Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Off-Ramp

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Vital stats:
Format: L.A.-centric newsy culture segments
Duration: 20m-90m
Frequency: on average, weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

There’s a lot to say about how podcasting and public radio have interacted in Our Brave Age of New Media, but most of it would bore people. Public radio, alas, has had a much stronger effect on podcasting than podcasting has had on public radio, but the effects are interesting to think about nonetheless. At minimum, though, it’s pretty great that most public radio programs podcast. This enables you to, for instance, remotely scope out a city’s public radio situation before you move to that city. I’ll probably move to Los Angeles in the next year or two, so naturally, I’m submerging myself into all kinds of L.A.P.R. podcasts.

KPCC’s Off-Ramp [RSS] [iTunes] is one of the richest of these. I don’t quite know how to describe it except by the very, very dopey genre name “magazine show.” For those not into public radio, a magazine show assembles a bunch of loosely associated short pieces with lowish-medium to highish-medium newsiness value, unites them with a host’s voice, and calls it an hour. Off-Ramp’s concept is to keep more or less within the confines of Los Angeles, focusing on Los Angeles stuff: hidden wineries, anime conventions, Chicano rockers, “entertainment legends,” Phil Spector.

It actually seems to be a pretty amusing, informative, effective guide to Los Angeles culture, to the extent that there can be an “effective guide to Los Angeles culture.” I do not say this because I’m a displaced, embittered New Yorker who demands to know if you call this a bagel. I say this because L.A. contains so freakishly many types of culture that most attempts at making a Baedeker are doomed from their very conception. Fortunately, Off-Ramp doesn’t strain to be comprehensive, instead picking a series of cultural entities that might be interesting: a conversation with an obese nude model here, a search for L.A.’s most fêted hot dog jonts there. (There are even segments from The Dinner Party Download included, which remains, I’m saddened to inform you, just a bit too slick.)

While I can totally see how this radio kaleidoscope of neat L.A. stuff would be what you want to hear while driving around town, I can’t help but sometimes be irked by the short length of the individual segments. I’d normally have no choice but to rue whatever seems responsible at the time, but the Off-Ramp podcast feed provides longer versions of some of the show’s interviews and other reportage. The most fascinating stuff I’ve heard on the show comes in these “extras,” which includes an extended-mix around-the-picnic-table conversation with contributors to the L.A. literary journal Slake [MP3] or an uncut version of host John Rabe’s interview with the co-creator of Columbo [MP3], who’s evidently still writing new Columbo stories.

I am thus left in the awkward position of wishing that public radio would start to sound a little less like Off-Ramp and a little more like Off-Ramp’s podcast. Perhaps magazine shows could morph into, oh, novella shows, at least? While all the radio version’s quick hits about novelty food and entertainment-industry eccentrics reinforce my desire to move down there, but it’s the long-form stuff that really seals the deal.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]