With lockdown sending our screen time into stratospheric over-use, whether through work, study, TV or zoom parties, our eyes are in need of a respite. Time alone with our thoughts, imaginations and our auditory senses could provide that welcome break. So, take a moment to look away and listen – to stories of missing cryptoqueens, fated musicians, dog walks and love in the time of corona, welcome to a selection of our favourite podcasts.
Serial (Series One)
The first series of this show came out in 2014. It concerns the 1999 murder of Baltimore High School student Hae Min Lee. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested and charged with the evidence against him being largely circumstantial, based on his friend testifying that he had helped bury the body. Found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for first-degree murder Syed maintained his innocence with the case polarising public opinion.
Drawn by the apparent anomalies surrounding the evidence, reporter Sarah Koenig extensively interviewed Syed and other key participants while also trawling through volumes of court transcripts, police interrogation tapes and witness statements. As she attempts to unravel contradictory and often changing witnesses’ statements and grapple with Syed’s complex and almost ambivalent response to his situation, what becomes apparent is that the police investigations were deeply flawed and that a potential miscarriage of justice has occurred.
Ground-breaking in concept and delivery, it introduced a whole new audience to long-form audio non-fiction and more or less single-handedly spawned the subsequent true-crime podcast industry. An HBO docuseries based on the podcast entitled “The Case Against Adnan Syed” was released last year; however, it’s the original podcast format which really captures the nuances of this fascinating but deeply disturbing case.
More than a crime story, it’s a story of the American Dream gone wrong, how the undercurrent of racism taints a society and most chillingly asks the question, how well do we really know anyone?
You’re Wrong About
And now it’s time for Michael Hobbes (Huffington Post), and Sarah Marshall (BuzzFeed) to tell you what You’re Wrong About. Together they dispel myths behind events, trends, and people who are mischaracterised in the public imagination, and the media’s role in our common misconceptions. From urban legends like razors in Halloween apples to the Stonewall Uprising, the pair demonstrate their impressive knowledge and their infectious passion for all things misconstrued.
One such episode focuses on John and Yoko. To this day, when a relationship disrupts a band, it’s referenced as ‘a Yoko’. But did Yoko really break up the Beatles? Mike and Sarah talk us through the history of the iconic couple who asked us to give peace a chance. Was the fans’ antipathy just about the music, or were post-war racial references and the male-dominated music industry, also to blame?
This story gives an insight into the deep-rooted ghosts that haunted John, formed his character and profoundly affected his relationships with women and his band. Hidden truths are revealed about the supergroup, and the pair discuss the notion of ownership, co-dependencies and the evolution that is an inevitability of the creative path. Years on, Yoko’s love for John remains, and for all of her controversial works back then, today there’s a quiet stoicism about this musical legend. Perhaps it’s worth remembering….. that even icons are only human. Listen to this story, and more on You’re Wrong About, here:
The Guardian Today in Focus
These days we are living through have seen the news media, understandably, devote nearly all of its attention to the pandemic. Trying to stay informed while at the same time avoiding the emotional overload that can come with 24/7 saturation coverage, can be a difficult landscape to navigate. For my own well-being, I find myself being very selective in the news I consume, rationing it to a limited number of sources, one of which is The Guardian newspaper’s “Today in Focus” podcast.
Choosing a specific daily news topic, it takes a twenty-minute deep dive into that subject, utilising its worldwide team of news reporters and radio documentary makers to explore the story behind the headlines. Politically left of centre, it also often brings a left-field approach to its reporting, drilling down past the politicians, beyond their spin and into the issues on the ground. Recent pieces have included a heart-wrenching report from a care home, a nurse’s experience of working in disaster zones across the world, and the back story behind a Donald Trump endorsed “miracle” drug called Hydroxychloroquine.
The main presenter Anushka Asthana brings a lightness of touch to the weightiest of subjects, and her conversational style often elicits more forthright answers than are extracted from those with more confrontational interviewing techniques. While the podcast mirrors the newspapers left-leaning editorial stance, it affords the same level of scrutiny to Labour parties’ machinations as it does to Tory policies.
Its coverage of the pandemic has been refreshingly free of the partisan hyperbole which has characterised so much of the print / digital media and as a free to use app I’d suggest this is one news source worth focusing on.
The Missing Cryptoqueen
With the popularity of podcasts like Serial whetting our appetite for the true-crime scene, our next podcast will take you into the tangled world wide web of Dr Ruja Ignatova. This Oxford-educated entrepreneur had the vision to harness the hype of the Bitcoin revolution when she set out to prey on our technological FOMO with her new cryptocurrency, One Coin. In today’s society of catfish, the web facilitates facades and all the world’s a wannabe entrepreneur. Ignatova knew it, and she used her first-class education to weave the emperor’s new clothes. In her cult-like lectures, she spoke of financial gains to the rapturous applause of cyber-savvy investors, and then…… like Keyser Söze….she was gone.
Take a trip with our investigators into a labyrinthine world of greed and the ultimate deception, one that leads them to all corners of the globe amongst shadowy characters and victims of the fallout. Just like the investors, you’ll be gripped from the start, and as of Ignatova… well she, like Keyser, remains ever elusive. A cautionary tale for all.
Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales
And on the subject of cautionary tales, remember that fateful night in 2017 at LA’s Dolby Theatre, when Warren, hesitated, looked at Faye, re-looked at that card and seemed all a fluster? When applause was quickly superseded by gasps of disbelief, whispers whirred among the audience, people dashed chaotically, and envelopes went flying.
Warren wasn’t best pleased, and neither was the Director of La La Land. It was the ultimate Oscar humiliation…. for all concerned. Again, Warren looked at Faye, ‘well she ultimately announced it’, he thought, as Jimmy Kimmell jokingly goaded him. But who was the real culprit? Was it the PWC auditor waiting in the wings? It’s said that at handover time he was distracted with his twitter account. But perhaps it was too early for those at Chez La La and Moonlight to shoot the messenger because the smoking gun belonged elsewhere.
And what does that fateful Oscars mix-up have to do with Galileo and an explosion at a nuclear reactor? Tim Harford carefully weaves together modern-day mishaps and old tales of woe with common cautionary threads that will be as informative as they are intriguing and each one with life lessons that that auditor…. and Warren, will appreciate!
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
If Serial introduced true crime podcasts to the zeitgeist, it also introduced a style of real-time reportage and a distinctive tone which all subsequent imitators followed. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward channels that narrative style perfectly giving the distinct impression that what we are listening to is fact and not fiction.
The premise is a true-life investigative podcast called the Mystery Machine and its hosts Matthew Heawood and Kennedy Fisher whose mission is to solve unexplained and unexplainable mysteries. They are drawn to the case of a man called Charles Ward who disappears from a locked room in a secure psychiatric hospital in the United States. Initially wary of becoming involved, when Wards psychiatrist a Dr Willett is found to have travelled to the UK and murdered a seemingly unconnected woman the duo begin to make enquiries. Finding themselves involved in a case where nothing is what it seems and no-one is who they seem, Heawood and Fisher are drawn into the world of the supernatural and a conspiracy whose tentacles reach beyond borders and ensnare all strata of society.
Based on a novel written in 1928 by occult novelist H.P. Lovecraft this updated version loses none of the originals gothic atmosphere while translating seamlessly to the fictional “true-crime” podcast genre. What helps make that seamless transition is the quality of the acting where you believe the unbelievable and a compelling story arc which mirrors the highly addictive true-crime style of meshing high drama with the mundane day to day investigative process.
In audio, where so much is left to the listener’s imagination the series also benefits from an all-enveloping eerie soundscape. Best listened to on headphones, archive material examined, and phone messages re-listened to by Heawood and Fisher crackle with disquieting distortion. There’s also a texture to the overall sound quality which is unnerving and where even the most normal of sounds like footsteps on gravel assume abnormal connotations. Working as a stand-alone series, its success led to a sequel – The Whisperer in Darkness – which was released last year and is equally enthralling.
Someone once said that your greatest fears are caused by your imagination. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is highly enjoyable proof of that.
It’s Nice That
Those lovely people from It’s Nice That namely Will Hudson and Alex Bec have been championing all facets of artistry from design to illustration, photography and more since 2007. In their podcast of the same name, they explore different aspects of popular creativity and what makes them so successful. Discussions involve video games, public art, Christmas ads, and whether we should put a massive pigeon on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar.
Episode two delves into the technological phenomenon that is the emoji. From its humble beginnings as a colon and bracket, the authors discuss all things smiley, from the man, commended with inventing it, to the author of Emojipedia, not forgetting the connotations associated with specific fruit and veg symbols, nudge nudge….winking face. And, whether that first smiley was just seen as a fad, it’s clear that this visual vocab has infiltrated modern speak. From texts to emails, to adverts, all the world understands the international language of emoji, it simultaneously reflects our feelings, our diversity and our oneness. And so, it seems, we’ll be hearting this little pictorial paramour for text immemorial. For this and other design nuggets, listen to the It’s Nice That podcast here:
How to Fail with Elizabeth Day
As we endeavour to fill our days, our social media feeds seem to be full of rejoinders to practice self-awareness and self-care. The spirituality and well-being sections of the podcast libraries are likewise awash with series to help you reach that desired state of consciousness.
A series that I’ve been locked into for a year or so now is author and journalist Elizabeth Days “How to Fail”. The premise is to celebrate the things that haven’t gone well and how lessons learned from those failures have been taken forward by people to help them reach their goals. The format is that the guest details three “failures” which have impacted their lives and how the knowledge gained from those has helped them subsequently succeed. These have ranged from the relatively minor, such as failing to pass your driving test to the life changing.
The cynic in me wonders how this format would work if the interviewees, invariably celebrities or entrepreneurs, hadn’t subsequently achieved levels of success most of us can only dream of. However, the fact that these public figures with their well-rehearsed public personas are willing to share their own life struggles in such an honest and vulnerable way makes for fascinating and life-affirming listening. Much of this is down to Day’s calm and considerate interviewing skills. She asks short, succinct questions and leaves space for the guest to answer as fully as they wish. A simple technique, but one that’s missing from too many interviewers’ repertoires.
Added to this, Day is never afraid to share her own vulnerabilities, none more so when she assumed the role of the interviewee and as one of her three failures cited “failing” to conceive in a society which places that stigma on women of a certain age. She has also published a beautifully written, thought-provoking and searingly honest book of the same name, based on the series.
Day has become a bit of a life raft for me in a sea of self-care and self-awareness content. You might want to also get on-board.
In this unprecedented time, it seems only fitting to talk about the love that pervades in the time of corona. The lockdown took us all by surprise. And the speed and severity with which COVID19 spread across nations, left us all in want of time with friends and loved ones. Are our zoom screens cutting it? And what of the couples who have just swiped right, the ones on first dates or those who were about to take it to the next level. The New York Times’ podcast Modern Love explores the many facets of relationships under lockdown. Passion can be a torment but love is all we need, right? And how does it fare when we are thrown together or kept apart’? Listen to the Modern Love podcast here:
Walking the Dog with Emily Dean
The dog in question is the adorable shih-tzu Raymond, and the dog owner and walker is Times journalist Emily Dean. She takes Ray on long meandering walks through London’s parks and green spaces, accompanied by a guest with whom she has a long, meandering conversation. Now in its third year, guests are a veritable who’s who of British public life from her first fellow dog walker Alan Carr to kitchen royalty Heston Blumenthal to politicians such as former Labour leader Ed Milliband. Recent faves of mine have included the screamingly hilarious Tom Allen and the forty years together Martin and Shirlie Kemp.
Maybe it’s the informality of the setting or the disarming and charming presence of Ray, but her guests are surprisingly open about their lives, how they got where they are and about their childhoods. It’s all a bit of a chat really, a bit of a blether as they mooch around the park and for me, that’s the charm of it. Quite poignant anecdotes will be abruptly interrupted as Ray scampers off to investigate some bushes or make new friends and Dean has to speed off to retrieve him. While that can make conversations seem disjointed and disconnected, that’s what conversations are so often like in real life, and so it has that beautiful sense of you listening in to someone’s chat in the park.
For me, it’s the ideal comfort podcast, informative yet chilled. Ideal for dog owners taking our daily isolation exercise and equally perfect for those of us in lockdown who just fancy a virtual walk in the park.
Hopefully, our recommendations give you some fresh sources to explore and enjoy. Happy listening.