Pick Up A Podcast

Roy Ward

Summer is here. Finally. After months and months of dark, dank, cold winter nights and a spring which never really felt like it had sprung, the sun is shining, the attractive people are all wearing less clothes, and many of us will be planning to get away.

Whether it’s just a roadtrip to Brighton or a plane ride to Lesbos, travelling can be pretty dull unless you’ve got something to keep you occupied. I’m an avid reader, but I just can’t read on the move – travel sickness is a bitch, y’all. When I need something to hold my attention that isn’t just Kate Bush B-sides or Spanish-language Shakira songs, I turn to podcasts.

There’s a podcast out there for pretty much anything you might find of interest – football, baking, Doctor Who – somewhere out there will be a group of people who love that thing enough to make a weekly web radio show about it. The best podcasts will keep you informed and keep you entertained all at the same time, without you having to strain your little old eyeballs. I listen to them when I’m doing the washing up, when I’m commuting, and especially when I’m going to sleep in the evening. There’s something about listening to people chattering away that I find profoundly soothing in a way that music just can’t compete with.

I’ve learned words in new languages, explored the latest innovations in technology and discovered what the S stands for in S Club 7, all thanks to podcasts. Before I give you a heads-up on the best podcasts to subscribe to – a quick word on apps. If you’re using an iPhone, I’m afraid you’re a little stuck with Apple’s lacklustre (and frankly pretty much broken) native iOS Podcasts app, but I’d also recommend RSSRadio as a pretty good free alternative. Both of them have a a handy directory interface for finding new podcasts based on category, so you can always find something new and interesting to keep you sane on that hour-long bus ride. If you’re on an Android device, it’s a bit harder to find the perfect podcast app, but I use BeyondPod – only the free version for now, but I might just talk myself into upgrading to the Pro version one of these days.

But let’s get down to it – below are 5 podcasts that I adore, that you need to listen to.

5)  In Our Time

in our time

This regular BBC Radio 4 show is also available as a podcast, complete with archived episodes that go back several years. Hosted by author, broadcaster and University of Leeds Chancellor Melvyn Bragg, In Our Time is a weekly exploration of  ideas, mythology, history and scientific discoveries. It’s covered topics as varied as the Ice Ages, King Solomon and Einstein’s theory of relativity, from Cleopatra to Chekhov. Each week, Bragg is joined by three academics from universities around the UK, all of whom are experts on the particular topic of the week. Whilst it doesn’t talk down to you or shy away from in-depth discussion, Bragg always steers the conversation away from dense academic territory or impenetrable jargon, and will frequently chastise anyone who slips into “academic-speak”. In Our Time is brilliant for learning about new things, and bolstering your general knowledge in the process.

Listen when – you’ve got a pub quiz coming up.

4) Snap Judgment

snap judgment

A relatively recent discovery for me, Snap Judgment is produced by America’s National Public Radio network, NPR. Every episode showcases a number of people telling their own (true) stories, all based around a weekly theme, like “The End of the World”, or “The Stranger”. The stories themselves are fantastically compelling, often funny, sometimes scary, but always moving. However, what really sells this podcast over others of a similar format (like Risk! or The Moth) is the use of music alongside the stories – to help to convey emotions, to add an extra dimension to the storytelling. One that I particularly enjoyed was the story a musician told about the quiet, gangly blonde teenager who used to make him punk mixtapes when he was a kid, and who he saw again years later playing a gig in Seattle as the frontman of a little band called Nirvana. Years later he realised that he’d taped over probably priceless early Nirvana demos written by Kurt Cobain. Gutted.

Listen when – you’re doing the dishes.

3) TEDTalks


This one’s a video podcast, and an absolute godsend on long journeys. TED is a nonprofit organisation which started life as an annual conference designed to bring together people from the spheres of Technology, Entertainment and Design. It has since grown into a huge global network of conferences and talks, where people come together to share “Ideas Worth Spreading”. This might be anything from a talk about resurrecting extinct species, or 10 things you didn’t know about orgasms, to Amanda Palmer’s now controversial showcasing of her crowdfunding success on Kickstarter. It even has its own dedicated free app on iOS and Android, making it even easier to see the huge range of talks on there. My absolute favourite talk, and one I return to again and again, is graphic designer Chip Kidd’s absolutely hilarious and incredibly engaging presentation on how he designs cover art for books, including the original cover for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which later became the logo for the movie adaptation. It’s worth a watch simply to see what happens to him when he’s forced to wear a “Lady Gaga skanky mic” to deliver the talk.  Amazing.

Watch when – you’re stuck on a plane, train or bus. 

2) Welcome to Night Vale

nightvale podcast

The best way to describe Welcome to Night Vale is probably to liken it to a local small-town talk radio show, if said small town is some Lovecraftian, Twilight Zone alternate-reality hellhole, where strange hooded figures prowl the local dog park and giant glowing clouds routinely take over peoples’ minds. It’s odd, it’s bizarre, it’s more than a little bit scary but it’s also really funny. The episode where the usually unflappable host has to renegotiate his contract with the mysterious but multi-tentacled station management has some scenes which sound like they could have come straight out of a horror movie, but there’s a pervading element of black humour which keeps the whole thing compellingly listenable. Aliens, angels and monsters – it’s all just part of a normal day in Night Vale.

Listen when – you fancy a bit of a scare.

1) Throwing Shade

throwing shade

I first came across this podcast whilst searching for a RuPaul’s Drag Race podcast (a search which, alas, continues to this day), but in all honesty I struck gold. Throwing Shade has been the cause of several swift kicks under the covers from my boyfriend, after I’ve woken him up by laughing in the middle of the night whilst listening to it. It’s hosted by “homosensual” Bryan Safi and “feminasty” Erin Gibson, who every week discuss feminism, LGBT rights and pop culture, treating absolutely every one of these issues “with much less respect than they deserve”. However, don’t take their irreverent and often downright rude, comedic outlooks as a sign that they aren’t passionate about these things – they really are. They’re just also damned hilarious in the process. The two of them have a fantastic rapport, and regularly bounce off each other, so a conversation about Texas and their less than stellar record on reproductive rights can quickly spiral into a discussion about reality TV shows about women who didn’t know they were pregnant, or Bryan deliberately weirding Erin out by making over-earnest orgasm noises.  It’s interesting, it’s engaging and it’s really really funny. It’s the perfect podcast.

Listen to this podcast at all times. 

So they’re my favourite podcasts – what about yours? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!

About Roy Ward

When Roy was 7 a girl tied him to a tree and tried to set him on fire. He now lives in Leeds with his boyfriend. These facts may be connected. Vada's Deputy Editor, he loves pop culture in all its forms, plus feminism; drag queens and Nigella Lawson. Find him on Twitter @badlydrawnroy.