I discovered podcasts for the first time about two years ago and since then, they’ve changed my life. Planes, trains, automobiles, walks and housework are all much more fun! I know so much more now than I did two years ago and I’ve had a lot of fun learning.
I don’t even know where to start to describe what makes this podcast a treat that I look forward to so much every fortnight!
Answer Me This is produced and presented by three British people called Helen, Olly and Martin. Mainly advertised as ‘Helen & Olly’, the two college best friends are joined by Martin their soundman (as a ghostly distant voice) who happens to be Helen’s husband. Each fortnight you’re invited to Helen and Martin’s apartment where they answer listener’s questions ranging from: ‘Why are there blank pages at the back of most books? It seems very wasteful and pointless to me’ to ‘how do I tell my friends their hamster died while they were away?’
One of the things that sets Answer Me This apart is the music, which is in large part thanks to multi-talented Martin the sound man, who is also a musician (find his science-themed (yep, a physicist too!) music here). Original jingles pastiching a musical genre, artist or style advertising the show are played throughout such as this one. Warning: they will stick in your head for days:
Helen and Olly and also sing the theme tune each week, which has different lyrics every time- gotta love that Simpsons Intro Style of doing things. For example:
‘Is the Wolf of Wall Street a sequel to Little Red Riding Hood? Answer me this, answer me this. Will making your podcast ever be a livelihood? Answer me this, answer me this. Helen and Olly Answer me this!’
Example of an Answer Me This Question: This is James McAndrew from Alton, Hampshire, crummy little town. Just wondering, Why Armageddon such a shit movie?
Helen: Well that’s very easy: it’s because Michael Bay is the director.
Olly: Yeah, his name is basically cockney rhyming slang for ‘shit film’
Helen: Although Brett Ratner is both better sounding rhyming slang and an even shitter director.
Olly: Yeah but when you team up Bruckheimer and Bay, then you know you’re in for a real shit-storm.
Olly: Unless of course you’re a 14 year old boy, which is what I was when Armageddon came out so I thought it was amazing
Helen: I enjoyed it too as a teenager, but…
Olly: I think I went to see it twice. But that was once for each of Liv Tyler’s tits
Olly: I don’t remember, was it that Afleck and Willis were a sort of father-son dynamic?
Helen: Afleck was going out with Bruce Willis’ daughter
Olly: Right, Liv Tyler
Helen: Yeah. And so Bruce Willis was disapproving because Afleck was a bit of a flake on the oil rig. Whereas at the end he was like ‘I’m gonna sacrifice myself for the asteroid, but Ben Afleck is sufficient to take over from me in Liv Tyler’s life because obviously she is not sufficient on her own without a man
Genre: Pop Culture Reviews and Analysis
Coming in at a very close second favourite is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. The PCHH team have been making Pop Culture Happy Hour for four years and listening to them is like listening to a family or a very close group of friends sitting around a dinner table talking about really interesting topics. The crew are occasionally joined by a guest from another section of NPR, but the atmosphere never changes. It’s warm, funny and casual while also being smart and intriguing and leaves you with plenty to think about for the week. Just like a family, the PCHH crew have habits and traditions. Each episode ends with ‘What is making us happy this week’, which has introduced me to so many pop culture gems. In this 5 or 10 minute segment, everyone at the PCHH table tells each other and the audience what has been making them happy that week. The crew have created ‘The Zaxon rule’, which rules that they are not allowed to pick anything that excludes the audience, i.e. that the audience cannot experience or are unlikely to be able to experience:
‘Early in the podcast’s run, the music critic Stephen Thompson purchased a stand-up arcade machine of the classic 1982 game Zaxxon, and for several weeks his contributions to the “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” segment all revolved around his giddiness over owning said machine. Shortly thereafter, the four panelists convened and decided that Stephen’s Zaxxon love was not fulfilling the mission statement of the segment since most listeners likely did not have a Zaxxon arcade machine in their possession and could not share in Stephen’s experience’ (Turner, B. 2013)
It’s the crew’s awareness of including the audience that keeps the balance between the described warmth and familiarity and tripping over itself with reference and in-jokes, similar to AMT above. Other traditions revolve around times of the year, such as placing bets on which new TV shows are going to be cancelled by the end of the season and Linda Holmes’ many themed quizzes and award show specials. As a media studies graduate who misses mind-expanding lectures, Pop Culture Happy Hour has become one of my many substitutes.
Genre: Morning Talk Show
The Graham Norton Show is probably the most ‘easy listening’ podcast on my iPod. Each week, the loveable Graham Norton who we all know from his laugh out loud, unique BBC TV show presents a laid back radio show in which he interviews artists from various disciplines, broken up by the ‘Grill Graham’ segment (my favourite) twice throughout the show where Mr. Norton and his co-host Maria McErlane play Agony Aunts to listeners problems. The chemistry between Graham and Maria is what makes this segment hilarious and their differences in opinions is what gives balance to the advice they give to listeners. Most the time I’m not even familiar with the guests Graham interviews but his signature interviewing style keeps me coming back each week and nodding and laughing along.
Genre: Radio Documentary
The next three podcasts are listed as numbers 4, 5 and 6 purely for the purposes of making this a top ten list. However, in actuality I couldn’t possibly rank This American Life, Freakonomics and Radiolab above and below each other. They’re all mind-blowing, thought provoking, ‘appointment podcasts’.
Very few podcasts can claim to have won all the major broadcasting awards, but This American Life is one of them. Other than that, This American Life is, as its own website describes it is ‘sort of hard to describe’. Just listen to it!
Freakonomics started out as a book called ‘Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything’ and has since developed into a radio show, a documentary and more books. The description of the book on Amazon reads:
‘Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How much do parents really matter? These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to parenting and sports—and reaches conclusions that turn conventional wisdom on its head. Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They set out to explore the inner workings of a crack gang, the truth about real estate agents, the secrets of the Ku Klux Klan, and much more. Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, they show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives—how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.’
And you can expect the same treats from the Podcast.
‘Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.’. The first time I ever listened to radiolab, not knowing what to expect I was just playing it in the background on a stereo while I did housework. About halfway through the podcast there were laundry piles across the room not going anywhere as I sat, my jaw dropped, transfixed by the amazing story I was hearing (see ‘Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl’). I have listened to every episode since and it has been the basis for countless interesting conversations I have had with people about the most fascinating issues that face us. One of the things that make this podcast most special is the distinctive, quick, editing style that can be heard in the intro.
Genre: Agony Aunt
‘Dan Savage is an author, a sex-advice columnist, a podcaster, a pundit, and a public speaker. In 1996 Dan launched the Savage Lovecast, a weekly, call-in advice podcast. It is now one of iTunes top 50 podcasts. Dan’s graphic, pragmatic, and humorous advice has changed the cultural conversation about monogamy, gay rights, religiosity, and politics.’
I am a big fan of this one, but I feel a duty to warn that it may not be for everyone. No topic is off the table. I would divide this podcast into three sections: Dan usually starts off by discussing a current issue related to gender, sexuality and LGBT rights; usually one that’s occurring in American politics such as marriage, contraception or abortion legislation. This is my favourite part. Then Dan plays agony aunt to the listener’s relationship and sexuality questions and concerns. And at some point on the show he usually brings on a guest related to either the topics he discusses at the start or one of the listener’s queries. This is also usually very interesting- it was through this segment I first discovered that the sex toy industry is getting away with murder by making their sex toys with cheap materials that are so toxic, they’re completely banned in products such as children’s toys. But because nobody wants to talk about their sex toys, there are absolutely no regulations on the materials that sex toys can be made of. See here for more information.
Genre: Light Entertainment/Interviews/Storytelling
‘Hey kids let’s travel the world together, she can make it easy and in any kind of weather. No TSA, no bag checks, no patting down. She’s talking from the skies of city lights and feel-good sounds. Oh Betty in the sky have you heard her yet? She loves travelling, there’s no doubt… B-b-b-Betty and the jets. Oh! She’s weird and wonderful, oh Betty she’s a podcast queen. She’s wearing high-heeled shoes, got her wings on too, you know I’ve never seen a better steward. Betty and the jet’ (Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase theme song).
Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase is a testament to the wonderful democratic nature of podcasting. Betty is an air stewardess who decided to use the medium of podcasting to share her adventures around the world, with the world. The podcast is entirely produced and presented by Betty alone, with interviews with any number of people from any number of countries every episode.
Genre: Film Review Show
While it makes it onto my top ten, the reason Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews only make it to number 9 on the list is I find it does the opposite of the qualities I praised in the higher-ranking podcasts. Where I generally prefer to get right into the topic of the podcast, Kermode and Mayo spend almost half the podcast faffing around, making fun of each other, referring to past podcasts and previous conversations and making insular in-jokes.
They also spend far too long on answering listeners emails for my liking, but my guess is that these things that push Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews down my list are exactly the things that push them up most people’s. All of the aforementioned listener’s letters show that Kermode and Mayo’s show holds a dear place in the hearts of many. A number of people have been proposed to on the show, one man was awoken from a coma by Kermode’s rant about the Da Vinci Code, and many write in describing situations like not having been to the cinema in years due to the arrival of child, but listening to Kermode and Mayo’s show nonetheless. This fanship is reflected in the numbers which show that Kermode and Mayo really don’t need my approval considering theirs is literally the most downloaded podcasts in the world.
Similar to what I said about Pop Culture Happy Hour substituting for the lectures I miss so much, Mark Kermode is well-educated in the area of film theory, attaining a PHD in English at the University of Manchester in 1991 writing a thesis on horror fiction. Each week, Kermode and Mayo dissect each and every film in the top 10 box office, and more. They also interview all the top actors and directors, and their show offers a lot of insight into the films of the moment.
Genre: Gadget Review Show
Brought to you by the voices that bring you AMT and the company that bring Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio 5 Live; Helen and Olly present segments on this weekly tech podcast where Saturday Edition’s Chris Warburton discusses the latest technology and web news plus science, cars and more.
New Entry Since I first started writing: Serial
Serial is a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season. We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.
All I’ll say is, if you’re a fan of murder mystery and/or courtroom procedurals, you shouldn’t miss it!