. Their style is to take a big news story that seems abstract and technical, and show using classic public interest reportage how it plays out in the everyday lives of people making or selling goods and services around the world.
Revisionist History is Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. Okay, so not everyone in sociology likes Malcolm Gladwell. I get that. But his popularising of social science findings in the New Yorker and his best-selling books means that his methods and style are always worth observing. The podcast features plenty of ‘Gladwellian’ counterintuitive takes on social norms and human quirks.
More Or Less is a vital part of any podcast list for those of us who care about facts and evidence. It debunks myths, picks apart headlines and generally holds bullshitters to account. It’s got to the stage where some items in the show end up being informed by previous episodes… because zombie stats refuse to die. Despite this, it seems all involved in the programme refuse to become cynical misanthropists. Miracles do happen.
3: Wonderfully crafted human stories
This American Life is probably most British people’s entry point into podcasts. It’s another from the NPR stable, and I believe it’s now syndicated on BBC radio. Each week the producers pick a theme, and bring you a set of stories on that theme. It’s always compassionate and always captivating. As with all great narrative journalism, the show does a fabulous job of revealing the ways in which people are shaped by (and in turn shape) the society in which they live.
Reply All is hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, whose infectious love for tech and each other means that every show is a hoot. The podcast is essentially about technology, computers and the internet. There’s enough techie talk to keep your geeky needs satisfied, but what it really excels at is explaining the technological systems and economies that shape our everyday lives that few of us ever see and even fewer understand.
Heavyweight is hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, who has taken the same format he used for CBC’s Wiretap (which frequently had segments syndicated on This American Life) and let it blossom in laconic style to create this podcast about life’s failures and regrets.
4: Sundry delights
From Our Own Correspondent is Kate Adie’s round-up of short news stories from overlooked and under-reported parts of the world. Savage Lovecast is all the therapy you need for your love life and personal ethics. The Weeds is a policy discussion show that is sufficiently wonky for my hyper-wonky tastes. The Totally Football Show is where the jovial and cosmopolitan James Richardson has taken his puns and football chatter after years with the Guardian. Little Atoms is a reliable podcast for bringing on some of the more far-out and provocative thinkers passing through the media circus. The World in Time is Lewis Lapham’s podcast, which often feels like a bookish fireside chat with Great Uncle Lewis. Page 94 is the Private Eye podcast, which tends to go deeper than the magazine on investigative matters.