There are loads of documentary series for you. I presume you’ve already done S-Town, which out-Serials Serial in its presenter-led, gradually revelatory, unexpectedly moving truths. You could also try the BBC’s Tunnel 29, the brilliant true story of young men who dug a tunnel from west Berlin to east Berlin in the 60s and then smuggled people out.
Jon Ronson’s excellent, morally questioning two series about the porn industry, The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August, unfold like thrillers. And true crime: well, where should I start? Two of the most gripping are Dirty John and To Live and Die in LA, plus there’s a great Joe Exotic: Tiger King podcast that’s far more in-depth than the Netflix show.
For fiction: We’re Alive is an absorbing, sprawling zombie series that came out in 2009, with a final series last year. It’s had more than 200m downloads, and is definitely addictive. Also older but worth trying are Limetown and Homecoming, which features David Schwimmer. Last year’s Blackout, starring Rami Malek, is set in the US during a nationwide power grid outage, so there are some unsettling parallels with our current situation. See the next question for British drama…
What British drama podcasts are worth listening to? I have heard some of the American material like Night Vale and The Black Tapes… but are there any homegrown podcasts out there worth checking out?
British drama podcasts are getting a lot better. I highly recommend The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Whisperer in Darkness, Julian Simpson’s up-to-the-minute reworkings of HP Lovecraft. The shows are made as though you’re listening to a podcast called Mystery Machine, and are properly scary and weird (there’s an extra EP towards the end of the second series that is exceptionally chilling).
There are more spooky stories in Tracks, written by Matthew Broughton: four excellently frightening series (the last came out in October last year), in which Dr Helen Ash is put through all sorts of terrifying wringers. The Ash Tree, made by Bafflegab, has just won a big award, and is short enough to binge in one go. The Tower is experimental and atmospheric. Humour? Victoriocity is a funny show, as are Wooden Overcoats and the brilliant Beef and Dairy Network Podcast. This Thing of Darkness, also from the BBC, is unusual: a forensic psychiatrist follows the psychiatric impact of the murder of a young man on his family, while working with prisoners in group therapy.
Any recommendations for UK politics and current affairs podcasts beyond the Guardian and BBC?
If you’re anti-Brexit, you might find your crew in Remainiacs, where a bunch of clever people talk about what leaving Europe means and might mean in the future – and yes, it’s still going, despite our farewell to the EU on 31 January, and despite coronavirus. From the same small podcasting company comes politics show The Bunker, which is just as insider-y and on-the-button, only without so much Brexit. The Tortoise Podcast is a newbie show that takes stories (not just from the UK, though there are a lot) and goes into more detail than most. And For the Many, from LBC, is an upbeat and informed show with LBC presenter Iain Dale (confessed Thatcherite) and former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith (obviously not) having a laugh while dissecting the UK’s current affairs and politics. Dale ensures that they cover all the right topics, and the atmosphere is clever, but light (and quite fnar fnar).
I spend a lot of time playing video games. I am new to podcasts. Are there any out there for me?
You’re in luck! A brand new video game podcast has just come out: This Game Changed My Life. Games experts Aoife Wilson and Julia Hardy interview someone new every week about how, precisely, they were changed by a console, a virtual world and umpteen levels. These are far from ordinary stories: try the episode with Abdullah, who escaped the Syrian civil war when he was 18 – in an oil barrel at one point – and then made a computer game about it. Let’s Talk About Tech is more straightforward: chatty, up-to-date, useful. One of the most longstanding video games podcast from the US is the Giant Bombcast, which is exactly how you imagine (a bro/nerd/bantz-cast that could benefit from an editing button) and has been going so long, there are more than 600 episodes to choose from… Interesting fact: one of the Giant Bombcast’s previous video producers is Drew Scanlon, known across the internet as the sceptical “blinking white guy” meme.
I don’t want to listen to more grisly true crime. Are there any mysteries without the murder you can recommend?
There’s a nice branch of true crime that we might call true crime schadenfreude, where fast-talking, hubristic, money-mad charlatans (usually) get caught out. Here are a few: Uncover’s first series, Escaping NXIVM, about a weird self-improvement movement/cult that involved the actor Allison Mack from Smallville; WeCrashed, which tells the story of the once-madly successful WeWork real estate firm and how its bubble burst; The Dropout, which follows Elizabeth Holmes and her blood-testing company Theranos; The Missing Cryptoqueen, about a bitcoin pyramid scheme… All are presented in that OMG-what’s-next? true-crime manner, but the body counts are very low.
You might also like the schlocky but addictive American Scandal, which has covered the Lenny Bruce obscenity trial, Enron and other unsavoury but non-murderous events (avoid Waco, for obvious death reasons). Or Mortem, which gives us a crime that never actually happened, but uses real experts to solve it. Or how about politics-as-whodunnits? Try Floodlines, about the Katrina hurricane response; the first two Slate Slow Burn series; or The Other Latif, a personal tale that leads to Guantanamo Bay.
I have just turned 50, am raising a family and tend to listen to Radio 4. Podcasts have so far eluded me. What is the appeal of them? Are there any the family could enjoy together?
Victoria (a confused working mum of young teenage boys)
Podcasts are, almost always, designed for individual listening, on headphones. So, you find the ones you like, subscribe to them, and then they turn up regularly on your phone and you listen whenever you want. Very few podcasts are made for group listening, though some can work that way… Off Menu with Ed Gamble and James Acaster is funny and warm, and has guests with teenage appeal. Reply All, which seems to be about technology but is in fact about humanity, is occasionally a bit adult (drug mentions) but there are many episodes that are great for teenagers: try episodes 102 and 103, where Alex Goldman goes to India to try to track down a scam caller; 114, which discusses Logan Paul; 130, about a Snapchat scam; or 158, where a listener tries to track down an earworm of a pop song. Emotive and gripping, it’s a perfect episode. Answer Me This!, the longstanding listener-question podcast, definitely works as a family listen. If your sons like football, my son (14) recommends HITC FTW, a YouTube podcast that works without visuals. However, it’s very likely to drive you personally bananas, so check out some of my other recommendations. Then you can get your own podcast habit, put on your headphones and ignore your children as and when you please.
Can you recommend a good music podcast with people being interviewed?
Music rights are still a problem for many podcasts – podcasters can’t play full tracks because it costs too much money and is too difficult to arrange – though record companies might start working a bit harder to find a solution now Spotify is focusing on podcasts. The classic music podcast is Song Exploder, a carefully produced show where musicians pull apart one of their own songs and explain how it was made. Dissect concentrates on albums, over a number of episodes, interviewing those who were involved; it’s covered LPs by Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, and two of Kendrick Lamar’s – Damn and To Pimp a Butterfly. Questlove Supreme sees Questlove interview his musician friends in a revealing and engaging manner (Jimmy Jam is great); Spotify’s Stay Free: The Story of the Clash and Slow Burn’s Who Really Killed Biggie and Tupac? go in deep and detailed. The Sound of the Hound is about British recording history, the sound engineers that brought us the first recording studio and the music made there.
Hello! I’m looking for a podcast for children to listen to to boost their confidence…
I really tried with this one, but there are very few British offerings. Our children can learn history, maths, languages, anything academic – yet self-esteem is not a teachable subject in the UK, apparently. As you might imagine, the US has plenty. One of the biggest – and most alien to the UK listeners – is Dream Big. Presented by 10-year-old Eva Karpman and her mum Olga, this podcast interviews some big names and is usually about 20 minutes long. There are some nice short episodes made specifically for our lockdown, such as how to deal with your annoying siblings.
Less irritating is Short and Curly, which looks at tricky questions such as: “Are you free?” Fierce Girls, from Australia, tells dramatised life stories of feisty Aussie women; Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is the tales from the book, read out loud, one per episode. To be honest, I remember learning confidence from various literary heroes and heroines when I was young, so you might also want to check out the numerous audiobooks for kids (Audible is offering them free at the moment), or story podcasts (Fun Kids has loads to offer here).
Podcasts to drift off to sleep to, please. Nothing too heavy!
Personally, I find single voice podcasts are often the way to go if you want to fall asleep: you could try Michael Goldfarb’s podcast FRDH – First Rough Draft of History. He has one of the loveliest voices in radio, plus an experienced journalist’s eye, so if you don’t drift off, you’ll be learning all the while. Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist is making calming podcasts for these uncalm times: The Tranquillusionist features her reading out soothing words, or the names of dogshow winners. You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s long-running show about Hollywood’s darker side, is pretty relaxing too (careful with the Manson episodes…), mostly because her tone is quite unwavering. There’s a bit of music, but not too much. Skip the adverts at the beginning.
Miranda, anything you could recommend that relates to being a woman, in her 50s, who feels invisible in the world? I could just do with listening to a little honesty and humour from like-minded women (preferably not celebs – for me, wellbeing is tainted by the word “Goop”!).
Warning: I would avoid almost every US podcast with the word mid-life in its title. But there are a couple of great UK ones out there. Fortunately… with Fi and Jane (Glover and Garvey), while not directly dealing with midlife, is genuinely life-affirming, mostly because Glover and Garvey’s middle-agey-ness comes through with warmth and realism, and not too much hand-wringing. They interview guests, but not very Goop-y ones.
Lorraine Candy and Trish Halpin, both women’s magazine supremos, recently started Postcards from Midlife. As you might imagine, in this podcast middle age is dealt with in a glossy-mag manner, with direct discussions about libido changes, skin differences and how to cope with teenagers. The Last Bohemians, about older, free-spirited women, is a great podcast to help us middle-aged ones remember that there is plenty of life out there still to be lived.
I love Radiolab, but is there anything like it and just as good?
There’s not really anything quite the same as Radiolab’s forensic reporting and experimental sound techniques, but there are shows that are just as good. You could try Love + Radio, which uses interesting sound techniques to tell personal (rather than scientific) stories. Or Have You Heard George’s Podcast, where Benbrick’s beautiful production helps George the Poet to weave the spell of his fact/fiction/social realism/music journalism/political discourse/poetry.
99% Invisible looks at design to help us understand how we live, but the production is much more straightforward. You might like The Memory Palace, too: history, emotion and gorgeous sound, with Nate DiMeo.
I am a busy and sometimes quite isolated sheep farmer looking for a real sense of connection through listening: uplifting but honest conversations with all kinds of people about the beauty and challenges of their lives.
There used to be a great podcast for this: iPM, a spinoff from the PM show, where the stories were based around listeners’ experiences. It’s no longer made, but there are lots of episodes and some great true-life tales in there. Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin, where we hear real people discuss their relationship problems in a therapy session, is thoroughly absorbing and human, mostly because of Perel’s steering and insights. And I found The Log Books, born of people’s notes at the LGBTQ+ Switchboard helpline in the late 70s and early 80s, to be very moving.