Andy Brown of Wise Owl reviews his top 15 podcasts - see if you agree!
When travelling to Wise Owl training courses Andy Brown is a podcast enthusiast. In this blog he lists his 15 favourites - see if yours make the cut, or if there are any in the list that you haven't heard of.

Posted by Andy Brown on 23 September 2019

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Andy Brown of Wise Owl shares his top 15 podcasts

I'm a big fan of listening to podcasts, above all when driving (if anyone's interested, I use the Outcast app on my IPhone, which allows me to play the podcasts seamlessly in the order in which they were downloaded).  Over the last few years I've tried out many podcasts, and thought I'd share my top 15 (as well at the end as some that I should have liked, but didn't).

Be warned that I have a bias towards podcasts from the UK because they get to the point quicker (there's less flannel) - plus there are often less advertisements too.

So let's start the countdown!

Number 15 - Reply All

This one's definitely for geeks! 

Reply All

The Reply All podcast features investigations into hacking, viruses and many other Internet-related phenomena.

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website Gimlet
Updated Every Thursday at 10am UK time
Duration Usually between 30 minutes and an hour, but sometimes longer

Like so many American podcasts, this tells stories as a dialogue between two main people, and (also like so many American podcasts) you do often want them to make their points more quickly.  But the stories are always worth telling and well-researched. 

I learnt about the excellent Have you been pwned? site from this podcast (it lets you type in your email address to see from which sites your details have been hacked).

Number 14 - TED Interview

This podcast consists of Chris Anderson (the curator of TED) interviewing famous people.

TED interview

Recent guests have included Bill Gates and Yuval Noah Harari (of Sapiens fame) giving their thoughts on what the future holds.

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website TED
Updated Every Wednesday (although currently between seasons)
Duration Somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour and a quarter

Obviously different episodes have different interest levels, depending on who's being interviewed.

Some people will like Chris Anderson's laid-back style; others will find his posh English drawl irritating!

Number 13 - Page 94 (the Private Eye Podcast)

Andrew Hunter-Murray interviews staff of Private Eye, uncovering some of the stories featured.

Page 94 - Private Eye

For anyone who isn't familiar with it, Private Eye is a satirical magazine published every fortnight in black and white (it has no online edition!).

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website Private Eye
Updated Every fortnight, although there are often long gaps between "seasons"
Duration Usually about 30-45 minutes

I find the in-jokes in the print edition of Private Eye irritating, but the audio podcast does a good job of condensing issues covered in the magazine.  Andrew Hunter-Murray is an able interviewer, and Private Eye does a valuable service to the nation by holding the rich and powerful to account.

Every year the podcast has a special episode devoted to the Private Eye awards for journalism.  In today's world of fake news it's quite moving hearing the stories of journalists who have persevered in trying to uncover stories that those in positions of power would prefer never saw the light of day.

Number 12 - Last Word

The BBC's weekly obituary program, presenting potted biographies of 4 or 5 famous people who have died in the preceding 7 days:

Last Word

This podcast is usually presented by Matthew Bannister, although presenters do change.

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website Last Word
Updated Every Friday
Duration About 28 minutes

This is a podcast of a Radio 4 program which goes out on Friday afternoons.  The presenter usually interviews people who knew the recently deceased person well, and the program sometimes contains interviews with the famous person who has died (clearly recorded before their demise ...).

For me the joy of this podcast is hearing about the perseverance and talent that the various subjects of each programme have shown in their respective fields. 

Number 11 - The Boring Talks

This is the BBC dipping its toe in the podcast market - the podcast isn't broadcast on the radio.

Boring Talks

The podcast is hosted by James Ward, who has an entertainingly wry style of delivery.

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website BBC - Boring Talks
Updated Every Monday (although the last season ended in February)
Duration Between 15 and 45 minutes

Each episode consists of an expert in their field speaking on a subject that (as the podcast says) "they find interesting - and who knows, maybe you will too?".  Subjects have included bricks, lampposts and doormats.  For me the series is summed up by the tagline to episode 11:

"Since 2007 Peter Fletcher has been counting and documenting all of his sneezes. Every single one. Now he tells us why, and what he has learned along the way."

As for many of the talks, the self-deprecating humour of the presenter makes for an entertaining listen.

The first ever boring talk tried to nail down the exact date in which the Vogon fleet destroyed Earth in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, using the date of a football match mentioned in the book as a clue.

Number 10 - The Infinite Monkey Cage

A science program which doesn't dumb down the science.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

The podcast is a slightly longer edition of the Radio 4 program presented by Brian Cox and Robin Ince.

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website The Infinite Monkey Cage
Updated Every Monday
Duration Usually about 45 minutes

The format consists of Robin Ince and Brian Cox discussing matters scientific with a panel of guests (usually consisting of two or three experts plus a stand-up comedian).  A new series has just begun with a program about dinosaurs.

As with so many podcasts, much depends on how good the guests are at communicating their passion for the subject (usually very good, as it happens).  Robin Ince is brilliant at keeping the show moving and interesting, but I find I have to tune out Brian Cox's sense of his own self-importance.

Number 9 - Eye of the Storm

Another BBC radio program also available as a podcast.

Eye of the Storm

This podcast is usually presented by Emma Barnett (also famous for her merciless interviewing of the famous, as well as for recently publishing a book about women's menstrual cycles with the amazing title Periods: It's about bloody time).

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website Eye of the Storm
Updated Every Wednesday
Duration Usually about 30 minutes

As the BBC website says, this program "meets the person at the heart of a news story to find out what really happened and how their life changed overnight".  I'll be honest, there's a voyeuristic enjoyment to be got from hearing about other people's life-changing experiences.  Some recent episodes included:

  • Jonathan Aitken explaining about the lies which led to his imprisonment for perjury.
  • Aron Ralston, who cut off his own arm after being trapped by a boulder to save his own life.
  • Milli Vanilli explaining why they mimed to their own songs, and how this was exposed.

I think my favourite episode was finding out what happened in the "piegate" affair, when goalkeeper Wayne Shaw ate a pie behind his goalpost, thereby triggering a betting company to have to pay up on a wager.

Number 8 - 99% Invisible

An American podcast recorded in "beautiful, downtown Oakland California".

99% Invisible

This podcast is presented by Roman Mars, who many people have suggested has the easiest voice to listen to in podcasting (it doesn't do much for me).

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website 99% Invisible
Updated Every Wednesday
Duration Usually between half and hour and an hour

I think this podcast is meant to be about design, but in truth each episode just tells an interesting story.  One memorable episode was about a local radio station which ran a competition for who could stay on the top of a pole for longest.  The radio station thought it would generate a bit of publicity - no one expected the competition to run for 261 days!

This is probably the most variable podcast on my list, but when it's good it's very, very good.  The podcast also has guests slots given to other podcasts, through which I've learnt about at least one other podcast in my top 15.

Number 7 - From our Own Correspondent

From Our Own Correspondent is known as FOOC within the BBC, apparently.

From our own correspondent

FOOC is usually presented by Kate Adie, although she seems to have been missing a few episodes of late.

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website From our own correspondent
Updated Every Saturday, and sometimes every Thursday too
Duration Just under half an hour

Each program consists of 4 or 5 correspondents musing about things which they've seen or heard during the course of their day-to-day lives in countries around the world.  I love travelling to foreign countries, but when this isn't possible FOOC gives me a window onto exotic places and events.

If you like FOOC, the BBC also have a podcast called "From our Home Correspondent", presented monthly by Mishal Husain.  This is also worth listening to, although you should be prepared to fast forward if a subject comes up which is of no interest to you.

Number 6 - 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

This podcast is from a World Service radio program from the BBC.

50 things

The podcast is presented by Tim Harford (whose name will appear again in this list later).

 

Here are the details:

Detail Notes
Website 50 things
Updated Every Saturday
Duration About ten minutes

This program is currently on its second series (and so should more properly be called 100 things).  For each episode Tim Harford (the author of The Undercover Economist, among other works) analyses the effect of an invention on modern life, usually by reference to economics.

If you haven't listened to Tim Harford before, you're in for a treat; whereas if you're already a "loyal listener" you'll have a fair idea of which other program that he presents is still to come in this list.


At this point, I feel a drum roll is due, as we've reached the top 5 podcasts in the world (well, at least in my eyes).

Drum roll

Ready for the top 5? Read on (and don't forget to share your top podcasts, as explained at the bottom of this page).

 

Number 5 - Desert Island Discs

I must admit I am close to obsessed by this program, which goes out on Sunday mornings at 11:15 on Radio 4 (it's repeated the following Friday morning at 9am, although the whole point of podcasts is that you can listen to them when you want).

Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs is a British institution. The first program was broadcast on 29th January 1942.

 

For those who don't know the format, "castaways" get to choose the 8 "discs" that they would save if they were cast away on a desert island, as well as one luxury and one book.  Each episode last about 45 minutes (the podcast version is shorter, because for rights reasons the BBC can't play the whole of each track chosen). 

Because it's unlikely I'll ever be cast away, here are my choices (possibly the most middle-of-the-road choice you could ever hope - or rather, not hope - to hear).  In no particular order:

Artist Song
Adele Set fire to the rain
Abba Slipping through my fingers
Dan Hill Sometimes when we touch
Kate Bush Feel it
The Beatles A day in the life
Beethoven 7th symphony, 2nd movement
Bonnie Tyler Total eclipse of the heart
The Cure In between days

For a book I'd take The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, and like so many castaways I'd probably take the family photo albums as a luxury.

Those would be my choices.  What would yours be?

The program has had only 5 presenters since its inception (excluding the two occasions when a guest presenter was brought in to interview Roy Plomley):

Presenter Notes
Roy Plomley Roy Plomley devised the programme and presented it for 43 years.  In Michael Palin's autobiography he notes that he was disappointed that Plomley didn't appear to listen when he was interviewing him, and certainly this is the impression you get when you listen to old recordings.
Michael Parkinson Parky only presented about 100 episodes, and his recordings rarely crop up when you browse archive recordings of DID.
Sue Lawley Sue presented the program for 18 years, describing it as "one of the best jobs in broadcasting".  Although she now has quite a posh way of speaking, she was originally a Brummie (and can still do the accent).
Kirsty Young For me the queen of Desert Island Discs, Kirsty presented the program for about 10 years.  She has now officially stepped down because of fibromyalgia, a condition which causes widespread chronic pain.  As an interviewer she was unparalleled, managing to make even the most boring celebrity sound interesting!
Lauren Laverne My second favourite interviewer, Lauren Laverne can occasionally sound a bit scripted, but she has warmth and listens well.  She is still officially a temporary replacement for Kirsty Young, although I hope the BBC have the sense to give her the job permanently.

Why is Desert Island Discs so good?  It tends to interview people after they've achieved everything they're going to achieve, so they let their guard down and talk honestly about what they've done in life, and what motivated them to do it.  When celebrities die it's often clips from DID that are quoted in the obituary pieces on the radio.

One of my favourite episodes was the rugby referee Nigel Owens, who described the demons that led him to attempt suicide and how he later came to terms with his sexuality.

Number 4 - More or Less

More or Less is the podcast version of a half-hour program broadcast on Friday evenings on Radio 4 (there's also a shorter ten-minute program on the World Service broadcast on Mondays, which focuses on a single topic).

More or less

This program "explains - and sometimes debunks - the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life".

 

Before I continue, I think a confession is in order - I do like a good statistic.  But not as much as Tim Harford, the presenter of More or Less (pictured above), although what makes the program is his humour.  Here are some dubious statistics debunked by the program recently:

Statistic The reality
Chernobyl deaths Notwithstanding claims in the recent popular Netflix series, the best estimate for the total number of fatalities caused by Chernobyl is about 4,500.
Ethiopian trees The government recently claimed that they planted 350 million trees in one day.  The program explained why this was so unlikely to be true, and also questioned whether it was even a desirable thing to do, given the type of tree and other factors.
Holocaust deniers Is it true that 1 in 20 Britons think the holocaust never happened? Spoiler: no.

The program teaches you two main things, I would say:

  1. Whenever you hear a number in the media which sounds implausible, it probably is.
  2. Correlation is not causation (just because two things happen together, doesn't mean that one caused another - for some very funny examples of this, see the Spurious Correlations site, which "proves" among other things that the number of deaths caused by falling into pools is linked to the number of Nicholas Cage films made).

My own view?  I think More or Less should be compulsory listening for all UK citizen ( or at the very least all referendum participants).

In a world in which objective truth seems so elusive, Tim Harford performs a valuable service to the nation by impartially fact-checking dubious numbers which appear in the news.  Recommended to everyone!

Number 3 - The News Quiz

The News Quiz is the radio counterpart to television's Have I Got New For You, but is (IMHO) better and funnier:

The News Quiz

Presented over the years by Barry Norman (before my time), Barry Took, Simon Hoggart, Sandi Toksvig and Miles Jupp, the News Quiz provides a satirical take on the week's news.  Miles Jupp has now stepped down, so the BBC is (presumably) choosing a new regular presenter.  Anyone fancy the job?

 

I've been listening to this program (it goes out on Friday evenings just after the news at 6.30 when in season on Radio 4, but also as a podcast). for many years.  My two favourite panellists over this time were probably Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy, proving perhaps that the best comedians die before their time (both are now sadly not with us).

I can't think of anything to say about the News Quiz which would explain why it can be so funny, I was going include a couple of quotations, but they don't sound funny out of context.  Instead, download the podcast and listen to it yourself - not all episodes are brilliant, but there's always something which makes me laugh out loud. 

It has to be said that the program has a massive left-wing and liberal bias.  This annoys me as a liberal, so heaven knows how annoying Trumpians find it.

Number 2 - The Anthropocene Reviewed

The (weak) premise behind this podcast is that John Green reviews a couple of modern things, giving them ratings from 1 to 5 stars.

Anthropocene Reviewed

John Green is also the author of "The Fault in Our Stars", subject of a major film.

 

To give you a flavour, here's what the last three episodes covered:

Episode Covered
August Hot-dog eating contents and chemotherapy
July Air-conditioning and sycamore trees
June Grey aliens and Rock-Paper-Scissors

Doesn't sound that exciting, does it?  And to be honest, it's hard to say what makes the podcasts so compelling.  I think it's a combination of 3 things:

  • Research.  All of the episodes are brilliantly researched.  I don't know if John Green does this himself or has a team to do it before him, but i always learn something from these podcasts.
  • Scripting.  John Green is a successful author, and it shows.  The podcasts are delivered as a monologue, a format which only works if the content is good - and it is.
  • Compassion.  The presenter has struggled with a number of things during his life, most notably depression, and each subject is really just an excuse to tell some life anecdotes or to make points (but never the obvious ones you'd expect).

This is the only podcast for which I've actually bothered to email the author thanking him (to date, I haven't received a reply).

Number 1 - No Such Thing as a Fish ("Fish")

Like the News Quiz, this podcast proves that some things work better on radio than on television (Fish is derived from QI, hosted by the insufferably smug Stephen Fry, and is far less pretentious and far more fun).

No such thing as a fish

The podcast goes out every Friday.  It's spawned theatre tours, which have now gone to cities in Europe, Australia and the US.

 

The regular presenters are:

Presenter Notes
James Harkin A physicist by background, James Harkin edits the program's episodes.  He probably comes up with the best one-liners, and has the natural wit to be a stand-up comedian.
Anna Ptaszynski You can often hear Anna sighing when some of the other presenters haven't done their research.  Apparently fond of a glass of white wine, Anna refuses to use social media (leading to the #GetAnnaOnTwitter hashtag campaign).  Like James Harkin, for someone with no background in stand-up comedy she is very funny.
Andrew Hunter Murray Also a presenter of the Page 94 Private Eye podcast (see earlier), Andrew Hunter Murray does sometimes do stand-up comedy, as well as being a script-writer and writing for Private Eye.
Dan Schreiber Dan Schreiber usually presents the show.  He's originally from Australia, although seems to have lived in quite a few places around the world.  He is often the good-natured butt of jokes from the others about either the quality of his research or the integrity of the "facts" that he presents.

The format of the show is that each of the four presenters has a fact, which they present at the start of each piece.  It quickly becomes apparent that although the facts are owned by one person, all four people will have researched around it.

What makes the show special are that the cast work together so professionally, never stepping on each other's toes.  After listening to many, many episodes, I still can't work out how they decide who should present which bit of research, or how to control who speaks next.  Plus ... they are all, both individually and collectively, very, very funny. 

And as if all this wasn't enough, you get to learn an extraordinary range of facts too!

That's it - please feel free to let me know your favourite podcasts!  Ones that I've listened to but didn't enjoy enough to feature include:

  • My Dad Wrote a Porno
  • The Adam Buxton podcast
  • Serial
  • Evil Genius
  • Freakonomics
  • Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell
  • Crowd Science
  • Intrigue: the Ratline
  • Blackout
  • The Guilty Feminist

If this list includes your favourite podcast, I can only apologise!  Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong.

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