(Updated 25.07.2021, originally published 4.02.2014)
If you’re thinking of taking an English test, BBC radio podcasts are a must. Most of them come from regular BBC radio shows. However, some of them have been designed specifically for students of English as a foreign language. It is well worth browsing their website for free downloadable podcasts (http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts). The following might be useful:
- 6-minute English: for students around B1. Sometimes it is too pedagogical. It somehow reminds me of the TV shows for learners of English broadcast some 30-40 years ago (or some rather successful TV & radio shows being shown today). Having said that, they’re OK if you simply want to listen to something in English on your way to work, while doing the household chores, or right before an exam. You can also listen to 6-minute grammar, and to 6-minute vocabulary. [B1 and above]
- The English we speak: to learn idioms. Each show explains the meaning and usage of one particular idiom.
- The Listening Project: The BBC and the British Library have been travelling the country since 2012, asking ordinary people to have real conversations about their relationships, worries, parenthood, illnesses, social issues…The aim is to capture real conversations to be broadcast now, but also to be archived by the British Library, preserving them for future generations, as a sort of time capsule. As these are real conversations (not interviews by BBC hosts), the level of language is much more informal, in terms of the vocabulary being used, and the speed of delivery; besides, regional accents and colloquialisms are present. These conversations might very well be part of any English exam.[C1 and above]
- phone-in shows: current affairs shows where listeners are asked to phone in and contribute. Typically, the questions asked are phrased as dilemmas (should we…? What’s your take on…?). Again, another staple of listening comprehension exams. You can also listen to other phone-in shows in local radio stations, such as Vanessa Feltz’s show on BBC Radio London and many others in local radio stations.
- BBC Radio 4 Six O’Clock News– daily news reports not just from the UK, but from around the world. The language used is rather formal and cultured, showcasing extremely rich vocabulary. Some of the reports are monologues by the reporter, which is somehow similar to what can be found in some listening comprehension tests. The speakers have both RP (standard) and regional accents, especially Scottish and Irish accents. [B2 and above]. You could also listen to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
- From Our Own Correspondent: This show has been on air since the 1950s. Interesting for those of you interested in geography, history, politics…BBC correspondents around the world share their reports and views of their area through almost literary monologues. Yes, reports do tend to have this imperialistic, paternalistic overtone. And yet, to learn English, they can come in very handy. Besides the subject and language used, the reporters tend to have this perfect speaking voice and enunciation; and they use the kind of vocabulary which can only be found in essays or novels, so they can also be useful to prepare for writing tasks. In the last few years, the BBC is also broadcasting once a month From Our Home Correspondent, about current affairs in the UK. In both cases, sometimes the texts read by the reporters are published on the BBC News website as news. Google the title of the report, and see if you’re lucky to find it so you can have a near word-by-word transcript. [C1-C2]
- Woman’s Hour: Daily show which has been on air since 1946. It deals with female issues. Many different subjects are tackled, typically current affairs, from a female perspective. [B2 and above]
- Word of Mouth: show about the English language, linguistics, and the influence of language in society and vice versa, hosted by Michael Rosen. Further information here. Recommended for English language enthusiasts. [C1 and above]
- 5 Minutes On: Topical news podcast featuring real-life stories behind the headlines from BBC News.
Culture, literature and music-related podcasts:
- Bookclub and World Book Club: shows featuring interviews with world-class writers, discussing their books. More information about the shows here.
- Desert Island Discs: the show, which has been on air since 1942, features celebrities and artists sharing the soundtrack of their lives. Some of the guests include Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May; Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock, The Office); Christopher Nolan (director of such films as Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk); Stephen Hawking; Annie Lennox; Charlie Brooker (creator or Black Mirror); fashion designer Stella McCartney; Ed Sheeran; Tom Hanks; writer Marian Keyes; David Beckham; Bruce Springsteen; Kylie Minogue; Dame Judi Dench; James Corden; the late educationalist Sir Ken Robinson; and the late singer George Michael.
- Mastertapes: Music stars discuss the making of their albums and most famous songs, and perform some of them in front of a live audience. Guests include Robbie Williams, Tom Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Noel Gallagher, Elvis Costello and Sir Paul McCartney.
- We Write the Songs: Take That frontman and award-winning singer-songwriter Gary Barlow speaks to other acclaimed songwriters about their writing process. Guests include Sir Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow and fellow Take That member Robbie Williams.
- This Cultural Life: leading figures from the world of art and culture open up about the formative influences and inspirations that fired their creative imagination.
The Secret Life of Teachers (2020): weekly discussion about what life is like behind the school gates.
*I know, I tend to use mainly British materials. Guilty as charged. If you’re looking for American radio podcasts, please go to npr.org (National Public Radio). They share most of their programmes as podcasts, and they tend to include the transcripts as well.
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