Podcasts: a baker’s dozen

by Jack Thurston

In a post earlier this week, I referred to my ‘weekly diet’ of podcasts and I thought it was only fair to open up the larder. I have been podcasting the radio show I present since May 2005. Initially I didn’t know what podcasting was or how to do it. A kind listener explained and helped me set it up. For a long time I harboured suspicions that it was just something for the early adopters out there and was never going to go mainstream. That was until BBC Radio 4 issued an edict that presenters had to say the word ‘podcast’ every thirty seconds. In the past 6 months I’ve become a true convert, particularly on a three week solo cycle-camping trip in France, where spoken-word podcasts were regular evening listening. I’d add that not owning a television set also helps free up time for radio and podcast listening.

Just like blogs, there are a thousand awful and pointless podcasts out there for every one worth listening to. There’s also this thing called podfade, in which a podcast starts off really well then becomes less regular, less interesting before it runs silently into the sands of the presenter’s own guilt and self-loathing. In other words, not every podcast stays the course or lives up to its early promise. Then again, there are podcasts that get better with time, usually amateur productions in which the presenter(s) get more comfortable in the role and find their niche. In short, a lot of filtering, and scratching and sniffing is required. Beside the iTunes Music Store podcast area, a recommendation from a friend is probably the best way of finding out about what’s good.

It’s clear that not all of these are strictly speaking podcasts, rather radio broadcasts which are subsequently made available as podcasts. I don’t see that as a disqualification. So here goes, you can read the list after the jump.

In no particular order:

In Our Time. Melvyn Bragg and co discuss the events, people and ideas that have shaped the world. Excellent guests, well-researched, and one of a handful of shows left on Radio 4 that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its listeners. Forty minutes, weekly, new season starts on 25 September.

Left, Right and Center. American political debate at its very best, from KCRW, a National Public Radio affiliate in Southern California. Old hands from across the political spectrum, chaired with humour and efficiency by Matt Miller. Ariana Huffington is especially good value. Half an hour, weekly. Hat tip: Rob Blackhurst.

The New Yorker comment podcast. A weekly reading of the magazine�s ‘Comment’ essay, usually about current issues in US and world politcs. Around 6-8 minutes, weekly.

Get on down with the stepfather of soul. Vintage R&B and soul mixes since 2005. No voiceovers. Simple but effective. Approximately an hour, approximately weekly. Hat tip: Jason Cobb.

This American Life. Multi-award-winning, genre-defining show (contemporary social history?) that sets the standard for radio documentary making, presented by Ira Glass. Human stories recounted with depth and emotion, allowed to breathe, all in the interests on shedding a little light on the big questions of everyday life. One day it will dawn on the people at Radio 4 that this they need a show as good as this. One hour, weekly. Episodes only appear on the podcast feed for a short time, so be sure to synch your podcatcher/iTunes regularly. Hat tip: Robert Collins.

Funky 16 Corners Radio. Hard to find soul, funk and sixties R&B. One track downloads plus regular mixes. Saves a fortune on buying dusty 45s. The blog contains a wealth of information on the stories behind the songs.

Great Speeches in History. The audio quality could be improved but this is a great resource showcasing entire speeches from (mostly American) public figures at key moments in history. Malcolm X to Winston Churchill to Richard Nixon.

Paris DJs. As the website says, “Mixes, selections, histories of the music, battles, debates and legendary mix-tapes will flower each week. You will finally be able (re-)discover the true soulful spirit of the North-East Paris.” Cabl�.

Transglobal Discoteque. Soulful jazz and world sounds from B92 in Belgrade, carefully chosen by Tatomir Toroman. Two hours, weekly.

Speechification. The best in spoken word radio from around the world but with an emphasis on BBC Radio 4 – past and present. Around about twice weekly.

BBC World Service Documentaries. A combined feed of documentaries from the BBC. Variable in quality but occasional gems there amongst the filler.

Vanessa Feltz Radio Show on BBC London. At last, a genuine left-of-centre shock jock. Vanessa has snatched the morning call-in slot from the grubby paws of the abhorrent John Gaunt. In truth, I don’t listen to this as a podcast, but live on air, and only now and then for short bursts. I can only listen to taxi drivers, foul-tempered pensioners and stay-at-home parents talking about knife crime, teenage pregnancy and islamophobia for a limited period of time. But enough to know that Vanessa is a class act who has a natural instinct for a distinctly Londonist standpoint on the tabloid issues of the day: tolerant yet populist, liberal without being a soft touch. She handles her callers with a disarming ease and gives the mad ones enough rope to hang themselves. The podcast contains highlights from the past week.

The Moth. Live recordings from the weekly gatherings where hip New Yorkers are “drawn to storytelling as moths to a flame”. At its best captivating, sometimes hilarious but not without the occassional dud. 10-20 minutes, weekly.

Any recommendations from readers much appreciated, just leave a comment.

Update: Since writing this I’ve also become a regular listener to the new thrice weekly Planet Money podcast from NPR, spawned by the excellent This American Life special on the credit crunch and Radio Lab from WNYC, a science podcast with a highly produced, distinctive style.