The best of podcasts and podcasting in 2015

What to listen to and how to do it.

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This year has felt, for me at least, like a year filled with podcasts. Not just because I started doing one myself - the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast, SRSLY, with my colleague Anna Leszkiewicz - but because it seemed like suddenly people I know from all areas of my life were discovering new things to listen to and recommending them to their friends. Podcasts used to be something I listened to alone and only talked about on Twitter. That’s no longer the case. For instance, one particularly memorable breakfast with some resolutely non-internet friends quickly devolved into an exchange of anecdotes that all seemed oddly familiar - until the stunning realisation 15 minutes in that everyone had been bingeing on the same four podcasts and we all shouted over each other to trade favourite episodes.

I know we’re all supposed to hold up Serial as the biggest influencer in podcasting at the moment, but for me it has barely featured this year (its first season finished in December 2014, and the new one is only a few episodes in at the time of writing). Way back in February, I interviewed long-time British podcaster Helen Zaltzman, and she summed up my Serial-apathy rather neatly:

“The years between 2010 and Serial’s arrival in 2014 was when the medium was really taking off. People were getting iPhones and iPads. You had some really big players starting up. The renaissance journalists were talking about was really a renaissance in their interest, not the medium itself. I'm very happy Serial happened and made people care but it wasn't the first podcast.”

With that in mind, I’ve put together a guide from what I’ve learned this year, in the hope that you will find out something new or hit upon something good to listen to in there. This is only a starting point: if you want to recommend me something you love, talk to me on Twitter (I’m @c_crampton) or send me an email.

How to listen to podcasts

If it seems odd that I’m starting a “what great podcasts to listen to” list by talking about a step-by-step guide written for people who have never listened to one before, that’s because it is a bit odd. But the reason there are so many guides on how to do this out there is because it’s still harder than it should be to listen to podcasts, even though they have been around for 10+ years. There’s still no straightforward answer to the question “what’s the best way to get a podcast” - it depends on what technology you own, how you like to organise your life, how you pay for internet, and a whole host of other individual considerations.

That said, this is the best guide I’ve found by far, taking in all the possible options and explaining how to do them with handy gifs. Follow those instructions and you’ll be downloading like a pro in no time (maybe I will do another post in the new year about how to detox your podcasting habits when you’ve downloaded too many and are paralysed by the choice).

While we’re here, why not treat yourself to this adorable video of This American Life’s Ira Glass and his friend Mary (who describes her age as “on the dark side of 85”) showing you one way to do it:

How to find new podcasts

So you’ve got a couple of podcasts you listen to every week (if you’re British, they’re probably from the BBC, if American NPR), and you’d like to get into others, but you just don’t know where people find this stuff.

You’re not alone - one of the biggest challenges I think podcasting faces is discovery. At the moment, there’s nothing doing for podcasts what Spotify’s algorithms can do for your music listening habits, or what aggregators like longreads.com or thebrowser.com can do for the scope of what you read.

There are a few ways you can explore this.

You can subscribe to a podcast that recommends others, like this one or this one.

You can explore what’s on offer from podcast networks. These are groups of podcasts that have come together, usually for commercial or scale reasons, and there’s often a thematic similarity between the shows. A few that have shows I like include Radiotopia, Gimlet, Panoply, Maximum Fun and Infinite Guest.

You can try the various experiments in aggregation and recommendation that are going on, like publicradio.info, podcatch.com, Knomad and Earbud.

You can subscribe to a newsletter that recommends new podcasts. I run one myself, as do Sara Weber and Melody Joy Kramer.

Oh, and you can just go on iTunes and browse around the various categories, obviously.

Ten podcasts I think you should be listening to

Answer Me This

The longest-running podcast in my weekly listening schedule, and never not a complete delight. Hosts Helen and Olly answer listener questions from all over the world, varying from serious matters of the law or the heart, to more light-hearted issues of fast food delivery or toilet etiquette.

Start with: this one, which goes deeply into how you farm snails for human consumption.

Potter and Daughter

If you like Harry Potter (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t), you need to try this. Joel Watson and his seven-year-old daughter Lily are reading the Harry Potter books in easily-digestible chapter chunks and then discussing them. I guarantee this will remind even the most ardent Potter fan of something they had forgotten from the books. Hurry and get caught up - they’re well into the Half Blood Prince.

Start with: this one, where they talk about what they would see in the Mirror of Erised.

Criminal

One good thing that I think the unstoppable rise of Serial has given us is a renewed interest in true crime podcasts. The best example of this, as far as I’m concerned, is Criminal, in which Phoebe Judge and her team investigate historical cold cases and modern-day misdemeanours alike. It has a deceptively laid-back style that conceals an incredibly labour-intensive way of telling stories.

Start with: this one, about a man convicted of fraud who ends up in a leper colony.

The Mispronounced Item

The New Statesman’s very own Sarah Ditum and her husband Nathan have a podcast where they talk about whatever books, films, games and TV they have been enjoying recently. Before the emergence of professional podcasters in the last couple of years, this is what the medium was always supposed to be about - interesting people with a microphone sitting in their own home, talking to the rest of the world. It’s a total delight.

Start with: this one where Nathan does an impression of a sad South African robot.

You Must Remember This

I am whatever the opposite of a film buff is (I was once involved in an email thread with my semi-regular cinema-going partner that included the phrase “Isn't there a Spongebob movie or something out soon?”) but Karina Longworth’s cleverly told, brilliantly edited explorations of the forgotten histories of Hollywood has got me hooked.

Start with: her season about Charles Manson.

The Allusionist

Helen Zaltzman (also of Answer Me This) has her own brilliant podcast about language and words. The tightly-edited episodes range from the highly emotional - like this one on step parents - to this extremely informative one about why we talk to babies in a stupid voice.

Start with: this one about emoji.

Mystery Show

So far there are only six episodes of this little gem, but I have hopes there will be a new series soon. The premise is simple: Starlee Kine solves mysteries for people, the kind of mystery that you can't solve with the internet. Of course, the solution to the problem quite often turns out to be the least interesting thing - the strange and convoluted journeys she takes on the way to the truth are the best bits.

Start with: this one, where she tries to find out exactly how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is (harder than you’d think).

Call Your Girlfriend

Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow are the queens of ladypodcasting, as far as I’m concerned. Their podcast takes the form of a long-distance phone call between two best friends who live in different cities, and ranges in subject from US politics to menstruation. More recently, they’ve started interspersing interviews with other great women - a really great addition to the mix.

Start with: this one about free boobin’.

My Dad Wrote a Porno

Pretty much does what it says on the tin: host Jamie’s dad has written a work of erotic literature, and his son is dealing with it the only way he can think of - by reading it out on a podcast, with added sarcastic commentary from two of his friends. A must-listen for fans of British attitudes to sex.

Start with: this one, entitled “the tombola”.

Lore

A podcast full of well-told spooky stories that I think deserves a much wider audience. Aaron Mahnke has a hypnotic voice and a dead-on instinct for what will send chills up my spine.

Start with: this one about “the castle”, the most terrifying house I’ve ever heard of.

 

If you want more, this is a good and much more extensive list than mine (albeit far too American).

What to read about podcasts

With the explosion of interest in podcasting, so has the amount of writing about podcasting exploded. If you’re interested in keeping up with the trends in podcast funding and tech, as well as the criticism of the medium, here are a few ways to do that. All of the places I’ve linked to here cover podcasts regularly.

Nick Quah does a great weekly newsletter, Hot Pod, full of news and links on the podcasting industry.

This is a good attempt to provide a “critical theory of podcasting”.

This piece from 2014 has some history of trends in podcasting, as does this one (it goes back to the original boom of serialised radio).

Ann Friedman summarises the economics of the “podcast boom” very well.

Here’s some comparative data on how podcasting has developed over ten years.

And for the seriously hardcore, an 18,000-word report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. And yes, I have read it all. That’s how big a podcast nerd I am now.

Happy listening!

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.