Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Faroe Islands Podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with the movers and shakers of an archipelago you probably haven’t heard of
Episode duration: 15-45m
Frequency: 2-5 per month

When I first heard of The Faroe Islands Podcast [RSS] [iTunes], I heard it as a sort of punchline. “Oh man, this archipelago off of Europe? That only has 50,000 people? The Faroe Islands? There’s an entire podcast about it.” But really, how far does this separate it from so many other podcasts? This show covers all aspects of life on the Faroe Islands, and going by its episodes on Faroese broadcasting, any media pertaining to the place manages near-automatically to draw the attention of a sizable chunk of the population. A reasonably successful podcast about, say, one particular Doctor Who Doctor might attract five or ten thousand listeners. But a Faroe Islands news broadcast pulls in an astonishing fifty percent of the viewership. More than a few of those 25,000 — or of the English-speaking fraction of that 25,000, anyway — would, I wager, want to take a listen to The Faroe Islands Podcast, a production about a niche country in a niche-friendly medium, even if only out of curiosity.

This narrow focus has another advantage. Listening the show’s 182-and-counting episodes, I kept thinking back to, of all books, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Pirsig relates a story from his alter ego Phaedrus’ teaching days at Montana State College. One of his students wants to write “a 500-word essay on America” but can think of nothing to say. When Phaedrus suggests she write about just the city of Bozeman instead, she still comes back empty-handed. He then tells her to write just about Bozeman’s main street, but she again comes back without a paper. He finally suggests she write only about the front of Bozeman’s opera house, beginning with its upper-leftmost brick. Lo and behold:
She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.

[ … ]

She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn't think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn't recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.
In this way, The Faroe Islands Podcast runs on a consistent volume of steam in a way that The America Podcast might not. While it might at first seem unambitious to podcast about the goings-on of such a tiny country, it ultimately presents a greater challenge than podcasting about the goings-on of a large one. Or at least it presents a greater disincentive to laziness: the folks behind The Faroe Islands Podcast have to constantly seek out interviews, stories, and field recordings, whereas those who would make The America Podcast could simply dump their "analysis" atop a handful of New York Times articles and call it an episode.

To put the bar even higher, host Matthew Workman doesn't actually live in the Faroes. When he began the podcast, he'd never even visited them. According to his Twitter profile, he now resides in Portland, Oregon, a city that, with its population of 580,000, seems sedate when you've come from one of the United States' majors, but one that must feel like Tokyo when you've come from the Faroes, whether from its villages or its difficult-to-pronounce capital city. But when he first became aware of the Faroes, Workman lived in the smaller Oregonian town of Medford, where his increasingly Faroe-centric blogging caught the eye of the local media. "He's Never Been There..." announces the headline of a 2009 Medford Mail Tribune article, "But He'll Tell You All About It.” Though the piece mentions the imminent launch of The Faroe Islands Podcast, it mostly covers the origin of the blog from which it sprang, which “fits right in the Faroese tourism board's mission to bring greater awareness about the country and its offerings.”

The Faroes, so I gather from the podcast, have recently come up in the world. Running on a fishing economy seemingly since its first inhabitation and essentially disconnected from international media since the nineties, the country has in this century set about building itself a profile. In that it faces a host of challenges, not least the fact that much of its initial appeal lies in its very obscurity. It happened that way for Workman himself, who plunged down the Faroe hole because he hadn’t heard of the place before, which he describes as “a big deal for me because I’m a huge map nerd.” My own minor cartographical fixation had never led me to discover the Faroes either, though at world-map scale they barely reveal themselves to the naked eye. Unified with Norway in 1035, ceded to Denmark in 1814, and only granted home rule in 1948, the Faroes have also no doubt endured a few identity issues. Yet as Workman’s mostly Skype-based interviews with Faroese and Faroes-based expats reveal, the place has held fast, culturally: they’ve retained their own language, their own door-locking habits (they don’t), their own TV station. And boy, do they have their own scenery.

The Faroe Islands Podcast’s guests make much of the striking panorama of sea and sky which surrounds the Faroes, not to mention the clusters of hyper-quaint Nordic architecture at the center of it all, but words inevitably fail them. Then again, podcasting has few strengths as a visual medium; you get a clearer idea of the islands’ aesthetic from the field recordings collected by the show’s Faroes-based producer. Snapshots, and visitors take many, give you an idea of what caliber of beauty to expect, but as the desginer Tibor Kalman said, “I have no problem with beauty, but it isn't very interesting.” Yet I get the sense that a visit to the Faroes makes you realize what my visit to the New Zealand’s south island made me realize: some kinds of beauty, especially when presented in unreal remoteness, only turn interesting when physically experienced. This Workman discovered recording the stretch of episodes when, at long last, he goes to the Faroe Islands himself. Even if the country wouldn’t suit your own tastes — I once lived in the similarly picturesque Santa Barbara, population 90,893, but had to move when I just couldn’t take the smallness anymore, so it probably wouldn’t suit mine — but that doesn’t change the show’s fascination: that is to say, Workman’s own, with such a little-known part of the world. Behold all the original and direct seeing (and hearing) such a fascination can generate, from such an old and long-isolated setting, with modern tools of connection.

[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 Adam and Dr. Drew Show

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Vital stats:
Format: golden-age Loveline, more or less, but with fewer calls and more discussions of the breakdown of society
Episode duration: 45m-1h10m
Frequency: 8-9 per month

Mention this though I often do when writing about things Adam Carolla-related, I tuned in to Loveline throughout my adolescence with a near-religious dedication. Those nightly two hours with Carolla and “Dr. Drew Pinsky” on sex, drugs, medicine, home improvement, auto repair, and the state of the republic had formative effects I can’t possibly overstate. (They even taught me, broadcasting out of their decrepit Culver City studio, quite a bit about the geography of Los Angeles that would come in handy when I landed here myself.) Though ostensibly an advice show, and one that did sometimes spend a solid hour taking calls from stoned fifteen-year-old snowboarders worried about herpes, Loveline produced its most memorable gems of wisdom — not just about pills or booze or dental dams or plywood, but about life itself — with nobody on the phone, and nobody in the studio (certainly not from the gallery of “drunken rockers and stupid actresses,” as Carolla has since described the guest list) but its co-hosts. They admitted that they didn’t do the show for the callers, who half the time wouldn’t even pretend to accept their counsel, but the listeners. As one of those listeners, I can vouch for the benefits.

Like any nightly live show, especially one hosted by fellows busy even by celebrity standards, Loveline weathered the occasional absence: another doctor sitting in for Drew, another comedian for Adam. This taught us that, while either individual could hold their own, we tuned in for the combination, the pairing, the duo — the sum greater than the parts. The inquisitive, education-loving, clinically-minded, mild if sometimes twitchy Dr. Drew’s yin balanced the education-free, down-and-dirty/nuts-and-bolts, outwardly base but secretly incisive Adam’s everyman yang, making 1995 through 2005, the years between Carolla’s hiring as a co-host and his departure to helm a morning show on KLSX, the program’s near-official golden age. (Pinsky’s presence goes back to the early eighties, and continues to this day, alongside that of someone named Psycho Mike.) Apart from occasional guest appearances by Carolla on Loveline or Pinsky on Carolla’s radio show and, later, flagship podcast, 2005 through most of 2012, constituted lean years indeed for we who consider ourselves appreciators of Adam and appreciators of Dr. Drew, but out-and-out fans of Adam and Dr. Drew.

But then Carolla grew his podcast network, giving rise to the opportunity to replicate the old formula with The Adam and Dr. Drew Show [iTunes] [RSS]. Put on Carolla and Pinsky’s new podcast for just a few minutes, and your subconscious mind may well revert to its old Loveline listening patterns, so faithfully has it retained the format. The most obvious differences come from no longer laboring under commercial radio’s layers of infrastructure and management: nobody tells them they have to take a commercial break, nobody tells them they have to take calls, nobody tells them they have sit down with the guys from Oasis. They still do bring guests on once in a while, but only those they really want to talk to: a Jim Jeffries, a Jimmy Pardo, a David Alan Grier (or maybe Carolla’s kids). And they still take calls, though doing so has fallen to an even lower priority than it had in their days at what Carolla called Westwood None. But podcasting grants them the freedom to spend more time doing, at least to my mind, what they did best on Loveline: noticing something they find especially surprising, nonsensical or bothersome, then spinning it out into a much larger discussion about humanity: human foibles, human society, human nature. In the grains of sand they find working in entertainment, in medicine, and through everyday life, they see our world.

And what they see in our world, they don’t much like. Carolla has long traded on his proclivity for unhesitant and unrepentant fault-finding — “What Can’t Adam Complain About?” has become a semi-regular feature on his various shows over the years — but these days his talks with Pinsky almost immediately turn into detailed breakdowns of what ails America. This theme, the increasing doggedness with which they pursue it, and the tone of aggrieved lament that sometimes sets in, has, I sense, put off more than a few longtime fans. They may go so far as to dump good old Adam and Dr. Drew, now almost twenty years older and seemingly quite wealthier (though Carolla started from zero) than at the dawn of that Loveline’s golden age, into the “out-of-touch middle-aged white guys” box. I suppose it doesn’t help that, in the past decade, several prominent media figures who sing for their supper to the conservative crowd have treated Carolla as a fellow traveler, or at least as a crossover point. I have, at moments, thought of him as conservative, but only when I haven’t actually listened to him in a while.

Carolla has, I believe, called himself a libertarian, but neither does that label represent the contents of the jar; he may do endless variations on the a standard set of themes, but he doesn’t do them on the standard set of libertarian themes. The objections to Carolla, and to a lesser extent Carolla in dialogue with Pinsky, have less to do with their politics, I would submit, and more to do with our tendency to frame everything in political terms. The show’s conversations begin with complaints about passionfruit, ketchup packet design, energy drinks, participation trophies, the strange proliferation of service dogs, and they may well touch on public policy along the way, but they all wind up at the same destination: the grand slackening of America, the hemorrhaging from all our men, women, children, and institutions the quality they on one episode term “grit.” It goes back, in the context of The Adam and Dr. Drew Show, to the premiere, wherein Carolla brings up a banner he spotted at a high school: “Do the impossible: graduate.” Out of this morsel he makes a Christmas dinner of societal indictment, a j’accuse aimed at America’s pathetically withered expectations and the awesome bulk of its sloth.

As an entertainer, Carolla knows how to push his points as far as they can go. Pinsky, who still dutifully tempers this impulse with a well-placed nuance here and there, now also contributes a few criticisms of his own. (Having recently read Democracy in America, he occasionally cites Tocqueville in so doing.) We should note that Carolla himself spent decades never having technically graduated high school himself, and that both he and Pinsky display what some might consider a freakish compulsion to work as hard as possible, all the time, putting them at a vantage from which almost everyone (“except Richard Branson and Madonna,” Carolla has noted) must look lazy. Still, they both came of age in the seventies, this country’s last sustained period of fecklessness, reality denial, and gruesome footwear. They clearly fear that, in some sense, that time will return. I never lived through the seventies and have no inclination toward complaint, but I admit that Adam and Dr. Drew have got me a little afraid too. Despite having little faith in grand solutions, at least whenever I start to feel myself slacken, I can usually trust them to snap me, as a 28-year-old with an iPod just as they did to 13-year-old me with a radio, back into action.

[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: Lexicon Valley

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Vital stats:
Format: a “podcast about language, from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages”
Episode duration: 25-30m
Frequency: 1-2 per month, with gaps

I grew up with a reputation as a “smart kid.” Given your presence here, maybe you did too. If so, I do hope you handled it better than I did. Po Bronson explained a large part of my own burden in a New York Times Magazine article a few years ago: hearing myself called smart, I set about protecting the image by avoiding any task, intellectual or otherwise, at which I might not easily succeed, a condition that persisted into my twenties. Worse, I gained this aura of intelligence to some extent illegitimately, by learning to read early and from then on cargo-cultishly employing whichever words and phrases I thought might impress adults. So I spent my childhood ever more fearfully performing what amounted to smoke-and-mirrors act, but at least it kept me off drugs. It also taught me about the power of language, and, ultimately, the importance of using that power productively. One example of unproductive use: compulsively correcting grammar and usage aloud.

Most kids lead such boring lives here in America that, if we’ve received the mixed blessing of stronger-than-usual verbal ability, we can’t resist passing the time by ridiculing mismatched tenses, split infinitives, and even grocer’s apostrophes. We become what, in his review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, David Foster Wallace memorably called SNOOTs, “just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd,” “the sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate.” SNOOTs and only SNOOTs, you might assume, make up the audience for Lexicon Valley [iTunes], Slate’s “podcast about language, from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages,” but the show turns out to take a broader view of the subject. I report this with great relief, having spent the past five years listening to foreign-language podcasts and broadening my own linguistic Weltanschauung thereby.

Still, I approach with trepidation any program dealing mainly with English, a language about whose usage enervated pedants have long since dominated the conversation. But enjoy the show though weenies may, non-weenies listen too. Co-host and producer Mike Vuolo usually reads a complimentary and/or linguistically interesting iTunes review at the top of each episode, one of which praised he and his partner Bob Garfield for their refusal to adhere to prescriptivism. Wallace wrote much about linguistic prescriptivists, “whose bemused irony often masks a Colonel Blimp's rage at the way the beloved English of their youth is being trashed in the decadent present”; for their counterparts, the descriptivists, according to Garner, “it’s impermissible to say that one form of language is any better than another: as long as a native speaker says it, it’s OK — and anyone who takes a contrary stand is a dunderhead.” So Vuolo and Garfield, on the whole, care more about language as humans actually use it than language as humans “ought to” use it, premising their conversations on the assumption that everything spoken, written, or grunted, no matter how casually, confusingly, or irritatingly, means something.

I’d long idly wondered, for instance, at the common yet seemingly nonsensical habit of modern English speakers to begin a reply with the words “yeah, no.” In an episode breaking down this very phenomenon, Vuolo actually whips out a clip of Tim Burton at a screening Q&A, asked to explain the strange prevalence in his films of the name “Ed.” “Yeah, no,” the director admits, “I know.” Discussing a few television clips from Australia — land of “yeah, no,” apparently — and consulting the relevant literature, our co-hosts find that the odd phrase can function in several ways: as agreement with a negative statement, as strong agreement that removes any possibility of contradiction, as a hedge or softener, and as something called “the resumptive yeah-no.” Most episodes similarly use sound clips, and sometimes even interviews with the experts, to illustrate the linguistic subject under discussion, whether they come from Slate’s other podcasts or Seinfeld or even Legally Blonde. Vuolo marshals that last one in a discussion of “vocal fry,” a creaky way of speaking used, as Garfield’s observations emphasize, mainly by young American women.

He actually took heat from a handful of listeners for that; evidently they sent in e-mails writing him off as a “sexist.” Personally, I often don’t start listening to someone until they do get accused of an -ism, and I’ve since paid closer attention to Garfield’s curious role on the show. Having referred to himself as the “bad cop,” he does indeed stake out the curmudgeonly position on many a language issue, if only for the purposes of devil’s advocacy. But what draws a man known primarily for writing about advertising and co-hosting On the Media, let alone one who admits he couldn’t even learn Spanish, to a podcast as specialized as this? He does a good job, certainly, but why does he do it? His tendency toward unreconstructedness does give me an idea for a Lexicon Valley episode I’d like to hear, though. The show, to my mind, covers not just the mechanics of language but the truths language reveal about us. So what can we learn about ourselves from the thirty-year prevalence of accusations of “sexism,” “racism” — for that matter, -isms of any sort? Some of the same lessons we’d learn by examining our seventeenth-century use of the word “heresy,” I suspect, but I’ll hold off with the guesses until Vuolo and Garfield get on the case.

[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 Three Percent Podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: two publishers talking books, and much else in the cultural space besides
Episode duration: 40m-1h20m
Frequency: 1-2 per month

Checking out any new bookstore, I head immediately to its world literature shelves. That is, I see if it has them at all. It usually doesn’t. Though small, the world literature shelf at Skylight Books here in Los Angeles so impresses me that, often, I don’t leave it for the entire visit. Not that I visit much anymore; shortly after moving to town, a broadcaster friend of mine — probably the best-known non-writing figure in the Los Angeles book world — called up Skylight and recommended they hire me, using some of the most gleamingly superlatively terms with which I will ever hear myself described. When I turned up to talk to the managers, they asked if I had a car, suggesting that maybe I could drive stuff around for events. I didn’t have a car. My applications to a few other such businesses met with the indifference of the universe. I did land an interview with one noted Pasadena bookstore, which proceeded to surround me with at least a dozen other, clammier applicants — supplicants, really — each more desperate than the last, and all more desperate than me, to convince the interviewers of their single-minded dedication to customer service.

That about sums up my contact with that side of the book business, though I do spend much of my time reading about books, writing about books, and interviewing the writers of books, especially books of the international variety. Hence my interest in The Three Percent Podcast [iTunes], the audio branch of Three Percent, a site from the University of Rochester meant to provide “a destination for readers, editors, and translators interested in finding out about modern and contemporary international literature” (which constitutes three percent of the business). Podcast co-host Chad W. Post teaches at the University, runs Three Percent, and also direct’s Open Letter, the University’s own literary publishing house. They’ve put out a few cool-looking titles from the likes of Alejandro Zambra, Mathias Énard, and Marguerite Duras. Tom Roberge, the podcast’s other co-host, works as the Publicity and Marketing Director at the long-respected press New Directions, whose spine logo — a “colophon,” I think they call it — my eyes zip right toward when I scan those world-lit shelves. I trust that little stylized man and wolf. Having introduced before to writers like César Aira, Yoko Tawada, and Enrique Vila-Matas, they probably won’t steer me wrong now.

I remember meeting Roberge a few years back, at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. (I have nothing to do with any academic writing department, but I do get a fair few podcast interviews recorded there.) He sold me some books from New Directions’ table there at the conference’s book fair, and later mailed me a box of Aira’s work so I could do a radio show on the writer. I seldom buy new books these days; it felt weird, almost wrong, to exchange actual money from the handful I picked up off the table. I do, however, get a lot of them sent to me by publishers. The rest I check out from my friendly local library. This may not bode well for the publishing industry, but then, if you listen to publishers, things haven’t tended to bode well for them a century or so. Roberge and Post, two publishers, do tend to get into the nuts and bolts of the business of publishing on most episodes of Three Percent, and this fascinates me, though I do often find myself surprised by what surprises them. On one episode, Post, who teaches a class on publishing, sounded aghast as he described how his students think of the price of a book not as the price of a new book, but as the price of a used one, and as a used one on Amazon, no less. As a buyer of used books when I buy books at all, I can sympathize with the snot-nosed youngsters. Some of those new ones can cost, like, eighteen bucks! What do I have, oil wealth?

But they don’t always talk publishing, which I don’t think most readers will mind. Video gamers, say, thirst for news about the video game industry, but I suspect any given reader would die happy never again having to hear about thin profit margins, the complications of eBook digital rights management, or the latest wildly unappealing proposed alternative to the printed book. And these fellows don’t always talk books: Three Percent conversations weave all over the cultural space, from music to movies to sports, especially in the absence of a guest from the book world. A dubious prospect, you might think: who would want to hear a couple of “book guys” discuss whatever happens to come to mind? I may sound like an apologist for standard podcasting indiscipline, but hear me out: projects in this medium, experience has shown me, can more effectively be about everything than projects in most other media. I see the trick of it, especially for a podcast, as always seeming to be about just one thing. Only through ostensible specialization can a podcaster pull off actual generalism. So I do indeed want to hear Roberge and Post talk about everything, but to do it always through the lens of new literary fiction in translation, or to do it with segues from that subject so smooth and untraceable that I never even realize they went from Javier Marías to Eurovision or Quentin Tarantino or 45 minutes about their fantasy basketball leagues.

Come to think of it, I find that as true when reading as I do when listening: writing simply about one thing can never satisfy, nor can writing simply about everything. The Three Percent Podcast also has another lesson generalizable not just across podcasting, but across all forms of human communication. Virgil Thomson, as I recall, advised a young music critic never to make his personal opinion explicit, because “the words that you use to describe what you've heard will be the criticism.” I feel as if I’ve heard many, many of Roberge and Post’s personal opinions on the show, most of them strong and several surely worth noting, but I can’t for the life of me remember them. (I do seem to recall something about Malcolm Gladwell being The Enemy.) They might have made their way deeper into my mind had the conversations delivered them implicitly, rather than explicitly. I mean, jeez, after Podthinking for over five years now, I’ve heard guys sitting at microphones make many a judgment, when even my own opinions don’t interest me. But you know what does interest me? This English novelist by the name of Derek Raymond, whom either Roberge or Post mentioned offhand on one episode. I can’t remember whether they liked or disliked him, but they did say something about his having written thoroughly Thatcher-era crime stories. Sounds like a read to me.

[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: Letter from America

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Vital stats:
Format: letters on one Englishman’s America, from 1946 to 2004
Episode duration: 15m
Frequency: 1-2 per month

If you want to learn about a place, talk to its outsiders. That rule has guided my study of Los Angeles ever since I moved here; rightheaded or wrongheaded, observers with few roots in the city write the most interesting books about it, and reading them counteracts the risk of dulled senses that increases the longer I live here. On a larger scale, we Americans could do well to learn about our country through minds not quite of it. That, I would guess, explains the 170-year popularity of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I haven’t read all of that book, but then, the astute reader can presumably pick and choose their chapters. The same goes for Letter from America, Alistair Cooke’s 2,869-episode radio series that ran from 1946 to 2004. Even if you don’t listen to the whole run, you’ll still learn a thing or two about the United States, and you may not have learned them any other way.

Not that you can, easily, listen to the whole run, though you can, thanks to the BBC’s podcasting wing, easily listen to select broadcasts from each of the program’s eras: the early years [iTunes], from Nixon to Carter [iTunes], the Reagan years [iTunes], the Bush Sr. years [iTunes], the Clinton years 1993-1996 [iTunes], the Clinton years 1997-2000 [iTunes], and the Bush Jr. years [iTunes]. Don’t let the presidential organization throw you; the show hardly limits itself to political topics, though the British-born Cooke does seem to have had a lifelong fascination with American political figures and how the people regard them. No matter where you start listening — or, rather, when you start listening — you quickly get a sense of what fascinated Cooke, since, in all of Letter from America’s eight hundred-odd hours of airtime, he spoke, and he alone. Having emigrated to America in 1937, he wrote the letters from it, and by reading them over the BBC’s Home Service, succeeded by Radio 4, he sent them to an eager non-American listening public with almost as much curiosity about this relatively new, relatively experimental country as he had.

Not long into my own listening experience of the “American century” through Alistair Cooke’s eyes, I heard his letter on the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Cooke experienced this historical event in famously close proximity, having found his way into the Ambassador Hotel on that fateful 1968 night. I happened to listen to this firsthand account nearly 45 years after the time but in the grand scheme not far at all from the site, living as I do about a block from where the Ambassador once stood, and where now stands the vaguely Ambassador-shaped Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. Such a moment certainly gives you a vivid glimpse of the compressed palimpsest of American history, and more came when I listened, while roaming the city, to Cooke’s other letters on Los Angeles-based happenings: the Watts riots, the 1992 riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict — and here I realize that most of them have to do with racial strife.

Cooke proved quite astute on such topics. He tracked the pendulum of propriety in ethnic labeling with a keenly disengaged eye — the term “oriental,” he points out with faint woe in several different decades, seems to have fallen out of favor — and, based in New York City, he kept close watch on the ever-shifting ingredient list of the American melting pot, or indeed, the question of whether the pot continued to melt at all. Born in Lancashire in 1908, Cook would at first seem a likely candidate for jerking-knee curmudgeonhood, especially as technology and diversity so intensified as he entered his seventies in the seventies, his eighties in the eighties, his nineties in the nineties. Yet, perhaps due to his status as a citizen but a cultural outsider, perhaps due to his thorough experience as a journalist of the old (as in, early twentieth-century) school, he remained throughout Letter from America refreshingly above the fray. Even in 2001, at the age of 92, he considered the increasing purchases of Christmas gifts over the internet. “I’m afraid that the yahoo, or philistine, reaction to these sorry stories will be a great sigh of relief, and the thought that the internet is really something of a fraud,” he says. “No need, yet, to abandon the shopping bag and the typewriter — or, in the case of some of my older friends, the quill pen.”

But he goes on: “Nothing could be more stupid. The dot-com failures that I have cited do not reflect any flaw in the institution of the internet, but in the human frailty of the people using it.” We thirty-ish-year-olds who grew up with the World Wide Web can appreciate the sobriety of Cooke’s perspective on such technological growing pains, or on such non-events as Y2K. I myself savored even more revisiting the historical events of my childhood — the Challenger explosion, the collapse of Pan Am, the Lorena Bobbitt incident, that whole O.J. thing, the “sad, squalid story” of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding — finding in Cooke’s relation the disinterested but not uninterested clarity seemingly unavailable at the time from my parents’ generation, or even my grandparents’ generation. Perhaps these words really come straight from my instinctive worship of old Englishmen, but America needs another Alistair Cooke now. Until one surfaces, we’ll have to make do with these podcasts, from then — but at least we have a variety of thens to choose from, if only one Alistair Cooke.

[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 Q&A

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Vital stats:
Format: Q&As, often post-screening, with directors, writers, writer-directors, and other filmmakers
Episode duration: 40m-2h30m
Frequency: often weekly, though it varies

I moved to Los Angeles for the filmgoing, sure — how many other cities offer the chance to experience all eras of cinema, theatrically, pretty much every week? — but also for the post-film-Q&A-watching. Enough filmmakers and filmmakers’ collaborators live in or regularly pass through town that theater programmers don’t have to strain to add an enticing liveness to a screening: “Director in person!” “A conversation between the writer and cinematographer to follow!” “Three of the supporting cast will probably turn up!” Some become regulars: the guy who wrote Electra Glide in Blue’s screenplay seems happy to appear whenever and wherever the movie gets projected, for instance, and Los Angeles Plays Itself director Thom Andersen fields an hour of audience questions every time I catch his documentary. And sometimes you hit a surprise jackpot, as when not just Quentin Tarantino but Robert Forster and Pam Grier took the stage after the Los Angeles County Museum of Art played Jackie Brown. That Q&A fired on all cylinders, which not all of them do. But this very element of suspense keeps them interesting, as does the fact that you can never quite know in advance which ones will, to mix the metaphor, give off sparks.

Having held no particular expectations for a conversation between Looper director Rian Johnson and someone named Jeff Goldsmith, I in the event found them far exceeded. Were I inclined to listen again and scrutinize what, exactly, so impressed me, I could do so by downloading the very same Q&A as an episode of the podcast The Q&A [iTunes], Goldsmith’s own. Instead, I listened to a whole range of his other Q&As, one-on-one and sometimes one-on-two sessions with a variety of directors and writers, writer-directors, and occasionally producers and actors working today, creators as rooted in the mainstream as the writing team behind Horrible Bosses and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and ones as strictly independent as Man Push Cart and At Any Price auteur Ramin Bahrani. Most often, Goldsmith engages people like Johnson, established filmmakers entrenched in neither Hollywood nor the arthouse. I saw him do so at Cinefamily, a theater on Fairfax Avenue that, before I actually moved to town, displayed such acumen screening rarities and bringing in guests (and especially bringing in guests who had a hand in these rarities) as to force me to pull the trigger and rent a U-Haul. “This reminds me of the sixties,” a well-known broadcaster friend who lives in the neighborhood said of Cinefamily during their potluck showing of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, “the last time life was unquestionably good.”

There, on another night, I saw Shane Carruth, he of Upstream Color, discuss his first film Primer with USC physicist Clifford V. Johnson. Had I braved even standier-room-only conditions on a later night, I could have seen Johnson and Carruth (who provided time-travel consultation on Looper) talk Upstream Color. I opted instead to hear that evening on an episode of The Q&A which combines it with Goldsmith’s own interview of Carruth at his usual venue, someplace called the Los Angeles Film School, whose name sounds faintly scammy but which must bring enough legitimacy to attract a cinephile of Goldsmith’s standing. It doesn’t surprise me that students of film production would dig Goldsmith’s interviewing style. He asks the questions you’d expect about process, budget, and schedule, and in his having a standard line of inquiry to fall back on, as well as his playing to audiences of eager learners and his tendency to conduct what we might call praise-intensive conversations, he reminds me at times of a non-octogenarian James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio.

Goldsmith’s version of Liptonism also features pre-written “geek questions,” those hair-splitting inquiries about plot minutia that you resent other audience members for squandering minutes of our valuable lives asking but which he somehow makes endearing. The geek questions, needless to say, get a field day after new-wave science fiction films like Primer and Looper, but Goldsmith has many other modes as well, which he switches between with startling efficiency. One week he’ll ask a director about the ways he circumvents the deadening conventions of the screenwriting process; another week he’ll ask a writer, with equal interest and earnestness, how he managed to adhere to those same conventions so successfully. But when Goldsmith talks to, say, Christopher McQuarrie about writing Jack Reacher, he doesn’t ask only about how best to craft studio-pleasing character arcs. Rather, he asks about that, but the conversation then shifts toward more meaningful points. I’ll always remember McQuarrie telling Goldsmith that experience, credentials, intelligence and skill all fall distantly secondary to whether people like having you around, a principle I suspect holds for every field of human endeavor. Woody Allen’s words about the attainment of a modest mastery by simply working, working, and working some more over long spans of time, even though he says them in an episode not hosted by Goldsmith himself, will also stick with me.

The Q&A delivers such deposits of universally golden wisdom with unusual regularity, and the more eccentric but endlessly fascinating Carruth drops one of them every few minutes during his appearance. He casts much light on how each element of filmmaking — writing, shooting, scoring, cutting — constantly informs all the others in a kind of perpetual creative cycle, and explains (to my mind once and for all) why a plot needs a core of unanswered, even unanswerable questions. Goldsmith even includes in the podcast, during his usual open-it-up-to-the-audience segment, an eloquent, impassioned, seemingly minutes-long declaration from my aforementioned colleague that Upstream Color indicts the modern condition: “Something happened. It was horrible. It happened to the environment; it happened inside us. It prevents us from talking to one another, or knowing what we’re saying when we talk. Whether God moved away from us or chemicals approached us, it doesn’t matter; we all feel this Martian, alienated state. And it’s our time.” But Goldsmith and Carruth also get into the nuts and bolts of do-it-yourself distribution, if you tuned in for that.

[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: Podcast Squared

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Vital stats:
Format: discussions of podcasts, podcasting technology, and podcasting issues
Episode duration: 25m-1h15m
Frequency: every 2-5 days

In one of Scott Adams’ Dilbert strips of long ago, the titular engineer reads a book of tips for a computer golf game. “So... you’re reading a book... about a computer simulation of an activity that’s almost a sport,” replies Dilbert’s girlfriend Liz. “That’s about as close as you can get to being a non-organic life form.” Our hero has, tonally speaking, a classic Adams half-response: “This chapter is about driving the little cart.” I do wonder what Liz, not one of the strip’s enduring characters, would say about writing an essay about a podcast about podcasting. Surely it doesn’t pay much credit to my organic status, but here I find myself, writing about Podcast Squared [RSS] [iTunes]. This episode is about apps.

The field of podcasts about podcasting doesn’t look very robust these days. Edgy Podcast Reviews, the last podcasting podcast I wrote up, came to a sudden halt nearly three years ago. Yet you can still download all 101 of its episodes on iTunes, as you can hundreds — thousands, probably — of other long-dead shows. This irks Podcast Squared host Andrew Johnstone, as does most every other aspect of iTunes, and most everything Apple has done regarding podcasting except allow for it in the iTunes Store. Though an enthusiastic podcast listener, he seems to dislike most of what now passes for the infrastructure of podcasting. If podcasting podcasts have gotten shambolic, then so, depending on how you look at them, have podcasts in general. This Johnstone aims to correct with his show, which offers an earnest mixture of podcast reviews, examinations of podcasting technology, and discussions of podcasting issues. For the issue of “women in podcasting,” for example, Johnstone invited a few female podcasters to co-host, interviewed the likes of AV Club podcast journalist Genevieve Koski and the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Julie Shapiro, and recorded an all-lady panel discussion.

Clearly, when Johnstone takes on a subject, he doesn’t mess around, although “women in podcasting” strikes me as ranking somewhere on the scale of pressingness between “men in Pinterest” and “men in mothering (but not fathering).” (My own show recently received a review which justified its two-star rating by explaining that, though the reviewer had only just started downloading episodes, she didn’t see many female names on the guest list, thus ensuring that I’ll never take gender balance seriously.) On a later episode, Johnstone’s frequent co-host Dave Biscella makes a similar point, although this means I agree with a man who produces two podcasts called Movies on Up and Erik and Dave Talking with Erik and Dave. I’ve never heard those shows and thus wouldn’t dream of judging them, but their titles alone do sound like a reflection of the entire medium’s grand lack of ambition.

I may take occasional jabs at the dominant podcasting genre of Two Twenty/thirtysomething White Guys/girls Bullshitting About Culture, but Johnstone has even stronger objections. The entire Podcast Squared enterprise, in fact, sounds like it runs on pure dissatisfaction: his dissatisfaction with podcasting’s — and podcast technology’s, and podcast journalism’s, and the podcast audience’s — failure to reach what he imagines as its full potential. Despite having logged over five years as a podcaster and almost five as a writer about podcasting, I myself have no guesses as to the potential of the medium. Maybe it will realize its full reach, scope, and inclusivity decades from now ago; maybe it reached it years ago.

I once interviewed the producer of a suite of very successful podcasts — a fellow who’s also appeared on Podcast Squared, in fact — and after we stopped rolling, he expressed his surprise that we didn’t talk about podcasting’s big problem. He said that as if I would immediately understand what he meant, but I didn’t, so I asked what this big problem might be. “The technology,” of course. Both Johnstone and our mutual guest regard the necessity to download or stream podcasts through iTunes or some other app as an aggravatingly high barrier to listener entry, although some podcasters see a solution in their coming technological change of choice — internet-equipped cars, closer radio-web integration, the next iteration of the mobile phone — discussing it in the same tones others use to discuss the Singularity.

Yet listening to podcasts has long seemed to me one of life’s easier tasks, and I still manually sync my iPod up to my computer, which, so I gather from listening to Podcast Squared, now feels like the labor of Hercules compared to downloading and listening all on your phone. Innovation’s march will soon render even that minimal effort unnecessary, but I do wonder what such luxuriant ease has, in the final reckoning, contributed to mainstream radio, film, and television. We podcasters have to ask ourselves: do we want listeners without the wherewithal to learn how to download podcasts, or without the active curiosity to seek them out? But this makes for only one of the countless questions about podcasting yet unresolved.

Johnstone addresses many of these, but rarely do I hear much discussion of the medium’s essential nature. “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet,” older schoolteachers solemnly used to warn us. But they might as well have told us, an astute tech commentator would later point out, that we can’t believe everything we hear on the phone. Podcast enthusiasts, Johnstone included, tend to talk about podcasting as an internet-based version of, or even successor to, radio. But it seems to me that, like everything else online, podcasting as a communication tool owes more to Alexander Graham Bell than to Guglielmo Marconi. Still, if you seek an examination of the uses of this newfangled telephone from as many angles as possible, you’ll nowhere hear it more thoroughly done than on Podcast Squared.

[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: PodCRASH with That Chris Gore

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with writers and editors of long-form articles
Episode duration: ~45m-3h
Frequency: erratic

“TV Made Fresh Daily”: that, to me, remains the core product of the FX network. Then again, I haven’t watched since about the turn of the millennium, but so many of my pleasant televisual memories come from tuning in to FX back in high school that I suppose I don’t need to. I remember staying up “late” to watch their “uncensored” airing of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, for instance, an event I’d anticipated for weeks. This happened relatively early in my development as a young cinephile, that time when you do your movie-watching and knowledge-gathering indiscriminately, whenever and wherever it seems possible. You’d also value any meeting, even if only virtual, with fellow movie-hungry minds. I sensed one of those in the skull of a fellow named Chris Gore, who one day started popping up in FX promos for something called The New Movie Show with Chris Gore, subject obvious. I gathered that, in addition to his duties as a cable host — duties that, in their exuberant marginality, I found weirdly admirable — he’d founded a movie magazine called Film Threat. Cool.

Having mastered the sort of film journalism the hyper-mainstream would call “irreverent” during America’s indie boom of the nineties, Gore gained a reputation as an authority on independent filmmaking and festivalgoing. This he still exploits in a variety of ways, and his television appearances continue, I believe in the form of DVD evaluations, on G4’s Attack of the Show. A dozen years after The New Movie Show with Chris Gore, we expect anyone who makes their living commenting on the cinematic scene, and especially one who compulsively jokes around the way Gore does, to put out a podcast; the medium has suddenly become the spine of so many comedic, critical, and generally Gore-style careers, the likes of which none of us could have explained to our great-grandfathers. He says his fans had hassled him for years to do a podcast. But I’m too lazy to do a podcast. So I’ll just go on other people’s podcasts. This is PodCRASH [RSS] [iTunes]. Or so the theme song goes. Though Gore takes pains to highlight the self-obsession inherent in this premise, I find it one of the few genuinely interesting new concepts going in podcasting.

Each episode presents a guest appearance Gore has put in on another podcast, so when you listen, you hear not just PodCRASH, but whichever podcast he happens to have turned up on that week as well. He pitches it as an opportunity for us to hear a variety of podcasts, many of which we won’t have known about before, and as an opportunity for him to talk about whatever he wants. This may have a narcissistic element to it, but not one quite so painful as Gore, who constantly makes pre-emptive cracks about it, seems to think. His show really does provide a view across the landscape of podcasting (especially the patch where guys get “irreverent” about movies) and, beyond that, offers a study in how an individual must bend their personality to suit shifting contexts and circumstances. I get the sense that Gore prides himself on saying exactly what he feels at all times, regardless of who hears it, but as essentially an entertainer, he has no choice but respond to feedback from what pure comedians would call “the room” — even if the room in which he finds himself contains nothing but a couple 25-year-old white dudes, an iMac, and a cat. Then again, the guy certainly can talk, especially if you get him on the topic of superheroes or Star Wars.

Such concerns have always struck me as odd when expressed by a 35-year-old, as Gore was in the New Movie Show days. But from a man of 47, involved breakdowns of The Avengers or how George Lucas ruined The Phantom Menace verge on the grotesque. Reviewing that film, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, only three years Gore’s senior (and someone who tends to come up often in Podthoughts these days) wrote, “I dutifully thrilled to the earlier films, to their contrast of black-velvet skies and blinding white sands, but I was a little too old to worship them or study the varorium editions. Even in the late seventies, we had a suspicion that Star Wars was nerd territory.” And I think Gore would actually agree, having proudly branded himself a lifelong nerd in PodCRASH’s first episode. Not that I long to return to the days when any we’d swirly any kid caught reading an Asimov novel in the cafeteria, but I sometimes wonder if we’ve let nerd culture gain a little too much ground, especially that formerly held by cinema culture. I myself originally moved to Los Angeles for the filmgoing but admit to a weariness with the aggressive slovenliness of this town’s filmgoers, compared to whom the T-shirt-clad Gore has the wardrobe of Luciano Barbera.

Lane elsewhere wrote about “a period when adventurous moviegoing was part of the agreed cultural duty, when the duty itself was more of a trip than a drag, and when a reviewer could, in the interests of cross-reference, mention the names ‘Dreyer’ or ‘Vigo’ without being accused of simply dropping them for show.” Then: “That time has gone.” Whether or not Gore has made a similar lament, I do suspect that visions of capes and lightsabers have not wholly colonized his head. I also suspect that he created PodCRASH in part out of a fear that his past decade or so in the media had reduced his personality to a narrow band of opinion on the capes and the lightsabers. Ironically, quite a few of the other podcasts on which he appears demand more — sometimes much more — of the same, but some let him speak on very different subjects. (Sex stuff, for instance.) Though Gore’s professional life has placed him well to pull off the podcast-of-podcasts form, I can think of a few others I’d like to hear try it. DC Pierson, for instance, whom I brought on my own show, Notebook on Cities and Culture, after hearing on a dozen others, has risen as part of a younger generation who didn’t have to get defined by time in the deep-cable trenches. So hey, Chris Gore, if you’re reading, come on Notebook for a conversation. You’ve said you want to talk about subjects other than movies. You’ve said you live near Koreatown, where I do. Let’s make this happen.

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: Longform Podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with writers and editors of long-form articles
Episode duration: 35m-1h
Frequency: weekly

Say 3:00 a.m. has rolled around. I’ve walked my lady home, downed whatever wine remained in the night’s bottle, sent the day’s last few dangling e-mails, read two or three page-downs on Twitter, glanced at Facebook, and checked the New Yorker for anything new from Anthony Lane. I could go to bed. Or I could check Longform.org. Though I rarely admit it, I only direct my browser that way in hopes of finding a 3,000-, 5,000-, or — jackpot — 10,000-word article so interesting as to deprioritize sleep and the dull preparations it demands. I imagine you’ve done this too. If you happen to have a day job, maybe you’ve burned hours of your employer’s time — even days of it — reading articles aggregated by Longform and its ilk (Longreads, say), luxuriating in a combination of boredom, fascination, and sheer spite. I had to ditch my own day job after envisioning the decades ahead melting into an ocean of text, often damned interesting but essentially opiate.

Though I no longer rely on Longform as that sort of drip-feed, it has remained in my night-elongating rotation — no morning pressure to get to “the office,” after all — and I took notice when the site began putting out a podcast [RSS] [iTunes]. The show delivers not audio versions of long-form articles but interviews with the sort of people who write and commission them: folks from New York magazine, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine... you know, the publications whose sites you pull up after dark looking for an extended distraction. (Also publications with “New York” in the title. Longform does have its office, I believe, in New York, but guys, come on — America has two cities.) Built at the intersection of an addiction to long-form articles and a compulsion to listen to interview podcasts, the Longform Podcast should sit right in my personal (and thus professional) wheelhouse. Yet I approached with trepidation.

Scanning the guest list, I inhaled sharply: “Oh no — journalists.” To be fair, journalists have proven less a force of 21st-century irksomeness than has the concept of journalism itself. It once rode high, at least in the United States, on newspapers’ robust stream of classified ad revenue. But when the money dried up, journalism took the uniquely unpalatable rearguard action of insisting that we need it. Through little fault of journalists working today, American journalism had already drawn considerable resentment for its perceived high-handed self-regard; doubling down on yapping about the Fourth Estate raises predictably little sympathy. Here I defer to the aforementioned Anthony Lane, on Shattered Glass, Billy Ray’s movie about about disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass: “Glass may be a rotten apple in the barrel, but the contention of Ray’s film is that the barrel itself, the noble calling of the reporter, is as sturdy and as polished as ever. Give me a break. On second thought, give me His Girl Friday. Five minutes of Howard Hawks’s speedy and cynical view of hacks in sharp suits, as they themselves bend the world to fit the shape of their own cynicism, is a more bracing sight than ninety-four minutes of Stephen Glass and his tragic slide from grace.”

From listening to their interviews, I do believe that the Longform crew and their subjects understand full well, if sometimes on a half-suppressed level, how weary we all feel with the established models of journalism. With each skilled, young-ish writer and/or editor I heard one of the Longform Podcast’s trio of hosts (one of whom comes from The Atavist, a new-media operation I don’t quite understand) talk to, I grew more convinced that they’ve all been badly hamstrung by both the irreparable old journalistic business models and the corruptingly pageview-driven current ones. But the money side has only done half the damage, at most; say the word “journalism” to today’s average young reader, and they surely think of some combination of plodding sequential narrative, pretend objectivity, deadening house style, and J-school piety. Pay occasional reflexive tribute to the positively spun versions of those qualities though they may, Longform’s interviewees generally “get it.” But get what? An idea that crystallized for me when I heard the new episode where travel writer Rolf Potts argues that travel writing concerns travel only incidentally and writing almost wholly: journalism will find itself replaced by essayism, or at least transformed by it.

Having built my own career of talking and writing, I can understand why someone might call me a journalist, but I still wince when it happens. I do pull up Longform in search of work by my (roughly defined) peers, but certainly not for anything I’d consider reportage. In those wee small hours of the night — or even during the day — I’m looking for essays. “An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question,” writes Paul Graham in "The Age of the Essay”. “You don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.” Longform mainstay John Jeremiah Sullivan has demonstrated mastery of, if not the pure essay, then at least the highly essayistic piece of reporting. I look forward to one day hearing him on the podcast. The conversation will surely not contain much hand-wringing about who will fund the Baghdad bureau. (If every Baghdad bureau shut down tomorrow, I doubt I’d notice for months, if ever.) The conversation surely will contain an insight or two into, explicitly labeled or not, the journalism that has become essayism. Forget the new journalism; bring on this new new journalism, the contours of whose stories follow the contours of human thought. Consciously or unconsciously, many of the Longform Podcast’s subjects, as well as Longform itself, will do the bringing. As soon as those fact-checking departments can't make payroll, we'll really tear it up.

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 Japan Show

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Vital stats:
Format: two expats on the news from Japan, especially of the irksome variety
Episode duration: 35-55m
Frequency: erratic

They call it “Seidensticker Syndrome”, in a tribute of sorts to famed translator and Japanologist Edward Seidensticker. Seidensticker, to put it far too uncomplicatedly, had a love-hate relationship with the country and the people who made the subject of his career. Ian Buruma described it with more nuance, in The Missionary and the Libertine, as “the love that can turn to hate and then back to love again at enormous speed.” I still see these ever-mounting levels of both attraction and frustration today in the eyes of some Westerners who take up residence in Japan. Those who avoid Seidensticker Syndrome do so by pre-emptively abdicating all desire to fit into Japanese society, relishing instead the clear perspective of the permanent outsider. The late Donald Richie, a friend of Seidensticker’s, stands as the locus classicus of this strategy. Seidensticker to Richie: “You will not allow yourself to be furious with these people. Yet, you know at heart you are.” Richie, in his diary: “He really hated himself, not these people [ … ] he should acknowledge the depths of his self-loathing.”

Despite having no sense of whether the hosts of The Japan Show [RSS] [iTunes] suffer from Seidensticker Syndrome themselves, I should note that they spend most of their time talking about the subject that can most readily induce Seidensticker Syndrome: Japanese politics. Westerners who’ve just set foot in the country seem reasonably able to keep a safe psychological distance from their adopted land’s shifty, confusing government, but over the years the irritation evidently mounts to indigestible proportions. On each episode of The Japan Show John Matthews and Gavin Dixon make a meal of the distinctive behavior of Japanese politicians, an improbable-sounding mixture of the clandestine and the intransigent, the pathologically sly and the incompetent. And when an expat in Japan gets to talking about politics, they usually get to talking about political apathy, which there reaches levels disengagement close to absolute. As a Japan specialist recently asked me, what other country has burnt through six prime ministers in six years without any social disruption whatsoever? What other country could?

Thinking too much about Japanese politics thus strikes me as a recipe for madness, certainly for the voiceless average nihonjin but more so for the utterly powerless gaijin. Yet think about it Matthews and Dixon do, in an attempt to, and I quote their site’s header, “take you on a journey beyond the thin veneer of anime, high-tech, and funky toilets.” I welcome this, as someone with a long-enough standing interest in Japan that I feel desperate to stay as far as possible from the usual axes of the “cool” and the “wacky”. (Those toilets, however, still impress me, and I can take no pride in the West until we finally acquire them ourselves.) I don’t quite know what axis The Japan Show prefers to explore. The bothersome, perhaps? The grimly indicative? Many of its discussions have the subtext, and often the text, that Japan has become a country not only in deep social and financial trouble, but one unwilling to address its causes. Casual Japan-watchers know this — the country hasn’t even tried to hide the length and malaise of its bubble’s aftermath — but listen to enough hours of these guys telling it, and you’ll think Japan careens inexorably toward its own self-destruct button.

Yet I would imagine Matthews and Dixon do love Japan, on some level. They don’t seem to be going anywhere, at least. Like many long-term gaijin, they come off as smart, adventurous dudes indeed. Unlike some smart, adventurous long-term gaijin, they may have a wide variety of complaints, but none have to do with the cushy if piddling occupations that tend to absorb Westerners and hold them back. (Hang around Japan just long enough, and you’ll meet a saddening number of Westerners who could do great things anywhere else in the world, but pass day after day as essentially talking classroom appliances for vast corporate English-language schools.) Matthews, a Japanese-speaking American, has worked his way into an impressive media career hosting television programs and reporting for National Public Radio. Dixon’s professional background I haven’t quite discerned, though I like to think he speaks no Japanese at all and simply gets by on pure Aussie curmudgeonly grit. Despite sharing his people’s globetrotting impulse, Dixon has, I believe, spent longer than Japan than Matthews, to the point of (or maybe because of) marrying into the culture. So if these fellows do love Japan, they don’t love its “leaders,” its whaling industry, its nuclear power industry, its anti-dancing laws, the heat of its summers, or something called “Abenomics.”

I don’t mean to give the impression that each and every episode of The Japan Show rolls out wall-to-wall bitching: Matthews and Dixon also discuss sports, innovations, business deals both promising and unpromising, cycling, and their own lives. (Indeed, here we have one of the vanishingly few two-guys-talking podcasts where you want to hear more about the hosts’ day-to-day.) But I guess sooner or later, Japan’s inflexibility, xenophobia, and presumptions about its own uniqueness just get to you. The fact that these national vices now seem to have reached breaking-point untenability makes Japan, to my mind, a more interesting place to watch now than it has been for years. The Japan Show would make a promising venue to observe this diversify-or-die period of Japanese history — one that now more than ever badly needs its Donald Richies — assuming it gets past the tendencies that keep people from taking podcasts in general seriously. We can deal with podcasters compulsively calling attention to their own segues or lack thereof, I suppose, but I do wish they wouldn’t consider “been busy” sufficient excuse to delay an episode by weeks, or even months. For now, this one exists in the ultimate oxymoronic genre: the occasional news show.

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.]
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