With the advent of television, logic and public opinion decreed that radio was dead. Why merely listen when you can listen with pictures? How wrong that was. It may be the golden age of TV, with Netflix a non-negotiable fixture in most households, but it is surely a platinum age for radio and podcasts. The hysteria that surrounded last year's Serial was a very visible demonstration of this trend, but really exciting stuff has been going on in free spoken word content for a very long time, so we thought it was the moment to crown our particular favourites. From the old guard to innovative newcomers, through the thoughtful, funny, wise and sublime, here are the ten podcasts that inspire our minds, soothe our heartaches and take us inside the brains of some of the most interesting people on the planet.
This American Life
It’s the ultimate radio show – the one that turned Ira Glass into an international intellectual pin-up and where Serial’s Sarah Koenig earnt her broadcasting stripes. Taking a new theme each week – Döppelgangers; No Coincidence, No Story; and the recent headline hitting two-parter Cops See It Differently – the producers dig into the fabric of the American experience, exposing truth, tragedy and surreal weirdness with a deftness of touch that has been much aped yet never equalled. Everyone who listens has a favourite episode that made them cry or laugh or understand life a bit better – we say try Who’s Canadian?, 24 Hours at the Golden Apple, Same Bed Different Dreams and anything with a contribution from the Davids – Rackoff and Sedaris.
You’ve probably heard of this one. A record-breaking piece of broadcasting – it’s the first podcast to be downloaded more than 5 million times – Serial’s week-by-week analysis of the case of Adnan Syed, convicted on dubious evidence of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hai Min Lee in their final year of high school, caused ferocious debate on Reddit and at dinner tables around the world. You couldn't move for people expostulating about Jay's guilt, debating the Nisha call, imitating Cristina Guitierrez and lauding Mail Chimp. But, ground-breaking as it was, host Sarah Koenig credits Serial's radical success to its old-fashioned style and values – “this is not an original idea. Maybe in podcast form it is, and trying to do it as a documentary story is really, really hard. But trying to do it as a serial, this is as old as Dickens.” The next series is rumoured to be nearly complete – expect mass hysteria when it's released.
Desert Island Discs
Desert Island Discs is, without doubt, the grandee of radio interview shows. First heard on the BBC Home Service during WWII, the whole awesome archive is now available in podcast form, allowing everyone in the world to imagine themselves washed up by Eric Coates’ Sleepy Lagoon in the company of Hollywood luminaries, literary geniuses, media personalities, political heavyweights and scientific pioneers. Texture is given to each autobiography through coaxing yet unflinching questions, while the music selections reveal vulnerability, unexpected cachet and, at times, an overly efficient PR machine. Dive in with the glorious Kathy Burke, gasp at Jessica Moseley's assertions about Hitler, revel in Tennessee Williams' Southern drawl, download every one of Sir Torquil Norman’s charming selections, and invite Kirsty Young to all your parties.
WTF with Marc Maron
A fan once told Marc Maron that he was like an “Iggy Pop Woody Allen” – a sobriquet that he likes so much he’s incorporated it into his About page – and the energy and hyper self-aware depressive tendencies of both are evident in this furious, funny and often emotional podcast. Maron interviews celebrities, mainly comedians, but also musicians and actors on their inspirations and personal lives, in encounters that often feel less like interviews and more like therapy sessions. The archive spans more than 600 episodes – Robin Williams, Louis C.K., Nick Cave, Sarah Silverman, Chrissie Hynde and Harry Shearer have all appeared – and the podcast remains extraordinary because of Maron himself, who is unafraid of asking difficult questions and revealing personal weakness. Judd Apatow summed up the power of Maron and WTF in an interview with the New York Times – ““What helps him is the fact that people mistakenly think that no one is going to listen to it, when in fact a ton of people listen to it, and it will last forever.”
Want to be a journalist? Or rather, want to know what makes the greatest journalists do their job so well? Then Longform is the podcast for you. Like all the best, it has a very simple structure – each week one of the three founders speaks to a prominent voice in non-fiction writing, allowing them to expand on their route into journalism, the stories that forged their reputations, the setbacks they faced, and the techniques that have served them best. The result is a complex web of autobiography and advice that transcends journalism. An exquisite example is Ariel Levy’s interview, a total must-hear, which deals both with her rise through the ranks to profile writer for the New Yorker and how she coped with the unprecedented public reaction to her staggering essay Thanksgiving in Mongolia.
5 x 15
5 x 15 evenings have been a joyful part of London’s literary life for many years now, so their arrival in podcast form is fantastic news for those further afield. The premise is simple: writers, poets, thinkers, musicians, scientists, broadcasters and many more talk for 15 minutes about something they are intrigued by. Geoff Dyer on train travel, Will Self on doubt, Viv Albertine on life in the Slits, Lynne Barber on her four day bender with Salvador Dalí, Matt Haig on depression – it is a chance to see a new side of an intriguing person, secure in the knowledge they won’t be allowed to bang on.
On paper, this is a podcast that considers under-explored moments in science, history and philosophy. So far, so interesting. But what makes the show unique is the innovative editing – co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich and their producers weave voices, sound effects and music together to utterly enthralling effect, creating complex soundscapes that push the boundaries of the radio experience, while asking questions like "Is colour physical?" It’s slick and structured yet true – as Abumrad says, they’re “trying to capture the rhythms and the movements, the messiness of the actual experience...It sounds like life.”
Another simple one – true stories told live to a sold out audience in an infamous NY nightclub. It’s all hilarity, heartbreak and inspiration, demonstrating the obvious joy of hearing unedited real people recounting their weirdest and saddest moments.
It’s a truism that it’s boring and deeply impolite to talk about money – yet somehow this podcast manages to do it in style. Providing a witty take on the economy, the hosts of this twice-weekly podcast investigate the stories that absolutely do and absolutely don’t affect everyone – from the floundering economy and the finances of advertising to the reality of a world without jobs, where robots did everything. It’s hard to make the economy interesting – we’re just thrilled that someone’s managed it.
Helmed by prominent and passionate gay activist and agony uncle Dan Savage, this podcast is a beacon of sex positive light amid a prudish establishment. Anonymous callers leave their sometimes heartbreaking, often odd and extraordinary problems on an answerphone, and Savage responds with wisdom, kindness and total acceptance, bringing in doctors and experts to advise if the query is beyond his abilities. A haven for troubled teenagers and conflicted adults the world over, one that constantly reiterates the paramount importance of just being true to yourself.