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Monday 18 January 2010

My Favourite Podcasts

Image representing iTunes as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase

I would be very interested to read a decent argument against the concept of podcasts. Free entertainment and free education readily accessible to anyone who has a computer and internet access has got to be a good thing. I grew up on a travelling circus, so we were often on the move and my wonderful mother could not always read to me, so audio books became a substitute. As a writer, I take on reading like a type of training. Unfortunately my hectic, time-consuming and demanding schedule can make getting the volume I need to get in very difficult at times. However, taking Stephen King's advice I use the audio book, which I can listen to on my lengthy car journeys and when my eyes are too tired at night to make up the extra hours. The podcast can be a recording of a radio programme or an audio book or can be uniquely created for the purposes of being downloaded. Some are even visual as well as audio, but this doesn't suit me. If I can watch it I might as well read it. You simply get a free account with iTunes or another "proprietary digital media player application" and search and download your chosen podcasts from there.

I have varied interests and I subscribe to numerous podcasts, too many to justify listing in this review. Below is a list of my absolute favourites, but there are many other very good ones. I admit to having a bias for a lot of BBC work, but this is only because Radio 4 provides such well produced programmes.

History Podcasts

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

You don't get nor do you need a better produced programme than this. Dan Carlin and his team take a lot of time and care with these podcasts that focus on a wide range of historical subjects, sometimes forming a series. The research is great and it is good solid history not sensationalism, in fact, Carlin even addressed pseudohistory in an early episode. However, the real appeal is Carlin's own reflections and idiosyncrasy, something I liked in the great crime historian, Martin Fido. Carlin speaks with a theatrical intensity, which marks him out as a storyteller and there are understated sound effects in the background that adds to the experience. At present there are three different formats. The main ones are lengthy pieces on particular subjects in history such as the Punic Wars or the Battle of the Eastern Front. Then there are the Blitz editions, shorter more general pieces, which Carlin created in response to listeners moaning about there being too long a wait between podcasts. And then from time to time Carlin interviews his favourite historians. This is a great podcast that is always worth the wait and is understandably one of the most popular of its kind in the world.

In Our Time

This is Melvyn Bragg's academic weekly series on history. The series accepts at least a peripheral understanding of the subject matter, as Bragg interviews a board of very erudite academics. It's still a great listen and brings up fascinating details, as well as debates on certain areas of history. Bragg is a highly experienced chair on such discussions and does a great job of keeping everything together as passionate academics are often wont to tangent off on their favourite area of study. Like all Radio 4 podcasts the programme has superb sound quality and does not contain any musical accompaniment.

BBC History Magazine

This is BBC History Magazine's twice weekly podcast and a great promotional tool for the UK's most popular history magazine. However, it is far more than a marketing gimmick or at least it has evolved from that status. Now it clearly has a life of its own and the style takes its lead from TV programmes. Reporters visit various locations and interview all writers to each issue. I can't tell you how many great books I have bought because of this great podcast. This podcast uses Mozart as its signature tune.

The History of Rome

Mike Duncan is sometimes considered to be up there with Dan Carlin as far as quality history broadcasting is concerned. His podcast is also a very professional and fascinating programme. From the earliest records of the Roman Empire, Duncan takes us throughout its fascinating history. He does bring up various theories on certain eras and, like Carlin, he follows empirical evidence in his account of historical events, however, I would like to see a bit more scepticism from him. For example, there is some compelling and not to mention commonsensical arguments in the mainstream concerning whether the emperor Caligula really was a complete raving lunatic. Tony Robinson brought this interesting idea up in his series on the Romans. Having said this, Duncan is much fairer with Domitian an emperor loathed by the senate who tried to paint him in the same light as Caligula and Nero, but actually probably did a reasonable job. This podcast is generally weekly and has its own short gentle signature tune.


Since its start this podcast seems to be preoccupied with the War of the Spanish Succession, which it has serialized now for over a year. However, there are other areas also covered in every episode that seem to promise other subjects being possibly on the agenda. Every episode has a bit of trivia on the history and origin of a word used in the English language. Also, every episode contains a very balanced review of another history podcast, which has been very helpful. Each episode contains a different introduction tune, which is always a piece of classical music.



Librivox gives you the opportunity to download a huge and fast-growing library of classic titles. Anything that has fallen into the public domain is fair game to this impressive group. This means you have free access to a vast range of titles in the English language. You can either download the full unabridged book in its entirety in one go or get an episode every time you go onto iTunes like any other podcast. I have downloaded works by Mark Twain, Ayn Rand, Rudyard Kipling, Mary Shelley, George Orwell,
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Gibbon, Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde, Aesop, Bram Stoker and many others. There is, of course, a drawback. Librivox is supported solely by volunteers, amateurs who read and record chapters of the books. This means that every single chapter begins with a short introduction advertising Librivox and the person reading the piece. The sound quality is generally quite good, but the reader's abilities to read out loud vary tremendously. Some do a fine a job, but there are others who are not so clear or have difficulty putting much energy or personality into the task. Also, some books seem to have been read by a voice synthesizer for some very strange reason and are best avoided. As you can expect production values are pretty basic, but this hasn't stopped me from enjoying listening to some of the greatest books and stories ever written.


This is a superbly produced weekly horror podcast. After an informative introduction, detailing background information on this week's author, the reader for the week reads a professional short story from the horror genre. The stories are always adult in content and it is a real treat to get access to so many different works not in the public domain. Each episode is then finished with an entertaining sign-off, discussing the subject of the story or other related works. Occasionally, but rarely there is a review Pseudopod has its own creepy industrial sounding signature tune, which is pretty cool.

World Book Club

I am not quite sure how regular this podcast is as it seems to download as and when. However, it is a very professional programme focusing on one author each episode. The author is invited to read excerpts from his or her most famous or latest book and then to answer questions from the studio audience or from emails and telephone calls from around the world. It is a great premise and a huge variety of authors have been on the show, covering a very broad range of genres from Michael Bond (creator of Paddington) to Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) to Lionel Shriver. If you love literature then this programme is a must for you.



Brian Dunning's no frills but extremely informative programme on single sceptical issues. This is a very consistent weekly science podcast, focusing on debunking myths, urban legends, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and other weird phenomena. Dunning sees himself as the Al Gore of sceptics, but I think he does himself a disservice. He has a very frank and direct approach to public speaking, not without warmth and certainly not without humour. He is also clearly very interested in education and dedicates special episodes to answering questions posted specifically by students. He also has his own live educational show, designed to promote science and his website is extremely interactive with a forum and places to post up comments on individual shows. No stranger to controversy Dunning dedicates regular shows to addressing his critics too. Another divergent type of episode is also one where he addresses any mistakes he may have made, promoting the importance of critical thinking. However, the main shows are all about single extraordinary topics where scepticism can be applied. I subscribe to all the main sceptic programmes, but Skeptoid is nearly always the one I listen to first. This is mainly due to its short and sharp approach, giving the facts in an entertaining way and generally focusing on a single issue.

Little Atoms

Little Atoms is a British sceptical podcast. It takes its lead from the Enlightenment, focusing on science and rationalism. The format is solely interviews and is comparable to the American "broadsheet" type podcast, Point of Inquiry, which is also worth listening to. What I like mainly about Little Atoms is the focus on ideas. It is not scared to move away from the negative side of scepticism and look at the exciting ideas that are coming out of the ever progressing world of science. Furthermore, it expands its field in history, my main area of interest, and social studies. Conspiracy theories also get a regular debunking too. Interviewees have included Alan Moore (graphic novel author of "From Hell", "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", "Watchmen" and so on) and Michael Shermer ("Why People Believe Weird Things").

The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (SGU)

This is the New England Skeptic Society's rather lengthy yet regular podcast containing a panel of scientific sceptics. The show includes guest interviewees and focuses mainly on current topics in the media. On a scale of seriousness in the sceptical world I would put Point of Inquiry at the top (it's a bit like "The Times" of sceptical podcasts) and The Good Atheist at the bottom (this is a much more fun orientated sceptical podcast), and the SGU comes somewhere in the middle. It has the right balance of humour and serious science. It also takes account of the length of its programmes and has addressed this by producing a great companion podcast called the SGU 5 x 5. This is a five minute podcast with a panel of five sceptics addressing a single subject such as homeopathy or logical fallacies.

Martial Arts

I couldn't write a review on my favourite podcasts without mentioning podcasts on my very dear friends Geoff Thompson and Iain Abernethy.

Geoff Thompson

Richard Barnes interview Geoff Thompson every week on his weekly article. Geoff made his name through promoting realistic self defence concepts and was quite a controversial and inspirational figure in the martial arts. He certainly inspired me to change my training methods. However, after writing many books on this topic Geoff moved more into motivational work, screenplay and stage play writing. His movie "Clubbed" came out in 2009 and his short film "Brown Paper Bag" won a BAFTA. His articles nowadays are generally self-reflective philosophical works, what he calls "journey notes", and provide the general focus of his discussions with Richard Barnes. However, since the podcasts inception a lot more has been added to the show. Emails and letters are answered and discussed all with a lot of anarchic humour. Richard Barnes, a former radio DJ, adds in a lot of regular running gags, making the whole show a peculiar yet entertaining hybrid.

Iain Abernethy

Iain Abernethy is at the forefront of the UK's pragmatic traditional martial arts revolution. A keen and thorough knowledge of history along with a determined practical attitude have helped Iain become one of Europe's most sought after martial arts coaches. Iain's podcasts also focus on articles he has written for his blog and as time has gone on have become more controversial. His podcast is always well plotted out with a strong and thorough argument made.


Ricky Gervais

This is a bit of a shameless promotion of Ricky Gervais's audio books. I say audio books, when really they are "discussion" Ricky and his fellow writer, Stephen Merchant, have with Karl Pilkinton. I say discussions they are more like bullying sessions. I have been a fan of Ricky Gervais's work since The Office and I nearly always find him entertaining. So, yes, these are generally just promotional excerpts and Ricky telling us, with intended post-irony, how free the podcast is wears a little thin after a while, but they are still very funny.

BBC Friday Night Comedy

This is the Friday series of comedy programmes on Radio 4. Sometimes it is the "News Quiz" with Sandi Toksvig and sometimes it is the "Now Show" with Punt and Dennis. Both are satirical and both contain some great comedians. So, if you like "Mock the Week" and "Have I Got News for You" then you will probably enjoy this weekly podcast.


Thinking Allowed

Sociology professor Laurie Taylor presents this weekly Radio programme. There are often two topics per show although special shows have completely focused on a single topic over multiple episodes. Taylor has a wonderful gentle style, often introducing a topic with reflections from his own life. Subjects almost always centre on a new academic book or a new social science paper, where Taylor interviews the book or paper's writer. Letters and emails are also read out to regarding an issue covered in the previous episode, usually providing additional information or corrections. Subjects go across the whole spectrum of sociology, stretching into criminology (a personal interest of mine) and sometimes even neurology.

Start of the Week

Andrew Marr's Monday morning programme for Radio 4, where he leads an overlapping series of interviews-cum-discussions on a newly released book, film or TV series. Marr attempts a tenuous theme, interviewing each author/creator in turn, but allowing questions and comments from the other interviewees. It makes for an interesting listening experience, as interesting links are found between otherwise quite different pieces of work or media.

Stephen Fry's Podgrams

I don't whether Stephen Fry is choosing to continue with his podcasts, but it is a shame if he has finished. Still available for subscription or downloads, Stephen decided on an interesting format. One episode would be a carefully considered and plotted out topic of his choice and the next one would be a more off-cuff style ramble. It worked for a while with the hugely intelligent and interesting celebrity providing a lot of fascinating information before launching into a truly hilarious tirade against some pet hate or another. Definitely worth a listen.

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