As with any podcasts I recommend, these reflect my own rather idiosyncratic tastes.
However, boredom is apparently a major contributor to the mental health problems that arise from lockdown and in the difficulties some people have complying with it. And as podcasting is one of the mediums that it easier to produce from your kitchen, it’s probably one of the better places to look for boredom antidotes.
Podcasts about coronavirus
There is a strong argument for not overdoing news at the moment. Personally, though, I find that its less about the quantity of news I consume than the quality of the sources. If they enlighten rather sensationalise then I find that helpful.
Both Radio 4’s More or Less and Gimlet’s Science Vs have been exemplary in this regard. What they have in common is a tone defined by apparently genuine curiosity, which they assume the audience shares. The teams behind them not only want to tell you what we know but also how we know it. This allows them to adopt an authoritative tone, which offers clarity without obscuring genuine uncertainty. It also helps that these shows can take the virus seriously without taking themselves seriously.
Recent events have also played to strengths of Inside Briefing from the Institute of Government. A lot of more conventional politics podcasts are essentially about inter and intra party competition and have struggled as those themes have temporarily been side-lined. A focus on public policy and the machinery of state currently feels both more relevant and more edifying.
In terms of specific episodes, Talking Politics’ interview with Nate Silver is a little out of date but definitely still worth a listen. Silver is not an epidemiologist, but someone who predicts politics and sports. So, he thinks about the models used to try and anticipate the spread of the virus in very broad terms. So, this is a very clear overview of the topic.
Speaking of overviews, China Talk’s episode on the politics of coronavirus ably relates what happened in Wuhan at the very start of the outbreak to the broader political climate in the country.
If you want something that focuses less on a global understanding of this strange moment in history and more on how to manage its consequences as an individual, then check out How to! not to go crazy under quarantine and beat your isolation loneliness from the Happiness Lab. They are both from the early stages of the lockdown and the advice in them has been helping me ever since.
Not about coronavirus (but also kind of are)
If you’ve not come across Tim Harford’s work before, he is essentially a social science communicator who combines the story telling acumen of Malcolm Gladwell with the intellectual rigour of someone who is..well…not Malcolm Gladwell. He uses these talents to full effect in Cautionary Tales. Each episode unpacks the reasons behind a disaster such an airship crashing, the wrong film being announced as an Oscar winner or a con man tricking an entire platoon of soldiers into assisting with a bank robbery.
By contrast, as the name implies, Chernobyl focuses in on that single (and singular) disaster. It is an accompaniment to the HBO/Sky TV drama about the disaster and is essentially a series of extended conversations with Craig Mazin, the show’s writer. It is frequently answering the question: did that really happen? To which the answer is usually: yes, it did.
Both were made before the coronavirus arose as an issue but given their themes will definitely give you a perspective on it.
Getting a break from coronavirus
At the moment, most of the podcasts I’d normally turn to for light listening have started running lockdown or virus themed episodes. So, I have been finding my escapism in some surprisingly dark podcasts.
In February last year, a group of masked men broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid in the middle of the night and took the staff apparently under the impression that this would provide cover for a diplomat to defect. Instead, they left with just a few laptops and USB drives, pursued by the Spanish, Americans and most, dangerously, the North Koreans. A fascinating episode of NK News covers Free Joseon, the shadowy group behind the attack. The renegade band of characters populating this story and their “antics” are like something out of a Le Carré novel.
The second series of Monster on the Zodiac killings handles the perennial problem of true crime podcasts about unsolved cases not having satisfying conclusions by turning the focus back around on the audience. It becomes less about who the killer is than why this case still holds such a fascination and why for many people it is such a destructive one. A bonus episode on ‘the Accused’ develops this idea even further by examining how the desperation to unlock the riddle led to multiple different people being seriously discussed as suspects despite a near total lack of credible evidence against them.
Finally, Intelligence Squared has an interview with Kate Murphy about her book “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters”. Which was interesting enough to persuade me to go out and get the book.
Happy listening and stay safe!