When I think back to the autumn of 2014, an indelible part of the soundscape is Sarah Koenig’s voice.
I had just moved to Cork and would go for long walks in the evenings to get my bearings in the city, the latest episode of Serial in my ears.
Like millions of others, I was hooked on the true-crime podcast, from the jangly chime of the piano theme to Koenig’s analytical and warm narration.
Serial was the type of podcast that made you want to talk theories with your friends, read dozens of thinkpieces, and burn the whole series onto ten CD-Rs so your mam could listen to it in the car.
It was a game-changer. Pre-Serial, podcasts were a way to catch up on radio shows you’d missed; post-Serial, they came into their own as an essential format. Suddenly, everyone was listening.
It’s easy to see why: Podcasts are free, portable, and discreet, making them the perfect accompaniment to all kinds of tasks: Commutes, cooking dinner, working out.
The variety available — shows about pop culture, history, comedy, politics, sport — means you’ll never be bored.
“I feel like there’s a podcast out there for every niche interest,” says Ellen Tannam, co-host of Juvenalia with Alan Maguire and Sarah Maria Griffin.
The premise of Juvenalia is delightfully specific: An interesting person discusses a piece of pop culture that was important to them as a child.
“Although podcasts have been well established for years now, I think more people are recognising that a lot of the time mainstream radio might not cater to their specific interests, whereas someone might see demand for a podcast about that interest and create it.”
Case in point: Comedian Erin McGathy is the host of This Feels Terrible, a podcast in which she interviews guests about love, sex, and heartbreak.
Hilarious and sometimes poignant, some of the best episodes are those where she interviews someone she has a long history with — her first love John or her grandmother Mary.
(Since McGathy has recently moved from LA to Dublin, Irish guests have been cropping up, too — check out the hilarious episode with Tara Flynn.)
McGathy has a theory about the particular addictive quality of podcasts.
“I suspect the lack of visuals must cause our brains to participate creatively in a way we don’t experience with visual mediums,” she says.
“The listener feels like they have some ownership over it. We can listen to podcasts anywhere and the experience is similar to bringing friends along for the ride.”
It’s true that part of the appeal of the podcast form is its intimacy. Unlike radio, which is a communal experience, we generally listen to podcasts privately, through earphones.
You find yourself building up a relationship with a podcast host; you pick up on their verbal ticks and sense of humour. Eventually, you start to feel that this voice in your ear is your friend.
In a way, podcast hosts are the anti-radio jocks. The form is less adversarial than radio; it’s narrative-driven, even confessional.
McGathy frequently records the monologues that bookend her show while sitting on her apartment floor. Intimate, warm, and casual, these snippets feel like eavesdropping on a very funny audio-diary.
“It’s much easier — for better or worse — to spill all of my secrets when I’m not recording in front of an audience,’ says McGathy.
“If there was an audience watching, I would likely pull back from sharing too many personal details to avoid making them uncomfortable. There is comfort in knowing that a podcast listener is able to skip to the next episode or throw their phone in a river to get away, so I am more willing to go to uncomfortable places.”
Both Tannam and McGathy agree that there is something disarming and cosy about the medium. Perhaps because it’s often framed as a conversation with a friend, guests tend to be comfortable and at ease, even when discussing personal matters.
“I have found that people in general are very willing to discuss heartbreak,” says McGathy. “It’s humanity’s most prized unifier and suffering is relative.”
Increasingly, podcasts are a form in which women are excelling. While organisations like Women On Air are doing necessary work to promote female voices on radio, female podcasters are building their own platforms and putting their voices out there.
“I think that podcasts have more of an independent ethos than most mainstream radio stations, just because it is now so easy for someone to get high-quality equipment for really cheap and create something in their kitchen,” says Tannam.
“I suppose traditional radio is quite male-dominated so podcasts are a cool way for marginalised voices to carve their own path out. This is equally relevant for LGBTQI folks and people of colour too.”
Perhaps this is the power of the podcast — it is, as Roger Ebert said of film, an “empathy machine”.
Just like a great novel or movie, a podcast can put you squarely in someone else’s shoes. All you have to do is press play.
A comedy podcast that explores feminism, race, pop culture, and all intersections thereof — with whiskey sours. It’s absolutely hilarious, and the friendship and chemistry between Negatu and Clayton is infectious.
As Ellen Tannam puts it, “They’re so funny and I learn something new from them every time I listen.”
A true-crime podcast with a difference, Criminal is a quirky look at illegal shenanigans in digestible half-hour chunks.
These tales of shell games, pot brownies, and identity theft can be funny and even heartwarming — and are also a fascinating look into US social history.
Phoebe Judge is also the owner of possibly the most soothing voice in podcasting — crime has never sounded so relaxing.
A show that explores three essential topics that can be awkward to talk about.
Sale is a brilliant, empathetic interviewer of people from every walk of life, from a mother raising autistic kids, to a sex worker saving for college, to a retired NFL player who can no longer bear to watch the game. Required listening.
If, like me, you frequently find yourself despairing at the lack of attention shown to women’s sports, this podcast is a breath of fresh air.
Chaired with verve by Buckley and Glen, each episode is a panel discussion on a different facet of women’s sports, be it dealing with injury, sport/life balance, or nutrition.
It nimbly circumvents the tiresome questions that typically dog coverage of women’s sports, like, ‘But are people really interested in watching?’
A parenting podcast that’s not just for parents, The Longest Shortest Time is family storytelling at its best.
Each episode focuses on a parenting story, be it the ‘Accidental Gay Parents’ (a gay couple in their twenties who make the life-changing decision to adopt their niece and nephew), the surprising things we inherit from our parents, or how to maintain your relationship in the midst of parenting madness — it’s all here.
A hilariously irreverent podcast in which true-crime fanatics Kilgariff and Hardstark tell the story of a real-life murder… with comedy? Somehow, it works.
Their witty banter, gleeful lack of preparation, and blood-curdling narratives make this a delight from start to finish. Just listen to the crowd’s roar during their live episodes: These women are true-crime rock stars.
The original and still one of the best. Serial season 1, which ran in late 2014, was a 12-part podcast series that revisited a 1999 high school murder case in Baltimore, Maryland.
As a teenager, Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, but has always maintained his innocence. Season 1 was a narrative step-by-step journey through the alibis, the inconsistencies and the high school dramas.
The second season focused on an all-new case: That of Bowe Bergdahl, a US army sergeant who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was subsequently held by the Taliban for five years. While not quite as gripping as the classic first season, it’s still masterful storytelling.
A podcast about the ‘secret and/or forgotten history’ of Hollywood’s golden era. Sharp and incredibly well researched, Longworth’s lavishly-produced show sounds more like an audiobook than talk radio.
Her in-depth miniseries are the perfect binge-listen, from ‘Charles Manson’s Hollywood’ to the current series about tragic Hollywood ingenues, ‘Dead Blondes’.