Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Too Much Information

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Vital stats:
Format: weirder, looser, more varied This American Life
Duration: ~55m
Frequency: erratic, unless I'm missing a pattern
Archive available on iTunes: last 20

This American Life, as this column's readers have surely wearied of hearing by now, has spawned a whole damn slew of imitators, in the form of "real" radio and podcasts alike. Each of these shows faces the challenge of distinguishing itself, a task second only in steepness to the same one confronting the even more teeming TTWGBAC stable. Debuting in 1995, TAL came of age before internet culture had quite formed into the shape we know and tolerate today. Too Much Information's [RSS] [iTunes] distinctions comes from its inseparability from the randomized, internetted-out world in which we find ourselves.

Need I say much more than that one episode [MP3] is a TAL-style fully soundtracked, multitude-of-voices exploration of ROFLcon, the convention dedicated solely to internet memes? The show gets the voice of the denim-shirted inventor of Rickrolling. It gets the voice of the dude who somehow monetized LOLcats. (And yes, the phrase "monetized LOLcats" alone begs me to reach for the razor.) It gets not only the voice of the snarky fellow who famously reviewed Three Wolf Moon, but the Bulgarian woman who designed it.

Sometimes Too Much Information will have a boldly defined theme like that, and sometimes it seems like a bit of a hodepodge. Either way's good, really. The latest episode [MP3] includes a bizarre Wiretap-like phone conversation about an old man's suspicions of meth-addled neighbors, a girl's monologue about looking for a boyfriend among beer pong players — including a hilarious aside about the identical behind-tooth permanent wire retainers on suburban frat boys — and a monologue about Chatroulette.

That last one comes from the program's host, Benjamen [sic] Walker, who often contributes comic, slightly obsessive solo material. It's not initially clear who or what this guy is, but the overwhelming mental image is of an alternate universe wherein Ira Glass is younger-sounding and kind of nuts. It turns out Walker's radio career reaches surprisingly far back, to the beginning of the last decade. His curious touch has caressed the signals of WNYC, KUOW, WBEZ and WZBC. He and his brainchild have now alighted at New Jersey's WFMU, the most interesting professional freeform station this country has; or, if you prefer, its most professional interesting freeform station.

Still, it's surprising how close Too Much Information actually gets to the TAL aesthetic. Not necessarily in subject matter — this show's best moments come when it's covering stuff that show wouldn't touch with a ten-foot radio pole, which is fairly often — but its style. Startlingly often, its production values are indistinguishable from its presumptive inspiration's. Given the steepish per-episode production costs (by public radio standards) I've heard about TAL racking up, it's either very impressive or a little scary that Walker and his tiny crew somehow manage to produce something just as crafted-sounding on the regular.

I am a little pained that I seem to have to describe this show almost entirely in terms of its congruities with or divergences from another, more established public radio program, but the aesthetic similarities cannot be ignored. Think of it as a push on it's predecessor's boundaries: a little more eclectic, a little looser, a little more formally varied, a little weirder. Quite frankly, I'd like to see the same outward pressure applied to the entire medium.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your staff retreat? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Comments

Thank you so much...

Benjamin Walker's Theory of Everything (and My Radio Nightlight) were two of my favorite shows that got me into Maximumfun.org and every, your blogposts, and the whole range of places and podcasts that I would have never found if I didn't start off with Benjamin Walker's theory of everything (which you can still find in bits and pieces on the web). Benjamin Walker's "Resurrection Rashamon" made me rethink my religious beliefs. His segments on torture where he envisions a world where citizens are allowed to torture enemy combatants during the early days of the Iraq war was inspiring. His story about what Hitler read in his bunker and Jerry Lewis' movie about the holocaust that no one has ever seen is just crazy and poignant. And his story about a masturbating darth vadar who works at a local parking ticket booth made me laugh out loud.

I thank you for uncovering his latest stuff. I've been searching everywhere to see where he turned up and now that I know he's doing another podcast, I feel like you've done me a very great service by closing this circle of podcast/google searches. You have truly made my day.

Theory of Everything

His "Theory of Everything" radio show was one of the first podcasts I ever listened to (in 2004? 2005?) and I was really sad when the flow of new episodes seemed to stop coming. I noticed when he moved to "alt.NPR" (still findable by googling) but that didn't last more than a very few new episodes and he dropped off the earth again. I'm really happy to see he's back and I'm hoping this format is very much like the old Your Radio Nightlights and Theory of Everythings (and I'm glad I downloaded and kept copies of all of those old shows while there was still a website).