The slaying of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee kept millions of people gripped last year.
It would have been another murder gone unnoticed by the world if it hadn’t been for the phenomenal American podcast Serial.
Journalist Sarah Koenig’s show not only cast doubt on the conviction of Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, it helped make podcasts essential.
Previously lurking near iTunes’ digital bargain bin, and with a daft name made to be satirised by Armando Iannucci and his ilk, the fact podcasts were so low-profile before the likes of Serial has meant writers, comedians and musicians have been able to quietly experiment freely and broadcast interviews with the kind of depth you have no chance of hearing on sycophant chat shows.
From President Obama discussing the use of ‘the n-word’, via Kanye West telling Bret Easton Ellis of the merits of watching There Will Be Blood more than 30 times, to one of the world’s best comics describing how he helped his mother commit suicide – there’s a fascinating, hilarious and bruisingly frank world in today’s podcasts.
Herewith, we boil down the dozens of quality podcasts out there to seven that will keep you emotionally and intellectually engaged on any commute.
Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast
As he likes to remind his more famous comedy guests, Stewart Lee’s former double-act partner hasn’t been on TV much recently. Which is odd, as he’d make a great chat show host. On Herring’s podcast, Stephen Fry’s revelation he’d recently attempted suicide made headline news. Some guests earnestly discuss the art of comedy while others are as funny as they are on stage.
Key moment Whenever Herring asks each guest, “Would you rather date a six-foot tall penis or a man who has another tiny man instead of a penis?”
The Doug Stanhope Podcast
Stanhope looks like Tin Tin after some very bad life choices, and anyone who’s seen him on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe knows his deliberately deviant world view. Screenwipe, however, was Stanhope toning it down for telly. Talking hookers, slavery, kidnapping and murder fantasies, his podcasts are bleakness from the brink, and savagely hilarious.
Key moment The episode where Stanhope shares how he got drunk beside his mother in 2008 as she killed herself with a morphine overdose to escape the agony of her emphysema.
The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast
A self-explanatory title for the American Psycho author’s discussion show. Ellis describes it as “a glimpse into popular culture’s most fascinating minds”. His first guest was an unusually toned-down Kanye West. Since West, Ellis has specialised in discussing art with both leftfield guests (singer Kurt Vile, deranged comedian Anthony Jeselnik) and names such as Marilyn Manson and Judd Apatow.
Key moment When Ellis and West began discussing making a film together. Neither suggested the title American Yeezus.
WTF With Marc Maron
Geeky-looking comedian Marc Maron accurately describes himself as “an Iggy Pop Woody Allen”. He looks like an accountant, yet is angrier than Kanye West at an awards do. One of podcasting’s original heroes, he’s kept up his righteous rage for more than 600 shows, interviewing everyone from Ben Stiller and Chris Rock to Barack Obama – all in the garage of his house in LA. Maron’s WTF gets an average of 220,000 downloads per episode and in 2013 celebrated its 100 millionth download, making it a ‘cool’ way for celebs to reach a wide audience.
Key moment When Obama said “nigger” during his WTF interview to make the point America still needs to combat racism. Obama said, “Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.” Maron’s podcast was immediately propelled to stratospheric heights with the use of one word.
The Guardian Football Weekly
The Premier League isn’t a regular seam of comedy gold and when it’s discussed on TV it either inspires the ‘legendary bantz’ of Soccer AM or deep sleep via the hackneyed Match Of The Day panel trying to make Alan Shearer appear relevant. Yet urbane host James Richardson cajoles assorted hacks from The Guardian into saying what they really think about Jose Mourinho, Wayne Rooney and other football staples. It’s funny enough that it has been ‘performed’ live at comedy festivals and it’s so informative you’ll soon know what a False Nine and Sombrero Flick are.
Key moment Regular guest Barry Glendenning’s deliberately hopeless analysis of Scottish football. He knows less about Aberdeen’s back four than Kim Kardashian.
A Tiny Sense Of Accomplishment
American authors Jess Walter and Sherman Alexie do for books what Richard Herring’s podcast does for comedy. Writers are given space to either wang on about the horror of editing their fifth draft, or go on wildly entertaining riffs about trying to pay the mortgage from their terrible poetry proceeds. If you’ve ever thought you’ve got a great novel in you, here’s the show that will really tell you all you need to know about trying to write while holding down a job.
Key moment Alexie recalling how he went to a party with Jack Nicholson but still felt like a geeky schoolkid standing in the corner amidst the carnage.
Limmy’s World Of Glasgow
This one’s unfortunately finished but is always worth a revisit. Brian ‘Limmy’s Show’ Limond’s success is down to this series of podcasts. The Limmy’s World Of Glasgow podcasts were made in his bedroom and released from September to December, 2006. They featured a gallery of wrong ’uns in various Glaswegian accents: neds, cynical salesmen, smackheads and a murderous priest. It entered the iTunes top 20 and led to Limmy getting his own TV show. He said, “I wanted to look at Glasgow folk – the booze and violence and smashing things up. I’m not saying Glasgow’s like that, but I find those characters funny.”
Key moment Heroin survivor Jacqueline McCafferty evaluating Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art.
Loaded’s entertainment editor Jennifer O’Brien is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about popular culture as a national newspaper columnist and author. Follow her on Twitter at @Jen_OBrien1