How to pick your podcasts

Summer is here: enjoy radio alfresco on your iPod

Now that it is summer, perhaps you feel tempted to do more listening outside. Open-air radio used to be a hit-and-miss affair; it all depended on whether or not there was decent reception under the nearest tree. No longer.

These days, you can use your iPod instead, on to which you will already have downloaded a few podcasts. The question is: which podcasts? Obviously, there are lots of big BBC radio shows on offer. My favourites, for this purpose, are Start the Week, In Our Time and From Our Own Correspondent - plus Mark Kermode's incredibly bumptious film reviews from Simon Mayo's 5 Live show. But beyond that, it's hard to know where to start.

The iTunes store lists a "top 100" podcasts, but this is not as useful a guide to the best or most popular shows as you might think. On a recent edition of the Guardian's media podcast (I know, I know: it must have been a slow day at the office), the assembled pundits were arguing about the way in which big companies - such as the Guardian and the BBC - make use of the medium. They were joined by a guy from a podcast called Top of the Pods. He pointed out that the iTunes chart is misleading, because it is based only on the number of new subscriptions a show has signed up in the past week; it could have 10,000 regular listeners (quite a big audience in podcast land) yet still not show up on the chart.

Where to go for ideas? Well, you can always visit a website such as www.podcastalley.com, on which some 20,000 'casts are registered. Its top ten is very different from the one on iTunes. New Statesman readers might enjoy Blast the Right, which promises: "Listen to this for a month, and you will be able to kick the butt of any right-winger in a debate." Alternatively, use its search facility. Type in "bikini diet", and 83 podcasts will appear. Type in "Tony Blair", and you'll find just two: Whack My Bush (I expect this is self-explanatory) and Rose-Tinted Glasses, a "humorous political podcast from a young member of the Labour Party". Type in "David Cameron", and you'll be wasting your time. Poor Dave. I don't think he can be said to have made it until he becomes the subject of a naughty podcast.

When I first discovered podcasting, I was so taken with the novelty of it that I used to download stuff I would never even consider listening to on the radio. Now I'm ruthless. Take the aforementioned Top of the Pods, which is a "witty" daily top ten (beards, wolves, reasons to visit Sweden). The nerd in me used to find the idea tempting; now I know it is always unendurably boring and dumb. Still, in spite of all the dross out there, I can't help but like podcasting. First of all, it makes "difficult" material more palatable. The New Scientist podcast is a good example - I'd rather listen to a taster of the magazine than read it. Second, it makes the elusive more widely available. Resonance FM is an art-radio station brought to you by the London Musicians' Collective. The whole set-up is so cool, you practically grow a Hoxton mullet while you listen. But it is available only in London, and its frequency is plagued by rap-playing pirates. Download its podcasts, and both things cease to matter. Which means that you can listen to radiophonic experiments, or Sufi lute music, or a show about the transcendental pleasure of cycling, while you munch on a cheese and Branston at the top of Scafell Pike.

Pick of the week

Justin Timberlake Special
16 July, 7pm, Radio 1
Scott Mills hosts, and Justin performs exclusively – new tracks and old. Groovy.

BBC Jazz Awards
17 July, 8pm, Radio 2
Paul Gambaccini hosts. Nominees include Polar Bear, Clare Teal and Georgie Fame. Even groovier.

Don't Miss...

Carlos Acosta at Sadler's Wells

Acosta has become one of the best-known ballet dancers in the world. His technical flair, smouldering looks and unusual background (son of a Cuban lorry driver) have given him an appeal far wider than that of his more conventional colleagues.

With this show, he establishes himself as an ambassador for the art form. His last solo project, Tocororo, was an exotic affair blending Cuban dance with ballet. Here, he sticks to more classical fare, performing extracts from his favourite ballets, including work by Balanchine and Fokine.

Carlos Acosta performs at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 18-23 July (0870 737 7737)