Two years ago there were around 550,000 podcasts – now there are more than two million of them. But as the band Devo once put it, freedom of choice is what you’ve got, freedom from choice is what you want. Below are some of the best new podcasts of the last 12 months and best new seasons of established shows, plus suggestions for further listening and – if you’re new to the podcast game – a classic from each genre that you should binge immediately. Plug in, pod out.
West Cork podcasters Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde.Credit:Ben Russell
True Crime: West Cork
The 1996 murder of 39-year-old TV producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier sent shockwaves around Ireland (where it happened) and France (where she was from). There were no witnesses, no motive and the case remains unsolved. The one main suspect, an attention-seeking English journalist, has consistently maintained his innocence, and continues to live in the small West Cork community under the glare of suspicion.
A quarter of a century later, West Cork creators, husband-and-wife team Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, exhaustively investigated the case, uncovering troubling new information and presenting a full picture of Sophie’s life that the media ignored at the time.
If you like this, try: S-Town
The classic: Serial
Comedy: Good One
This is a podcast about jokes. The set-up is simple – each week a comedian sits down with Jesse David Fox, an editor at US pop culture website Vulture, and talks to him about making people laugh. They do this by playing a recording of one of their best jokes – and then dissecting that joke to explain exactly how it works.
It’s bit like a magician revealing the secrets behind an illusion. And rather than leeching the joke of magic, it actually makes it even better and offers a springboard into the complicated subject of how humour works. This year’s season has seen the likes of Margaret Cho, Samantha Bee, James Acaster and Howie Mandel share their killer material.
If you like this, try: My Dad Wrote a Porno
The classic: Comedy Bang! Bang!
Samantha Bee appears on this year’s season of Good One.Credit:Invision
Reading and writing: The First Time
Victorian authors Kate Mildenhall (The Mother Fault) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) get the nitty-gritty about the realities of the writing life out of some of our best scribes. But even more revealing are the chats they have between themselves before these interviews, which are full of advice and tips, but also fascinating glimpses into their lives.
Initially this was all about writing, publishing and promoting their first novels – now Mildenhall is writing her third and Collette is set to publish her second, so the discussions have widened this season to take in the nature of failure and how writers deal with it and overcome it.
If you like this, try: Start With This
The classic: Longform
Victorian author Kate Mildenhall.Credit:Cat Black
Music: Anything For Selena
In the Latino world, Selena Quintanilla-Perez was Madonna, Beyonce and Taylor Swift rolled into one. So when she was shot and killed by the president of her fanclub in 1995 at the age of 23, her huge fan base went into mourning. The host of this podcast, Maria Garcia, was one of them.
Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla Perez in 1994.Credit:AP
She is now managing editor at Boston radio station WBUR, but as a young Mexican immigrant in the US, she looked to her idol as a symbol of hope and was inspired to follow her own ambitions because of her. Anything For Selena is part-documentary, part-memoir, and all the more powerful because of that mix.
If you like this, try: Cocaine & Rhinestones
The classic: Song Exploder
Human stories: Stay Away From Matthew MaGill
Matthew MaGill was a reclusive crank who died alone and homeless in the US south. He left behind a box of personal effects that suggested he had hidden a fantastical life and family history – a hijacked 747, luxury car theft, and more. Podcaster Eric Mennel spent five years tracking down everyone in the box of memories to get the full story. But along the way, something remarkable happened.
Prompted by the stories he unearthed, Mennel began to question the mystery behind his own broken family. It turns out Matthew MaGill was not the only one with secrets and regrets.
If you like this, try: Heavyweight
The classic: This American Life
Politics and history: Slow Burn
Since 2017, each season of Slow Burn has tackled a big, divisive story in recent history, put it under the microscope and pulled it apart in fascinating detail – Watergate; Bill Clinton’s impeachment; the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. The 2021 season takes on the Iraq War, combing through the archives and doing many new interviews to ascertain how we went to war with a country that had little to do with the 9/11 attacks.
The show shines a light on the mood in the US following September 11, the Bush administration’s desperation to blame somebody, and the decision to target a country without damning evidence and sell the idea to the American people and the world.
President George W. Bush declaring the end of major combat in Iraq in 2003, but the war dragged on for many years after that.Credit:AP
If you like this, try: Revisionist History
The classic: Pod Save America
Audio drama: The Magnus Archives
There were rumours that the debut episode of the latest – and final – 2020/2021 season of this long-running horror fiction show caused Patreon to crash. It’s not surprising, as The Magnus Archives is critically acclaimed and has a big, devoted following. Writer Jonathan Sims plays the newly appointed head archivist at The Magnus Institute, a shadowy organisation that investigates paranormal activity.
Much like Scully in The X-Files, he starts out a sceptic, but as the show progresses, he finds things harder to deny. At first, the stories he records from the archives every week don’t seem to be connected to each other. And then, eerily, they do.
If you like this, try: Homecoming
The classic: Welcome To Night Vale
Popular culture: Welcome to Your Fantasy
Did you know that Chippendales, the male striptease franchise that was huge in the greed-is-good 1980s, has a totally insane, sordid and very dark backstory? Historian Natalia Petrzela hosts this tale of a multi-million dollar industry that spanned multiple clubs, national tours, shopping mall appearances, calendars, a workout video and regular spots on daytime talk shows. It’s the story of how two men – an Indian immigrant and a children’s TV producer – turned a seedy LA nightclub into a global phenomenon, and how greed then saw it devolve into paranoia, arson… and murder.
If you like this, try: The Walkers Switch
The classic: Missing Richard Simmons
Historian podcaster Natalia Petrzela of Welcome to Your Fantasy.Credit:
TV and film: You Must Remember This
Film journalist Karina Longworth is nothing less than Hollywood’s foremost historian in the podcast age. You Must Remember This, which started in 2014, is dedicated to exploring the secret and forgotten histories of Hollywood, focusing on a different subject each season, including the infamous Black List, the Charles Manson murders and the criminally overlooked screenwriter and producer Polly Platt. The excellent 2021 season, Gossip Girls, is a deep-dive into the story of two of LA’s most powerful showbiz columnists, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.
Podcaster Connor Ratliff of Dead Eyes.
If you like this, try: The Rewatchables
The classic: Scriptnotes
Oddball: Dead Eyes
More than 20 years ago, actor Connor Ratliff successfully auditioned for a role on the Tom Hanks’ produced miniseries Band of Brothers. But then he was called back to meet with Hanks himself. Soon afterwards he was told he had lost the role, reportedly because Hanks felt he had “dead eyes”. Ratliff, who has stewed on this ever since, decided to produce this funny yet heartfelt podcast, using his own experience to investigate the broader issue of how we deal with setbacks and rejection. Along the way he gets advice from the likes of Jon Hamm, Elijah Wood, Ira Glass and Judd Apatow, while doing detective work to find out exactly what happened in the room with Hanks that day.
If you like this, try: Everything Is Alive
The classic: Love + Radio
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