For any Podthinker, describing whatever podcast happens to be under review is job one. Typically, that job is pathetically easy: "It's two guys talking about kung fu movies in the basement", say, or "It's two guys talking about indie rock in the basement". Accurately conveying the nature of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's The Night Air [iTunes link], however, is a much taller order. In fact, it's downright difficult. Happily, blessedly, refreshingly difficult.
One might call it a breath of fresh air, and given the program's slogan, "Breathe it in", that's appropriate. Despite seven years in existence and distribution by a major national broadcaster, The Night Air is very much its own thing, a show of a form that, despite the widest possible range of listening, your Podthinker has never even hears imitated, let alone duplicated. It's more pure experience than simple listening material, and it's experience not possible in any other medium. The pithiest encapsulation might be to call it an "audio collage", though the term carries an incorrect connotation of slapdashedness. "Themed, soundtracked public radio remixes" is a less elegant string of words, but it's truer.
The Night Air picks a topic each week — family, salt, fire, fidelity, disco — and, armed with the ABC's vast radio broadcast archives, cuts and pastes a variety of speeches, coversations and comments on that topic together into a whole new entity. The scissors are the the editing room's splicers; the glue is all kinds of neat (mostly ambient, sometimes illbient) music. The result must be heard to be understood; as a listener, the effect is of floating through space and time on a series of musical rivers while voices heard off from all directions speak their context-free piece on the week's subject.
The lack of context to the clips and the free-forminess it encourages separates The Night Air's productions most sharply from the thousand other (primarily This American Life-inpired) audio documentaries around. Any one episode contains the voices of sages, crackpots, youngsters, oldsters, advertisers, protestors, moralists, libertines, orators, mumblers, the living, the dead, celebrities and everymen — and it's not made explicit which are which! As confusing as that sounds, it's in practice a beautiful thing; rather than being constructed by the producers, the show's backgrounds, segues and connective tissues of every kind are instead assembled in the listener's imagination, causing a richer experience than any scriptwriter could reliably craft. This is a program that — and don't labor under the impression that this quality isn't an astatine-grade rarity — trusts its listeners to process and assess what's being said. In the "Tower" episode, for instance, the recurring diatribes of a 9/11 conspiracy theorist are not introduced by a solemn announcer intoning that, yea, verily, we are about to hear the ravings of a madman; presumably, the audience has the advanced mental capacity required to figure that one out themselves.
The Night Air raises in the non-Australian listener — in this non-Australian listener, at least — a strong why-can't-we-have-something-like-this? stripe of jealousy. But it's the beauty of the podcast age that, well, we do have this, no matter where we happen to live and no matter what national media happens to dominate the local airwaves. More's the pity, then, that the ABC sees fit to make only four episodes available on the podcast feed at any one time. Public radio techies, you've been told, mostly by this Podthinker, time and time again: this handful-at-a-time nonsense is not acceptable, especially when the content is this so sonically delicious.
Format: themed, soundtracked public radio remixes
Running since: January 2002
Archive available on iTunes: four, just four
[Podthinker Colin Marshall wants to review more like this, please oh please. Recommend some at colinjmarshall at gmail, discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]