In the mood to learn something new? Get started with one of these brilliant investigative podcasts.
It’s no secret that we love a good documentary here at Stylist.
From the BBC’s deep dive into #MeToo in the world of sport, to Netflix’s long list of true crime documentaries and docuseries, there’s something incredibly fascinating about having your eyes opened to a subject or story you previously knew very little about.
But watching a documentary isn’t the only way to enjoy this type of content. Although podcasts are often associated with celebrity interviews and host-led conversations, there are also a wide range of brilliant documentary and investigative podcasts making use of the medium to present gripping, sometimes never-before-told stories.
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If you’re one of the millions of people who have found themselves hooked by the likes of Serial before, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Despite being (rightly) held up as one of the best true crime podcasts out there, Serial – with its combination of first-person narration, original interviews and atmospheric music – is also a brilliant example of the power of podcast-based investigative storytelling.
However, Serial isn’t the only documentary podcast that’s made a name for itself over the years – and that’s where this round-up comes in. Outside of the realms of true crime, there are plenty of gripping investigative podcasts on everything from QAnon conspiracies to catfishes and corrupt CEO’s to get stuck into. Here’s our pick of the best ones to get you started.
The Trojan Horse Affair
In 2014, a letter was sent to Birmingham City Council. The letter – which was sent by an anonymous whistleblower – outlined a conspiracy led by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools under the codename Operation Trojan Horse. Eventually, it was leaked to the press, and sparked national panic as a result. Before long, the government had launched a number of investigations and banned the accused teachers from education for life.
The only problem? No one had asked what might seem like the most basic question: who wrote the letter in the first place? And why?
That’s the premise behind a new podcast from The New York Times and Serial Productions, which sees investigative journalist and Birmingham-native Hamza Syed team up with S-Town’s Brian Reed to unpick what really happened.
In classic Serial style, the podcast tells the story in real-time, following Syed and Reed as they make new discoveries and hit blocks in the road. It’s complex and compelling – and not one you’re going to want to miss.
The Big Hit Show
The fourth podcast series from Higher Ground – the production studio led by none other than Michelle and Barack Obama – The Big Hit Show is a Spotify exclusive podcast committed to exploring what happens “when a wildly successful piece of pop culture gets so big that it changes the world”.
Hosted by journalist Alex Pappademas, the series’ first “chapter” is set to explore the unprecedented rise of Twilight – and the work which went into creating such a widely popular franchise. Whether you’re a fan of the film or not, this is sure to be an intriguing listen.
Harsh Reality: The Story Of Miriam Rivera
From the chaos of Big Brother to the spectacle of Pop Idol, the noughties were a decade dominated by reality TV. But amid the drama and deceit of these bigger shows, there was one title that made a splash for all the wrong reasons: There’s Something About Miriam.
Set in a glamourous villa in Ibiza, the show followed six men as they competed for a cash prize and the chance to win the heart of Miriam Rivera, a 21-year-old Mexican model. But there was a ‘twist’ at the heart of the series – Miriam was a trans woman, and none of the men would be told until the very end of the show, when Miriam chose one of them to go on the trip of a lifetime and win £10,000.
Now, 15 years since the show aired on Sky, a new Wondery podcast is revisiting the exploitative and cruel premise once more. Hosted by Trace Lysette – who knew Miriam personally before she passed away in 2019 – the series walks listeners through the creation of the show, using interviews with the contestants and producers as well as the people who knew and loved Miriam to paint a picture of what went on before, during and after the show aired.
Harsh Reality is just as compelling, shocking and heartbreaking as you’d expect – and is a reminder of the horrific treatment trans people endured just two decades ago.
Ever since the MTV show came onto our screens in 2012, the world has become obsessed with tales of “catfishing” – where a person creates a fictional persona or fake identity on a social networking service.
But forget false names and doctored pictures, Sweet Bobby is the story of an intense 10-year scam, where one person used more than 50 online personas to slowly and methodically rip apart a woman’s life. It’s a love story that morphs into a very modern horror, a tale rooted in the internet age where nothing is quite what it seems.
Hosted by award-winning investigative journalist, Alexi Mostrous and from the makers of Finding Q and The Slow Newscast, Sweet Bobby is also a painstaking investigation into how social media can be weaponized; how it can be used in an abusive and coercive online relationship; and how the UK police and the Criminal Prosecution Service are unable to deliver justice to victims.
Listeners will hear Alexi try to confront the perpetrator, who has never yet explained why they did it, and make new discoveries about the sophistication and scope of the deceit.
Prepare for some shocking revelations.
Finding Q: My Journey into QAnon
“QAnon” may just be the internet’s most dangerous conspiracy theory, and now a new podcast from journalist Nicky Woolf is diving into the online and offline world of QAnon in his search to find the shadowy figure behind it all and the legacy they’ve created in this Audible original series.
For those who aren’t familiar, according to The Guardian, QAnon followers “believe that a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and billionaires runs the world while engaging in pedophilia and human trafficking,” among other horrific activities.
“It started with an anonymous post in 2017,” reads the show’s official synopsis. “ They called themselves ‘Q’ and left a trail of cryptic messages for an increasing number of followers to obsess over. Over the years, the conspiracy theory became a movement, crashing into mainstream politics and breaking countless families along the way.”
Nice White Parents
This investigative podcast from The New York Times and the team behind Serial is a rollercoaster ride of revelations about the American school system. Centred around the desegregation efforts of one school in Brooklyn, New York, the podcast – which is hosted by radio journalist and producer Chana Joffe-Walt – explores the role ‘nice white parents’ play when it comes to inequality in education.
As the show’s official synopsis reads: “If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in shaping them: white parents.”
Pieces Of Britney
This new eight-part BBC Radio 4 series, presented by The High Low’s Pandora Skyes, traces Britney Spears’ life and story and pieces together what her journey tells us about the treatment of women in the public eye.
Through a series of interviews with experts including social psychologist Dr Karen Dill-Shackleford and culture historian Jennifer Bickerdike, Pieces Of Britney provides context to the star’s ongoing fight to end the legal conservatorship she has been living under since 2008.
This podcast is a far cry from the kind of business-related podcast you might expect from its name. Instead, it’s a focused and eye-opening investigation into Britain’s role and involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, from the legacy of Britain’s first slave trader Sir John Hawkins to what we can learn from how Liverpool is reconciling its history with slavery.
Hosted by gal-dem’s politics editor and freelance journalist Moya Lothian-McLean, Human Resources employs a wealth of experts and research to shine a light on an issue that remains incredibly under-discussed.
WeCrashed: The Rise And Fall Of WeWork
If you’ve previously found yourself hooked on the rise and fall narratives of podcasts like Who The Hell Is Hamish? and The Missing Cryptoqueen, then you’re sure to love this six-part investigation into WeWork CEO Adam Neumann’s tumultuous story. Hosted by Business Wars’ David Brown, WeCrashed: The Rise And Fall Of WeWork follows the story of WeWork from single idea to multi-million dollar company, before unravelling everything that happened next.
As the show’s official synopsis reads: “The founders of WeWork thought they were on the brink of making history. The company was valued at $47 billion dollars, it was ready for a huge IPO, and its charismatic CEO Adam Neumann thought they were going to change the world. Adam had a prophet-like vision for WeWork that he sold to some of the world’s savviest investors – but did his vision ever match the company’s reality?”
I’m Not A Monster
This 10-part podcast series from BBC Panorama and Frontline PBS is a detailed and eye-opening look at how an American family found themselves living in the heart of the ISIS caliphate in Syria. The product of a four-part investigation led by journalist Josh Baker, I’m Not A Monster offers an unflinching look at a story that shocked the world.
As the show’s official synopsis reads: “An American mother living in the heart of the ISIS caliphate. Her husband an ISIS sniper. Her 10-year-old son forced to threaten the US president in a propaganda video shown around the world. She claims she was tricked into taking her young children to war-torn Syria, but where does her account end and the truth begin?”
The Secrets In Us
Combining personal story with the science behind at-home DNA tests and an in-depth look at the impact they’re having on lives all over the world, The Secrets In Us provides a unique and powerful look at the relationship between DNA and identity – and how it feels when your family tells you one thing, but your DNA tells you another.
As the show’s official synopsis reads: “Journalist Georgina Lawton grew up in a loving family but she didn’t look like anyone else. She has dark eyes, curly hair and brown skin. Both her parents were white. Georgina took a DNA test. The results changed her life forever.”
Unearthed: Mysteries From An Unseen World
This docuseries-style podcast takes a closer look at the events and real-life stories which have been shaped by plants and fungi, and the incredible species at the heart of them. Hosted by botanist and ‘plant geek’ James Wong, Unearthed: Mysteries From An Unseen World explores everything from a fatal poisoning – and how Kew helped to bring a murderer to justice – and the illegal trade of endangered plants which takes place all over the world.
Told with the help of Kew’s own scientists and horticulturists, the series provides a fascinating look at a world that often goes unnoticed.
Main Image: Wondery
Other Images: Courtesy Of Podcasts
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.