9 Great Podcasts That Have Nothing To Do With The News
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Many, if not most, are news- or politics-focussed, and these days they’re all about, y’know, that thing that’s currently consuming all of us. And, honestly, nobody knows all that much except it’s bad, it’s getting worse, we should wash our hands and stay the heck home and away from people, there is a lot to worry about, and, depending on where you live, the government’s response has been varying shades of terrible. Really, I don’t need a daily update on each of those, let alone several updates. But if I do, well, that’s what, say, the Washington Post is for.
In the meantime, with the notable exception of Lovett or Leave It and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (and, I expect, The High Low when it returns from maternity leave in April), I’m socially distancing from my usual podcast fare and heading for some of these instead. If you, too, need some light auditory relief, maybe you’ll find some here.
Helen Zaltsman and Olly Mann are two goofy, lovable Brits who take audience questions about all kinds of issues, ranging from ethical dilemmas like Is it okay to fake an animal sighting on a safari for better tips to things you’ve always wondered about, like how did Google doodles come about?
Answer Me This is funny and informative, doesn’t take itself to seriously, and has been going since before most of us had heard of podcasts. It’s monthly now but has a huge backlist, and some of the newer episodes are retrospectives — a deep dive into an old episode, with a preface from Helen and Olly where they discuss how things have changed since they recorded it.
Bonus: since many of us have chidren underfoot at the moment, it’s useful to know that their website has a “child-friendly rating” too so you know how safe it is to listen around them.
There are a million bookish podcasts I could suggest, including my own, but Mariella Frostrup’s soothing voice on the Open Book episodes is the reason I’ve gone with this one.
I’ve listened to this weekly Radio Four podcast for a decade now — its where I first heard of Colum McCann’s amazing novel Let the Great World Spin, for example — and it’s taught me a lot about the writing craft as well as the world of publishing. It features interviews with authors, and two or three segments, often grouped into genres, themes, or trends.
On the same Books and Authors feed is the show A Good Read, in which Harriet Gilbert, another smooth-toned interviewer, speaks to two people about a book they love.
Like a lot of other top-quality, long-standing British podcasts, this one is actually a show that’s been broadcast weekly on Radio Four — our most serious, talky, NPR-like radio — for decades. This is one of the most beloved: a long-form interview where we hear from all sorts of noteworthy people through the prism of the records they would take with them to a desert island. The interviews are thoughtful and so well structured, and it’s also a great way to discover music that might be new to you. Guests also get to take a luxury item and a book with them, and those offer great insights, too.
Fi Glover and Jane Garvey are both stalwarts of BBC broadcasting — I’m used to Jane’s authoritative voice on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour — but here they go behind the scenes and have a the chat about life, not shying away from perimenopausal issues, among others. Half of each episode is dedicated to an interview of a notable media personality or author. Fi and Jane have a wonderful, fun, almost sisterly dynamic — if you enjoy Dolly and Pandora on the High Low, you’ll likely love this Genreration X take on the format, too.
Since the BBC takes its news neutrality stance very seriously, they don’t discuss their views on Current Affairs — just life, family, normal things. Which also means their entire back catalogue is basically still relevant. I’ve listened to it all already, but may very well do so again!
Another really long-running podcast, with more than 300 episodes under its belt, is No Such Thing As a Fish. The hosts have day jobs as researchers at the BBC show QI, which require them to be up to date with quirky information.
On the podcast, they each present a random fact, and then each of them riffs around the subject. You’ll learn all kinds of things, ready to throw into the conversation as soon as such things as dinner parties resume. Plus, it’s funny.
Hrishi Hirway is the host of Song Exploder, and was the creator and co-host of the much beloved West Wing Weekly (oh my gosh, if you haven’t listened to that yet, ditch all my other advice and start with that one).
“Every successful partnership, no matter what kind, is sort of a love story,” Hrishi says as an introduction to this newest podcast. “Just finding the right person takes a lot of luck. And if you can turn that into relationship that lasts and lets you build something together, it’s kind of a miracle. It doesn't’ matter if what you’re making is a company, or a movie, or a marriage. For two people to coexist and collaborate, that takes work. And it takes love. That’s what this podcast is about.”
Among his guests so far are the co-founders of Instagram and the co-creators of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Hrishi is a genius at getting “deep into the details of how something gets made”. He also has a lovely voice, and my one criticism of this podcast is that we don’t hear enough of it.
Pop Culture Happy Hour bills itself as — and is! — “a fun and freewheeling chat about the latest movies, television, books, and music”. Even the opening music will have you smiling as you tap your foot. Glen Weldon, Steven Thompson and Linda Holmes also end each episode by talking about one thing that’s making them happy this week — a helpful reminder for all of us to look for a gem among the bleakness.
This one is for my fellow word nerds! Hosted by two devotees of the English language (and some other languages too), Something Rhymes With Purple delves into the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and offers fun related facts. The presenters are Gyles Brandreth — writer, broadcaster, and former Member of Parliament — and Susie Dent, known from the long-running word-and-numbers based quiz show Countdown.
It’s a great mixture of erudite and fun, with a hearty helping of delightful British accents.
The Week Unwrapped
I know, this sounds like it’s going to be about the news — but it’s not, or at least not as you know it. It’s about things that have happened and slipped under the radar while most of the world was paying attention to something else. Which, in this season, will likely include basically everything not connected to the C-word. One of the co-hosts is Olly Mann from Answer Me This, and it’s produced by the same people who bring us the magazine The Week — which is a great way to get an objective, succinct roundup of the actual news without the stress that comes with a minute-by-minute account of every development.
What podcasts have you discovered that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments.
Claire Handscombe is the author of Unscripted, a smart read about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan. She also wrote Conquering Babel: a Practical Guide to Learning a Language, and edited a book by and for fans of her favourite series, Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.
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