Favourite Podcasts

cartoon image of Lucy Kellaway

I took to podcasts quite soon after they became available, and they’ve become a real lifeline to me.

I’ve tried listening to a whole range of them over the years and while I think it’s terrific that just about anyone with a mic and a computer can offer one to the world (via iTunes or the equivalent), I have come to have tremendous respect and appreciation for what it takes to be a great broadcaster (hence my relying mostly on BBC Radio 4 and American public radio shows).

Still, every few months I try new ones to see what else is out there. Those listed below are the ones I’ll never miss.

Culture/Arts: 

NPR: Fresh Air
Terry Gross is one of the best interviewers ever, engaging with each subject to make a revealing and informative programme. This primarily covers the popular arts, but also does science, technology and politics. It’s always fascinating. Every weekday, about 55 minutes.

APR: Dinner Party Download
Such fun! And a neat concept: it preps you for a dinner party each weekend by giving you an ice-breaker, some little-known news item, a history lesson, a new cocktail recipe, an interview with a celebrity, a reading by an author, music selection by a musician and solutions to etiquette dilemmas. Winningly hosted by Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam. Weekly, 60 minutes.

KCRW: The Business (and Hollywood Breakdown)
A behind-the-scenes’ look at Hollywood and the US television industry hosted by the knowledgeable and personable Kim Masters. After a catch up on the week’s events, there’s an interview with someone who’s making a film in a way that often has an impact on the industry. Weekly, 30 minutes.

BBC World Service: World Book Club
This invites international authors to come and discuss their most popular book, which is often one that’s been sold in the millions with fans around the world, who get to call in with their questions, which is often very moving. You get a great sense of each author too, different than when they’re otherwise just given five minutes to plug their latest work. Hosted by Harriet Gilbert. Monthly, 60 minutes.

BBC Radio 4: Desert Island Discs
A real British institution. A public figure guest is invited to pick eight records they would take with them on a desert island. While discussing these tracks, you get a proper biographical interview. It started in 1942 and is currently hosted by Kirsty Young. Just about everyone has been on this programme and you can also find them in the archives on the BBC website as well as on iTunes. Weekly, 35 minutes.

Current Events/Humour:

HBO: Real Time With Bill Maher
I’m happy HBO put this out as an audio podcast, even though it’s a TV show. There are rare instances when you miss something they’re showing on a screen, and you don’t get to see the panel and who’s saying what, but it’s usually irrelevant. I mostly like Maher, though he’s been getting more crotchety. Weekly, 60 minutes.

BBC Radio 4: The News Quiz (part of the Friday Night Comedy podcast)
Sandi Toksvig hosts four panel members (often comedians) who are quizzed on the week’s news. One of the panellists is always Jeremy Hardy, who is reliably hilarious. Weekly, 30 minutes. (This show switches seasonally with another news comedy programme, The Now Show.)

NPR: Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
The American version of the above. It is hilarious (and admirable how quick they are to the draw). I can’t say enough good things about it. Hosted by the ever witty Peter Sagal, it has three revolving panel members and a star guest. When I get a week’s worth of new podcasts, this is the one I listen to first. Weekly, 45 minutes.

Stories about our times:

WBEZ/PRI: This American Life
Hosted by the inimitable Ira Glass, they choose a different subject each week and explore it from various angles. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heart wrenching, always illuminating and compelling. Beautiful production and impeccable storytelling. Weekly, 60 minutes.

99% Invisible
Primarily using design concepts to explore our human histories and experiences, this consistently informs me on fascinating behind-the-scenes details, from bank robberies to how governments communicate with spies via the radio. Hosted by the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Roman Mars. Weekly, about 20 minutes.

WNYC: Radiolab
Exploring the scientific, philosophical and human experience, this is a satisfying and informative listen. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, it’s also a brilliantly rich production with the highest production quality. Weekly, alternates between 20 minutes and 60 minutes.

BBC: Documentaries
The subjects range from primarily geo-political to social and historical. Taken from BBC World Service programmes. Several times a week, app 25 minutes.

NPR: Planet Money
This was started just after the 2008 financial collapse. This takes the often dull and unnecessarily convoluted economic issues and explains them in an engaging and accessible way. I also like that their coverage often extends beyond the US and gets into the minutiae of other countries’ economic systems. Numerous hosts, all engaging. Three times a week, app 20 minutes each.

Miscellaneous:

The Financial Times: Listen to Lucy
Ostensibly about business, Lucy Kellaway reflects on the foibles of corporate types. Sometimes I’m just enthralled by her accent, but I always find her sharp take on pompous business-speak and practices refreshing. This is a read-out of her weekly column for the FT. Weekly, app 5 minutes.

Savage Lovecast
I came to this a bit late, considering the legendary status of its host, Dan Savage, who gives frank advice on sex and relationships. The bulk of the show deals with questions from callers, but I particularly like the opening of each episode where Savage rants about a current issue that he wants to bring to listeners’ attention. Fun and thought provoking.

TED Talks
A wide range of subjects (health, education, design, technology, social issues, etc) so it’s easy to look up something of interest and they’ll most likely have an expert talking about it in a video podcast for up to 20 minutes. I subscribe to the Society & Culture ones. Their website lists the most popular TED talks too. My favourites are by Elizabeth Gilbert, Brené Brown (below), Barry Schwartz, Ken Robinson, Jamie Oliver, Susan Cain and Isabelle Allende.

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