We’ve all been there. One minute everyone is jovially discussing the latest Westminster gaffe over goat’s cheese salad and then suddenly the conversation turns to that great new book everyone has read and you’re left in the dark. Not a word to add.
We get it. You’re busy. We don’t all have hours to spend at museums, art galleries and libraries – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have at least some knowledge of the cultural landscape. So, if you can’t name the UK’s 2020 cultural capital and have no idea what the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition is this year, these are the podcasts that will help you talk the talk…
The all-rounder: Saturday Review
Created by the intimidatingly knowledgable folks over at BBC Radio 4, think of Saturday Review as your essential primer on all things culture. Each week presenter Tom Sutcliffe is joined by a variety of expert guests for a wide ranging critique of the latest cultural events, taking in new books, TV, films, exhibitions, music, theatre and more.
Recent episodes have dissected Hilary Mantel’s highly anticipated new novel The Mirror and the Light, the latest Steve McQueen exhibition at the Tate Modern and The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Stick it on while you’re making brunch and consider yourself well culturally informed.
The design one: 99% Invisible
The worlds of design and architecture can be practically impenetrable for anyone without the requisite training – which is where 99% Invisible steps in. The premise is simple – almost everything around us is manmade, and therefore designed, but most of the time this design goes completely unnoticed. How, for example, did a fortune cookie come to get its shape? Why did Freud choose a sofa over a chair?
By approaching design through everyday objects, host Roman Mars breaks down these often intimidating barriers and reveals how our lives are subtly shaped by design decisions we often never notice. Now boasting over 400 million downloads, 99% Invisible is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes – we recommend starting with its episodes on purposely hostile urban architecture and the ‘challenge coins’ of the US military.
The music one: Hit Parade
Hosted by Slate’s music critic Chris Molanphy, if your popular music knowledge is more Britney Spears than BTS, this is the podcast for you. By piecing together stories, trivia and song snippets, Chris explores how certain musicians came to dominate the charts over the last 50 years, why their songs were so popular and how they’ve shaped our collective memories. Without The Beatles – a deep dive into what happens when outsiders try to cover Lennon-McCartney songs (spoiler alert: it doesn’t usually end in fame and fortune) – is a great entry episode while The Bridge mini-episodes are perfect for anyone who loves a pub quiz.
The American one: Pop Culture Happy Hour
A well-rounded gent knows what’s going on at home and abroad so it pays to gather opinions on culture from across the pond. Produced by NPR, Pop Culture Happy Hour is similar to Saturday Review in its scope – just with a more American outlook and high-low approach. Its hosts are just as happy chatting about the latest episode of Project Runway or the Super Bowl halftime show as they are dissecting a Scorsese epic or Booker-prize winning novel. It’s topical so just dive in with the most recent episode and, despite the name, each podcast is only around 20 minutes long making it ideal commute listening.
The online one: Reply All
It’s 2020 so you should know by now that as much culture takes place online as it does off – and, when it comes to keeping up at parties, you’ll need to know about every viral moment. Launched in 2014 by hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, Reply All takes 5 million weekly listeners down internet rabbit holes to uncover the origins – and tell the stories behind – some of the internet’s biggest phenomenons.
Whether it’s the people behind the raid on Area 51 or a man writing a blog from inside a maximum security prison, this is a fascinating insight into the weird and wonderful corners of the internet you’d never find by yourself. As for where to start, Reply All’s most recent episode, The Case of the Missing Hit was just called ‘the best podcast episode ever made’ by the Guardian.
The highbrow one: Sidedoor
Now in its fifth season, Sidedoor has reached podcast veteran status and it just keeps getting better with age. Created by the Smithsonian, on each episode host Lizzie Peabody heads to the museum’s vaults with an expert – be that a biologist, artists, historian, zookeeper or astrophysicist – to uncover the millions of treasures the public never usually get to see. As well as examining artefacts from early video games to objects from the Apollo moon missions, it’s also an incredible insight into the inner workings of a world-class museum. What do they buy and why? And who gets to decide what is put on public display? Recent favourites include an investigation into the disappearance of Edmonia Lewis’ The Death of Cleopatra sculpture and an examination of the intricacies of making underwear for outer space.
These are the news podcasts you should be listening to now…
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