Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Spark"


Examining the components of Spark [iTunes link], it quickly starts to look like a big sweep for the nothing-new-under-the-sun department: personal technology, short interviews, newsiness combined with storytelling, a friendly-sounding and lightly-accented Canadian announcer and what public radio wonks like to call "sound-richness". But the show picks up these shopworn parts and does its own thing, creating a program that's unlikely to startle listeners with the bold new directions in which it's taking them but successfully connects with them nonetheless.

The production sounds, like so many post-This American Life shows, a bit like This American Life. It's an assemblage of host commentary, conversations, personal stories, atmospheric sound effects and reasonably quirky music. It doesn't encompass the whole of life, though; it mostly just covers the parts that involve using today's ever-developing technology. And it's Canadian, not American. So This Canadian Technological Life would accurately describe the show (although, under pithiness comparison, it's easy to see why the CBC went with Spark instead).

The emphasis is on Life; while this is a show concerned with technology, it's not meant for geeks. The target audience seems to be that segment of the general listening public that finds all these shiny new gadgets on the market "neat" but would prefer not to think about integrated circuits and suchlike, those who'd rather hear people talk about the fun stuff they've done with technology than about the nuts and bolts of the technology itself. Recent episodes have been conveniently representative, featuring worries about how social networking and all that is robbing us of solitude [MP3], what it's like when a techie husband has a semi-luddite artist wife [MP3] and how Twitter allows an old grandmother to tell the world her surprisingly engaging life stories (yes, really) [MP3].

Those subjects may sound a tad hokey to the hardened technophile, but as an attempt to reach out to non-enthusiasts and entertainingly communicate to them a small sample of the myriad possibilities afforded us by today's gizmos, widgets and internets, Spark is actually pretty admirable. And it's not only valuable to listeners who don't as yet know their USB from their TCP/IP; your Podthinker, no stranger to gizmos, widgets and (especially) internets himself, was able to formulate some solid project ideas of his own while listening to the show's story subjects chat about how they've managed to fashion printer ink out of coffee grounds or print out blogs or shrinkwrap their laptop to take it into the kitchen or whatever. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Still, for a program so concerned with the digital world, Spark is heavy indeed with the slick, busy, snippet-y feel of public radio as opposed to the pared-down, more expansive, content-oriented feel of podcasts and the new audio content sensibility they're even now ushering in. While this can be disorienting for a podcast habitué, it's presumably more comfortable for the aforementioned un-techie making the journey toward... semi-techiehood, at least. Don't be afraid; we welcome you.

Vital stats:
Format: This Canadian Technological Life
Running since: September 2007
Duration: ~27m
Frequency: weekly, approximately
Archive available on iTunes: all (which, for a public radio podcast, is astonishing)

[Podthinker Colin Marshall talks a big technological game, but still can't work Linux. Tell him how at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]


Sounds like (mostly) a winner. I'm curious to know how you select your podcasts by non Max-Funsters. I'm always looking for non-iTunes methods to find the next must-listen podcast on my list.

Erin,This recommendation came from a thread I started on the Max Fun forum. Recently, I've also been using recommendations gathered from an Ask MetaFilter thread I started. I've got one coming up that I learned about when a panelist on Barely Literate mentioned it. I try to position myself to receive as much word of mouth about new podcasts as possible.