Laura Macfehin listens in and reports back from the land of podcasting.
If you’re not already familiar with podcasts you might ask “What the heck are they and why is that annoying guy at work always talking about them?”
Put simply, podcasts are free audio programmes that you can download and listen to whenever you want. It’s like the radio, but you are your own station manager.
Podcasting has taken off in a huge way over the last few years and it is possible to find a podcast on any subject you might be interested in (if there really isn’t one out there catering to your tastes you should be making a podcast).
Podcasts can be found on platforms like iTunes or Spotify, or directly from the website of individual podcasts. There are some production houses that specifically make podcasts (like Panoply, Radiotopia, Parcast, Gimlet Media) and these have a baseline standard of production values that is quite high, and often podcasts of a similar vein so if you like one from a certain production house you might like their other ones too.
There are also thousands of independent podcasters whose skills and resources vary considerably but amongst whom are some real gems! I like podcasts because there are times when I can’t be reading or watching documentaries (like when I am cooking or sewing) but I don’t want to stop cramming information into my head. I find it relaxing and allaying of loneliness to hear people talk about stuff, or to be told stories– especially when I don’t have to have clothes on or respond politely to have that company.
So what I have I been listening to?
The first podcast I ever followed was rather unsurprisingly Real Ghost Stories Online—and I found it on YouTube. Ex-radio DJ Tony Brueski had put together calls from the Halloween specials he had done on the radio. He asked people to call in with new stories and eventually he was putting out a show a day (with an extra one on the weekends for subscribers). Sort of like paranormal talkback radio the show is addictive if you enjoy human nature as much as ghost stories—which I do—I find hearing what scares people and how they turn that into a story as fascinating as the stories themselves! (Plus there are literally hundreds of episodes available now so it is definitely bingeable). It’s a little bit cheesy but Tony and his wife Jenny take all stories at face value and are very respectful in their treatment of callers and their stories.
Knock Once for Yes is a much newer paranormal podcast—again hosted by a couple—this time English pair Lil and Fitz. They also read listener’s real ghost stories, and relate their own but they also provide what they describe as ‘paranormal postcards’ which are very charming segments featuring haunted sites in Britain that they have visited. They give a run down of the place’s haunted history and describe their visit. Very pleasant listening if you enjoy ghosts plus stately homes!
Audio drama is one of the ways in which podcasts are stretching the boundaries and at the same time harking back to early days of radio. There are two main forms of audio drama in podcasting at the moment—there is straight fiction where the drama is presented much in the way a serial radio play would have been in the past, and there is the faux documentary style where the podcaster presents fictional content as if it were factual. My tastes, as you may have noticed, run to the creepy so most of my fave dramas are in this direction also—see Tanis, The Black Tapes, Limetown, et al. My two favourites of the last year have been Ghosts in the Burbs and The Magnus Archives.
Liz Sower‘s Ghosts in the Burbs presents a series of stories highlighting the darker side of preppy Massachusetts town Wellesley. Stories that are told to her by yoga going moms on their way to pick up their children from desirable schools and real estate guys and ladies who sit on charitable boards. Sower’s lighthearted but deft skewering of this social strata only makes the chills when they arrive that much chillier—and boy do they arrive! This is a podcast that I listen to immediately when a new episode drops and selfishly offer regular prayers for Sower’s continued health and productivity.
The Magnus Archives presents a chilling story weekly, in the form of testimonial being archived on tape detailing a strange or paranormal occurrence. Jonathan Simms writes and presents each story as the head archivist of the titular institute, helped by a cast of supporting players. Singularly they are some of the best spooky stories I have heard in recent years– taken together they provide even greater thrills as an overarching mystery is revealed…
Nerds like me love information—especially that information that has only a tangential relevance to our current lives. That is one of the reasons history podcasts are so important to me—the other being that without them I could not treat my friends and family to tidbits of this semi-relevant knowledge on a regular basis. They love it when I say “I heard a podcast that was sort of about that the other day…”
My favourite history podcast is Stuff You Missed in History Class. The charming hosts Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey provide concise episodes on things and people who are often overlooked in ‘mainstream’ history—including the stories of marginalised and yet significant folks and true accounts of episodes you might have thought you knew about already. Their delight in history and the research that uncovers these stories is infectious and their writing and presentation is respectful to both subject and listener. Highly recommended.
My other favourite history podcast is Criminal. What’s that you say? That sounds more like a true crime podcast than a history podcast? That is because Criminal really defies categorisation, but it feels to me more like a history podcast with other elements involved. The mellifluously voiced Phoebe Judge (fun fact- Judge has my cat Watson’s favourite podcast voice) presents stories which hover around the central concept of criminality—sometimes this means old, cold or sensational crimes and sometimes it means stories focussing more on the concept of legality or stories that touch on social or personal issues created by criminal justice systems. It is always fascinating, well researched and presented and the one that I listen to immediately when a new episode comes out.
The history of Tinsel Town and its inhabitants is a pretty common fascination and I am certainly not immune. For my money the two best podcasters on the subject are Karina Longworth and Adam Roche.
You Must Remember This is Longworth’s contribution and I truly believe everybody with any kind of interest in film should listen in. Each season has a different theme– she covers the lives of actors, writers and studios with an unsurpassed depth of research and a feel for the subject matter that borders on the uncanny. Her take on history eschews regular tropes and eviscerates the uncritically accepted version of events, so even if you think you know the subject matter well Longworth is sure to bring something fresh to your ears.
The Secret History of Hollywood is film buff Roche’s generous gift to a most undeserving world. Essentially some of the best texts put together about subjects like Alfred Hitchcock, Val Lewton, The Warner Brothers, James Cagney and more; Roche brings these stories to life with his beautiful storytelling and sound design. This is the podcast if you want to be swept away to another time and place, with outrageous characters, their very human foibles and the contribution they made to film history. If you don’t tear up listening to these you are a concrete shell of a humanoid. You don’t have to take my word for it though– Mark Gatiss is such a fan he even lent his voice to the most recent season on famed auteur producer Val Lewton!
This is the genre perhaps best exemplified by pioneer This American Life– true life stories revealed in a self-reflexive manner by the podcaster. Or as a university professor in one episode of Heavyweight dismissively describes them– ‘chit-chat’ podcasts. My two recent favourites in this genre are both relatively new– two seasons a piece and have a similar premise– people exploring something from their pasts that has always bugged them. In Heavyweight Canadian New Yorker Jonathan Goldstein examines everything from his own lapsed Judaism to his friend Gregor’s beef with musician Moby (yes they do travel to L.A. but you’ll have to listen to see whether they actually meet up with Moby or not). Goldstein is very funny, the episodes are a little bit poignant but mainly very funny and seem to fit in perfectly with the length of time it takes me to make dinner.
Family Ghosts despite its name is not a paranormal show– in a similar vein to Heavyweight it investigates questions that have niggled away at people, but in this case focussing on a family figure who has always been something of a mystery. Sam Dingman and his subjects examine jewellery smuggling grandmothers, missing siblings, and uncles with double lives in this very compelling podcast. If you are at all worried that your family might be a little unusual in its weirdness this is the podcast that will put those fears to rest!
These 10 are just the tippy top of the podcast iceberg– I am always excited to hear about podcasts I might not have discovered so if you are a podcast fan please let me know what you listen to!