Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: XO

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Some podcasts make their way to their Podthinker on recommendation from a friend. Others, readers specifically request reviews of via e-mail. Others still come from random walks through the iTunes directory. But there turns out to be a whole 'nother sort altogether: the kind found by punching the phrase "I have a ham radio" into Google.

The first hit from such a search is the feed of XO: An Internet Show by Keith McNally, in the Style of This American Life [RSS] [iTunes]. While your Podthinker would normally nod at this and promptly return to his business, two gleaming points caught his eye. One of the episodes [MP3] was listed as an audio adaptation of Photopia, a work of interactive fiction by Adam Cadre, one of your Podthinker's very favorite writers of stuff on the net. Also, McNally's domain, KeithCourage.com, is named after one of the top twenty best protagonists in the entire Turbografx-16 library.

Google's steady hand guided your Podthinker to this podcast because it grew from what appears to have been McNally's previous project in the medium, I Have a Ham Radio. That evidently started out as a music mix show with stream-of-consciousness commentary captured by McNally on a handheld recorder as he wandered the city streets. XO retains this type of talk, but it's now on at least equal footing with the music. McNally still seems to record portably, any time and anywhere, but now he interweaves his own voice with a cornucopia of music, sound effects and the voices of others.

Is this "the style of This American Life" to which the title refers? Yes and no. McNally, best known as a once-recurring figure on Keith and the Girl, does indeed harness what he calls the "crazy effectiveness" of music and speech carefully edited together — orchestrated, almost. But XO definitely lacks the manner and formality of Ira Glass' brainchild. This has produced a number of bitterly angry reviews on iTunes, penned by the kind of people who are just irresistibly fun to wind up. In an early episode of recorded conversations between he and his mom on a road trip [MP3], McNally talks about how he technically listens to a whole lot of talk radio, if one counts podcasts as talk radio. Podcasts, to his mind, are superior, even superior to public radio, because they're free from all the standard artifice, free to be creative, free to be improvisational, free to be personal.

And if you're looking for a showcase of the sort of creative, improvisational personality of which podcasts are capable, look no further. There is no way to exaggerate the joy your Podthinker felt, after hearing so many hours of slavish adherence to the usual imitation-radio and me-too-podcast conventions, listening to the first few episodes of XO and discovering something genuinely different, something honestly expressive of its creator's mind. McNally knows no fear of variety or of disclosure, meditating with impunity and without censorship on a range of subjects as broad as Alice in Chains, his middle school social struggles, Scott Pilgrim, long bus trips, his near-worshipful obsession with the Garden State trailer, booze, the layer of garbage that covers Brooklyn and the looming specter of death.

Were McNally simply yammering about this stuff in his basement, his show wouldn't be anything special, but it's got one big thing that the vast majority of yammering-in-basement podcasts lack: craftsmanship. He even put together a whole episode on the concept [MP3] and how it's exemplified by the likes of TAL, Radio Lab and A Life Well Wasted, his inspirations. He pulls freely from the world of media for his art, cutting and pasting from albums, videos, radio and even other podcasts, all with a concentration and deliberateness that says, "This is on purpose." Some might consider the whole affair self-indulgent, undisciplined, or even parasitic. Your Podthinker calls it the future of audio entertainment.

Vital stats:
Format: a "personal journal" (iTunes lingo) of speech and music
Duration: 35m-1h15m
Frequency: 2-4 per month
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]