Life & Culture

The Best Podcasts to Listen to During Self-Isolation

A selection of podcasts for every mood during this unprecedented time of social distancing and self-isolation

At a time when we’re being asked to stay indoors, for the good of ourselves and others, podcasts can offer welcome company. Whether you’re enjoying conversations with hosts you love or discovering new voices to tune in to, audio’s inherent intimacy acts as a soothing balm. Here’s a round-up of our recent favourites.

What to listen to if you’re looking for a compelling narrative that unfolds over multiple episodes...

1. The Habitat: On a remote mountain in Hawaii, six volunteers secluded themselves in an imitation Martian habitat where they worked as dummy astronauts for one very real year. This show is an exercise in escapism. It’s a binge-able, touching and funny miniseries; self-contained and perfectly formed.

2. 1619: 400 years after the first slave ship arrived in the British colony of Virginia, 1619 explores the way slavery and its legacy continues to shape all aspects of American life.

3. S-Town: If you somehow missed Brian Reed’s Peabody Award-winning S-Town when it first debuted now’s your chance to dig in. More than three years in the making, S-Town is a thoughtful, novelistic audio documentary. The series examines John B. McLemore’s fraught relationship with his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama; investigates a suspected murder; digs for hidden treasure and scrutinises the mysteries of one man’s life.

What to listen to if you need a tranquil moment...

1. The Allusionist: English is a big messy mutt of a language, formed as much by military invasions as it is by the countless, tiny, idiosyncratic decisions made by its users. With this in mind, The Allusionist scratches the surface of why we say the things we say. It’s always a treat for the ears, but in the Tranquillusionist, host Helen Zaltzman reads all of her listener’s favourite words, beautifully and simply scored by Martin Austwick. You might feel a little silly when you first start, but mid-way through the episode takes on a remarkably melodic, meditative quality. It’s surprisingly restorative.

2. Field Recordings: The perfect audio antidote to weeks spent shut indoors, Field Recordings does exactly as its title suggests. This podcast invites audio-makers to capture sounds recorded silently in fields (or things that could be broadly interpreted as fields). Lasting less than five or six minutes, each episode provides a much-needed break from the everyday.

3. Slow Radio: An excellent sleep aid, Slow Radio brings together rich soundscapes recorded from around the world. Recent highlights include montages of music and sound from a farm in Somerset, a Costa Rican rainforest and a seal-pupping beach on the Pembrokeshire coast.

What to listen to if you’re looking for hours of excellent archives...

1. This American Life: It’s hard to articulate just how well-crafted the stories on This American Life are. Put simply, it’s the best podcast out there. Now is the perfect time to dig deep into their archive of nearly 700 episodes – start with 81 Words, a favourite from reporter Alix Spiegel. 

2. Reply All: As The Observer’s Miranda Sawyer writes, Reply All is “a podcast about the internet that is actually an unfailingly original exploration of modern life and how to survive it”. There’s so much to enjoy here, from recent confections like The Case Of The Missing Hit, to old favourites like Shine On You Crazy Goldman, and compelling miniseries like The Crime Machine.

3. Love+Radio: It’s almost impossible to talk about specific Love+Radio episodes without accidentally revealing the hidden feints, twists and turns of each story. Each tale is masterfully crafted to reveal tantalising details which completely turn the story on its head. Start with The Recruiter – what begins as a pious portrait of a rising gospel singer ends up somewhere entirely unexpected.

What to listen to, to stay connected with culture...

1. Still Processing: Looked at through a cultural lens, Still Processing digs through art, movies, music, TV and internet trolls to ask ‘Can we cancel Michael Jackson?’ ‘Why can’t we look away from Jussie Smollett?’ and ‘How does Green Book’s Oscar win give proof, if proof were needed, that history continues to repeat itself?’

2. Short Cuts: Hosted by Josie Long, Short Cuts brings together a mix of personal storytelling, true stories, radio adventures and found sound. It’s a clever, touching and at times, funny, collection of audio vignettes. 

3. The Last Bohemians: The Last Bohemians meets female firebrands and controversial outsiders in arts and culture. From subversive musicians and rock’n’roll groupies to groundbreaking artists and game-changing style icons, these are women who have lived life on the edge and still refuse to play by the rules.

4. Disgraceland: Disgraceland is a podcast about musicians getting away with murder and behaving very badly. The show melds music history, true crime and transgressive fiction to tell entertaining tales inspired by true events.

5. The Freud Cast: The newest episode from Freuds’ in-house podcast is an interview with author and artist Charlie Mackesy in his London studio. Mackesy’s heartwarming book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse has been a runaway success since its release last year, and here he discusses putting together the life-affirming tale.

6. The Road Less Travelled: Belstaff have just launched its second original podcast series, this season featuring “characters that take the unfamiliar roads in life”, such as Riz Ahmed and James Norton, who talk about their life, work, and much more.

What to listen to if you want sound-rich fictional stories...

1. The Shadows: This is an exceptional fictional story that straddles documentary, memoir and abstract confessional in its tale of a young artist struggling to make great work and find great love.

2. Have You Heard George’s Podcast?: As podcasts become more ubiquitous, it’s rare to find a show as unique and captivating as Have You Heard George’s Podcast?. Blending spoken word, music, news archive, poetry, interviews, fact and fiction, George The Poet’s multi-award-winning series is unlike anything we’ve heard before.

3. Forest 404: While some audio fiction can be wooden, simplistic and painfully expository, Forest 404 is rich, nuanced and impeccably sound-designed. Blending an unrivalled archive of natural sounds with an original score by Bonobo, this ecological thriller probes questions about man’s impact on the natural world.

What to listen to if you’re looking for thoughtful queer docs...

1. Nancy: Nancy shines best when it’s providing a space for ordinary people to tell personal stories about how they’re navigating the complexities of sexuality and identity. Start with Kathy’s Mom Is Uncomfortable With All This, then, if you fancy something a bit more historical, check out Oliver Sipple.

2. The Heart: While the name might suggest glossy, lovesick stories about cute meeting moments, don’t be put off – The Heart is just as visceral and full of life as the organ it’s named after. A Peabody finalist for their Silent Witness series, start with The Real Tom Banks before digging through Pansy, a collection of irreverent and touching stories about the spaces where masculinity and femininity meet. 

3. UnErased: Co-created by Boy Erased’s David Joseph Craig, and produced by the two-time Peabody Award-winning team behind Radiolab, UnErased tells some of the stories of the more than 700,000 people in American who have been subjected to conversion therapy.

What to listen to if you want to stay informed, without being overwhelmed...

1. Stories Of Our Times: Hosted by Manveen Rana, the award-winning reporter who followed the Dhnie family as they fled Syria in A New Life In Europe, The Times’ flagship daily news podcast uses narrative storytelling to understand the news of the day. Their recent interview with Jon Ronson about managing anxiety in the midst of a pandemic is a particular highlight.

2. The Daily: Published weekday mornings, The Daily offers deeply reported analysis of the day’s most pressing news stories conveyed with conversational intimacy. A long-time staple of our podcast listening, their recent Alone Together episode is a welcome reprieve from recent headlines.

3. Today In Focus: Hosted by Anushka Asthana, the Guaradian’s Today In Focus combines personal storytelling with insightful commentary to provide you with a deeper understanding of the news. The podcast’s recent deep dive into Venezuela’s ongoing socio-political crisis makes for gripping and horrifying listening.

4. The Intelligence: The Intelligence draws on the expertise of The Economist’s global network of correspondents, to uncover global stories that aren’t making headlines, but should be.