It’s no surprise that a country that has always loved its radio has taken to podcasts with such enthusiasm. In the Reuters Institute Digital News Report published in June, Ireland topped the poll out of the 20 countries surveyed, with 46pc of people having listened to a podcast in the past month. Whether you’re already a diehard fan or dipping a toe in for the first time, Review has rounded up a host of great shows to keep you company this July.
Estimates suggest there are two million podcasts in the world, and you’d be forgiven for thinking 99pc are true crime or politics. Combine the two and you’ve got hit US show Slow Burn (Slate Plus, widely available), currently on season seven. If, like me, what you know about Watergate is a disjointed hodgepodge of references culled from movies and the -gate suffix used in seemingly every political scandal since, start with season one.
On June 24, millions of women in the US lost the right to abortion after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling. In the latest Slow Burn season, host Susan Matthews explores the path to the ruling and takes in the forgotten story of Shirley Wheeler, the first woman to be convicted of manslaughter for having an abortion; the Catholic power couple who helped ignite the pro-life movement; and the rookie Supreme Court justice given the assignment.
The Irish Passport (widely available) co-hosted by journalist Naomi O'Leary and British and Irish cultural history lecturer Tim Mc Inerney, covers politics, culture and current affairs. With almost 90 episodes under its green, white and orange belt so far, it offers a lively take on the headlines before digging into headline-adjacent stories, as in the episode Ukraine and Ireland: A Shared History. The hosts are joined by Nadia Dobrianska, a Kyiv native and fluent Irish speaker, who reveals a world of historical commonalities between our two countries.
On RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday with Katie Hannon (rte.ie, widely available) dissects the week gone by and debates the political and social issues likely to make headlines in the next seven days. Her calm, confident and empathetic style brings out the best in her panellists and guests (and sometimes the worst, which can also make great listening). While using the RTÉ website can often feel like rooting around in a shed for a candle during a powercut, podcast listings of previous shows are easy to navigate.
Worth finding is her conversation in February with Pat Dunne, sister of Stardust victim Brian Hobbs. It was Pat Dunne’s first public interview about the tragedy. “You literally had to go down corridors and look at people on trolleys because it was chaotic… they went to the morgue and there was a queue outside,” she tells her.
When Hannon discusses the issue of the political promises that were broken over the decades, her guest’s strength and resilience are remarkable. “I’m the last Hobbs standing, and I need to know what happened,” Pat says. “I need accountability. I need justice.”
‘Scandal’ is now a massive podcast genre, the cursed child of true crime and celeb gossip. A prime example is It’s… Wagatha Christie (BBC Five Live and BBC Sounds, widely available). Hosted by TikTok comedy star Abi Clarke, it traces the public ding-dong that recently became an eye-wateringly expensive High Court libel action. In October 2019, Coleen Rooney (wife of footballer Wayne) tweeted that through her own sting operation, she had worked out that posts from her Instagram account that had been leaked to The Sun had come via the account of Rebekah Vardy (wife of Jamie). Little did she know her tweet would spawn so many great puns, including Roodunnit, Wagnum PI and The Scousetrap. The case has reanimated the dismissive term WAG (‘Wives and Girlfriends’), which originated during the 2006 World Cup and became big in Noughties celeb culture. Fascinating tangents make these short, high-energy episodes highly bingeable: the destructive nature of fame and privilege; the toxic nature of social media; and what happens when your private life becomes public gossip. Added bonus: posh British lawyers explaining popular culture to each other.
The brainchild of former LA Weekly film critic Karina Longworth, You Must Remember This (widely available) explores the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century. Navigating conflicting reports, mythology and institutionalised spin, Longworth teases out the real stories behind some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, stars and scandals. She describes each recording as a “goofy séance”.
Her delivery is careful and methodical and packed with atmosphere and detail. There are plenty of extras in the show notes and on her site youmustrememberthispodcast.com. She often breaks longer stories into chapters such as Gossip Girls: Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and the nine-part Sammy and Dino.
In her recent Erotic 80s chapters, a must-listen is episode eight — 1985: Fear Sex. Jagged Edge & Aids. Just as the Aids-related death of Rock Hudson was finally forcing Hollywood to acknowledge the epidemic, 1985’s sleeper hit movie Jagged Edge transposed the new climate and its mix of sexual fear and moral panic into a murder mystery. As Longworth drily notes: “Sometimes art gets to the destination before the conscious mind does.”
Trashy, exploitative and vulgar? Or a guilty pleasure you’d hate to live without? The problem with reality TV is that no matter how ridiculous the participants are, they’re as real as the rest of us. Over 10 episodes, Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV (Radio 4 & BBC Sounds), written and presented by journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale, takes a serious look at reality TV to determine if it’s the stupidest genre in entertainment or the one that tells us the most about ourselves. From the British Big Brother — former contestants ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman and Brian Dowling take part — through to the controversies lapping at the shores of social media clickbait Love Island this summer, this documentary series explores how reality TV has shaped entertainment, fashion, beauty, celebrity and even politics, as well as some of the ethical questions it has raised.
While relentless queues and baggage chaos can mean travel for pleasure is no longer the pleasure it once was, weekly show The Travel Diaries (widely available) might be just the ticket instead. Journalist Holly Rubenstein interviews a special guest about the seven travel chapters of their life to uncover the experiences that shaped who they are today. From their earliest childhood travel memory and the first place they fell in love with, to favourite destinations, hidden gems and bucket lists, indulge your wanderlust from your sofa.
Skip over the plugs for hotels and enjoy the guests. Bill Bailey (season six) talks about an activity trip with his son to Iceland (“not for the faint-hearted”), and his love of Indonesia where he spontaneously eloped with his wife, and visits yearly. In Inspiring Ireland with Annie Mac — Destination Special (season five), the DJ describes that most traditional of Irish holidays: getting in the car to go stay with granny.
Whenever I’m in a new city, I peer into strangers’ windows to see what real life, not tourist life, looks like. Brendan Francis Newnam in Not Lost (Pushkin Industries, widely available) takes this curiosity many steps further. When his previous radio show and long-term relationship both ended abruptly, he decided to start a travel podcast where he would learn about new places by getting invited to a stranger’s house for dinner.
He’s joined by a pal each time, and he eats, drinks and chats his way from Montréal to Mexico City. Descriptions are imaginative and elegant; on a grey morning in Maine “the sky looks like an oyster shell”; paddling at Big Sur “is the opposite of a Zoom call”.
Needless to say it doesn’t always work out (“mi casa is only mi casa” a woman tells him), but his hit rate is high. Season one has just finished, with a second due this autumn. If you like a friendly podcast for company when you’re out walking, this is perfect.
Earth’s Edge (widely available, produced between 2020-2021) is hosted by former international kayaker James McManus. His company runs guided expeditions with a focus on sustainability, and if his enthusiasm as an interviewer is anything to go by (“That’s deadly!” is one of his favourite responses), he must be cheery company on a trek. He talks to mountain guides, expedition doctors, aspiring climbers and travel enthusiasts about what motivates them to put one foot in front of the other, no matter how tricky the terrain.
I loved A Massive First Climb with Rachel Kiernan. With no altitude experience at all, and not that many mountain miles stacked up, she set herself a goal of summiting Mera Peak (6,476m) in Nepal. She talks about doubting herself, physical and mental preparation, building up resilience and confidence, and how her experience of being bullied in school affected her on a trek with a group of strangers. “I didn't have clue what was going on in the real world for three weeks and that was the best thing ever.”
Stubborn optimism is what drives the team at Outrage + Optimism (outrageandoptimism.org and Apple podcasts). Co-hosted by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, who oversaw the Paris Agreement, and with Carbon Disclosure Project founder Paul Dickinson, the show goes behind the scenes on the politics, investments and challenges of climate change. With guests, they explore the stories behind the headlines, talk to the change-makers determined to turn challenges into opportunities, call out greenwashing and communicate the issues through conversation.
The website lists episodes by season (five to date) and by topic, making it easy to ferret out areas you’re curious about, and the quality is high across the board. I started with season five, episode 17, Putin, Producer Logic and Peak Demand with Kingsmill Bond, which discussed whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the fossil fuel era.
If climate change feels overwhelming, check out the inspiring on-the-ground stories of Decolonizing Power (Indigenous Clean Energy, widely available). On the basis that energy sovereignty, sustainability and resilience are the central components of global climate action, this show (now in season two) explores successful community-led clean energy projects.
Hosts Mihskakwan James Harper and Freddie Huppé Campbell dig into the unparalleled potential of renewable energy microgrids in three indigenous island and coastal communities. Indigenous Clean Energy is a non-profit, community-driven enterprise working to advance indigenous inclusion in Canada’s clean energy future. Aside from it being of interest from a global perspective, issues such as dependence on fossil fuels, how communities fight for their ancestral homes and the use of folklore to share ideas have more in common with Ireland than you might expect. As Harper reminds listeners: “We are all matter of the universe… the same building blocks as the stars, plants and animals.”
With an estimated 10 years to go before we see irreversible changes to our planet, former Irish president Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins (“I’m a comic and I’m a legend and pretty much everybody is jealous of me. It’s kind of amazing, but I’ve learned to live with it”) and their co-host and producer, artist and activist Thimali Kodikara tackle the biggest climate issues of our time in the Mothers of Invention podcast (mothersofinvention.online, widely available) and highlight feminist solutions from around the world.
Season one explores the groundwork behind climate justice; in season two they invite women climate leaders of colour to join them as co-hosts; and season three functions as a handy primer on the climate justice movement. This third season was rooted in a philosophy of self-care which, as Robinson notes, “we all deserve to give ourselves right now… while we’re thinking about how we build back better”. With three such different hosts coming from very different perspectives in how they engage an audience, I was expecting the show to feel clunky at times, but it’s clear, insightful and warm-hearted.