A very long time ago I had a ‘My TV’ page on this website which listed the shows I enjoyed. It wasn’t really a great idea since I don’t actually watch much TV (although now I watch even less) and after a while someone even suggested I turn it into a wiki so that others could contribute to it, which I thought was very silly so I took the whole thing down.
Anyway, podcasts are a much bigger part of my life and consume a surprising amount of time, so I thought I would use this space to list them out. They are mostly political. But please note that this post is not called The Top Political Podcasts You Absolutely Must Listen To, or even a set of recommendations. It’s just what works for me, and since there are only so many podcast-able moments in the day (mostly walking to and from work, back when that was something I did) these happen to be what have settled in to my routine so far.
P.S. Having said that, after typing everything out it is interesting for me to notice that all of the shows with a single presenter are headlined by men. There are many female voices on the mixed-presenter and panel shows, but nevertheless it’s a bias which I don’t like and will try to shake up. Now if only I could convince Melissa Benn to host a weekly show…
Podcasts Where I Listen To Every Episode
The Weeds (Vox Media)
This is my favourite podcast and the one I most look forward to. A twice-weekly roundtable discussion on US politics and policy, The Weeds is a good mix of reaction to major news events (e.g. Trump’s national emergency declaration or any election results) and evergreen policy topics (such as childcare or the minimum wage) but always with a huge amount of actual policy substance, expertise and insight. If you want to know how complex systems actually work (e.g. healthcare, immigration, crime) then you should listen to this. It is a great shame that there is nothing which does quite the same thing for the UK.
Talking Politics (University of Cambridge)
Hosted by Professor David Runciman, this has a more academic feel than The Weeds and is less concerned with policy than raw political economy and geopolitics. It’s also a bit more doom-and-gloomy, especially with Helen Thompson (the most interesting participant) on hand to explain why anything with a glimmer of positivity will actually collapse in a tangle of intellectual contradictions. That said, I do really enjoy this.
Revisionist History (Panoply)
Malcolm Gladwell’s always fascinating podcast about “things overlooked or misunderstood” which is guaranteed to make you think differently about a topic. The most memorable example was the episode about Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down racially-segregated schools) which was always presented to us in school as a triumphant moment for civil rights. We never considered the impact on black teachers.
Political Thinking with Nick Robinson (BBC Radio 4)
The BBC’s former Political Editor, Nick Robinson, and his weekly “big interview” with a British political figure. I basically half-like this podcast. I like getting away from short, adversarial interviews and giving people more time to express themselves. But it is a little too focused on stories of people’s upbringing, perhaps because Robinson feels uncomfortable being “gentler” while taking about contentious policy details. He should listen to a few Ezra Klein episodes and try it.
More Perfect (NPR)
I loved this show! One of the most on-point recommendations which I’ve ever received (thanks, McKenna!) this is a fascinating look at the history of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately each subsequent series has become ever more gimmicky, culminating in a slightly cringe-worthy album of songs about each amendment to the US Constitution which – though they still told very interesting stories about them – was filled with the religious reverence for the written constitution which always haunts American politics. That said, I learnt a lot from this show and heartily recommend it.
Podcasts Where I Listen To Most Episodes
Friday Night Comedy (BBC Radio 4)
This rotates between whatever show is currently playing in the BBC Radio 4 comedy slot. I always listen to Dead Ringers and The Now Show and usually catch The News Quiz, but obviously skip the strange and unfunny stuff which crops up in-between. They just need to add Just A Minute in here and it would be perfect.
The Ezra Klein Show (Vox Media)
Ah, Ezra Klein. One of the hosts on The Weeds and a co-founder of Vox in the first place, this is a twice-weekly series of long (sometimes absurdly long) interviews with public figures and intellectuals. Occasionally it can feel repetitive (I hear about the agonies of Twitter on this show far more often than I ever bother to look at Twitter) but by and large the conversations are rewarding to listen to.
Podcasts Where I Pick And Choose
Planet Money (NPR)
This is a really good and deservedly popular show, telling interesting stories from the world of economics. There’s just too much to listen to, so I only end up hearing the episodes which particularly catch my eye.
Worldy (Vox Media)
Sigh. This should be The Weeds but for the world! Only that’s clearly impossible because the audience doesn’t have enough context, the hosts can’t be as immersed in the details of each individual country and holding provocative opinions about ‘other people’ always sounds more patronising than talking about your own country, so it ends up being a slightly frustrating jaunt through US foreign policy obsessions.
Global News Podcast (BBC World Service)
This is the twice-daily global news bulletin that I know I should be listening to but never seem to get around to anymore because it is less ‘fun’ than everything else, which I guess demonstrates the dilemma for the Worldy crew. Still, even just scanning each contents of the episode before guiltily deleting it unplayed will remind me of the global news stories I shouldn’t be forgetting about.
Pod Save America (Crooked Media)
This is the candy floss of political podcasts – fine to enjoy occasionally, but not really doing you any good and leaving you feeling a bit queasy if you over-indulge. Weirdly (because it’s a weird thing to get upset about) I remember getting particularly annoyed during Roy Moore’s candidacy at their blithe refusal to imagine why Republicans might logically want to vote for him.
FiveThirtyEight Politics (FiveThirtyEight)
Really addictive during a presidential election (like refreshing the FiveThirtyEight homepage every half an hour to see the graph change) but ultimately a little pointless since opinion polling is such a narrow lens on the world. During the next presidential election I’m not sure I will be able to resist listening, but it’s probably a bad habit.
The Briefing Room (BBC Radio 4)
This actually is quite good if you need a short 30-minute crash course on a current affairs issue with a British focus, such as the rollout of Universal Credit or the increase in homelessness. It’s never going to have the time to really dive deeply into an issue, but it is a good example of the ‘explainer’ rather than ‘debate’ format of journalism.
The Documentary Podcast (BBC World Service) / Analysis (BBC Radio 4)
I’m bundling these together because episodes of Analysis are often scooped up and included under the banner of The Documentary, which has a more international focus. Either way, this is the classic tradition of BBC current affairs journalism on a vast range of topics.
Other shows which I sometimes enjoy, depending on the political climate, but don’t have a lot to write about:
- UK Politics (FT)
- Alphachat (FT)
- Politics Weekly (The Guardian)
- More or Less (BBC Radio 4)
- The Media Show (BBC Radio 4)
- Westminster Hour (BBC Radio 4)
- The Good Fight (Slate)
One-Off Series I Have Enjoyed
The Assassination (BBC World Service)
Do you remember when Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated at a rally in 2007? No? This is an incredible investigation which worms its way deep into the heart of the Pakistani state and is well worth your time.
Slow Burn (Slate)
Yes, I know in theory this is coming back but each season is pretty self-contained. The first covers the impeachment of Richard Nixon, the second of Bill Clinton, and both ask the question: what was this like to live through at the time? What contingencies and coincidences led to history proceeding as it did? Whatever you think you know about Watergate and/or Monica Lewinsky, this show will show you something new.
Intrigue: The Ratline (BBC Radio 4)
Just an interesting series about the life of a high-ranking Nazi and his mysterious disappearance and then death after the Second World War. The story is made possible through the help of his son, now an old man who sounds like he lives in a disintegrating castle, who is not himself a Nazi but is determined to cling to his vision of his parents as good people caught in bad circumstances.