Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Widely Ranging Interests"

| 1 comment

While one demands specialists in certain professions — hope springs eternal that one's neurosurgeon, for example, is singlemindedly, obsessively, monastically devoted to neurosurgery — other positions are best suited to generalists. A broad breadth (and not simply a deep depth) of knowledge provides a distinct advantage to one's writers, say, or one's filmmakers, or even — why not? — one's podcasters.

This is not the kind of argument possible to make rigorous in a few hundred words, so your Podthinker will instead marshal a confirming example. Make that two confirming examples: Mark Edward Hornish and Francis Gasparini of Widely Ranging Interests [iTunes link]. They do appear to possess what their title promises, though it would be a lie to claim that Gasparini and Hornish's intellectual ken extends infinitely toward all horizons. In practice, the duo's interests remain eclectic, though within the rough, misshapen bounds of the following regions of scholarship:

  1. Obscurities of history
  2. Obscurities of anthropology
  3. Obscurities of geography
  4. Making up bald-faced lies about oddities of history, anthropology and geography

Stylistically, their explorations of these areas — with special emphasis on area four — isn't much different from the way the You Look Nice Today Guys do things: hold up a thin veneer of realism for a minute or two, then plunge, expressionlessly, into the bizarre, trying to not laugh and thus give the game away. Thing is, when Merlin, Scott and Sandwich blue-sky solutioneer about restaurants staffed by wise, dog-riding babies and ambiguously pregnant waitresses, they're clearly talking nonsense. When Mark and Francis claim that the Micronesian island of Yap still maintains a functioning television studio [MP3] or that Jesus' abandoned foreskin was, for a brief period, considered by Catholic doctrine to have become the rings of Saturn [MP3], who can confidently call bullshit?

Other topics touched (and grotesquely riffed) upon in the course of Widely Ranging Interests events include a television channel devoted entirely to processes (e.g., the process of lawnmowing), Gulag-wide beauty contests, the sinister effects of ergot poisoning and where to find 60-foot-tall spiders. As might already be clear at this point, the discourse meanders all over the place, sometimes chunkily, sometimes smoothly, sometimes stupidly, sometimes ingeniously. Whatever one can say of it, positive or negative, the nature of these guys' conversations is one you're unlikely to hear anywhere else in life, let alone in the podosphere.

This is both a plus and a minus. The very same discursiveness and fanciful elaboration that generate the bulk of the show's entertainment value are products of a balance between fact and fiction best described as... uncomfortable. The listening experience is one of repeatedly being intellectually wrong-footed, of muttering to oneself that, hey, that's a fascinating little fact about gigantic ancient stone money, then almost immediately realizing that it's probably a fabrication. Unless it isn't. But it must be. But it might not be.

Such talk can frustrate, sure, but here's the important part: in none of these episodes is a single word spoken about The Dark Knight, nor about how rad The New Adventures of Beans Baxter was, nor about the eternal struggle between the Playstation 3 and the XBox 360 that cannot be resolved. Any program that steers so artfully around the usual podcast dude subjects merits attention, especially when it has such an amusing fixation on the ownership of tiny, inconsequential, possibly nonexistent countries. (Although your Podthinker is 99 percent certain he's read somewhere that Sealand is a real place. Maybe.)

Vital stats:
Format: erudite two-man You Look Nice Today
Running since: February 2007
Duration: 15m-30m
Frequency: twice or thrice a month
Archive available on iTunes: last eight only

[Podthinker Colin Marshall's once-wide range of interests has pretty much narrowed down to just podcasts at this point. E-mail him about podcasts and only podcasts at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Bookworm"


Certain Max Funsters unfamiliar with the program under discussion may remember it from an evocative verbal picture painted by Jordan on one episode of JJGO!. The Boy Detective described driving around L.A. on production assistant assignments, listening to KCRW, when, all of a sudden, a midcentury TV children's song about books would start up. An aggressively earnest voice would then break through the tinkly strains, announcing that the day's book "revolves around themes of sexual molestation in 19th-century Asia." Jokes about 19th-century molestation promptly followed.

The program's theme song is "You Are a Human Animal", originally from the Mickey Mouse Club. (That itself counts as an achievement, considering the hellish usage issues surrounding anything remotely Disney-connected.) The earnest voice belongs to host and well-known acute reader Michael Silverblatt. The show is Bookworm [iTunes link], a weekly one-on-one literary discussion that's just about the finest novel-centric forum on all of public radio. And like all smart public radio shows, it's a podcast too.

We all had a good laugh at Jordan's impression of the program, but to associate Bookworm only with 19th-century molestation would be a shame indeed. It's about all kinds of things, within the context of contemporary fiction; Silverblatt always makes sure to widen the discussion well beyond the scope of the text alone. His way of thinking about books is unusual, but it's delightfully conducive to mentally stimulating radio conversation. As with some of the works he discusses, it may be better to quote directly than to attempt summary or paraphrase. Thus, to choose one of Silverblatt's questions at random, here's his opening salvo in dialogue with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles [MP3]:

The book came as a complete surprise to me because I read that it was about a teacher in a middle school and I thought, yes, I do like novels about teachers. The inevitable names come up: Ms. Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips or the woman in the short story by Charles Baxter, a story called "Gryphon", or all kinds of teachers, but this is completely different. What you forget when you're in high school, reading about Ms. Jean Brodie or Mr. Chips, is that they seem ancient, tottering. But an actual teacher in a middle school is a young woman who identifies more with her students, perhaps, than with the other teachers — certainly than with the other, older, seasoned teachers — and it feels absolutely mysterious and terrifying to her to find herself at what feels like the rest of her life teaching in a school and identifying with the children more than with the colleagues and wondering what life is like. So what Ms. Hempel is is in a period of transition, and that's what teaching is seen to be in this book. How did you come to write a novel about a teacher?

As a bigtime enthusiast of the interview form and a broadcaster of interviews himself, your Podthinker bows down before that question. Bear in mind that, even though reading a transcription such as the above might give a feeling of scriptedness, that's not at all the case in the actual show. Silverblatt's clearly formulating his questions as he speaks them, not just rattling them off from a sheet. (Or at least, if he is reading off a sheet, one can only conclude that he's a Patrick Stewart-tier actor as well.) Just to drive this point into the ground, here's another randomly-selected first question, this time from his conversation with the impulsively adventurous (or adventurously impulsive) William T. Vollmann about his Riding Toward Everywhere [stream]:

This is a book about train-hopping, and it kind of amazes me: I've been reading reviews of this book and the reviewers seem not to notice that the very senteces of the book are like a train-hopping experience. They speed up, they slow down, they go unpredictable places, they take you places where you hadn't expected to go; tracks meet and shift and so sentences go off in the opposite direction from the one in which they started and I wanted to talk to you about that style, because it is very different than the more naturalistic style of your recent work.

So, yes, Silverblatt is god, literary-interviewily speaking. This sort of question aesthetic could, given time, easily start coming off as simply more-in-depth-than-thou, but what stops things from reaching that unsavory point is the man's raw enthusiasm. In every interview, Silverblatt's unbridled love for literature and the reading of it, his unquenchable thirst for the sweet juices to be wrung from a novel's pages, shines through. Books are his passion, authors his friends. Were it any other way, could he have hosted the show for two decades straight?

It is thus with a heavy heart that your Podthinker announces that this interview style doesn't feel fully compatible with the stubby thirty-minute length. If ever a host was born for the long form, it's Silverblatt — and certainly the uncommonly intimate atmosphere of his show could sustain any runtime — but alas, to so many watch-tapping program directors out there, a mere half an hour is long form. Free Bookworm from its temporal chains; free it now.

Vital stats:
Format: literary interviews
Running since: 1989
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: ten weeks only, but all streamable

[Podthinker Colin Marshall receives e-mails at colinjmarshall at gmail, but opens only earnest ones. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Radio Freetown"


Who on WFMU is not awesome? This is a serious question. You Max Funsters may — nay, should — already know all about the likes of The Best Show and Seven Second Delay, but the framework built by the entire schedule of what I shall dub America's ultimate free-form radio station is packed with the styrofoam of pure awesome. For just one example, take Radio Freetown [iTunes link], which airs Mondays at 7pm Eastern. Behind the mic and on the turntables is DJ Frank O., a.k.a. DJ Franc O., a.k.a. Frank Gossner, a German so dedicated to his mission of finding and preserving rare West African pop and rock vinyl from the 1970s that he blogs about the stuff, is the subject of a documentary about the stuff and, of course, sends the stuff out weekly on the frequency of 91.1. This dude, let it be said, is an awesome dude.

Fortunately for listeners outside of Jersey and NYC, WFMU boarded the podcasting boat early, and consequently Frank's broadcast spinning sessions are available everywhere in the world — even in the countries his music itself comes from: your Ghanas, your Benins, your Togos, your Nigerias, your Ivory Coasts, your Guineas. Having grown weary of the "sleazy listening" he made his name playing in New York clubs and the classic funk he then became known for laying down in Berlin, Frank relocated to Guinea and picked up a nasty addiction to its dusty old vinyl. Radio Freetown's cuts are the fruits of a dogged quest through the west side of the continent: by foot, bus or rickety makeshift taxi, Frank scoured (with the aid of a network of friends) the remains of all the collections he could dig up, searching for that sweet Afrobeat, Afro-funk, Afro-pop and Afro-rock.

It's tough to know exactly how to describe this music. Though certain recordings are unexpectedly slick, most of it's decidedly "lo-fi", though not in an unappealing, deliberate or ironic way. (Especially not in an ironic way.) West African musicians of the 1970s were, perhaps unsurprisingly, working with fairly basic technology even for the time, and thus had to creatively compensate or adapt to their gear's limitations. The result is a bold, enthusiastic sound filled with sharp horns, spidery guitar, distinctively solid rhythms, borderline-hypnotic repetition and lord knows how many sung languages. So perhaps it's easier to describe its sound than to covey, with much precision, its appeal; in the interest of not dancing too much about the architecture, it's probably best to leave the music to speak for itself. (The music and its cover art, to be precise. Who on Earth, no matter the region, could see covers like these and not want to hear what's pressed into the vinyl inside them?)

Listening to Frank's mixes has, for your Podthinker, been something of an enlightenment. If you hang out with music people, you know — maybe all too well — that anyone who's really into organized sound can easily become afflicted with tunnel vision, or, as it were, tunnel hearing. They delude themselves into thinking that they "know what they like" and tribally restrict their allegiances to a certain style, consciously or unconsciously avoiding all alien musical stimuli, forgetting that when the total music-producing area of the world is multiplied by the time it's been producing music, a huge probability space opens up. In it hide so very many many excellent tracks, albums and entire genres that few have ever even heard of. In previous eras, they'd have an excuse for their ignorance; now, thanks to the sweat-of-the-brow efforts of hardworking DJs like Frank, they don't.

Vital stats:
Format: music; 70s West African music, specifically
Running since: October 2008
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: previous month only (but like all WFMU podcasts, older shows can be heard via the fate worse than death that is using RealPlayer)

[Podthinker Colin Marshall receives all his way-out-of-normal-experience music suggestions at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Remember When"


This selection comes straight from the recommendation thread on the forum. Max Funster anabur wrote of the podcast's hosts that "you can tell they do it just because it's so fun for them," which sounded promising indeed; if there's one thing that separates the podcasts that peter out before you unsubscribe from the podcasts to which your subscription peters out first, it's passion. Apologies for using such a clichéd term, but it's true. It's no accident that passion is the first of the Three Ps of Podcasting: Passion, Production and, uh... Potency.

From minute one, it was obvious that, for their subjects of geekery, Remember When's [iTunes link] Jay and Parris have passion to spare. One might say the show itself is the child of a sheer passion overflow, a spillage of excess enthusiasm. While the guys are better known for their video game podcast UncleGamer Radio, one of its episodes veered straight down the pop culture path without so much as a backward glance, prompting the genesis for a spinoff show focusing entirely on movies and television.

Unfortunately, it almost immediately became evident that, whoever this podcast is made for, that person is probably not your Podthinker. First, he hasn't viewed a narrative TV show — much less sprawling stuff like The Shield and Battlestar Galactica, two Remember When favorites — in years and years. Second, though almost any film talk piques his interest, this is a setting where The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder dominate the best-of-2008 lists. For a man almost entirely unable to get with Lord of the Rings, The Matrix or Star Wars, it's a little disheartening to load up the first episode in the playlist and hear the opening strains of an intense, probing, detail-oriented discussion of Revenge of the Sith [MP3].

That said, it's obvious even to someone unstirred by the popular sci-fi, fantasy and superhero trilogies (and quadrilogies) of the late 1970s to the present that Jay and Parris know their stuff. And it's not just that repeated re-watchings embedded all the facts firmly into their brains; they also seem to care. Whether Mace Windu did or did not recieve a worthy death scene may forever remain a matter of active inquiry, but it's not because these guys are asleep at the switch. By the same token, would the Riddler fit into Christopher Nolan's Batman universe? Can the standard-issue Kurt Russell performance truly convey the character of Wyatt Earp? Which is the better Indiana Jones, Raiders or Last Crusade? If you can think of no questions more pressing than these, this is the podcast you want. (None of this is meant to sound culturally high and mighty; when Parris started talking about The Last Dragon, Krush Groove and House Party, your Podthinker could not have been more down for it.)

Remember When's most entertaining feature is a semi-regular one where Parris, evidently the more cinematically experienced of the two, assigns Jay one of his favorite movies to watch. This is usually some well-worn classic of the past couple decades like Caddyshack [MP3] or The Blues Brothers [MP3. If the opinion Jay forms is not properly worshipful, Parris threatens to hop a plane from Los Angeles, fly down to Dallas where Jay is, and regulate. All this is reminiscent of the best of Experts and Intermediates, which, if you recall, is the podcast that prompted your Podthinker to come up with the genre name TTWGBAC, or Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys Bullshitting About Culture. Remember When would be the ultimate expression of the very essence of the TTWGBAC, but for the fact that Parris' non-whiteness would throw the abbreviation off. Oh well.

Vital stats:
Running since: April 2008
Duration: 50m-1h50m
Frequency: erratic
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall is also beyond down for both Wild Style and Style Wars, and will discuss both via e-mail at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Quiet Sounds"

| 1 comment

Your Podthinker has already revealed that his primary musical weakness is the sweet, sweet sound of old school. He will now reveal his badly incongruous secondary musical weakness: the sweet, sweet sound of ambient.

The unwieldy behemoth defines ambient music as "a musical genre in which sound is more important than notes," "generally identifiable as being broadly atmospheric and environmental in nature." Ambient pioneer (and author of your Podthinker's favorite book, A Year with Swollen Appendices) Brian Eno wrote that ambient can be "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener" and that it "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

At this point, the uninitiated reader will either be highly intrigued or turned off, befuddled. If the latter, they're probably confusing ambient with other, lesser, more-often-ridiculed musical genres like "new age". Ambient is far from that stripe of schlock, but the best way said confused reader can discover that is spending a few hours with a solid ambient music podcast. Similarly, the best way for the reader with piqued interest to satiate that interest is doing the very same. Luckily, neither group need search too far afield: The Quiet Sounds is merely a click away.

On the program, a mysterious fellow by the name of "The Unflappable Mister Eden" crafts thematic ambient mixes from 45 to 90 minutes long. These themes include the most underrated and/or obscure of ambient [MP3], the classic roots of ambient from the 70s and 80s [MP3] (which includes material from one of your Podthinker's choicest ambient albums, Eno and Robert Fripp's Evening Star), productions that use the guitar in one way or another [MP3] and a set in perhaps the richest seasonally-linked mood, autumnal melancholia [MP3]. There's also more standard stuff, such as Mister Eden's annual best-of-the-year playlists: 2007 [MP3], 2006 [MP3], 2005 [MP3].

Ambient music's best quality has to be its versatility. Most genres have their time and place — old school, for instance, works best in a certain specific contexts, though within them it works very well indeed — but no such apparent limitation binds ambient. Reading, cooking, driving, writing podcast columns, cleaning, sleeping, eating, laborious podcast-editing, walking, shopping, talking, bus-riding: ambient provides a fine soundtrack for all these activities and more. (Especially bus-riding; anything that prompts one to forget one is on a bus is an absolute godsend.) When Eno talks about how ambient accommodates many levels of listening attention, he understates the case; the stuff accommodates nearly all of human experience.

Ambient broadens one's own concept of the very nature of music to boot. The Quiet Sounds' sets incorporate a huge slice of the spectrum, all the way from pure sonic texture to actual rhythmic hey-this-sounds-kinda-normal gateway tracks. One can read in this column that describing something as a "long, repetitive drone with almost infinitely repetitive motifs" is, in fact, not necessarily pejorative and can, in fact, be a resounding approval. But, perhaps understandably, one will not truly grok the sentiment unless one hears the music itself. That's why it's so cool to have an engaged enthusiast like Mister Eden putting out podcasts of the stuff. In earlier episodes, he announced the tracks and verbally went into some detail about what they meant to him; somewhere in the middle of the archive, he switched to doing all his talking up-front. Alas, he's more recently given up the chat altogether, which is a bit of a shame as it's always nice to hear someone discuss why they love what they love. But over time his mixes have only improved, so if that's the tradeoff, that's the tradeoff; your Podthinker raises his Asahi high nonetheless.

Vital stats:
Format: ambient music
Running since: October 2005
Duration: 45m-1h30m
Frequency: erratic
Archive available on iTunes: none

[Podthinker Colin Marshall even checks his e-mail, colinjmarshall at gmail, to ambient. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Dinner Party Download"

| 1 comment

Perhaps most Max Funsters are already bona fide dinner party animals. Your Podthinker counts himself as one — or aspires to, in an case. What better way, then, to climb the ladder toward over-the-top gourmand status than with the first podcast geared specifically toward the dinner partier: KPCC's The Dinner Party Download [iTunes link], "the show that helps you win your next dinner party." (Yes, they can be won.)

Each episode of The Dinner Party Download adheres strictly to a format. First comes the "ice breaker," a corny joke. (Personal favorite: "How do you turn a duck into a popular soul singer? Microwave it until its bill withers.") Then, in "small talk," hosts Brendan Newnam and Rico Gagliano talk to reporters — usually the ones across the hall at Marketplace — about which events of the day make for the best hors d'œuvre conversation. After that, it's "time for cocktails," where they talk about an event from the week in history and then ring up a bartender to find out how to make a drink kinda-sorta related to it. They then converse with the "guest of honor," some famous interviewee like M.C Frontalot [MP3], Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh [MP3] or filmmaker David Fincher [MP3], who seems to have fallen on creative hard times. In the "main course" that follows, they talk to foodmakers about food: fancy peanut-butter sandwiches [MP3], rare-bird delicacies [MP3], that sort of thing. Finally, there's "one for the road, a song to play on your way to or departing from your dinner party."

A pretty solid set of features, to be sure, but what's most fascinating is, in this jungly world of podcasts, how... public radio-y the show sounds. It's got everything public radio stations seem convinced will attract new blood to the listenership — young, just-laid-back-dudes hosts; semi-ironic pop cultural references; chats with artists that those twentysomethings seem to love — but it also retains the trappings that, unconsciously included, identify it to other, non-public-radio podcasts as Not One of Us. First and foremost, every segment noted in the above paragraph is crammed into about fifteen minutes, causing that rushed-along feeling one knows (and probably doesn't love) from all stripes of traditional radio. This takes a serious toll on the interviews, which feel as if they run about twelve seconds and are conducted using the same two questions every time ("What are you sick of being asked?" and "Tell us something we don't know about yourself"). As a hardcore fan and creator of the interview form (and one who considers the sub-30-minute interview to be essentially worthless), your Podthinker is pained by this.

Second, after having listened to hundreds of honest, mumbly podcaster voices, the interaction between Rico and Brendan — indeed, between most professional public radio hosts — sounds suspiciously polished, like it's the fifth or sixth rehearsed take. And third: please, public radio producers, take this to heart: there's no need to wedge a music bed under everything. There are many answers to your problems; music beds are not among them.

Vital stats:
Format: cultural variety
Running since: July 2008
Duration: ~15m
Frequency: biweekly, roughly
Archive available on iTunes: four months

[High-priced Podsultant Colin Marshall accepts all offers at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Podcasts by Maximum Funsters to the Limit

| 1 comment

From Max Funster Chet_Friendly, iandividual (who is possibly the same person) and maybe a couple others comes Boiled Dinner [iTunes link], a comedy podcast of initially indeterminate genre. Indeterminate, that is to say, unless described as follows: You Look Nice Today. That's about as dialed-in as it gets, since sharing a genre with YLNT means that Boiled Dinner also shares such qualities as:

  • Three dudes
  • Goofy nicknames
  • Preposterous statements (and the deadpan utterance thereof)
  • Anecdotes about life's daily degradations
  • Strummy bumper music between segments
  • Twitter accounts

But by no means is it a slavish YLNT imitation. Unlike Merlin, Scott and Adam, Wilfred-Dale the Robot, Chet Friendly and Jesse Pruden — one strongly suspects pseudonyms — record not over a Skype conference call but (apparently) together in a physical room. And that physical room is in Calgary. Broadly speaking, though, the similarities outnumber the differences, and in listening to any YLNT-like show, one comes to appreciate just how tough it is to mine comedy gold from its format. There's got to be not just a three-way rapport between the hosts — all podcasters worth their salt have that — but an ability to strategically and consistently add Jenga blocks of humor to the Jenga tower of absurdity that grows, slowly but steadily, through each segment without collapsing into a demolished Jenga tower of scattershot meanderings and/or own-joke laughter fits. Jenga.

Though the Boiled Dinner boys do a damned respectable job of this, they don't quite hold the all-important poker faces maintained by their predecessors. (And perhaps they aren't even trying to — for all your Podthinker knows, Jesse, Chet and Wilfred-Dale may never have even listened to YLNT, though that'd make for one hell of a creative coincidence.) When one of them scores bigtime humor points — and these moments of hard-hitting hilarity come satisfyingly often — all of them tend to crack up. The effect is perhaps best described as YLNT hybridized with a standard, much more casual just-guys-chillin' podcast, which doesn't seem like an unpromising niche to fill, nor have Boiled Dinner's first six episodes constituted an unpromising start toward filling it. For days now, your Podthinker has, in solitary moments, been muttering "Pruddly! Pruddly! Pruddly!", "This is the first [x]... with a black president" or "Our son's gonna make a woman of us" and then collapsing, like a failed game of Jenga, into hysterics.

Vital stats:
Format: You Look Nice Today
Running since: November 2008
Duration: 30m-50m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

From Max Funster HijackedFlavor comes The News Cruise, another exercise in the flat expression of the ridiculous, but with a current-events flavor. It's one of those shows that's not just a podcast, but a college radio broadcast (on the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's WUAG). Your Podthinker happens to have a college radio background, and he reports with some confidence that The News Cruise is a pretty darn sterling example of what's become, in the 21st century, a badly debased medium.

Even though the full extent of their preparation seems, at times, to consist of a single crumpled sheet of lined paper bearing synopses of the week's wacky news items and a handful of unusual songs to play, at a very low volume, under comments on them, co-hosts Chris Berg and Megan Wallrichs still bring an A+ game compared to most of today's college broadcasters. Modern standards of college broadcasting excellence would appear to demand little more than showing up, jacking one's iPod into the board, hitting "shuffle" (which makes the playlist "eclectic") and then falling asleep in the lobby, but this show delivers at least half an hour of chuckle-inducing late-night chat about the world's goings-on: the cancellation of TRL, Englishmen hell-bent on proving the existence of space aliens, the ruination of the world's largest sandwich and something about an election. It wouldn't be terribly innacurate to call the material essentially Le Show stripped, mercifully, of Harry Shearer's unhealthy Dick Cheney fixation.

The program guards the flame of an all-but-forsaken sensibility of college radio, no doubt, but that's not to say that it isn't enjoyable in its own right. Whether by design or by happenstance, Chris and Megan create an entertainingly intimate sound and feel, which — here it comes again — evokes exactly what's most appealing about college radio. Your Podthinker has, alas, put college behind him, but he can easily envision himself having spent his Thursday nights ignoring classwork, flipping on his radio, dicking with the antenna (college stations' typical wattage being what it is) and settling in as these two kids read off Kwame Kilpatrick's embarrassing text messages.

Vital stats:
Format: news-themed comedi-chat
Running since: September 2008
Duration: 35m-1h10m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: none, which really bites

[Podthinker Colin Marshall is available to talk about college radio 24 by 7 at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Dork Forest"

| 1 comment

What, exactly, is a dork, and what's a geek? Urban Dictionary, the arbitrator in debates of this stripe, currently defines dork as "someone who has odd interests, and is often silly at times," while it defines geek (a few unsatisfactory definitions down) as "an outwardly normal person who has taken the time to learn technical skills [ ... who ] has normal a social life as anyone, and usually the only way to tell if someone is a geek is if they inform you of their skills."

Grammatically questionable, sure, but as clear a laying-out of the dueling quasi-insults as one's likely to run across. Dorks have unusual interests, geeks have unusual skills. Geek podcasts are a dime a dozen; geeky podcast listeners — wags, feel free to rhetorically ask if there's any other kind — need only dip their hand into the iTunes directory to satiate their own particular sub-subcategory of geekery: programming, triathlons, filmmaking, what have you. (Your Podthinker, for instance, often banners himself as a film geek, which variety of geekdom's only real requirement is not asking how to "get rid of those black bars on the screen" when watching DVDs.)

But The Dork Forest [iTunes link] is, as yet, the only dork podcast to have made a name for itself, or at least a name that actually contains the term. It's part of another genre as well, one that, like the TTWGBAC, only becomes apparent after one has spent hundreds of man-hours submerged in the podcast world: Comedians Hanging Out, or CHO for short, which is exactly what it sounds like. Never Not Funny is the best-known example of the CHO, though the recently-Podthought-about I Love Movies is one too.

Each week in the Forest, Jackie Kashian, a sort of female Mike Schmidt, hangs out with a handful of other comedians, asking them about their own specific region of dorkdom. These include Rick Overton's enthusiasm for conspiracy theories (and, like other true conspiracists, his denial that he's into conspiracy theories), Ryan Niemiller's penchant for pro-wrestling fan fiction (yes, really) and Kashian's own habit of reading incredibly unappealing fantasy novels. And there are so many more trees in the Dork Forest, tended to by comedians and non-comedians alike: chess, news, paganism, mixed martial arts, Christmas. Why, there are as many varieties of dorkage as there are dorks to engage in them.

As fascinating as it can be to hear about unheard-of varieties of dorkulous experience, there's a limit to how much good material one can get out of dorkiness as opposed to geekiness. Back in his days on Loveline, Adam Carolla observed that funny people essentially trade every other ability in for their funniness, that they can make a crowd laugh but, in exchange, can't perform any other real task. If he's right, maybe that's why they're dorks rather than geeks; dorky hobbies aren't particularly skill-based nor particularly consequential. Typically, the comedians on hand will drift quickly from the dorkage, sometimes into territory listeners would probably just as soon have them steer around. (Politics, for instance. Yes, this was an election year so perhaps it was to be expected, but hearing comedians talk politics is just brutal.)

Unusually for a podcast, The Dork Forest is webcast live during recording, opening the opportunity for call-ins and audience participation via an associated chat room. (Remember chat rooms?) But this is a double-edged sword: the setup, for whatever reason, results in unbelievably atrocious sound. Would that the quality was as good as AM radio, or even as good as the telephone; it's really more like listening to an AM radio broadcast held up to a telephone. Or perhaps the show is laid down on an original Edison wax cylinder prior to uploading — a nod to anachronistic electronics dorks, naturally.

Vital stats:
Format: CHO
Running since: August 2006
Duration: 1h-1h20m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: six months or so

[Podthinker Colin Marshall reviews podcasts, so dork, heal thyself. E-mail him at colinjmarshall at gmail, discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Podcasts by Maximum Funsters Forever


From Max Funster AaronBurd comes Axed [iTunes link], a mining expedition into the rich vein of cancelled television shows. The primary danger posed to such a project is, of course, coming off like a copycat of those pseudo-obscurantist pop culture columns from the Onion A.V. Club. Fortunately for the listener, co-hosts and roommates Will and Aaron take a very light approach to this sort of thing, mixing one part goofy riffing to match each part semi-serious commentary and analysis. They each have a role: Will plays the dopey one who rarely prepares but stands always at the ready with a not-particularly-apropos interjection, while Aaron plays the reasonably erudite, many-accent-doing one who grumbles about having to share the podcast with such a dolt. And back and forth, and so on. They have a good time.

Upon starting college, your Podthinker cast off television and all things televisual — less an actual decision than simply forgetting to watch — and, if Will and Aaron's description of television shows is accurate, he's very glad indeed that he hasn't looked back. It all sounds so terrible! And yes, Axed focuses on programs that couldn't maintain enough of an audience to sustain themselves, but even the allegedly good shows they mention offhand, the Losts and Heroeses of the world, sound like dreck. At least some of the more short-lived failures to which they devote entire episodes sound as if they fail in interesting ways: the Bruce Campbell-starring anachronistic sci-fi western The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. [M4A], for instance, or the ahead-of-its-time sociopathic-professional drama Profit [M4A]. (The discussions almost make your Podthinker want to watch the shows, but the descriptions are probably more entertaining than the actual produced episodes.)

Between their in-depth show breakdowns — split into a first half without spoilers and a second half with, though they'd do just as well to let the spoilers fly from minute one — Will and Aaron offer "News from the Chopping Block", segments offering the latest news in TV cancellation. To non-U.S. Max Funsters, all this fascination with 86ed television shows may seem odd, but one must realize that, in America, there is only one way for a series to claim success: running forever.

Vital stats:
Format: TTWGBAC about TV
Running since: August 2008
Duration: 35m-1h30m
Frequency: a bit more than weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Alas, The Internet's Maximum Potential is no more, but indefatigable Max Funster Semisorick, also known as Rick Katschke, has surfaced bearing a brand new podcasting venture, Host and Guest [iTunes link]. It's an arts-and-culture interview program wherein Katschke catches up with comedians, musicians and performers of other stripes he finds around in Milwaukee, whether they're based in the great state of Wisconsin or just passing through.

Past second-halves-of-the-title include such Max Fun favorites as Jimmy Pardo [MP3], The Sklar Brothers [MP3] and Chris "Hard" Hardwick [MP3]. Funtastic as those guys are, though, your Podthinker found himself preferring Katschke's local guests, such as young singer-songwriter D. Kent Watson [MP3] and Patrick Schmitz, director of something called Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer [MP3], because he hasn't heard them — and probably can't hear them — anywhere else. Also distinguishing this interview podcast from others are Katschke's opening monologues about subjects like how he struggled to pass college math or couldn't get John Hodgman and his tendency to ask his interviewees to provide film and music recommendations. (They often struggle to do so, but it's a good idea nonetheless — why not solicit a book recommendation too?)

But it's early days. If Host and Guest plays to its strengths, expands its runtime and clears up its recording issues — it's sometimes too quiet to hear — then Katschke'll have a pretty respectable program on his hands.

Vital stats:
Format: cultural interviews
Running since: August 2008
Duration: 10m-20m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall is now on Twitter, for what that's worth; get him there or at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Best of Ideas"


During a recent trip to Vancouver, your Podthinker strained to determine what, exactly, separates Canadian stuff from American stuff. Though no Canadian dares call their country "basically the U.S.", the similarities vastly outnumber the differences, but it's the differences that intrigue. In the Podthoughts on Vancouver's Stop Podcasting Yourself, "civilizedly bland, sort of pleasantly inferior" was the phrase of choice, and perhaps it still applies. But upon reflection, it doesn't quite capture all the nuances. To discover the true qualities of Canadian-ness, it's necessary to go to the mothership, the juggernaut that is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and more specifically, to its long-running program Ideas.

The miracle of podcasting has brought this 43-year-old pillar of Canadian radio to the rest of the Earth in the form of The Best of Ideas [iTunes link], which every Monday delivers one hour of the five-hour-a-week program straight into one's Zunehole (or whatever). Through this show, an exploration of philosophy, technology, literature, science, art and society, one can identify the elements of the Canadian sensibility in microcosm.

First, Ideas is earnest. No matter the topic — Utopianism, quantum physics, the translation of literature — the program treats it as if it's of the utmost importance. Joined with a surprisingly wide purview, it's an admirable quality indeed, though it's hard not to wonder if the producers really — really — care so deeply about all the subjects on which they touch. Your Podthinker would go so far as to submit that some of their topics don't warrant earnestness: witness, for example, the four hours (!) Ideas blew on the maudlin, fanciful economic musings of Karl Polanyi.

Second, Ideas is dignified. The announcers' tone, and especially that of host Paul Kennedy, sound like the very concept of standing up straight, as if the production department's top priority is producing a clean, crisp and almost pressed sound and feel. This is respectable, though it sometimes results in stories that sound like dequirkified This American Life segments.

But third, Ideas doesn't take itself too seriously. The kind of importance and propriety with which the show imbues its material is the same kind of importance and propriety one sees in Canada itself: clear and present, but not overblown. Like its motherland, Ideas seems to realize that it's not exactly holding the fate of the world in its hands, which loosens things up and allows for a bit of experimentalism. But it also knows that you simply don't leave the house in sweatpants.

Fourth, Ideas suffers from identity anxiety. While a solid majority of its concepts are as fascinating as they come, a good ten percent are non-starters. These duds often concern the question of Canadian identity, which appears to be a periodic national preoccupation. (On the grand list of humanity's worries, the substance of Canadian identity would seem to rank rather low, though one has to wonder what does hold those provinces together.) Hand-wringing about multiculturalism also worms its way in every so often, and one three-parter on "the trouble with tolerance" was so ridiculous that your Podthinker has held it up as the ultimate example of mealy-mouthed, unproductive discussion ever since.

Fifth, Ideas takes its time, and that's how the show shines brightest. Your Podthinker has heard no other radio program or podcast willing to devote the sort of length and depth to its topics that Ideas does. Two hours on Robert Weaver, the "godfather of Canadian Literature"? Four hours on historian Jocelyn Létourneau? Three hours on surveillance? All are allowed. Better yet, when Ideas runs an interview, it's be a long-form conversation running at least 50 minutes. The other edge to this sword means that one must endure the occasional extended go-nowhere riff on tolerance of uncritical celebration of Polanyi's crackpot ideas about the noble savage, but so be it.

Vital stats:
Format: cultural variety
Running since: 1965
Duration: 1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: previous four weeks only

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also likes those two-dollar coins they've got up north. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail or discuss Podthoughts on the forum here. Submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Syndicate content