There has never been a better time for podcasts. Though the format has been around for a couple of decades now, it's only in the last few years that they really hit their stride. You might say that we're living through a golden age of podcasts, if you're the kind of person who needs all their culture categorised into neat eras.
But podcasts themselves seem to live in the wild. You need a David Attenborough to point the way through the undergrowth and stop you wasting time wandering down dead ends. So to that end, this is our pick of the best new podcasts that have arrived in 2020, as well as our highlight from long-running favourites. We've even herded them into neat little categories for you too. Need anything else? Want us to pop your Airpods in for you too? Oh, go on then. We're all friends here.
We Need To Talk About The British Empire
We're not particularly good at remembering the less gilded parts of our recent national history and while you might have done a few lessons on slavery at high school, as a nation we’re pretty blasé about Britain’s tendency to stick its oar in where it’s not wanted. Its legacy is very much still with us though: look, for example, at the still-unfolding Windrush deportation scandal. Consider this podcast a sharpener. Over the course of six episodes, journalist and author Afua Hirsch digs into the legacy of empire by talking to British cultural figures whose complicated relationship with colonialism and empire comes through in their art, from poet Benjamin Zephaniah to Dame Diana Rigg, and from Hong Kong to the West African delta.
Available from 13 February
The Escape Artist
Arthur Cravan isn't in the roll call of Great British Artists, but this podcast tells his life story over ten 15-minute episodes and makes the case for him as a man working more than a century ahead of his time. His surreal, Dada-influenced stunts and pranks anticipated the Situationists of the late Fiftiess and his experiments speak to our troubles with fake news and trolls. His whole life was a kind of living artwork and you can see his influence in Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol among others. He wasn't just an artist though: he dodged conscription in the First World War and became the amateur heavyweight boxing champion of France.
It's the 50th anniversary of the band's poisonous break-up, but this project from the Liverpool Echo digs back into the very early years of the Beatles. Everyone in Liverpool has a Beatles story in their family, whether it's nana seeing them at the Cavern on her lunch hour or your dad's mate's uncle's mate who swears blind he sold George Harrison a Ford Cortina in 1963. This project from the Liverpool Echo tries to record them all before they fall out of living memory – take Helen Anderson, for instance, a contemporary of John Lennon at Liverpool College of Art. She made clothes for Lennon from sketches he gave her, and sat in on his early rehearsals at the college with Paul and George.
File under: Picking over the bones of disasters
Why do we make bad decisions? Is it just a lack of good judgement? Or are our brains hardwired to let us down? Tim Harford's retellings of disasters caused by one catastrophically poor choice suggest it's the latter, but there are lessons about how we live our lives day to day to be learned from them. For instance, the really very, very bad idea of steering a supertanker toward a dangerous reef becomes a parable about not being blinded by the pursuit of a goal, and a story about the time a band of soldiers were gulled into completing a heist digs into how we instinctively trust authority figures. Alan Cumming and Russell Tovey are among the cast for reconstructions.
We’ve had our share of political wrangling over here over the last 18 months or so, but in America things are only just gearing up for the elections in November. Don’t worry if you’re not certain how the primaries system works or what a caucus is: BBC heavyweights Emily Maitlis and John Sopel are here to make everything clear. It might seem like a long time until polling day, but even before we get to the question of whether Trump will win a second term or who will line up against him for the Democrats, there’s the ongoing palaver over the Iowa caucus to sort out. And there’s something oddly thrilling about hearing Maitlis say “shitshow”.
The Bugle Presents: The Last Post
Andy Zaltzman's long-running satirical current affairs podcast has a new 10-minute spin-off which joins the growing number of shortform daily podcasts which started to pop up in the second half of 2019. This one's hosted by Alice Fraser, but Zaltzman turns up in the first episode to preview all the political shenanigans coming up this year in America, and in the second Nish Kumar drops in for an update on everything that's been going on over on our shores.
A podcast examining ludicrous small town rumours and urban legends feels like such an obvious idea, and yet here we are. Joe Wilkinson, David Earl and Poppy Hillstead read out readers' submissions and decide which they like most. Some are obviously nonsense, like the tale of the baby who was born into a welly, grew into the shape of a welly and sadly died when it was mistaken for an actual welly and killed by a vicar who shoved his foot down its throat. Others are sort of believable, like the man who started getting baptised at as many different churches as possible as a sort of hobby and ended up racking up more than 50 dunkings without actually being a Christian. Get up to speed with the Best Of 2019 episode and get into series three this year.
If you've never really been into radio drama, this might be the radio drama for you. The things that might normally wind you up – constant grunting and sighing, characters walking into rooms and describing where they are and why they're there – are conspicuously absent. Then again, so are a lot of the other norms of radio drama. It's been described as a kind of audio Black Mirror, but the first episode, in which a soldier becomes scattered across time and space and begins to change events, is a lot more floaty and cosmic than Charlie Brooker's plot-centric futureshock series. Not exactly The Archers, then.
The Greatest Game
Pretty simple, this one: Jamie Carragher sits down to chat about the best game of football each guest has seen live or played in. That's about it, aside from a fairly standard bit where they pick a five-a-side team of ex-teammates or favourite players. What's interesting is the admirably insane seesawing in the quality of the guests. On the one hand: Thierry Henry, Steph Houghton, Jordan Henderson, Craig Bellamy. On the other: Niall Horan, Line of Duty's Martin Compston, Paddy McGuinness. The latest guest is firmly in the first camp, though. Steven Gerrard talks his good buddy Carra through his own favourite game – and it's not Istanbul 2005.
The Official Manchester United Podcast
Urgh. United. Insufferable when they were successful, unbearable when the edifice started crumbling and their fans moaned about finishing fifth, and somehow still awful now they're a mid-table irrelevance with more official noodle partners than functional central midfielders. We'll say this for them though: decent podcast. This being the official podcast, they can rope in absolutely stellar guests, from Paul Scholes and King Eric Cantona to Dimitar Berbatov, whose tale of being kidnapped while playing for CSKA Sofia needs to be heard to be believed.
The Football Book Club
File under: Reviews of cloggers' doggerel
This homebrewed podcast from comedy writers James Bugg, Jack Bernhardt, Amy Lawson and James Boughen mines the bathos and strangeness of life stories by people who got to live the dream, and got half a dozen fairly workaday anecdotes out of it. Its first episode tackles journeyman striker Darren Huckerby's Hucks: Through Adversity to Great Heights, a tome which includes reminiscences of the young Hucks' condemned digs in Lincoln which nearly killed his teammate Matt Carbon – they thought he liked a kip by the heater, but it turned out he was being repeatedly poisoned with carbon monoxide – and the weird world of his friend Lee Croft, who was convinced that you could see monkeys in the treetops of Wigan "if you looked hard enough" and that he was once attacked by a wasp the size of a man's fist. If you miss The Reducer, this is one for you.
What Happened To Annie?
You might have first got into Sky News's award-winning podcast strand Storycast with its excellent retelling of a 1983 heist, The Hunt for the Brink's-Mat Gold, but its newest true crime podcast is rather darker. What Happened To Annie? tries to get to the bottom of the death of 30-year-old Annie Börjesson, who was found dead on Prestwick beach in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 2005. Was it suicide? Or was it something to do with the CIA? Annie's family go in search of the truth.
You've probably heard the story of Anna Delvey, the wealthy German heiress who ran up tens of thousands of dollars of debt at New York hotels and flew in a private jet, but was actually Russian-born Anna Sorokin, most recently an intern at a fashion magazine. You might even have read the Vanity Fair piece about it all, written by one of those taken in by Sorokin's charade. This BBC drama-doc takes a slightly different tack, mixing straight reporting with fictionalised scenes. The drama segments occasionally tip into radio drama hamminess but do summon up the surreality of Sorokin's invented life story and the factual segments adroitly pull together bits and pieces from the vast amount of reportage the story drew across the world. It's almost too perfect to learn that Sorokin means 'magpie' in Russian.
James Acaster and Ed Gamble's loosely food-related interview podcast is back for a third series, the first visitor to their fantasy restaurant this time around being Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fusspot librarian Anthony Head. If you've not eaten with them before, the concept's very simple: each guests picks their favourite starter, main, side, dessert and drink, and talks about their life and career in an enjoyably roundabout way.
10 Things That Scare Me
File under: Short, sharp psychology
The short, sharp five-minute episodes of this podcast have a simple set-up: people name 10 of their deepest unspoken fears. That's it. Some - like Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, ex-Trump White House fixer Anthony 'The Mooch' Scaramucci and Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello - are famous; others aren't. But all of them feature something jarring (Morello's family had nooses in their garage when he was a kid), something that makes you laugh then nod in a that-makes-complete-sense sort of way (The Mooch is best mates with his divorce lawyer), or something obviously horrifying which you'd never considered before and will now carry with you everywhere (falling and hitting your teeth). Urgh.
The Birthday Game
File under: A quiz-shaped show which is in no way a proper quiz
Richard Osman, the tallest man in showbiz and master of coming up with formats, has come up with another very good format. Guests try to guess how old celebrities with birthdays on the week of release are, and listeners play along at home. That's pretty much it. It's daft, fun, and it's got the feel of one that could run and run, so get in at the ground floor.
Sleeping with David Baddiel
Comedian, writer, one of three lions: David Baddiel's got a lot done for a man who suffered with insomnia for many years, and his new podcast with sleep guru Dr Guy Leschziner is intended to make sure even those who don't have it appreciate how important sleep is. It goes in deep on the science of sleep, why it matters, and how you can improve the quality of your sleep. Sleep evangelists can get a bit wearing, but given the range of health benefits you're probably missing out on, this might be a decent investment of your time.
Bong Joon Ho on The Curzon Film Podcast
Everyone’s on a Bong tip at the minute. Parasite’s riding a post-Oscars wave of love and breaking all sorts of records, and its director is everyone’s favourite human being. This episode of the Curzon Film Podcast looks back at his career, but it’s more than just your average primer. Tilda Swinton, who Bong directed in Snowpiercer, is on hand to interview him about his career, and critics Helen O’Hara and Tony Rayns add more context, as do academic Maria Konnikova and #BONGHIVE founder member Iana Murray.
London is big and some of it smells a bit weird, but it's brilliant. So what makes it brilliant? The Docklands Light Railway. Then, in a close second, the people. Clara Amfo is here with a new podcast that puts you in touch with some of the city's most interesting ones. The premise is pretty simple: guests chat about the places around London that made them, while also chatting about their careers. First up is Mo the Comedian, the Camberwell-raised star of Channel 4's The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan and his own Netflix special Momentum.
Life is tough, but this might be the best way to add some grease to the grind: Sir David Attenborough reading JA Baker's classic piece of nature writing on the titular bird of prey. It takes the form of diary entries covering autumn to spring in Baker's native Essex, and despite being published 53 years ago, his prose has a direct, visceral punch which makes it feel timeless. Peregrines are both beautiful and terrifying – the hook-tooth at the end of their bill is used to dig in between the vertebrae of other birds so they can snap their spinal cords – and frankly so is the sensation of staring down the barrel of a new decade.
You could be forgiven for assuming that Quentin Tarantino spends all of his time watching obscure Japanese Westerns and ranting about how great Dennis Weaver was to anyone who'll listen. That's not the case, though. Tarantino is a cinematic omnivore, as the films he brings along to this film roundtable chat podcast prove. The first two of his three picks for films he can't seem to stop himself returning to are Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk and Tony Scott's runaway train thriller Unstoppable.
The Racist Sandwich
All the food we eat is political, whether because of the ways in which the produce is grown and shipped around the world, the complex weave of cultural and social influences which contribute to each individual dish, the way that chefs from around the world are treated differently in kitchens, or any number of other under-discussed issues. This podcast bills itself, in the style of a collab, as 'food x race x class x gender', and it's both playful and enlightening.
Switched On Pop
File under: The charts, deconstructed
If you're of the (correct) opinion that pop is the greatest art form of the last century, this is an essential. It treats the songs, artists and trends most would think of as flotsam with high-minded enthusiasm, and its break-it-down-to-basics approach never patronises and always illuminates. Vox has form for all this with the excellent Explained Netflix series and YouTube channels, and the recent dive into what exactly makes 'Baby Shark' the juggernaut is typical, pulling together the history of the do-do-do in pop, what makes kids love certain songs and how to deal with hearing it for the millionth time.
What To Watch On Netflix
Having made it incredibly difficult to decide what to watch of an empty Thursday night, Netflix has taken the initiative in making the task slightly easier. This is a straightforward bit of promo puff for their own shows, yes, but it's a high-class one. It points out what's new and there's a bit of chat about the themes and issues recent releases have thrown up. Don't expect heavy-duty critique, but it'll have access to some very decent behind-the-scenes interviews with the key players.
Revisiting (AKA Berhamsted Revisited)
Having just escaped from the 2010s, it feels like they should be off-limits for wistful nostalgia-fests for at least another decade. This is more than just a Peter Kay-style ey-do-you-remember-Teletext-what-were-all-that-about potter down memory lane though. Built around the teenage diaries of hosts Laura and Laura, the cultural talismans of their adolescence and early adulthood are reviewed and, more interestingly, they chat to people involved in cultural phenomena which now make very little sense – Martin Daubney, former editor of Loaded magazine and 'King of the Lads', has been on in the past. The reassuring universality of their teen experiences is what makes this one work.
Podcasts about the terrible decisions that led to disaster and scandal are a subgenre in there own right these days, and Wondery's new entry is a particularly timely one. WeWork looked like it might change how we all thought about our jobs, its leader Adam Neumann was hailed a genius, and it was valued at $47 billion ahead of going public. But last summer everything fell apart: it was absolutely savaged by experts over the unworkability of its business model, Neumann was ousted and reportedly fled America, and it became a cautionary tale for start-ups at large. This is the WeWork story from the start, the lofty ideas of how it was going to remould the world of work and eventually everything else besides, and how that hubris clashed with reality.
The Sun King
File under: How Rupert Murdoch became the definitive media kingpin
In a bit of a coup, this beautifully assembled and concise six-parter is fronted by David Dimbleby, and tells the full story of how Murdoch built his empire and changed the way that millions of people around the world find out the news. It digs up insight from the people who've worked with him to answer bigger questions too: what motivates him? Is he in it for the money or the power? How much influence does he actually wield? And underneath it all, who is Rupert Murdoch?
In Our Time
File under: Three experts chivvied along by no-messing northern veteran
Impressively still-quiffed broadcasting stalwart Melvyn Bragg has been presenting In Our Time since it started in 1998, and while the series' strength has always been its esoteric magpie eye for a topic, there haven't been many more unexpected than this month's on how teeth came to exist. But, as ever, it's intensely fascinating. If you're unfamiliar, In Our Time sees Bragg throw questions to three academic experts in a given field, whittling away at any jargon or waffle to get to the fundamentals of what happened and why it matters. With its commute-friendly 45-minute run time and back catalogue of more than 800 shows on every subject across history, literature, music, science and technology from computing pioneer Ada Lovelace to the religion of Zoroastrianism, it's found renewed purpose in the podcast age.
The Dollop UK
File under: Two Americans baffled by British history
Comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth 'Gary' Reynolds' long-running American history podcast has grown a new Britain-centric branch. The basic dynamic is familiar - Dave reads a story about the life of a forgotten person or phenomenon from the past to Gareth, they riff, hilarity ensues - but this is very much a superior example of the two-dudes-talking format. It helps that the second episode is one of their best ever. It tells the story of Swansea City mascot Cyril the Swan and his role in the regeneration of the south Wales club, how he became a cult figure for his casual hooliganism, and his fall from grace and brushes with the law, as well as an FA hearing at which the man playing Cyril protested his innocence while wearing the swan costume.
Have You Heard George's Podcast?
File under: Totally unique
Londoner George Mpanga, better known as George the Poet, might want to invest in a sturdier mantelpiece. His current set-up must be groaning under the weight of the gongs his podcast has earned him - four gold awards and two silvers at the last British Podcast Awards, plus Podcast of the Year - and the second series has kept the quality up. It's hard to describe exactly what it is, though. Short fiction? Philosophy? Poetry? Journalism? It's all of that and more. The last episode has just been released, so now's as good a time as any to catch up.
The Adam Buxton Podcast
File under: Deceptively deep waffle
Yes, it's one of the biggest podcasts around, but as Dr Buckles' podcast celebrates its 100th episode now's as good a time as any to celebrate it. The mixture of daft whimsy, very good jingles, regular digressions about David Bowie and updates from Buxton's dog Rosie, The Hairy Bullet, makes for an amiable listen, but Buxton's an underrated interviewer who gets genuinely enlightening and unusual chat out of his guests. The centenary episode features Buxton's Louis Theroux and former comedy partner Joe Cornish, who've all known each other since school immediately revert to extremely entertaining mid-teen silliness, but after that dig back into the archives for more - Kathy Burke, Bob Mortimer, Greta Gerwig, Sir Michael Palin and Steve Coogan are among many highlights.
Bob Mortimer on Desert Island Discs
File under: Sweet, heartwarming daftness, plus Joni Mitchell
Bob's bounced back mightily since his heart troubles a few years ago, with his own successful podcast, show-stealing appearances on Would I Lie To You and last year's gently existential Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. However, the endearing daftness of his comedy has tended to keep interviewers at arm's length since he and Vic Reeves first arrived in the early Nineties. However, Lauren Laverne gets Bob to open up about the overwhelming shyness which has affected him since childhood, the death of his dad when Bob was a young boy, and the increasing amount of time Bob's been spending just staring into space. While you're there, have a rummage through the Desert Island Disc archives, which go all the way back to 1951 and feature pretty much everyone who's been anyone since.
Quentin Tarantino's Feature Presentation
File under: Quentin really loves films, doesn't he?
In this three-parter miniseries, Tarantino has a sit down with critic and podcaster Amy Nicholson to talk about the films that the young Quentin absorbed and later bled into his own work. We start with 'Young Quentin Goes To The Movies', in which he considers the surreal revenge thriller Point Blank and its influence on Reservoir Dogs, and move into teenage Tarantino's yearning to head back to the Los Angeles of his youth having moved out to Knoxville, Tennessee. The last episode will look at the late 70s and early 80s, when Tarantino was trying to push himself into the movie biz himself.
File under: Field recordings, in the most literal sense
Life moves pretty fast, as Illinois' most famous malingerer once said, but unless you're one of those psychopaths who listens to them one-and-a-half-times speed, podcasts are a way of slowing down. Radio 3's Slow Radio really leans into that: its patiently paced 15-minute segments are varied - sometimes it'll be an interview surrounded by a lush natural soundscape, as in this recent exploration of the eeriness of the English countryside, and sometimes an orchestral works woven around the sound of the dawn chorus in the Ein Bokek canyon in Israel - but it's all tied together with an unhurried sense of calm.
File under: Experiencing classic sports moments as they happened
The BBC's vast archive of everything that's happened in the last 80 years or so is rife for rummaging through - see also Greg James' Rewinder podcast, which knits together tidbits from the past which have unexpected resonance again today - but so far its coverage of sporting moments from the past has been relatively under-excavated. Replay is exactly that: just the BBC's coverage of sporting events of the past, with no talking heads or over-explanation from the present. The stories we tell about sport tend to flatten out all the strange little moments and slow-building tension that makes sport so engrossing and rich, but hearing the stories as they were told when they happened puts all of that back in. Try the second half of England v Holland at Euro '96, then hit the interview with Sir Stanley Matthews, and go from there.
File under: Knockabout chat straight from the pavilion bar
Radio 1's Greg James, cricket journalist and former Maccabees guitarist Felix White and England cricketing legend Jimmy Anderson sound like the original odd throuple, but it works. Greg's notionally in charge, Jimmy's a bit mardy and has a lot of insight into the highest levels of the game, and wide-eyed Felix brings his guitar along for a strum in the background. As the name suggests (a tailender is a player who's rubbish at batting and so goes last), it's not a for-the-heads hour of cricket nerdishness – it's always accessible and funny even if you've only a passing knowledge of the game, and while it's been running for long enough to have a litany of recurring jokes, now's the time to get caught up before the Twenty20 World Cup in the summer.
13 Minutes to the Moon
File under: Apollo 11, AKA The Greatest Story Ever Podcasted
It's the 50th anniversary of the moon landings this July, and to celebrate the BBC has put together a mammoth retelling of the most profound and moving thing that humanity's ever achieved. It'd be pretty easy to knock together a passable cut-and-shut talking-heads-and-archive show about the Apollo programme, but this one goes way beyond. Ex-NASA man Kevin Fong presents new interviews with key players including Michael Collins, who piloted the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went down to the lunar surface (and he was actually second in command by the way, outranking Aldrin), Charlie Duke, who communicated with Armstrong and Aldrin from Mission Control, and other NASA staff like pioneering programmer Margaret Hamilton and engineer Poppy Northcutt, whose stories deserve to be heard. Plus! The theme music's an original piece from Hans Zimmer. Top-end stuff. A bit like First Man, 13 Minutes to the Moon makes an incredible but familiar story feel fresh, and full of jeopardy and the unknown.
File under: If Pumping Iron had been about scoffing scotch bonnets
Eating extremely hot things has an enduring appeal for a certain type of man. It's a challenge which has taken the place of your old world tests of masculinity - things which use the ability to endure pain as an arbiter of manhood - and repositioned them as something you can do in the pub with some mates over some wasabi peanuts. It Burns explores the scandal-hit world of competitive chilli-eating and the race to breed the world's hottest chilli, taking in accusations of doping and theft, and asks what drives so many people to warp nature in this way and to hurt themselves in the pursuit of glory.
The Beautiful Brain
File under: Deep-dives into life after sport
Jeff Astle was - and remains - The King, an FA Cup winner and West Brom's legendary 137-goal striker known for his aerial ability. When he died in January 2002 at the age of 59, though, he'd spent his last years living with dementia-like symptoms. A coroner found that minor traumas to his brain had caused the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and recorded a verdict of death by industrial injury - the first time blame for the condition had been placed squarely on heading heavy leather footballs day after day. This four-parter follows Astle's story via raw, intensely moving interviews with his wife Laraine and daughter Dawn, before reporter, producer and host Hana Walker-Brown explores how CTE affects survivors of domestic violence and asks: what does the science tell us to do, and who's responsible for making it happen? It's a gripping and essential - if often overwhelmingly poignant and righteously enraging - listen, as much a call-to-arms as a piece of investigative journalism.
The Last Days Of August
File under: Jon Ronson returns to the porn world
Ronson's The Butterfly Effect, about the ripples which spread across the porn industry after Pornhub got in on the act and forced producers to find more inventive ways of making money, was one of the best podcasts of 2017, so another delve into that world is welcome.
This is a more sombre affair than the quirky, soulful Butterfly Effect, though: the August of the title is August Ames, a porn performer who killed herself in 2017 aged just 23. Her husband blamed a Twitter pile-on, but that's far from the whole story. The Last Days Of August explores the darker side of the porn industry with Ronson's usual tact and knack for a narrative left-turn.
Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend
File under: Funny chat with funny people
Despite changing the face of late-night TV in America and running The Simpsons in its pomp, Conan's always been a bit of a niche figure in the UK. But he found a new lease of life via YouTube (for a primer, see him become a Civil War re-enactor), and now he's taking his chat to podcasting. Some giants of the last 20 years of American comedy are here, among them Will Ferrell, Kristen Bell, Parks and Rec's Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, and the freewheeling format gives Conan a more space to get thoughtful as well as typically manic.
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