Miranda Sawyer reveals the best listens from politics, sports, true crime and more
What podcasts are you listening to? Because you are listening, right? Podcasts have become our aural accompaniment to every boring task we have to do. Before Covid, they got us through the commute and a gym workout; now, they liven up walking the dog or weeding the garden or making lunch AGAIN.
More personal and headphone-friendly than the radio’s background chunter, the best podcasts are as addictive as any TV show, as close to the heart as a chat with a mate.
And over the past couple of years, and especially during lockdown, the amount of new podcasts has exploded. As the Observer’s audio critic, new ones arrive in my inbox every day.
“Making a podcast” has replaced “writing a film script” as the go-to reply for any working creative: there’s barely a celebrity, comedian or journalist out there that hasn’t got their own show.
Unsurprisingly, given this, there are a lot of awful ones out there. Interview shows and all-chums-together banter-pods are the bane of my life: there are too many, and most of them are not good enough.
A really famous TV comedian brought a banter-pod out recently that was so lazy I was shocked. In the first episode, he admitted he’d never even listened to a podcast… and it showed. For anyone thinking of starting a podcast: check out some good ones first. This article will give you some ideas.
Because, despite the contribution of lazy comics, there are loads of excellent podcasts out there at the moment; and most of them are from the UK. Just a few years ago, things were different. The best documentary podcasts were created in the US: This American Life (and the associated smash hits Serial and S-Town), Radiolab, Love + Radio.
And North America was also the best place to find excellent true crime shows: Dirty John (which became a TV series), Dr Death, To Live and Die in LA. Also schadenfreude shows, where narcissistic con-people get their comeuppances: The Drop Out (Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos), WeCrashed (trendy workspace share, WeWork), Escaping NXIVM (self-help programme is revealed to be a sex cult). But recently, as the BBC and independent producers fight over our eardrums, the standard of British podcasts has risen exponentially.
So, I’m assuming that you’re already familiar with massive hit shows like My Dad Wrote A Porno, where Jamie Morton, Alice Levine and James Cooper react, chapter by chapter, to the series of erotic novels from the mad mind of Jamie’s dad (a Northern Irish builder). No doubt you’ve binged every episode of Jon Ronson’s two brilliant investigative series, The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August, as well as George The Poet’s brilliant, genre-busting creation, Have You Heard George’s Podcast? and Tunnel 59, the real life story of people escaping from East to West Germany. Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review is so huge that I can’t put it on any list: it would be like me suggesting you watch Would I Lie To You? or Pointless.
The following 50 shows are the ones that are consistently great, or hitting their stride, shows I’d be happy to recommend to anyone, whether a newbie podcast listener or an old ear. (Though perhaps not Dear Joan and Jericha, if you’re easily shocked. Never play that show on speakers.)
I’ve suggested several European ones, because I’m assuming you’re all interested in how the post-Brexit relationship will play out; plus a wide selection of true crime and investigation, because everyone wants to play detective. There are good interview shows (they exist!), and funny banter ones (they do too!), plus pods that will change the way you think about familiar subjects. Even audio drama, which spent years being terrible (I blame The Archers), is going through a brilliant moment, mostly because writers have realised we like to be scared and sound is a great way to spark fear.
Enough! I’m wasting your valuable listening time. Grab your phone and headphones, and be transported…
A funny, upbeat, Brexit-free show hosted by Katy Lee, a news reporter in Paris, and Dominic Kraemer, an opera singer based in Amsterdam. Great stories, such as why a Catalan rapper has caused riots in Spain, and how a book about eels has become a smash hit in Sweden
The Irish Passport
Brilliant show hosted by journalist Naomi O’Leary and lecturer Tim McInerney, The Irish Passport takes on contemporary Irish stories as well as giving a primer to Irish culture and history, particularly its relationship to the UK
Oh God, What Now?
This immensely popular show was once Remainiacs, for those of us who wished to stay in the EU. Intelligent, witty presenters such as Dorian Lynskey, Naomi Smith, Ian Dunt, Ros Taylor, Alex Andreou, Nina Shick and Ingrid Oliver talk British politics and our never-quite-resolved relationship with the continent
Four BBC political hacks – Laura Kuenssberg, Matya Adler, Adam Fleming and Chris Mason – chat informally about what’s going on in UK politics, often with reference to Europe. It was Brexitcast for almost three years, but became Newscast on February 1, 2020. I wonder why
A sober, interesting, one-hour-a-week show hosted by Keith Walker that explores the topical issues shaping the continent. Deutsche Welle is Germany’s public international broadcaster, a bit like the BBC’s World Service
Talk Eastern Europe
Europe is bigger than we care to remember and this Warsaw-based show takes on what’s happening in Russia, Lithuania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Belarus… From New Eastern Europe magazine, our hosts are American Adam Reichart and Polish-American Maciej Makulski. I love Makulski’s slightly weary presentation
For The Many
LBC presenter Iain Dale and ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith chat politics and media, often with a saucy tone. Though they don’t share the same views at all, Dale and Smith get on well and this is an informed and warm show
The New European Podcast
A top class show, though we say it ourselves. Steve Anglesey and Matt Kelly, plus interesting guests, talk through the politics of the week
The First Rough Draft of History is written and hosted by the deliciously-voiced veteran American journalist, Michael Goldfarb, who is based in the UK. It’s an insightful listen, packed with Goldfarb’s experience and intelligence. Like Letter From America but tougher-minded
– Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Pod Save America
Four former aides to President Obama – Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer, Tommy Vietor – talk engagingly and in-depth about US politics. It’s a left wing policy wonkathon, unashamedly anti-Trump, and enormously popular worldwide
Renegades: Born In The USA
The title is sniggerworthy, but Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen are genuine friends and they go deep, quickly. Topics covered include race (Springsteen talks about the race riots he saw as a kid) and liberal politics. Slick
From Gimlet, the highly respected American podcast producer, Resistance looks in depth at the stories behind the Black Lives Matter protests, from the protestors in the USA to the young people in Nigeria hoping to end police brutality
A new fortnightly podcast on German football from dw.com that looks at underlying stories behind the contemporary German game. Everyone’s an English-speaker, so don’t worry about brushing up yer deutsch
In-depth stories about football. Each episode focuses on particular personalities (Ian Wright,), special moments or times (when Cruyff joined Feyenoord to annoy Ajax, Ronaldhino revolutionising Barcelona), or what it’s like to support a local team like Yeovil Town
That Peter Crouch Podcast
Jolly football bantz from the lanky ex-pro, plus mates Tom Fordyce and Chris Stark. The show works because Crouch is always open and honest, and the show’s hordes of listeners love him for it
– Credit: Getty Images
Greg James is on top of his broadcast game and this show appeals to those who don’t even like cricket (me). Another warm and friendly bro-cast, with James accompanied by Felix White (the Maccabees) and cricketer Jimmy Anderson, and lots of listener contributions
The Battersea Poltergeist
This fun investigative podcast tells the real life story of an ordinary family from 1950s London who were subjected to months of madness at the hand of a poltergeist they named Donald. Actors give life to domestic scenes, Nadine Shah and Ben Hillier make the spooky music and presenter Danny Robbins talks to experts and Shirley, the girl at the centre of the haunting, now 80 years old
Welcome To Your Fantasy
The campiest true crime podcast out there, WTYF follows the story of The Chippendales: oiled up hunks who stripped down to slinky skimpies for the delight of an all-female audience. Hilarious details and – ridiculously – actual proper murder makes this a riveting listen
Where Is George Gibney?
A grim topic – a top sports coach accused of sexually abusing his young charges – but an excellent series. Gibney was the Irish national swimming team head coach from 1984-91. Now in the US, he’s in hiding from those who wish to see him face justice. Mark Horgan and Ciaran Cassidy track him down
Expansive narrative podcast about the 2005 catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina that astonishes with its truth about governmental incompetence and the human suffering that resulted
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The Faultline: Bush, Blair and Iraq
David Dimbleby looks back at the 18 months between September 11, 2001, and the coalition’s invasion of Iraq. How did one event lead to another? He speaks to the prime movers
Rollocking true crime show where presenters Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire tackle serial killers, ghosts, whodunnits and other spooky stuff. Both are excellent reporters and their funny feminist approach takes the sting out of the nastier cases
Wind of Change
Did the CIA write The Scorpions’ 1990s hair-metal lighters-aloft power ballad and so end the Cold War? This long, daft, detailed yarn of a podcast will give you the answer. Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe hosts
– Credit: Getty Images
The Immaculate Deception
Dutch fertility doctor Jan Karbaat was renowned for getting amazing results: by the end of episode one, we know that he took a very hands-on approach, fathering more than 60 children using his own sperm. An icky topic, made fascinating by presenter Jenny Kleeman
Bed of Lies
Cara McGoogan tells the upsetting, complicated stories of several British women who believed they were in loving relationships, only to discover later that their boyfriends and husbands were undercover police officers, sanctioned by the state to embark on fake relationships
Catching Melanie’s Killer
ITN journalist Robert Murphy goes over a 1980s murder case with police and family. Revealing detail about how pre-computer police investigations were run, and how hard everyone worked to track down the killer
The Adam Buxton Podcast
Immensely successful interview podcast which rises above all the other interview shows due to Buxton’s wit and sensitivity, as well as his excellent jingles
Grounded with Louis Theroux
A pandemic show in which the experienced TV documentarian talks to famous people he finds interesting. Theroux’s trademark pointed-but-diffident questions ensure that every show is revealing, no matter how well-practised the interviewee
Ian Wright’s Everyday People
Wrighty chats to ordinary people about the extraordinary events that changed their lives and how they dealt with them. Upsetting and uplifting at the same time
Clara Amfo’s This City
High profile guests talk about parts of London that have significance to them, from restaurants to venues to parks. Amfo is a lovely interviewer and this is a great listen
Cold Case Crime Cuts
Using pop lyrics as its starter point, CCCC is a spoof of over-serious US true crime podcasts. It “investigates” song situations. So the first episode looks at Barry Manilow’s Copacobana, without ever really telling you that’s what it’s doing. Lola keeps losing stuff under her feathers. Very funny
Shagged. Married. Annoyed.
The show arrived fully formed in late 2019 and took the podcast charts by storm. Comedian Chris Ramsey and his wife, Rosie, chat domesticity and everything else in a genuinely laugh-out-loud podcast with thousands of fans
Sorted with the Dyers
Actor Danny and his daughter, Love Island celebrity Dani, dish out advice to listeners. Both born chatters, they rabbit a LOT and it’s all far funnier than it has any right to be
– Credit: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
Dear Joan and Jericha
Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine get absolutely full-on filthy as Joan and Jericha, sexual agony aunts. The most recent episode was a Valentine’s Day “special”, the contents of which would definitely scare the cat. Not safe for work, or indeed, anywhere public
Fortunately… with Fi and Jane
Middle-aged women chuntering scratchily about life and interviewing interesting people as well. Fi Glover and Jane Garvey are superb presenters and this is an excellently funny show
Tolly (Tolani) Shoneye, Audrey Indome and Milena Sanchez host this hilarious, no-holds-barred podcast that discusses everything from STIs to micro-aggressions. With excellent guests and unapologetic honesty, this show is unmissable
We Didn’t Start the Fire
Very new and surprisingly interesting show that uses the lyrics of Billy Joel’s hit We Didn’t Start the Fire as a kick-off point to interview experts about post-war history (Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray). Hosted by the brilliant Katie Puckrick and Chris Stark (from That Peter Crouch Podcast)
The Blindboy Podcast
Hard to describe, this one: a lengthy, enthralling listen from the mind of Irish artist, Blindboy. He talks about what he wants to talk about, and he does so brilliantly. The live show with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is fantastic
The Log Books
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Switchboard, the gay helpline, had a logbook in which volunteers would write entries about callers’ problems. The Log Books revisits these entries to tell the true tales of British LGBTQ+ life from those times. Exceptionally moving
How Do You Cope? with Elis and John
Elis James and John Robins are wonderful podcasters, effortlessly funny and charmingly honest. In this show, they talk to famous people about their life challenges and mental health problems. Autism, alcoholism, OCD, coronavirus and so much more
A series of short manifestos, stories and rallying cries from people who don’t always get mainstream attention, Anthems provides celebratory stories that stay in the mind
How To Vaccinate The World
A weekly BBC podcast that keeps you updated, accurately and without nonsense on the global race to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Presented by the admirable Tim Harford
– Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images
Clever, gorgeously-voiced Helen Zaltzman unpicks how we use language with wit and charm. Always funny and surprising
Rule of Three
Winner of the Best Arts and Culture Podcast in the 2020 British Podcast Awards, this show talks to comedy writers about the comedy they love. Witty, warm, very interesting
Ecstasy: The Battle of Rave
Surprisingly interesting podcast about a very particular time in UK culture: the late 80s to 1990. Radio 5Live’s Chris Warburton is a rather Partridge-like host, but the personal tales and details are excellent, and the evocation of the rising rave scene is really brilliant. There’s an accompanying drama series too
Transmissions: The Definitive Story of Joy Division and New Order
Maxine Peake narrates the familiar tale of Manchester’s finest alternative band, brought to new life through detailed interviews and brilliant research. You’ll learn stuff you never knew, honest
Who We Be Talks
Two new presenters – Henrie Kwushue and Harry Pinero – herald a revamp of this Spotify podcast that celebrates new black music and culture. Great interviews and upbeat vibe
The Lovecraft Investigations: Shadow Over Innsmouth
The third series in the terrifying drama strand based on ye olde HP Lovecraft stories, written by Julian Simpson. If you’ve not heard the first two, start with those, and be prepared for proper scares
This spooky six-part drama by Lauren Kirwan-Ashman is designed to put the heebies up anyone traumatised by the very idea of “moving to the countryside”. With Pearl Mackie
Sixteen-year-old Sabrina cracks an online cryptic puzzle and everything turns weird. She needs to track down a serial killer, but they might not be human. Twists and turns a-plenty
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