Opinion: The Cultural Podcasts You Need In Your Life, Now

Not so long ago the podcast was a relatively obscure audio medium, but today it’s a burgeoning cultural force demanding to be listened to... literally

Feature by Julie Danskin | 17 Nov 2014
  • The Cultural Podcasts You Need In Your Life, Now

Sometime in the last few years, suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, the podcast was saved from its decade of languishing as an unwanted category on the iTunes menu and transformed, My Fair Lady-style, into a burgeoning cultural force. Millions of people subscribe and tune in to podcasts every day, so there’s a good chance that the folk with headphones on your bus these days may well be listening to This American Life rather than The All American Rejects (one would hope so, anyway). Becoming increasingly embedded into our everyday culture and no longer just a way to listen to a missed radio show, podcasting is increasingly a media form in and of itself, providing a unique and varied way to be entertained, much like an audible answer to YouTube, but smarter and without the idiotic comments.

Predominantly free and with an incredible variety available, covering the very broadest to the most eye-wateringly niche of themes (there’s a very successful podcast devoted to reviewing types of pens...), every clue points to podcasts sticking around for the foreseeable future. Take the rapport of radio, the addictiveness of TV boxsets, the accessibility of music, the variety of Netflix, the connectivity of social media, and the internationality of the internet; smoosh these elements together like Play-Doh and it’s not hard to see what’s so attractive about podcasts. The best bit about podcasts is choice, so here are some of the best to tune into, whatever your cultural whims presently demand.

If you’re in the mood for fiction…
Two of the very best podcasts for fiction couldn't be more different. On the one hand, the monthly Fiction Podcast from The New Yorker features one short story from the magazine’s matchless archive chosen and read by another writer (Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl read by Joyce Carol Oates is quite something), followed by a deeply intelligent conversation between the reader and Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker's fiction editor. Then, on the other hand, there’s Welcome to Night Vale, a fortnightly podcast in which each episode poses as a new radio transmission from the extremely weird fictional town of the title, which sits somewhere between Twin Peaks and the original The Twilight Zone series. Both of these podcasts are equally beguiling but staggeringly disparate, highlighting the sheer variety currently on offer.

If you’re in the mood for non-fiction…
Whether you listen to podcasts or not, chances are you will have heard of This American Life, downloaded weekly by 2.1 million subscribers and for good reason. Each episode takes the form of an hour-long audio documentary of a tantalising real-life story, and it’s on this real-life story format that the podcast thrives, with other great examples being the formidable Love + Radio or comedian Josie Long’s dreamy podcast for BBC Radio 4, Shortcuts. For lovers of stories with longevity, the producers of This American Life have just released a spin-off podcast called Serial, which presents just one story told over a dozen episodes just like… well, a serial. But if you prefer a more academic tinge to your true stories, then the oddly hypnotic Oxford Biography Podcast might be for you, since each episode features the profile of a person from the Dictionary of National Biography and is read in an impressively boring voice. Lastly, it doesn’t get much more non-fictional than the dictionary, and the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day podcast is a short, daily delight that explains, explores and properly pronounces just one word, from the easy to the onerous, in a podcast that lasts for around two minutes each episode.

If you’re in the mood for reviews…
No matter what you want to hear people fall out over and pick apart like vultures to a Saharan carcass, you’ll find it in podcast form. For books, the Book Review podcast from the New York Times comprehensively presents bestseller news as well as in-depth reviews of new books and author interviews. For film reviews, the downloadable version of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s bickering lowdown on films for BBC 5 Live with opinions that often teeter on arbitrary is easily one of the most entertaining review podcasts out there. If mainstream and art cinema aren’t your thing and you prefer sprawling, often surprisingly earnest conversations about bad, truly excruciatingly awful films (who could blame you) then you’re in luck: How Did This Get Made? is a podcast that specialises in precisely those things, and is often very funny.

If you’re in the mood for music…
The excellent BBC 6 Music digital radio station offers most of its most popular DJ slots as abridged downloadable versions, but the station’s weekly Joy of 6 podcast amalgamates the station’s best features and interviews from the week, which is slickly edited and without any filler gumf. And, try as you might, sometimes you just can’t beat BBC Radio 4’s veritable institution, Desert Island Discs, in which celebrities, writers and politicians alike vie to impress the dulcet-toned Kirsty Young with their favourite music tracks for her – and our – judgement.

If you’re in the mood for comedy…
Many podcasts, due to the popular chatty and at-least-partially-unscripted format, are inherently funny without being described as comedy podcasts. Then there are shows such as Richard Herring’s brilliant and irreverent Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, in each episode of which he rants and raves, and then interviews a fellow comedian, who subsequently joins in the ranting and raving. This is a great comedy podcast that has just been rebooted for a new series and, though London-based, began during one of Herring’s many stints at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

If you’re in the mood for tech…
For the latest tech news and trends there’s little better than the chatty Wired's podcast, which covers an impressive range of issues and tones from trivial technological gaffes to the darker, more sinister issues thrown up by the internet. The most difficult thing for any podcast is the blend between easy rapport and informative discussion, and Wired have hit the conversational nail on the head in this regard. For a more journalistic approach to technology and the digital world, the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast is straight-laced and tends towards exploring one issue in-depth, such as Bitcoin or trolling, but is an interesting listen.

If you’re in the mood for a cultural smorgasbord…
This one’s a no-brainer. Not content with being America’s contrary internet darling, Slate Magazine is also a podcasting giant, and its weekly Culture Gabfest is arguably the best programme it offers. The three regular hosts – Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner, all resident Slate critics – deal eloquently with all things culture (TV, film, books, music, art, journalism) and abstract concepts such as “normcore”, all pored over with equal measures of genuine joviality and intelligent insight. Proudly taking a “no-brow” stance on culture, and covering everything from Thomas Piketty to Weird Al Yankovic, the Gabfest is a fantastic and addictive all-rounder. The hosts gently mock each other over their various pretentions or cultural bugbears and are eminently likeable, so surely set to become your new favourite disembodied friends.

Podcasting has well and truly landed at last, and found its voice as an audible format for intelligent discussion, cultural exchange and boundless creativity. Right now is remarkable time to be listening.