Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Arts Alive

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Vital stats:
Format: arts-and-culture magazine
Duration: ~50m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 20

KUSC is, as you may know, a classical music station in Los Angeles. I’m not revealing a secret here: it’s got “USC” right there in the call letters, and it’s almost without exception referred to as “Classical KUSC”. If you’re outside Southern California and/or don’t care about classical music, you’re probably gearing up to blow right past the rest of this review, but hold up; I’m going to talk about the one show of theirs that’s got a wider mandate than you’d imagine.

Of course, I myself chose to write up Arts Alive [RSS] [iTunes] because, as Podthoughtreaders know, my relocation to L.A. is imminent. Well, ”imminent” in about a year, but still, it’s never too early to orient yourself in your next home through its film, its literature, its radio, and its podcasts. For this reason and others, I’ve been a KUSC listener for a while via its repeater in Santa Barbara. Arts Alive airs on Saturday mornings, and I’ve come to realize it’s just about the exact thing I want to hear on Saturday mornings.

The program is what you might call a “magazine show,” a bit like KPCC’s Off-Ramp, about which I previously Podthought for similarly L.A.-related reasons. Admittedly, much of its content has some kind of Southern California connection, even if tenuous, and an equally sized slice has a lot to do with classical music, but those are merely its dual entry points into the larger cultural world. Among the segments this description would not immediately lead you to expect are a conversation with Paul Giamatti [MP3], another with experimental novelist Mark Z. Danielewski [MP3], and one with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan about what’s wrong with the new Harry Potter movie [MP3].

Turan drops in as one of the program’s regulars, as does KUSC’s Alan Chapman, who hosts my other favorite program on the station, the 20th-century-centric Modern Times. (I sit around wishing that show would podcast, too, but I’m sure record-label litigiousness will keep that from happening for, oh, at least a year or two.) USC Thornton School of Music dean Rob Cutietta shows up every time for a feature called “Ask the Dean”, where he does his best to address listener questions about, the state of classical music today, the relationship between music and mathematics, and whether ghosts live in practice rooms. Though both the one-off and regular features are immaculately well-produced, they’re often cut in such a fashion that you don’t hear the questions: the announcer summarizes what the guest is going to say, then you hear the guest say it. What an odd way to edit.

Despite the fact that it undergirds a substantial portion of Arts Alive’s content, I hesitate to say too much about the show’s relationship to classical music. This has much to do with my squirreliness about the very concept, which I won’t be able to articulate any better than Alex Ross did in the New Yorker: “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past.” But when this show talks about classical music, it doesn’t do so with the kind of weird off-putting fixation associated with the form’s hardcore fandom. Nevertheless — and this is going to come off pretty grand — I’m glad to have a general arts-and-culture show that’s shaped by the better elements of the classical-music sensibility. If that makes any sense.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Ask the Professor

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Vital stats:
Format: jokey stump-the-panel game show
Duration: 30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 163

Take Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me. Get it off the road and plop it down in Detroit. Yank out the comedians and replace them with academics. Forget about current events; ask questions about all manner of subjects. Toss that desk bell and use the campus clock tower instead. Now you’ve got a pretty fair approximation of Ask the Professor [RSS] [iTunes].

But that’s an unfair comparison for a number of reasons, one of which is that Ask the Professor came first. Like, way first. By some counts, it might well be one of the longest-running radio programs in the United States, august-to-the-extreme institutions like the Metropolitan Opera aside. It seems to have experienced, over the course of its 50 seasons, quite a variation in profile: sometimes it’s been a strictly local show, sometimes it’s been heard on radios all across the country, and now it’s got a global reach by way of the medium known as podcasting. Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me seems pretty bulletproof and all, but damn, this thing’s a survivor.

One respect in which the comparison isn’t unfair: though ostensibly game shows, both programs are concerned less with rigorous score-keeping and rule-adherence than with cracking jokes and having a high old time. You might think this would be the theater of Wait Wait’s decisive victory, since academics, to put it charitably, are not comedians, but if podcasting has revealed one thing to me, it’s the charms of nonprofessional humor. Sure, a lot of the jokes made by the rotating panel of professors fall flat. Sure, a lot of them won’t be 100 percent intelligible to listeners not employed at the University of Detroit, Mercy, from whence the show broadcasts. But there’s such a reality to all of it.

In the field of audience participation, Ask the Professor receives higher marks than Wait Wait. Even though ATP doesn’t get listeners on the phone to compete, it does draw all its questions from what I’ve come to think of as the Professor Nation. Listeners, many of whom mention that they’ve been tuning in religiously since nineteen-dickety-two, mail or e-mail in questions about Shakespeare, hockey, Egyptian geography, Star Trek, the Canadian government, the Periodic Table of the Elements, or what have you. They also send in the answers; the idea is to stump the raw tenure-power collected in the studio. I don’t know which challenge is more interesting: the professors’ often comical struggle to answer, or the question-submitting listeners’ attempt to strike just the right balance of generality and obscurity.

The facts undergirding the questions can be surprising and the quest for the answers is usually chuckleworthy, but what I find particularly fascinating about the show it how it plays with its own history. References aplenty are made to past episodes, past hosts, and past stumpings, but each program also features a clip from the archives. This past summer, the producers even re-aired decades-old episodes in their entirety. I don’t know if it’s just a psychological effect of slightly degraded audio tape, but there’s something especially rich about these back broadcasts, even those from an era as recent as the late 1980s. Are they more theatrical? More deliberate? More radio-y? A question to confound even the smartest panel, I’m certain.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Stack of Dimes

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Vital stats:
Format: dudeversation, I’ll call it
Duration: 30m-1h30m
Frequency: biweekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 30

“This is the food episode,” said either J.D. or Thunder. Though this only happened on one particular installment of their podcast, Stack of Dimes [RSS] [iTunes], every single other I heard had something to do with comestibles as well: halloween SweeTarts, sketchy fish restaurants, pizza cupcakes, the malt liquor energy beverage Four Loko. This might be a coincidence, but damn.

In any case, Stack of Dimes isn’t a food podcast. Describing what it is requires me to drag out of the mothballs that dreaded designation, TTWGBAC: Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys Bullshitting About Culture. I have been uncharitable to these in the past — never without cause, I would submit — but have more recently resolved to look a little kindlier on podcasting’s dominant format. That’s good news for this show, whose Thirtysomething White Guys almost purely Bullshit About Culture. Whether the issue happens to be food, drink, television commercials, jeggings, or awful late-eighties kids’ movies, J.D. and thunder have opinions. If you subscribe, they will tell you them.

I admit that this is just the kind of show — the kind composed equally of disposable Gen-Y references and sheer complaint — that once would’ve sent me to straight the bathroom. (Then it would send me back to the iPod to replenish myself with the nourishing manna that is In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg.) But it’s recently dawned on me that they’re necessary — a strategic national resource, even. This realization came, as a result of writing up Dong-il Shin’s film My Friend and His Wife.

That movie has a lot to do with the distinctive nature of dude friendship, and thinking about it led me to the uncomfortable realization that few dudes really get into friendships anymore. As I wrote in the aforelinked post, none of the young male products of middle-class America I know really even have friends. They might have had their circle of dawgs in childhood and adolescence, but sooner or later they get siphoned off by girlfriends and wives and then descend into private hells of isolation where nothing can possibly satisfy except the next unsatisfying woman to come around the bend.

That’s where a podcast like Stack of Dimes comes in. One of the hosts seems to hold a day job in commercial radio, so it’s sprinkled with an enjoyable dusting of satire (or just plain jabs) at that sad industry. Both of the hosts are based in Seattle, so a listener like myself who happens to have grown up there will thrill to the constant name-dropping of marginal Washington state places like Everett, Yakima, Leavenworth, Chehalis, and Lake City Way. But the general value is all in the rhythms of dude conversation and the hard-to-describe but deep moments of recognition they deliver. Even when I wasn’t into the topics under discussion — and they’re usually so trivial that they’re probably not conventionally get-into-able — I appreciated being able to listen in on such talk. Really, I just appreciated that it was going on at all. For some listeners, I’m sure it’s the only connection to dude discourse left them.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Sporkful

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Vital stats:
Format: food talk, but specifically eating talk
Duration: ~20m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Sporks march shamefully in my Gen-Y internet perp walk right alongside monkeys, robots, pirates, and ninjas. The presence of any is usually a strong disrecommendation in and of itself, a red flag of sensibility, tone, or (worst of all) “irreverence” mechanically prioritized above substance. Then again, The Sporkful [RSS] [iTunes] is hosted by Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison of public radio’s “short-lived but much-beloved” The Bryant Park Project, public radio being the busiest intersection of belovedness and cancellation. Despite having never caught that program, I’d heard it was kind of neat, so I figured I’d put my spork-related qualms aside and give their new food show a chance.

Though The Sporkful is podcast-only, Pashman and Garrison have evidently retained a good deal of that distinctive energy radio-y radio beats into you. They speak rapidly and forcefully, as if with eyes fixed on the ticking clock. (The especially nice thing about podcasting, I’ve always thought, is that there is no ticking clock, but hey.) As a firm believer that podcast episodes should be no shorter than my favorite Tarkovsky film, I admit to having eyed their twenty-minute episode lengths dubiously. How on Earth to cram a nuanced discussion of poutine into such a compressed time frame? Bit here’s the thing: the hosts aren’t food critics; they’re sports commentators.

Now, as an aficionado of public radio and Tarkovsky, I have no idea what sports commentary sounds like, but, culinary content aside, this is how I imagine it. The rapid-firing Pashman (who sounds like a second cousin of Stop Podcasting Yourself’s Graham Clark) and Garrison are opinionated, argumentative, and all about the action, the down/dirty physical realities of food and eating. They bill the show as “for eaters, not foodies,” and that’s about right, especially given the sheer number of debates they get into about how best to bite into various comestibles. Occasional guests, like Radio Lab’s Robert Krulwich on sandwiches [MP3] or Marc Maron on coffee [MP3], can get pretty het up about these matters.

To top pumpkin pie or not to top pumpkin pie; the optimal coffee-dunking speed of a yeast donut; the hosts’ eternal struggle about bite consistency versus bite variety: these are important questions to anyone who eats, and that most of the media’s food conversation ignores them comes as a surprise. This isn’t a show concerned with exotic ingredients or elaborate preparatory flourishes; it’s all about being the best, most pleasure-extracting eater you can be. Whether this is more or less hedonic than all those foodie tracts about Belgian endive and Azerbaijani puff pastry I have yet to resolve, but it turns out to be one of the very few stripes of populism I can get on board with.

The most recent peak of The Sporkful’s usefulness, for my money, comes in its episode on buffet strategy [MP3]. (If we’re going to speak populistically, we might as well take it to the limit.) Though Pashman and Garrison’s techniques differ in the details, they agree solidly on one thing: when you approach the buffet, in the name of all that is good and pure, blow past the landslide of starches restaurants always place at the beginning and survey the whole thing before you take any food. That way, you can load up on the precious, expensive proteins rather than, say, potatoes, which is just what the management — your enemy — wants you to do. File this discussion in the Why-They-Hate-Us folder if you must, but it’s more relevant to the landscape we actually navigate every day than the last hundred hours of election analysis you listened to.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Bad at Sports

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Vital stats:
Format: “contemporary art talk”
Duration: an hour, on average
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

As a title, Bad at Sports [RSS] [iTunes] was funny, I’m sure, for at least 150 episodes. As for the following 120, I wonder. It’s a podcast about art, so the truth of those words is undeniable — if you’re looking for common ground among art students, that scrap may be as common as they get — but the observation seems less sharp than it could be. As with what it names, I find myself both impressed on the conceptual level and slightly disappointed by the muddle on the practical one.

Let’s be clear: this is a damned ambitious show that more than delivers on its promise. That promise, specifically, is of “contemporary art talk,” and boy, is there some contemporary art talk in here. Each weekly episode comes nears or exceeds an hour, delivering long-form conversation with an individual artist or a set of associated artists (or curators or critics or professors or what have you) plus extra segments on various goings-on in contemporary art. Though Chicago-based, the empire of Bad at Sports contributors seems to have reached both coasts of the country as well as into the wider world. There’s a lot of parochialism in podcasting; to see it a bit of, er, tri-coastalism, let alone internationalism, is heartening in itself.

The show also strikes a blow — has struck many blows, ever since 2005 — for the interview of substance. Occasional bouts of distractingly glitchy editing aside, the conversations adhere to both the rhythms and durations of, y’know, actual conversation. The correspondents’ enthusiasm for the works of and concepts in visual art under discussion is usually obvious, as is their genuine desire to hear and learn from the answers to their questions. (You’d be surprised how rare this actually is in the interview-y arts.) They’re not afraid of digression, either, which may lay some conversations defenseless to charges of indiscipline, but which — by definition, I suppose — takes them in delightfully unpredictable directions.

So far, this sounds like a pretty perfect podcast — a “Triple-P”, I call it — especially if you happen to be into the visual arts. Yet there’s a problem with the execution, a wily and amorphous one, that I’ve been trying to pin down for quite some time. At this point in my examination of the program, I can only conclude that it’s the same syndrome that afflicts contemporary art conversation in general: nobody’s quite sure how seriously they’re supposed to be taking it.

The Bad at Sports crew ostensibly takes pride in their ability to flip back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, between deep critical discussion and fart jokes. There’s no doubt that they can do that, but the transitions aren’t seamless; they’re marred by the low-level but ever-present discomfort of someone out at sea and only somewhat sure what to do about it. They talk to an astonishing variety of today’s artists, most of whom sound as if they are or could be doing interesting things, but lingering, unsettling issues about the value, relevance, direction of the entire artistic enterprise sap the edge from their confidence. “Oh, should I be asking you about how you actually make your work?” they seem to be thinking. “Or is that dumb? Should I be asking about the theories behind it? Or wait, does none of this matter? Should I make a fart joke?”

This isn’t always a dealbreaker, though, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much into a slight uneasiness. To be honest, I could simply be projecting the epic frustration I harbor about the nutritionless mash of verbiage that often passes for assessment in contemporary art, or, worse, the tenure-hungry academic yammer about Gender (Dis)loc[a/u]tion that’s staggered on, zombielike, since 1992 or so. Bad at Sports is actually a bit better about keeping such nonsense out of this show than most venues in the wider art conversation, but that’s a low bar. It seems to be the show is enough of a force to get down to work on the noble task eradicating it entirely.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Definitely Not the Opera

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Vital stats:
Format: stories on everyday themes from ordinary people and the Canada-famous
Duration: ~75m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 51

Definitely, this show is not the opera. But the set of all things not the opera — even of just the things on the radio that aren’t the opera — is big indeed. Because it’s from the CBC and because it’s stitched together out of interviews with folk of both the ordinary and semi-famous varieties, I could probably just say “This Canadian Life” and be done with it. Yet Definitely Not the Opera [RSS] [iTunes] isn’t quite that. How it isn’t quite that is difficult to pin down, but then again, so’s the show itself.

My exhaustive research reveals that, during its 16 years of existence, Definitely Not the Opera has been ever a-changin’. Sometimes it’s focused on pop culture; sometimes it’s not. At certain points, its length stretched to a staggering four hours; now it hits more like 75 minutes. It was once hosted by Spark’s Nora Young; now it’s hosted by Sook-yin Lee, who non-Canadians might know from Shortbus, John Cameron “Hedwig” Mitchell’s crazy sex movie. On this program, which has never once strayed into the realm of crazy sex — at least while I’ve listened — she’s a more raggedy-sounding Ira Glass, pitching the concept of the day and proceeding to ask person after theme-relevant person about their experiences, feelings, and feelings about their experiences.

Broadly speaking, it is is indeed the This American Life model: “choose a theme,” “bring you three or four stories on that theme." Except that, with a slightly longer episode length and a slightly shorter segment length, DNTO might be said to back in more stories per. But they’re not “stories” in the TAL sense, exactly; they’re more conversational and less production-intensive. You hear the voices of Sook-yin and her fellow contributors more often than those of Ira and his. DNTO’s segments are less production-intensive, in that the words and the music and the whatever else aren’t as “woven” into a single fabric. Which show you’d prefer all depends on what sort of an experience you want to have. If you prefer your commentary on modern existence less crafted but perhaps more loose and spontaneous, this is the one you want.

The program’s bagginess extends to its choice of subjects and its willingness to grow grand questions or statements from the soil they provide. The question of whether this difference frees the Canadian show from the pretensions of its Stateside counterpart or whether it condemns it to fluffy irrelevance falls, again, to the individual listener. Sook-yin and company take on such pillars of the human condition as bathroom conduct [MP3], our ignorance of our neighbors [MP3], and what the deal is with tooth anxiety [MP3]. All fair game, certainly, and all immediately relatable — underestimate the importance of this at your peril — but they admittedly carry a faint whiff of the trivial. (Or is this really dependent on the subject matter at all? Do I only smell that on the occasions when the show itself treats them trivially?)

If Definitely Not the Opera, for all its richness of entertainment, has a problem, it’s a larger version of the one its title suffers. They grab your attention. They’re aggressively non-rarefied. They’re jokey. They’re unusual, but not all that unusual. But their mission and the information they convey remain muddled. What goes on in the show is often amusing and filled with humanity, but, as with anything you have to describe in terms of what it isn’t, it can be hard to tell if that’s what’s supposed to go on.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Dublab

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Vital stats:
Format: sets and performances from Dublabbish sonic creators
Duration: ~3om
Frequency: erratic
Archive available on iTunes: most

Oh, how I enjoy this music, yet oh, how I find myself unable to describe it in any terms that make, y’know, sense. Dublab’s podcast [RSS] [iTunes] focuses pretty much solely on the music, provides thick sets of tracks with almost no speech whatsoever. But what kind of music is it? You can draw comparisons to CBC’s The Signal, but only in the sense that both shows play stuff that’s hard to pin down. It tends to have a beat, but you wouldn’t necessarily dance to it. It’s obviously produced with no small degree of technology, yet that’s often in the service of sounding handmade or “lo-fi.” It’s not experimental experimental — nobody would play it to a crowd of grad students in a repurposed lecture hall — but it’s not not experimental. It’s both slick and haphazard, algorithm-generated and handmade. It’s usually new, but it sometimes sounds old — or rather, sounds like it comes from no specific time period at all.

I came upon my show in my continuing quest to prepare myself for a semi-imminent move to Los Angeles. Some people might do this sort of research by reading books, talking to friends, watching Huell Howser, or memorizing Thomas Guides, but I’m a Podthinker through and through; I use podcasts. (And, let it be said, a pantload of Huell Howser.) One of the very reasons I want to move to L.A. is that it’s the kind of city that would produce an entity like Dublab, which is not just a producer of podcasts but, according to Wikipedia, is a “non-profit music public broadcasting internet radio station” that also does “art exhibition, film projects, event production, and record releases.” In other words, it sounds as if they’ve got a pretty solid foundation to become one of the most neato organizations ever.

That Wikipedia entry also contains a few clues as to the nature of the Dublab sound, which involves “mixing traditional music, such as folk, with electronic sounds” and “ the paradox that oftentimes music that is actually really old can sound very much like it was made in the present.” The identities of the artists and DJs Dublab presses into service might also provide helpful hints. Do the names Aska Matsumiya, Will Wiesenfeld a.k.a. Baths, SFV Acid, Chazwick Bundick a.k.a. Toro Y Moi, The Books, and 60 Watt Kid mean anything to you? If they do, you’d better start downloading this podcast toot sweet. (But then, you’ve probably already got it and have long since copied all the episodes to cassette.) If you’re like me and some of them kind of do, they probably all fascinate you enough to want to learn a lot more. Dublab’s podcast won’t really teach you anything about them, but it’ll give you a taste of their sonic style, which I suppose is the important thing anyway.

Given what I’ve found out about Dublab so far, they seem just utopian enough that they probably have some sort of residential geodesic dome. I enjoy their aesthetic so much that I’m starting to wonder if, instead of moving “to L.A.,” I should just move straight into that dome. But one question thrashes unresolved: as cool as I find this maddeningly difficult-to-describe music at the moment, might it just turn out to be an embarrassing late-2000s/early-2010s fad in twenty years? Like so many interesting things, there’s no easy way to determine if it’s absolutely permanent or the flashiest flash in the greasiest pan. I guess there’s an important lesson about the best music embedded in all this: you might just have to listen to the damned stuff.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: 99% Invisible

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Vital stats:
Format: brief pieces on design and architectural phenomena
Duration: 4m30s
Frequency: weekly, or so it appears
Archive available on iTunes: all

As unsuitable as design and architecture would seem as podcast subjects, I can’t get enough shows about ‘em. Public radio super-producer Roman Mars, he of Snap Judgment and REMIX Radio, has a new one out called 99% Invisible [RSS] [iTunes]. It’s not bad! I wouldn’t normally cast the harsh stare of the Podthinking eye on month-old podcasts, but this one’s generated so much buzz that it practically commands attention. Either downloaders really like architecture and design or they really like Roman Mars — or both, in which case, lucky for him.

So far, Mars appears to work under a pretty wide mandate on the design-architecture axes. He’s done shows about toothbrushes, space travel, the TransAmerica building, and, my personal favorite, city flags. The show’s title, as I interpret it, refers to the staggeringly countless man-hours of design work underlying the built environment. This goes for everything from the cityscapes we pass through every day to the humble aforementioned toothbrushes, which we should really try to use every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at least. It’s the sort of stuff Donald Norman wrote about in books like The Design of Everyday Things. Overturn the log of life is worthwhile, fascinating work: do it and you get all kinds of colorful, squirmy knowledge bugs.

Give it some time, and the show could well become design/architecture’s Radio Lab. Mars uses a similarly intricate aesthetic, mixing thematically appropriate music with interpretive sound effects and cutting and pasting a whole bunch of speech on top of it. Though I can already admire the effort and craftsmanship behind this production sensibility, something about it seems not quite there. I’m somehow both pleased and irked by the busyness and repetitiveness that afflicts the program. That’s not to say that 99% Invisible makes any unusually bad choices in this regard; this bothersome fragmentation, alas, poisons a lot of what I hear on public radio these days.

What’s more of a problem is how each episode ends almost before it begins. Every time I listen to an episode, I start it up, and, four minutes and thirty seconds later, think, “What, are you kidding me?” The interestingness is certainly there — you could teach an entire graduate course on any one episode’s topic — but the depth isn’t. To Mars’ credit, he pushes what he has to the absolute limit, drilling as deep as one possibly can given less time than the average commercial break, but it’s a Sisyphean task. There’s something to be said for compression, for providing ultra-polished gems to be quickly consumed by a busy audience — but not that much. Just make it ten times as long, and we’ll be hearing the next great thing in public radio.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Hopkinson Report

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Vital stats:
Format: social media marketing riffing and interviews
Duration: ~15m, though sometimes substantially longer
Frequency: more or less weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

So I hear this “social media” stuff is pretty big these days. Specifically, I hear it from The Hopkinson Report [RSS] [iTunes], a more or less weekly audio dispatch from Jim Hopkinson, Wired magazine’s “marketing guy.” Having recently picked up marketing and advertising as intellectual interests (read: I realized I couldn’t market or advertise myself to save my life), I soon got Hopkinson and his Report as a recommendation.

It’s a pretty damned lively show. Hopkinson speaks at a rapid clip, almost like a more self-aware but no less enthusiastic infomercial host. Given the time constraint on each episode, his speaking speed would seem to come by necessity. He’s not pressed into John Moschitta territory or anything, but most of his shows clock in around fifteen minutes on average. Most of the time, he just takes a marketing technology, trend, question, or case study and riffs on it. There are occasional welcome longer-form episodes — interviews with authors and other sorts of creators — but there are three things us kids value above all in our media: brevity, brevity, and more brevity.

Again, that’s just something I’ve inferred from listening to the program itself. I’m glad I approach Podthinkable podcasts by simply plunging in, because if I’d read the episode titles in advance, I would’ve developed serious, itchy reservations. “4 Important Video Trends Worth Watching”. “5 Reasons You Should be Using a Twitter Client”. “Four steps to riding a viral video wave — Recognize, Hypothesize, Capitalize, Monetize”. “Social Media is the New Rock and Roll”. I keep washing and washing, but the dirt won’t come off. The dirt won’t come off.

Let me emphasize that, despite what those titles might imply, this is not a loathsome show. It actually delivers useful payloads with surprising frequency; it’s just that they’re often encased in those hokey shells. Hopkinson has some solid advice about résumés, for instance [MP3], although I think he neglected to mention how rarely the really cool work out there to do doesn’t ask for résumés at all. And he’s been in the technology game long enough that he can bring an interestingly wide perspective to certain trends, comparing what’s going on now to what went on in the eighties and early nineties.

As marketing podcasts go, I doubt The Hopkinson Report will unseat, say, CBC’s The Age of Persuasion (which may or may not turn out to have a secret podcast feed if you Google around) in my favorites list any time soon. This might just be because I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in my own era and generation. Sure, I’m on Twitter, I grasp the usefulness of Twitter, and I know how big Twitter is, but I still feel more than a little weirded out when listening to anything about “how to write great tweets.” I’ll stick to my sweater vests, the CBC, and Jim Hopkinson’s conversations with interesting self-marketers and his observations about Japanese toilets. You kids run along and turn your videos viral.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Critical Thinker

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Vital stats:
Format: Philosophy 3, in fun chunks
Duration: ~5m-20m
Frequency: thrice a month, on average
Archive available on iTunes: all

In this show’s iTunes reviews, this cranky (in both senses of the word) one-star assessment appears:
Interesting that DeLaplante assumes a biological creature which has ‘evolved’ for the purpose of survival can know truth. Certainly our adapted faculties will help us to survive better than those of our predecessors, but is in no way our evolved brain a guarantor of known truth. In fact, since we are ‘evolved,’ we should not think that we actually can know anything.
Welcome to the world of internet rationality geekage. It’s got its own customs. One of its customs is to always try to appear more rational than the other fellow, even if the other fellow does a podcast about critical thinking. Even if you have to resort to scorched-earth type lines about how human brains can’t get truth.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Kevin DeLaplante sets The Critical Thinker [RSS] [iTunes] pretty far from all the more-rational-than-thou battles currently raging irrelevantly on. It’s essentially a philosophy course in critical thinking like you’d take in college — it was Philosophy 3 at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara — but served up in very brief audio chunks.

This is a sensible way to do it, seeing as DeLaplante is a professor at Iowa State University. He’s also the proprietor of CriticalThinkingTutorials.com, which is a bit like all those those language-learning sites out there, except that it teaches you critical thinking. This podcast is a branch of that site’s curriculum, and it operates on a model that a savvier trend writer would call something like “Edu-2.0” but I call “adult ed freemium.” Like, say, Coffee Break Spanish, The Critical Thinker offers its “lectures” for free but charges for the other course materials, which aren’t absolutely necessary but presumably enrich the overall experience. (I’ll never know, because I spend my time that could be used earning disposable income writing podcast reviews.)

The need to know “critical thinking” may seem quite a bit less pressing than the need to speak Spanish, but I think it’s actually more so. (Slightly.) Given the directions academia has moved in the past twenty years, the very idea of critical thinking has been co-opted to “mean” various sort-of-defined things about the subaltern (dis)loc[a/u]ting their hegemony and whatnot — identity stuff — but it’s really about making and evaluating logical arguments. Or illogical arguments, as the case may be. The idea is that, without thinking critically you won’t know which are logical and which are illogical.

DeLaplante spends a few episodes giving his own reasons for pursuing critical thinking, including “self-defense” [MP3], “empowerment” [MP3], “civic duty” [MP3], and “wisdom” [MP3]. These are noble ends, certainly, and he maintains quite a dignified manner in pursuing them. He makes it clear indeed that he’s not running a show about how to shout people down, or even about what’s actually wrong and right; it’s all to do with the form of the argument. He emphasizes it with his choice of example arguments to take apart, managing in the first few episodes alone to cover creationism, abortion, and gay marriage while stripping them of all sensationalism. This is not the place for someone with a lot of fixed ideas about where arguments ought to arrive. And that’s a good thing. Now if you’ll excuse me, my brain insists I go forage for sweet, sweet berries and then reproduce.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]
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