from power ballads to philosophy

Did the CIA really use a cornily uplifting power ballad by the West German rock band Scorpions as a form of anti-Soviet propaganda? Did its agents secretly write the song Wind of Change – deploying soft rock to help liberate Eastern Europe and end the Cold War? These are the questions explored by a superb new podcast from The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe. And if you haven’t heard it yet, you must, said Hannah J. Davies in The Guardian: Wind of Change is “surely destined” for end-of-year best-of-2020 lists. The premise might sound borderline “ridiculous”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. But the eight-part series is a truly gripping listen: a “wildly addictive tale of Cold War espionage, conspiracy theories, rock star histrionics, drugs busts and political wheeler-dealing” – all interlaced with “meditations on the nature and value of truth”.

If your tastes are unashamedly highbrow, Talking Politics, by Cambridge politics professor David Runciman, is the place to start, said James Marriott in The Times. But just when you thought his show couldn’t get any cleverer, he has made a substrand – History Of Ideas – featuring hour-long monologues on the likes of Thomas Hobbes, Mary Wollstonecraft and Alexis de Tocqueville. Runciman’s voice is “drier than a Weetabix in the Sahara Desert, but get past that and his mind is subtle and engaging”. I’d also recommend Meanwhile in Beijing (BBC Sounds), a brilliant half-hour “tour d’horizon” of modern China by Oxford history professor Rana Mitter. If this were a “flashy New York Times project, everyone would be proclaiming it as a marvel of new broadcast media. But, nope, [it’s] just the BBC humbly doing its thing.”

The lockdown has proved ripe material for topical comedy, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph. On Radio 4 there is the brilliant virus-themed revival of Down the Line, Rhys Thomas’s spoof phone-in show (available via BBC Sounds). And one of the all-time-great radio comedies, Cabin Pressure (2008-14), is enjoying a repeat run. John Finnemore’s genius-tinged sitcom about a tiny charter airline, starring Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole and Benedict Cumberbatch, seems more hilarious now than when it was first broadcast. Another treat is What’s Funny About… (Radio 4 Extra), which has Peter Fincham and Jon Plowman interviewing the writers and stars of shows such as The Vicar of Dibley, Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder and The Thick of It. The results are “affectionate, creative and illuminating” – much like, in a similar fashion, Rule of Three, the “excellent comedy analysis” podcast from writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris.