Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Harland Highway

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Vital stats:
Format: solo comedic monologues, character stuff and occasional "serious" commentary
Duration: 30m
Frequency: three days a week
Archive available on iTunes: all

An hour and a half of Harland Williams each week: now you either want to hear or you don't. Whether you're a diehard Harl-phile who holds daily screenings of RocketMan and Sorority Boys or a distant, occasional observer who regards the guy as the strangest sort of show-biz drifter, your assumptions about the content of The Harland Highway [RSS] [iTunes] are probably correct. It's an unadulterated Monday/Wednesday/Friday 30-minute excursion into the goofiest, most digressive Canadian mind America has ever known.

If you're into comedic podcasting, you might well know Williams best from his appearances on the Adam Carolla podcast. As divisive as the Ace Man's guests come, Williams liberally sprinkled his visits with non sequiturs, elaborate put-ons that maybe weren't actually elaborate put-ons at all and — a Williams trademark — uncanny birdcall imitations. Those into comedy more generally probably know him from his countless appearances on Conan O'Brien's show, which I never saw but where he no doubt did much the same thing.

Like fellow comedian Mike Schmidt's The 40-Year-Old Boy, Williams' is a solo podcast. Though he's demonstrated his ability to establish am amusing rapport with the Carollas and O'Briens of the world, an hour of two of listening reveals that nobody else should — or even could — share Williams' studio on a permanent basis. You might think of the show as The 47-Year-Old Space Boy. Williams demeanor is at once consumed by its own stream of consciousness and so transcendently goofy-uncle that I can't imagine anyone else keeping up.

After a little exposure to Williams, everyone asks the same question: "Is this dude for real?" The loping, super-modulated diction, the near-manic pursuit of preposterous ideas, the regular dips into sub-vaudevillian gag depths: it's got to be just an act, right? A skilled actor could certainly sustain the persona over a handful of movies and a regular string of TV sessions, but the frequency, regularity and sheer hours logged on this podcast prove pretty close to dispositively that Harland Williams is indeed, for better or for worse, Harland Williams.

He's really is the Harland Williams who plays both himself and his interview guests, including a flamboyant fellow bent on separating the concepts of "effeminate" and "gay" and a disappointingly herbal tea- and Yahtzee-loving Led Zeppelin. (He does not play his one regular guest, his cousin Kevin Hearn, the keyboardist for the Barenaked Ladies.) The Harland Williams who, every Friday, plays both himself and his lethargically unhelpful employer-mandated therapist, Dr. Ascot. The Harland Williams who assembles shows out of bizarre, unprompted monologues about women who wear flats ("Flat out unsexy!"), snoring sleeping partners and the ants that inhabit his home ("little browns"). The Harland Williams who ends every show with the sign-off, "Chicken chow mein, baby!"

Perhaps weirder even than all this is that, every few episodes, Williams delivers what sounds like an improvised essay of almost shocking sincerity. He did one recently about how he fears that America has grown undisciplined in recent decades and thus lost its way on the world stage. At first, it seems like just another one of his usual gags so broad that is comes all the way back around to specificity. But then you're like, "Wait, he actually means this," and you feel a tad weirded out. But then — and I know how wrong this sounds — he actually starts to make some honest-to-goodness sense. Not what you'd expect from a man who was in both Down Periscope and Freddy Got Fingered, but it's hard not to respect. He hasn't compromised himself in the least. He definitely hasn't done any focus-grouping.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your LAN party? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The 404


Vital stats:
Format: mixture of tech speculation, audience participation and discussion of toys from 1990
Duration: 30m
Frequency: five days a week
Archive available on iTunes: all

Had I not found out last night about an anime-styled adaptation of The Oregon Trail for the iPhone, I would have deemed The 404 [RSS] [iTunes] the most Gen-Y product I've ever encountered. Sure, as the name suggests, it's a show ostensibly about internet and technology culture and when both go wrong. But if you're talking Gen Y, modulo the future Unabombers among us, you're pretty much automatically talking about the net and the devices that engage us with it. You're also talking about reminiscences of floppy disks, Super Soaker 100s and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Turtle Van.

The podcast is put out under the aegis of CNET, or CNet, or cnet, or c|net, whichever you prefer. Any way you type it out, I admit to never getting 100 percent clear on their mandate, function or purpose, despite having been well aware of the brand for at least 16 years. At this point, I suppose it's just one of those "online media entities" that puts out such tidal waves of — excuse the hideous repurposed net-neologism, but — "content" that you're going to periodically find yourself watching, reading or listening to output of theirs no matter what. Depending on how you count, they put out between eight and 32 podcasts. This is one of them.

It's easy to imagine a non-CNET-sponsored version of The 404. Hell, odds are a few of them exist. Hosts Jeff Bakalar, Wilson Tang and Justin Yu all act like pretty normal guys, except, instead of holding the usual forms of podcaster employment — barista, grad student, "other" — they do professional-y stuff at CNET. The trio is thus anointed with a number advantages not possessed by your average basement broadcaster. First, they're of necessity tapped way in to the tech/media flow. Second, they truly bring the energy every time, no doubt thanks to being encircled by a menacing ring of glowering bosses. Third, they can all get together in what sounds like the same New York studio with relatively atomic regularity, record, and upload about an hour later. Fourth, they have or are inentivized to gain the discipline to do it for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

The downside of this slickness is, if you like, a certain over-"clean" feeling. I'm not positive, but I'm fairly certain that the hosts can't swear and have to resort to sometimes-awkward workarounds. If that's a rule, there are probably other restraints in place too, though I doubt CNET's holding all that short a leash. The crew mixes it up with a great deal of audience involvement, though, from phone messages to contests to other recorded niceties. I'm unfailingly cracked up by one jingle, often played, that sounds as if it might have come from the voice and guitar of an enthusiastic fan: "♫ This is the 404, m-er f-ers / The show where we all sing songs ♫" Except that he really does say "m-er f-ers." Feel the glower.

But damn, it says good things indeed that The 404's fans are so into the show; it seems as if they're always sending in their jibes, their jokes, their jingles, their 'shops. The image above this review was actually one fan contribution — one of many. The very best moment I heard, though, has to have been when a black lady called in to talk about her husband's Turbografx-16, which she referred to as a "Turbo Tracks". But then one of the hosts erroneously claimed that the "Turbografx" and the "Turbografx-16" were two different consoles, and they all agreed. Can I forgive that? I'm... not sure.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your debutante's ball? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Urban Coffee


Vital stats:
Format: high-tech, segmented TTWGBAC; or "banter-cast"
Duration: 1h-1h30m
Frequency: fortnightly, at least
Archive available on iTunes: all

Moan as I may fact that the medium of podcasting hasn't produced quite as many minty fresh new genres — or as many ungenrefiables, for that matter — as I'd hoped, it's still early days. Early-ish days, anyway. But after hearing Urban Coffee [RSS] [iTunes] after No Agenda, which I Podthought about nearly bang on one year ago, I can confirm the existence of at least one more. I'm just not sure what to call it.

Like No Agenda's Curry and Dvorak, Urban Coffee's Dave Koss and Seth Falkner, the latter of whom is a musician and the former of whom seems to do something with animation, normally operate in different domains but regularly come together for a heavily-segmented show that touches on technology, politics and their own lives' streams of victory and frustration. The main differences are generational — these guys seem substantially younger than the middle-aged No Agenda-ers — and geographical. Whereas I believe Curry and Dvorak host the show from different locations via Skype, it sounds as if Koss and Falkner only resort to that when something goes logistically wrong and they can't be in the same room.

The similarities come as no surprise, since one of this podcast's hosts is such a No Agenda fan that he brings it up in almost every episode. But if Koss and Falkner are relatively young and not nearly as eccentric as their models, isn't their show just another TTWGBAC? In some senses, yes; in others, no. The two programs share a tech-intensive setup (by podcasting's somewhat laggy standards) that allows listeners to tap into audio streams, video streams, a chat room and lord knows what else during recording and a reasonably organized structure of predefined compartments. I guess that's simply a holdover from "regular" radio, but combine it with the freewheelingness of the TTWGBAC and you have something more interesting than either.

So instead of a couple dudes happening to wend their way from song recommendations to complaints to (my personal favorite) the reading out lout of narcissistic tweets, you have the routinely scheduled features "Seth's Music Café", "Bitch of the Week" and "Narcissistic Tweets". In between, Koss and Falkner work in quite a lot about new developments in computer and other electronic gear, the clashes between corporate/governmental entities and what might loosely be termed tech culture, the challenges of new fatherhood and, of course, Pedobear. The more like these guys the are, the more into your their show you'll be — and I suspect there are boatloads of people who share their interests hanging around the net.

One iTunes reviewer calls the show a "banter-cast", and, though it doesn't capture quite as many nuances as I'd like, that's about as serviceable a name as we're going to get today. There's something about podcasts like this one, and this podcast in particular, that eludes precise nameability. The title itself is a case in point: it feels a little misleading, but I'll be damned if I can tell you what the name Urban Coffee would seem to lead to, falsely or otherwise. Could the the vagueness be an advantage? Got me listening.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your box social? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Biggest Mistake


Vital stats:
Format: TTWGBAC/L.A. comedy improversation
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

One episode of The Biggest Mistake [RSS] [iTunes] features an hour-plus guest appearance by Jordan Morris. [MP3] It's a good time. Many chuckleworthy jokes are cracked. Only a few fall flat. If you hang around a speakeasy like this, chances are that's all the prompting you'll need to check the show out. If that's not all the prompting you need, let me assure you that, paradoxically, you'll only really learn if you want to listen to this show by, uh, listening to it.

I do have to hand it, in kind of a left-handed way, to hosts Dan Dominguez, Paul Jay and Jennifer Goldberg: they've picked an imposingly steep mountain to climb. While I routinely declare moratoria on further Podthinking about programs of the Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girls Bullshitting About Culture (TTWGBAC) form or those revolving around the feeling-ever-smaller Los Angeles comedy scene — on the podcast beat, you hear volumes of this that would make grown men lose control of four out of five bodily functions — I always find my way back. Here, in that spirit, is another intersection of both.

It is by no means bad to birth a podcast of this breed in 2010, but it's hard: the hosts/producers of such a show have a daunting bout of self-distinguishment cut out for them. Task one would be rising above the landslide of cheap or free — usually free — cultural bullshitting and L.A. comedy that has covered the podscape. Task two, tougher still, would be to take on the existing titans of the genre(s), hoisted aloft as they are by their grandfatherly seniority and aggressively loyal fanbases.

But nothing I've heard from The Biggest Mistake suggests they can't do it! I looked up the show upon first hearing it was helmed, in part, by Dominguez. Though I remembered him quite fondly from an appearance on The Paul Goebel Show, I couldn't quite remember why. Smart money's on the fact that he announced there that his MySpace username was "danshitsyourfaceapart." For whatever reason, it stuck with me. I simply had to know what the guy was going to do with his own podcast.

On it, he's joined by fellow L.A.median (there's no elegant portmanteau) Jay, of whom I was previously unaware. The stool's third leg exists in the form of Goldberg, co-host as well as producer as well as Jay's ladyfriend. Though she may or may not be a comedian, technically speaking, she is beyond dispute comedic. The couple hold their own, but at least in the first eleven episodes, Dominguez stands out as the dominantly strange presence. As his choice in MySpace accounts suggests, he's willing to take a few more and more absurd risks than your average L.A. comedian bullshitting about culture on a podcast. This means his lines occasionally fall into awkward silences, provoke bewlidered half-laughs or are total nonsense. But they're something. They're real and alive.

Since it's such early days, I'm quite interested to see how The Biggest Mistake will ultimately form a solid identity with which to set itself apart. Within the TTWGBAC and/or Never Not Funny-ish conversational comedy formats, it couldn't be simpler: the hosts get together, bring on a comedy-y guest and chat about ridiculous subjects for about an hour — no segments, no listener participation, no discernible regular features. And that can totally work. It must be said, though that the podcast's tagline — "Like all other podcasts, only more so. And then some" — may or may not inspire confidence. It could signal a refreshing self-awareness about some of the already ossified tropes of this newish medium. Or it could be meant ironically. And don't they say irony is the song of a bird who's come to love its cage?

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your bat mitzvah? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Pipeline


Vital stats:
Format: one-on-one interviews with people who create and maintain internet things
Duration: 25m-47m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

There's this particular breed of internet person. I run into them in pretty much all my usual lanes on the Information Superhighway. I've managed to hand-compile an extensive, Darwinesque catalog of their characteristics. They tend to wear glasses, though not classically dorky ones. (Usually black- and chunkily-framed.) Their interests include design, especially of the graphic variety. (They're likely to possess opinions on font kerning.) They are, through thick and thin, Apple users, though they know several orders of magnitude more about how computers actually work than most Apple users do. They have their hands in a confusing array of internet projects, and would almost certainly find the phrase "intenet projects" redundant. They seem bohemian, but they're also deeply embedded in operations that are undoubtedly businesses — often lucrative ones. They seem artistic, but they know a little too much about Python for that. They have Buddhist leanings. If they haven't attended TED, they've at least attended SxSW.

The enterprising Dan Benjamin seems to be of this breed, and his newish podcast The Pipeline [RSS] [iTunes] sounds as if it's under a mandate to interview all his brethren. Bannered as the talk show that spotlights "innovators, designers, geeks, newsmakers, and people who create things," it follows a simple but trusty format: Benjamin Skypes up to his guest of the week and asks them about what they do on the net, how they came to do it, how it's going now and where they plan to take it.

If you nodded in solemn recognition at this review's first paragraph, you're almost certainly familiar with several of The Pipeline's guests. Max Funsters will, of course, know 43Folders founder and reformed server-upper of productivity tips Merlin Mann [MP3]. Those who pay attention to Maximum Fun's sponsorship situation have surely encountered the work of Matt Haughey [MP3], the man who built MetaFilter. And if you're not already reading the "fine hypertext products" blogging pioneer Jason Kottke [MP3] has been putting up at Kottke.org, then jeez, I don't even know what to tell you.

Benjamin's a clear, solid, straightfoward interviewer, and the program itself shares those qualities. If he's as good at what he lists as his other lines — software development, entrepreneurship, Ruby on Rails usage, blogging about quality, efficiency, and mindfulness, and something called "screencasting" — he's set. I do find, though, that as good a production as he puts together here, it occasionally stokes an almost debilitatingly uncomfortable cognitive dissonance within me. As both an interviewer and as someone with an insatiable interest in other people who make stuff, The Pipeline spends a lot of time driving straight up my alley, but it also veers dangerously close to the abyss.

It might have something to do with the opening sponsorship plug, which promotes software meant to manage "e-mail campaigns" and do something or other with "powerful analytics," tracking "clicks to sales" and "conversions." This sort of thing gives me the sinking feeling of inner dread that, somewhere along the line, something went badly, terribly wrong with the internet. The magic of the 1990s web seems to have given way to a farrago of bewildering mini-applications, weird portmanteaus, social networking squirreliness, search engine optimization and the poisonous culture of "monetization." While Benjamin's guests are definitely engaging and possessed of a formidable creative spirit, a lot of the lingo they casually drop and the stories they tell remind me of my own saddening streak of net.disappointment. I feel like some tattered issue of Wired from 1994 promised me more — promised us all more — than so many mobile phone apps and passive income stream hacks.

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: RISK!


Vital stats:
Format: true risky tales, told live and loosely clustered by theme
Duration: 30m-1h15m
Frequency: fortnightly
Archive available on iTunes: last 13

We'd all do well to remember that fortune favors the bold, that life is but a series of gambles, that those of use who refuse to take risks will near-certainly be condemned to lives with the richness and flavor of Cream of Wheat, etc., etc. But to repeatedly tell ourselves that is one thing — to hear concrete examples is quite another. One abundant source of such examples is RISK! [RSS] [iTunes], a NYC live-storytelling in the vein of The Moth but slightly saltier and subject to a thematic guideline: the tales told have to be about the teller's taking a risk.

Anyone who clicked on the previous sentence's second link knows that I like The Moth, but a version whose stories are all about risk, for me, puts it that much closer to the crack cocaine. The human cognitive predilection for stories is well-documented — and I strongly suspect that it might be crippling both literature and cinema, but that's a screed for another day — but add the risk part and the attraction at least doubles. I know we're all excessively risk-averse in this day and age. I know we'd lead more interesting lives if we took more risks. I just like to have it illustrated, preferably humor and theatrics.

RISK! suffers no lack of these qualities, since the risk-taking storytellers they get on stage tend to be established comedy and/or theater types. Andy Borowitz recalls his bold more, writing for The Facts of Life, to give the characters actual funny things to say. Ex-Mormon/ex-ex-Mormon/quasi-Mormon/Mormon Elna Baker voyages to darkest Africa to attempt, and fail, to learn the mystical secrets of sexual intercourse, then meets up with but tries not to go home with a man who's surely the randiest 69-year-old celebrity of them all. And it wouldn't be a bona fide story telling podcast without that storytellingest of storytellers, Mike Daisey. His own risk was taken in his collegiate days, when, high on coffee, he thought he'd make a statement by pasting up a few hundred racial slur-packed posters around his high school campus.

Some of these memories are only fit into the podcast's mandate with a certain degree of stretching, but overall, there's surprisingly little shoehorning. Almost all of these stories revolve around the taking of risks. Some of them center on surprisingly risky risks. Others still, which truly reach for the rainbow, are both about risks and are themselves risks, in that the teller actually stands a chance of misfire/flub/embarrassment/mass offense simply by virtue of telling them in public.

Though its mission is perhaps narrow, RISK! fills it about as well as can be expected. Its live nature, clinking glasses and all, scores several above-and-beyond points, since it prevents the feeling of take-forty overpolishedness you hear on certain other story-centric radio and podcast productions. The sour notes tend to come in the interstitial material, whenever host Kevin Allison decides to camp it up. He's usually subdued and fine as a presenter, though occasionally — and it's impossible to tell when — he'll blow out the amplitude and affect a strangely exaggerated persona, forcibly inducing a few cringes. It's totally inexplicable why he would choose to to this unless... you don't suppose it's just another form of risk-taking, do you?

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Superego


Vital stats:
Format: improvised, disturbed character-based sketch comedy
Duration: ~20m
Frequency: monthly
Archive available on iTunes: only the most recent season, but you can buy for the previous one

I suspect I shouldn't bury this in the middle of the text: Superego [RSS] [iTunes] is, without a doubt, the funniest character-based sketch comedy podcast I've ever heard. Despite whatever objections I might later raise or room for improvement I might later identify, nothing else in the subgenre gets within striking distance. As a weathered podcast reviewer, I have undergone the intensive training required to rarely crack a smile, but this show made me laugh. Out loud. Several times.

The podcast's creators, billed as "Drs. Jeremy Carter, PhD and Matt Gourley, PyT" (I can assure you that that gets less amusing each time), approach the eternal dilemma of the sketch show — how and how much to unify so many chunks of thematically distinct and more or less content-disconnected material? — in an unusual way. They bill each sketch as a "profile in self-obsession," which is to say, a case study of a particular stripe of solipsistic-y psychological disorder. "Borderline Personality Disorder," for instance, might be presented in the form of a beleaguered love-doctor soft-rock radio host, a priest working the confessional who's probably not a technically a priest or a dysfunctional hearing test. "Schizotypal Personality Disorder" might be exemplified by an aggressive, manly housewife, a pack of teen ne'er-do-wells dicking around in the basement with a ouija board while their parents try to make babies or a faith healer who can never quite pull off the hucksterism as intended. "Narcissistic Personalty Disorder" is, of course, represented by the dissolute national broadcasts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Most if not all of Superego's comedy arises from the mismatch between the assumptions and worldviews of its central, recurring, disturbed characters and the anonymous, substantially more coherent supporting cast with whom they collide. Woe betide the slightly-too-old trick-or-treaters who turn up at the home of the aforementioned androgynous shut-in, the customer who gets inadvertently locked inside the timed doors of the pathetic sociopathic shopkeep's engraving joint, or the desperate 911 callers connected with (a personal favorite) the girl who responds to their pleas for help with recitals of what sound like selections from her Women's Studies 101 papers. And then demands applause.

You'd be right, at this point, to assume that this setup could really go either way. Basing projects on wacky characters and society's failure to understand them has put an untimely end to the careers of many a promising Saturday Night Live alum. But somehow the dubiously-credentialed Carter and Gourley, along with a pair of "Resident Specialists" and a handful of guest stars Southern California comedy people will probably know, usually pull it off. They do this first by putting what sounds like even more energy into the editing than into the (energetic) performances. Though the segments run about two or three minutes, they're clearly cut together from much longer recording sessions. Many of the splices are conspicuous and some don't even try to mask the improvising performers' cracking themselves up, but you know what? It works.

Why this works must have something to do with the show's absurdist tone, which often shades into the surrealist. The closest stylistic analogue would have to be the public-access grotesqueries of Tim & Eric; Superego keeps an equally straight face, at least most of the time, as its players utter ever more bizarre non sequiturs to the frustrated normals attempting to communicate with them. If Tim & Eric rate an eight on the tenscale of surrealism, this show clocks in at about six. But I'd like to see it bumped up to seven. The less sane moments, such as "Wilford Brimley" announcing a series of increasingly hostile and nonsensical PSAs about diabetes ("die-a-beat-us"), happen to be the best.

It must be said, though, that whatever the advantages of this super-short form, it can grow a bit maddening to listen to after a while. When you're hit with a total character- and subject-change every couple minutes — especially if you listen for, say, three hours in a row — you can't help but feel like you're contributing to the decline of Western culture. How soluble this problem is remains open to question, since distillation via the virtual razor blade down to only the most hilarious of the hilarious improvised moments is where much of the show's strength lies. I continue to erupt in laughter, yet, as the podcast grows more and more successful, I fear this model being followed too closely and too widely. How much of our precious time are Superego's imitators, and there will be many, going to waste?

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Talk to Me


Format: live-recorded New York lectures and Q&As from novelists and other writerly types
Ideal audience: those outside literary centers and thus desperately in need of a fix
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: erratic, but frequent
Archive available on iTunes: last 29

For avid lecturegoers, especially those who live in hamlets, backwaters and/or nowheresvilles, I bet podcasting's a godsend. When you're at a remove from the lecture circuit, it's not as if you've got Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Sachs, Germaine Greer or Mad Men creator Matthew Wiener swinging by for chats and coffee on the regular. Online lecture repositories like Open Culture and iTunes U put a lot on offer, but it's podcasts like WNYC's Talk to Me [RSS] [iTunes] that really get across that live-event flavor.

As potentially un-public-radio-nerdy and thus as unfamiliar with a behemoth of the medium like WNYC as you might be — yeah, I know, not likely — surely you can discern a datum or two about the station's location from its call letters. The epic struggle between U.S. cities for the title of Most Alive with Literary and/or Spoken Intellectual Culture is usually said to endure between the likes of Seattle, San Francisco and Iowa City, but shows like this reveal that we underestimate the fair city of New York at our peril. Well, nobody really underestimates New York. We Americans outside it realize, at least on some abstract level, that the place is absolutely seething with writers and lecturers, frustrated and otherwise. We just get... confused by it. In one episode of Talk to Me, a speaker extolls the literary virtues of Brooklyn. Specifically. He then goes on to say that, hey, Manhattan might just be the candidate for the next Brooklyn. This draws big laffs.

I promise that most of the lectures featured on the podcast aren't quite so inside. But listening to it does feel like eavesdropping on a few of those Genuine New York Literary EventsTM that those of us on the West Coast hear so much about. What separates these from any other lecture or interview podcasts you might hear is that each installment offers both the lecture and the public Q&A following it, as well as the introductory remarks, venue description, thanks to the donors, etc. Sound like small potatoes though this might, it's pretty damn cool to hear the proceedings exactly as the live attendees did.

Well, almost exactly. For a WNYC production, Talk to Me bears some strangely unprofessional scars. The editing, to cite the most noticeable example, can sound pretty herky-jerky; too often, the cuts and pastes leap right out at you. It's hard to believe they sound better than whatever gap, mumble or stumble they're meant to mask. But the content seems more or less intact, and, given the basically-wide-open public nature of these lectures, it's endearingly human. The aforementioned Franzen [MP3], Sachs [MP3], Greer [MP3] and Wiener [MP3] put on good shows, with their prepared remarks, but the truly interesting bits are their unprepared interactions with fellow presenters and the audience. Free idea for enterprising podcasters: a "Just the Muffin Tops"-esque program offering "Just the Q&As".

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Arts and Ideas

| 1 comment

Far be it from your Podthinker to listen to the BBC and then bitch and moan that "they don't have anything like this in America," but, well, they don't have anything like this in America. After a critical mass of Euro-bloggers favorably referenced the Radio 3 program Night Waves, a bit of diligence came due. The show's official site calls it the station's "flagship arts and ideas programme, featuring in-depth interviews; vociferous debates on key cultural and philosophical questions; and critics' judgement on the latest releases." All of that — save, of course, that wacky spelling of "program" — sounded intriguing indeed.

Alas, there is no Night Waves podcast. But the BBC's internet arm offers the next best thing in the form of Arts and Ideas [RSS] [iTunes], a podcast offering the "best of" Night Waves. Now, your Podthinker is immediately dubious about all "best of" operations, for one simple reason: who decides what's "best"? All too often, whoever does decide interprets "best," programmatically and predictably, as "most popular." Ponder, for a moment, all those unloved and unlistenable hit-singles CDs stacking up in landfills.

Maybe that's what's happening with the compression of Night Waves into Arts and Ideas, but the listening experience still beats, say, Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, and that's like the best-selling album in America. This tip fortunately retains the rest of the iceberg's intellectual variety: one episode includes a segment on Martin Amis' new novel, a not-entirely-unrelated segment on the state of feminism today, and a probably-unrelated segment on cloud computing. The currently available podcast offers coverage of figures as disparate as "French intellectual" (because that is its own job title) Helene Cixous, Gothic novel originator Horace Walpole, Harvard doctor and social network buff Nicholas Christakis and novelists Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Safran Foer, the latter of whom ponders his vegetarianism pretty hard.

So it's like a thinker's salon piped directly into one's ear canal. And yes, more than a few podcasts fit that description, but how many have hosts and guests willing to take one another to the mat in intellectually honest ways? This is the part we don't have in America. When one of these Night Waves correspondents grapples with their interviewee or one panelist on a subject gets another in their crosshairs, you can tell their attacks are composed of roughly 70 percent thought and only 30 percent emotion or identity, where, in most U.S. programming, the numbers are reversed. At least. Brit talk show hosts seem trained for this sort of thing; they're always prepared with a corralling technique or a plummy comeback to a visitor overstepping their bounds.

An iTunes user review of Arts and Ideas, submitted by one "supasamurai" and subject-headed "Blah blah blah blah blah," complains: "If you like to listen to a bunch of know it alls [sic] chat about random issues, this is the podcast for you." This supasamurai fellow has a point! These people do seem to know a lot — it not exactly all — and the show they're on moves from issue to issue with an unpredictability that feels exhilarating. Your Podthinker would have gone with at least three and a half stars rather than two, but star ratings suck anyway.

Vital stats:
Format: discussion of arts — and ideas!
Duration: 50m-1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: only the latest one, as usual (damn you, BBC!)

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Creative Destruction


If want to sling opinions for a living, you might consider adopting unpopular worldviews. This unpopularity, of course, will be determined by your context. If the context is American politics, you might consider eschewing straight-ahead Republicanism or Democrattiness and throw your lot in with either the libertarians or the Libertarians. And if you plan on going full-bore and relocating to the District, make sure you abhor the petty sordidness of the lifestyles found there. Also, place a high value on sartorial excellence in a city of 600,000 with, like, one and a half tailors. There. Now you'll always have something to rail against, or at least to podcast about.

This seems to be the strategy followed by Rob Montz, host of Creative Destruction [RSS] [iTunes], a podcast distributed under the aegis of the America's Future Foundation. The AFF's web site declares it to be "the premier non-profit network of young conservative and libertarian leaders, nationwide," with a mission to "identify and develop the next generation of conservative and libertarian leaders." This, your Podthinker realizes, will sound damnably squaresville to much of the Maximum Fun readership, but bear with for a moment.

Do Montz and his shifting crew of co-hosts profess enthusiasm for fiscally conservative, socially liberal policymaking? Indeed. Do they do it under a wonky, socially maladroit Young Republican or aspertarian mien? Nah, not really. Though the program does provide moments of policy wonkage, though of a quite distinct sensibility, much of it revolves around Montz's own distaste for the dorkage, laziness and ideological slavery of all stripes that swirls around him in D.C.

He and his podcasting associates carry no torch for the Donkeys, that's for sure, but they're even harsher on the Elephants. For confirmation, one needs merely listen to Creative Destruction's coverage of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference [MP3]. Then again, who's going to resist firing on the barrelfish that is a convention with a "youth-oriented" sub-event called XPAC, hosted by Stephen "The Bravest Baldwin" Baldwin?

But CPAC is only one of the societal ills ranted against on the regular. The Hill's aforementioned atrocious dress sense gets a hearty upbraiding, and Montz's vivid description of the tragically pathetic lives of young politico-sex-life-fixated D.C. journalists still resonates in your Podthinker's brain. These seem to have remained strong even as the show that hosts them has changed somewhat rapidly. What began as more of a discursive panel discussion podcast has recently turned into a quicker, tighter, more focused one-on-one. Whether this has anything to do with the brush fire-like worldwide spread of your Podthinker's theories on the disease of the TTWGBAC is unclear, but at one point Montz announces his intention not to create another cultural-pontificating-on-whatever show, which declaration comes as a rare relief to someone in this line.

The pop-culture asides do still come, though — Patrick Swayze and CSI: Miami have come up — and that's no bad thing, especially since they're part of a podcast whose participants do actually hold some degree of specialized knowledge and/or experience that gives them an actual, distinguishable viewpoint. It'll be interesting to watch how Creative Destruction evolves from here. It seems to be turning into a regular conversation ostensibly about policy issues of the day between Montz and his Croc-wearing Florida schoolteacher buddy Greg Newburn. (Newburn joins the discussion by, obviously, remote means, which tends to produce unfortunate audio quality issues.)

These guys could probably have a reasonably interesting conversation about anything, but they happen to share enough political interests to give them a solid organizing principle. Whether the inefficiency of government and the ossification of American political culture is an appealing organizing principle will depend on the taste of individual listener, but you know what? A lot of podcasts don't have one at all.

Vital stats:
Format: Politico-cultural commentary/rantage
Duration: 20m-40m
Frequency: irregular, but roughly weekly on average
Archive available on iTunes: last eight

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