In celebration of our new series on Podcasts - Feast Your Ears - Mike Clark discusses the Golden Age of Podcast.

We are, apparently, experiencing a golden age of podcasting. A weirdly coincidental confluence of events towards the latter end of 2014 determined that it was finally time for the still budding form to mature, just over ten years after the term 'podcast' was originally circulated. The first of these events was This American Life launching Serial, arguably the first blockbuster podcast - or at least the first since The Ricky Gervais Show became a phenomenon during the mid '00s. Either way, Serial unequivocally captivated millions of listeners, with host (and This American Life producer/contributor) Sarah Koenig elegantly elucidating her process of investigating the 1999 murder of teenager Hae Min Lee by her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. It was a cultural event in a way that few other podcasts have been - listeners awaited, devoured and dissected each new episode as if they were watching Game of Thrones or Hannibal. If people weren't aware of podcasts before, they certainly were after Serial's first season ended last month.

The other events would be the establishment of two new podcast networks, Gimlet Media and Wolfpop (an offshoot of Earwolf, who put out the hugely popular Comedy Bang Bang), which also launched with a diverse assortment of new podcasts between them. Neither may be as culturally significant as Serial, yet they nonetheless helped to fuel the notion that something significant is finally happening in the podcast landscape. Creators and producers are finally exploring the possibilities of a form of mass-media that is totally malleable, as well as on-demand and flexible. Talented people are increasingly being driven away from radio, given that podcasts (ideally) give them more control over what they do, and, if the last year of podcasting is anything to go by, they're really making the most of that freedom. And, with it being easier than ever to access podcasts - what with the Podcast app on iOS and services such as Podbean and Stitcher hosting podcasts - there's a greater audience for their work.

Still, there are so many podcasts around that finding the best work can sometimes be difficult - especially when mainstream attention is only given to podcasts such as Serial. So, in light of this, we've compiled a list of essential podcasts ranging the entire spectrum of subjects (well, we've decided to forego podcasts of British radio shows in order to focus on what podcasts do best). Here's hoping you find your new favourite show.


The Comedy Button

Out of all the podcasts mentioned here, The Comedy Button is probably the hardest to sell (unless you hate football). It's basically just five guys - most of whom work in the video game industry - sitting down once a week to shoot the shit about, well, whatever, really. There's honestly not much more to it than that. Imagine a rambling sitcom about a ragtag group of lovable, thirty-something disasters talking about dumb, nerdy stuff over pizza and you've pretty much got the gist of it. Yet, somehow, this show always manages to be hugely engaging, hilarious and endearing all the same. Largely, I think this can be attributed to the co-hosts' rapport; they've been podcasting together since they produced the The GameSpy Debriefings between 2009 and 2011 - a video game podcast about pretty much anything other than video games - and share an intimate knowledge of each other's quirks and lives. They're all really good friends, basically, and know how to translate that as a means of bouncing off each other and putting on a great show.


The /Filmcast / Filmspotting

Podcasts reflecting on the newest and best cinema has to offer are a dime a dozen, but it's very much a case of quantity over quality. There's often a dichotomy between enthusiasm and knowledge; a show will either be really enthusiastic, but have no real knowledge about the medium or its history, or studious but dispassionate and dull. Luckily, there are so many podcasts that there are still a good number of shows that manage to balance this dichotomy well, but the two that do it best are among the oldest: The /Filmcast and Filmspotting. The former is focused more on mainstream cinema, with its three hosts - none of whom are professional critics - often joined by a guest to discuss what they've all been watching, the recent film news and the week's big film release. Because it's clear they're film fans above everything else, their criticism is always accessible, but they also appear knowledgeable which gives their views some grounding. The latter is certainly more academic than that, as both its hosts are film critics, but they nonetheless put on an enjoyable show as they review a recent release (often a more independent, art house film), respond to listener feedback and rattle through top five related to the film they're reviewing. This may be because Filmspotting is actually a radio show in America more than anything, but, hey, one of the great joys of podcasts is that you can listen to radio shows that would be otherwise unavailable to you. What unites both shows, though, is a deep passion for all things cinema that's infectious and enlightening.


The Football Ramble / Guardian Football Weekly

Football punditry is finding itself increasingly dominated the screaming banality of Robbie Savage, Alan Shearer and Michael Owen. Intelligent discourse about the game is turning into something rare, something that must be cherished at all costs, lest we lose it entirely. Thus, I honestly can't imagine many football fans who strive to remain knowledgeable about the game and don't listen to either The Football Ramble or Guardian Football Weekly. But, if you don't, imagine conversations about the weekly goings on in football unsullied by banter or idiocy; that manage to strike a perfect balance between being informative and entertaining. The former takes the fan's perspective, with four co-hosts from different professions discussing the previous weekend's events, whereas the latter takes the broadsheet journalist's perspective, with James Richardson hosting a revolving cast of Guardian writers every Monday and Thursday. But the differences end there, as both are consistently insightful, always a pleasure to listen to and absolutely essential for all football fans.


Interview Podcasts

It's no surprise that podcasts solely dedicated to interviews rank among the most popular. There are so many, in fact, that our choices here cannot be limited to just one. Of course, we're so inexplicably drawn to celebrity that we listen to most of them and make them successful. But beyond that, there are so many around because they're relatively easy to make: you find a room, fill it with a host, recording equipment, a few famous people, and you let the magic happen (kinda). But that doesn't mean they're all good. Far from it, much in the same way that superheroes are boring without their villains, you're never getting a good interview if the person asking the questions is a human dish-cloth. Accordingly, then, the three stand-out interview podcasts - By The Way: In Conversation with Jeff Garlin, Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, and WTF with Marc Maron - share one absolutely vital characteristic: they're hosted by stand-up comedians.

Turns out, the ego necessary to be a stand-up is also conducive to compelling interviews, because the fundamental reason why these podcasts work is that they're not overly deferential to their guests. The hosts manage to create a situation in which they are as active and important as the interviewee - a dialogue - and this yields the best interviews. The interviewee is never allowed to become passive, to switch on their media-robot mode, and thus gives more insightful, thoughtful answers. It also helps that the hosts are all experienced entertainers who tend to know the craft of their interviewees, and are, in most cases, respected by their guests for their work. Don't get me wrong, these three podcasts are on completely different ends of the spectrum - WTF is down-to-earth and human, RHLSTP is all over the place and silly, By the Way is more relaxed and meandering - but their hosts unite them as some of the best podcasts around.


Startup

Coincidentally, a few weeks before Serial began, another alumnus of This American Life launched their own serialised narrative podcast - albeit to a far different end. Alex Blumberg, whose résumé includes co-hosting Planet Money as well as producing and contributing to This American Life, left his cushy public radio job with the intention of starting his own business: a company that would create and distribute high-quality narrative podcasts. But he did more than that, he wanted to comprehensively document his journey from the beginning, resolving to make a podcast about the overlooked realities of germinating a business from scratch. And so we have Startup, a thirty-minute podcast still published every fortnight that, with enthusiasm and honesty, confronts all the exhaustion, neuroticism and fulfilment inherent in starting a business. Despite Blumberg's profound inexperience as a businessman, his knack for engrossing storytelling remains abundantly clear, meaning the show is at once approachable, fascinating, informative and, above all, incredibly entertaining. Moreover, because he began the podcast while still entangled in the process of creating his business, his accounts are divest of the nostalgia typical of business creation myths. This is a guy bearing his soul as he blunders through all the highs and lows of having a startup company, and it's all the better for it.


This American Life

Granted, this is another American radio show, but This American Life is impossible to ignore. Obviously it gave birth to both Serialand Startup, but it's also a magnificent show in its own right. Every week it focuses on a theme about American life - from the 2008 financial crisis to the intersection of daily life and being high - and tackles it in multiple acts that are often headed up by various different contributors (the list is huge, but some of the most attention grabbing contributors include David Foster Wallace, Jon Ronson and David Sedaris). The show's approach to non-fiction storytelling - which was adopted by Serial and Startup as well as countless others - is always absorbing and approachable and compassionate, able to make even the most obtuse or seemingly banal subjects come alive. It's outstanding journalism, both intellectually and emotionally stimulating, and absolutely demands being listened to.


We Have Concerns

Listening to We Have Concerns is probably the most fun you can have while contemplating the existential terror of existence. Hosts Jeff Cannata (who you can also hear on The/Film Cast) and Anthony Carboni discuss news stories sent in by listeners, and, more often than not, these stories cover weird scientific territories such as parasites that horrifically change the behaviour of their hosts, a group of scientists who programmed an accurate recreation of a worm's brain into a Lego robot, and a woman who had a condition that warped her perception so that she saw dragons everywhere (seriously). Though not necessarily science-y people - they are by trade presenters, I guess, having done work for Revision3 in the past - they handle each bizarre topic with thoughtfulness and wit, keeping everything accessible and often breaking into short improvisational comedy bits relating to the subject in question. And, with new episodes released every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and each lasting roughly twenty minutes, We Have Concerns is as easily consumable as it is hilarious and thought-provoking.