The 12 Podcasts You Really Need To Know About
From the new Serial to Mr Alec Baldwin’s famous friends – the most compulsive series to tune into this summer
Summer is here, and that means packing a suitcase, abandoning your desk and heading to sunnier climes for a week or two. Holidays offer us a rare chance to take stock of ourselves, to be self-indulgent, and to broaden the mind. How do we do this? One way is by reading a book. Just track your eyes across lines of text, translate the words on the page into thoughts in your head and... Boom! A world of imaginative possibilities opens up to you.
But what if, supine on a sun lounger and sozzled on a second pre-lunch glass of Domaines Ott, you can’t even be bothered to do that? Don’t fret, because technology has the answer. There are audiobooks, of course, which outsource the task of reading to another person, more often than not Mr Stephen Fry. But books are intended, first and foremost, to be read. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that something essential to the experience of reading is lost when you get someone else to do it for you. Far better, we say, to invest your time in something native to the audio medium, such as a podcast. But how do you go about finding a good one?
Podcasts are sometimes described as the Netflix of radio. And indeed both Netflix shows and podcasts are intended to be consumed in a radically different way from traditional media. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Netflix shows, which can cost as much as Hollywood movies, podcasts can be produced for next to nothing. And while this makes for an incredibly diverse market, with countless independent producers covering a mind-boggling range of topics, it also means that quality is wildly variable.
All of which combine to make it rather difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. But that, dear reader/listener, is where we come in. Applying a rigorous sorting process – ie, just choosing the ones we like – MR PORTER has prepared a list of 12 podcasts that you should seriously consider subscribing to before you head for the skies this summer. It features sports, politics and plenty of mindless chatter, too. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but it should provide listeners new to podcasts with somewhere to get started.
Yes, you’ve probably already heard of it. You might have even listened to it. But it would be remiss not to mention the latest podcast from the team behind Serial and This American Life, for the sole reason that it’s so damned good. S-Town is a radio-friendly abbreviation of Shit Town, the name given by Mr John B McLemore to Woodstock, the Alabama backwater that he reluctantly calls home. But it is Mr McLemore, and not his hometown, that provides the subject matter for this darkly engrossing series. S-Town is a funny, thoughtful and crushingly sad exploration into one man’s life. It features some of the loveliest, most mellifluous Alabama accents you’ve ever heard, and in Mr McLemore boasts a central character to rival any you’ll meet in fiction. If you listen to only one podcast this summer, make it this.
Launched on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, this new podcast from pop star Mr Will Young and music video director Mr Christopher Sweeney is being pitched by its creators as “Woman’s Hour for the LGBTQ+ community”. A real kitchen-table-and-a-dictaphone kind of podcast, Homo Sapiens is lo-fi, off-the-cuff and conversational as it looks at the issues faced by the community. Interviews are held over tea and biscuits, and recordings are regularly interrupted by inquisitive pets. The show’s first guest is the wonderfully opinionated political commentator and Labour Party activist Mr Owen Jones, who expounds on the horror and hilarity of coming out to his parents, the tragic under-representation of gay men in 1990s soaps, the exhilarating experience of storming off the set of Sky News, and much more. It begs the question: if Woman’s Hour has been running since 1946, why didn’t anyone think of this earlier?
The Butterfly Effect
Mr Jon Ronson’s new podcast is exclusively available on Audible until November, so you’ll have to hand over your credit card details and sign up for a free 30-day trial if you want it before then. We strongly advise that you do. In his first podcast, the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats turns his investigative gaze towards the seedy world of internet porn. The titular “butterfly effect” – a concept from chaos theory stating that small causes can have huge effects, such that, for instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in the Caribbean might ultimately cause a typhoon in the Philippines – is used here as a metaphor for the chaotic effects that one man, a German entrepreneur by the name of Mr Fabian Thylmann, had on the adult entertainment industry when he realised the lucrative potential of giving away porn for free. As you’d expect of an investigation probing the links between porn and money, The Butterfly Effect is depressing stuff. For every person getting fabulously rich, there are countless others stuck in a downward spiral, trading their dignity for an increasingly meagre slice of the pie.
30 For 30 Podcasts
It’s being described as a must-listen for sports fans, but 30 For 30 deserves a far wider audience than that. For one thing, most of the featured stories are only tenuously linked to sports. Take episode two, “Yankees Suck”, which follows a bunch of friends from the Boston hardcore punk scene who got rich beyond their wildest dreams hawking “YANKEES SUCK” T-shirts at Fenway Park; or episode four, “A Queen Of Sorts”, which tells the story of how poker hall of famer Mr Phil Ivey and an accomplice earned themselves millions of dollars – and a bunch of legal troubles – using a controversial card-sorting technique. As you’d expect of ESPN, the production standards are sky-high throughout; 30 For 30 does a great job of showcasing what’s possible when a major broadcasting network throws the full weight of one of its franchise brands behind the podcasting format.
Here’s The Thing With Alec Baldwin
What do you do when you’ve got as many famous friends as Mr Alec Baldwin? You start a podcast, obviously. Here’s The Thing is a fortnightly chat show from WNYC Studios, the critically acclaimed producer of Death, Sex And Money and Radiolab. Mr Baldwin is becoming something of an elder statesman of the podcasting scene. He’s been at it since 2011 and Here’s The Thing is fast approaching its 150th episode. To what does it owe such longevity? The celebrity roster certainly doesn’t hurt. Over the years, the show has featured such names as Messrs Michael Douglas, Paul Simon and Jimmy Fallon, and Mses Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Sarah Jessica Parker. What keeps listeners coming back, though, is Mr Baldwin himself. He’s a supremely talented interviewer with a knack for drawing the best out of his subjects. It helps, of course, that he’s already friends with most of them.
Missing Richard Simmons
A controversial podcast that topped the charts earlier this year, Missing Richard Simmons follows the journey of Mr Dan Taberski, a documentary filmmaker who took it upon himself to find the “missing” fitness guru after he abruptly withdrew from public life in 2014. As you may have guessed, this podcast isn’t really about what happened to Mr Simmons (spoiler alert: he’s fine). Instead, it winds up as a meditation on the nature of fame and celebrity, questioning to what extent – if at all – public figures belong to the public. Missing Richard Simmons was published in real time, with host Mr Taberski admitting at the outset that he didn’t know where it was going to lead. By the time the sixth and final episode went live, the real-life ethical arguments swirling around the show had begun to intrude on the narrative, and it ended on a somewhat anticlimactic note. That shouldn’t put you off, though. The show may have failed as the mystery it was intended to be, but it succeeded in so many other ways.
Pod Save America
President Trump: love him or hate him, you can’t help but have an opinion on him. If yours tends towards the negative, then you’ll find some comfort and catharsis in Pod Save America, a twice-weekly podcast hosted by ex-Obama staffers Messrs Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor. The show was originally named Keepin’ It 1600, after 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, aka The White House, but changed its name and adopted a more openly activist agenda after the inauguration. There are myriad political commentary podcasts out there; what makes this one special is that it doesn’t just offer an insider’s perspective on what goes on within the Beltway, but what goes on inside the Situation Room, too. All four hosts worked at the coalface of US politics and bring countless personal anecdotes from their time in the White House to bear. They’re exceptionally well-connected, too. Look at the fourth episode, for instance, which took the format of an exit interview with President Barack Obama and was recorded in the Roosevelt Room.
At 15 years old, Radiolab is by far the longest-running show on this list. It began life in 2002 as a three-hour radio show on WNYC, but it is in its current, hour-long documentary format that it has flourished and found a global audience. Along with NPR’s This American Life, which launched in 1995 and became available as a podcast in 2006, Radiolab is responsible for setting the standards by which modern podcasts are judged. Each new episode is intelligently researched, well-paced, rich with sound design and leaves the listener feeling like they’ve genuinely learned something. Unlike This American Life, however, which lists only the most recent four episodes for free, all episodes of Radiolab dating back to 2012 are still available on the iTunes Store. It’s a bewildering selection, so we suggest starting with classics such as “Colors”, “Mortality” and “Sleep”. Alternatively, just choose at random. They’re all pretty good.
Produced and recorded entirely from within the walls of San Quentin, a state prison facility in Northern California, Ear Hustle gives listeners a rare opportunity to find out what life is actually like on the inside. This compelling podcast from Radiotopia is a joint effort between two inmates, Messrs Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, and Bay Area visual artist Ms Nigel Poor. The fact that two-thirds of the team are serving substantial prison terms – 31 years to life for Mr Woods and 15 years for Mr Williams – brings a dose of reality to a genre that is too often defined by tawdry sensationalism. With topics ranging from the difficulties of living in close proximity to cellmates to the reasons why some inmates feel the need to take care of animals (“It’s unconditional affection… unconditional love”), Ear Hustle serves up real-life prison stories from real-life prisoners.
From the dense lyrical content and tight free-jazz backdrops to the inclusion of Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright”, and Mr Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus and Dr Dre among the many contributors, it is obvious even after a cursory listen that Mr Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip-hop opus To Pimp A Butterfly is an important album. But important enough to sustain a 20-plus-part podcast series? Apple certainly thought so, listing this unofficial commentary companion piece among iTunes’ best of 2016. And with a new season on Mr Kanye West’s 2010 classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy currently dropping, now is the time to take the plunge. In truth, you’ll probably come out of the first season clutching more questions than you went in with, such is the depth and ambiguity of Mr Lamar’s modern-day masterpiece, but you feel even the man himself would appreciate the attention to detail on display here. In the age of Spotify, it takes a special record to remain on heavy rotation, in its entirety, two years after its release. If you agree that To Pimp A Butterfly fits that description, then this breakdown is required listening.
This Is Actually Happening
There are things we think will never happen to us – things so shocking that we have no idea how we’d react if they did. This thought-provoking audio documentary attempts to shed light on what happens when ordinary people experience extraordinary events by presenting the listener with a series of first-person accounts of life-changing moments, from near-death experiences to tragic loss. Each episode is presented as a “what if…” scenario and takes the form of a first-person narrative, which lends the feel of a personal anecdote, albeit one that would have you listening open-mouthed in horror. The titles say it all: “What if your mother died on Christmas Day?” or “What if you were hunted by the Japanese mafia?” are just two examples. If you’re new to the series, try episode 89, “What if you spent 15 hours on the edge of sanity?”, for a suitably shocking start.
Gimlet Media’s much-loved “show about the internet” chalked up its 100th episode this June, and you could forgive Messrs PJ Vogt, Alex Goldman and the rest of the crew for resting on their laurels. If recent episodes are anything to go by, though, this is anything but the case. Check out Episode 102, “Long Distance”, and its follow-up, “Long Distance Part II”, which make an early claim for podcasts of the year. When Mr Goldman receives a suspicious voicemail informing him that his iCloud has been compromised and urging him to call a 1-800 number in order to speak to a “certified technician”, he decides to go along for the ride. What follows is a fascinating and, at times, bizarre investigation into the world of phishing, culminating in Mr Goldman travelling to India in order to meet the men who attempted to scam him – and trying to discover how they justify cheating people out of money. This is brilliant, tenacious journalism.
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