When I first started listening to podcasts – it must have been around 2007 – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. A wealth of free information from experts in all the areas I loved: Neuroscience, philosophy, literature, movies… Since those early days, the number of podcasts has grown exponentially. So have the niche topics they cover. There are now probably more podcasts about living the vegan dream than the total number of podcasts available ten years ago. These days you can listen to podcasts on a whole range of dedicated apps as well as on Spotify and other streaming platforms. Whatever floats your boat, there’s a podcast for you out there, guaranteed. (And if there isn’t, start your own!) As with all things internetty, we end up having to rely on good old-fashioned recommendations to manage the unmanageable multitude of options out there. So, just because I want to, here are three of my absolute favourite podcasts of the moment (click on the name of the podcast to go to its website).
Myths & Legends
Genre: Narrative fiction
Rating: Usually okay for kids, some adult content now and then (they warn you).
Frequency: One episode a week.
Subscription: Free. Ad-free premium membership with perks available.
The name of this podcast pretty much tells you what it’s about. Every week, Jason and Carissa Weiser drop a new episode in which Jason tells ‘…incredibly popular stories you think you know, but with surprising origins and… stories that might be new to you, but are definitely worth a listen.’ I’ve been listening to this podcast for years and Jason’s inimitable narrative style (a cross between Will Ferrell and BBC’s Horrible Histories) has guided me through countless Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Grimm fairy tales, Norse sagas and on and on. I knew, for example, that there was an opera called Tristan and Isolde, but now I actually know the whole sordid tale behind it too, magic potions, Irish princesses and all. The podcast is truly an amazing tribute to humanity’s seemingly unlimited need to tell each other wild tales of gods and monsters throughout the ages. From Homer to modern day fables, Myths & Legends has it all covered. As a bonus, Jason ends every episode with a ‘creature of the week’, mythological (or real?) monsters from all across the globe, each with its own unique way of harming humans. For anyone who loves classical tales, this podcast is an absolute must!
Very Bad Wizards
Genre: Moral philosophy and psychology
Rating: Explicit (usually)
Frequency: Two episodes a month
Subscription: Free. Bonus content for Patreon supporters.
Over the years, hosts Tamler Sommers (philosopher) and David Pizarro (psychologist) have developed a very particular and endearing style of bantering their way through some of the most intricate moral issues facing modern humans. They never take themselves too seriously, aren’t afraid to call bullshit when they see it, but always genuinely try to throw light on whatever topic they’re discussing. Their discussions can be based on things as diverse as philosophy papers, movies, books, tweet storms or anything else that throws up a topic with a moral dimension they feel is worth dissecting. The two hosts do not always see eye to eye, which means the discussions are real and often feisty, but they almost always manage to find common ground or at least agree to disagree. This is most definitely not an Open University podcast about dead, white, male philosophers (although they are often referenced). Rather, it presents a very contemporary, relevant take on the moral issues of our day, including such hot potatoes as gender, social media shaming, free speech controversies on university campuses, political correctness, wokeness and so on. No subject is off limits. In fact, the more repugnant the better. Oh, and they really hate Trolley Problems. There’s also a Very Bad Wizards book (a collection of interviews by Tamler with some bigwigs in contemporary philosophy). You can get it here or wherever you get your books from. This not a podcast for people with fragile egos, thin skins or no sense of humour. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Genre: Human interest
Rating: From 12 up, I’d say
Frequency: One episode a week
Subscription: Free (NPR, donations welcome)
I discovered this podcast by accident on holiday once. I forgot my iPod (yes, I still have one of those and I’m not afraid to use it) so I had to look for podcasts on my phone. I was probably searching ‘brain’ when this show came up. It did not disappoint. Host Shankar Vedantam presents a wide range of science-based stories that all focus one way or another on how we behave, think, relate to each other, make decisions, invent things, deal with technology, find meaning and much more. His sympathetic commentary and incisive questioning lead to some very surprising and often moving insights. One recent episode tells the history of forced sterilisations (eugenics) in the US, another features psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist talking about the two hemispheres of our brain and another is about the consequences for communities of the demise of local newspapers. Whatever the topic, the show always finds something to poke your mind with, some angle on life that you hadn’t considered before. This is not a podcast where you will learn how a Wankel rotary engine works. However, it is a show that might expose some of your deeply held (and perhaps subconscious) norms and values as well as assumptions you nurture about people around you and society in general. It’s a podcast that encourages listeners to step back, reconsider and maybe change their minds about something they always felt certain about.
I'll post more of my favourites soon. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you listen to!