I can’t remember quite when it started but my week sometime in the last couple of years has become structured around weekly podcasts. Most of them are actually just podded radio shows from the BBC and NPR, though a couple are pod-only. Through the week I listen to The News Quiz (or the Now Show), In Our Time and Thinking Allowed (all BBC Radio 4), Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life (both NPR), and Boxcutters and The /filmcast (which is released in two separate programs, both created at the same time – the main one and the ‘after dark’). I am well aware that there are many others I could be listening to and that in the pod world this is a pretty conservative collection, though it certainly strikes a good balance between the trivial and the groundbreaking.
The News Quiz is a long-running Radio 4 panel game (apparently this is a genre) which in its present incarnation is hosted by Sandi Toksvig. It is presumably fairly tightly scripted although some guests might need that more than others. I am not entirely sure when it’s on in the UK but the podcast is almost always available on Saturday morning which is great if one is going to make pancakes or something similar (and also I generally find Radio National on a Saturday morning is patchy). They say young Americans these days learn all about the news from Jon Stewart, well, I learn about the news from the newspaper and the radio, but I learn about the English news/ the way the English understand the news, from the News Quiz. It also has very funny people on it, like Jeremy Hardy (today’s one has Armando Ianucci on it, who is one of my favourite comedic performers-writers, but he’s not very funny in it, indeed the whole of today’s program is a bit of a dud). The News Quiz rotates with the Now Show, which is a more outright satirical (but still topical) show with comedy songs, impressions etc. I suppose on a general basis I enjoy the News Quiz more because it allows for flights of fancy and is arguably less conservative in the way satire is often, unfortunately, quite conservative. But good Now Show is better than mediocre News Quiz. I do enjoy the ebb and flow of both shows: each always starts strongly, and peters out over its run, so that by the last one you are hanging out for the next one to start because they dry up.
In Our Time is Melvyn Bragg’s panel discussion on diverse topics. Each show is dedicated to one subject and he has three experts to explain it. You can hear the sound of their teaspoons in china cups as they talk – it’s true. Some topics grab me more than others, and being one who feels there is too much science science in the world and not enough social science, I find the shows on ‘imaginary numbers’ etc a bit grueling, though I can usually get through (how much I retain is another matter, but it’s ok, there’s no test). The historical ones are often scintillating. Bragg has a very abrupt approach, gets straight into things and doesn’t mess around with summing-up, praise of guests, he just wants to get to the heart of shit. I like that.
Thinking Allowed is hosted by sociologist Laurie Taylor, of whom I know little. Well, that’s not true. I know a massive amount about him because he introduces every show with a bit of reminiscence from his professional or personal life. Taylor likes to joke around at the beginning, middle and end of TA, and he comes off jolly uncle more than anything, but the topics chosen for each show (there are usually two) jam together two phenomena that otherwise don’t belong together. Taylor draws his guests from people who have recently given conference papers or written books on, for instance, Russian juvenile detention or the stigma of death. It’s great stuff.
I occasionally listen to things on BBC iPlayer too, shows you’re not allowed to download but have to listen to straight from the computer. But the above are my essentials (also the BBC Film Program, I forgot about that, once again, some good interviews and historical material, not always overall so relevant to me).
From the US, I do enjoy the /filmcast. This is an hour-plus-long discussion by three youngish men (some might say, film geeks) living in three different parts of the US, talking about new films and film news, and then discussing a film. These guys are presumably half my age and I have to say there are times when their ignorance of things I think of as important films stuns me (similarly when they talk about mainstream films I think of as tossed-off trash as significant cinema seemingly often because they saw it at the age of 12) but by the same token, most of the time they are streets ahead of me in what they know which is great. Although a lot of it, particularly recently, is junk about superhero films which is less great. But the interplay between them is really good (if occasionally, to use a term they themselves often use, sophomoric) and while I probably only end up seeing about 10% of the films they review, there’s still a huge amount to enjoy about this show.
NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is a much more structured, longer version of the News Quiz (in fact they subtitle it, ‘the NPR News Quiz’). It’s a lot more showbiz and listeners call in. The panelists are drawn from a small pool of writers and performers who I have otherwise never heard of, except P J O’Rourke, but who in the main are very amusing people with sharp wits. What always surprises me about WWDTM is that all the segments are quite easy but one, where a caller has to guess which of three bizarre stories is true. I always get this wrong and I can’t imagine how anyone could consider this a fair fight, particularly considering most of the others – such as the limerick where you have to guess the last word of the last line – are piss easy. Never mind. Always a funny and enjoyable show and, like the News Quiz, you learn a little fact, and a lot more about how Americans get their news.
This American Life is a gem, of course, though I will say this about it: it is a good example of Americans’ bad habit of assuming that America is the world, because the stories in This American Life can come from anywhere in the world, mind you, they almost always come from the USA. The show is divided up into ‘acts’ that relate to a central theme, and can go from outright radio journalism of the highest calibre, to stand up comedy bits, or personal stories/interviews. It’s always very well done, and fascinating.
Boxcutters is the only regular podcast in my regimen which is Australian. That’s because I augment all of the above with Radio National programs at regular times, or even sometimes podcasted too. Boxcutters is much more ramshackle and off the cuff; at its weakest, it’s the weakest of all of these shows (I’m thinking particularly of the rather lazy humour) but it’s also pertinent to me as a consumer and gives me a lot of great information about the media. It has two permanent hosts – Josh Kinnal and Brett Cropley – and at present is rotating part-time permanent hosts on a confusing occasional basis, but they are all very fine (that said, I feel particularly pleased when Courtney Hocking is guest host; I know nothing about her except that she is funny). Josh Kinnal has the peculiar (but spreading?) habit of pronouncing his ‘r’s American style, even though he is not American. Is this the Australian International accent?
It’s hard to get into the habit of podcasts, particularly as they don’t just show up on your ipod with a little icon of toast popping out of a toaster or the sun coming up or a butler bringing them to you on a tray, to say, your new podcasts have arrived: you have to refresh your iTunes and make them happen, then administer to cleaning out your old podcasts and putting in new ones, it’s a hassle and as arduous as working on a farm milking cows and mucking out stables. I suppose it would be fatuous to say the above (as part of a proper diet including healthy slabs of Radio National) keep me informed and in touch, because I’m really not, particularly. But I do feel I am more informed than I would otherwise be. Well done PC Pod.