Ah, the BBC. The Beeb. Auntie. Much loved and much moaned about, talking about it is the national pastime. If it's not being hammered by the right for being full of wet lefty student types, it's taking a booting from the left for giving time to climate-denying, Brexit-loving right-wingers.
But! Come on. Come on. The BBC does literally everything, and it generally does it really well. (For the sake of argument, we're willing to let BBC3 sitcom Coming Of Age slide.)
In the podcast age, it's gone from strength to strength. It's given new voices the space and freedom to do their thing. Venerable old institutions have been given fresh impetus, and another lease on life. Dead Ringers continues unabated, and will surely outlast us all.
It's not perfect, but it's about as perfect as a gigantic, publicly owned corporation of nearly a century's standing can expect to be in 2020. And it's got some of the internet's finest podcasting talent on its books.
Coronavirus / Sport / History / Culture / Britain Now / General Chat
The new world which we're tiptoeing into is a bit frightening for a lot of people. But what is undeniably uncertain and weird is also an opportunity to stop doing things just because it's the way they've always been done. In these bite-sized podlets, all about six minutes long, various experts and pundits put forward the case for ways that everything can change for the better.
How to Cure Viral Misinformation
If you've been deluged in incredibly dubious WhatsApp chain letters and shared Facebook posts – usually from over-credulous older relatives – you'll know that there's an awful lot of bad science, loud rumour and wild Coronavirus conspiracy theories around. The BBC's Seriously... podcast strand has dug into where one particular post came from, how and why people decide to spread information that isn't true, and how we can all help to stop it happening.
Coronavirus Global Update
This one from the World Service is ideal if you want to keep on top of the major big-picture developments but can't bear being drawn into the rabbit-hole, terror-scrolling through Twitter for hours on end. Every day there's a four-minute episode on the global situation featuring reporting from affected areas and the latest on medical news.
Radio 1's Greg James, cricket journalist and former Maccabees guitarist Felix White and England cricketing legend Jimmy Anderson sound like the original odd throuple, but it works. Greg's notionally in charge, Jimmy's a bit mardy and has a lot of insight into the highest levels of the game, and wide-eyed Felix brings his guitar along for a strum in the background. As the name suggests (a tailender is a player who's rubbish at batting and so goes last), it's not a for-the-heads hour of cricket nerdishness – it's always accessible and funny even if you've only a passing knowledge of the game, and while it's been running for long enough to have a litany of recurring jokes, now's the time to get caught up before the Twenty20 World Cup next summer.
Match of the Day: Top 10
The load-bearing pillar of Saturday evening telly goes podcast. Rather than doing the same VAR-outrage-by-numbers spiel they have to wheel out every week, Match of the Day: Top 10 sees Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright bicker amiably over their picks for the best 10 Premier League players in various categories – so far we've had the 10 best captains and 10 best goalscorers, though given the all-time league scorer's around the table that seems a little bit of a conflict of interests – while eating pasta in Lineker's kitchen. It's oddly comforting.
This 10-part investigation into Russia’s state-sponsored doping at the 2012 and 2014 Olympics goes in-depth on the most flagrant and concerted cheating ring in sporting history (sorry, Lance), retelling the story through journalists who were there at the time and first-hand testimony from Russian whistleblowers. It’s not just about those two Games though: it’s about the technological race between the dopers and the testers, and the credibility of sport at large.
Seventy-five years on from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we’re still living in the new age which the invention of the atom bomb heralded. Leo Szilard is not one of the most famous of the bomb’s inventors, but he was the scientist who, sat at traffic lights on Southampton Row in Holborn, first realised that an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction could unleash an untold amount of energy. Presenter Emily Strasser is the granddaughter of another scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, and her telling of the story is both personal and coloured with just enough soundscaping to add life without turning into hacky historical dramatising.
13 Minutes to the Moon season 2
Last year's in-depth retelling of the Apollo 11 mission – Armstrong, Aldrin, one giant step, etc – was gripping and inspiring, and while you'd be hard-pressed to make a podcast not gripping or inspiring out of the moon landings, it was beautifully done. The second season moves on to the Apollo 13 mission, which blasted off less than a year later, and tells its story with the same mixture of original interviews and archive from key figures, including mission commander Jim Lovell. The drama of an exploding oxygen tank and the desperate race to get all three astronauts back to Earth alive, from 200,000 miles away, is obvious. But the real intrigue comes in the podcast's exploration of the all the other forgotten obstacles and calamities to overcome on the way.
The BBC's vast archive of everything that's happened in the last 80 years or so is rife for rummaging through – see also Greg James's Rewinder podcast, which knits together tidbits from the past which have unexpected resonance again today – but so far its coverage of sporting moments from history has been relatively under-excavated. Replay is exactly that: just the BBC's coverage of sporting events of the past, with no talking heads or over-explanation from the present. The stories we tell about sport tend to flatten out all the strange little moments and slow-building tension that makes sport so engrossing and rich, but hearing the stories as they were told when they happened puts all of that back in. Try the second half of England v Holland at Euro '96, then hit the interview with Sir Stanley Matthews, and go from there.
It's a Continent
Each time, hosts Chinny and Astrid dig into a historic moment from a different African nation, from South Sudan's independence in 2011 and the civil wars which preceded it to Kenyan environmentalist champion Wangari Maathai's Nobel Prize win in 2004. Well researched and in-depth but always suffused with its hosts' breezy charm, this is an accessible and insightful way into the complex network of nations which make up 21st century Africa.
Have You Heard George's Podcast?
Londoner George Mpanga, better known as George the Poet, might want to invest in a sturdier mantelpiece. His current set-up must be groaning under the weight of the gongs his podcast has earned him - four gold awards and two silvers at the 2019 British Podcast Awards, plus Podcast of the Year - and the second series has kept the quality up. It's hard to describe exactly what it is, though. Short fiction? Philosophy? Poetry? Journalism? It's all of that and more. It sounds like the future of podcasts.
In Our Time
Impressively still-quiffed broadcasting stalwart Melvyn Bragg has been presenting In Our Time since it started in 1998, and while the series' strength has always been its esoteric, magpie eye for a topic, there haven't been many more unexpected than it's exploration into how teeth came to exist. But, as ever, it's intensely fascinating. If you're unfamiliar, In Our Time sees Bragg throw questions to three academic experts in a given field, whittling away at any jargon or waffle to get to the fundamentals of what happened and why it matters. With its commute-friendly 45-minute run time and back catalogue of more than 800 shows on every subject across history, literature, music, science and technology from computing pioneer Ada Lovelace to the religion of Zoroastrianism, it's found renewed purpose in the podcast age.
Life is tough, but this might be the best way to add some grease to the grind: Sir David Attenborough reading JA Baker's classic piece of nature writing on the titular bird of prey. It takes the form of diary entries covering autumn to spring in Baker's native Essex, and despite being published 53 years ago, his prose has a direct, visceral punch which makes it feel timeless. Peregrines are both beautiful and terrifying – the hook-tooth at the end of their bill is used to dig in between the vertebrae of other birds so they can snap their spinal cords – and frankly so is the sensation of staring down the barrel of a new decade.
This Game Changed My Life
Before he did Black Mirror and Screenwipe, former gaming journalist Charlie Brooker spent his time playing games and insulting readers in PC Zone, and he’s wandered back into his old stomping ground to chat about the most pivotal games he’s ever played with hosts Aoife Wilson and Julia Hardy. He goes right back to his days wandering around “absolutely monolithic” cabinets, and the other episodes in the series are great too – especially the one about Abdullah, who managed to escape the Syrian Civil War and made a game about it.
If you’ve been struggling to get as much kip as you’re used to over the last few months – understandable, what with The Circumstances – try this new strand of soothing soundscapes. The standout is The Sleeping Forecast, which knits together contemporary piano pieces with the bassy, richly comforting tones of the BBC’s Neil Nunes reading the Shipping Forecast. Forties, Cromarty, North Utsire, South Utsire, Snoozeville. Perfect.
The Boring Talks
Despite the name, this anthology series of little lectures is anything but tedious. Sure, on the face of it there's little to explore in, say, the old noises that video game cartridges used to make when they booted up, or pencils, or doormats, or the roof of the service station at Markham Moor on the A1. But these bite-size podcasts make eloquent cases for them, and encourage you to look at the everyday wonders that surround you.
James Acaster's Perfect Sounds
Based loosely on his recent book Perfect, Sound, Whatever, in which Acaster argued that 2016 was the best year for new music ever, Perfect Sounds sees him introduce fellow comedians to the albums which convinced him this was an incontrovertible fact. First up is Romesh Ranganathan (who's got his own very good music podcast, Hip Hop Saved My Life) and Beyoncé's Lemonade.
Life moves pretty fast, as Illinois' most famous malingerer once said, but unless you're one of those psychopaths who listens to them at one-and-a-half-times speed, podcasts are a way of slowing down. Radio 3's Slow Radio really leans into that: its patiently paced 15-minute segments are varied – sometimes it'll be an interview surrounded by a lush natural soundscape, as in this recent exploration of the eeriness of the English countryside, and sometimes an orchestral works woven around the sound of the dawn chorus in the Ein Bokek canyon in Israel – but it's all tied together with an unhurried sense of calm.
The Escape Artist
Arthur Cravan isn't in the roll call of Great British Artists, but this podcast tells his life story over ten 15-minute episodes and makes the case for him as a man working more than a century ahead of his time. His surreal, Dada-influenced stunts and pranks anticipated the Situationists of the late Fiftiess and his experiments speak to our troubles with fake news and trolls. His whole life was a kind of living artwork and you can see his influence in Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol among others. He wasn't just an artist though: he dodged conscription in the First World War and became the amateur heavyweight boxing champion of France.
If you've never really been into radio drama, this might be the radio drama for you. The things that might normally wind you up – constant grunting and sighing, characters walking into rooms and describing where they are and why they're there – are conspicuously absent. Then again, so are a lot of the other norms of radio drama. It's been described as a kind of audio Black Mirror, but the first episode, in which a soldier becomes scattered across time and space and begins to change events, is a lot more floaty and cosmic than Charlie Brooker's plot-centric futureshock series. Not exactly The Archers, then.
You've probably heard the story of Anna Delvey, the wealthy German heiress who ran up tens of thousands of dollars of debt at New York hotels and flew in a private jet, but was actually Russian-born Anna Sorokin, most recently an intern at a fashion magazine. You might even have read the Vanity Fair piece about it all, written by one of those taken in by Sorokin's charade. This BBC drama-doc takes a slightly different tack, mixing straight reporting with fictionalised scenes. The drama segments occasionally tip into radio drama hamminess but do summon up the surreality of Sorokin's invented life story and the factual segments adroitly pull together bits and pieces from the vast amount of reportage the story drew across the world. It's almost too perfect to learn that Sorokin means 'magpie' in Russian.
Britain Now Podcasts
The Missing Cryptoqueen
Another mystery podcast returning for a second series, The Missing Cryptoqueen was a huge hit when it arrived last year. Dr Ruja Ignatova promised millions of people that they could become wealthy if they invested in her OneCoin currency. People ploughed their savings into it on the back of her recommendation. But OneCoin was a scam, a gigantic Ponzi scheme, and it left some investors destitute. Ignatova disappeared. The search for her continues.
Zing Tsjeng has to make a decision: she can apply for a British passport, but after being born and raised in Singapore she’s already got a Singaporean one – and she’s not allowed to keep both. So which does she choose? It’s not a decision you want to make lightly, so Zing’s going on a road trip around the UK to work out what being British means right now, meeting, among others, a Lancastrian farmer, a Welsh language sex podcaster, and Brummie Drag Race star Sum Ting Wong.
London is big and some of it smells a bit weird, but it's brilliant. So what makes it brilliant? The Docklands Light Railway. Then, in a close second, the people. Clara Amfo is here with a new podcast that puts you in touch with some of the city's most interesting ones. The premise is pretty simple: guests chat about the places around London that made them, while also chatting about their careers. First up is Mo the Comedian, the Camberwell-raised star of Channel 4's The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan and his own Netflix special Momentum.
1Extra's current affairs and culture show bills itself as the biggest group chat of the week, 1Extra Talks digs into the everyday issues affecting young Britons right now, from being stuck in Generation Rent to STD advice. Perhaps the most powerful was a two-hour special edition hosted by Maurice (Shauny B) and Ashley (DJ Ace) is all about the events which ignited the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer and the two hosts' reflections on being a Black man in Britain and raising Black sons, as well as featuring listeners' thoughts.
Pride & Joy
Parenting podcasts can blur into one long complaint about being very tired, but this one’s a little different. It’s about how queer people from across the LGBTQIA community approach raising children, from two trans men who both gave birth to their own kids to the ins and outs of finding a surrogate parent in an unregulated and murky not-quite-industry, and the myriad co-parenting networks that make a nonsense of the nuclear family.
For Fast's Sake
A second series of the celebratory, revelatory, myth-busting Ramadan podcast is here, and hosts Yasser, Zayna and Shehzaad have returned to document the inherent weirdness of trying to observe the holiest month of the year while in lockdown. The easy friendship between the three of them is the heart of it, as are the regular diversions into subjects like trying to date right now and the time Zayna's grandma went viral. New episodes come on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Current Affairs Podcasts
The number one most irreplaceable and totally unique aspect of the BBC's podcast operation is its World Service. Nobody else can match it. The Comb broadcasts dispatches from countries across Africa, telling stories which are constantly surprising and beyond the reach of most other broadcasters. Case in point: recent episode Sand Wars, about the growing battle over sand as a raw material that's both essential to the modern world and in increasingly short supply, and what it's doing to one village in Gambia.
We’ve had our share of political wrangling over here over the last 18 months or so, but in America things are only just gearing up for the elections in November. Don’t worry if you’re not certain how the primaries system works or what a caucus is: BBC heavyweights Emily Maitlis and John Sopel are here to make everything clear. It might seem like a long time until polling day, but even before we get to the question of whether Trump will win a second term or who will line up against him for the Democrats, there’s the ongoing palaver over the Iowa caucus to sort out. And there’s something oddly thrilling about hearing Maitlis say “shitshow”.
General Chat Podcasts
Desert Island Discs
This might be the original chat podcast. Quirky format? Check. Rotating notable in the chair? Check. Gentle cross examination by cosy presenter? Check. Start with Bob Mortimer's episode. Bob's bounced back mightily since his heart troubles a few years ago, with his own successful podcast, show-stealing appearances on Would I Lie To You and last year's gently existential Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. However, the endearing daftness of his comedy has tended to keep interviewers at arm's length since he and Vic Reeves first arrived in the early Nineties. Lauren Laverne gets Bob to open up about the overwhelming shyness which has affected him since childhood, the death of his dad when Bob was a young boy, and the increasing amount of time Bob's been spending just staring into space. While you're there, have a rummage through the Desert Island Disc archives, which go all the way back to 1951 and feature pretty much everyone who's been anyone since.
Grounded with Louis Theroux
Despite having turned up on Adam Buxton's podcast quite a few times – seek out the one where Louis gets tanked up on energy drinks and pulls out his surprisingly good falsetto to sing Baccarat's 'Yes Sir, I Can Boogie' – he's not hosted his own until now. He's taking advantage of the lockdown to tap up interviewees he's been after for a while, including Jon Ronson, Sir Lenny Henry, Boy George and Miriam Margolyes.
No Country For Young Women
Sadia Azmat and Monty Onanuga talk about identity, gender, race, love, sex, and the many, many ways to be a British woman there are in 2020, along with guests who’ve included Rose McGowan, Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall, comedian Phil Wang, and all-round icon Ainsley Harriott.
The Poet Laureate Has Gone To His Shed
Even before lockdown, Simon Armitage was squirrelling himself away from the world in his shed looking over the Yorkshire Pennines. He was making this podcast, and with the presence of Huddersfield’s finest your standard one-to-one interview format becomes something a bit more offbeat and ruminative. There’s eclectic line-up of guests – actor Maxine Peake, sculptor Anthony Gormley and fellow writer Jackie Kay have all featured so far – and a more literary, nature-focused vibe than most podcasts.
My Death Row Pen Pal
Rebekah Beere is 29, she’s from Manchester, and she writes letters to a prisoner waiting to die. This three-part series follows Rebekah’s epistolary friendship with convicted murderer Charles Thompson, who’s been on Death Row for 22 years, 4,000 miles away from Manchester. The main thread is the morality of befriending a man convicted of killing another person: is Rebekah naïve? Can a murderer be redeemed? And will they ever meet each other face to face?
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