Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Le Show

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Vital stats:
Format: satirical news-reading, monologues, and sketches
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last ten

Years ago, I thought Harry Shearer was living the radio dream. Each and every weekend, he rolls into the studio — usually KCRW in Santa Monica, which he rightly calls “the home of the homeless” — and cranks out an hour of solo broadcasting, mixing news with commentary with comedy with music. His program, Le Show [RSS] [iTunes], is heard all over the world, and he’s been doing it since 1983. This once seemed like such a sweet deal, until it occurred to me that he probably doesn’t get paid. Luckily, he can bankroll all his radio efforts, no matter how pricey, with all the money he earns as the voice of Bart Simpson.

No, I kid; Bart’s voice actor is actually some lady Scientologist. But, having voiced half the remaining population of Springfield over the past 20 years, Shearer does indeed draw what must be a luxurious Simpsons paycheck. That means, not to put too fine a point on it, that his next meal ain’t comin’ from Le Show, which effectively makes it the highest-profile, highest-gloss one-man volunteer community radio public affairs shows ever. And when you’re talking about volunteer community radio public affairs shows, you’re talking about hobbyhorses.

Of all the Simpsons characters he’s done, Shearer’s “actual” voice sounds most like a very relaxed Principal Skinner, which, for me, remains a little surreal to hear saying things about Afghanistan and such. But for better worse, his has lodged itself in my mind as the voice of Sunday mornings. I find something very appealing, tonally, in hearing him calmly read the week’s selection of stories that appall and outrage him most. Though he pre-produces any number of sketches and surprisingly elaborate comedy songs about current events, he’s at his satirical best when simply peppering the news with off-the-cuff witticisms, jabs, even puns.

And yet, somewhere in the mid-2000s, I found I couldn’t bring myself listen to another second of his complaining about Dick Cheney. Shearer seemed to have developed an unhealthy fixation on the ex-Vice President to which he spared his audience no exposure. It was a bit like when Phil Hendrie decided to stop doing fake phone-ins and just talk about Iraq all the time. They’re men of two different ideological perspectives, sure, but an ideological perspective is an ideological perspective. If the Cheney thing hadn’t cut off my regular Le Show habit, I’m sure one of the other horses in Shearer’s table would’ve: high-definition television, maybe, or more recently, the Army Corps of Engineers.

But I kind of miss it when it’s not around. Returning to the program via its podcast in this post-Cheney era, I find that, though the positions of Shearer’s individual obsessions have reshuffled, the themes remain the same. He’s more or less entirely concerned with waste, incompetence, and general failure committed by corporate or governmental institutions, whether in distributing sodas, building nations, or all points between. There’s a place for this, of course, and Shearer’s take on it does seem to generate a certain amount of dark, Kafkan stupidity-of-systems laughter. Yet I find that most of the troubles he highlights, no matter how ridiculous, seem pretty much par for the course.

Maybe this is a generational thing, but I’ve always thought of sufficiently large companies or bureaucracies as the primary engines of epic failure. That’s what they’re for, right? So when Shearer goes on with very low-key indignation at the Army Corps of Engineers somehow flooding Denver or Pepsi accidentally giving Saudi Arabia the bomb or the U.S. military spending ten million dollars per year on a ragtime band or whatever, it can feel like he’s reading out of the phone book. “Joanne Smith, 847-2351. Joe Smith, 452-2822. John Smith, 358-2384. John Smith, 358-2384, ladies and gentlemen.” I have to wonder: what on Earth does he expect?

[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: G.I.O. Get it On

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Vital stats:
Format: Loveline clips and Loveline-related interviews
Duration: ~1h-5h
Frequency: surprising
Archive available on iTunes: all

Like most everyone radio-inclined in my generation — not that there are terribly many of us — I grew up on Loveline. For a few middle- and high-school years there, rarely did a Sunday-Thursday 10 p.m. hour come when I didn’t tune straight to Seattle’s 107.7 “The End” for what I craved. Late-night, informative, improvisational, hilarious: this, it seemed to me, was the best use of the medium of radio. I still think of the show’s 1995-2005 hosting team of Adam Carolla and “Dr. Drew” Pinsky as perhaps our time’s finest edu-comedic duo. Sure, Adam’s now got his own bigtime podcast and Drew remains on Loveline (alongside someone named “Psycho Mike”), but it ain’t quite the same.

As luck would have it, mini-legions of fans more obsessive than me were recording almost each and every show during its heyday. They’ve been making these recordings available on the internet for as long as large file transfers have been feasible, be it on your webs, your Napsters, your Bittorrents, your Morphei, etc. None has been quite so perfectionist about it as a guy named Giovanni, who in recent years has risen to the throne of Adam Carolla’s “Superfan”. Popular demand urged him to start his own podcast, where he’s the DJ and the greatest hits are old Loveline clips. Now he’s done it, with G.I.O.: Get it On.

Like most of us young listeners, Giovanni approached the show primarily as a laughter delivery system; given the surfeit of low-I.Q. callers Adam instinctively mined for comedy gold, it filled that function reliably. On-air, the hosts would often question whether or not the callers were learning from their advice — indeed, whether they were capable of learning from it — but we all know it was the listeners, not the callers, who were taking notes. Lord knows what trouble I would have gotten into if I hadn’t spent thousands of hours immersed in this rogue’s gallery of semi-sentient sex-and-drug dysfunction cases.

With what seems to have been a totally absent family and a peer group even dumber than Loveline’s caller pool, Giovanni admits to having needed all the radio help he could get. The show, he says, was the sole influence teaching him how to “live right.” Adam, Drew, and their engineers were the closest thing to family he had. These are two of the things he admits in an interview with longtime Loveline board operator Anderson Cowan [MP3]. Giovanni isn’t only the Raider of the Lost Tapes; he’s a relentless pursuer of conversations with people close to any Carolla-centric project.

There is no way to exaggerate Giovanni’s enthusiasm for Adam Carolla and Loveline. This comes through not just in the very fact that he puts together a podcast like this, but in the way he does it. It’s not as if he simply imports a favorite episodes into Garageband and records an intro saying, “Hey, here’s a good one.” He meticulously weaves what he considers to be the best moments of separate shows from different times linked by guest, by theme, or by something more abstract. He dedicates part of one episode, for example, to stringing together all the times Jeremy Piven ever discussed the production of Judgment Night, where Adam worked as a stand-in [MP3].

I really hope nobody brings an intellectual property axe down onto Giovanni’s project. If anything, I’m pretty sure whoever owns what he’s excerpting should immediately hire him. They’ll find a way to make money off what he does. Failing that. the vast Adam Carolla empire must have a use for him. And I know he’s Adam’s Superfan and all, but his archiving work reminds me of one thing above all: Dr. Drew was pretty damn funny too.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Coffee Break Spanish

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Vital stats:
Format: Spanish class
Duration: 15m-20m
Frequency: every week or two
Archive available on iTunes: all

Both the weirdest and most obvious thing about this show is that its hosts are Scottish. This isn’t terribly strange in itself, though most podcast listeners seem to hail from North America, where voices with full-blown Scots accents remain rare. What’s mildly unnerving is having such a voice teach you Spanish. These particular Scots are good at what they do, no doubt about it, but if you’re a Yank like me, it’ll be all you can to do keep your “Ach!”s, haggis references, and Groundskeeper Willie quotations to a minimum.

But it would be unfair to focus on the exotic provenance of Coffee Break Spanish [RSS] [iTunes], especially since this kind of unexpected internationalism is one of those special delights podcasting has made possible. Stand back and ponder the fact that you can get a grasp on most any reasonably widely-used language — we remain in wait for most of the ones involving tongue clicks — quickly and for free, just by downloading and listening to a few audio files. I don’t know anybody who’s become fluent in a foreign language through podcasts and podcasts alone, but that’s not the point; the point is to get you going.

This is one of the most popular language podcasts around — hell, one of the most popular podcasts around. I chalk this up to two things. First and foremost, the Spanish language itself seems to be in healthy demand. Us North Americites, especially those of us in the southern border states, most likely want to be able to talk with our friends in Mexico. I myself have a jones to visit Mexico City, which seems just strange enough to be deeply fascinating. Failing that, we tend to try to “find ourselves” with extended backpacking journeys across Guatemala. Being from Scotland — er, Escocia — I would bet that the hosts, teacher Mark and student Kara, are more interested in Spain. Y’know, Barcelona. Madrid. García Lorca. Frank Gehry. All that.

This introduces another accentual quality that some might find off-putting: they usually use Spanish rather than the Latin American pronunciation. This strikes me as no big deal, since the latter sounds — from what I can tell — to be a lisp-intensive version of the former, but I sense that some listeners have written concerned e-mails to the producer. In the same way, you may or may not enjoy the goofy sense of humor that periodically surfaces, as when Mark expresses shock and dismay that Kara lacks a rock-solid grasp on the work of Billy Joel, but I can’t say as I mind it. I eventually did get a little irked by the cha-cha-cha flavor of the interstitial production, since it reminds me of everything I disliked about high school Spanish classes.

Yes, I took four years of this language back then, but the merciless sands of time have since reduced my Spanish to ruins. Given my aforementioned Mexico City jones, I figured I’d use Coffee Break Spanish as a first step toward rebuilding my skills. The show claims to be geared toward the absolute beginner, and, for the first few dozen episodes, boy is it: your holas, you buenos diases, etc. If you really are just starting down the Spanish road, it’s one of the easier, friendlier, more accessible ways to do it. There’s nothing especially innovative about the actual linguistic education it imparts — Mark introduces new material every time, Kara learns it, the listener’s given plenty of time to answer themselves, sometimes unusual things happen like cultural discussions or appearances by what sounds like a toddler — but nor is there anything to complain about.

This brings me to the second reason the podcast is so popular: consistency. Language shows tend to podfade rather quickly; they’re second only to maybe hey-my-buddies-are-kinda-funny comedy podcasts in that regard. But Coffee Break Spanish has endured with supreme clarity and regularity. For my own purposes, I wish they’d move a little faster, but hope has appeared on the horizon: about 50 episodes in, they get to the past tense, on which I could use some additional tutelage. The price is definitely right. (Unless you step up to this “freemium”-model show’s additional materials, in which case you’ll have to decide how right the price is yourself.)

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Straight Dope

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Vital stats:
Format: questions and answers about what the story is with various things
Duration: ~5m
Frequency: on average, weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Back in high school, I thought the archives of The Straight Dope were just about the coolest internet thing ever. Stored therein were answers to burning questions I didn’t even how I had: “Was the legendary liqueur absinthe hallucinogenic?” “What's equus eroticus all about?” “What's Kwanzaa?” Truly — and I say this as someone who writes a lot on the web — some of the most interesting reading on the web. (I also drew no small amount of enjoyment out of the site’s message board, until it started charging. I’m web 1.0 enough not to pay for a message board on principle.)

The Straight Dope actually has a long, storied history, especially by the standards of enterprises you can call “internet things.” It’s a question-and-answer column that’s run in the Chicago Reader and elsewhere for nearly 40 years. The answers ostensibly come from Cecil Adams, “world’s smartest human” — a shadowy, wisecracking figure whose existence has always been debated — and the questions from Cecil’s public, which he refers to as the “teeming millions.” Most of the millions’ inquiries take the “What’s the story with... ?”/”What’s the deal with... ?”/What gives with... ?” form, demanding explanations of often mundane but sometimes exotic phenomena that public education inexplicably fails to address.

Two qualities make The Straight Dope so compelling: the curiosity-satisfying, hey-I-always-wondered-about-that nature of the topics, and the Cecil Adams writing style. Adams (or whatever hive mind of scholars labors under the Adams banner) combines clarity, intelligence, jauntiness, and mild-to-strong disdain for the questioner, somehow winningly. Some might call it “snarky,” but I find it higher-class than that; Adams makes sport of his readers, sure, but he also takes their concerns seriously. For instance, here he is beginning to respond to a writer-in who wants to know why Shakespeare is better than Tom Clancy:
Shakespeare versus Tom Clancy, eh? I admire you, Mark. You're a bozo, but you're a bozo with brass. What's more, you raise a question that deserves an answer. Fact is, neglecting the handful of fey creatures who claim they grokked Shakespeare upon first hearing "to be or not to be," few people get him right out of the box. The obstacle is his lofty language, much of which can only be grasped with footnotes, and sometimes not then.
Here’s his opener to a column addressing a question about what kind of fart it would take a 180-pound man to achieve liftoff:
You realize, K., that this question is idiotic. However, that's never stopped us before, and there's no doubt that from a scientific perspective the subject has its points of interest. So I assigned the job to my assistant Una, a professional engineer, who quickly obtained the relevant thrust equations from NASA and got to work computing the necessary forces. While Una and I found the results enlightening, for you — assuming you're the 180-pound man here — it wasn't such a good day.
It came as no surprise when I found out The Straight Dope, like many originally text-based internet things, now has a podcast [RSS] [iTunes]. On purely formal grounds, I can’t in good conscience recommend it: it’s just some guy — not, needless to say, the mysterious Adams — reading Adams’ words out loud. (Given infinity more resources, though, I imagine it could make a killer Radio Lab-type audio spectacle.) But if you’re not much for the written word, by all means, don’t hesitate consume a column this delightful ear-style. You even still get “Slug” Signorino’s accompanying goofy illustrations — which, say what you will, I actually find really funny — albeit squished to the dimensions of your mobile audio device’s screen.

You will, however, have to deal with beer ads every five minutes. I think the genius of Cecil Adamsian prose, which I’ve long worshipped as an exemplar of high weekly-column style and which maybe works even better spoken than written, is worth it. But I’m still trying to find a way to expunge from my mind slogans about how it takes characters to brew beer with character. Beer. With character. It takes characters. To brew it. To brew a beer. A beer with character. Which takes characters.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Off-Ramp

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Vital stats:
Format: L.A.-centric newsy culture segments
Duration: 20m-90m
Frequency: on average, weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

There’s a lot to say about how podcasting and public radio have interacted in Our Brave Age of New Media, but most of it would bore people. Public radio, alas, has had a much stronger effect on podcasting than podcasting has had on public radio, but the effects are interesting to think about nonetheless. At minimum, though, it’s pretty great that most public radio programs podcast. This enables you to, for instance, remotely scope out a city’s public radio situation before you move to that city. I’ll probably move to Los Angeles in the next year or two, so naturally, I’m submerging myself into all kinds of L.A.P.R. podcasts.

KPCC’s Off-Ramp [RSS] [iTunes] is one of the richest of these. I don’t quite know how to describe it except by the very, very dopey genre name “magazine show.” For those not into public radio, a magazine show assembles a bunch of loosely associated short pieces with lowish-medium to highish-medium newsiness value, unites them with a host’s voice, and calls it an hour. Off-Ramp’s concept is to keep more or less within the confines of Los Angeles, focusing on Los Angeles stuff: hidden wineries, anime conventions, Chicano rockers, “entertainment legends,” Phil Spector.

It actually seems to be a pretty amusing, informative, effective guide to Los Angeles culture, to the extent that there can be an “effective guide to Los Angeles culture.” I do not say this because I’m a displaced, embittered New Yorker who demands to know if you call this a bagel. I say this because L.A. contains so freakishly many types of culture that most attempts at making a Baedeker are doomed from their very conception. Fortunately, Off-Ramp doesn’t strain to be comprehensive, instead picking a series of cultural entities that might be interesting: a conversation with an obese nude model here, a search for L.A.’s most fêted hot dog jonts there. (There are even segments from The Dinner Party Download included, which remains, I’m saddened to inform you, just a bit too slick.)

While I can totally see how this radio kaleidoscope of neat L.A. stuff would be what you want to hear while driving around town, I can’t help but sometimes be irked by the short length of the individual segments. I’d normally have no choice but to rue whatever seems responsible at the time, but the Off-Ramp podcast feed provides longer versions of some of the show’s interviews and other reportage. The most fascinating stuff I’ve heard on the show comes in these “extras,” which includes an extended-mix around-the-picnic-table conversation with contributors to the L.A. literary journal Slake [MP3] or an uncut version of host John Rabe’s interview with the co-creator of Columbo [MP3], who’s evidently still writing new Columbo stories.

I am thus left in the awkward position of wishing that public radio would start to sound a little less like Off-Ramp and a little more like Off-Ramp’s podcast. Perhaps magazine shows could morph into, oh, novella shows, at least? While all the radio version’s quick hits about novelty food and entertainment-industry eccentrics reinforce my desire to move down there, but it’s the long-form stuff that really seals the deal.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Chronic Rift

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Vital stats:
Format: Skype talks about genre stuff
Duration: 20m-90m
Frequency: on average, weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

I worry that Podthinking might lead me into a cultural hall of mirrors from there is no return. So many podcasts aren’t things, exactly; they’re about things. Countless are the net-dwellers who pick up microphones, realize they like and dislike certain things they’ve read, watched, or listened to, and say, “Hey, I could podcast about that!” Though this seems to be one of the most popular class of podcasts, I’ve somehow never known what to call it. But while listening to The Chronic Rift [RSS] [iTunes], a name occurred to me: “Here’s Some Stuff We Consumed”.

Not that The Chronic Rift is run-of-the-mill in this sense; far from it, for a few reasons. This show drives “Here’s Some Stuff We Consumed” to the limit, where it becomes a form of conceptual art. Clocking in around an hour and a half at top flight, its nearly 100 episodes form a veritable avalanche of opinions on, discussions of, and arguments about various books, games, films, and television series. You get roundtables on British sci-fi television [MP3]. You get updates on teen summer reading [MP3]. (One of the Rifters is a librarian for junior-high kids.) You get interviews with someone from Buffy [MP3]. You get chats about Pepsi Throwback. [MP3]. You get a bunch of podcast reviews. (One moment I was sure I had fallen into the void came when they reviewed Edgy Podcast Reviews, meaning I would be reviewing a podcast that reviewed a podcast that I once reviewed that reviews podcasts.)

Eventually, I began to perceive a distinct sci-fi/fantasy/horror slant to the hosts’ cultural selections. My ability to fairly review a podcast turns out, unfortunately, to be inversely proportional to how deeply concerned that podcast is with sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. Summer replacement television shows, the Justice League, Doctor Who, zombies: in my grumpier moments, I feel these subjects require no further attention. But just as the creators and fans of The Chronic Rift enjoy their time spent in alien, futuristic, surreal, or otherwise fantastical worlds, I admit that I sometimes quite like to glimpse a realm of bizarre inversion where genre entertainment is the interesting kind.

Yet it’s not always pure discussion of genre, mythos, and the continuity of -verses. The show engages in occasional goofy flights of audio drama fancy as well, which is always fun to hear, though I suppose it does take a very specific sort of person to fully appreciate one that merges H.P. Lovecraft and P.G. Wodehouse [MP3]. There are also big chunks of off-topic talk about cats, work, and how we’re not as young as we used to be. Depending on your podcasting perspective, that’s either indiscipline of an endearing look into the host’s personalities; both, I think, are valid points.

So while what The Chronic Rift discusses isn’t exactly what gets me going, I realize there are millions of others for whom it is. To them: excelsior! What I can tell you is that, as a public access television enthusiast, I’m very much drawn by something that sets the show well apart from the other friends-on-Skype affairs. It first began twenty years ago on New York public access television, and now those old shows are being video podcast on iTunes. The distinctive visual effects of early prosumer video gear, the unconventional tonsorial choices, the being from 1990: it’s everything I’ve ever looked for in a podcast. A+, would publicly access again.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: My Favorite Stranger

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Vital stats:
Format: transatlantic Skype conversations
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: weeklyish
Archive available on iTunes: all

Something about this project doesn’t sit quite right with me, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what. Like the previously Podthought-about Arrive Having Eaten (which now appears to be podfading), My Favorite Stranger [RSS] [iTunes] is assembled from Skype conversations between a fella and a lady who have never met. But while Arrive Having Eaten’s Ben and Erica eventually crossed paths in real life, My Favorite Stranger’s Ahm [sic] and Craig have declared their intentions to avoid each other in the meatspace entirely. Easy vow to make, one assumes, since Ahm’s in Los Angeles and Craig’s somewhere in Holland.

Yet I am still kind of weirded out. Again, there’s no articulable reason why this format seems vaguely unsavory. All available evidence suggests this particular podcast is totally and utterly un-unsavory. Having collided in some sort of highly amiable internet argument — highly amiable by internet standards, anyway — Ahm and Craig came to discover that, despite substantial differences of location, nationality, education, and gender, they’ve got the same set of physiological quirks and psychological neuroses deep down. They’re both Myers-Briggs INTPs. They both have unusually wide feet. They’re both socially anxious. They both sweat profusely. Hands across the water!

This is actually kind of daring, in its way, since Ahm and Craig began recording their chats for podcasting purposes surprisingly early on in their e-friend/strangership. You get to hear them find things out about each other that, under other, more reasonable conditions, would have been assumed, already known, implied, or never, ever brought up at all. Given Craig’s English-ness and Ahm’s American-ness, there’s also plenty of opportunity for cross-cultural comparison and contrast. Sure, maybe we’re all the same sweaty, socially anxious, wide-footed INTPs under out different skins, but the inner similarities throw the differences into contrast and thus make them more interesting as well.

While I wouldn’t normally Podthink about a show under two months old with only five episodes to its name, My Favorite Stranger seems to have done an uncommonly efficient job of building a fandom. In a sense, this is perfectly understandable. Stripped of all the usual conversational crutches like local goings-on, national politics, nerd stuff, or even the weather, Ahm and Craig are forced to head straight to the bedrock of their humanity, which, dear readers, is the bedrock of all our humanity. This actually exemplifies a quality of which I’d like to see a great deal more in podcasting. I’m interested in learning about the people behind the mics, just like these hosts are interested in learning about one another. It’s a relief not to have to decoct epic soliloquies on Lost to do so.

Still, I can’t shake the unsettling twinge that comes from not being quite sure why they’re doing this. Though Ahm and Craig do use an episode to tell their “origin story” [MP3], confusion remains. Why would an Englishman and an Americawoman who barely even internet-know each other Skype so often in the first place? Does not compute. But maybe that’s the other part of their podcast’s appeal: we’re ceaselessly curious about that which we cannot quite explain. (Hence, I guess, all those other shows’ epic soliloquies on Lost.)

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Snap Judgment

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Vital stats:
Format: thematically linked, host-commented-on personal stories
Duration: ~55m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

I’d been wondering what happened with the Public Radio Talent Quest, a higher-brow American Idol-style affair a couple years back meant to seek out the new generation of public radio personalities. This is just the sort of contest that excites a radio dorkus such as myself, so when the PRTQ turned up not one but two winners — one dude with dreadlocks, one dude with a shaved head — I eagerly awaited their respective projects. Then time passed, and I just sort of forgot.

Over the past month or so, I’d heard a bunch of people mention a new NPR show called Snap Judgment. My Podthinker’s curiosity piqued, I pulled it up and discovered it was the project of none other than Glynn Washington — the aforementioned shaved-head dude. Everything about the show screams “huge undertaking,” from the lush-sounding production to the elaborate-by-radio-standards web site to the big publicity push that’s gotten the program so far up in the zeitgeist so early in its life. I get the whiff of the Big Deal about it.

But after listening to all the available episodes, I’ll still be damned if I can tell you what it’s about. “Storytelling with a beat” is the show’s tagline, and the promise is delivered on, to the extent that (a) its segments are all stories told and (b) Washington, in the role of Snap Judgment’s Ira Glass equivalent, often talks over (pretty surprisingly good) beats. I’d hoped every story would be literally told to a beat, but no dice. They’re told, arhythmically, by the people who experienced them, augmented by Washington’s questions, commentary, interjections, and framing.

You’ve no doubt noticed that “storytelling” is in vogue right now, especially on the radio and podcasts, what with shows like Risk! and The Moth doing pretty well for themselves. But jeez, I’m a little storied out. Telling stories sounds like an infinitely wide mandate — everything’s a story, right? — but it’s far from the only way to get ideas across, and often not the best one. Sure, I’ve heard all the talk about how narrative is a primal human need second only to food, shelter, reproduction, etc., but making stuff into a narrative turns out to demand so, so much pulling of standard tricks — suspend, twist, reveal, double twist — and hammering into standard shapes.

Snap Judgment does this as well as it’s ever been done, though I don’t know how much remains in communal narrative barrel. I was entertained by the participants’ (and Washington’s own) tales of desperate searches for schizophrenic friends in unfamiliar cities, unexpected kindness in Iranian restaurants, startling meetings with obscure religious leaders, and freaky encounters with radio stalkers, but I didn’t come away feeling that I’d heard anything as new and different as the buzz seemed to promise.

The standard critique of new public radio efforts leveled by those not embedded in the public radio world is that, while a lot of it sounds different, almost none if it, at its core, is different. Washington ostensibly won the Talent Quest by being something fresh, and he does have a reasonably fresh manner. He comes off as a guy you’d really want to hang out with, which not everybody seems to think about most public radio personalities. But I’m not sure if this show allows him to be different, especially as long as it insists on short-form skimming across the top of a handful of thematically related human experiences. How about spending the entire hour, every hour, drilling down deep into a single story, say? That’d be new and different, but would public radio be down with it?

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Uhhh

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Vital stats:
Format: short-form slacking, usually with musical accompaniment
Duration: 2m30s-20m
Frequency: erratic
Archive available on iTunes: all

Now, I don’t know the man or his work, but this podcast is either the absolute best or absolute worst way to get acquainted with Steve Agee. The Wikipedia tells me he’s a 41-year-old California dude with Riverside roots who acts, does comedy, and appears regularly on The Sarah Silverman Program. Other credits include The Andy Milonakis Show, Superego, and a Twitter stunt. Not as credentialed as some comedic podcasters, sure, but way more credentialed than most.

In fact, you might call his show Uhhh [RSS] [iTunes] the work of a pretty well credentialed comedic podcaster which inhabits the form of the show of a viciously uncredentialed comedic podcaster. Representative content of its episodes, which range from two and a half to twenty-ish minutes, include Steve Agee freestyle rapping to pre-made beats with whomever he happens to be hanging out with, Steve Agee making up ridiculous songs as he wanders the fretboard of whatever instrument he happens to find nearby, Steve Agee talking through the most irritating vocal filter possible for eight straight minutes, and Steve Agee belching.

There’s a certain admirable improvisatory quality to all this. Is “Dada” too strong a word? “Dada” is probably too strong a word. But still: some podcasters passively let their podcasts grow slack and purposeless, but Steve Agee is fiercely committed to actively exploring the slackest, least purposeful territory in the entire medium. This is much more entertaining than it might sound, owing in part to the show’s sometimes extreme brevity. (In at least one episode, he reveals that he started the podcast in reaction to all those other medium-to-long podcasts out there.)

Surely the setup, such as is, also comes off better than you’d expect because Steve Agee is a bona fide Famous Person. Here’s a real-life celebrity, a guy who does movies and TV, sitting at home at 10:00 in the morning and burping on mic just like you and me. Having originally come to L.A. as a musician, he also brings musical talent to the arena, only a small measure of which (I assume) is on display on the podcast. Tip of the iceberg. I mention these qualities to keep as many anonymous Basement McQuarterlifes out there from listening to Uhhh, laughing, then getting ideas about replicating its model. You probably can’t. What works for Steve Agee I can’t see working for anybody else, since it so suits his particular qualities. I could say the same about the creators of all the best podcasts.

Yet as better than us as Steve Agee is at firing off a few half-remembered bass riffs and rembering aloud his Jane’s Addiction fandom, he still has the edge of what I’ve come to think of as the L.A. Podcasting Crying Clown. As with a show like WTF, you’ll hear the host and his compatriots occasionally lapse into the moaning anomie that apparently afflicts nearly every Southern California comedian with a copy of GarageBand: “Fuck, the rent is due soon,” “Fuck, here I am, a fat fuck,” etc. I mean, jeez. You guys are, like, on a whole bunch of screens! Aren’t you living the dream or something?

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: My Brother, My Brother and Me

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Vital stats:
Format: three brothers doling out comedic advice
Duration: 30m-60m
Frequency: weekly, usually
Archive available on iTunes: all

Podcasting’s gotten to where, if you want to get a bunch of dudes on Skype on the regular, you need a good reason. The McElroys, Justin, Griffin, and Travis — how about that for a suite of Gen-Y names, by the way — are already brothers, so that’s a head start. Even without a podcast, maybe they’d be holding the occasional Skype-ference call anyway. (They’re not called Skype-ference calls.) But lo, they’ve also got themselves some server space, an RSS feed, and, most importantly, an angle.

My Brother, My Brother, and Me [RSS] [iTunes] is the result, a weekly meeting of the McElroy minds meant to solve the world’s problems. Though I realize they must have existed since the dawn of the medium — I think Savage Love may qualify as a pioneer — this is actually the first advice podcast I’ve heard. While this seems like the natural next step in advice media, I still feel as if the problem of advisor authority has never really been solved.

In short: how does an advice columnist, advice radio host, advice blogger, advice podcaster, etc. establish and maintain credibility? It’s not even clear how the form’s titans, such as history’s various Ann Landerses, have done it. Is it just about giving advice for a long time, then pointing to how long you’ve been given advice? Is there some independent evaluative board that periodically checks your advice’s effectiveness? The brothers McElroy wisely steer around this thorny issue by somehow establishing their advice-giving authority through their lack of advice-giving authority. It’s credibility through non-credibility.

Or maybe three non-credibles make a credible. Theoretically, three minds addressing a question are better than one, and any especially incorrect impulses on the part of one McElroy could be balanced out by the other two. On the flip side, they might just egg one another on toward the worst possible solution to their supplicants’ problems. But I’m not sure how often this actually happens. For brothers, they all sound and act surprisingly different — not that I can reliably tell which one is which yet, though it helps that the oldest has some kind of odd regional accent — so the danger of groupthink is minimized.

Yet, on a show like this, sometimes groupthink, bad answers, and eggings-on are exactly what the advice columnist ordered. Besides the authority inherent in non-authority and in sheer numbers, the McElroys also aim to establish the kind of sacred advisor-audience trust that only hilarity can build. This process is greatly aided by the way they get their questions. It seems like a mixture: some are submitted by members of the audience, while others are apparently gathered from such other non-podcast founts of wisdom as Yahoo! Answers.

You probably won’t remember the bulk of the questions themselves, since so many lie along the how-do-I-know-he-likes-me/should-I-make-out-with-my-buddy’s-girlfriend/what-is-sex spectrum. But the way G., J., and T. McElroy tag-team them will stick with you. And as comedically focused as the show is — if you need a rule, I wouldn’t recommend following the bothers’ dictates — they sometimes bust out surprisingly useful insights, especially if you need to how how you know he likes you, or if you should make out with your buddy’s girlfriend, or what sex is.

And actually, some of these questions, the ones that put an extra challenge to the McElroys, are memorable. I’m thinking specifically of the guy who requested a list of the most useful kicks. He already knows about front kicks, side kicks, and roundhouse kicks.

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