Listening to podcasts is a fun, stimulating way to hear stories you may otherwise have never encountered, and to feel entertained, well-informed or emotionally moved (sometimes all three at once!). With the rise of hit American-produced shows like ‘Serial’ (if you’ve never heard of it, read more about it below!), podcasts have arguably never been more popular, both here in England and in the U.S. Here are a few of our personal favorites, all produced across the pond and available to be streamed online for free:
This American Life
This American Life is arguably the most famous podcast from the U.S. and typically consists of first-person stories, with the occasional short fiction piece, essay, or live performance. Each episode has a theme ranging from babysitting to summer camp to online harassment, with the tone alternating between humorous, thought-provoking and serious. The show also tends to focus on current events and topical issues, such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 Wall Street financial crash and gentrification. On the air since 1995, there are certainly plenty of episodes to choose from (almost overwhelmingly so!), but here are some that we’ve enjoyed:
Fiasco! – A humorous examination of epic disasters, the opening story in this episode (about a Peter Pan play gone terribly wrong) is priceless. It’s also worth listening to Squirrel Cop (from a different episode), a truly memorable tale about the most disastrous man vs. squirrel encounter ever.
Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde– If you’re a fan of the mystery-crime-detective genre, then this is the episode for you.
The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar– A famous episode about the disappearance of a four-year-old boy in the early 1900’s, and his granddaughter’s attempt to decipher the truth behind the event decades later.
Radiolab is a show primarily driven by a sense of curiosity about everything and anything. Exploring topics as far-ranging as colors, space and parasites, this podcast is particularly famous for its innovative use of sound and music. Originally more science-focused, Radiolab has recently expanded into human interest stories, such as the unforgettable episode ‘Are You Sure?,’ which became the basis for the hit Netflix show ‘Making a Murderer.’ Other memorable episodes include ‘Blame,’ (be warned: the emotional intensity in this episode is particularly high!), ‘Lucy’ (the story of a baby chimpanzee raised as a human) and ‘Los Frikis’ (which follows the punk rock movement and AIDS epidemic in Cuba).
In contrast toother podcasts, Serial tackles one story at a time over the course of multiple episodes. The first season focused on the investigation of a young Baltimore schoolgirl’s murder and her ex-boyfriend, currently serving jail time for the crime despite compelling evidence that he may be innocent. Season one of Serial became a worldwide phenomena and popularized the podcast form as a genre in an unprecedented way. Season two of Serial is similarly focused on a single story, following a young U.S. solider in Afghanistan who chose to walk away from his post in protest and subsequently became captured by the Taliban, remaining imprisoned for five years.
The first episode of Season 1 is an essential place to start, and the episodes of Season 2 are currently being updated every two weeks. Be warned, though: with plenty of cliffhanger endings, it’s easy to quickly become addicted!
The concept behind Invisibilia is to explore the invisible, hidden forces that shape human life. Influenced by both This American Life and Radiolab, Invisibilia’s stories include a blind man who uses echolocation in order to see, the relationship between computers and humans, and a victim of locked-in syndrome. Balancing the precision of science with the narrative of human experience, Invisibila is both educational and enjoyable, and exemplifies the growing capacity of radio to balance storytelling with reporting.
In this long-running series, New Yorker-published writers read stories by other authors that have appeared in the magazine. Not only is it fun to hear the story read aloud, the reader also joins the New Yorker fiction editor in a discussion that delves deep in the story’s themes and techniques. It’s hard to choose favorites with such an overwhelmingly excellent line-up (Salman Rushdie! Margaret Atwood! Colm Toibin!), but highlights include Israeli author Etgar Keret reading New Yorker favorite Donald Barthelme, Aleksander Hemon reading Nabokov’s ‘Pnin’, Paul Theroux reading Borges‘ haunting ‘The Gospel According to Mark’, and Joyce Carol Oates reading Eudora Welty’s classic (yet disturbing) ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’
We hope you enjoy trying these podcasts out! What are some of your favorite podcasts, from either the U.S. or England?