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15 British Radio Shows You Should Be Listening To

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It’s well known–much to the chagrin of my friend and compatriot, radio DJ Rob Levy–that I don’t listen to the radio. If I do manage to know something about what’s “new and hip” (or whatever the hell you kids are calling it these days (and get off my lawn)) on the radio, it’s either by accident or, more recently, because I stumbled across it on the “What’s New” tab of Spotify.

However, what I mean is that I don’t listen to American radio. I listen to scads of British radio shows because, like television, they simply do it better. It occurs to me that some of you out there who also might want something different to listen to…you might need a guide as to what to look for. So I have snagged a list of fifteen…to give you a variety to choose from. Ken started me on this addiction and then I just went apeshit on my own with it. I listen to more of these shows on my iPod than I probably do music, frankly. Anyway, you get the show, when it was, who was on it, why you should give a damn, how you get it and what to look for if you want to try it out. A high point, if you were. Enjoy.


1. Banter.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 2005-2008. No further series, but Wikipedia (always right) says that a TV pilot was shot in October.
Regulars include: Richard Herring, Russell Howard, Will Smith (not that one)
And? Panel show in which each guest is asked to place their “Top 3” of a certain subject (“Top 3 Fairy Tales,” “Top 3 Mistresses,” etc.) in a “noisy” envelope before the show. When it’s their turn, they sit out while the other panelists debate about their own Top Threes on the same subject…if anybody matches what’s in the envelope, points are given. Repeat for each panelist. Mayhem ensues.
Availability: Must be legally acquired.
Excellent Sampling: Series 3, Episode 1, which kicks off with Dave Gorman discussing a penis museum.

2. The Bugle
Okay, you got me. It’s not technically a radio show. It’s a podcast, from 2007-Present.
Regulars include: John Oliver (yes, from The Daily Show) and Andy Zaltzman
And? An “audio newspaper for a visual world,” which skewers the week’s news with some of the best satire you will hear. From the sections that go straight into the bin, to Andy’s horrible “pun runs,” to calling the Queen of England “Q-Tip,” it’s fantastic.
Availability: Available as an RSS feed/iTunes thing.
Excellent Sampling: Episode 150, dedicated to the Royal Wedding. Even if it kills you.

3. Chain Reaction
Broadcast on BBC Radio 5 in 1991, then the latest series was 2005-present on BBC Radio 4.
Regulars include: Rotates. See below.
And? It works like this: Guest A interviews Guest B, a guest which they choose. Then Guest B, in the next show, picks Guest C and interviews them. All the way through six episodes. Then it starts over with a new Guest A the next series.
Availability: Must be legally acquired.
Excellent Sampling: If you’re a Doctor Who fiend, Series 4, Episode 1, in which Catherine Tate interviews David Tennant. If not, the first series of the latest run, Episode 6, in which Alan Moore interviews Brian Eno.

Dave Gorman Podcast

4. The Dave Gorman Show
Broadcast on Absolute Radio starting in 2009. They make it available in podcast form, though, which is handy.
Regulars include: Gorman, Danielle Ward, and Martin White.
And? Gorman and friends take a subject–whether it’s times you’ve been mistaken for someone else, lies you’ve found yourself stuck in, or whatever–and get input from listeners, then riff on them. Also of note: their manic project of Pun Street, “Ward’s Weekly Word” — one of the best pop culture round-ups in existence, and the fact that Martin improvs a song at the end of every episode.
Availability: Official site.
Excellent Sampling: Episode 41, “Parent Oddities,” where they discuss odd things your parents told you which you later realized it wasn’t true.

5. David Attenborough’s Life Stories
Begun on BBC Radio 4 in 2009 with a second series in 2011.
Regulars include: The man himself.
And? Basically Attenborough reading a short piece he’s written on a particular natural history subject, like sloths or large blue butterflies. If you dig his work in the nature docus, then you will dig this.
Availability: When broadcast, you can snag them from this RSS feed. But once they go out, they are no longer available. Series 1 and Series 2 are both available on CD, but you can get Series 1 and Series 2 from Audible for the same price as one set of CDs. There’s also a book of the first set of stories.
Excellent Sampling:Faking Fossils,” Series 1, Episode 12, in which he talks about his first fossil find and relates a story about how he was conned into buying a forged one much later in life.

6. Desert Island Discs
Begun in 1942 and continues today on BBC Radio 4.
Regulars include: A different guest each week, currently hosted by Kirsty Young.
And? A “castaway” is asked to plan for their being stranded on a desert island, and they get to pick eight songs, a book and a luxury item. While this is going on, they are being interviewed about their life. A fantastic show that really gets at someone’s life better than most other interview programs.
Availability: A crapton is available in their archives. It’s hard to find the podcast feed, but just use this.
Excellent Sampling: Alice Cooper‘s episode from 11/21/2010.

7. The Goon Show
Broadcast from 1951-1960 on the now defunct BBC Home Service.
Regulars include: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe
And? One of the most mental shows ever to hit radio, each episode (from Series 3 on, when it hit its stride and its most widely known format) involves Secombe as Neddie Seagoon, who inevitably gets into some sort of scrape or is being taken advantage of due to his naivete. Sellers and Milligan provided almost every other voice. Its influence is wide: the “dread lurgi” was referenced just yesterday by The Neil.
Availability: Available in multiple formats from Amazon.
Excellent Sampling: “The Saga of the Internal Mountain,” in which Neddie wants to be the first man to climb Mount Everest…from the inside.

8. The History of the World in a 100 Objects
Broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010.
Regulars include: Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.
And? MacGregor picks one hundred objects to tell the history of the world with. It’s pretty much that simple. And, considering it’s radio, does surprisingly well with it.
Availability: The podcast is here. And the official website with pictures and more is here.
Excellent Sampling: Episode 80, “Pieces of Eight.” Above, it’s the entire series condensed into five minutes.

9. I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again
Broadcast on the BBC Home Service, then BBC Light Programme, then BBC Radio 2, from 1964-1973
Regulars include: Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Graeme Garden, David Hatch, Jo Kendall, Bill Oddie
And? Based around, well, very little, except that the show contains horrible puns, parodies of radio serials and Bill Oddie sings. Like fully realized and well-scripted anarchy.
Availability: Available in multiple formats from Amazon.
Excellent Sampling: The serial known as “The Electric Time Trousers,” an utterly mental parody of Doctor Who.

10. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 since 1972.
Regulars include: Graeme Garden, Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Willie Rushton and original chair Humphrey Lyttlelton
And? Born out of laziness when the folks behind the above ISIRTA wanted to do another show but couldn’t be arsed to script it, it’s an improvisational panel game of divine silliness.
Availability: Available in multiple formats from Amazon.
Excellent Sampling: Their Christmas madness. Or the sample above, from Rob Brydon.

11. The Infinite Monkey Cage
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 2009 – Present.
Regulars include: Robin Ince and Brian Cox (not the actor)
And? Brian Cox, a physicist, and Ince, a comedian, bring on guests and discuss science, making topics accessible and hilarious.
Availability: Podcast is available here.
Excellent Sampling: “What Don’t We Know?” from May 30, 2011.

12. In Our Time
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 since 1998.
Regulars include: Host Melvyn Bragg.
And? Bragg brings in three specialists, with incredibly formidable credentials, to tackle an overview of a subject–any subject of history–in 45 minutes. Examples include: Evolution, The Romantics and Utopia. Dry as hell, but I can’t stop listening.
Availability: Pretty much the entire archive is online. Podcast feed here.
Excellent Sampling: “Origins of Infectious Disease” from 6/8/2011.

13. Just a Minute
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 since 1967.
Regulars include: Host Nicholas Parsons, Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Kenneth Williams, Peter Jones, Paul Merton and scads of others.
And? It sounds simple: talk on a subject without repeating a word, hesitating, or deviating from the subject. But it’s hard as hell. And hilarity often ensues.
Availability: Must be legally acquired on this side of the pond.
Excellent Sampling: I cannot recall which episode it was, but the first time Terry Wogan appeared on the show, I thought the show was going to kill me, I was laughing so hard.

An example of a run by Paul Merton:

14. The Museum of Curiosity
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 since 2008.
Regulars include: Host John Lloyd
And? Three guests are invited to submit something for inclusion in a vast and empty museum that can hold just about anything. It’s sort of like a more upbeat Room 101. Lloyd, of course, is the co-creator of QI.
Availability: Series 1 and 4 must be legally acquired on this side of the pond. Series 2 and Series 3 are available from Audible.
Excellent Sampling: Series 1, Episode 3, in which physicist Frank Close submits “Nothing.”

15. The Unbelievable Truth
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 since 2006.
Regulars include: Host David Mitchell.
And? Guests each present a lecture that’s almost entirely false, except for five truths that they try to smuggle past the other panelists. Points are given depending on whether or not a true fact is spotted or a falsehood is presumed to be true.
Availability: Must be legally acquired on this side of the pond.
Excellent Sampling: Series 3, Episode 2.


  • Oh so many things I don’t have time to listen to but wish that I did…

    I also wanted to vouch for In Our Time. Like you said, dry as hell but almost impossible not to listen to. The great thing is that Bragg covers SO MANY TOPICS from all over the place. Sometimes it’s fun to pick out an episode whose topic seems completely uninteresting, and find yourself startled by just how much you get sucked in.

    I would also offer a wholesale plug for 6 Music ( It’s audience may not be huge, but it is loyal, and I very much enjoy their musical playlist. All shows are available to stream for a week after they air. I would specifically recommend Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (he has a great DJ voice), and Shaun Keaveny, who does a very British, tongue-in-cheek take on the morning show (while still playing a lot of cool music).

  • Excellent pick, HS. And yes, even the most obscure/blah topic works in IOT and I can’t bloody tell you why. The other thing about Bragg is that he manages somehow to keep everyone lurching through the topic to get as much as in during the time constraints as possible. Harder than it sounds.

  • as with all lists, there will be “glaring” omissions :-)

    15 Minute Musical
    The Alan Davies Show
    Bleak Expectations
    Cabin Pressure
    The Castle
    Creme de la Crimw
    Delve Special
    Gilles Wembbley Hogg
    Goodness Gracious Me
    Great Unanswered Questions
    Hamish and Dougal
    I’ve Never Seen Star Wars
    Jest A Minute
    Knowing Me, Knowing You
    Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun
    Mark Watson Makes the World Substantially Better
    The Masterson Inheritance
    More Or Less
    The Museum of Everything
    The Penny Dreadfuls Present the Brothers Faversham
    The Personality Test
    Punt PI
    The Return of Inspector Steine
    Revolting People
    Rigor Mortis
    Ross Noble Goes Global
    The Scarifyers
    The Spaceship
    Will Smith Presents The Tao of Bergerac

    are all shows I’ve enjoyed on Radio 4 and Radio 7/4 Extra over the years… I’m sure I left some out because I’ve listened to them so many times I stopped tuning in…

  • Two further omissions:
    Clare in the Community (a sitcom about a social worker)
    Ed Reardon’s Week (a sitcom about a cantankerous and unsuccessful author, eking out a living writing coffee-table books and occasionally taking part in police line-ups).

  • 8. The History of the World in a 100 Objects

    Neil MacGregor was just on Colbert Report on Halloween to promote the book.