Were he to declare the podcast the best medium ever, your Podthinker would probably hear little dissent (at least from this crowd). Were he also to declare it a medium with vast tracts of untapped potential, he would hope to receive the same general agreement in response. Podcasts have done a fine job bringing the music, the comedy and the Transformers-referencing conversations between twentysomething basment-dwellers, but as yet appear to have made only tentative inroads toward boosting the art of the lecture and the importance of ideas in public life. What luck that this week's podcast, its anonymous front-end announcer assures us, is in fact dedicated to "the art of the lecture and the importance of ideas in public life." Coincidence at its finest!
The podcast is Big Ideas [iTunes link], from Canadian educational broadcaster TVOntario. As the first two letters of that organization's name indicate, it's wasn't produced specifically as a podcast but is in fact an audio-only version of the television show of the same name. This sounds sloppy but is in practice a pretty decent idea; would that other talky television shows followed suit and put out equivalent handy-dandy downloadables. (Looking at you, Charlie Rose.) A guy standing (presumably) up at a lectern and speaking his piece typically loses little with the visuals stripped away, and even when important visual aids get lost in the process — when the audience laughs, one often wonders at what — the podcast's convenience more than compensates. (A video podcast of Big Ideas is also available here, if one is into that kind of thing, but, this being an audio podcast column, it receives neither endorsement nor disendorsement from your Podthinker. Also, because your Podthinker hates and fears Powerpoint in all its forms and suspects some lecturers of the crime of using it, he is too scared to try it.)
No matter the intrinsic nobility, enjoyability and various other -ities of the lecture form, a lecture program is simply only going to be as good as its lecturers themselves. Big Ideas' stable is, to mix a metaphor bigtime, very much a mixed bag. Some of its presenters talk engagingly and surprisingly intimately with the audience on rich, unusual subjects: Umberto Eco on ugliness [MP3], for instance, or Neil Turok on the cause of the Big Bang [MP3] or Tim Conley on the coordination of the self in contemporary poetry [MP3]. The downside is that the program also serves up a bunch of known polemicists, impressionistic thinkers, axe-grinders and permutations of the three: your Naomi Kleins, your Ben Barbers, your Deepak Chopras, etc.
Unsteady intellectual integrity is a small price to pay, though, for being able to listen to lectures on music and the brain, the poetics of gay male culture and creative menu design one right after the other. Think of Big Ideas as a giant, sticky ball of intellectual jelly beans which have all fused after a day spent in somebody's backpack: some are tasty, some are nasty and many are unexpected, but where else are you going to get so many flavors in a single bite? Sure, you can go through the available lectures and pick and choose only what you're already certain to enjoy, but where's the fun and surprise in that? Just grab a chunk out of that gummy cluster and chew away. With your... brain teeth.
Running since: November 2007
Frequency: slightly more than weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all
[Podthinker Colin Marshall's distinguished lecture on "The Podcast Medium and the Existential Self in the Context of Post-Millennial Hermeneutic (Re)Medi[a/u]tion" is only available if you e-mail him at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]