Nov 23

Radiolab and Other Podcasts

Radiolab is a beautiful collage of stories, music and effectsPodcasts have the power to transform mundane tasks into enjoyable activities. Why? Because unlike books, tv, videos or websites, you can do other things at the same time as listening to them. 

Exercising, cooking, cleaning, shopping, commuting or just lying awake with jet lag are all a million times better with a good podcast between your ears. But like most things online, sorting the great from the merely good is hard. 

Want a head start? Try listening to these, my all time favourite podcasts. 


Few things in this world are as good as Radiolab. Seriously. It believes ‘your ears are a portal to another world’. And it’s right.

You get sucked in by the sound. After the acoustic purity of BBC Radio 4 or the earsplitting compression of commercial radio, the sonics in Radiolab are mind-bending. Original music drifts in and out. Voices are stitched together. Scratches, gurgles and vortexes appear – and silence becomes a weapon.

But the secret of Radiolab is the storytelling. It takes the deepest, weirdest, scariest subjects – death, artificial intelligence, morality, animal rights, tumours – and tells beautiful, emotional, unforgettable tales about them.

Radiolab is the DJ Shadow, the Aphex Twin, the Miles Davis, of radio.

In Our Time

In Our Time has three British academics discussing a single topic over 50 minutes. Sounds dull, but it works thanks to the wide range of topics like:

  • Philosophy - David Hume, Malthusiasnism, Free Will
  • Science - the Moon, the Neutrino, the Age of the Universe
  • Religion - Shintoism, John Wyclif and the Lollards, Islamic Law
  • History - the Siege of Tenochtitlan, Custer’s Last Stand, the Iron Age
  • Artistic works - Delacroix’s Liberty, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Bhagavad Gita

Melvin Bragg’s a great host too. He never gets out of his depth when cajoling, prompting, hurrying and even correcting the academics into covering the topic. And although he can be brusque, he usually extracts a compelling story.

Which, knowing academics, is a special skill.

Seminars About Long Term Thinking

The Deviant Globalisation seminar is incredibleThere are multiple Stewart Brands. They show up in documentaries about Ayn Rand, ecological science, NASA, cybernetics and the Whole Earth Catalog. One even came up with ‘information wants to be free’. But my favourite Stewart Brand is the one who introduces the Seminars About Long Term Thinking

You might learn that some organisms are thousands of years old, that you can pick up any language in three months, that governments should use historians to predict the future, or that the South is falling prey to deviant globalisation.

Yes, the ideas are often a little crazy and yes, Kevin Kelly asks ridiculously long questions at the end. But conventional wisdom is rarely this thought-provoking.

The Straight Dope

Finally, when you’re not up for dealing with the big questions, you might prefer five minute answers to the little questions. Enter The Straight Dope:

  • What would it be like walking around on a cube-shaped planet?
  • Did firemen once use nets to rescue people from burning buildings?
  • Are bananas about to become extinct?
  • Whatever happened to that plan to grow square trees?
  • Could I take down a T Rex with my Beretta 9mm pistol?

Funny stuff. Perfect for walking to the bus stop and learning something new.

Let me know which podcasts you love on @myddelton. Thanks to @sjors and @gabrielheatwave for the original recommendations.


Podcast recommendations from other readers include:

Keep them coming!