If you’re looking for a great podcast to get stuck into during 2021 then we’ve got a huge list of suggestions for you.
With more than one million shows and 30 million episodes in existence – numbers that are rising all the time – there’s a wealth of choice out there. But that can also make it difficult to work out which are the perfect ones for you.
It’s even more of a challenge to find your way past the charts on podcast apps to find those that everyone isn’t already talking about.
That said, there are plenty of celebrity-presented series suggested below, because some of them are excellent, alongside shows on a whole range of subjects from weird animals to FBI conspiracy theories.
And of course, with the audio fiction world producing more creative, well-written and brilliantly acted stories than ever before, I’ve included some of those in there too.
All are available on the usual podcast apps and platforms. I’ve include extra information of where you can listen online wherever it’s available.
This is by no means a definitive list – if you have other favourite podcasts to suggest, please share them in the comments section below or tweet me @lcdavis.
Top society and culture podcasts
The Great Indoors
A lively look at the latest home decorating trends with The Great Interior Design Challenge judge Sophie Robinson and best-selling author Kate Watson-Smyth.
The pair bubble over with enthusiasm for everything from granny chic to living plant walls in a way that makes even the most complicated decorating scheme seem achievable.
They are full of practical tips too, and suggest ways of making your design decisions affordable and sustainable.
And when the Black Lives Matter protests started spreading across the globe, they began using their well-followed Instagram accounts to profile Black designers as well as releasing a special episode on diversity and interiors.
Where to start: As we’re all spending more time at home right now, check out the interview with Oliver Heath about bringing the outdoors inside. You can also listen online at https://thegreatindoors.libsyn.com/
Out to Lunch with Jay Rayner
High profile restaurant critic Jay Rayner has been forced to stay in for lunch for most of the ongoing third series of his podcast, munching his way through takeaway food while chatting to his guests over Zoom.
He’s talked art collecting with Russell Tovey, fetish with Dita Von Tease and surviving lockdown dishwasher-free with George Ezra.
Rayner’s warm interviewing technique brings out the best in his guests, who seem delighted to be getting a free lunch. Just don’t listen to it on an empty stomach or you’ll find yourself raiding the fridge.
Where to start: The episode in which Catastrophe writer and star Sharon Hogan shares memories of living on her parents’ turkey farm, while eating Italian food, tackling a dodgy WiFi signal and dealing with a greedy dog.
My Wardrobe Malfunction
Susannah Constantine is back rifling through wardrobes in a podcast that explores our relationship with the items we choose to wear.
This time though, the make-over expert is checking out the sartorial blunders of her famous friends, who include everyone from RuPaul’s Drag Show’s Michelle Visage to CHIC co-founder Nile Rodgers.
Sadly though, none of them end up in front of the 360-degree mirror from Susannah and Trinny Woodall’s noughties TV show What Not to Wear.
Where to start: Listen to Elizabeth Hurley on compulsive hoarding and THAT Versace dress or the episode with Trinny, which becomes a heartwarming celebration of the pair’s long friendship. There are also extra video episodes and other bits and bobs to enjoy at www.mywardmal.com
Beer with Nat
Beer sommelier Natalya Watson shares a drink and a chat with a variety of women working in the beer industry across the globe in a podcast that you don’t have to know your IPAs from your sours to enjoy.
The interviews are surprisingly diverse, from social media influencers to brewers to journalists with the enviable task of tasting and writing about beer.
It is every bit as much as about people’s passions and lives as it is about beer, with Natalya sitting back and letting her guests speak while also clearly knowing her stuff.
Where to start: If there were ever an episode to really open your eyes to how the beer industry isn’t all about tubby men with beards then the interview with Lily Waite, founder of the Queer Brewing Project, is it. An artist, activist and brewer, she came into the industry as a social media expert and found it was a great way to promote a message of equality. You can also listen online at beerwithnat.com
Jonathan Goldstein has managed to turn a compulsion for sticking his nose into other people’s business into one of the most heartening podcasts out there.
It’s now into its fifth series and in the first episode he reunites a woman with the man who nursed her uncle, who died of AIDs in 1995, when their own family struggled to deal with the situation.
Not all subjects are as sombre – previous series have included Joey, a roller-skating sliced pizza fan who keeps finding himself in awkward misunderstandings, and James, who is trying to fulfil his father’s dying wish to have his ashes scattered on the 18th hole of a swanky golf course.
Each one is a masterclass in storytelling and makes you like humanity a little bit more – essential listening in such trying times.
Where to start: Gregor, in which Jonathan tries to get his friend’s CDs back from the musician Moby, or Jimmy and Mark about two men’s memories of a 240-mile bike ride they made as 10-year-old after which they lost touch. It’s a Spotify production so listen there for access to bonus episodes.
Netflix subscribers will recognise this as the title of a romantic comedy series that has starred everyone from Tina Fey to Andrew Scott.
But the podcast – also featuring some big names – came first. Both started life as a weekly column in the New York Times, which tells the love stories of real people.
They’re not love stories in the traditional sense though – they cover the emotion in all its many guises from a blind man learning to see through his wife’s eyes (read by the excellent David Oyelowe) to a woman who discovers a dark family secret (performed by The Affair’s Ruth Wilson).
Prepare to be uplifted and maybe even a little teary.
Where to start: Daniel Ratcliffe reads a funny and deeply honest essay about a husband whose wife helps him understand his Asperger Syndrome in Somewhere Inside, A Path to Empathy. Its writer David Finch then speaks about the overwhelming reception to his piece. You can also listen online at nytimes.com/column/modern-love-podcast
Cook The Perfect
A series of 10-minute-ish episodes from Women’s Hour each featuring a single recipe by a well-known chef as well as a bit of a chat.
No need to wonder how you can learn to cook without seeing the recipe unfold because they don’t even attempt to do it in the allocated time.
In most cases the dish is brought along fully formed – you can look up the recipes online – leaving plenty of time for a few questions from Jenni Murray or Jane Garvey.
Even just scrolling through the list of episodes is enough to make your mouth water, but there’s no need to feel jealous because at the moment due to covid safety measures the presenters aren’t allowed to tuck in.
Where to start: Mary Berry’s practical nature and sense of fun come out in an episode from March 2019 when she presents her Limoncello Trifle. Also on BBC Sounds.
Podcasts by the Liverpool ECHO
If you’re looking for something more local then check out these podcasts created by Liverpool Echo journalists:
Beatles City: The podcast that brings you the story of the band that shook the world from the place where it all began. Join presenters Laura Davis and Ellen Kirwin on a journey along the sandstone-lined streets of John Lennon’s childhood Woolton, into the Kensington living room-turned-recording studio where the Quarrymen cut their first record and down the steep steps into the Cavern’s cellar nightclub
Menopod: Journalists Susan Lee and Dawn Collinson tackle puberty’s older sister one gin and tonic at a time, with guests sharing their experiences and shining a light on a time of life that is rarely spoken about – the menopause.
The Brink: Julia Rampen looks back at Militant’s rise and fall in this well-researched podcast all about the political battles that took place in Liverpool in the 1980s – the decade that saw the faction dominate the city’s Labour party, control the council and take on Margaret Thatcher.
Liminal: Take a walk along a walk along Britain’s windswept coastline with presenter Laura Davis and the people who have made their lives at the edge – from a widower finding friendship through a dog walking club on the beach to the street artists revitalising a faded seaside town.
Blood Red:Liverpool FC podcasts from the Liverpool ECHO, including our main Blood Red show with our writers Ian Doyle, Paul Gorst, Joe Rimmer, Sean Bradbury, Theo Squires and Connor Dunn; Neil Fitzmaurice’s Poetry in Motion; Peter Hooton’s Allez Les Rouges; Analysing Anfield with Josh Williams and David Hughes as well as Post-Game, Behind Enemy Lines and View from the Kop featuring Paul Wheelock, Guy Clarke and Matt Addison.
Royal Blue: Everton FC podcasts from the Liverpool ECHO, including our main Royal Blue show with Phil Kirkbride, Dave Prentice, Adam Jones, Sam Carroll, Chris Beesley, Paul Wheelock and Gavin Buckland, Analysing Everton with David Hughes and Josh Williams as well as View from the Gwladys Street with Ian Croll.
Top history podcasts
Investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ dad was born on a cotton plantation that had previously owned slaves, so this podcast exploring the long shadow of American slavery is as personal as it is political.
It is a story of almost unimaginable cruelty and injustice, of tremendous greed and lives stolen. But it is also one of hope and determination – of how the American ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality only came even close to realisation because of the Black people fighting for them.
1619 will make you want to scream, cry and cancel all Zoom quizzes so you can listen to the seven episodes back-to-back.
Essential listening for those of us wanting to fully understand how ingrained racism is into society and how we can make a change.
Where to start: Hannah-Jones coming to grips with her father’s patriotic pride in the first episode is fascinating and moving, as is the story of Black musicians being used to promote America abroad in episode 3.
Where to find it: On all podcast apps or online at https://www.nytimes.com/column/1619-project
Wind of Change
Was The Scorpions’ 1990 power ballad that heralded the end of the Cold War simply a catchy song that reflected the zeitgeist of the time? Or was it written by the CIA to stir rebellious feelings in Eastern Europe?
When journalist Patrick Radden Keefe hears a whisper of this outlandish conspiracy theory he follows a trail that begins with a pal who’s ex-CIA and ends with Wind of Change songwriter Klaus Meiner himself.
Along the way he meets a list of fascinating characters including a mate of Jon Bon Jovi’s, a former drug dealing music promoter and a man who was once sat on by a horse.
It’s a fascinating look at the inside workings of the US intelligence agency and a period of time when you could get arrested just for listening to rock music.
Where to start: At the beginning.
The Folklore Podcast
A trail of mysterious hoofed footprints in a Devon snowfall, a battle with a giant worm in County Durham and a man from Liverpool whose book of magic ended up in New York Library are just three of the subjects covered in Mark Norman’s exploration of the folklore of Britain and beyond.
Whether discussing the influence of Russian folk tales with Carnegie Medal-winning children’s author Sophie Anderson or the symbolism of flowers and plants with environmentalist Lisa Schneidau, his gently-paced interviews are always thoroughly researched.
It’s fascinating to discover so much about our history and traditional tales that have largely been forgotten. You don’t have to believe it to enjoy it.
Where to start: With nearly 100 episodes already released, you are bound to find a subject that intrigues you. A strong contender would be Episode 78 on exorcism, looking at the difference between this centuries-old practice and the way it has been depicted by Hollywood. Bonus content at thefolklorepodcast.com
Death of a Sports Star
For nearly four hours, a Learjet plane flew with fogged windows and no sign of life on board until it eventually ran out of fuel.
Among its passengers was US Open champion Payne Stewart whose death – and life – is among those explored in the powerful podcast Death of a Sports Star.
As the series points out, it shouldn’t be any sadder when a household name dies but it does touch more people. And although this sounds like a gratuitous subject for a podcast, it’s actually anything but as the athletes’ stories are told in a poetically-written, respectful but fascinating way.
Where to start: It’s got to be with Flo-Jo, the fastest woman in history with an unforgettable style, whose death remains something of a mystery. The episode on Justin Fashanu is also extremely affecting and continues to be relevant today.
The Prime Ministers
Political commentator Iain Dale has set himself the enormous task of exploring the lives and contributions of all 55 British prime ministers.
With one figure tackled each time, he is still in the middle of recording the episodes which take the form of a conversation with a different expert each time.
Those covered so far including the Duke of Wellington, whose military career by far outshone his political one, and Theresa May, whose lack of leadership campaign meant she never got round to forging her own identity as prime minister.
Where to start: Three-time premier Edward Stanley’s measured method of political reform is given the significance it deserves in an interview with academic Nigel Fletcher.
Top interview podcasts
Two Shot Podcast
Whether it’s chatting with Nicole Kidman at the crack of dawn or grimacing with Reece Shearsmith over the horrors of stage fright, Craig Parkinson has a gentle way of interviewing that really draws out his guests.
This could come as a surprise if you only know him from his more threatening acting roles, which include both Kray twins in Whitechapel and corrupt cop DS Matt ‘Dot’ Cottan in Line of Duty.
But not many people have a conversation with Nicole Kidman as if she were, well, an ordinary person, and she in turn seems to genuinely enjoy the experience.
It turns out that she too struggles with paralysing stage fright, a fact she reveals along with how to make life as a world-famous movie star work with a family.
But this podcast is about far more than a single interview. Craig has 137 episodes under his belt featuring interviews with people in creative jobs. Some you will have heard of, some you won’t, but all treated exactly the same no matter their level of celebrity.
Where to start: Episode 59 with Salfordian performance poet JB Barrington sums up what Two Shot Podcast is all about.
David Tennant Does a Podcast With…
This is an unashamedly star-studded podcast but the format is refreshingly unshowy as David Tennant has basically just persuaded his mates to have a chat with him on record.
And if they all happen to be famous actors whose lives we want to poke around in then so much the better for everyone.
The tenth Doctor – and yes he does discuss how it’s impossible to escape that role – is a warm, friendly host, and it feels like we’re eavesdropping on a private conversation between friends.
It was hard to imagine he could top the first season, which included Jon Hamm, Michael Sheen, Jodie Whittaker and Sir Ian McKellan, but then came Judi Dench, George Takei and Elisabeth Moss.
Where to start: The very first episode with Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, in which she reveals how fame has made her reclusive.
WTF with Marc Maron
Fans of the Netflix show Glee will recognise Marc Maron as messed-up women’s wrestling show director Sam, but he’s as well known in the US for his 30-year-comedy career including this podcast.
It’s a remarkably simple format for a show that has hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode. Yet that is very much its appeal as Maron’s low key interviewing technique draws out the best from his incredible rota of A list celebrities.
Recent interviewees include Schitt’s Creek co-creator Daniel Levy, Jim Carrey and Helen Mirren – all excellent episodes, although it’s heartbreaking to hear him proudly mention his girlfriend, director Lynn Shelton, to Levy given that she would die unexpectedly not long later.
Where to start: The incomparable Thandie Newton speaks frankly about coming to terms with abuse in episode 1,106. Yes you read that number right. You can also find all episodes going back to September 2009 on Stitcher Premium.
Clare Balding takes a wander through the countryside with a series of guests in a podcast that will either soothe cooped-up home workers’ cravings for fresh air – or intensify it.
For most people it will surely be the latter – the sound of her boots squelching through wet sand on the Isle of Sheppey or sloshing through the West Dart River made me want to pull on my waterproofs and grab an Ordnance Survey map.
And you can actually do that if you like as Clare helpfully reveals which OS map they are following and the grid reference of where they started.
Recent episodes have returned to the original format of the presenter interviewing a well-known fellow rambler such as Countryfile’s Anita Rani as they stroll, but for a while during the first lockdown she was delving into the archives to create episodes on different themes.
They are worth a listen too, but it’s the interview format that’s most appealing as her companions seem comfortable revealing more on a walk than they perhaps would in a studio.
Where to start: Barry Farrimond (The Archers’ Ed Grundy) talks inventing knots, making orchestras accessible and ghostly hairy hands as the pair trek across Dartmoor. Or learn about miscarriages of justice and serial killers with criminologist David Wilson on a walk through Northamptonshire. Also on BBC Sounds.
Emma Bridgewater – she of the dinner sets that you find in those little gift shops you only seem to go into on holiday – designed her first cup and saucer to give to her mum.
There’s something quite special about those two items, she says on Country and Town House magazine’s podcast, because you are so often sharing confidences while you use them.
These are the sorts of little stories that come up all the time on House Guest – they seem like small talk but actually have greater significance when you stop to think about them.
Interiors editor Carole Annett chats with an expert per episode, from Diana’s Princess of Wales brother Lord Spencer, who has a handmade fine-furniture line, to Mark Tremlett of organic mattress company Naturalmat.
Where to start: Alice Temperley explains why she expanded her fashion label into interior design, her obsession with King Arthur and how a countryside childhood sets you up for life. If you listen on the Entale app or online at countryandtownhouse.co.uk/interiors/podcast you will be able to see images of some of the things mentioned.
Top Arts podcasts
Great Women Artists
Katy Hessel’s irrepressible enthusiasm has brought the often overlooked work of women artists into the spotlight, firstly through her Instagram account and now through her podcast of the same name.
Episodes are a mix of experts talking about great, dead artists – check out The Miniaturist author Jessie Burton on Frida Kahlo from her home filled with items covered in the Mexican portrait painter’s face – and interviews with those alive today.
Maggi Hambling, Lee Miller, Shirley Baker and Louise Bourgeois are just a few of the names on the enormous list of artists covered by the podcast so far.
Katy’s obvious passion for the subject fires up her interviewees, but she also knows when to sit back and let them speak.
Where to start: Katy’s chat with Lubaina Himid gives real insight into the activism behind the Preston-born artist’s work as a trailblazer of the Black Arts movement. Plus she has a great sense of humour. You can see the work discussed on Instagram as @thegreatwomenartists and at thegreatwomenartists.com
Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast
Some people mark the milestones of their lives by the places they visited, the meals they ate, by who was prime minister or where their team was in the league.
Frank Skinner seems to distinguish significant moments in his memory through poetry – the Ferlinghetti piece he was asked to read in school assembly, the Liz Berry depiction of pigeons that brought him to tears in a hotel room while on a stand-up comedy tour.
He is a wonderful teacher, overflowing with passion for the poems he is clearly delighted to be sharing with his listeners.
He explains them in a clear, absorbing way that is thoroughly riveting whether you are a poetry professor or a complete novice.
Where to start: The affection with which Skinner talks about the Beats makes this episode a great place to start. More traditional poetry fans will enjoy the Gerald Manley Hopkins episode.
Essential downloading for all book lovers, this podcast is supported by crowdfunding publishers Unbound but is about old titles rather than new.
Those chosen are publicised in advance so you can read them before listening to a usually lively discussion between John Mitchinson (TV show QI’s head of research), writer and editor Andy Miller and their latest guest.
The content doesn’t date – they focus on books that have stood the test of time but deserve a wider audience – so you can use their episode list as suggestions for your to-read pile as well as checking out their opinions on your favourite novels.
Don’t whatever you do, listen before reading as each one is understandably spoiler-packed.
Where to start: The Tortoise and the Hare featuring Virago founder Carmen Callil, in which she recalls conversations with its author Elizabeth Jenkins.
Who Am I This Time
Celebrities interviewing celebrities podcasts abound these days, making it frustratingly hard for smaller productions to break through and for listeners to discover them.
But David Morrissey’s Who Am I This Time really is worth its position in the podcast charts, not just because of his excellent choice of guests who so far include Alan Cumming, Liz Carr and David Harewood.
Each episode focuses on a particular role in the interviewee’s career, with Morrissey helping to unpick the impact it had on their lives and experience as an actor.
It takes an industry insider to know which questions to ask, and to understand and explain the relevance of some of their encounters. While he is quite a restrained interviewer, Morrissey is clearly fully engaged in the conversation and you get the feeling he asks some things simply because he personally wants to know the answers.
Where to start: Liz Carr’s eye-opening stories of the inequality she faced as an actor with disabilities while filming the much loved character Clarissa Mullery from Silent Witness are maddening. Meanwhile, David Harewood gives an insight into being a black British actor in America as he talks about the role of CIA director David Estes in Homeland.
Two Crime Writers and a Microphone
Bereft of their usual summer tour of book festivals and gigs, writers Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste have spent lockdown presenting a record number of episodes of their podcast.
Since March they have caught up with everyone from Ian Rankin to Fiona Cummins in a series that is more like a chinwag between pals than a formal interview.
Rankin reveals what it was like to write an aging Remus, Val McDermid plans to be more reclusive and Sarah Pinborough shares her personal path to success.
As well as an insight into the world of crime writing, the podcast gives you a feel for what a tight-knit, supportive group these authors are part of – unexpected warm and fuzzies among the talk of murderous intent.
Where to start: It’s got to be the Val McDermid episode, in which it takes Luca around half an hour to ask a question about books or writing because they’re so busy reminiscing about their best gigs with the band Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers.
Actor Russell Tovey hit it off with co-host Robert Diament at a dinner to honour Tracey Emin when they realised he owns one of her monoprints that the art dealer had wanted to buy.
Later, the pair appeared as guests on a podcast and their combined charisma was such a natural fit that their mums insisted they should start their own.
Eight series in and they have interviewed a huge range of artists from Grayson Perry to Tyler Mitchell, the first Black photographer to shoot a cover of American Vogue. It was Beyoncé by the way.
There are also a few surprises in their guest list, not least Sir Elton John, whose passion for art collecting began with buying Man Ray posters at Athena.
Emin, now thoroughly befriended, has appeared twice. Last month it was to give Tovey and Diament a tour of her Edvard Munch show at the Royal Academy of the Arts. It’s a great listen, partially to get a bit of insight into how Emin sees her own work but also to witness what it can be like to be friends with such a formidable personality.
Where to start: Way back in the first series with Michael Craig Martin, whose captivating way of talking about conceptual art makes you realise just how he inspired the Young British Artists while teaching them at Goldsmiths.
Before the Act
In June 1998, Ian McKellen, EastEnders star Michael Cashman and eminent director Richard Eyre gathered together the cream of British theatre in a variety show that aimed to counteract the damaging effects of Section 28, the law banning the intentional promotion of homosexuality.
Sheila Hancock, Gary Oldman, The Pet Shop Boys, the cast of EastEnders, conductor Simon Rattle, Dame Peggy Ashcroft – the stage bill reads like a celebrity Who’s Who of the time.
In Before the Act, the event’s stage manager Bev Ayre weaves conversations with those who took part with audio from the night to create a vivid picture of what was both a joyful celebration of LGBTQ talent and a vital political statement.
Where to start: At the beginning – brace yourself for Imelda Staunton leading a triumphant rendition of the suffragette battle song March of the Women at the end of the second episode.
The Film Programme
This entire podcast is worth recommending for a single episode – the one in which best-selling author Frank Cottrell Boyce talks so passionately about the 1983 film Local Hero that it makes you want to put on the TV, step inside the screen and live forever in the fictional Scottish village it’s set in.
Local Hero, about an oil company trying to buy up a village on the coast of Scotland, has woven its way into Frank’s life from the moment he and his wife unknowingly spotted members of the film crew during their honeymoon.
He is surprised – and almost struck dumb with awe – in this podcast by his interview being crashed by director Bill Forsyth.
It’s wonderful to hear the man whose London Olympics opening ceremony has lived long in the hearts of all those who watched it being so moved, inspired and indeed humbled by someone else’s work.
Where to start: As well as the above episode, the podcast covers a range of films and issues within the industry. Ben Bailey Smith looks at the problem of nepotism in The Class System and the British Film Industry; there’s a great episode on Derek Jarman’s arthouse film The Garden; and the latest on Earl Cameron, one of the first Black actors to star in a British film, is fascinating. Also on BBC Sounds.
Meet Me at the Museum
While art galleries and museums have been closed for the pandemic, I’ve been visiting them vicariously through the Art Fund’s excellent podcast.
In each episode, a different celebrity takes a friend to discover a place they love and they chat about their lives along the way.
The latest features Strictly star Anneka Rice and actor Imogen Stubbs having a high old time exploring Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight holiday home Osbourne House.
Fans of the 80s TV show Treasure Hunt may remember Anneka landing there in the famous helicopter and screaming her catchphrase: “Stop the clock!”
Where to start: Poet Lemm Sissay’s thought provoking visit to the Foundling House in series 2 or comedian Tez Ilyas taking his dad to the National Football Museum in series 1. Also online at https://www.artfund.org/whats-on/meet-me-at-the-museum
Top news podcasts
Uncover: Escaping NXIVM
The bizarre sex cult masquerading as a marketing coaching company is much better known now than when journalist Josh Bloch released this podcast in 2018.
Since then many disturbing details have been brought to light in a major US trial and hit Netflix documentary The Vow.
But it’s worth going back to Uncover to hear the story of NXIVM former advocate and escapee Sarah Edmundson as discovered and reported by her old school friend.
As revelation follows revelation – weird branding rituals, an apparent pyramid scheme, a secret men-only group encouraged to blame women for their problems – Josh struggles to reconcile the ex-classmate who fled the cult fearing for her family with the NXIVM senior figure who financially benefited and recruited others to join.
Where to start: At the beginning.
What Makes a Killer
How did Stephen Port manage to lure four young men to their deaths on dating app Grindr before police realised they were looking for a single culprit? Why did ‘Night Killer’ Richard Ramirez terrorise California, murdering people in their homes?
This podcast aims – and partially succeeds – in tracing serial killers’ descent into murder through interviews with forensic experts, witnesses and police.
But it’s the heart-wrenching conversations with family members that makes it more than just a fairly cold exploration of events.
Where to start: The podcast looks at cases all over the world so begin with the Stephen Port episode if you want something closer to home.
Listening to the Dead
Prime Suspect author Lynda LaPlante fronts this absorbing exploration of forensic techniques in solving crimes.
With 33 novels and 150 hours of TV to her name, she has spent many hours researching police procedure and tales of her experiences are interspersed with interviews with experts.
These are conducted by CSI Cass Sutherland, a long-time adviser of Lynda’s, and cover everything from fibre analysis to how the discovery of DNA transformed the entire field.
Where to start: Pollen expert Prof Patricia Wiltshire was working in the archaeology department at University College London when she started being called in to help solve murders including the dreadful Soham case in 2002.
Health & fitness podcasts
Habits for Happiness
We’ve all been feeling at least a little lower lately so it’s the perfect time to discover Dr Tim Sharp’s guide to living a happier life.
His philosophy is that we should all place happiness much higher on the agenda not least because it is good for our health.
Each short episode gives a method for introducing a bit more positivity into our daily lives, using techniques that are achievable even during a stressful pandemic. A bonus episode, created for lockdown, focuses on Happiness in Isolation.
Even if you don’t end up following all his ideas, Dr Tim’s soft Australian tones will lull you into a calmer place.
Where to start: It’s designed to be listened from start to end but you could dip in if a particular topic appeals to you. It’s an Audible exclusive – free for subscribers – but you can find more of Dr Tim’s tips at www.drhappy.com.au/
The Joe Wicks Podcast
Best known as the man who occupied our kids for a daily 20 minutes in lockdown while we collapsed on the couch exhausted from failed home schooling, Joe Wicks has expanded from YouTube to iTunes with his new podcast.
While it’s frankly hard to believe the self-dubbed PE Teacher to the Nation has any energy left for podding, here he is, bouncy as ever, on a quest to discover ‘the one thing that makes life better’.
Don’t fear though, the answer isn’t cold showers and 10-mile 6am runs unless that’s your quite specific bag.
Each of Joe’s interviewees has a different answer, and some of them are quite palatable.
For actor David Harewood it’s walking his cavapoo Sebbie in the park and for Louis Theroux it’s a sneaky 10-minute nap.
Some are more achievable than others – Kim Kardashian’s personal trainer Melissa Alcantara’s ‘one thing’ is riding through the Californian canyons, surfing and walking along the beach at daybreak. Yes of course it is.
But the whole point of the podcast is that you should find you own path through life, and Joe’s cheerily boyish personality makes it an upbeat listen.
Where to start: Real life spaceman Tim Peake tells Joe all about flying helicopters and keeping fit on the International Space Station in a really warm, interesting interview. Also on BBC Sounds.
Top music podcasts
Folk on Foot
Famous names from the world of folk music take former BBC executive Matthew Bannister through a landscape that has inspired them.
It’s a wonderful format for audio – with the sounds of waves, bird song and rain transporting you to the various locations it’s recorded in.
A precious 50 minutes of thoughtful conversation with fascinating people, interspersed with beautiful music – in our noise-jammed, hectic world you don’t have to be mad about folk music to appreciate that. But if you are you will love this even more.
Where to start: Julie Fowlis singing unaccompanied on the shores of Loch Ness, Jackie Morris painting an otter while reading Robert Macfarlane’s poem of the same name or Martin Simpson’s tour of his old Scunthorp haunts.
Initially launched as ‘a collection of the greatest music stories never told’, this podcast has evolved in its third series into an exploration of a single year – 1980.
Poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib looks at the start of a new decade, the year of PacMan, The Empire Strikes Back and the death of John Lennon, through its popular music.
The meaty subject matter and Hanif’s poetic flair makes this a joy to listen to and will make you think differently about some of the 80s greatest hits.
It’s also well worth dipping into the previous two series to discover stories that, while perhaps not living up to the claim of never being told, are certainly forgotten.
There’s a pair of teenagers fusing Pakistani pop and British New Wave in the early-80s and the mysterious and conflicted story of 1950s jazz pianist Billy Tipton, who lived as a man but was discovered after his death to be anatomically female.
Where to start: Abdurraqib’s episode on Stevie Wonder’s album Hotter Than July, looking at how the star managed a huge comeback after the release of an unpopular concept album, will have you dusting off the vinyl. You can also listen online at kcrw.com/culture/shows/lost-notes
Last, Past and Blast
In this interview show with a twist, Good Morning Britain host Charlotte Hawkins asks guests to reveal the last piece of classical music they listened to, a significant piece from their past and a wildcard.
It’s a tried and tested formula – think Desert Island Discs but purely classical – so it’s no surprise that it works well again here.
Charlotte, who also presents on Classic FM, doesn’t take her interviewees through their entire life’s journey though, it’s more of a meandering conversation about their careers and family interspersed with clips of their chosen music.
Guests so far have included fellow GMB presenter Piers Morgan and Myleene Klass, who with her daughters’ help used lockdown to develop a kids’ music teaching programme.
You don’t have to be a classical music fan to get something out of Last, Past and Blast, but it’s a good introduction to those who are interested in discovering more.
Where to start: Alexander Armstrong makes a warm, interesting guest in the podcast’s first episode.
Sodajerker on Songwriting
If you don’t want to start buying up the gaps in your music collection you’ll probably want to avoid Sodajerker.
In each episode, hosts Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor take a different major music star through their songwriting process, forensically questioning everything from influences to how they penned an individual line.
They’ve been at it for more than 180 episodes so far, so your favourite songwriter is bound to be in here – from Paul McCartney revealing the tricks he uses to get him through writer’s block in 2017 to Rufus Wainwright chatting in an office next to a bust of his own head earlier this year.
That Simon and Brian are themselves songwriters gives their interviewing an edge, and their polite, enthusiastic style and dry sense of humour immediately warms up their subjects.
Pick a musician, delve in and find yourself coming up for air several back-to-back episodes later.
Where to start: While the Paul McCartney episode is a great listen, I preferred the interview with his brother, The Scaffold’s Mike McGear, whose entertaining eccentricity is balanced out with fascinating insights about recording at Abbey Road. Also online at sodajerker.com
The story of 70s Salford band Joy Division – where they came from and how they evolved into New Order after Ian Curtis’ suicide – is told with frank honesty by the people who were there.
Narrated by Manchester-born actor Maxine Peake, the script is packed with colourful detail that spirits you away to that very particular period in music history.
You can almost hear the ring of Bernard Sumner’s mum’s phone as he waits for those who have seen his advert for bandmates to call, and feel the rough texture of the carpet on the walls of their first recording studio.
Charismatic real-life characters are what makes this tale so compelling – as well as the band members and Unknown Pleasures producer Martin Hannett there is of course the late Factory Records director Tony Wilson, whose ex-wife talks candidly of how much he was sometimes hated.
Where to start: Episode one.
Top science podcasts
On first listen it’s really hard to know what to make of Varmints, a podcast about animals that’s very deliberately not made by animal experts.
But once you settle into its wacky take on a magazine-style show, it’s a fun, silly and actually very informative listen.
Each episode is themed around a single species of animal and they’ve so far covered more than 200 including leopards, bats (twice), Tasmanian devils, condors and crabs.
Presenters Paul and Donna mix up fascinating facts they’ve discovered on the internet with random musings into something like one of strangest pub conversations you’ve ever had.
Their infectious enthusiasm and daft sense of humour, not to mention the songs that introduce each episode, will keep you coming back.
Where to start: Take your pick – there are more than 200 episodes to choose from so far. I particularly enjoyed no.221 Bats Revisited starring guest host Kate Shaw and no. 215 about squid.
Do You Really Know?
Most of us are at least a bit guilty of over-estimating our own knowledge about subjects that pop up in the news or on Twitter.
In three minute episodes, this podcast can solve that problem by helping listeners understand the meaning behind concepts that are trending or making the headlines.
It covers everything from What is TikTok? to What is ammonium nitrate? in less time than it would take you to Google the question, scroll down the responses, click and read.
The episodes are chatty and explain the definition in a non-patronising but simple way. It’s a winner for everyone from grandparents wanting to keep up with millennial chat about influencers to coffee fans wondering what a caffe sospeso is. It’ll only take you three minutes to find out.
Where to start: The What is a meme? episode is a trip down memory lane – especially if you remember the 3D dancing baby. And What is Globish? reveals a version of English you may never have heard of.
Top fiction podcasts
The Fountain Road Files
Even still in the midst of the global pandemic, Richard MacLean Smith’s new fiction podcast makes strange listening.
Before pressing play, you are aware thanks to the series notes that the main character, Ben Williams, will have died in mysterious circumstances by the end of it.
Ben is a likeable 27-year-old who loses his job in a cafe due to the pandemic and is living alone in a London flat, where weird things start happening.
It’s basically a traditional ghost story with all the suspense and jumps you would expect from that enjoyable age old format.
But what makes it really spooky is the bizarre world Ben is living in – silent streets, clapping with strangers once a week, supermarket shelves bare of toilet roll, a frightening, mysterious virus. A world we couldn’t have expected ourselves experiencing six months ago.
Where to start: Right at the beginning.
Eight authors have each been given a traditional folk tale from the town or city where they live and challenged to retell it in their own style.
The result is an anthology of captivating stories that go far beyond an interesting literary exercise.
Some, like Liv Little’s The Sisters about twins separated wcass hen one is forced to leave home after coming out, have used the original as inspiration for an entirely modern piece of fiction. Others, like Eimear McBride’s Irish fairy story The Tale of Kathleen narrate the original in a new voice.
Particularly evocative are Naomi Booth’s Sour Hall, about a woman whose personal demons take the form of a farm-haunting boggart, and The Dampness is Spreading, in which Emma Glass’ 21st century midwife has an otherworldly patient.
Each one is followed by an interesting discussion between the writer and Prof Carolyne Larrington, specialist in Old Norse and British fairy tales at St Oxford University.
Where to start: It’s so hard to single out an episode as I loved every one but Mahsuda Snaith’s The Panther’s Tale is a good place to start. She blends elements of Bengali narrative tradition with the mysterious story of an 16th century Birmingham merchant, reclaiming it for those whose perspectives are usually lost in stories of British history. Hag is an Audible original so you have to subscribe to listen, but you can join free for a month’s trial.
Eleanore and Michael Richland are devastated when their parents’ private plane vanishes on its way to a family Christmas reunion on a Caribbean island.
But another shock is still to come – as the truth behind their supposed ‘hero doctor’ father starts to unravel.
It’s not the most intriguing of thrillers ever written but it’s worth a listen due to its cast of stars that include Tony-nominated Josh Gadd (Frozen, Beauty and the Beast) and Gillian Jacobs (Love, Community, Girls). The second season has just started streaming.
Where to start: At the beginning of the first series, and don’t miss the behind-the-scenes episode when you’ve finished. Listen ad-free on Wondery. Also available on YouTube.
British audio fiction is really making its mark at the moment and David Devereux’s The Tower is one of the best out there.
Kiri (Katrina Allen) decides to climb a strange ziggurat-style structure in the middle of the city with no way of knowing what she will find or whether she will make it to the top.
As she climbs she speaks to her friend Chris (David Pellow) and Ike who works for the Tower (Mark Gallie) on a series of payphones that are mysteriously located along the route.
It’s extremely strange and disconcerting, but the warmth of the well-formed characters turn it into something special.
Where to start: At episode one, with a pair of headphones or decent speaker – the soundscape is beautiful.
Danny knocks on the door of her ex-school friend’s house eight years after she disappeared into a mysterious cult.
The 10-episode fiction podcast, written and directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, slowly unravels her reasons for leaving through the two women’s conversations and recordings of ‘therapy sessions’ with charismatic but creepy cult leader Ben.
Chloë Grace Moretz (Greta, Carrie, The Little Mermaid) stars as Danny in this intriguing show that ends on a cliffhanger, leaving fans hoping for a sequel.
Where to start: At the beginning
If you were looking for a podcast to demonstrate the boundless possibilities of audio fiction then this would be it.
The detective comedy would cost an astronomical sum to produce for the screen but the combination of brilliant writing, great sound effects and the listener’s imagination beats even the most well-funded special effects departments.
Set in the sprawling Even Greater London, where steampunk contraptions meet Victorian morality, Victoriocity follows Inspector Archibald Fleet (Tom Crowley) and journalist Clara Entwhistle (Layla Katib) as they investigate a murder.
It’s ingenious, ridiculous and completely addictive. There are rumours of a third series. Let’s hope they’re true.
Where to start: Episode 1, season 1.
Criminal Minds’ Jeanne Tripplehorn ventures into audio drama as a veteran detective investigating a series of grizzly murders in her South Carolina town after a woman is found murdered in Exeter’s backwoods.
In the meantime she has to face the fact that she may have helped to falsely convict a woman of murder 10 years earlier, and deal with the suspicions of her partner and her own brother.
Nasty rituals, a missing murder weapon and plenty of twists and turns keep the plot interesting and hold your interest into a second series where another case awaits.
Where to start: At the very beginning.
Golden Globe winner Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) stars in a story that begins as a whodunnit and turns into a supernatural thriller.
She is police sergeant Jackie O’Hara, stationed on the remote Scottish island of Toll Mor, when a massive storm hits bringing with it an ancient evil.
Forced to try to prevent this malevolent force from leaving the island, while protecting a girl it appears to be trying to destroy, O’Hara struggles to know who to trust.
It’s an exciting story that becomes almost believable when handled so well by a cast that also includes Adam James (Doctor Foster) and Tom Crowley from the excellent Wooden Overcoats podcast.
Where to start: Dive right into episode 1 or take your pick of the three trailers.
There’s a crack in reality and something is breaking through – this is the basis for all 10 episodes of this intriguing fiction podcast, some of which are more successful than others.
There’s a tree that keeps moving around, an American soldier who’s out of time and a helpful invisible force that goes too far.
Some episodes are interconnected, some are not. They are all best listened to while stopping and paying attention rather than while cleaning the loo or cooking tea.
Where to start: Janina Matthewson’s three-parter about Millie and her Mum discovering themselves in a modern day Elves and the Shoemaker situation – but far more menacing. Also on BBC Sounds and online at http://bit.ly/murmurspodcast
There are many strange things going on in the small town of Mt Absalom, Ohio. An uncle who died but carried on as if he had not, a diner that only appears some of the time, a helpful woodcutter who sets fire to the forest surrounding anyone he disapproves of.
Lillian Harper (Shariba Rivers) moves in with her somewhat eccentric mum, with whom she hasn’t lived since she was a child – in a large boarding house owned by her family for centuries.
She, along with boarder Abbie Douglas (Kathleen Hoil), who is researching the town’s history, try to unravel its secrets.
It’s spooky – in a suspenseful way that creeps up on you rather than heart attack-inducing jumps – but cosy too.
Mt Absalom may have its quirks but it’s an extremely inclusive place where people of all sexual preferences and preferred pronouns live together without their differences being remarked upon.
Where to start: Get stuck in at the beginning of season one. There’s a third one due to begin any time.
Truck driver Raylene is stranded at a stop without a way to get home when she grabs the opportunity for some off-the-books paid work in this seven-episode audio drama.
She soon realises that she may have made a terrible mistake and her cargo contains something she could never have imagined.
A suspenseful story with some great sound effects, Carrier stars Tony, Grammy and Emmy award-winner Cynthia Erivo who is set to reprise the role in a film version of the podcast. No need to wait around for that though.
Where to start: At episode one.
We Fix Space Junk
Two friends are flying around space carrying out repairs for shadowy intergalactic corporation Automnicon in this ingenious serialised fiction podcast.
They don’t start out as pals though. Kilner’s final job is supposed to pay off all her debts, but when the task turns out to be transporting rich socialite turned falsely convicted murderer Samatha across the galaxy they end up stuck with each other.
A homicidal computer to tackle, a new species of alien to accidentally invent and a planet populated by sentient food are just a few of the bizarre but brilliant adventures.
Where to start: With not all three series clearly labelled and lots of bonus episodes, this podcast can be a bit hard to navigate. Scroll right down and start at the very beginning.
Things We Don’t Talk About
Emmy award-winner Luke Kirby (The Marvellous Mrs Maizel, Tales of the City) stars in this audio comedy-drama that follows the lives of three generations of an American family.
His character is going through IVF with his wife, played by Orange is the New Black’s Lauren Lapkus, while his brother is in the middle of a reluctant separation and their elderly mother is rekindling an old flame.
A funny, bittersweet and heart-warming look at difficult moments in life, it makes you grateful for your own family and friends.
Where to start: At the beginning. Only available on Audible, free to subscribers or as part of a 30-day free trial.
Described by the podcast’s makers as ‘movies for your ears’, the Truth is an excellent series of short audio dramas by different writers that can be funny, scary, uplifting or sometimes a combination of all three.
Some episodes are like Black Mirror for radio – including a Christmas Eve Bitcoin heist that’s terminated by rogue AI and a pair of actors who find themselves imprisoned by a sadistic director.
Others, like the brilliant Bad Hair about a suburban mom trying to uncover a sinister plot at the hairdressers, are more Inside Number 9.
Where to start: Your Ears Are Burning takes the Horror trope of a creepy chain letter or Ring-style video tape into the modern world of podcasts and mobile phone apps.
The Left Right Game
Driving will never be the same again after listening to this podcast because you will always be tempted to try the game – take a left turn, followed by a right, then left again and on it goes until you find yourself in a strange new world.
In this bizarre but addictive audio fiction series, journalist Alice (Westworld star Tessa Thompson) joins a group of paranormal explorers starting the game in Phoenix, Arizona. Meanwhile, here in the UK, her friend Tom (Sense8’s Aml Ameen) is wondering why he is the only person to remember her existence.
If you’re brave enough to follow Alice down The Road, you’ll find a well-imagined universe, with an incredible surround-sound quality, that’s as beautiful as it is freaky.
Where to start: You’ll know if this podcast is for you as soon as you listen to the trailer – it will either thrill you or leave you cold.
The Edge of Sleep
Night watchman Dave (YouTube star ‘Markiplier’) finishes his shift to discover that everyone who went to sleep the night before has died.
This snappy audio drama was produced before the pandemic but has resonances for our lives today as Dave finds himself driving down empty streets hunting for information about a deadly illness.
But this scenario has a paranormal cause that is gradually uncovered through flashbacks to his terrifying childhood sleep issues and dramatic altercations with some of the few surviving humans.
Just maybe don’t listen in bed or you’ll have a nail biting night of insomnia ahead.
Where to start: At the beginning. The series ends on a bit of a cliffhanger but a second series is expected.
Top parenting and kids podcasts
The Sesame Street Podcast with Foley and Friends
You probably won’t want to turn this on for your kids first thing in the morning – Foley the ‘street’s’ newest monster is definitely too chirpy to cope with before your first cup of coffee.
But he does make a great introduction to podcasts for little ones, in a series of lively episodes covering the sort of subjects we’re used to on the TV show.
They can learn their ABCs with Foley, Big Bird and Mikey the microphone and find out about superhero-style helping with Elmo.
Where to start: Dorothy the goldfish joins Foley in the episode Animal Talk to find out about the amazing sounds creatures make. It’s an Audible exclusive podcast so is free to subscribers of the platform.
Am I A Bad Mum?
The title of this podcast is a question I ask myself far more often than I expected I would, before I became a parent of two lovely but demanding children.
So it’s a relief to hear other mums confess feeling the same guilt that unfortunately seems to have become an inseparable part of modern parenting.
There are plenty of mum podcasts around, many of them excellent, but I especially like this one for two reasons – at around 10 minutes long each episode is to the point, and they don’t look for easy answers.
Since 2018, Australian presenters Katie and Rach have covered more than 200 topics including when to get your kids’ ears pierced, how to deal with nightmares and whether it’s okay to drink alcohol in front of your children.
Wait until the kids are finally in bed, pour yourself a large glass of Malbec and press play.
Where to start: Literally anywhere. Just pick a subject that appeals and you’ll find you’ve mainlined six back-to-back episodes without noticing.
Fun Kids Science Weekly
Did you know that monkeys don’t eat bananas in the wild? This and hundreds of other surprising facts about science are discussed on this weekly podcast aimed at kids but equally as enjoyable for adults.
From comedy sketches to interviews with writers, geophysicists, conservationists and other experts, host Dan tackles questions including why the sun is so hot, why water is see-through and whether the myth of the kraken is rooted in truth.
You can also pose your own for him to answer, and play related games on the Fun Kids website.
Where to start: If you are finding yourself unable to answer all your kids’ covid-related queries then check out The Pandemic Pathology Special on viruses and the impact they have on our bodies. Also online at funkidslive.com
And a few it’s hard to pigeonhole
We Will Get Past This
Sandi Toksvig’s almost daily nine-minute rambles through interesting snippets of history have been a comforting accompaniment to listeners throughout lockdown.
But if, like me, you have only just discovered them it’s not too late to indulge. Despite being created for that specific period in time, the episodes are in fact timeless – and there are 54 of them to enjoy.
The presenter dips into her well-stocked bookcase to share stories of everything from the African American designer of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress (Ann Lowe – she received little recognition at the time) to Queen Victoria’s obsession with Albert.
Where to start: Episode 9, Chicken Soup, is as comforting as a large bowl of the real thing. Also on Sandi’s YouTube channel Vox Tox.
Texting With Keith Olbermann
When BBC News anchor Ros Atkins realises he is texting a stranger almost more than his wife, he decides to start recording their conversations.
The stranger is none other than US sports and news commentator Keith Olbermann, who Ros got chatting to on Twitter but, until this podcast, hadn’t met in real life.
Their discussions are fascinating, not least in the way they highlight the difference between news broadcasting in America and the UK, but also because they turn into an honest exploration of platonic male friendship.
Interjected are in-bed dissections of the two men’s conversations with Ros’ initially bemused wife Sara, who acts almost as a therapist helping her husband understand and accept some of Keith’s more challenging personality traits.
Where to start: Episode one, in which Keith starts questioning why he’s staying up late to text with one of America’s most notorious broadcasters. Also on BBC Sounds and online at https://bbc.in/38wGgNo
French and Saunders Titting About
Of all the comedy skits never made, French and Saunders does Killing Eve has to be one of the potentially guffawingly silliest.
They plan it out on their new podcast – Dawn would be Eve, Jennifer would swap between Villanelle and Fiona Shaw’s MI6 spy, and Kathy Burke would be ‘the evil Russian man’.
This I definitely want to see but, until someone important at the BBC gives them a new series, we will for now have to content ourselves with eavesdropping on their chats.
These cover everything from childhood holidays (Saunders’ was spent bobbing about in the cold sea alongside raw sewage) to passions (French’s include kissing celebrities and collecting Clarice Cliffe pottery).
It’s exactly what we all need right now – daft conversation from two giggling, naturally funny women, with just a frisson of nostalgia for 90s TV.
Where to start: Dawn’s celebrity kissing exploits make the Paartsssions and Hobbies episode a must-listen, and If We Were Alive Right Now gives insights into their early comedy careers. As it’s an Audible Original you have to be a subscriber to get it, but there is a 30-day free trial.