Whether it was due to not being able to tolerate yet another Joe Wicks workout or the endless scroll through artful photos of banana bread, many of us turned to podcasts in 2020. Listening was a place to hide out – a chance to dive into some entertainment and education and escape away from it all. And sure, lots of us turned to old favourites, but here are 10 of the best new podcasts – and what they said about 2020.
Grounded… with Louis Theroux
In which the King of Documentaries comes running for Adam Buxton’s crown as the best interviewer in Podcastland. Louis, like everyone else, found himself stuck at home back in the spring. Fortunately, his contacts book is second-to-none: early episodes like the erudite Lenny Henry and the outrageous Miriam Margolyes made for comforting listens. A second series – recently started with a revealing conversation with Michaela Coel – is proof that the deceptively laidback Louis gets conversations to travel down avenues other’s simply cannot reach.
What it said about 2020: We were nosy to know how the big names were coping with lockdown, too.
Brexit. Trump. Anti-vaxxers. Found yourself thinking ‘How the hell did we get here?’ in recent years? The answer is probably contained within the incredible body of investigative storytelling that is The New York Times’ Rabbit Hole – a series about how the internet is changing human behaviour, reshaping society and engineering often alarming results. The algorithms of our favourite online hangouts are affecting much more than just which celebrities are cancelled: it’s everything, from what we eat through to how we vote. Put simply, the information we inhale online is not neutral, neither is it coincidence, and when a show like Rabbit Hole methodically lays out how it all works, it’s a powerful wake-up call.
What it said about 2020: This is why you see people clashing on the streets about issues that seem beyond factual dispute.
Wind of Change
Wherein a world-famous rock song meets a long-running soviet conspiracy theory – creating podcast gold. Reporter Patrick Radden Keefe seeks to get to the bottom of whether The Scorpions’ soft-rock anthem ‘Wind of Change’ – released at the tail end of the Cold War, and still one of the world’s biggest selling songs – was secretly written by the C.I.A as some type of covert cultural propaganda. Sounds too preposterous? Well, he ends up in a German hotel room with Scorpions’ singer Klaus Meine, so there must be something to it.
What it said about 2020: Podcast listeners love a conspiracy theory – especially ones about European metallers dressed head-to-toe in black leather.
Lockdown Parenting Hell
A legitimate new podcast idea, or just an excuse for comedians Josh Widdicome and Rob Beckett to escape the chaos of home-schooling and sneak-off to the attic for an hour to rant about their kids to their pals? Well, both. Launched with lightning speed back in March when the UK national lockdown was imposed, this is an hilarious cry for help from two dads overwhelmed by their own young families. Fortunately, many of their guests – also the biggest names in podcasting – have been in the same boat: from Peter Crouch to Chris Ramsay, Romesh Ranganathan and Katherine Ryan.
What it said about 2020: Parents will never take for granted the patience of teachers ever again.
Transmissions: The definitive story of Joy Division and New Order
The legacy of Joy Division has been picked-over by countless articles, books and rockumentaries – it was only a matter of time until the podcast arrived. Thankfully, it’s an authentic, thoughtful and vibrant collection of storytelling. Warmly narrated by Maxine Peake, the lasting influence of two of British music’s great bands is recalled through a collection of blockbuster voices including Bono, Karen O, Liam Gallagher, Johnny Marr, Colin Greenwood and Damon Albarn. Also featuring interview contributions from the band, it’s comprehensive stuff. No surprise that it’s topped the music podcast charts since its release in October.
What it said about 2020: The enduring magnetism of the Joy Division story shows little sign of waning.
We Need To Talk About The British Empire
Let’s go back to early summer. Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter response grew into an international movement. Protesters took to the streets around the world, including in the UK. And much of the discourse kept coming back to one word: education. America may still be contending with serious, fractured race relations, but so is the U.K. This podcast is the history lesson that wasn’t – but hopefully will be in the future – on your syllabus at school, getting to the roots of the divisions that continue to manifest themselves in a country that likes to trumpet its own multiculturalism.
What it said about 2020: Privileged white people – time to listen up.
There are more than enough white male voices in podcasting (and podcast criticism for that matter). Anthems was created as a response: a platform to hold up high the voices and experiences of those people who, to this point, have not been equally heard. These podcasts are manifestos: personal essays from individuals – sort of TED Talks from the heart, but enlightening for the head. Throughout 2020 the show has been a chameleon – pivoting between themes representing the stories of women, Black people, the LGBTQ+ community and the tumult of lockdown. An important new platform for the underrepresented.
What is said about 2020: Podcasting, like pretty every other part of society, needs to do more about equality.
What Planet Are We On?
Quarantine fundamentally shifted our relationship with nature – from images of our smogless cities to sheep climbing down the mountain to squat on the village green – it reminded us that there’s only one planet, and we’ve been trashing it hard for too long. Meeting the wave of fresh momentum behind the Climate Crisis in 2020 has been a bunch of new podcasts on the subject. This one, hosted by Liz Bonnin, mixes guests (David Attenbourgh has been on, of course) with actionable chat about the urgency of our personal needs to be more sustainable. Foals’ keyboard player Edwin Congreave has just been on talking about the harmful impacts of touring.
What is said about 2020: We’ve got one decade to save the planet – it’s never been more essential to do your bit.
This Is Not A Drake Podcast
Drizzy is so popular worldwide you’d be forgiven for thinking that he basically is Canadian hip-hop. Not so. This show, made by CBC and hosted by Ty Harper, charts the country’s rich and storied traditions in rap, social relations and black culture. Places like Toronto may not spring to mind with the immediacy of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, but the sounds and determination of the artists there were truly the making of a megastar.
What it said about 2020: We could all do with making a music pilgrimage to Canada right now (y’know, if travel was safe and allowed).
It’s only when you listen to a series like VENT that you realise quite how absent the voices of teenagers are when it comes to mainstream media. These are podcasts telling the stories of young people from the London borough Brent and are themed around the issues they care about. If you want to know what it’s like finding your way in the world in 2020, this is a window into that teenage world – complete with all its inspiration, struggle and contagious spirit.
What it said about 2020: The kids are more than alright – they’ll be making the podcasts you’re listening to for the next five years.