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30 Mar 2015 10:32
Hosted by Sarah Koenig, and co-created and co-produced by Koenig and Julie Snyder, 'Serial' is a podcast exploring a nonfiction story over multiple episodes. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Podcasting has been around for more than a decade, but for most of those years it’s been a niche, a nerdy hobby.
Even the name sounds anachronistic, harking back to the iPod and a time when portable
music players were things that people actually owned. But then, in 2014, something
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, podcasting seemed to go mainstream.
In part, this is because the
processes of listening to podcasts, which used to be difficult and technical,
has now become quite easy.
The biggest catalyst, however,
was the debut of
Serial, a new
podcast that turned into one of those strange mass pop-cultural phenomena that
nobody could have predicted. Serial
has been a stupendous hit, at least by podcast standards: it attracted millions
of listeners, many of whom stuck around looking for something else to download
when its first season was over. As a result, more people are discovering the
secret that podcast fans have known about for years: the extraordinary wealth
of polished, intelligent audio content that’s available, for free, like the
world’s greatest candy store for the human mind.
If you’re a podcast beginner, or a Serial fan looking for something new, it
might be difficult to know where to start. The list of high-quality podcasts is
almost endless, but here are some that I find to be indispensable:
Let’s get this
out of the way: if you haven’t listened to
Serial, then you should listen
to Serial. Over the course of 12 episodes, Sarah Koenig pieces
together the story of Adnan Syed, a teenager who was convicted of murdering his
high school girlfriend in 1999. Did he really do it, or was he wrongly
convicted? To answer that question, Koenig immerses herself in the case, mastering
its details and interviewing the key personalities involved. Her interest
develops into a sort of obsession that spreads, like a virus, to her audience. The
result is one of the most riveting pieces of crime journalism ever published,
in any medium.
2. 99% INVISIBLE
In theory, 99% Invisible is a podcast about design, but it’s really a podcast about solving
mysteries. Each episode explores the secrets behind the objects that are all
around us, uncovering the conscious decisions behind things that might seem natural
or obvious. It’s like a pair of glasses that allows the wearer to see the world
properly: put it on, and you’ll start to see hidden connections and meaning in
the physical stuff that you touch and interact with each day. Individual episodes
are about 30 minutes long; perfectly-sized for the average commute.
3. SLATE MONEY
Trying to understand the global
economy is difficult. Luckily there’s Felix Salmon, financial blogger for
Reuters, whose enthusiasm and irrepressible Britishness make
Slate Money a joy to listen to. Salmon expresses a certain amount of healthy outrage at the
rent-seekers that prevent us from having the economy we deserve, but even when he
gets angry, he does so with such verve that it’s hard not to have fun. For a
podcast that periodically drops phrases like “quantitative easing”, “European
Central Bank” and “Capital In The Twenty-First Century”, that’s a significant
4. HARDCORE HISTORY
Listening to Hardcore History is like falling into a rabbit hole and waking up in a different world. It’s a useful
reminder of the sheer variety of ways in which human societies can be organised
– and how strange, from a historical perspective, our own society really is. The
series is narrated by Dan Carlin, who has a macabre fascination with the dark
side of human nature. (Episode titles like “Wrath of the Khans” and “Blueprint
for Armageddon” attest to this fact.) The individual episodes are very long and
released infrequently, but there’s a large back catalogue to explore.
Radiolab is a
perennial fixture on the list of most-downloaded podcasts, and with good
reason. It covers a huge variety of topics: science, philosophy, history, and
popular culture. But it’s mostly about telling interesting stories, which are
woven together using a complex mixture of interviews, narrative accounts, and
music. Diving into Radiolab’s back
catalogue is like clicking on a Wikipedia article and then jumping from link to
link until you’ve forgotten what you were originally looking for. It stimulates
that wonderful, serendipitous sense of delight that comes from learning things
you didn’t know you were interested in.
favourite podcast app is
Pocket Casts, which is available on Google
Play for R38.50 and the iOS App Store for R49.99. Some good free alternatives
Overcast (for Apple devices) and Player FM (for Android).
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