Listen up: why podcasts are setting the agenda
By Miranda Sawyer
It wasn’t so long ago that every podcast article began with an explanation of what a podcast actually is: how to find one, the difference between a podcast and a radio programme … At last, in 2017, such explanations are redundant. Podcasts are mainstream. The most long-standing shows have fans that have listened for a decade or more; and such podcasts constantly garner new listeners, who binge for days until they’re all caught up. News stories are broken on podcasts, legal situations changed: Serial 1 reawakened interest in the 1999 cold-case murder of Hae Min Lee; S-Town, this year’s Serial, has had legal repercussions, too.
True crime, especially murder that can be re-examined, step by step, by the podcast producers (and the listeners), is now a powerful genre. And interestingly a couple of this year’s most successful shows took the true crime, whodunnit element and gave it a twist. Missing Richard Simmons wasn’t true crime, but its week-by-week tracking-down of Simmons was a rolling mystery. The show wasn’t for me – Simmons made it clear he didn’t want to be found, which made me too uncomfortable to enjoy it – but it was a huge success. The wonderful S-Town had a small-town murder as its kick-off, but expanded into something much greater. As with many of the better investigative non-fiction podcasts, S-Town borrowed techniques from theatre and novel-writing to help tell its story, and, journalistically, carefully walked the tightrope between revelatory and exploitative. Great podcasts get the best interviews, you note. No camera in an interviewee’s face, so they’re less inhibited; the mic is close up, so there’s more intimacy.
Audiences for podcasts are huge and growing rapidly. In the US, 67 million people above the age of 12 listen to podcasts at least monthly; in the UK, 24% of people aged 15 and over have listened to a podcast at least once. But you don’t need statistics to know podcasts are doing well. You know it, because the big boys have started splashing cash. iTunes has been there for years; now Spotify and Audible are moving in. In 2016 Spotify started offering its subscribers selected podcasts such as Reply All and Pod Save America under its Shows category; this year it started producing its own podcasts, such as the news-based panel show We Need To Talk About. Also this year, Audible brought out Jon Ronson’s series on the porn industry, The Butterfly Effect, plus The Home Front, a show on the US involvement in the second world war, presented by Martin Sheen, and Bill Bryson’s Appliance of Science, made in partnership with the Science Museum, about unsung inventions that changed the world.
These moves have caused some ructions in the naturally indie podcast world. There’s money behind these shows, and it costs to listen to them (Spotify has its no-adverts, paid-for service; Audible requires you to pay after you’ve uploaded one series). They have a capitalist ethos that seems to go against the feel of many one-producer-and-their-microphone podcasts.
But the indie kids had better get used to the money sniffing around: now podcasts are becoming TV shows. Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, the horror podcast, has just made its debut as an Amazon Prime TV series. Chris Miller and Phil Lord, creators of The Lego Movie, are adapting Serial 1 for the screen. Whether these will prove more successful than the pictures-in-your-head podcasts remains to be seen.
Because, despite the hoo-ha, the promise of visuals and dramatisations, simpler podcasts are often the most successful. The Adam Buxton Podcast is going from strength to strength; Two Shot, where actor Craig Parkinson interviews his compadres about their careers, is a delight. Any podcast involving Dan Savage or Helen Zaltzman will always be worth a listen. Podcasts have wormed their way into my life and thoughts for the past 10 years. This supplement aims to guide you to the best.
10 Of 2017’s buzziest shows: tune in to the best of the year
By Hannah Verdier
Serial & This American Life
True crime is 2017’s route to a surefire podcast hit, but this much anticipated offering from the makers of Serial is so much more. You’ve probably already listened to it twice and found something new each time but, if you haven’t, S-Town is ostensibly the tale of clock-mender and carer John B McLemore. He emailed This American Life to ask the team to examine corruption and murder in Woodstock, Alabama (the “Shit Town” in question) and producer Brian Reed turned sleuth to investigate. It grips from the opening moments and then spirals into a different league as the story twists. S-Town is complicated, atmospheric and an exercise in scratching beneath the surface, which quickly earned its “better than Serial” tag. Binge it in a day, but it’ll leave you wanting more.
Two Shot Pod
Craig Parkinson (gravel-voiced corrupt cop Dot Cottan from Line Of Duty) prods some of the UK’s finest TV actors to talk about their art in the most un-luvvie way possible with these one-to-one interviews. It’s honest, unstructured and a brutal lesson about how hard it is to get a break if you don’t happen to be born with loads of cash. Highlights include a slipper-clad Vicky McClure talking about being discovered by Shane Meadows, the very modest Lauren Socha’s shock at getting a film role, and Joseph Gilgun opening up about how his anxiety kicks in. It’s hard to imagine Parkinson without his menacing face on, but the affable host brings out the best in his interviewees over a cup of tea. Although it shouldn’t be refreshing to hear such a range of different regional accents on a podcast, it certainly is.
Missing Richard Simmons
Topic/Pineapple Street Media
Imagine if Serial took a lunch break, donned some Lycra shorts and started thrusting around the room to Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money. That’s Missing Richard Simmons. Superfan Dan Taberski’s hunt for the cult fitness guru who vanished from public life looks at various theories. Is he being held prisoner? Has he changed gender? Or has he just detached himself from his old life out of choice? It’s all done in painstaking detail and with much affection as Simmons’s friends paint a picture of an inspiring man who motivated them with soundbites such as “sweat is just fat crying”. After a raft of positive reviews made Missing Richard Simmons a hit, a backlash followed. The New York Times called the quest to track down a man who might not want to be found “morally suspect”, but Taberski’s love for his eccentric subject shines through.
Will Young and Christopher Sweeney
Originally billed as a LGBTQ+ version of Woman’s Hour, this podcast by Will Young and Chris Sweeney is all kinds of great. The two friends swing from touchingly candid to downright hilarious and their laid-back interview style elicits anecdotes and opinions that guests such as Russell T Davies, Owen Jones and Rebecca Root have never aired before. Young knows how to sprinkle just the right amount of celebrity stardust on the proceedings, talking about the tricky business of juggling his role as a pop star with his sexuality. Most importantly, he’s genuinely interested in what the guests have to say. The low-fi approach of Homo Sapiens, with the yap of small dogs interrupting the flow and the hosts wandering off on a tangent to explore the merits of Gladiators and cake, only adds to its charm.
Under the Skin with Russell Brand
This podcast is Russell Brand at his free-thinking, morality-pondering, fast-talking best. Now studying for an MA in religion in global politics, Brand has calmed his tendency to shock and show off all the time. Here, he brings together academics and celebrity guests to help him on his “voyage of learning”. It’s a mixed bag: Frankie Boyle drops in to talk about nihilism and fatherhood, Will Storr offers a perspective on narcissism and selfies, and Billy Bragg offers a theory about art, protest and why grime is so important. The reinvented Brand knows when to stay silent, but also when to lighten the mood with an innuendo or endearingly simple way of describing a complex theory. With his ego firmly under control, he and his guests talk an awful lot of sense.
“Super queer, super fun” pairing Kathy Tu and Tobin Low bring fresh, upbeat voices to their podcast about “all things LGBTQ and beyond”. They proclaim themselves the anti-Will and Grace before confessing they were tempted to call the show “Gaydiolab”, but this isn’t full of cliches. Starting with their coming-out stories, the duo manage to find the laughs in even the most painful experiences. But they also know when to be serious: a perfectly pitched episode focusing on the Orlando shooting describes Pulse nightclub in spine-tingling detail and gives a back story to the victims. In another standout moment, Master Of None’s Lena Waithe is billed “The Coolest Lesbian Ever”. She’s a real treat, especially when she stresses the importance of being “out as fuck, proud as fuck, because it kinda makes all those people living double lives uncomfortable”.
Gimlet’s dive into “the most under-explored corners of black culture” is a gem of a podcast. Hosts Eric Eddings and Brittany Luse have the kind of witty warmth that can’t be manufactured, which is no surprise as the two lifelong friends cut their podcasting teeth together on their celebration of all things uncool, For Colored Nerds. As “Blackness’s biggest fans”, The Nod sees them get down to the seemingly shallow details of life that often turn out to be vitally important. Whether Eddings is searching for grape juice in Brooklyn, or Luse is easing on down the road with her love for The Wiz, there are meaningful laughs. Sometimes a podcast needs to go way too far into an extreme conspiracy theory about how Solange, not Beyoncé, is the real mother of Blue Ivy and teach the listener how to surf. The Nod is the one for the job.
Hot Mic with Dan Savage
Behind the promise of a podcast packed full of stories about “strap-ons, divorce sex, dominatrices, love and marriage and babies” lies a very wise man: Dan Savage. In each 30-minute episode, the don of romantic advice brings together sharp stand-up clips addressing just about every facet of modern dating from ghosting to fantasies. So far, so funny, but what sets Hot Mic apart from your average comedy podcast is the way that Savage imparts his nuggets of advice and own experiences without judgment. He has a knack for delivering audio hugs like this: “I always tell young, queer kids that coming out is not the end of all their problems, but what is true is that the freedom you feel is real.” Although the chat contained here is about as Not Safe For Work as it gets, it’s delivered with much sensitivity.
The idea of a musical podcast starring Kristoff, the reindeer-centric hero of Frozen, does sound like it’s been invented in the depths of ear-bothering hell, but 36 Questions sure works. It stars Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton as a husband and wife who attempt to save their marriage by answering the New York Times’s The 36 Questions That Lead To Love. At times it’s tearjerking and undeniably whimsical, but it stays the right side of saccharine sweet, especially when there’s a massive lie uncovered slap bang in the middle. After three acts that sway between romantic escapism and harsh dysfunction, it’ll leave you wondering where the couple are going next. And thinking about your own response to questions like: “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”
What if TED Talks were anonymous? That’s the premise for this stunning and dangerously honest podcast that creates a “safe space” for people to confess their darkest, most painful and career-crashing stories. Step forward a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who unravelled with depression at the height of his success, a woman who reclaimed power after being sexually assaulted and facing her attacker in court, and a “midwestern mom” who has a technique to help others after escaping from a violent relationship. Each story is intimate and captivating and some are tough to listen to. Particularly haunting is Dr Burnout, who fears she’s caused a man’s death with a careless mistake: “I’d stopped seeing patients as people. They were just diseases, lab values, test results.”
The pod to power: nine podcasts about politics today
By Simon Usborne
Pod Save America
Launched in a pit of Trump-induced despair by former aides to President Obama at the start of this year, Pod Save America says it is a “no bullshit -conversation about politics” and on a mission to rally the good fight against the current administration. Jon Favreau, Daniel Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor shoot the political breeze like wise-cracking Veep characters on a coffee break, lighting up the gloom with impeccable insider cred and easy badinage. Heavyweight guests have included Barack Obama himself, in his last interview as president, and Hillary Clinton in one of the first stops on her exhaustive book tour.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Ed Miliband, Geoff Lloyd
Not long after his unexpectedly successful turn as a daytime host on BBC Radio 2 (sample line: “Do you have a vintage toilet you’d be willing to flush live on air?”), Ed Miliband dipped a toe into podcast waters last month with Reasons to be Cheerful, a weekly chat about big ideas with Geoff Lloyd, the award-winning radio veteran. Miliband is a total natural on the airwaves, combining massive political insight with a sense of humour that surfaced all too infrequently in parliament. Between bouts of endearingly geeky banter, the pair have discussed universal basic income, the gender pay gap – and -Theresa May’s cough.
Prof David Runciman
For the highest-brow podcast junkies, Thursdays are now David Runciman day, when the eminent politics professor records Talking Politics inside his office at Cambridge University. Produced in partnership with the London Review of Books (no subscription boxer shorts ads here), Runciman brings the same accessible clarity to the mic as he does to page and screen. His gently sonorous voice is a bonus. Often joined by fellow Prof Helen Thompson, Runciman’s guests have ranged from Thomas Piketty to Mary Beard and Michael Gove, while subjects have included Catalonia, the shifting centre ground and – sure enough – Potus.
Guardian Politics Weekly
Each week the Guardian’s stable of pedigree reporters and pundits gather round a microphone to chew over what has invariably been another momentous seven days in global politics. The well-produced package intersperses studio chat with reports and interviews, recently including the marketing chief of Jigsaw on the subject of the clothing retailer’s pro-immigration billboard ads. Chaired alternately by the Guardian’s political editors Heather Stewart and Anushka Asthana, GPW welcomes regular contributors such as Rafael Behr, John Crace, Jonathan Freedland and Polly Toynbee, as well as frontbenchers, pollsters and other key players in Westminster and beyond.
Slate, the American online magazine and prodigious producer of podcasts, began an almost daily show dedicated to Trump as he campaigned during last year’s Republican primaries. Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s chairman and lead Trumpcast presenter, probably didn’t expect it still to be around. But there’s no end yet to the half-hour forays into a scrambled psyche and world view. Backup comes from the magazine’s eminent chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, as well as writers -Virginia Heffernan and Josh King. Journalists, historians and psychiatrists have all been guests in a satellite to Slate’s popular weekly podcasting main stage, the Slate Political Gabfest.
Intelligence Squared Group
The broadly political series of debates, staged for live audiences and released as a podcast, attracts some of the biggest names in, well, intelligence. Smartly conceived conversations about big issues have drawn speakers to Intelligence Squared including Jimmy Carter, Sean Penn, Nate Silver, Martin Amis and Tony Blair. In coming weeks, writers Adam Gopnik and Will Self will ask whether Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four best captures our dystopian present. Emily Maitlis is chairing a discussion about the power of oration with speechwriters who worked with Obama and Blair. And Allison Pearson goes head to head with George Monbiot to debate the assumed moral superiority of the left.
Remainiacs – the Brexit Podcast
It would be strange if Brexit had not spawned its own podcast, such is the bandwidth it occupies in national discourse. Remainiacs is unashamedly for the 48%, a wry celebration of the remoaner creed “for everyone who knows that leaving the European Union won’t be un morceau de gâteau”. Ian Dunt, the editor of politics.co.uk and author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now, presents alongside the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey and Peter Collins, formerly the business editor at the Economist. The remainiacs have attempted to untangle Labour’s Brexit position and “the war on centrism”, and welcomed guests as diverse (if not politically so) as Al Murray and Gina Miller.
Strong and Stable
Inspired by perhaps the most parroted and undelivered promise in political history, Strong and Stable brings a -“little light relief as the world goes to hell in a handcart”. Comic politicos David Schneider and Ayesha Hazarika, the Ed Miliband adviser-turned-standup, host a weekly dose of satirical punditry with regular appearances by parodical newsman Jonathan Pie and Theresa May herself (or at least Jan Ravens’s excellent impression, inset, top). Studio guests have included MPs Emily Thornberry and Anna Soubry, and political journalists Helen Lewis and Tim Shipman, as well as Alastair Campbell and, guest-hosting last month, LBC’s James O’Brien.
If political podcasts are generally short on gender diversity and pluralism, American show Pantsuit Politics bursts the man bubble with some much-needed left-right conviviality. Kentucky-based pals “Sarah from the left” (Sarah Stewart Holland, a city commissioner) and “Beth from the right” (Beth Silvers, a lawyer and business leader) mull over the big issues with “no shouting, no insults, plenty of nuance”. Some of the chat can get pretty wonkish, but the merit is in the concept, which deserves a play in broken Britain, too. A recent episode included analysis of the Iran nuclear deal alongside Weinstein chat and a reflection on how romance can survive the political divide.
‘We help our listeners stay sane’
Q&A: Tommy Vietor of Pod Save America
Interview by Simon Usborne
Tommy Vietor, a former US national security spokesman and assistant to President Obama, is a quarter of the team behind Pod Save America. All former Obama staffers, the thirtysomething pals set up their own podcast production company, Crooked Media, to give voice to the resistance against the Trump supremacy. As well as examining goings-on in and around the Oval Office on Pod Save America, which has had more than 100 million downloads since its launch in January this year, Vietor brings to bear his security and foreign policy expertise in his own show, Pod Save the World.
Why are political podcasts everywhere right now?
I think there’s a general growth that’s coinciding with an increase in interest in politics after the 2016 presidential election and its result, which horrified a lot of people, including us. Podcasts have also emerged as a better way to get news as journalists are forced to write more stories every day and we all get deluged with tweets and Facebook posts. The nature of the medium requires us to internalise hours of news and help people understand what’s important and what’s not.
But you don’t pretend to be impartial, right?
We’re very forthright about our biases. Everyone knows we worked for Obama but we try to be as honest about weaknesses in the Democratic party as we are about the Republican platform and what Trump is doing. Obviously there are far more objectionable things coming out of the White House every day than, say, Nancy Pelosi’s office.
Has it been cathartic?
Yes. During the election I’d wake up at, like, 4.30 in the morning and stare at my phone and then go to work and do my day job, then go home and stare at my phone. This has allowed us to align our obsessions with our careers and has been unbelievably good for our mental health. And the number one thing we hear from our listeners is that it helps them stay sane, too. People look at what’s going on in Washington and think, “Isn’t that crazy?” Hearing us say, “Yes, that is crazy and here’s why”, is useful because we know what normal looks like in the White House.
After Obama and Hillary, who would be your dream guest now?
Joe Biden! We’re trying, believe me.
Do you all hate each other in real life?
No! We spend every minute of every day together, so we couldn’t. What we have to remind ourselves of more often is that we’re not always in the studio and that sometimes it’s OK to shut up about politics.
If this is partly a mission, what would success look like?
The problem with cable news, say, is that you can watch an hour and leave feeling bored and depressed but not necessarily informed. Success is helping people understand what’s going on in an entertaining way but also saying, “If you really care about preserving the Affordable Care Act, here’s a way you can get engaged”. Our first real target in the near term is winning back the House in 2018.
How positive should we be about American politics right now?
There are some deep structural problems that make it more possible for extremes in both parties to get elected. And we have a media that hasn’t figured out the internet age, with propaganda outlets like Breitbart getting shared more than the New York Times and Washington Post combined. But I have to remain hopeful that the country that elected Barack Obama twice is still out there.
Brain food: five podcasts about history and ideas
By David Shariatmadari
America’s favourite Canadian nerd, Malcolm Gladwell, is used to looking at things from odd angles. The author of The Tipping Point and Blink uses his podcast to peer at the past and ask whether we’ve been getting it wrong all these years. Did McDonald’s ruin everything in the early 90s, when it replaced the beef tallow used to cook French fries with hydrogenated vegetable oil, in the midst of hysteria over saturated fats? Possibly, because it turns out that the vegetable oil isn’t any better for you after all. Was Churchill the saviour of western civilisation, or did his personal flaws result in the lengthening of the war and the deaths of millions of innocent civilians? Gladwell zips between the trivial and the deadly serious but, wherever he goes, he leaves us feeling brainier than when we started.
John McWhorter is an expert on pidgins. But this is not a birdwatching podcast: he’s a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. And pidgins are the quasi-languages that develop when people from different cultures are thrown together – as slaves or traders – and need a common means of communication (“pidgin” is thought to be how Chinese people said the word “business”). This and many other facts spool out of our host in his fortnightly “fireside chats” with listeners. Technically, they’re fireside monologues, but that’s OK, because if there’s anyone who can carry a show single-handedly it’s McWhorter with his magpie-like brain, which takes in everything from the modern penchant for beginning a sentence with “So” (it’s older than you think) to the syntax of “Baby mama”.
Sometimes a podcast delivers the kind of mind-bending insight that permanently changes the way you think about a subject. Invisibilia’s Emotions, a two-parter from the third season which finished in July, did just that for many listeners. If you’ve always believed that concepts like anger and sadness were basic, biological facts, prepare to think again – the latest research suggests that how we divide up the spectrum of emotion is culturally determined. And there’s a feeling, liget, which only exists among the Llongot people, who live in the Philippine rainforests. Like everything in Invisibilia, which is brilliantly hosted by Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin, it’s unbelievable but true. The producers are currently working on a fourth season of the show.
Have you ever wanted to go back into your past and fix something that is stopping you from moving on, something that haunts you? Jonathan Goldstein is here to fix that. He can’t help himself – he pesters people until they submit to his plans. Like Gregor, who lent his friend Moby the CDs he sampled for his hit record Play, but who never received any credit. Goldstein orchestrates a meeting between them 15-odd years on. Or Julia, who hid in her house 20 years ago as the girls who bullied her rang the bell. What did they want? How about we ask them? Heavyweight packs a real emotional punch.
Roman Mars is famous for his voice – smooth and solid, like the perfectly planed surface of a Scandinavian table. Which is handy, given that this is a podcast about design. But Ikea doesn’t feature: 99% Invisible, which started in Mars’s bedroom in Oakland, California, is about the architecture, infrastructure and products that enable and shape modern life without intruding into our consciousness. In someone else’s hands it would be a mess, but Mars’s effortless delivery, and his way with a good story, mean it all holds together.
10 Enduring podcast classics
By Hannah Verdier
My Dad Wrote a Porno
Purveyor of faux filth Belinda Blumenthal is back with a second season of titters.
The tale of a tune told in 15 minutes, from Carly Rae Jepson to MGMT.
This American Life
Soothing-voiced Ira Glass continues to dish out wisdom, with more than 600 episodes in the back catalogue.
A deep dive into headlines, now with added tales of Donald Trump.
The Adam Buxton podcast
Dr Buckles and his meandering guests like Louis Theroux, Sharon Horgan and Johnny Marr keep the hits coming.
2 Dope queens
Consistently funny stuff from Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, the best friends who muse on race, romance and Billy Joel.
First day back
Last season, Tally Abecassis pored over going back to work after having children, but there’s a change of tone as she focuses on a woman who shot her husband.
Surreal and only loosely football-based podcast from Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson.
A taboo-smashing listen about bodies, consent and life stories.
Hollywood and crime
Movie history retold: start with the standout stories about Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Charles Manson.
How to listen: choosing the right apps and speakers
By Stuart Dredge
Best ios app for listening
An accessible podcasts app with plenty of features. It’s easy to browse or search for podcasts, then subscribe to have new episodes automatically download. You can even get recommendations based on your Twitter network, and speed up the audio for faster listening.
Best android app for listening
Overcast isn’t available for Android, but Podcast Addict is one of several high-quality alternatives for Google-powered phones. It has a big directory of podcasts, and will recommend you new ones based on your subscriptions. The app streams or downloads, according to preference.
Best apple watch podcasts app
Designed for people who want to go running wearing their Apple Watch but without an iPhone, this app transfers podcast episodes onto the watch to play directly, while using your regular workout app to track your run.
Best earbuds for listening
Optoma Be Sport 3
Don’t get hung up on the name: these award-winning in-ear headphones are good for more than just sport. A firm fit and decent 10-hour battery life will keep you listening, while the sound quality is as well-tuned for speech as it is for gym tunes.
Best over-ears for listening
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
At £380 they’re pricey, but Sennheiser’s latest over-ear headphones have the kind of sound quality that make professionally recorded podcasts indistinguishable from radio. Wireless means they’ll play nicely with the latest iPhones and Google’s Pixel 2, too.
Best smart speaker for listening
Google Home Mini
In truth, both Amazon’s Echo devices and Google’s Home do a decent job for podcast listening. Home’s Google Assistant seems to have the edge when it comes to retrieving some of our less popular podcasts, while the new Home Mini makes a good bedside table pod-listening device.
Best app for recording (IOS)
If you have the bug not just for listening but for making your own podcasts, Opinion is one of the easier options. You can record your show, edit the audio with simple touchscreen controls, then upload it to SoundCloud or transfer to your computer for more sharing.
Best app for recording (android)
Spreaker Studio is the obvious alternative to Opinion if you’re on an Android device: the twist here being that you can choose to broadcast your show live, as well as record and upload it. Good editing controls, plus social sharing options, make it a good choice.
Best microphone for recording
If you want your podcast to sound really good, your smartphone’s built-in microphone won’t cut the mustard. Blue’s Yeti is one of the most popular choices for podcasters: for under £120 you get a choice of recording modes, whether you’re solo or with guests.
To see part two of our roundup, come back on Monday morning for the best of true crime, pop culture, sport and more