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 strange happened. 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. These days you simply need to download a podcast app on your smartphone, search for a topic of interest, and start listening to new episodes.
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 achievement.
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.
My personal 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 are Overcast (for Apple devices) and Player FM (for Android).