Imagine a world where you looked forward to your train journey to work – hoping for delays due to signal failure – or headed to the post office bang on 1pm, willing the line to be out the door. We spend between 50 and 70 minutes of our day commuting and, according to a recent poll, stand in queues for six months of our lives. But perhaps this needn’t be time wasted, idly checking Twitter. Instead we could use it to educate, entertain and better ourselves by listening to a podcast.
As radio’s younger, edgier sibling, the podcast has been around now for 10 years but came into its own when The Ricky Gervais Show became the most downloaded UK podcast in history (with over 300 million downloads).
There are now somewhere in the region of 250,000 podcasts available, some repeating radio shows, others creating brand new content. While it’s not always practical to be glued to a screen, audio has long been the multitasker’s best friend, and with the rise of the smartphone, it’s never been easier to listen while on the go. In July this year, Apple announced that podcast subscriptions on iTunes had hit the one billion mark for the first time, while UK podcast site Audioboo attracts 10 million unique users a month. So whether you want a fresh take on current affairs, to swot up on some science, or just something to make you smile at the end of an exhausting day, there’s a podcast for everyone. Best of all – our selection won’t cost you a penny. So go forth and expand your horizons.
Welcome to Nigh Vale
Best for: Bedtime stories.
In a nutshell: Twin Peaks meets The Archers in a fictional desert town.
Listen in: A cloud is raining dead animals on a high-school football field – this is just one of the strange happenings in the fictional town of Night Vale. Created by writers Joseph Finkand and Jeffrey Cranor, radio anchor Cecil (played by Cecil Baldwin) fills us in on events in a place where ghosts, angels and aliens are part of everyday life.
Length: 30 minutes
Frequency: Twice monthly
Best for: Boosting your brainpower.
In a nutshell: Blue Peter for grown-ups. Two reporters explore fascinating questions, big and small.
Listen in: Why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky? What is it really like to be blind? How do jokes work? Presenters Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview everyone from marine biologists to master poker players to explore each episode’s theme in-depth (we recommend the podcasts on loops and animal minds). The pair revel in turning commonly held misconceptions on their head – including the one about the sky being blue – and share an infectious enthusiasm for storytelling that occasionally tips over into giddiness. Truly original and addictive – they don’t call this the crack of podcasts for nothing.
Find it: radiolab.org
Length: 60 minutes
Frequency: Twice monthly
Stuff Mom Never Told You
Best for: Providing laughs with a topical twist.
In a nutshell: Woman’s Hour with added attitude.
Listen in: Is it OK to cry at work? Is pole dancing anti-feminist? Is there a cure for a bitchy resting face? Hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin delight in addressing these, and loads more female-centric questions in punchy, informationpacked half hours, taking in lots of statistics, interviews and frank, revealing anecdotes from their listener community. The tone is highoctane and occasionally raucous with a lot of laughs, but they don’t shy away from tricky subjects. Look out for a new four-part series on women in the workplace in association with the Global Women’s Network.
Find it: howstuffworks.com
Length: 30-40 minutes
Bonnie and Maude
Best for: Getting the inside track on great movies.
In a nutshell: The coolest girls you know, talking about films you love.
Listen in: Every month, Brooklyn-based film critics Eleanor Kagan and Kseniya Yarosh discuss cinema from a female perspective. Unlike most film review shows, they’re not ruled by Hollywood releases, favouring the films, actors and directors that interest them personally. The result is an astute, witty series covering recent films such as indie hit Frances Ha, as well as classics including Cabaret and Mermaids. This doesn’t date, so go back to the first episode for a discussion on how Hollywood stereotypes ‘ugly’ female characters, inspired by Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Girls. They’ll be your new online best friends.
Find it: bonnieandmaude.com
Length: 20-60 minutes
Listen to Lucy
Best for: Staying sane at work.
In a nutshell: Five-minute snippets lampooning the latest office jargon and management fads (ie David Brent’s worst nightmare).
Listen in: While journalist Lucy Kellaway’s management column for the Financial Times is tucked away behind a paywall, the audio podcast version is a blessed freebie that will have you rolling your eyes in recognition. Wondering whether endorsing someone on LinkedIn is a serious accolade or a pointless conceit? Kellaway gives it to you straight. She is whipsmart, acerbic and brilliantly haughty, like a favourite colleague who makes you laugh and feel slightly scared at the same time. Listen to this and you will never, ever use the term ‘going forward’ again.
Find it: podcast.ft.com
Length: 5 minutes
This American Life
Best for: Yankophiles.
In a nutshell: An audio scrapbook of modern US life.
Listen in: Much-loved US radio host Ira Glass extracts amazing real-life stories from all over the States with help from contributors including author David Sedaris. Glass’s skill lies in treating everyone – from Chicago frat boys to the nurses at a Wisconsin hospital – with the same steady courtesy. Each show covers a theme with first-person narratives from the interviewees, making the tone very intimate. Listen to the incredibly revealing two-parter on gun crime and gang culture at Harper High School (where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot) for a solid series introduction. Warning: it might make you cry… in a good way.
Find it: thisamericanlife.org
Length: 60 minutes
Frequency: Twice monthly
Best for: Swotting up on the issues of the moment.
In a nutshell: Topical panel discussion offering a different slant on the world.
Listen in: Craggy-voiced sociologist Laurie Taylor gathers leading thinkers to discuss cutting-edge research on how modern society works, from the enforcement of drug laws to trends in music. It’s a densely packed half hour, in which you’ll find yourself forming opinions on banking culture, the relationship between Thatcherism and ‘thrift chic’, or whether women belong on the frontline of the armed forces. Taylor makes complex topics simple, keeping the conversation lively and waffle-free. A good one if you’re in a serious, reflective mood.
Find it: bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series
Length: 29 minutes
Best for: Deep thinking.
In a nutshell: The big questions in bite-sized pieces.
Listen in: This series of short, easily digestible interviews with modern philosophers such as NYU professor Jessica Moss is a brilliant introduction to core issues in philosophical history and how they relate to the present day. Presented by cut-glass Oxfordian David Edmonds, Philosophy Bites has earned a reputation as the go-to reference for up-to-date thinking on everything from existentialism to the nature of language. More than 200 interviews are now available, effectively giving you access to a full library of philosophical thought. Not bad for a freebie.
Find it: philosophybites.com
Length: 15-20 minutes
Frequency: Irregular – normally twice monthly
The Infinite Monkey Cage
Best for: Fun brainfood.
In a nutshell: Physics, but not as you know it.
Listen in: TV-friendly physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince take a sideways look at everything from alien abduction theories to gags about chemists’ libido (the people, not the shops). This BBC Radio 4 comedy panel show is speculative, smart and joyfully absurd. The Christmas special deliberated at length on exactly how Saint Nick might be able to get to everyone in one night (apparently he either teleports through photon entanglement or spends two 100,000ths of a second at each house) which proves their commitment to tackling the big issues…
Find it: bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/timc
Length: 30-40 minutes
Best for: A cutting-edge chuckle.
In a nutshell: Mean Girls meets The Culture Show.
Listen in: Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi first established electric on-screen chemistry on cult US cable TV show Infomania, and have now teamed up for Throwing Shade, a weekly podcast driving a feminist and gay agenda that’s packed with humour. The pair confront hot topics of the day with self-deprecating wit and downright bitchiness. Subjects range from gay cruises and Putin’s anti-LGBT laws, to abusive fitness apps and Beyoncé’s hair. These are the conversations you overhear and wish you were part of, or the ones you have with your friends that you wish you’d recorded. The jokes hit hard – don’t listen while sat in a quiet train carriage.
Find it: throwingshade.com
Length: 30-60 minutes