We’re all busy people, we don’t have time to listen to every recommendation. The podcasts below are the ones I consider essential – when I receive notification of a new episode, I drop whatever else I’m listening to.
Sam Harris – The Waking Up Podcast
Always the first podcast I recommend to anyone.
Since his podcast began, Harris has led a commendable campaign to find rational people who hold differing views from him, bring them onto his podcast, and engage in “uncomfortable conversations” on their areas of disagreement. His intention being to discover how smart, reasonable people can end up taking opposing stances. Some of the most instructive and catastrophic episodes have been those where the participant couldn’t come to terms with the premise that it wasn’t a debate: that the aim wasn’t to score points or win over an audience, but to understand the other person.
Harris never ceases to find fascinating guests, and the discussed topics have included terrorism, religion, politics, psychology, meditation, free speech, identity politics, and much more. Since his first appearance in the public eye, controversy has dogged him due to his open and frank discussions on controversial subjects. Some call him a right-wing apologist, a racist, a bigot – but having listened to every minute of audio the man has produced I’ve never heard anything to make me believe that.
Instead, my experience has been of listening to one of the most clear- and open-minded people I’ve ever heard, as he genuinely searches for truth to some of our deepest and hardest questions.
So many to choose from, but how about this cross-polination with Dan Carlin: Shouldering the Burden of History
Yet another excellent podcast from the BBC, The Inquiry takes a topical question and deep-dives to answer it. Each episode has four parts as they put a lot of effort into establishing the facts, providing expert opinions, and finally trying to bring it to some form of conclusion.
This is a fantastic podcast for gaining a slightly deeper insight into hugely timely issues of the day.
How did North Korea get the bomb?
The Briefing Room
So similar to The Inquiry that I often confuse the two, the BBC’s The Briefing Room podcast gathers a number of experts to take a topical issue and… discuss it in-depth.
The two differ largely in format – the Inquiry being almost like a varied and textural audio essay, and the inquiry conforming more closely to your standard panel-of-experts discussion. They’re both fantastic, and they don’t tend to overlap.
Why is there still a migrant crisis in Europe?
Common Sense with Dan Carlin
Dan Carlin goes to great lengths to make sure you understand he’s a fan of history, not a historian. Nevertheless he knows more about the past than I ever will, and this podcast should be considered in context with his sister podcast “Hardcore History”, where he covers historical events.
In Common Sense, Carlin takes a look at current goings-on through the lens of history. How does the recent election relate to America’s past? If you think things are bad, how bad are they really, in context? Do current events have any historical echoes?
It took me a long time to get over Carlin’s esoteric presentation style – in fact sometimes I still struggle – but his content is too good to ignore. He truly has an outsider view, and is great at pausing and making you step out of your worldview to look around.
Our Man in the Middle East
Sadly this was only a limited run of episodes, but it jumped so quickly to the top of my podcast-priority pile that I had to include it. A fascinating, saddening, beautiful account of Jeremy Bowen’s 30-odd year career as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and by proxy, a history of the region.
I could have listened to dozens of hours more, and such was my appetite that I quickly went on to re-read John Simpson’s autobiographies.
Start at the beginning. Episode 1 – The Giant Awakens
Page 94 – The Private Eye Podcast
Produced by Private Eye magazine, and released as-and-when-they-bloody-please, this podcast provides a peek behind the curtains at how the magazine is made. Typically each episode is designated an informal theme, for example “housing”, “the military” or “getting sued”, and the host then interviews the journalists investigating those issues.
It’s an incredible insight into the world of investigatory journalism: before long you become accustomed to the cynical newspaper-hack patois, and to the fact these people can somehow maintain the spirit to continue reporting scandals which will never receive enough coverage.
These are all very very good too.
- Pod Save America
- I listen to get the latest on American politics, from former Obama White House staffers
- More Perfect
- Excellent podcast about the US Supreme Court
- Revisionist History
- Malcolm Gladwell revisits common misconceptions
- Hardcore History with Dan Carlin
- In-depth recountings of historical events
- The Tuesday Club
- Arsenal podcast with Alan Davies
- The West Wing Weekly
- These guys cover every single episode of the West Wing, one podcast per episode
- Start the Week
- Brilliant panel-of-experts pod with Andrew Marr
- The Ricky Gervais Show
- The original podcast. Side-splitting – the first and funniest podcast I ever listened to
- The History of Rome
- Hours of in-depth Roman history
- Hit-and-miss, but at its best it’s an aural and intellectual treat
- I’m sure everyone knows it. Engrossing true-crime investigation
- TED Talks
- The older stuff was incredible. Check out the Paradox of Choice
- The Philosopher’s Arms
- Excellent exploration of philosophical dilemmas, set in a pub
- Norm MacDonald
- The comedian’s comedian. He’s hilarious
- Inside the Exorcist
- Only 7 parts, but highly engaging semi-fact/semi-fiction behind-the-scenes
- The Infinite Monkey Cage
- Science/comedy show exploring scientific concepts
- In Our Time
- In-depth discussions on a topic of the day. High brow stuff
- Guardian Audio Long Reads
- Great if you don’t have time to read
- The Flop House
- Very funny deconstructions of bad movies
- The Bugle
- Was at its best when John Oliver was on it, but still amusing and absurd topical podcast
- The Adam Buxton Podcast
- The Louis Theroux episodes are the best