Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Blank on Blank

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Vital stats:
Format: the bits of interviews you weren’t meant to hear
Episode duration: 5m-11m
Frequency: weekly

“For journalists of all stripes, we are helping them realize the untapped potential of their work as dynamic, fresh content in a new, rapidly changing multimedia world.” You’ll easily find this lightly tortured phrase on the about page of Blank on Blank [RSS] [iTunes], though you may struggle to draw meaning from it. The verbiage farther down inspires little more confidence, describing the show’s goal of “creating a sustainable nonprofit media model through a combination of corporate sponsors, underwriters, grants, foundation support, private donations, licensing agreements, production fees, and media partnerships.” On the surface, this seems appealing enough; inside my head, I at best hear the garbled, mystifying drone of Charlie Brown’s teacher, and at worst view the howling abyss into which anyone’s knowledge about the future and even nature of media and journalism have fallen.

Put straight, Blank on Blank podcasts bits and pieces of interviews that didn’t make it into their intended contexts. It offers snippets of previously conducted conversations (sometimes long previously conducted ones) with well-known figures, selected to showcase particularly unguarded or simply unusual moments. If any intersection of subject and topic could sell me on this format, Andre Agassi discussing the mullet of his heyday [MP3] can. Catch up on the show’s archives, and you’ll also hear Martin Scorsese on his jones for driving with the stereo on [MP3], Ricky Gervais on his yearning for jetpacks [MP3], and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke telling off the “wankers” [MP3] that evidently surround him.

As often happens on public radio programs, death and family emerge as themes. You’ve got Chris Elliott reminiscing with his also comedy-doing father [MP3], novelist Peter Straub recalling how his daughter got him into soap operas [MP3], and Project Runway’s Tim Gunn on growing up as the son of a sports-loving FBI agent [MP3]. You’ve got a lady who fed Bob Marley pudding in his final days [MP3], Bono on his father’s own seemingly puddingless final days [MP3], and playwright Thomas Bradshaw on the proper deployment of funeral humor [MP3]. Recorded with everything from Skype to microcassettes and often not intended for broadcast of any kind, these segments would seem refreshingly public radio-unready. But they also come packaged in neat, brief segments, framed by the host with the kind of intros and outros called “chatty” by those who have worked in public radio for a very long time.

Astute observers of The Shifting Media Landscape™ will find Blank on Blank especially fascinating for its strange sunderedness, pulled as it is halfway toward the ostensibly free but secretly restrictive forms of public radio and halfway toward the undeniably free but rapidly habit-bound forms of podcasting. It delivers listening enjoyment in and of itself, certainly, but it also showcases the frustrating situation of the modern public radio experiment, almost all of which go nearly too far for a producer’s comfort, and almost none of which go far enough for a listener’s complete satisfaction. For this listener’s, anyway. Given the talky nature of the show, this dovetails with another thesis I throw around from time to time: the journalism geeks have long led public radio, but for all their strengths, journalism geeks just aren’t conversation geeks.

Natural conversation, so four and a half years of Podthinking has taught me, is the main thing podcasters understand. They can take it to excess, as any former enthusiast of the dominant Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girl Bullshitting About Culture genre may tell you, but at least they have the instinct. I suspect the rigors of legitimate radio journalism, at least as practiced over the past thirty years, have prioritized beating down that conversational instinct above all else. Here we have the main reason to value Blank on Blank: not because it offers us celebrities made human — how much interest can you realistically gin up for the bitter soul-searching of Kelly Slater? — but because it offers us journalists made human. What does it say that mostly in these sorts of outtakes do you hear interviewers share stories, compare notes, lay bare their real curiosity, and joke — honestly joke, not crowd-pleasingly joke — with an interviewee? It says no praise for the past, definitely, but makes tantalizing promises for the future. I guess let’s round up some more corporate sponsors, underwriters, grants, foundation support, private donations, licensing agreements, production fees, and media partnerships.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]