Colin Marshall

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Re: Joyce

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: reading/exegesis/celebration of one sentence to one paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses
Episode duration: 5m-25m
Frequency: weekly

If you described the medium of podcasting to an aspirational American of sixty years ago — the kind with a complete shelf of Mortimer Adler-approved Great Books of the Western World, purchased whole — they’d imagine something like Frank Delaney’s Re: Joyce [RSS] [iTunes] as its primary use. For a time, we envisioned all forms media as potential delivery systems for read-along literary and historical lectures by learned, articulate middle-aged men, preferably from across the Atlantic. Delaney thoroughly embodies these qualities, and in fact he once received National Public Radio’s anointment as “the most eloquent man in the world.” I know because the quote appears prominently in the header of every page on his site, as it would on my own. NPR has never made a big deal of my articulateness, but if they ranked me even among the top twenty, I assume they’d grant me as much airtime as I need to say whatever I want.

This, in any case, is why Delaney will dominate America’s public airwaves once a week for the next 27 years to discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses. As least I assume he will, since my mind can’t process the notion that NPR wouldn’t see fit to commit all necessary resources to an exegesis of one of the most important novels ever written in the English language by the man they named the most eloquent in the world. Though I personally listen to the show as a podcast, my brittle value system requires me to believe that other families gather round the wireless each and every Wednesday to hear celebrated one more facet of Joyce’s linguistic, structural, and sheer Dublinistic acumen. The majority of the broadcasts only run between five and fifteen minutes, after all, which only slightly exceeds American radio’s ever-supercilicizing estimate of audience attention span. In fact, I’ve surely gotten to you far too late; you’ve no doubt already listened to every episode since the show’s inception two and a half years ago. I should instead point you to something more marginal, like Two and a Half Men. I hear it is a situation comedy.

But if you somehow have yet to catch up with Re: Joyce, you’d best start now. Delaney has thus far spent 141 episodes reading through Ulysses, at a pace of what seems like one line to one paragraph per. He doesn’t read slowly; he appreciates extensively. Each scrap of text sends him on a textual dig, excavating another corner of this dense labyrinth of references, allusions, multiple meanings, and simple jokes. (Simple to James Joyce, that is.) Delaney’s enthusiasm for this novel comes through in every single episode in a manner that feels freakishly untiring until you consider that Joyce’s fans value his writing for its own bottomlessness. The author claimed to have “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant," and thought this would grant the book "immortality." I read this on Ulysses’ Wikipedia entry, a page at which I recommend prospective listeners take a glance. Otherwise, they’ll get through twenty episodes wondering why they keep hearing about the same brief, snippy exchange between a couple of Irishmen named Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan.

Wait, Stephen Dedalus? The guy from that other James Joyce — novel? Autobiography? — book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? And who’s this Buck Mulligan? I thought Ulysses followed a guy named Bloom on a day’s walk through a stringently, near-autistically realistic description of early 20th-century Dublin. Didn’t they name the day of this supposed walk Bloomsday for that very reason? Questions like these, as well as the difficulty of some of the prose that prompts them, tend to put hopeful readers off the book. A hearty Virgil like Delaney can help them power through this wall, but his very appreciation of Ulysses — of its intricate craft, of the genius of its creator, of its sheer greatness — can at the same time discourage them again. Finding your own approach to any work of art that has become a monument to its own achievement can seem impossible. Someone pointing out that it’s full of patterns usually helps as much as it sounds like it would.

But unlike many lesser teachers of literature, Delaney doesn’t really insist that you comprehend. He clearly understands that sometimes, with a worthwhile book — often, with a worthwhile book like Ulysses, especially the first few times through — you’ve just got to roll with it. Whether you choose to read the novel first and then listen to Re: Joyce, listen to Re: Joyce as preparation for reading the novel, or read the novel along with Re: Joyce, I offer the same advice about listening to the podcast: just roll with it. You’ll quickly tire of hearing the name “Buck Mulligan” spoken so many times, but I assure you the feeling will pass. Listen to five or ten episodes at a sitting; forty or fifty in, you’ll find your listener’s mind has engaged with Delaney’s readerly mind, and accepted that it can’t contextualize everything right away. Unless you’re especially young, though, I recommend you start reading Ulysses without waiting for Re: Joyce’s completion, which Delaney has scheduled for his hundredth birthday in 2042. So we have an additional drama in the question of whether he’ll make it — and whether we’ll make it. The finished product could well turn out to be the most compelling possible endorsement for eschewing retirement in the name of continued active-mindedness. To put it mildly.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The F Plus

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: poor and/or freakish writing found on the internet, then read aloud
Episode duration: ~1h, plus the occasional special short
Frequency: weekly, in theory

The internet offers more of a chance than we’ve ever had to engage with the written word and with others who share our interests. As much fruit as this development has borne, The F Plus [iTunes] [RSS] reminds us that we’re dealing with, at best, a double-edged sword. Young “digital natives” aside, most internet users never prepared themselves for a life where they’d need to write anything at all, much less their everyday communication about the things most important to them. And who among us has adequately shielded himself against the universal human temptation to settle into a set of opinions and then retreat into an unthreatening — indeed, reinforcing — echo chamber? At the intersection of these two avenues of misfortune, this podcast taps into a considerable vein of comedy: almost 120 episodes’ worth, at this point, with no signs of resource depletion.

I don’t know whether anyone has written it as a rule of the internet, but for every interest, no matter how fringe, a forum must surely exist. Indeed, the fringier the interest, and so the deeper into the margins of society its practitioners must dwell, the more likely a forum somewhere supports it. The F Plus troupe — whom, for all my listening, still often sound to me like a barely differentiated gaggle of comedic-white-guy voices — scour these fora for the most bizarre, inept, or otherwise laughable posts, then read them out loud in funny voices. Some take pains to faithfully pronounce standard tics and errors — “LOL” becomes “lawl,” an apostrophe-less “I’m” becomes “im” — but that merely pours into the show’s abundant stream of cheap laughs. The deeper, more troubling humor, the kind that gives you as much of a pause as it does a chuckle, comes partially rooted in good old they-walk-among-us fear.

“You have just entered the very heart, soul, and life force of the internet,” reads Urban Dictionary’s top definition by far of the anonymous forum 4chan, to which I have added capital letters. “This is a place beyond sanity, wild and untamed.” And who dwells there? “You depend on us every day. We bag your groceries, we fix your computers. [ … ] We are 4channers. The people devoid of any time of soul or conscience, products of cynicism and apathy, spreading those very sentiments daily.” But this insistent nihilism, just slightly too aggressively dead-eyed to credit, bothers me less than do the punishing waves of ungrammatical self-righteousness this podcast rides. They wash in from all directions: from discussions of childrearing to body modification to something called “fat acceptance” to the relative merits of Stargate and Star Wars. And all those episodes came out recently; if I dug deeper, I’m sure I’d hear from, say, those guys who dress up as Gadget from Rescue Rangers. I understand they see themselves as persecuted, as do every group whose indignation earns the show’s mockery. “I worry that being indignant has almost replaced sex as the main pleasure of a section of the community,” once said novelist Ian McEwan. And you can’t spell “indignant,” after all, without “ig’nant.”

For all The F Plus’ entertainment value — high, by the way — I’m not at all sure I want to dig much deeper. This material discomfits, and not necessarily because of the fear it raises of encountering a frenulum-piercer or an omorashi fetishist or an unschooler in a dark alley. In their seedy anonymity, their self-perpetuating detachment from reality, their crude excess of every base emotion, and especially their sheer incompetence, these posts say things about humanity that we’d probably rather not hear — or, failing that, laugh hard enough to muffle. Encountering this sort of text in the wild, I find I can never actually envision a living, breathing human being typing it in the first place. I instinctively imagine, or simply hope, that I’m reading the work of a monster, or at least one of those hunched, greasy specters who squat on the public library’s computers. Still, nobody’s ever going to make me actually venture into these dampest corners of the internet, though each episode’s show notes provide the links to all the source material, should you dare cast your eyes upon it.

I myself swore off fora of almost all stripes — with, of course, a notable exception here and there — when I realized that internet arguments have, over and above the convictions you bring to them, an all-consuming power of their own. (I also realized that I have no convictions.) Anyone who’s laughed at that xkcd cartoon about someone being wrong on the internet knows what I mean, and understands the futility and waste inherent in that hapless stickman’s position. The F Plus ridicules these go-nowhere arguments and delusional agreement festivals alike. Rightly so, since they strike me as two sides of the same badly debased coin. Then again, if a fifteen-year-old in Wauganaukee can now, with the aid of the internet, find out that he is not, in fact, the only homosexual in the whole world, we’ve made a worthwhile trade-off. Trying to draw a meaningful line to wall that benefit off from that from the lively, completely incoherent discussions going on even now at OverflowingBra.com may, alas, prove a fool’s errand.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Bookclub

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: moderated conversations between an author and an audience
Episode duration: ~30m (except when Douglas Adams comes on
Frequency: monthly

Despite having grown up in America, I’ve cultivated an overwhelmingly British, or at least British Empire, roster of favorite writers: Anthony Lane, Geoff Dyer, Pico Iyer, Clive James, Ian Buruma, Jan Morris — the list keeps unfurling, mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. (Even those who seem potentially American, like Douglas Coupland, usually turn out to come from fish-nor-fowl places like Canada.) Sometimes I’ll find my own readers — those, in any case, who’ve never heard me on a podcast — surprised at my lack of an English accent. (Not that they can then get a fix on the oddly placeless one I do have.) Should I put my attraction to U.K. letters down to my failure to master American English, or did too much time spent among all these Brits — natives, transplants, sons of former possessions — cause that failure? Either way, a reader like me can’t help but feast upon a show like BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub [RSS] [iTunes], which offers a robust archive of discussions with many of these very writers.

James and Morris turn up, anyway, as does Coupland. So, too, do an array of British men and women of letters whom I’ve barely read yet have always relished hearing speak: a Martin Amis, say, or a David Mitchell, or a Stephen Fry. Ironically, my serious reading career began when, as a youngster, I got into crime novelist Elmore Leonard and, a bit later, political humorist P.J. O’Rourke, two names I imagine strike reading Brits as among the most American wordsmiths alive. Leonard got his start with Westerns and went on to chronicle the sunnily sordid lives of wisecracking Florida lowlifes; P.J. O’Rourke dares simultaneously to have a functioning wit and vote Republican. They discuss these matters and others with Bookclub host James Naughtie and select audiences of twenty or so readers on their respective episodes or the program. Though most certainly of Britain, the broadcast hardly limits itself to Britain.

We have here, as I more broadly call it, a festival of articulateness. This extends to those sitting below the stage, the “intimate group of readers” who come armed with questions for the author of the month. These they ask, play into stereotypes though it may, in what mostly sound like the watery, faintly offended voices of middle-aged, middle-class womanhood. But know, dear England, that I mean no offense by this. Their equivalents in the states would sound even worse: louder, gravely but obscurely offended, scattering sentence fragments with vain insistence. America has a problem with question quality at literary Q&As; people here would rather ramble, make a declaration of self, or confront the author with half-baked ideas and unbaked lawsuits. Bookclub, perhaps due to a rigorous selection process, suffers no such problem, and can thus devote most of its half-hour, after a handful of quickly incisive opening questions from Naughtie, to a moderated dialogue between author and audience.

Listen to an episode with a novelist like Amis, Julian Barnes, or David Lodge, and you listen in on one more moment in a satisfyingly ongoing relationship between a country and its luminaries. Despite their disagreements — which, given the standard dash of emotional distance, some of these English writers love engaging in — they seem to speak on the same level, to be, no pun intended; on the same page. The Americans come in looking, if not like sideshow attractions, then like rougher-hewn curiosities. Jonathan Franzen and Amy Tan exhibit what I would call our national brand of amiably supercilious discomfort. O’Rourke and Leonard relax into an aw-shucks, brass-tacks attitude toward their craft — for a craft is what they clearly consider it — that must reassure anyone with certain ideas about how they like their Yanks.

Despite long prostrating myself before such eminent tri-named users of American English as John Jeremiah Sullivan and David Foster Wallace — the former I hope to one day hear on this show; the latter, alas, I never will — I doubt I’ll ever attain such mastery myself. Hearing the linguistic contrast between American writers and British broadcasters helps, but I mainly learn other useful lessons about writing from the candidness Bookclub stirs in its guests (the stealthily reserved Franzens of the world notwithstanding). This goes even though most of them write fiction, which I don’t. And if you don’t write at all, the show still has much to teach you about how best to ask about books, to chat about books, and to cast into words your reactions about books. “Boy, Colin,” a friend recently told me, “you really do view the world through the lens of books.” Unable to imagine any other lens, I’d never before considered whether I did or not. If you’re anything like me, this sort of program comes less as an entertaining sound-waves-through-earphones diversion about an entertaining ink-on-paper diversion than as an object lesson in how to consider and discuss reality itself.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: UnFictional

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: independently produced documentaries, mostly from Los Angeles and the U.K.
Episode duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly

It’s not easy to title a show, granted, but avoiding fiction strikes me as a mark of no particular distinction in public radio. Indeed, in more judgmental moments I pin the blame for the creative malaise afflicting the industry on its upper ranks dominated by people who began in (or have spent a little too much time in) newsrooms. This produces a number of deforming forces, from flamboyantly pious J-school convictions about the truth all the way down to simple stodginess. What a pleasant surprise, then, to hear in UnFictional [RSS] [iTunes] very little stodge at all. Why, airing stories about colossally powerful car stereos, self-immolation, blind baseball, and the U.K. roller derby, it almost makes us describe it as stodge’s opposite — but let’s not go crazy. We’re talking about public radio standards here. In fact, I suspect I’ve already implied more radicalism than the show can realistically offer.

Despite no doubt having rattled a few cages here and there over the past three years, UnFictional comprises, for the most part, radio documentaries of the same basic type we’ve been hearing for three decades. (This tradition tends these days to favor things like “sound-rich” portraits of barrio life, which explains why I find so little support for my own projects, most of which are multi-hour conversations about Graham Greene.) The whole production comes as one of the newish offerings from KCRW, long the “cool” public radio station in Los Angeles. Don’t read those air quotes as sarcasm; KCRW really does have the coolest programming, in part due to shows like this one, though it also trades on “cool” as a vibe — again, public radio standards, mind. Yet as a listener, I’ve in recent years begun to glimpse a frown of deep discomfort behind the station’s Wayfarers. With its schedule split between music, news, and cultural talk — not to mention Tuesday night’s unmissable Santa Monica City Council meetings — KCRW probably fears the simultaneous eating of its lunch by predominantly newsy KPCC and music-oriented KCSN. An understandable fear, but one born, I would argue, of a framing mistake.

If I think of KCRW as cool, I do so because, at the risk of self-flattery, it attracts cool listeners. What’s more — and here comes the crucial bit — its schedule as a whole retains only the cool listeners. Anxiety about whether any given Angeleno will “stay with them” from music to news to film or book talk back to music thus strikes me as ill-founded since, as I see it, cool people can by definition shift cultural and aesthetic gears every hour or two — and want to. Even just taking UnFictional as an example, not only will a cool listener tune interestedly in for the high-dB amps and the Tibetan lighting himself on fire and the beeps of home plate and the Cockney lasses elbowing each other, they’ll come back for Irish train-hopping, lucid dreaming, and Whitey Bulger. Their engagement, to pull out a term admittedly sicklied o’er with the pale cast of marketing, goes broad and deep.

But seeing as the lame people, defined by the quintessentially lame practice of only being interested in their interests, outnumber the cool people thousands to one, the temptation to also attract assholes pulls strong. Yet I still recommend that quality-minded media outlets lash themselves to the mast, since now more than ever we find ourselves out of the three-channels-on-TV era and in the one where you can thrive on audiences that, while small, are actually good at life. But don’t let me hold myself up as some kind of paragon. Even I get into some KCRW shows more than others: I enjoy Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm, for example, to the point of worship, whereas I also enjoy Good Food, but it occasionally induces flop sweats at visions a revolutionary horde of 38-year-old women in the same way that some fearfully envision vast Jewish conspiracies. Yet my ideal public radio station would let a hundred flowers bloom, of the Bookworm to the Good Food varieties and all in between. This imaginary station wouldn’t just carry one UnFictional; it would carry dozens, each going off in its own direction.

As it is, the show opens too wide an umbrella to make description easy. Theoretically, it showcases real-life documentaries fostered by KCRW’s Independent Producer Project, which aims to get independently produced content into listeners’ ears. For a recently launched mission, this has a queerly pre-internet ring — I can, and often do, get buried with millions of hours of independently produced content at the click of a mouse — but even UnFictional ditches the premise when it feels like it. This most often happens when the show gets a visit from satirist Joe Frank, who today delivers the same sort of amiably humorous, subtly discomfiting, and maddeningly digressive scored monologues that made him cultishly famous on NPR Playhouse in the late seventies and early eighties. On a just media landscape, would Frank possess the regard and renown of a Howard Stern? Impossible to say, but at least his work will always resonate with the cool people. One such cool person, former station general manager Ruth Seymour, brought Frank onto KCRW in the first place. Despite having never met the lady, I get the sense that she embodies everything I’ve said about playing only to the sharpest. I’ve heard she’s sorely missed.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Urbanist

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: on-location segments all over the world about “the people and ideas shaping our urban lives”
Episode duration: ~50m
Frequency: weekly

I know very few people without a conflicted relationship to Monocle magazine. My own began some five years ago, when I happened upon an early issue on a Barnes & Noble rack. Designed to the hilt, as interested in clothes as in coups, almost unnaturally calm but aggressively internationalist, taking full advantage (rather than desperately clinging to the legacy of) the print medium: here was a publication geared toward me, if almost too precisely. “Is This the Family of the Future? Meet Japan’s New Demographic,” “The Ascent of Brasília,” “Rebranding Britain,” “Generation Lusophonia”: all real Monocle cover stories, beyond which you’ll also find pieces on vintage bicycles, Swedish spas, cinemagoing in Bangkok, and the choicest brands of sneaker cleaner. Unable to bring myself to dislike any of this, l nevertheless sense that enjoying it too openly somehow exposes me, though to what I don’t know. Some disparage the magazine as “aspirational,” but no sooner do I agree than I wonder where, exactly, lies the problem with aspiring, especially if you harbor aspirations of such aesthetic immaculateness.

Seemingly always expanding beyond the core product, Monocle has founded an internet radio station, Monocle 24. As the host and producer of a podcast on “cultural creators, internationalists, and observers of the urban scene,” I now find myself dead center in another set of the operation’s crosshairs. In no possible universe could I resist The Urbanist [iTunes], its program on “the people and ideas shaping our urban lives.” I plundered the archive just as greedily as I devoured the pages of my first issue of the magazine: slick fifty-minute episodes on late-night neighborhoods, on pedestrianization, on train stations, on “great shopping experiences,” on Auguststraße. I heard pieces on the metropolises that intrigue me or have given me lasting memories: Vancouver, Tel Aviv, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Wellington. Yet I heard little about the metropolis that fascinates me more than any other in America, and the one I have for that reason made my home: Los Angeles.

Not that this surprises me; I bore with weary resignation the similarly glaring absence in Gary Hustwit’s otherwise almost-too-appealing documentary Urbanized (which gets a segment, appropriately, in The Urbanist’s very first episode). Both projects overlook the West Coast’s largest city for understandable reasons, though ones that suggest troubling blind spots. From the beginning, Monocle’s framework of place drew me in, making me realize that I’ve long conceived of the world not as a collection of countries or even cultures but as a matrix supporting cities. I still scan their Livable Cities Index, but at this point the concept of “livability” strikes me as having fallen somewhere between meaningless and perverse. It has, so far as I can tell, something to do with clean streets, steep prices, public transportation, and sheer blandness. The perpetually high placement of Zurich continues to confuse me, no matter how often they explain it, and to paraphrase something a friend once said, any list that ranks both Sydney and Melbourne in the top ten is a list bought and paid for by the powerful kangaroo lobby.

We might put the terms “livable” and “civilized” side by side. I daresay that Monocle, and by association The Urbanist, cares more about civilization than anything else. Many of those irked by the Monocle sensibility get irked by the yawning moral vacuum this opens before their eyes. Not to put it too millennially, but this media enterprise seems to have civilized itself into a post-moral universe, where discernment is the highest value. This can smack to some of complacency, but nothing about the actual production of the magazine or this show — their crispness, their organization, their, er, urbanity — suggests even the slightest laxness. Now, I count myself as a true fan of civilization, but whenever I spend good time in the Portlands, Aucklands, or Kyotos of the world, something inside me immediately longs for a certain nebulous, hard-to-rank quality, faint or absent in these “livable” cities but ever-present in the outwardly inhumane Los Angeles — let’s call it vitality. The Urbanist surely understands, sometimes prizes, and often circles around this vitality, but it can’t quite bring it into its calculus. This town draws its strengths from its third-world qualities, and at this point I can say that if Los Angeles is a third-world city, I don’t want to live in the first.

As a healthy counterbalance to Monocle, I read Apartamento, an equally print-embracing magazine dedicated to international urban life in a more makeshift, improvisational, even ramshackle mode. Yet to judge by the clothes I wear, the languages I study (though I have yet to join Generation Lusophonia), and the sneaker cleaner for which I shop, a Monocular creature I remain. The Urbanist thus has much to offer me and the rest of my city-living, non-car-owning, all-downloading, design-obsessing, non-reproducing, national boundary-disregarding generational cohort. We’ll no doubt always wonder how far the internationalism, diversity of interests, and exacting aesthetics of what we read, watch, and listen to run beneath their surfaces — indeed, how far they run beneath our own — but continue reading, watching, and listening we will. Not every extension of Monocle’s world works for me — I doubt I’ll ever return to their store in the Brentwood Country Market, a remote shopping center that brandishes all the wealthy Angeleno’s faux-casual grotesqueries — but I suppose I can’t help but sign onto the overall program. We’re all complacent about something, after all.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Danny Baker Show

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: Danny Baker, his co-host, his callers, and a bunch of (mostly British) celebrities talk football — but mostly go on tangents therefrom
Episode duration: ~1h30m
Frequency: weekly

“Because all of the subjects are British, there are qualities that leap out for an American viewer,” Roger Ebert once wrote about Michael Apted’s Up documentaries. “One is how articulate the subjects are [ .. ] they speak with precision, and often with grace and humor. One ponders the inarticulate murkiness, self-help cliches, sports metaphors and management truisms that clutter American speech.” As an American all too eager to run down his less fortunate countrymen, I certainly ponder those things. Yet I also ponder something I heard Lewis Black say years ago: the Brits need those accents to mask a stupidity even deeper than ours. Best, I think, to see each side of the pond as expressing its dimwittedness in different ways. Here in the States, we compulsively elevate the least thoughtful and (therefore) least articulate among us to the highest planes of media exposure. We consequently become colonials again, genuflecting to almost every Englishman sitting before a microphone. This goes for their workaday non-celebrities like those in the Ups as well as their craggiest, most donnish and experience-curmudgeonified broadcast hosts — or, as they call themselves, “presenters.”

Danny Baker may qualify as one such genuflection-worthy presenter, though you wouldn’t call him craggy or donnish. (As for the state of his curmudgeonification, it varies with the topics.) “It's almost inconceivable that Colin would be interested in covering this particular podcast,” a certain Alistair Johnson wrote on the Maximum Fun Forum, “but I'd love to see him take on BBC's The Danny Baker Show [RSS] [iTunes].” He went so far as to make a list of the reasons for my probable disinterest, including its being “an edit of a radio show,” “a phone-in show,” one whose “subject is (supposed to be) football,” and on top of all that, one that’s “British, and deals with British topics.” Though no Anglophile, I like to think I relish the opportunity to step outside my own culture in any medium possible, and Alistair added that “Danny Baker is considered a genius of radio by many in the U.K.,” and that his show is “not really about sport.” His personal testimony: “I have no interest in football, but listen every week.” Holding fast to my principle that few behaviors make one lamer than only taking interest in one’s interests, I began listening immediately.

We could always, it seems to me, use more shows ostensibly about a thing that nevertheless attract listeners with no interest in that thing. The medium of podcasting in particular tends to produce a few too many programs so fixedly about a thing that they actually turn off even enthusiasts of that thing. Now, I don’t really know the rules of football. (It feels wrong to write “soccer” in this context, and besides, I don’t really know the rules of football football either.) But I do know strong enthusiasm when I hear it, and boy, do I hear it in Baker, his callers, and most of his guests. (I won’t soon forget Baker’s reference to the “almost sexual thrill” of knocking the mud off one’s shoes after a rainy match.) Many of the latter two groups play or played football themselves, not that I’d know if they were just lying about it. The ones who haven’t played football, usually having earned their fame in music or comedy, seem rarely to do sit-downs in this kind of context: Mick Hucknall recently passed through Baker’s studio, as did Rob Brydon, Midge Ure, and even Alice Cooper — and even with them, football comes up.

Baker also has a co-host named Lynsey Hipgrave. Their scattershot conversations make her exact degree of investment in football difficult to discern, but, given her career spent mostly in sports broadcasting, she certainly has one. On the rare occasions they and their guests, present or telephonic, remain on the subject for more than five minutes at a stretch, she tends to provide just the right football-related factoid or ask just the right football-related question. But Baker himself, as engaged a football fan as I’ve ever heard, deliberately undermines the show’s potentially hardcore footballishness by taking phone calls. Though they occasionally want to make a point about football, callers usually ring up to answer one of the questions Baker throws out throughout the broadcast, seemingly offhand and in a build toward bewildering simultaneity. “What unusual animals have you ridden?” he may ask, or “What have you stolen without realizing it?” or “What jobs did you hold in primary school — hall monitor, milk monitor, blackboard monitor?” Sometimes he tacks on a proviso, as he did when asking the audience what they’ve stumbled over: it had to be something better than the life-size One Direction cardboard cutout that once caused his own midnight spill.

The supreme digressiveness of The Danny Baker Show culminates in a trademark feature called the “Sausage Sandwich Game.” Though I have by this point heard it played a dozen times, I can only vaguely describe its rules. A footballer calls in. A couple of listeners get on the line, each competing in the name of their favorite team. Baker asks the footballer a personal question — do they mark a book with a bookmark or just fold down the corner of the page; do they actually take the microwave dinner out midway to stir it like the instructions say — and the contestants guess at the answers before the footballer reveals them. This culminates in the same final question every time: does the footballer eat their sausage sandwich with red sauce, brown sauce — here you begin to understand how British cuisine earned its old reputation — or no sauce at all? In this as in every other aspect of the program, a matrix of British hypermundanity provides Baker the framework to exercise his freakishly formidable skills of comedic oratory. Those articulacy-loving Brits, even the ones calling Baker a “radio genius,” may have grown desensitized to it — a fish can’t tell you about water — but the man frees his appeal from the shackles of subject completely with laser-precise word choice, thorough self-deprecation, and cool, perpetually flattening tonal control. But these, I suppose, are just the demands of the old dry humour.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: SMoviemakers

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: Kevin Smith interviews the makers of films he likes
Episode duration: 50m-2h30m
Frequency: erratic

Finally, someone has given Richard Kelly a chance to explain himself. Actually, wait a second — he had a chance to explain himself, back on the Donnie Darko DVD commentary track. Or at least he had a chance to explain the movie — and to my great dismay, he did, with a sweaty, near-schizophrenic detail and consistency. But Kelly’s appearance on SMoviemakers [RSS] [iTunes] happened years later, after the world had already sneered his follow-up, the chaotically paranoid Southland Tales, into an early grave. Say what you will about the coherence of Kelly’s movies; they’re something, or at least they aspire to that state. My memories of Donnie Darko remain as hauntingly askew as the film itself, and as for Southland Tales, well, J. Hoberman and Manohla Dargis don’t win themselves over. I never would have expected a guy like Kevin Smith to lend Kelly a sympathetic ear, but so he does on the debut episode of this, his filmmaker-on-filmmaker interview podcast. And in a certain maligned-auteur-on-maligned-auteur way, the invitation makes perfect sense.

Whenever I bring up the maligning of Kevin Smith, I ask myself whether I’ve done my share of that maligning. Alongside many cinephiles of my generation, I thrilled to Clerks and everything it revealed about the potential of micro-budget independent filmmaking in the nineties. But like several other of the subsequent movement’s leading lights, Smith has arguably proven damp cinematic powder. Even a picture like Chasing Amy, regarded as one of his strongest efforts, falls victim to both a half-hearted interest in craft and an unpalatably thorough seediness. Smith himself admits, as a born writer and talker, to never finding film a particularly good fit. With the advent of podcasting, which made possible his flagship program SModcast and its countless spin-offs, he may at last have found his medium. SMoviemakers goes up a level by sitting him down with other directors, and ones he admires, thus harnessing his considerable drive as a film fan and his experience (even if he disclaims real skill) as a filmmaker.

This places him well to, say, spend four separate eighty-minute episodes talking to Penny Marshall, discussing her entire career project by project. Not only has he seen, and loved, Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own (not to mention the run of Laverne and Shirley) over and over again, he knows exactly what it would have taken to make them. Just as this goes for a grande dame of family films, it goes for a young genre director like Scott Derrickson, with whom smith conducts an almost three-hour two-parter. “Isn’t it interesting as fuck?” Smith asks us at the end of part one. And even though I’ve never watched — and let’s face it, may never watch — one of Derrickson’s movies, indeed it is. The same goes for the live panel episodes with guests who worked on Valley Girl, The Rocketeer, and The Breakfast Club. Whatever you think of his work, Smith’s enthusiasm has always made him likable, and that work gives him the expertise which this show fuses with that most enjoyable part of his public personality.

Yet you may sense a certain arrestedness in the choice of films here. If Smith has retained the winning level of film fervor you’d see in a fourteen-year-old, he may have accomplished it by sticking to the same films he liked as a fourteen-year-old. He tells a representative anecdote before the Breakfast Club conversation about how, immediately after seeing the movie in the theater, he put his name down to rent it at his local video store, months before its Betamax release. Nineteen-eighties teen pictures, budget horror, comic book adaptations, the deliberately cultish, feel-good Hollywood — it’s not as if I expect an exhumed Andrei Tarkovsky to jump on the second mic, but damn. It reminds me that I’ve never quite gotten comfortable with the type of adulthood of which Smith made himself a prototype: married with children (child, in Smith’s case), but still deeply invested in Batman (doing a dedicated Batman podcast, in Smith’s case). This always struck me as the worst of both worlds — barren fifty-year-olds with worn W.G. Sebald novels in hand being, clearly, My People — but he seems to be having one hell of a good time, who am I to quibble?

One strong sign that Smith’s interests may run to a deeper place appears, curiously, in a live SMoviemakers dedicated to a pillar of his moviegoing adolescence: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Though he usually speaks with what we might call the common touch — “Get the fuck outta here,” goes his most common reply to guests’ answers — there he launches into a hyperarticulate panegyric (as star Peter Weller later calls it) to the film’s brazen defiance of tradition, genre, and any form of audience expectation. This willingness to drop the viewer into an existing universe and trust them to possess the intelligence to figure it out on their own, he says, is art. Run with that thought, Kevin. And might I suggest that, into this fine showcase for your conversational abilities, you next invite your fellow alumni from the nineties indie boom? Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino — can an iPod, let alone a stage, even contain that much sheer excitement about movies?

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Here's the Thing

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: actors, musicians, and intellectuals interviewed — by Alec Baldwin!
Episode duration: 20m-1h
Frequency: 2-3 per month

Here’s the Thing [RSS] [iTunes] is an interview show hosted by Alec Baldwin. Perhaps your curiosity requires no more detail than that. I wonder how much more detail the development of the program itself required. One easily imagines Alec Baldwin casually mentioning how he’d damn sure like to host one of those smart public radio shows, then a higher-up over at WNYC immediately giving the notion a pre-emptive green light. A prominent, name- and voice-recognizable middle-aged political liberal with a wide range of celebrity buddies (whoa, David Letterman?) a non-famous host would struggle to land? Add it up, and Baldwin almost slots too well into the existing machinery of American public radio.

Then again, one just as easily imagines a troubled gestation. Public radio, already a mildly anxious field, has fallen into the thrall of a lot of ideas about its relationship to the terminally anxious field of greater journalism. The industry has long provided refuge to many a program director who would dismiss the concept of an Alec Baldwin interview show out of hand as frivolous, unserious, insufficiently informational. I fear Here’s the Thing, despite its relative chastity of form, therefore qualifies as one of those Bold Experiments in Public Radio™. Somehow, the view of the show a comfortable no-brainer and that of the show as a brow-furrowing risk seem equally plausible. By the same token, Baldwin himself comes off as, simultaneously, an impressively thoughtful, curious accidental interviewer and a Hollywood actor “dicking around” between jobs.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” so this actually reflects well on Baldwin and/or his listeners. Actors strike me as especially possessed of this ability, though anyone who regularly listens to interviews with them — on one of those smart public radio shows or elsewhere — may with good cause hesitate to rank their intelligences at the first rate. I wondered if, perhaps, actors more willingly reveal their intellectual depths in the company of their own; if so, we’d hear it on Here’s the Thing. I mean, if Baldwin’s acting buddies — and you’ll hear from the likes of Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Andrew McCarthy — won’t open up to him, who will they open up to?

We professional interviewers might feel loath to admit that, sometimes, professions like acting or politics — those we secretly (or openly) look down upon — could make for better training than we ever got. On the level of basic human relations, and thus of conversation, an actor, or a politician, or even a salesman may well have sharper instincts than even the most driven “real” journalist. If Bill Clinton started a public radio show, I’d drop everything and listen to all his interviews right now. I feel I could learn much from a hearing a guy like Bill Clinton put his hand in the game, just like I’ve learned much from hearing Alec Baldwin do it. But about both men I would entertain the same faint doubt. Baldwin does sound genuinely interested in his guests and they subjects they discuss. But is he, really? Or are we hearing just another of his suite of actorly skills?

And does that make the slightest difference? I once asked a friend who works at a major public radio station in Los Angeles whether any of its daily talk show hosts actually care about the topics they discuss. Flatly he replied: “No.” If Baldwin fakes interest, he does it with a skill that, unlike most established public radio interviewers, at least doesn’t insult us. But given his selected guests and the directions in which he steers them, I suspect that he’s going with his heart, or his gut, or whichever body part an honest actor uses. When he brings on conservative commentators like David Brooks or George Will to spar, he does seem nearly as willing to learn from them as to beat them. When he sits down with Peter Frampton or Billy Joel and his piano, he does so out of clearly unfeigned fandom. When he talks to a pediatric endocrinologist, you know he cares about something to do with pediatric endocrinology. (Sugar addiction, in this case.) Nobody, I would wager, tells Baldwin whom to interview; nobody makes him gin up enthusiasm about what’s “hot” or “topical” or “good information.”

As a public radio listener, albeit one often disappointed though resolutely hopeful, I would always and everywhere rather hear people talking passionately about what interests them than mangling a topic that they think interests me. Alec Baldwin understands this, or his Here’s the Thing collaborators do. Charlie Rose, an early inspiration for my own interviewing, continually takes flack for “interrupting” his guests, but his willingness to actively participate has always struck me as a sign of engagement all too rare in the profession. Baldwin similarly interjects constantly, though in a fashion at once blunter and sharper than does Rose, always pressing for a detail or comparing a note. “Give me an example.” “How did that feel?” “Come on.” This manner doesn’t align with journalistic orthodoxy, sure, and I’ll bet it occasionally frustrates the guests, but it points to a kind of conversational vitality that I’d all but forgotten I wasn’t getting elsewhere. American public radio would do well indeed to throw open the gates to even more such unassimilated outsiders — you know, the way America itself used to do.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Little Atoms

| 0 comments


Vital stats:
Format: interviews about ideas, science, rationality, and senses of place
Episode duration: 25m-1h30m
Frequency: sometimes weekly, sometimes biweekly

Little Atoms [RSS] [iTunes] used to describe itself as a conversation about “conspiracy theories, cosmology, religion, the new age, human rights, and the state of the left.” Surely you can sense where that list hits a sour note. Conspiracy theories, cosmology, religion, and the new age fall into the wheelhouse of any show about truth and falsity. Podcasting, the medium that brought us the slightly wearying procession of Skeptoid, Skepticality, Skeptiko, and so on (you ultimately end up at Skepchick), has more than welcomed this sort of thing. Human rights, as a subject, can receive interesting or uninteresting treatment depending upon the context. But the very last thing I hope to hear when I hit play on my iPod is an earnest discussion of the state of the left. And I have no particular love for the right, so perhaps this illustrates the left’s whole problem. Implying that the left has a natural place in the grand separation of fact and delusion brings back to my mouth the bitter disappointment I tasted after momentarily believing the hype about leftism as the politics of the thinking man. We realize later in life that, alas, no -ism truly permits the thinking man.

Hence, I imagine, Little Atoms’ modified current opener, which more broadly but much more appealingly promises a show “about ideas and culture, with an emphasis on ideas of the Enlightenment.” You could describe this as a program about science and rationality, if you concentrate on certain episodes: Ben Goldacre on evidence-based medicine [MP3], Christopher Hitchens on atheism [MP3], Lisa Randall on cosmology [MP3], James Randi on pseudoscience [MP3], Mark Henderson on “why science matters” [MP3]. But in my experience, podcasts exclusively concerned with that can turn oddly pious; you can only listen to so much veneration of the scientific enterprise before beginning to feel you’ve lost its context. The pursuit of the truth, though one of the more robust single justifications one can muster for one’s work, strikes me as not quite a wide enough slice of the human experience. I would gladly take the side of logic, reason, and reality, but man, some of the guys on that team dress like real schlubs.

This program, then, gets even more fascinating when not directly discussing science- or rationality-oriented topics. Its conversation with Ian McEwan [MP3], for instance, whose last novel starred a “fat bastard” of a theoretical physicist, brings a funny kind of cultural skepticism to bear on scientists themselves. Its conversation with Iain Sinclair [MP3] approaches one of the show’s pet topics, the built environment, through the life experiences of a man who has written so personally about it for so long. And to get a sense of when things really hit their stride, listen to the three appearances of writer, television host, and This American Life regular Jon Ronson: on agnostics who turn Christian [MP3], on the diagnosing of psychopaths [MP3], and on his career [MP3]. Widely interested, slyly humorous, culturally high-profile, ever sensitive to bullshit, British: Ronson embodies the kind of sensibility that resonates well with Little Atoms’ own.

No pun intended with that “resonate,” for those who already know that the show originates as a broadcast from London’s freeform radio station Resonance 104.4 FM. This location and its relative lack of restriction places Little Atoms well to showcase a certain species of celebrity, or perhaps “public thinker,” or possibly “public communicator,” which has never quite taken root here in the States. As a regular guest of Ira Glass, Ronson has actually made deeper inroads into America than most of them. I speak of men, usually men of letters, who move freely from subject to subject, medium to medium, writing, speaking, and generally producing on whatever subject strikes them as vital. This show first intrigued me by offering an interview with Chris Petit [MP3], the man who directed Radio On back in 1979. He’s since written novels of various types and crafted films and television programs of various forms, even collaborating at one point with Sinclair. It makes sense that they’d get together; since the both men — as well as this program that has hosted the both of them — do work undergirded by a sense of place.

Of course, the strongest sense of place comes possessed by one of Little Atoms’ most frequent guests, a certain Jonathan Meades. A food and architecture writer as well as a novelist, broadcaster, inveterate sunglass-wearer, and what the U.K. calls a “presenter,” Meades has turned up many times, discussing things like building in Britain [MP3], his own semi-comedic televisual manner [MP3], and the possibiliy of urban renaissance [MP3]. Though by no means an Anglophile, I’ve long burned with jealousy over Britain’s ability to accommodate a reasonable number of well-known figures like Meades. They seem simply to fill the subject-independent role of “interesting guy” — of, in other words, the thinking man, and as Meades explains on one of these interviews, he creates what he himself would like to read and watch. Clive James, a prime exemplar of this sort of vocation, has said that his sort of celebrity doesn’t export well because Americans like to know exactly what’s in the can when they see the label. And even Meades, when he happens to come up on Little Atoms broadcasts not actually involving him, has been described as relegated to the “BBC Four ghetto.” But having glanced at the BBC Four schedule, I daresay I’d move into those tower blocks at a moment’s notice.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Blank on Blank

| 0 comments


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.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

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