In The Podcast Review, Jessie Borrelle reviews some of the highlights and lowlights in the international podcasting spectrum. Originally commissioned by and published on Kill Your Darlings Journal 2012/2013.
In January 1930, Harold Vivien invited 250 volts of electricity to pour through his body. Vivien was the chief control operator at the Columbia Broadcasting Company in New York, and he didn’t become a human transmitter for shits and giggles. He did it so that an address by King George V – the king chronicled in that film – would be heard by millions of transatlantic listeners.
During the live broadcast, a now nameless butterfingers in Vivien’s control room had tripped over the generator wires that energised the network. In a flash, Vivien grasped the disconnected cables, restoring the circuit, channelling the king’s speech with his agitating body. Shaking with electric shocks, he held on for twenty continuous minutes.
In the last decade, we’ve witnessed remarkable advancements in mobile communication technologies, further augmented by the Web 2.0 evolution. While many traditional print giants have crept glacially, suspiciously, towards future technologies, progressive organisations and independent publishers have emerged as victors in this new online ecology. Authority and autonomy has shifted from institutions to individuals.
We are now all Harold Vivien. We have the medium in our hot little hands (the technology, the wires) and we can mediate the content (the current, the broadcast) and serve it directly to the audience. Acting as both a publisher and distributor for cultural producers, the internet’s capacity to harvest and host independent media environments is enormous. And it’s also very exciting.
Firing up a microphone to record a conversation, or pulling words off a page and pushing them into sound, is a cinch thanks to the proliferation of user-friendly (and often open-source or free) software for recording and sound-editing. Uploading and publishing podcasts is also easy with online blogging platforms and hosting sites. Subscribing to podcasts is painless: your computer or mobile device laps them up using syndication or RSS services – web feeds that provide a update of a website’s recent content.
Succinct and digestible, short-form multimedia content has acclimatised effortlessly to this new media ecology, testifying to the internet’s promise of accessibility. The adaptable nature of the web capitulates perfectly to remote and isolated places, peoples and cultures. An exercise in hemispheric dispersion, this digital democracy grants us access to and from the world. Offline, national borders are defined by political demarcation; online – with the exception of censored states – geography finds purchase through interest bases.
We can listen to conversations made in a parking lot in Montreal or a diner in San Francisco, and in turn, we can listen to stories made on a wharf in Auckland or in a warehouse in Melbourne. We can listen to each other’s stories on a tram or in a sedan, as we clip our toenails or shampoo the dog.
Over the next few months, we’ll review some of the highlights and lowlights in the international podcasting spectrum, looking at how adventurous and creative radio makers have secured audiences outside their traditional broadcast range. We’ll see evidence of how the medium is often best employed to discuss the form and function of culture, with online broadsheets and classic magazine-style formats well represented among podcasts.
We’ll dip into the following programs: Wiretap, created and hosted by the idiosyncratic author Jonathan Goldstein, from CBC Canada; Chicago Public Radio’s cult This American Life; WNYC’s Radiolab; and the BBC’s unmatched Jon Ronson On. These shows inspired Sydney independent radio station FBi to launch All the Best, a catalogue of harbour city stories – now syndicated nationally – and Melbourne-based antipodean audio journal Paper Radio (of which I am an executive producer), as well as many other local and independent producers we’ll shine a light on.
We are basking in content, and though not all of it is necessarily good, the luxury of discernment is now held by the audience and not by the institution. Writers, producers and artists are no longer dependent on industry resources or recognition to arbitrate their work. What is most thrilling about the podcast as a literary and cultural destination is that it exposes independent producers to an expansive and diverse host of listeners, and vice versa. If you find your niche, you can scratch it. And if your niche can find you, it can subscribe to you.
99 Per Cent Invisible
‘A tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.’
Roman Mars is the kind of person who makes a thing I was convinced no one could make much better – heaps better. That is a pretty big claim, and a mighty grand claim to pin on a such modest little podcast.
With field recordings, music and interview-worthy people as his tools, Mars patrols the city with his microphone, and digs, and digs, and dusts off his findings like a…sonic archeologist? The podcast is glued together with dextrous production values and a certain effortlessness that you can guarantee takes a lot of effort.
The first episode is only five minutes long. It’s tiny, but it’s big enough to throw up questions as deceptively simple as ‘Is this sound or noise’, and not philosophically, not in an annoying-smug-debate-by- pseudo-intellectuals way, but in a pragmatically-and-lucidly- answered-through-expert-and- interesting-banter way. This is how it goes.
One of the most compelling episodes is Invisible-11, where Roman and his guest Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain, talk frank about the infinite stupidness of a modern world designed and built almost exclusively around the burning of oil. In five minutes they raise goosebumps and get your Google on faster than you’d care to admit.
Recommended podcasts? All of them, but here’s three to whet your thing:
Invisible-67 Broken Window: ‘You have to make your own fun, if you don’t, it’s entertainment’
Invisible-32 Design for Airports: ‘Some airports attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort’
Invisible-11 Undesigned: ‘It’s the tyranny of the lack of design, the tragedy of building a bad idea, on a thoughtless notion, on a careless plan’
When you listen to Other People, you’re hearing ‘In-depth, inappropriate interviews with authors’.
Each episode, you’ll hear two voices: one will always be an author of some repute, and the other will always be Brad Listi, also an author. Listi is the engine that drives the podcast and The Nervous Breakdown – a magazine that lives on the internet and has featured the writings of literary luminaries Bret Easton Ellis, Jennifer Egan and Chuck Palahniuk. Listi is a college professor and author of bestselling book Attention, Deficit, Disorder, published in 2006.
Listi converses with authors, not writers – the two modes of existence distinguished only by the divine act of publication. He explains the compulsion to create a literary, interview-based podcast was the desire to get to the guts of why others also pursue the spiritually punishing activity of writing fiction (and occasionally non-fiction).
He’s talked to a lot of people, including Blake Butler (There is No Year), Adam Levin (The Instructions), Etgar Keret (Israeli author of the excellent short story collection The Girl on the Fridgeintroduced to many via This American Life) and Hari Kunzru, the British author of The Gods Without Men, Transmission and The Impressionist.
The podcast is published bi-weekly, which in this instance means twice a week; not fortnightly, but every Sunday and Wednesday. Each episode averages an hour. Listi warms your ears with a monologue. The monologue is oft an unrelated, observational anecdote from the podcaster’s life, deceptively nonchalant but so detailed in execution I suspect it to be a kind of literature. He says it lets people know who he is. There’s a little music at the tail of the podcast but other than that the interview with the featured author is a straight up to-and-fro.
Listi isn’t in the New Yorker Fiction Podcast–esque business of intensive literary analysis. His mode is more speculative, more visceral, as he explains in an interview at Me and My Big Mouth: ‘There’s not a lot of plot synopsis or quiet, intellectual discussion. It’s more unruly than that. It’s about the authors as human beings, in all of their messy glory.’
That’s okay, Brad. Your podcast is helpful and frank, and you’ve got a knack for extracting truths, like gold-filled teeth, from the open mouths of authors.
The process of being a human is necessary to the process of being a writer, which is necessary to the process of being an author, which is necessary to the process of being interviewed on Other People. In a discussion of narrative unity and plot cohesion, Listi asks Hari Kunzru outright: ‘Making it a novel is no easy feat, and so how do you do that? What makes it congeal?’
The host’s inquisitive tone draws honest and insightful accounts of the craft of writing from some of today’s most interesting cultural producers. Discussions between Listi and his guests run the gamut from the quality and mutability of language, to the political forces of our era, instinct, book matter, the value of sexual energy, the trouble with plot development and the inevitability of anxiety.
The success of Listi’s interview series is succinctly captured in his own words, words he used to describe the methodology of writing a realistic twenty-something male protagonist, ‘And the narrator, I should mention, is of average intelligence. That was important to me, to try and do that. To render him as utterly confused, and searching. Too many young narrators are wise beyond their years.’
Earlier this year, Listi reflected on the dangers of reading criticism of your work, advice which inadvertently lends itself to the danger of listening to too much advice from Other People: ‘You can’t spend too much time thinking about what people are thinking about it, otherwise you’d never get any work done, I imagine.’
The New Yorker Out Loud
New Yorker Out Loud isn’t the New Yorker Fiction podcast, the New Yorker Fiction podcast is the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Hosted by fiction editor Deborah Treisman, the Fiction podcast is the sibling of Out Loud, which is hosted by editor of the magazine’s Culture Desk, Sasha Weiss.
Out Loud is a ‘series of weekly conversations about new items and coverage in The New Yorker Magazine’. Like a tiny sonic primer, the podcast scans the contents of the week’s edition, narrowing in on true features and hooky highlights.
Out Loud isn’t there to merely glean the goods that made it into print, but gives an entirely new dimension to the publication, in this the audio augments the static and assiduous nature of print with the more uncontrived and native quality of investigative conversation.
The writers and cultural figures who are either the subject or the author of that week’s material talk with Sasha Weiss, or sometimes interview one another, providing unscripted acumen that is frequently absent from the page, even if not by design.
Sasha Weiss isn’t always the most charismatic interviewer, but she’s engaging enough, if not a little self-conscious — a quality that is audible and could be construed as a touch smug. The Fiction Podcast’s Deborah Triesman is a more fastidious and delicate interviewer with a slow and soft tempo.
There’s the occasional cross-contamination between the Fiction Podcast and Out Loud, as you can imagine, what with the charter of Out Loud seeping naturally into the Fiction Podcast’s territory: ‘Each month, we invite a writer to choose a story from the magazine’s archives to read and discuss.’
This is the anatomy of each podcast: theme tune (buhm-buhm-bah); Triesman introduces story, author and contributor; quick burst of the contributor reading their selected story; Triesman and the contributor pow-wow; the story is recited; they analyse and evaluate the story; theme tune (buhm-buhm-bah).
The podcast is stylistically clean, bare. Some writing is better suited to the page than to sound, but that’s not the point here, because something interesting always happens when a story is read out loud. Texts are selected for their literary kudos. Kudos depends on how the writer writes and what the choosing author values, which sounds obvious, and that’s because it is. It’s interesting to hear them talk of their craft like this.
So if you don’t subscribe to the New Yorker, or have time to read it, now you have something to talk to your handsome barista about while you mentally shave his moustache off.
Recommended podcasts. Here are six to treat your ears.
Out Loud: Find it on iTunes
1. D. T. Max on David Foster Wallace / September 10, 2012: D. T. Max talks to Sasha Weiss about the challenges of writing a biography of David Foster Wallace, who described himself as “an exhibitionist who wants to hide, but is unsuccessful.”
2. Beloved Beşiktaş / March 7 2011: Elif Batuman talks to Blake Eskin about what it’s like to watch a game with Beşiktaş fans (an Istanbul soccer team), and how their devotion expresses itself in love poetry and obscene chants.
3. Dear Miss Renault / December 21 2012: Daniel Mendelsohn on the books that changed his life. Mendelsohn wrote about his boyhood correspondence with the novelist Mary Renault.
Fiction: Find it on iTunes
1. David Means reads Raymond Carver / October 14, 2010. David Means reads “Chef’s House,” by Raymond Carver.
2. Joyce Carol Oates reads Eudora Welty / March 10 2009. Joyce Carol Oates reads Eudora Welty’s short story ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From’.
3. David Sedaris reads Miranda July / November 1 2012. David Sedaris reads “Roy Spivey,” by the writer and filmmaker Miranda July.
It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
If you think of This American Life as the squishy science of podcasting, and RadioLab as the hard science, then WireTap has to be pure pseudo-science.
Jonathan Goldstein makes an art of telephony on the radio, or something. He calls up an ensemble of lovers, friends (Gregor and Howard are highlights), relatives and other categories of people and extracts stories from them, sometimes like a splinter, sometimes like a scoop of ice cream.
Once described as ‘something between borscht-belt comedy and Franz Kafka,’ in Wiretap, truth and fable are not indulged a distinction, and thus, generally the mood could amount to quizzical pathos. Goldstein’s voice is coarse but gentle, like weathered leather. It’s very deadpan, if you like deadpan, then meet your guru.
Buried in the archives are gems from the likes of David Rakoff, Heather O’Neill and David Sedaris. You probably shouldn’t still be reading this, get thee to an iTunes!
Recommended podcasts. All of them, but here’s three to whet your thing:
My Imposter / season 6, 2009: Jonathan discovers a fake Jonathan Goldstein posing as the real thing on Twitter, and then confronts his imposter.
No man is an island / season 6, 2009: Howard starts his very own country within the borders of his apartment: the first nation with wall-to-wall carpeting.
Human Nature / season 6, 2008: Flying cows that leak milk from the sky, and a hippopotamus that hangs upside down like a sloth: Heather O’Neill retelling The Island of Dr. Moreau.
You Look Nice Today
You Look Nice Today is the sound of Twitter on tape. The three hosts stumbled upon one another in the social media platform’s infancy, and were encouraged by another tweeter to document their conversations in a more substantial medium.
By their own admission, ‘You Look Nice Today is an audio program that has been prepared by and for ‘adults.’ As a Journal of Emotional Hygiene, our program tackles many of the painful issues typically encountered by persons of this awkward age. Consequently, an uncontrollable level of candor and seemingly non-stop tsunami of profanity may be encountered by listeners. Please do not present this material to non-adults.’
The journal is staffed by Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies), celebrated for his profound contributions to the productivity movement through the development of GTD software (literally, Getting Things Done); Adam Lisagor (@lonelysandwich), a blogger, developer and video producer; and the lesser-known Scott Simpson (@scottsimpson).
The YLNT trio drive a conversation that doesn’t observe the natural laws of physics, but there is an internal logic to their exchanges. Sequences of a larger unstructured, conversation are edited into discrete passages. A ukulele-and-hand-claps melody valets the listener from one section to the next, with aural ‘subheadings’ or segues that manifest in the computerised voice of one ‘Dr Nguyen’. Dr Nguyen dispenses unrelated and inexplicable sentences: for instance, ‘awkward cake’, ‘do you have a question for the sandwich’ and ‘let’s have breakfast for dinner’. Parts of the discussions are sometimes punctuated with sonic loops, samples and other ephemeral sound effects.
The podcasts are irregularly scheduled and are usually 30 to 40 minutes in length. In one episode their satirical analysis can consume topics as expansive as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the global labour market, allergies, negotiating skills, Stanley Kubrick, packing boxes, self-loathing, Corey Haim, reservations about public transport, Orson Welles, the possible benefits of perforating money in order to detach smaller denominations, and scaling currency so its value is in proportion to its size.
Lisagor, who edits and produces the show, says the journal was a natural conclusion of an immediate and complementary camaraderie, and explains that the output, often described as ‘disappointingly inconsistent’, is the unfortunate consequence of time poverty and existential anxiety. ‘There’s nothing to really make you face your demons like having to listen to yourself say questionable things on mic for eight hours and try and make yourself sound better than you are, it’s really not a fun process for me.’
The title of each show is typically named after a key theme in the conversation. In their inaugural podcast, ‘Morning Powder‘, they discuss a demographic profile of their listenership, revealing not just male-dominated audience: ‘we skew anti-female’. In the episode, they sport a self-conscious irreverence and seem uninterested in rationalising their appeal to a male audience. Rather, they address the presumption of offensiveness to the lady race with a tongue-in-cheek brainstorm about the potential for product sponsorship that would ameliorate any sweat-inducing sexism. This kind of thing is their bread and butter. And they paste it on thick.
‘The Tux Age‘, an episode from 2010, wiggles through plagiarism, online identity theft, internet etiquette, old-timey radio announcements and cynical pick-up strategies. Discussion of the latter results in an appreciative critique of the allegedly ‘classic’ technique of selecting a dance partner who isn’t aesthetically burdened in order to solicit respect for assumed integrity, ‘You dance with an old lady, or a baby, at a wedding, and everybody loves you. The men are jealous and the women are wondering how fast that cummerbund will come off.’
‘The Tux Age’ hears the YLNTers speculate about the difficulties of communicating in pre-modern life, before bleeding into the disarming hypothesis that the industrial revolution was prompted by the need to mass produce miniature tuxedos to clothe a class of baby butlers. Mann, Lisagor and Simpson often quickly exhaust topics and subjects, so the secret history of America lasts only long enough to service their whims.
Hyperliterate, educated, articulate and fluent in Western pop culture, the team’s references are often expressly American and culturally niche, lending an obscurity to the show that may result in a finite appeal. The three YLNTers are also a little self-congratulatory. You might find it irritating, obtuse and insensible, but don’t let that stop you from listening to it.
Their banter is acerbic, with no fixed tempo, and isn’t always explicitly ridiculous. The guys move between farcical hypothetical, opinion and commentary with a humour so athletic and politically agnostic that everything from domestic violence to environmentalism, diet, class, gender and humour itself is sacrificed in the course of a conversation. If you believe jokes trivialise and sanction political inequality, YLNT is not funny. If you believe jokes don’t have to behave ethically, it’s funny. But either way, it’s satire.
HowSound is an anatomy lesson for both cultural voyeurs and cultural producers. Part instruction manual, part sonic handbook HowSound pulls apart radio stories like a chef carving a Sunday roast, each cut is held up for close inspection and analysis. The tagline for the program is ‘The Backstory to Great Radio Storytelling’, which sums it up nicely. I probably could have avoided that roast metaphor entirely.
HowSound found its way into my headphones courtesy of Paper Radio’s talented producer and sound designer Jon Tjhia. I’m going to cheat a bit and pour his quote right into the belly of this recommendation.
‘HowSound is probably my most listened to podcast at the moment. I really like how it takes you on a back room tour of how really interesting radio is made, and dissects the storytelling.
‘It’s aimed at people who make radio, but honestly, it’s the closest I’ve found to middlebrow radio criticism — except that it’s hosted in very straightforward, sometimes mildly over simplistic, teacherly language.
‘Perhaps the best thing about it is that it’s just a great way to find out about radio pieces from everywhere (at least on the US public radio radar) — and to really invest a little brainspace to considering some of the issues they raise.’
While Jon described it as occasionally simplistic, it’s definitely not an Idiot’s Guide to the medium. In each edition Rob Rosenthal, a freelance producer, former Salt educator and teacher of Transom Workshops, walks the listener through a radio story. Rosenthal plays a portion of the story (sometimes all of it) and — depending on the producer’s degree of experience — traces the pattern, rationale and technique present in the piece.
The podcast varies from anecdotes about, say, swallowing your shyness (excellent insights for nascent producers) and interviewing difficult subjects, or story structure (there is a recent episode devoted entirely to napkin scribbles of story arcs). Listening to HowSound can be a revelatory experience, it isn’t an exercise in demystifying the art of auditory but rather more like an X-ray of the magical medium of storytelling.
See what we mean. Recommended podcasts:
Leaving a Mark.
A Trip To The Dentist,
The Green Lawns of Texas
Krulwich on Gorilla Cage Drama.
For the more nuts and bolts stuff:
My Kingdom for Some Structure
For Twitter lovers: