Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Critical Thinking"

| 1 comment

After two weeks abroad thinking many thoughts but none of the Pod variety, your Podthinker now gladly returns to the podcast beat with a rejuvenated mind and freshened perspective. Or something. One bright new insight includes the fact that, while we can thank the medium of podcasting most for making possible thousands of homebrewed programs that wouldn't otherwise have reached ear one, it's also been a serious boon to smaller-scale radio producers and their fans.

Take, for instance, WFMT, a Chicago station devoted to classical music, folk music and the arts more generally. A few years back, if one lived outside of Chicagoland and wanted to hear its programming — and it's quality programming indeed — one would have had to stream it, hearing nothing on-demand. A few years previous to a few years back, one would have had to up and move to that alternately freezing or scorching (but bustlin'!) midwest burg. Neither are optimal solutions. (Okay, so they offer some material in syndication and via satellite, but you get the drift.)

Fortunately, WFMT is one of those radio stations that's wised up to podcasting, and thus offers some of its shows free for the download to whoever, whenever, wherever. (It's also something of a rarity, doing this as not a public but a commercial station. If you can believe that.) Your Podthinker's favorite WFMT show, Critical Thinking [iTunes] [XML], is one such offering.

A series of conversations about the arts hosted by "critic at large" Andrew Patner, the program covers an impressively wide swath of cultural ground given that it sounds like a smallish-scale operation. WFMT's overall slant toward classical music does mean that most of the episodes are given over to classical and whatever else the public has come to call "classical," but the discussions aren't pitched at so rarefied a level as to exclude those less hardcore about the stuff. Though Patner seems to prefer chatting with conductors, including the Frankfurt Opera's Erik Nielsen [MP3] and the Oakland East Bay Symphony's Michael Morgan [MP3], he and his interlocutors don't just sit there chuckling at compositional jokes — they play even to an audience who might be irked by the very notion of compositional jokes.

When Patner strays from classical territory, he invariably wanders into other, similarly interesting subject areas, such as the work of Charles Darwin [MP3], Hebrew poetry [MP3] and the great British writers [MP3]. On other shows, he provides his own commentary on the Chicago arts scene and even reads aloud some of his favorite poems.

What your Podthinker ultimately finds most attractive about Critical Thinking is its aesthetic, which combines the sharpness of conversation between people who most certainly know what they're talking about with the intimacy only radio can well and truly provide. It might be called an act of space creation, if we're getting high-flown. The end result comes out quite a bit like KZSU's Entitled Opinions, but with a much harder musical bent. So if you like that program, chances are you'll like this one; if you like that program and enjoy spending time in the realm of classical music, you'll grab it and not let go. And to think, us non-Chicagoans wouldn't be hearing it precisely when we want without podcasting.

Vital stats:
Format: cultural (especially classical-musical) conversations
Duration: 5m-60m
Frequency: somewhat more than weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 158

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]


"Critical Thinking"

Gosh, Colin -- Thanks!

Wow! I'm not sure if our show has ever received an actual review before -- and certainly not one so thoughtful and sensitive.

Just a few points to add about the show itself -- you already obviously know much more about the podcasts than I do!

The broadcast/terrestrial/streaming "Critical Thinking" is a weekly one-hour program that airs Monday night at 10 p.m. Chicago time. During the week, my 7-minute or so essays/commentaries, "Critic's Choice", air a few times. I also follow the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on all of its domestic and international tours (20-some so far) and that leads to programs for the broadcasts as well. I've been with WFMT for almost 12 years now (although I was with them long ago for two years as well) and was with the local NPR station for eight years before that. Otherwise I am a print journalist and critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. I am the author of the book "I.F. Stone: A Portrait," on the independent 20th-century American journalist (Pantheon, 1988; Anchor paperback, 1990).

Classical indeed winds up having a good share of the programs, but whim can move us in other directions, too. Thanks for thinking that we do a good job with it for amore general audience! Those interested in some of the bigger name conductors will find plenty of Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, and Riccardo Muti on our programs and in our archive as well. (The photo that you use shows me with Sheldon Harnick, b. 1924 in Chicago, lyricist extraordinaire of such Broadway shows as "Fiddler on the Roof," "She Loves Me," and "Fiorello!")

We're a small operation as you observe, and intentionally so -- There's me and there's my producing engineer, young Mr. Matt DeStefano. And that's it. No other editors, engineers, producers, or supervision. I am fortunate to have a part-time intern or assistant from time to time, currently Mr. Ryan P. Viloria. I pick the music, too. Post-production consists of Matt working hard to make the programs sound great, but we do no other editing or messing around -- ideally we'd have a live hour-long program as our great mentor and friend the late Studs Terkel had on our station an ever-astonishing five days a week for almost 50 years. For "Critic's Choice," my recording engineer is Miss Paloma Orozco. Matt is also responsible for doing all of the work, from research to posting, that enables our podsasts.

We have been fortunate with our underwriters, Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation almost from the beginning, and other local supporters ranging from companies to individuals to family foundations. We picked up our first-ever commercial sponsor this fall, Our Community Insurance Consultants, Inc., which has strong outreach to alternative and non-traditional families. All underwriting and sponsoring announcements appear only as wrappers to the show and do not interrupt it nor take any time away from its broadcast slot. WFMT obviously provides all overheard and on-air promotion for the programs and Matt and Paloma are on full-time staff there, with *many* other duties. The name, "Critical Thinking," came from one of our excellent public relations directors, Holly H. Gilson.

Thanks again, Colin. And any suggestions or ideas from you or your readers are always welcome!

Andrew Patner