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Eight podcasts to get between your ears this year

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Eight podcasts to get between your ears this year

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The podcast industry has grown exponentially in recent years, with recommendations for new podcasts as common as tips for restaurants and shows on Netflix.

But what do experts listen to? The Conversation asked eight authors from across our sections to tell us about their favourite podcasts – and why you should tune in.


Arts + Culture: Love + Radio

Siobhan McHugh, Senior Lecturer, Journalism, University of Wollongong

The Love + Radio podcast, which launched in 2005, bills itself as being about:

… in-depth, otherworldly-produced interviews with an eclectic range of subjects, from the seedy to the sublime.

Like the record-breaking Serial, Love + Radio is an escapee from the sanitised world of American public radio. It salutes the freedom of the internet by telling dark, often disturbing, tales, whose protagonists’ deeds and dilemmas linger in the mind.

Take Jack and Ellen, alternate personas of a blackmailer who claims high moral ground; The Living Room, where a voyeur becomes emotionally involved in a couple’s most intimate moments; Blink Once for Yes, in which the producer records how his family was transformed after his brother was brain-damaged in a fall; or No Bad News, about a US hypnotist brought to Iraq just before 9/11, which probes our understanding of good and evil, and moral responsibility.

These themes – voyeurism/trust, the journalist as participant and chronicler, and the philosophical and ethical choices we face – recur. Their impact is ratcheted up through nuanced, creative sound design.

While the odd episode misses the mark, mostly the trifecta of a complex story, charismatic teller and assured aesthetic makes Love + Radio compelling listening.


Politics + Society: Chapo Trap House

Dominic Kelly, PhD Candidate in Politics, La Trobe University

The focus of my research and writing is Australian politics, but unfortunately we lack a consistently insightful and enjoyable podcast in that field. Instead, I’ll offer an American politics recommendation: the hilariously vulgar, but also well-informed and intelligent, Chapo Trap House.

Aged in their 20s and 30s and from the socialist left, Chapo’s hosts despise Hillary Clinton and the insipid Democratic establishment as much as they do Republicans, Donald Trump and the racist alt-right.

Though shocked by the election result, Chapo’s reaction to the rise of Trump was more sanguine than the histrionics of some liberal commentators; they recognise that American democracy was in crisis long before the 2016 horror show.

Crucially, Chapo does what too few American outlets are prepared to do, which is to speak honestly about the horrific realities of American empire. Occasional guests provide stimulating analysis of US foreign policy and its effects on the rest of the world.

The Chapo crew believe that the vast majority of mainstream political pundits are clueless charlatans, including some that I would argue produce good work. For sheer hilarity, their readings from some of the worst of these writers are not to be missed – especially the extracts from Ross Douthat’s book, in which the conservative New York Times columnist waxes lyrical about skinny-dipping with an ageing William F. Buckley.

Chapo’s explicit content means it is not for the easily offended, but in the age of Trump I can think of no better way to keep abreast of political developments while still allowing oneself to laugh at the absurdity of it all.


Cities: 99% Invisible

Dallas Rogers, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Architecture, Design & Planning at the University of Sydney

I listen to a lot of podcasts. So, it should be easy to recommend a podcast series on urban-related issues, right? Well, as it turns out, selecting just one show is really, really hard.

But here is a safe bet that I’m sure you’ll love. It’s called 99% Invisible, but most people just call it 99pi. Here are a few of my favourite urban-related episodes.

Structural Integrity won a 2015 Third Coast International Audio Festival award for this story of architectural engineering gone wrong. This story will surprise you about halfway through, so make sure you listen from beginning to end.

Guerrilla Public Service is a story about guerrilla urban planners. What is a guerrilla urban planner? Well, in this 99pi episode it is artist Richard Ankrom, who takes it upon himself to make and erect his own traffic signs.

Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture is a story about the design strategy that is sometimes called hostile architecture. Think about the seats that prevent homeless people from sleeping on them.

Lawn Order is a story about the politics of lawn maintenance. In Florida, neat lawns represent social order, and 66-year-old Joe Prudente ends up in jail following allegations he failed to properly maintain his lawn to community standards.


Science + Technology: Radiolab

Will J. Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

You know a podcast is special when you sit there – after the ride to work, after you’ve finished your run, after you’ve turned off the car – and just keep listening. You might have the rest of your life to get to, but you just … can’t press stop.

For me this morning – like many mornings – it was Radiolab.

Published by WNYC and hosted (usually) by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the podcast is the absolute leader in scientific story-telling. For years they’ve woven compelling stories about discovery and curiosity. All too regularly I find myself transfixed by the science and the stories told through it and around it.

Want a place to start? Have a listen to Playing God, about a hospital in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Absolutely gripping.


Energy + Environment: Off Track

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

Ever wondered what’s it like to be a field ecologist? Want to know why we all owe a debt of gratitude to beetles that eat poo? Well, have I got a podcast for you.

Until recently I haven’t been a big consumer of podcasts. But my new favourite podcast may just have changed that. ABC Radio National’s Off Track is simply wonderful. In essence it covers our relationship with the environment, from cities to remote outback Australia.

There are many reasons why this podcast really works for me, and hopefully will for you too. It’s immersive and aurally stimulating, with episodes taking place where the real action happens. Just listen to the frogs calling and the passion in Jodi Rowley’s voice when she describes her hunt for the mysterious peppered tree frog, for example.

It’s short, with each episode lasting less than 30 minutes. The presenter’s (Ann Jones) enthusiasm and curiosity are infectious. Diverse environmental perspectives are provided – not just from scientists, but from artists, farmers and sportspeople, among others. And the storytelling is excellent.

So go on, do yourself a favour and take a virtual trip around this wide brown land.


Health + Medicine: All in the Mind

Gail Alvares, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Telethon Kids Institute

All in the Mind is a fascinating weekly radio segment and podcast by the ABC’s Radio National exploring all things related to the brain and behaviour.

A whole range of neurological, developmental and psychiatric conditions, as well as the complexities of the mind in general, are covered, including both people with lived experiences as well as scientists discussing their work in these fields. Lynne Malcolm weaves a soothing narrative through these interviews, taking the listener through a detailed look into many interesting and often unexplored issues.

One of my favourite episodes from 2016 discussed the Indigenous memory code and how songlines have been used over generations to encode an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about the natural environment into memory.

Another fascinating episode explored the “Truman Show delusion” – a symptom for some people with psychosis who believe they are the star of a reality TV show that everyone else is watching.

The podcast provides easily digestible segments which offer a short but compelling glimpse into the very complex nature of our brain.


Business + Economy: Economics Amplified

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW Australia

My favourite economics podcast is Economics Amplified. It is billed as:

A video and audio series that brings you the latest thinking on the biggest issues in economics from the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute.

And it delivers.

In classic Chicago school tradition it doesn’t try to dumb down issues, but it does get some of the best scholars in the field – from Chicago or some of the vast array of visitors that Chicago hosts – to explain cutting-edge research on the most important current issues in a pretty accessible way.

Recent notable podcasts include Game Theory and Negotiation (from former university president Hugo Sonnenschein) and The Behavioural Shift (including Harvard economics department chair David Laibson). But there are tonnes more.

The Behavioural Shift from Economics Amplified.

Education: Teachers’ Education Review; The Early Education Show; Freakonomics Radio

Bronwyn Hinz, Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

I’m a big fan of podcasts, from a wide range of genres and subjects. Choosing just one was too hard, but I’ve narrowed down my top three for those interested in education policy.

In its own words, Teachers’ Education Review is:

… the Australian podcast for teachers that bridges the gap between research, policy and practice.

But it’s great for others interested in Australian schooling.

The episodes are long (around 90 minutes), but divided into segments, and the time each segment starts is provided so you can skip straight to the parts you’re keenest on. Presenters and listeners are on Twitter to continue discussions for those interested.

The Early Education Show is an engaging and informative podcast for everyone with an interest in early childhood education and care policies, news and practices in Australia and beyond. The presenters are passionate and knowledgeable, bringing diverse perspectives and just the right amount of disagreement, self-deprecation, irony and humour.

And, finally, Freakonomics Radio is an upbeat and engaging podcast from Chicago uncovering “the hidden side of everything” using actual research and fun interviews with the researchers, activists and others at the centre of each topic. This show covers a big variety of topics, but mostly from the fields of education policy, politics, psychology and economics.


The Conversation produces five podcasts: Politics with Michelle Grattan, Business Briefing, Change Agents, Speaking With, and The Anthill. You can subscribe to these on iTunes, or follow on Tunein Radio.

This piece has been amended to correct the launch year of Love + Radio.

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