The Best Podcasts Right Now
If you’re not tuned into this cultural trend, now is the time to press play
The first use of the word “podcast” was by the The Guardian’s Mr Ben Hammersley in 2004, according to Wikipedia’s relentlessly boring “History of Podcasting” article. This means that, in internet terms, the episodic audio-blogging format has pretty much been around forever. However, 2015 seems to be the year the podcast has really hit its stride, thanks to the ongoing popularity of Ms Sarah Koenig’s true-crime sensation Serial. The emergence of a slew of new podcasts from powerhouse broadcasters and independent podcasting newcomers, such as the crowdsourced Gimlet Media, launched by ex-This American Life producer Mr Alex Blumberg at the end of 2014, are creating major buzz.
So, why now? Perhaps, with the rise of box sets and streaming TV shows, we’re more comfortable with the idea of episodic and on-demand programming. Perhaps, as central urban property continues to get more expensive, we need more things to listen to on our ever-lengthening commutes. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that people have realised there’s a lot of money to be made from podcasts, both as a producer and an advertiser, and so bundles of cash are finally being thrown in the right direction.
Whatever the reason, it seems like there are more truly excellent podcasts now than ever before. To help you through the morass of not-so-great offerings, MR PORTER has compiled a list of the podcasts we consider to be the best. We’ve focused on shows that adopt a more documentary-like or scripted format, rather than impromptu discussions. These, like Serial, are podcasts that are compelling, addictive and easy to get your teeth into. Click to subscribe to all the below, and find the dead moments of your day enriched with glorious audio wonderment, wherever your passions may lie.
The Best Real Stories
There’s a pleasing intimacy to the podcast, given that you tend to listen to them by yourself, using headphones. It is therefore a perfect format for the true, the personal and the confessional. If you’re interested in slice-of-life broadcasting, the following shows are for you.
01. THIS AMERICAN LIFE
The precursor to Serial and one of the most-loved podcasts of them all, WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life has a more or less permanent spot on iTunes’ Top 10 Podcasts, and it is well deserved. In each episode, host Mr Ira Glass takes listeners through a series of stories, many about real people, on a particular theme such as, “superpowers” or “poultry”. It’s charming, unexpected, often weird, but always heartwarming. Only recent episodes are free, so save for later and subscribe now.
Subscribe to This American Life
Start with: “#492: Mr Gilmer and Mr Hyde”
02. HERE BE MONSTERS
Here Be Monsters describes itself as “a podcast exploring the dark corners of the human mind.” Although episodes vary in format, with documentary-style investigations into topics such as placenta eating, cricket noises, depression and crows. The show really shines when single subjects take over the mic, talking about hairy travel escapades, personal demons and experiences with the ineffable or unknown.
Subscribe to Here Be Monsters
Start with: “Last Chance to Evacuate Earth”
03. THE MOTH
The Moth is not just a podcast, but a theatrical event. It was invented in New York by poet Mr George Dawes Green, but is now playing across the US. The format is simple: people turn up to events and tell stories live to an audience. The results are, of course, hugely varied. The podcast mixes individual stories with live recordings and compilations from The Moth’s weekly, hour-long radio slot, with the subject matter ranging from heart-wrenching stories of loss and grief, to light comedic skits about Oreo addiction, lucky trousers and more.
Subscribe to The Moth
Start with: “Head of Clay”
The Best for Music Nuts
There’s more to music fandom than the “discover weekly” playlist on Spotify. Broaden your sonic horizons with these podcasts, perfect for those who take their music seriously.
01. SONG EXPLODER
Perfect for listening to on a short walk or journey, each episode of Song Exploder, from PRX’s Radiotopia series, features a well-known musician dissecting one of their songs. But not in the usual sense of “Oh, this bit’s about my ex-girlfriend,” more along the lines of “we got this drum sound by doing this, then mixed it with this track to get it sounding like this.” For anyone interested in how music is written and produced (and for fans of acts such as Nite Jewel, Health, Ghostface Killah and The National) this is essential listening.
Subscribe to Song Exploder
Start with: “Nite Jewel”
02. Meet the Composer
Contemporary classical music has a bad rep for being silly, unlistenable and needlessly academic. However, viola player Ms Nadia Sirota’s podcast Meet the Composer seeks to redress this perception, devoting each of its hour-long episodes to a living composer and their work. The selected artists are interesting, yet accessible. The contextual narration goes a long way to making sense of it all and the sensitive editing makes for a rather sublime listen all-round. Plus you get to drop names of avant-garde composers at your next social occasion.
Subscribe to Meet the Composer
Start with: “Caroline Shaw Lives Life Beautifully”
03. Fact Mixes
British independent music magazine FACT is no Pitchfork (in terms of visitors or influence) but that doesn’t preclude its weekly mix of podcast from being the best out there. Drawing from a truly eclectic and esoteric range of guest mixers, from indie darling Panda Bear to pioneering electronic producer Squarepusher, this weekly series (streamable from the FACT website or available as a podcast on iTunes) is guaranteed to introduce you to new musical delights. And yes, it’s even better than the robotic Spotify “discover” section.
Subscribe to Fact Mixes
Start with: #440: “St Vincent”
The Best for Sport and Fitness
You may be a person who prefers to spend all their spare time in a state of aerobic respiration, but remember your poor body needs to rest, too. Make your downtime more sporty with the following podcasts.
01. THE FOOTBALL RAMBLE
Some men love getting together and talking about football, so consequently there are football podcasts out there, most of them featuring plenty of “banter”. The Football Ramble is the original and best. Presented by former sports presenter Mr Marcus Speller, who is joined each episode by various co-hosts, the podcast provides a never-ending series of chuckles and oddities from the world of the beautiful game.
Subscribe to The Football Ramble
Start with the most current episode
02. The Bike Show
Mr Jack Thurston’s podcast of his regular show on London’s Resonance FM offers a refreshing take on cycling, not just as a competitive sport, but as a hobby and lifestyle. Therefore, his stories veer wildly from the well-pedalled path of interviews with pros and commentary on races, tackling subjects as diverse as the maintenance of the British countryside, and interviews with cycling-related musicians, journalists, photographers and more.
Subscribe to The Bike Show
Start with: “Did Cycling Kill Kraftwerk?”
03. Ben Greenfield Fitness
Even if you think you already know everything about fitness and nutrition, take a listen to Mr Ben Greenfield’s podcast. It is likely to send your brain dribbling out of your ears and down your well-chiselled jawline. Mr Greenfield is a Washington-based personal trainer, New York Times bestselling author and veritable one-man industry who is interested in the way science can make you fit and optimise all aspects of your life; from your gut health to libido. Each episode features a guest interviewee who discusses topics ranging from polyphasic sleep to ice baths, and offers tips on diet, exercise and training for your body type. Not for the faint-hearted, but definitely addictive.
Subscribe to Ben Greenfield Fitness
Start with: “The Nitty Gritty Underground World of Supplement Ingredients”
The Best for Intriguing Miscellany
There are few things more refreshing than coming out the other side of a commute as a more well-informed and interesting person. These podcasts, covering a vast range of dinner-party-worthy topics, should help you accomplish this feat easily.
01. Reply All
One of the new shows from Mr Alex Blumberg’s Gimlet Media podcasting network, Reply All is all about internet and cyber culture. This is less a self-conscious “tech” podcast, and more about exploring the vagaries of life online, with hosts Messrs PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman answering such questions as “what happens when you reply to random weird ads on Craigslist?” and “what are the secret forces behind domain name speculation”. In short, it’s everything you ever wondered about the digital world, but were too afraid to ask.
Subscribe to Reply All
Start with: “I’ve Killed People and I Have Hostages”
02. 99% Invisible
A podcast about design and architecture, hosted by silky-voiced producer and Radiotopia founder Mr Roman Mars. Since its inception in 2010, 99% Invisible has become a huge hit, a fact so evident that, as of 2014, it’s adopted a weekly format. Come here to delve into things you’d never noticed about the built environments around you and learn about such esoteric design topics as the cul de sac, straight lines, the calendar and the All-American sports mascot.
Subscribe to 99% Invisible
Start with: “The Sound of the Artificial World”
Alongside This American Life, Radiolab is the most celebrated and wide-ranging podcast out there. Its core subject matter is where science interacts with life, culture and philosophy, but the execution of each episode, by trained composer Mr Jad Abumrad and co-host Mr Robert Krulwich, is as much a part of the pleasure as the subject matter. Expect accessible explorations of medical mysteries, philosophical conundrums and more, with a healthy soundtrack of cut-up audio snippets and beautiful soundscapes. This is immersive storytelling at its best.
Subscribe to Radiolab
Start with: “Things”
The Best for Arts and Culture
Lacking inspiration? Wishing you read more? Fill the holes in your aesthetic and literary life with these bookish shows.
01. The Organist
You may already be familiar with The Believer, the long-form journalism magazine from Mr Dave Eggers’ groundbreaking publishing house McSweeney’s. The Organist is more of the same, in podcast form, produced in collaboration with KCRW, a public radio station broadcasting from the campus of Santa Monica College. The show covers a broad spectrum of musical and literary topics, from performances of new radio plays to interviews with McSweeney’s gang writers such as Ms Miranda July and a New York vocal coach who taught Ms Debbie Harry how to sing. Like its print counterpart, its star collaborators and keen sense of fun make it a great source for cutting-edge culture.
Subscribe to The Organist
Start with: “The Voice Teacher”
02. New Yorker: Fiction
A simple idea, executed brilliantly: acclaimed authors who have contributed short stories to The New Yorker (including Messrs Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides) pick their favourite New Yorker story from the archives and read it out for listeners, before discussing it with The New Yorker’s fiction editor Ms Deborah Treisman. Although it only comes out every couple of months, past episodes are easily downloadable, making it a great way to discover new authors and catch up on almost a century of fantastic short fiction from the pages of one of the world’s best magazines.
Subscribe to New Yorker: Fiction
Start with: “David Sedaris reads Miranda July”
03. Slate’s Audio Book Club
About to go on holiday, or generally stuck for what to read? Download this podcast, which not only offers great literary recommendations (ranging from Mr Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way to Ms Paula Hawkins’ compulsive potboiler The Girl on the Train), but thorough and engaging discussions for once you have finished. All of the benefits of a book group, but without having to listen to people’s holiday stories or put up with sub-par snacks.
Subscribe to Slate’s Audio Book Club
Start with: It depends on what you’re reading, but “Ms Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad” is highly recommended