Want a bit more from your commute than a scroll through Instagram? Stylist presents the 50 podcasts that will make you wiser, better read and more cultured
Words: Francesca Brown
Digital artwork: Justin Metz
From feminism to food, listen in and be enlightened.
If you think you’re up-to-date on culture and ideas, then prepare to have your grey cells put to the test by Neil Denny’s unashamedly intellectual podcast, with each episode featuring an interview with fascinating authors, scientists, astronauts and more, from author Emma Jane Unsworth to neurologist Suzanne Sullivan.
Episode taster: Juliet Jacques
Host Chris Broholm talks to the world’s leading language teachers and experts, and teases out practical tips on how to succeed at everything from learning Japanese to refreshing your dodgy GCSE Spanish (common pieces of advice: accept your basic rustiness, set goals and Skype native speakers).
Episode taster: Olly Richards
Produced by the BBC World Service, this incisive and brilliantly produced podcast explores the big stories of the day, explaining and enlightening in equal measure. Isis, the Chinese stock market, austerity measures, drug trafficking – The Inquiry’s weekly reports are all you’ll ever need.
Episode taster: Migrant Crisis: What Else Can Europe Try?
So why is it if you get a whiff of a Rimmel lipstick, you’re carried on a wave of nostalgia to your first night out at Oceana? Well, if you listen to SYSK, you’ll know it’s because your brain’s emotional and memory storage are slap bang next to your olfactory system. It’s like Wikipedia come to life.
Episode taster: How Big Bang Theory Works
Combining humour, science, music and bizarre sound effects, Radiolab is what your chemistry and social studies GCSE classes should have been but probably weren’t, exploring tricky subjects such as how life went from a tiny bag of cells to trees and orangutans. This podcast will make you 23% smarter. Fact.
Episode taster: The Cathedral
Reply All explains the internet. It also does it in such a way that you will find yourself helpless with laughter as a slightly uncomfortable man rings Japan at 6am in a bid to buy a web domain name. Listen in and let the witty Reply All team teach you the IT skills you’ve always craved (and explain why there are so many bad GIFs on Google Images).
Episode taster: Undo, Undo, Undo
This series of five podcasts offers a wonderful insight to women’s lives today, with contributions from Sam Taylor-Johnson, Emma Stone and Roseanne, a Brooklyn metal sheet worker.
Episode taster: Body
While Ted (technology, education, design) made its name with live video talks by experts in their fields, these podcasts go even deeper into the topics they tackle, such as the way we’re bamboozled by money. One listen and you’ll be an instant expert.
Episode taster: Animals And Us
Presented by Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, this Radio 4 series moves from an Egyptian mummy, via a penny defaced by a Suffragette, to today’s solar-powered lamp and charger, explaining the social and historical legacy of each object in an hour.
Episode taster: Early Victorian Tea Set
Despite reporting on business for This American Life, Alex Blumberg had absolutely no experience of running one. So he decided to jack in his job and set up a company, while making a podcast about it. Now into its third series, StartUp is invaluable listening if you’re intimidated by business-speak. And it’s also a riveting story.
Episode taster: How Not To Pitch To A Billionaire
“Exploring the invisible forces that control human behaviour: ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” The show’s tagline might sound a bit heavy, but it’s fascinating. Hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel look at the things that have an impact on us – fear, computers, other people’s thoughts – to create compelling podcasts that make your head hurt a little bit.
Episode taster: How To Become Batman
The food we craved as children, the financial penalties of eating out on your own, antibiotics in animals: if you’re interested in any aspect of food, then The Food Chain will have made a podcast about it. After a few listens, you’ll be able to win any dinner party argument with a working knowledge of the science, culture and economics of food.
Episode taster: Food Of Love
US Buzzfeed writers Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu have a couple of drinks then tackle prejudice in the modern world with candour and humour. And if the fact they get a bit drunk while doing so makes you doubt their influence, check their recent interview with a certain presidential candidate…
Episode taster: Hillary Clinton
For curious minds, these podcasts bring the real world to your ears.
For podcast virgins, Criminal’s investigations into true crime are an addictive place to start. From long-forgotten cases to a gruesome discovery in the bottom of a fridge, each episode has a gripping narrative and a satisfying climax, all bound together by a fascinating exploration of why human beings do what they do.
Episode taster: Gil From London
Told in snackable 20-minute episodes, Lore explores scary stories from around the world that have become folklore – from New England witches to European goblins – and presents the real-life incidents that spawned them. Meticulously researched, it debunks the myths, but it’s also incredibly creepy.
Episode taster: Half-Hanged
Not for the faint-hearted, TSATS focuses on shocking and strange crime cases by interviewing the criminals, witnesses and victims, and mixing the results with in-court testimonies, 911 calls and interrogation tapes. This is a dark podcast that fearlessly explores a macabre world of serial killers and psychopaths. Proceed with caution.
Episode taster: Prisons
Inspired by his own personal crisis (recently married, newly moved to New York and stuck in a job he hated), presenter Jonathan Hirsch documents the stories of people from around the world who find their lives utterly altered by events big (plane crashes, street shootings) and small (where they were born).
Episode taster: Miss Eva
It’s mysteries of the most routine that Mystery Show’s resident presenter and detective Starlee Kine investigates, such as the overnight disappearance of a New York video store, or why Jake Gyllenhaal’s height keeps changing in the movie Source Code. Despite their banal origins, Kine’s endless curiosity turns these cases into fascinatingly weird stories.
Episode taster: Video Store
British journalist Grace Dent lifts the lid on untold dramas of regular 21st-century Brits, all of whom have something at risk. From a father who’s struggling with a gambling addiction to a 70-year-old in a dance competition, this poignant documentary podcast is a compelling and moving observation of modern-day Britain.
Episode taster: Being Bowie
Mixing mind-bending editing and songs with first-person interviews, this series of stories from intriguing characters demonstrates why we need podcasts – some people’s lives are too extreme for everyday radio. A case in point is Jay Thunderbolt – one scary individual and an unlikely philanthropist.
Episode taster: The Wisdom Of Jay Thunderbolt
Originally a spoken word night in New York, The Moth became a weekly podcast in 2009 (there’s also a book) and is now a legend in its own time thanks to the brave souls who share their true-life stories. Funny, tragic and uplifting tales abound, from high-school science fairs to Nobel Prize ceremonies. It’s simply wonderful.
Episode taster: March 1st 2016
For true crime without the dark side WTC? is for you. One episode explores why Florida has become the ‘motherland of weird crime’, featuring the case of a man who had sex with a dolphin for a year, then maintained that the marine animal had seduced him, while another looks at the trend for confessing to crimes on social media.
Episode taster: Hangry
Lea Thau, the former director of The Moth, created Strangers to tell “true stories about people we meet, the heartbreaks we suffer and the kindnesses we encounter”. From a father dealing with his son’s mental illness to a woman who donated a kidney to a stranger after being inspired by previous installments, it’s utterly moving.
Episode taster: Love Hurts
Surely the mother of all podcasts, This American Life started as a radio programme in 1995, tackling subjects such as the time-honoured US tradition of the prom (featuring Sweet Valley High writer Francine Pascal) and life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It will make you instantly better informed about the human race.
Episode taster: Anatomy Of Doubt
Tackling society’s last three big taboos, this ground-breaking podcast has attracted a fiercely loyal audience, thanks to presenter Anna Sale’s brutally honest brand of interviews. Actress Brooke Shields speaks about cutting her mother out of her life, while Jane Fonda discusses death and depression.
Episode taster: Cheating Happens
From original fiction to classic tales re-told, these story podcasts are as addictive as a boxset.
A brilliantly twisted fictional radio show from the small desert town of Night Vale. News reports feature strange lights, angel apparitions, feral dogs and dark hooded figures with strange powers. And with each episode, it gets weirder and more addictive. No surprise it’s one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time.
Episode taster: Pilot
Taking “the best and most exciting screenplays Hollywood hasn’t made, and turning them into movies for your ears” might sound like the world’s worst idea for a podcast but they’re so transporting, you don’t actually miss the visuals, and some of the screenwriters have already landed deals with Hollywood studios.
Episode taster: Terrible Parents
If you listen to a lot of podcasts then The Message is deliciously disconcerting, thanks to its adoption of the traditional podcast format (narrator, taped conversations, cutaway explanations). As you listen, you have no idea if it’s real or not, making its plot – the attempt to decode a 70-year-old alien message – all the more feasible.
Episode taster: One
You need to keep reminding yourself that this is fiction, otherwise this docudrama following the adventures of enigmatic ghost hunter Dr Richard Strand could easily play havoc with your imagination. This is brilliantly creepy and totally addictive. And it’s definitely not real. We think…
Episode taster: Episode 101 (which is actually the first episode)
Launched last month, this series from The New Yorker features authors reading new short stories they’ve written for the iconic magazine. Just six episodes in and Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan have already appeared. Subscribe and you’ll have instant access to some of the greatest new writing around.
Episode taster: Lara Vapnyar
Embracing a more cinematic feel, this zombie thriller, set in Los Angeles, is the perfect commuter ‘boxset’. Told via a huge cast of characters and some frankly terrifying sound effects over 48 compelling episodes, the podcast format places you slap bang in the story’s narrative to unnerving effect.
Episode taster: Chapter One
No round-up of podcasts would be complete without this enthralling genre-defying drama. Centring on a small Tennessee town that went missing in 2004, along with its population of 300, the confusion and unfolding mystery is deftly and convincingly rendered. Lock the front door, hit the sofa and listen up close.
Episode taster: What We Know
Featuring handpicked stories from Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens, among others, Morning Short is a brilliant way to listen to new genres and authors of short fiction that might otherwise have passed you by, in snack-size parcels that are perfect for your commute.
Episode taster: The Shooting Party by Virginia Woolf
Comic podcast fiction is a rare thing. Which is why this is such a refreshing series – it’s about the misadventures of Steve and Charlie, two idiots who run a time-travel agency, as they embark on benders in ancient Rome and attempt to rob pirates. If you find yourself getting hooked, there are 26 episodes to catch up on.
Episode taster: Help Wanted
Pleasure Town is a sprawling, hedonistic town in Twenties Oklahoma – think Deadwood meets The Archers – where the local residents tell the story of the town’s demise (“there was betrayal and there was murder…”). The plots are crowd-sourced, so if you get totally caught up in the action, you can contribute to the myth.
Episode taster: Buried And Forgotten
As weird as it is wonderful, Ross Sutherland’s surreal stories are as close as you can get to an audible psychedelic trip. Among his literary inventions are a “mis-translation” of Braveheart; a short story weaving together the tracks of Jay-Z’s The Black Album; and the tale of one man’s attempt to outdo his rival at six fancy dress parties.
Episode taster: Six House Parties
If the thought of reading the entirety of Herman Melville’s classic novel (all 135 chapters of it) makes you want to jump ship, author Philip Hoare and artist Angela Cockayne’s magisterial podcast does all the hard work for you. Listen to the syrupy voices of fans such as Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch read individual chapters out loud.
Episode taster: Loomings (read by Tilda Swinton)
From sharp satire to simply stupid, these are the LOL-est podcasts of them all.
Tackling pressing pop culture matters (“Is Gogglebox real?”) from a London living room, Olly Mann, Helen Zaltzman and Martin the sound man are like the endearingly witty neighbours you wish you had. Their LOL information service has now been running since 2007, with over 300 episodes to catch up on.
Episode taster: The Best Of AMT 2015
HDTGM tackles the biggest disasters in the history of film. Batman & Robin, Jingle All The Way, Fast & Furious 6… all get deftly deflated as comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas mercilessly unpick casts, scripts, premises and plot lines. They’re totally wrong about Spice World, though.
Episode taster: Con Air
Adam Buxton is a very funny man. Along with his brilliant pastiche songs and daft jingles, he invites some of the smartest and funniest people in the world (Rob Delaney, Kathy Burke, Louis Theroux, to name but a few) on his podcast (alongside his dog Rosie), mostly to talk about their work, Revels and Adam’s beloved David Bowie.
Episode taster: Caitlin Moran
Long before British comedian John Oliver became a big-shot in the US, he launched this satirical podcast with Andy Zaltzmann. The Bugle remains one of the sharpest and most essential comedy podcasts, with almost 300 episodes of the pair discussing topical matters to date.
Episode taster: The Chainsaw Of Futuristic Justice
Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince are the perfectly mismatched presenters of The Infinite Monkey Cage, originally a Radio 4 series. All-round science expert Cox guides the very funny Ince through everything from the science behind alien abduction to theories of probability.
Episode taster: Things Can Only Get Better?
Voiced by Jermaine Clement (of comedy duo Flight Of The Concords), this serialized story about a man who sailed on Captain Cook’s first voyage across the Pacific is inspired but daft. It takes a while to get into, but once you do, this is a sheer treat.
Comics Sofie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White are definitely feminists but would like to be better. Each show starts with “I’m a feminist but…” before admitting to some very non-feminist behaviour (like thinking The Feminine Mystique was a perfume). Listen out for cameos from the likes of Sara Pascoe.
Episode taster: Advertising
CYG was born when tech expert Aminatou Sow met journalist Ann Friedman at a Gossip Girl party in Washington DC. They talk about everything: from the politics of tampons and renting wombs to breaking up with friends, weaving together brilliant humour with scathing political and social rants.
Episode taster: Pilot: Say My Name
He might not be everyone’s cup of tea (he likes a big swear) but Marc Maron has interviewed everyone in the Western world in his garage, from President Obama to Amy Schumer, luring out jaw-dropping revelations.
Episode taster: Barack Obama
In the first half of this podcast, host Paul F Tompkins interviews a guest, then in the second half, the brilliant cast turns their chat into improvised comedy. Beware: the faking of the 1969 moon landing will make you laugh out loud on public transport.
Episode taster: The One Beauty Parlor In A Small Town
HG Wells (played by Paul F Tompkins) travels through time to interview other famous dead authors, from Charlotte Bronte to Ernest Hemingway. While it’s very funny and unscripted, it also offers a unique whirlwind tour of the world’s must-read authors, and gives the names on your bookshelf a little bit of soul.
Episode taster: Dorothy Parker
You know you’re in for a treat when a podcast’s hosts are self-proclaimed ‘equal-opportunity offenders’ nicknamed ‘Feminasty’ and ‘Homosensual’. US comedians Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi’s weekly show discusses issues such as women’s rights with a healthy dose of satire and wit.
Episode taster: Frappiato Maxiato, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jason Micallef
American writer and HBO veteran Scott Aukerman is at the helm of this bonkers comedy podcast. Listen to chats with star guests such as Sarah Silverman and Jon Hamm, before it all unravels into raucous banter and improvised comedy sketches. Expect freestyle raps and cringy games of ‘Would You Rather?’
Episode taster: Poehler Ice Caps