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My Favourite Podcasts: The American Invasion

Friday, 13 March 2015

I've written on here before about how much I love podcasts. Recently, my horizons have expanded across the pond and I've been working merrily through a whole heap of American podcasts. My UK based favourites are still going strong (Answer Me This, Wittertainment, Empire, anything by Radio 4) but the voices in my headphones at the moment have a decidedly more American twang to them.

I'm going to start off with one that's really quite English but bear with me here, there's a trail to follow:

Helen Zalzman from Answer Me This launched a new solo podcast this year called The Allusionist. It comes highly recommended by me: short, snappy 15 minute etymological discussions that are both fascinating and great fun.

Try it: If you're fond of a good swear, Detonating the C-bomb is excellent.

The Allusionist is part of Radiotopia, a collective of the best story-driven shows on the radio. Once I'd heard Helen talking about it, I listened to it, loved it, and thought "Ooh, maybe I should try some of the others and see if they're as good." 

What came next?

99% Invisible is like crack to me. I listened to every episode in the iTunes feed in a scarily short space of time. Two reasons: the voice of Roman Mars (I could seriously listen to that man all day) and amazing stories. It's a podcast about design and that doesn't immediately sound that interesting, does it? Well it's brilliant, trust me. Each episode touches on something about design, architecture or the invisible things that shape our world but the important thing is the story that it has to tell. I would seriously encourage everyone to give this a try. You learn about things you genuinely never knew existed.

Try it: Wild Ones Live (ep 91) is very unlike a standard episode but it's brilliant and features a song called Dear Sir which absolutely entrances me. In more standard format, I have a personal liking for Walk This Way (ep 126) but basically, pick one at random and see if you like it.

Criminal features stories about crime, both big and small. It's not a documentary in the vein of Serial, it's shorter, more intimate and off-beat tales that are all loosely connected to the overall theme of crime.

Try it: check out the first and most recent episodes, Animal Instincts and Poster Boy.

I'm yet to try all of the Radiotopia podcasts and I've definitely ruled out a couple - The Theory of Everything isn't for me and The Truth, although good, features fictional stories whereas my taste is very much for factual ones. Mortified is good for a cringey giggle though!

As with anything internet based, once you've teetered on the edge of the rabbit-hole, you usually end up diving straight into it. Such was the way with American podcasts.

I came across This American Life ...actually, can't remember how I did, but I did. Blimey, it's good. Hard to describe, but good! They basically run with a loose theme each week and the show is made up of three or four stories/investigations/mini-documentaries that fit within that theme.

Try it: Cops See It Differently is a two parter about race and policing in America and it's genuinely shocking. For the more usual format, try their favourites page.

A spin-off from the team responsible for TAL (and probably more well known than it over here!) is Serial. You've probably heard of it. It was everywhere a few months ago and although I came to it a little later than others, I enjoyed it so much. The investigation into a true-life crime is utterly compelling listening from start to finish.

Try it: start at the beginning.You really need to.

If you liked Serial, Reveal is also worth a listen. It's produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and uncovers hidden stories. There aren't many episodes so far but it's really good.

NPR (National Public Radio) has some good ones too. There are probably many many that I haven't got round to yet but I'm giving Pop Culture Happy Hour a double thumbs up. The contributors are all so deliciously nerdy and enthusiastic about anything and everything that falls under the pop culture banner. Two main topics per episode, plus a roundtable "what's making us happy this week" feature. I always get very happy when British things make an appearance in the latter section.

Try it: find an episode that features something you like and take it from there.

Despite the fact that it's somewhat like stepping foot into a different world, I rather like Wait Wait..Don't Tell Me!, their weekly current events quiz, as well. It would probably make a lot more sense to me if I was actually American but I enjoy it nonetheless!

If you've discovered any gems recently, let me know. There's always room for another podcast in my life.


  1. I don't listen to any podcasts, wish I had downloaded some of these for ym long train journey tonight now :( Will be checking them out.

  2. I keep being told about this American life....maybe time to take the plunge!!

  3. I don't listen to any podcasts either, but I'm starting to run out of audiobook CDs to load onto my waterproof mp3 player, so I might have to give some of these a try.

  4. Gah, 3rd attempt - hope I'm not spamming you, but it keeps eating my comments and crashing!

    I LOVE this post, I"m not much of a music fan and prefer the spoke word and having listened to Serial and enjoying it immensely, I'm going to download these STAT!

  5. I quite like a bit of a drama so I'll have to check out the cop one.

    Lizzie Dripping

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Yes to all of these! It's all thanks to Serial that I got into the world of listening to podcasts and honestly don't know why I never tried them before. I think I just didn't get them; when I was supposed to listen to them, etc.

    Detonating the C-bomb is indeed great. I really wasn't expecting to like This American Life as much as I do but it's one of my absolute favourites; so fascinating. And I started writing this comment before I'd read through your entire post and was about to ask if you'd listened to the two part-er about American policing. I really thought that episode was brilliantly-made but I agree; shocking.

    I also really like Invisibilia (from NPR, although the first series has just finished so nothing new at the moment) and No Such Thing As A Fish (British and from the QI Elves). I've not listened to Pop Culture Happy Hour so will have to give that one a listen.

    I used to watch BBC Breakfast or listen to music in the morning now I listen to podcasts from the moment I get out of the shower to when I sit down at my desk and just think, how the hell was I not learning stuff in the morning before?! I now really enjoy this part of my morning, and my walk home, too.


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