Best podcasts 2020: what's worth listening to right now
Podcasts reinvigorated traditional radio, bringing fresh life to old formats and sparking many creative takes on how to tell stories in innovative ways. They’re quick and easy to download or stream, and you can binge multiple episodes or spin them out over weeks.
Whether you’re on the bus to work or pottering around at home, podcasts are an ideal audio accompaniment. They don’t demand your unwavering attention, they cover just about every topic you can think of, and they’re usually completely free.
If you’re sold on the idea, the problem you face is picking out the podcasts that are truly worth your time, but we're here to help. As certified podcast junkies, we’ve listened to hours and hours of podcasts, and these are our picks of the best podcasts around.
- Want to try podcasting yourself? Here's how to record and edit your own shows
The internet is wonderfully weird sometimes and Reply All has a knack for diving down interesting rabbit holes and uncovering comical absurdity at the heart of modern technology. While it’s ostensibly a tech show, it’s very accessible, and the hosts always take the time to explain what they’re talking about. They’re also likeable and quick to poke fun at themselves. The best episodes see them investigate strange online scams and they do a great job of balancing technical information with a compelling story that features an interesting cast of real-life characters.
If you listen to just one episode, make it The Case of the Missing Hit. It's the most satisfying tale of internet strangeness you'll hear in 2020.
Depending on your point of view, this tale of what went wrong at medical technology start-up Theranos could fit into the crime section. The company generated a huge buzz based on its potentially game-changing blood testing technology, which was supposed to allow people to have blood tests with a mere finger prick, instead of requiring a larger sample to be drawn with a needle. Theranos was widely hailed as an all-conquering unicorn and hit a $9 billion valuation before the truth came out and CEO Elizabeth Holmes suffered a dramatic fall from grace.
If you fancy listening to an honest discussion about the latest smartphones and general happenings in the tech world, then this should be right up your street. Join the Editors in Chief of TechRadar, Laptop Mag, and Tom’s Guide, plus special guests for insightful explanations on everything from Apple to VR. Hey, we're not an objective source on this one, but it's a good listen, okay?
Society, culture and history podcasts
The Last Days of August
When adult film star, August Ames, was found dead in a park in 2017, it was quickly determined that the 23-year-old had committed suicide. In the days after her death a possible motive emerged as it was revealed that she had been the victim of online bullying. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, investigates the rumors surrounding her death and tries to piece together what actually happened. It’s sensitively handled, and the podcast has something important to say about social media and how we use it.
This long-running podcast started on public radio and is ostensibly about design – how everything from cars to keyboard keys to videogames are designed. But host Roman Mars likes to tease out obscure details and processes, which always turn out to have unlikely-sounding and fascinating stories attached. As you might expect, given the subject matter, this podcast is meticulous and tightly edited into short, bite-sized chunks just a few minutes long.
You Must Remember This
You Must Remember This is a beautiful, and in many ways tragic, storytelling podcast that delves back into the secret history, long-forgotten mysteries and lesser-known figures of early Hollywood.
Former film critic Karina Longworth puts an amazing amount of research into each episode, which in the past have covered the largely untold stories about the likes of Charles Manson, Theda Bara, Frances Farmer and Ronald Reagan. More recently, she covered the story of controversial Disney movie Song of the South.
A must for those interested in movie nostalgia and unearthing the hidden gems you wouldn’t usually read in a Hollywood history book.
You're Dead To Me
History can be dry and boring, but host Greg Jenner injects a healthy dose of humor here and invites interesting panels of guests to talk about famous figures and periods from history. He invites commentary from a mix of expert historians and comedians, all encouraged by Jenner’s upbeat style. Covering topics like the witch craze, Blackbeard the pirate, and warrior queen Boudica, this podcast is informative and funny, and it’s suitable for the whole family, too.
The Guardian's Audio Long Reads
If you've ever read The Guardian's Long Read articles, you know you need to set aside a lot of time to sit down with them to really be able to digest them. Luckily, The Guardian records some of them, too, so you can listen to them on the go and explore even more in-depth stories.
Stories covered by The Guardian’s Long Reads range in topics from the history of Indian restaurants in the UK to political themes from around the world. You can get some extremely diverse topics by subscribing and we'd advise checking it out to see if anything piques your interest.
Do you ever catch yourself contemplating complex ideas like if it’s possible to resurrect languages that have completely died out? That's just one of the subjects The Allusionist covers, but this show also delves into the intricate minutiae of the English language that you've never even imagined.
Designed to be short little bursts of knowledge about the way we write and speak to each other, The Allusionist is an indispensable listen for anyone with even a passing interest in the ways languages have evolved and continue to change at a rapid pace.
Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review
If you're a cinephile, you need to check out Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's podcast. You may have heard it referred to as Wittertainment, and it's essentially just two guys who love cinema reviewing the week's releases and chatting in-between. During the lockdown, the pair have focused on the latest in streaming releases.
The podcast brings in plenty of massive celebrities, exhaustive film knowledge and one of the UK's best film critics to make one of the best podcasts about the latest releases.
Hip Hop Saved My Life
Even if you’re not a huge Hip-Hop Head, this is a great listen. Brit-based comedian Romesh Ranganathan chats all things rap with a number of special guests who recollect the first time they heard their favorite hip-hop tracks and how they tie in with their lives.
Ranganathan maybe known for his stand up but he's a great talk show host, too, managing to uncover brilliant stories from his guests – who range from Frankie Boyle to DJ Yoda. His own rap insights are great, too, although the less said about his lack of love for De La Soul the better.
Stuff You Should Know
Stuff You Should Know is perhaps the most self-explanatory title for a podcast ever. The show features Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant discussing topics and trying to get to the core of the information you need to know about them.
Episodes have covered subjects as broad as satanism, heroin, narcolepsy, stuttering and even ketchup. Essentially, this is the perfect show to listen to if you are looking for great new dinner party material.
No Such Thing As A Fish
What do Toy Story 2, The Large Hadron Collider and the estimated cost of the Death Star in Star Wars all have in common? It’s simple, they’ve all been topics discussed on No Such Thing as a Fish.
Each week, the minds behind BBC's long-running entertainment panel series QI sit down around microphones to share some very bizarre facts and, believe us, this is the best podcast around if you’re looking for some very peculiar knowledge.
You can get an ultra-creepy, yet totally captivating, dose of award-winning podcast Lore every two weeks.
Each episode digs up a new, dark tale from our past in a ‘gather around the campfire and share your most spine-tingling stories’ kind of way. A mixture of strange creatures, tragic events, unsolved mysteries and unusual places makes for super-addictive listening that’s almost impossible to pause.
And with a tagline like ‘sometimes the truth is more frightening than fiction’, you know you’re onto a winner.
This American Life
One of the most famous podcasts in the world, This American Life could not be justifiably absent from our list of the best podcasts out there today. Every week the show finds a theme and tells a collection of unique stories on the same topic.
Some weeks you'll discover it's a journalistic story and other times it'll be a comedy routine instead. Over 2.5 million people regularly download and listen to This American Life, so you should make sure you're one of them to figure out whether this is the show for you.
Even a few years after its release, you've probably heard of S-Town, and that's because it scored over 10 million downloads in the first four days it was live. It features investigative journalism from the super intelligent minds of the people behind This American Life and Serial, so it's well worth your time.
It revolves around a murder investigation, and we're not going to share any more than that as it could quite easily be considered a spoiler. It's a fascinating story that takes twists you'll never see coming, and adds up to a fascinating profile of one unforgettable individual.
Call Your Girlfriend
The structure of this podcast isn’t rambling or interviews; instead it’s two best mates having a good ol’ chat about everything from feminism, ‘free boobin' and friendship to politics, periods and pop culture.
Fronted by two extremely smart and hilarious women, digital strategist Aminatou Sow and journalist Ann Friedman, the weekly podcast also answers listeners’ problems, and features a Phone-a-Friend episode in alternating weeks, full of in-depth interviews with some of their most interesting best friends.
How Did This Get Made?
Every one of us, at some point, has seen a movie so bad, so utterly nonsensical and weird, that we uttered the question that gives this podcast its title. From Burlesque to Space Jam, through Jaws 4: The Revenge and Timecop there have been a lot of truly awful movies over the years. The humorous hosts give you a synopsis peppered with disbelief and comical commentary. A lot of episodes have celebrity guests and there isn’t always a consensus on every movie, which is part of what makes this such a fun listen.
WTF with Marc Maron
Once primarily known as a comedian, Marc Maron hosts one of the biggest and best podcasts around if you love in-depth interviews with big stars – he even had Barack Obama on the show when he was president. Emotionally raw monologues, probing questions, and a seeming willingness to tackle any subject elevate many of Maron’s interviews to another level, and some big stars like Donald Glover and Sacha Baron Cohen have shared anecdotes that you won’t hear anywhere else. There are always funny moments, but this show can also be deeply poignant at times.
The Adam Buxton Podcast
Beloved British comedian Adam Buxton became the king of comedy podcasts when, many years ago, he presented with friend Joe Cornish on UK radio station BBC Radio 6 Music.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Buxton has begun a new, interview-centric podcast, which he releases about every other week. Each episode sees Buxton having deep conversations, also known as ‘ramble chats,’ with the likes of Louis Theroux, Richard Ayoade and Jonny Greenwood. In more recent years, Buxton has expanded his remit to talk to a wider range of cultural voices, and the topics are insightful as much as they are humorous.
They feel much more real and relatable than other interviews you’ll hear, and Buxton himself shares a lot too, rather than just firing questions at his guests.
My Dad Wrote a Porno
Just imagine that you found out that your dad had written an actual porno. Your dad. A porno. *Shudders*.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to Jamie Morton. But, rather than ignore it, or bottle it up or feel rather disgusted and cry like most of us probably would, he decided to read through it with the help of Radio 1’s Alice Levine and James Cooper.
And that’s how My Dad Wrote a Porno was born. Carter reads a new chapter each week, and it makes for truly laugh-out-loud-funny listening. Four series are now available.
True crime podcasts
Beautifully made, with an empathetic approach, Criminal is a series of short episodes that focus on some kind of crime – that’s all they have in common. Sometimes host, Phoebe Judge, will interview the perpetrator, sometimes the victim, and sometimes an expert, historian, or even a descendant, but she always gives them room to tell their story in all its bizarre glory.
Airplane hijackers, famous criminal lawyers, murderers and more recount captivating tales in this strangely soothing podcast.
Someone Knows Something
Now in its fifth season, this true crime podcast sees host, David Ridgen, investigate a different cold case for each series. It starts with the unsolved disappearance of a five-year-old boy in 1972, as Ridgen tries to pick up a long cold trail and work out what happened by interviewing the boy’s family and anyone else he can identify who may know something useful.
This is the antithesis of the sensationalist approach to true crime, as it takes the time to sensitively deal with the victim’s family and their memories of the missing person. It’s well researched and nicely put together, but often very sad.
Delving deep into the murky world of how organized crime and political corruption affected Providence, Rhode Island back in the late '90s and early '00s, Crimetown is immediately engaging and it doesn’t let go. The production here is inventive, blending in different voices from the city with real news archive clips and exciting music to reveal the extent of crime’s grip on the city.
Some of the interviews are astounding and you hear from criminals and the men who tried to thwart them. The skill with which complex events are unravelled makes this compelling listening. Season two, set in Detroit, is every bit as good.
Sports and health podcasts
Everyone loves a good rivalry in sports; it gets people excited and makes the big face-offs essential viewing. Host Dan Rubenstein unpacks the stories behind some famous dramas in this podcast, revealing what those grudges are based upon in meticulous, painstaking, immersive detail with a blend of real clips and sometimes comical re-enactments. Federer versus Nadal, Tyson versus Holyfield, and Stone Cold Steve Austin versus The Rock, are among the epic rivalries covered here.
The Cycling Podcast
If you’re interested (even remotely) in cycling, you’ll adore The Cycling Podcast. Produced by renowned journalists Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe, the show is centered around the world of professional cycling, detailing the weekly talking points of the sport and the stories behind them.
Featuring expert analysis and interviews with the biggest names in cycling, their expansive knowledge and love of the sport is contagious. And though they take the sport seriously and aren’t afraid of cycling’s more controversial topics, their talk of the food and culture of the region they’re visiting on a Grand Tour adds a touch of atmosphere and color that’s all nicely wrapped up with the teams relaxed (but far from amateurish) presenting technique. It’s easy to see why it’s easily one of the best podcasts for anyone who is interested in cycling.
For the likes of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, there are daily half-hour podcasts to really sink yourself into the story of a three week Grand Tour. That’s not to mention the The Cycling Podcast Féminin, a monthly podcast dedicated to women’s cycling.
The Football Ramble
A light-hearted, genuinely passionate podcast that celebrates the game. Marcus, Pete, Jim and Luke have picked up a huge following, do live shows and offer an ad-free version and host of extra shows if you're prepared to pay for Acast, but the weekly classic and another (ostensibly) betting focused show remain freely available and well worth a listen.
Have you decided that now is the time to start running? Marathon Talk may just be the podcast that will convince you to get up and out for a run. It's the UK's number-one running show and is listened to all over the globe by people trying to motivate themselves to start running for the very first time as well as running experts.
There are hundreds of hours Marathon Talk shows out there, so if you anticipate that you’re going to start running a lot you'll have plenty of material to get you motivated and out the door.
The Greatest Game
Join Jamie Carragher as he interviews a guest about their favourite game of football (soccer). From ex-pros like Neville Southall and Michael Owen to actor Martin Compston or comedian Paddy McGuinness. Every football fan remembers their favorite game, but Carragher asks relevant questions and draws on his own career to pull out details and make the recounting more interesting.
Against the Rules
Hosted by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short, this podcast is an incisive and smart look at the fall of fairness in modern society, using much maligned referees and umpires as an example. The opening episode looks at sports referees, but the sports connection is mostly an umbrella metaphor as the series continues and drills into institutions like the New York Stock Exchange. It’s well made and full of sharp, astutely observed critiques.
Fiction, gaming and entertainment podcasts
Going through every single episode of The Simpsons in chronological order, Talking Simpsons takes a detailed look at the making of the world's greatest animated series (well, it was in the '90s, anyway). Each podcast goes through an episode scene-by-scene, with special guests along for the ride, sometimes from the world of animation. If you're a Millennial, The Simpsons was likely everything to you in the '90s, and this is a ideal listening if you're considering a rewatch on Disney Plus.
At the time of writing, hosts Bob Mackey and Henry Gilbert have finished re-examining season 1 to mark its anniversary, and are moving through the show's lesser years of season 11 onward.
Welcome to Night Vale
Welcome to Night Vale is very different to anything else on this list. Night Vale is a fictional town and each episode tells the story of the place through news and announcements.
It's usually shared by the show's main character Cecil Gershwin Palmer, but sometimes secondary characters pop up to share more about Night Vale too.
For this one we'd recommend starting at the very beginning, but be warned there are a lot of episodes of Welcome to Night Vale so it's sure to suck up a lot of your time.
The Adventure Zone
The Adventure Zone has a basic concept – three brothers have talked their dad into starting a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and you get to listen to what happens along the way.
TAZ is a wonderful introduction to the complex world of D&D but, even if you're not a fan of tabletop RPG games, the story and characters are sure to bring you in and encourage you to go along for the ride.
A lot of gaming podcasts are hard work. Some offer impenetrable hours filled with in-jokes, while others talk about games with a level of pretentiousness that can be a bit much. Retronauts, though, is the best gaming podcast around, since it's informative, entertaining and is only about old games.
This long-running podcast is hosted by former 1Up writers Jeremy Parrish and Bob Mackey, with a number of specialists roped in to discuss a different old game, series or console each week. It skews towards Nintendo a little, reflecting the dominance of the console in the US in the '80s and '90s, but the podcast will definitely have covered something you've previously enjoyed over its extensive run.
A Patreon exists if you want to access more episodes.