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'I nearly sent Adnan Syed a letter in prison': what podcasters listened to in lockdown


Alex Goldman, co-host of Reply All

I’ve been recording during lockdown from my attic – there’s spray-on insulation on the ceiling, which makes it look bizarre and cavernous, and I’m not sure it’s great for my lungs. I didn’t make the studio with lockdown in mind, although it has been really useful to have everything set up here so we could continue to make the show.

I used to have a really long commute from New Jersey to New York, which was mostly spent listening to podcasts. Now I’m at home with my kids, who are five and two, it’s really hard to listen to things – everything has so much profanity in it. My wife gets mad when I say this, but that commute was my only “me time” – 180 minutes a day to myself. I would listen to all of the heavy hitters, such as Radiolab and This American Life, or things that other people in the team have recommended, such as Crackdown, a podcast about the drug war reported mostly by drug users, which Sruthi Pinnamaneni [a producer on Reply All] put me on to.

I have a lot less time to listen to shows now, but my tastes remain the same. PJ [Vogt, Goldman’s co-host] says that I listen to “drivetime podcasts” – the equivalent of listening to idiots on the radio shouting. I think that’s probably a fair assessment, because there is a part of me that really wants to shut my brain off, especially when things are stressful.

Alex Goldman of Reply All



‘I love anything silly’ … Alex Goldman.

I love anything silly – one of my guilty pleasures is prank phone calls. There’s a show called the World Record podcast that is great for that. It sounds mean, but there’s also a show called Your Kickstarter Sucks, where the hosts try to find crowdfunders that are obvious grifts or products that no one would have any use for – such as a minimalist ruler, which was just like a piece of metal with no numbers on it.

I think one of the things that has made Reply All a success is our silliness and our love of the surreal. If we’re having trouble navigating a story, we will be like: well, how weird can we be? In our episode Brian vs Brian, we were like: how can we test whether a person really heard his song playing in a grocery store? We’ll set him a battery of tests (we did so many in the end that we couldn’t record them all). When we were trying to figure out why a podcast breaks a car stereo [in The Roman Mars Mazda Virus], we thought: why don’t we make six made-up podcasts?

Lockdown has also meant taking a chance on things I wouldn’t usually, such as My Year In Mensa. It’s hosted by a comedian and writer called Jamie Loftus, who – as a joke – signs up to Mensa for an article she’s writing. She gets in, the article is published, a bunch of people in Mensa reach out to her and say: hey, you’ve really misrepresented us, why don’t you come join our chat room? She joins and sees all of these awful, racist, sexist things and it continues from there. She’s fearless and constantly challenging her own assumptions – it’s spectacular.

Although it has been difficult to listen to podcasts with my children, I’ve found a show that they love called Noodle Loaf – we listen to it all the time. There will be songs where some of the words are blanked out, or they have to come up with rhymes. There’s a lot of shouting at the radio, which is always fun.

Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab

Jad Abumrad



‘I’ve been consuming podcasts where it’s just two people chatting’ … Jad Abumrad. Photograph: Bo Jacober

As well as Radiolab, I also created and hosted the podcast Dolly Parton’s America. We found out the other week that it was nominated for a Peabody award, which is a glimmer of good news at a time like this, and very appreciated. It has been a confusing, scary time to be working in audio, but also exhilarating and exciting. Things are being shared and passed back between our team 15 times a day and we’re in constant communication via Slack. I feel like we’ve actually done some of our best work; right as the protests kicked off, our producer Tracie Hunte created a spare, beautiful essay on listening to Nina Simone with the sound of protests outside her window. We also embedded with an ER doctor for a month and a half, to show the experience of science on the battlefield of covid in a way that no one else had.

Personally, I haven’t been taking in as many podcasts as I usually would have, and the ones I’ve been consuming are the kind where it’s just two people chatting – very unedited, nothing like Radiolab. I found myself going back to old episodes of Another Round that I’d saved on my phone for years. [The hosts] Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu have crazy chemistry and a sense of humour, which is in short supply right now.

Rhiannon Giddens, the host of Aria Code



‘I’m so enamoured with everything she does’ … Rhiannon Giddens, the host of Aria Code. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

But, beyond that, podcasts have felt a bit claustrophobic for me, so I’ve been going further into YouTube rabbit holes. Andrew Huang is one of my favourite vloggers. He’s an extraordinary, polymathic musician who’s so charismatic and funny. I think he’s one of the most creative human beings on the planet. He makes these weird videos where he’s like: ‘Let’s make a whole song out of lettuce,’ and he’ll take the sound of cutting it up and make that into a snare or a kick drum. It’s just so exuberantly creative, which feels therapeutic to me right now. I’ve developed routines that are just designed to take the volume down on my own inner dialogue, too, like running. Maybe this is why people meditate?

There’s also a newer podcast I want to listen to called Aria Code, hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, whom we interviewed for Dolly Parton’s America. I’m just so enamoured with everything she does: she studied opera at Oberlin [College in Ohio] – which is where I went to school – but then became deeply enmeshed in roots music and the Black Appalachia string band. She plays with a guy who is an incredible drummer and multi-instrumentalist – it’s like watching two geniuses collaborate across all genres. The podcast is about opera and I’m so interested to see what she says about it and how she’s going to apply that kind of multilayered approach.

Anushka Asthana, presenter of the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast and editor-at-large of the Guardian

The host of Today in Focus, Anushka Asthana



‘There’s so much choice out there’ … the host of Today in Focus, Anushka Asthana. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

My days have been totally different in lockdown – working and looking after three children who are always on top of me – so it has been about working out where I can fit podcasts in, for example, when I’m out for a run. I’ve just got into In the Dark, which our executive producer on Today in Focus, Nicole Jackson, recommended to me. Our team are constantly recommending good stuff to each other, which helps, because there’s so much choice out there.

Series one was an amazing piece of investigative journalism, drilling down into the death of a boy called Jacob Wetterling, who was kidnapped and murdered 27 years ago, and scrutinising the way that the police acted. We’ve all listened to Serial, or The Teacher’s Pet, but I think this is the best one out there. The investigation is fascinating – the programme makers are trying to work out what the police did and whether they made mistakes, which is such a difficult thing to do.

What’s really interesting is that this case changed the way people looked after their children and thought about child abduction in Minnesota. It was a Madeleine McCann sort of moment. Now I’m on series two, about a man called Curtis Flowers who has been sentenced to death for a murder charge six times but had the conviction overturned on appeal repeatedly. The presenter, Madeline Baron, and her producers are absolutely brilliant investigative journalists and the way they peel back the evidence to reveal something so shocking – not just about one case, but about society – is sensational.

I also really enjoy audio documentaries, such as the shows that Audrey Gillan makes on social affairs. She did an excellent series on homelessness called Tara and George, which followed two rough sleepers in east London. George The Poet’s show, Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, is great, too – it’s part-documentary, part-fiction and an immersive experience as well as a podcast. Love + Radio is brilliant; there’s an episode called Blink Once for Yes, about the Fecile family, whose son Mike sustained a brain injury in a terrible accident. It’s so beautifully done.

Even though I listen to lots of different types of shows, I do find the news fascinating, as you might imagine. It has been really interesting watching the big players such as This American Life, which I love, try to deal with lockdown. It was fascinating to see the number of podcasts about coronavirus shoot up, too, but it wasn’t surprising to me; as soon as the story hit, we saw our own numbers go through the roof, as people were desperate to know about what was happening. As time went on, we started to reach a point where people wanted to hear about other important talking points, such as the Black Lives Matter protests. The shift was clear when the podcast About Race With Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was released two years ago, went to No 1 in the iTunes chart.

Renay Richardson, founder and CEO of production company Broccoli Content

Renay Richardson, the founder of Broccoli



‘It has been great to see people outside my company adapt to working from home’ … Renay Richardson, the founder of Broccoli. Photograph: Keturah Cummings

I’m privileged to work in an industry where being apart during lockdown hasn’t affected my work too much. It has been great to see people outside my company adapt to working from home, too – recording under duvets, turning the sofa upside down, getting in a closet.

That’s not to say we haven’t been busy, though. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, I started the Equality in Audio pact, which has had over 150 signups from production companies and podcast makers. It’s all about changing the culture of the audio industry by sticking to a pledge of actions. Racism isn’t just Trump and Brexit; it’s happening to people multiple times a day. Even with About Race [which Richardson produced], loads of people who could have featured us and recognised the content at the time chose not to, but are jumping on the bandwagon now. I don’t have time for it. When I got my joint venture with Sony, we didn’t even get any press apart from Variety. I can only put things like that down to racism.

As for my own listening, I love Reset by Recode [from the US news site Vox], which is all about technology and how we interact with it. Their episode on Amazon packers is so interesting. Obviously, in lockdown, we’ve all been buying a lot more online, so it’s very relevant. There are all of these small businesses, mostly run by housewives, who buy something from, say, Ikea and put it in an Amazon box. That’s where all of those piles of awful packaging come from. I really recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about tech. They also have episodes on social media targeting and cookies – in other words, things you’ve heard about, but don’t necessarily understand.

The Code Switch team



‘Race in your face’ … the Code Switch team. Photograph: Hugo Rojo

With everything that’s happened with the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve wanted to try and get a fuller picture, so I’ve been listening to podcasts such as Code Switch and 1619, which I’ve just started. The latter won a Pulitzer prize, so I know it will be great, but I have to be in the mood to listen to it, because it’s about slavery – it’s a lot. My name is Renay Richardson, I am clearly descended from slaves and my family is from the Caribbean. You have to be in a certain frame of mind to listen to something like that.

On a lighter note, I’m a fan of music shows such as Dissect – I just found out there’s a Lauryn Hill series that I’ve not listened to. I used to love watching things such as Making the Band and Making the Video on MTV, so it’s my kind of thing. It’s difficult with music and podcasts, though, because of the rights and clearance issues. But I think you need the music in there to get the whole experience.

Tolani Shoneye (Tolly T), co-host of The Receipts

Tolly T, co-host of The Receipts



‘We agreed that the podcast was going to be a space of joy during coronavirus’ … Tolly T, co-host of The Receipts.

I was really worried about making fluffy content over lockdown when there’s so much stress in the world right now, but then I thought: no, people need it. I spoke with [her co-hosts] Audrey [Indome] and Milena [Sanchez], and we agreed that the podcast was going to be a space of joy, though obviously there are conversations that needed to be had. There was no way on earth we could do a podcast and not mention Black Lives Matter, for example, with two of the hosts being black women.

It has been tough to make the show sometimes; every time I’ve recorded, the local ice-cream van has come out. I’ve been like: ‘Why are you doing this?!’ But we’ve managed to make it work. I produce the podcast, too, and I feel it has improved my skills, because I’ve had to be a bit more techy to improve the quality of the audio.

Since Serial, I’ve been a massive podcast fan. I was borderline obsessed with it and nearly sent a letter to Adnan [Syed, the podcast’s subject] in prison – I still think he’s innocent.

A recent discovery has been Dying for Sex, which is about a woman, Molly, who has been diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer and decides she’s going to change her life. She leaves her husband, joins a bunch of dating sites and starts meeting all of these men for wild sexual escapades. I found the idea of regaining power over your body when you know it’s giving way on you really powerful. I was sobbing by the last episode, because, by virtue of the show, you know she is going to die. I didn’t want to know what she looked like while I was listening to it, but then they interviewed one of the guys she had had sex with and the way he spoke about her was so beautiful that I was like: I have to find out what she looks like, and she was so striking.

The Heart podcast team



Go on a sensory journey … the Heart podcast team.

Modern Love from the New York Times continues to be a favourite for me. They did an episode about the 36 questions that lead to love, and the people who did it ended up getting married. It was really cute. I know a lot of famous people have recorded episodes for the show, but I’m not too fussed about that. Podcasting shouldn’t be about being famous – it’s really just: are you good at storytelling? I love the part where the people who wrote the original letters come on for an interview – those are often my favourite bits of the show.

I don’t know if you can see the running theme, but I love shows about love. With The Heart, you go on a sensory journey. I cringed while listening to the first episode, because you’re given commands like: “Close your eyes,” but I thought it was a brilliant idea. It’s almost like a meditation. I love the idea of taking part in a podcast, rather than just listening. Our show is a very different style, but when people feel like they’re involved with it, that is the biggest compliment for us. It was intentional to make something that people would feel a part of, with words that their friends use and all of the “ums” and “ahs” left in.

As well as our Spotify show, we’re doing a drive-in live show on 20 July, where everyone comes down in their cars. It will be weird for us, because we can’t chill together backstage, but we’re excited – I’m picturing it like something out of Grease.



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