Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "KCRW's The Business"

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Who is Claude Brodesser-Akner?

The man is the center of discussion on many episodes of Jordan Jesse Go! for his corny humor and stringent Media Bistro guest lists. He is the host of KCRW’s The Business (iTunes link), the Santa Monica public radio station’s show that takes a distinct look at the entertainment biz. So does the notorious Mr. Brodesser-Akner live up to his reputation?

Most of what passes for entertainment journalism seems to be Hollywood gossip, Hollywood gossip given fancy dress and number crunching the weekend’s box office gross. It takes hundreds of people to create a film but glossy magazines and tabloid talk shows only seem to care about pretty movie stars and how glamorous they are (or if they’re “just like us”). The fact that the latest vehicle for Jessica Alba had an army of writers, producers, editors, sound people and people manning the craft services tables goes forgotten. The Business concentrates on that side of show business and seems to have a lock on finding real interesting stories about that other side of Hollywood.

The October 1st episode of The Business spent most of its half-hour talking to Mad Men executive producer and creator Matthew Weiner about product placement in television shows. Mad Men concerns the drama happening in an ad agency circa 1960. Weiner discussed how he had to strike the right balance to make his characters and their world realistic. He couldn’t have his characters eating from generic boxes marked “Cereal” but he didn’t want the mentions of brand names to seem like they were put there for pay. It’s an interesting topic and this was the most I have heard of it in the media. It’s an example of the intelligent programming on The Business.

Brodesser-Akner is unmistakable as a host (a fact made clear with his absence for the past two shows, although producer Matt Holzman does a good job filling in). He starts shows by covering the industry headlines, tagging each story with a piece of what Jordan Morris accurately described as “dad humor.” If you’re a fan of groan inducing puns then pay attention to the first five minutes of each edition of the show. When I first started listening to The Business I worried that this would be a show filled with the mild humor you hear on a lot of public radio shows. I was glad to find out that when it comes time for an interview Brodesser-Akner is all, well, business. He’s a great interviewer, able to get right to the most interesting thing about a subject and allow the both host and guest to examine it from all angles. It was nice to hear Bruce Dern tell Brodesser-Akner what a good interviewer he is when his segment ended, telling the host how well prepared he was.

Don’t wait for Brodesser-Akner to co-host JJG, although that will be awesome when it inevitably happens, and search through the archives of The Business and enjoy a take on Tinsel Town that’s far from what you see on Entourage.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "CD Baby DIY Musician Podcast"

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I came to CD Baby's podcast regarding independent artists (iTunes link) with high hopes. I'm as much interested in the money side of the music business as the artistic side. If there's anytime to chronicle the shape of the music business this is it becuase the entire game is being overhauled. The Portland, Ore. based show has a lot to deal with but I felt it only does an okay job of covering the current situation.

I give the show a fair rating becuase I have to split the difference between the two types of formats the show works with. Half of the episodes feature long form interviews with musicians. The other half are roundtable discussions with the four hosts (discussions will occasionally follow an interview as well). I loved the interviews. I can take or leave the roundtable.

The interviews I heard were with Portland producer Jeff Stuart Salzman and TSOYA favorite Jonathan Coulton. Conducted by main host Kevin they were revealing discussions that were propelled by a mutual enthusiasm for creating music and the new possibilities musicians have today. I loved hearing Salzman using Black Sabbath as an example of the power of simplicity in recording a song. The Coulton interview gave me a lot to learn about how a modern songwriter can promote him/herself with on-line resources. That enthusiasm felt between host and guest becomes infectious within minutes.

That easy feeling I enjoyed in the interviews was what bothered me about the discussions amongst all the hosts. It feels weird to appraise podcasts based around conversations becuase I feel like I'm critiquing the hosts personally and not just the content they create. The on-air talent for the CD Baby podcast all seem nice but the arguments just didn't pop. There wasn't much conflict in the debates to keep me entertained. Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of Sound Opinion can sound like they're disagreeing even when they're not. This show goes in the opposite direction. When actual disagreements arise on CD Baby's show they never seem to catch fire. I was very curious about what the show would have to say about Radiohead's on-line release of their seventh album, easily the biggest story in the recording industry. You had some people who said they'd pay for the album and some who wouldn't but no one really was going at it. It doesn't help that the hosts aren't every introduced on the show other than their first name. Who are these people and what are their credentials? I had to go through three links on their website before I found the page that gave me those answers. The constant adding of cheesy sound effects played over the dialogue spoken didn't endear me to the program, either.

The summaries on iTunes makes it easy to see which episode of this show has an interview and which is just a discussion. If it's an interview with an artist, whether you know them or not, I say check it out. Skip the roundtable episodes, though.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "The Lazy Environmentalist"

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Josh Dorfman, the host of The Lazy Environmentalist (iTunes link) radio show and author of the book of the same name, is a different kind of voice in the Green Movement. There are no prophecies of environmental disasters meant to scare you into action. Dorfman says that he is wary of “doom and gloom” in environmental messages. His show radiates this cheerful, enthusiastic attitude towards changing the world. He instills in listeners a hopeful sense the world can change and that it’s not even that hard.

The podcast features short segments of Dorfman’s show on Sirius Satellite Radio. They run from five to twenty minutes long. Some shows will feature Dorfman listing the greenest options for a certain activity, such as which are the most environmentally friendly airlines to choose. Others will have Dorfman expounding on a certain subject, such as putting forth his thesis that we can indeed “shop our way to sustainability.” Their nice little tidbits that you can start your day with or use as a quick reference, say when you want to know how to get quality skin care while saving the world.

I worry that maybe the tips aren’t enough. There is the idea that we can shop our way to sustainability and indeed, consumerism can change the world. I worry (and yes, even with Dorfman’s happy tone I’m still going to be filled with worries) that just tweaking our current way of life isn’t enough. Just replacing light bulbs or picking an airline whose planes don’t use as much fuel doesn’t feel like enough change is happening. The actual infrastructure based around burning through the Earth’s resources is still there.

Perhaps hoping for a revolution is too pie-in-the-sky to be effective. Dorfman is being realistic. He does say that government regulation is important but he admits that we are still going to be living in this particular marketplace. He’s most likely right that there won’t be a major overhaul in first world life so let’s try to change what we have now. The call to change the current economy we have now can even have wide ranging benefits that go beyond the issues of the environment. I liked the show about “Green Collar Jobs” that featured an interview with Van Jones of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Jones talked about creating new work opportunities for underprivileged youth by finding them jobs such as installing solar panels. The show gave a more expansive look of why retooling the economy for a sustainable future is so important.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "LSAT Logic in Everyday Life"

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There are few things I love more in life than Star Trek. I won’t deny that food and shelter have their charms but Star Trek lore offers me plenty of what I can’t find anywhere else. One is that thoroughly logical race the Vulcans. No matter what the situation presented in front of Kirk, McCoy and their green-blooded pal Spock you could always count on the Vulcan of the trio to asses every instance with cold hard logic. It’s not something we humans can always do but for those who take the Law School Admissions Test it is a requirement to pass the test. The Princeton Review’s podcast “LSAT Logic in Everyday Life” (iTunes link) explains the philosophy of the exam by examining current events through the lens of pure logic.

This is another “short burst” podcast like last week’s "The Lazy Environmentalist" and ”Grammar Girl’s Quick and Drity Tips for Better Writing” (you do a column enough times you start making up your own terms). The shows run six to eight minutes long. Keep in mind that the pre-recorded into and outro take up about one minute and we’re looking at a show that goes by pretty fast. Host Andrew Brody condenses the arguments and solutions of that week’s show into a tight little production. This keeps the content very clear no matter how complex the issue might be. In fact, it seems drawing out the show and delving into all the complexities and nuances of an issue would obscure the logical strategy Brody employs. I must add that Brody’s impeccable pronunciation of the English language is added a bonus for me. The guy just sounds like someone who is very familiar with the unimpassioned speech of both law and standardized tests (and I do mean that as a compliment).

The podcast doesn’t just serve those preparing for the LSAT. Brody’s decision to make the news the subject of his shows means that listeners get the chance to hear a calm and fair take on the world around us. While the rest of the media seems to be going in a very emotional to the point of shrill direction Brody presents a welcome alternative. A good example is the Sept. 23rd show. It was dedicated to a recent incident where a university student was tasered by police after asking a (frankly, ridiculous) question to Sen. John Kerrey and breaking the university’s discussions rules. Video of the incident hit YouTube and it was so intense that in no time people got into heated discussion. Brody applied LSAT logic, looking at simply the causes and effects, and came down on both sides with no bias or agenda. It was an interesting way to look at the story, one we could use more of.

As Brody says in every show to apply LSAT logic to situations around us we must distance ourselves emotionally. It’s a nice idea but, going back to Star Trek, there will always be a McCoy in us arguing our gut feeling to the straight-ahead Spock. I still find the commitment to logic something to aspire to and I hope more people learn from this podcast. Now I'm just waiting for someone to send Brody a question begging for some unforgiving logic: is there a God?

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Hey We're Back with Jonathan Katz"

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I have a rule on Podthoughts that I don’t review a show until it has a solid back catalog. I don’t want to lead people to a show and then have it become yet another podcast where the host just hangs it up for whatever reason. This time I make an exception and I think you’ll understand why.

Our own Jesse Thorn [guilty as charged - ed.] has apparently convinced Jonathan Katz of “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist” and “Home Movies” to break into the podcasting game. Now Katz gives us “Hey, We’re Back,” two episodes of which have been posted as of August 25th. When people think of Katz they think, mostly because of the way he talks, of comedy where the jokes come out softly and slowly. It’s a surprise then that “Hey We’re Back” (iTunes) is a show that moves incredibly fast. Both episodes are about six minutes but crammed with a handful of sketches. The frantic pace of the show, it’s brilliantly edited, gives the each episode a lively feel. There’s simply no room for a dull moment or jokes that don’t land.

The pace might be a change for those used to Katz’s television work but the humor certainly isn’t. Katz’s demeanor and choice of subjects has his come off as an NPR host who has gone a bit of off-kilter. He’ll introduce the premise of a sketch in his soft voice, most of the time with a question he has. The last sketch of the first show has Katz interviewing actors who are “reenactors” (this includes Katz’s television collaborator Tom Snyder, who also appears on the second show). Both shows have started with prank calls to telephone director operators, and they have to be the smartest, most inventive crank calls recorded. Even a comedy trope based around annoying people sounds sweet and comfy when Katz is in control.

I look forward to more episodes of “Hey, We’re Back.” Katz has already established his own strange radio universe, just listen to how he starts every show as if it’s already in progress. If you’re looking for something that’s very funny and you can listen to in its entirety on a smoke break then “Hey, We’re Back” is for you.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: Watching the Directors

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In our regular feature Podthoughts, freelance journalist Ian Brill helps you navigate your way through the thousands of podcasts available on the internet.

One thing I enjoy setting up on my Netflix queue is to chronologically investigate a director’s oeuvre. I enjoy seeing how a director grows artistically and what themes are constant over his or her career. Joe and Melissa Johnson have a similar approach in their podcast Watching the Directors. Each show is dedicated to one director’s career. So far the hosts have done shows about Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. There’s a lot of promise to the show but I don’t think it’s all it can be yet.

The first half of the show features interesting discussion about a director. They combine a history lesson with an artistic examination. For the show on Tarantino the hosts bring up the fact that the man behind Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill basically used his job as a video store clerk as film school. From there they note how Tarantino can take something you’ve seen in films before and reinstall a sense of impact to it. One topic that is brought up a lot is gender. The Scorsese shows asks is, since his films feel so masculine, a female lead allowed to be anything other than “one of the boys” to be a valid character. The hosts of the show actually note how the husband of the team is much more attracted to films with strong emotional elements while the wife is happy to watch Die Hard again.

My enthusiasm for the show deflates every time the hosts start with the lists. Besides the fact that I haven’t heard an episode where the “top ten” format is properly explained I find that the lists impede any penetrating analysis. The items go from too broad like favorite movie to silly like imagining what film you’d like to see the director remake. I enjoyed the lists used in Filmspotting because those were jumping off points into greater discussions. Also, they never outweighed their welcome, which is certainly the case for Watching the Directors.

The show wins me back when it ends on a review. Melissa’s reviews of Hannibal and The Departed were strong opinions put forth in a clear accesible way. If only the rest of the show was like that.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: Radio Lab

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In our regular feature Podthoughts, freelance journalist Ian Brill helps you navigate your way through the thousands of podcasts available on the internet.

I discovered Radio Lab when Ira Glass recommended it at the end of a This American Life podcast. He was speaking to the right audience. WNYC’s Radio Lab starts with a big theme and examines it in a series of short segments. Like TAL they’re audio documentaries. The interviews aren’t soundbites. Hosts Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich and their producers ensure in-depth interviews with their subjects. They have to because unlike TAL Radio Lab’s segments stick much closer to their themes.

Throughout the show Abumrad and Krulwich will pop in and offer their opinions on the show’s binding idea, be it morality, mortality or the mystery of memory. They’ll often debate with each other, which is very interesting. The two have easily defined but different personalities. Kurlwich is a man of heart. Even when given the cold, hard scientific facts about memory or morality he’ll want to believe that there’s something more going on than just biological or evolutionary traits. Abumrad deals with the more logical side of things and plays a nice foil to Kurlwich.

What really impressed me about Radio Lab when I first heard it was how sound was edited. In the show “Memory and Forgetting” the hosts and the archived sounds of the interview subjects lap over each other. Sound effects dramatizing an event come in quick burst. Certain phrases and sounds are repeated at various times. This is the first time I’ve heard a radio show that matched the fast pace of television. Radio Lab makes sure to use this style deliberately and clearly. They know when to slow the show down, such as during somber and emotional moments. Listening to Radio Lab you get that immediate sense of being “there” on the field reports but you’re also pulled back by Abumrad and Kurlwich’s hosting. It’s a unique listening experience but a nice one.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Cocktails on the Fly"

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Freelance journalist Ian Brill is our man on the podcast scene, sorting the wheat from the chaff. This week, he covers the home bartending cast "Cocktails on the Fly".

Do you remember the Kids in the Hall Sketch ”Girl Drink Drunk”? I have to admit: for me, watching Cocktails on the Fly’s “Flighty Hostess” Alberta Straub explain the recipes for her complex mixed drinks prompted flashbacks of Dave Foley telling Kevin MacDonald how to make a Squash Strawberry Alley Cat.

That said, even if my particular taste in spirits doesn’t lead me to Straub’s specialties I can appreciate her skill and talent. Dubbed “the Alice Waters of booze” Straub hosts quick video segments, ranging from three to eleven minutes, detailing how to create a drinks with such names as “Bijou,” “Pear Necessity” and “The Macdaddy.” She packs in a lot of instructions, too. Straub always uses fresh ingredients so there are plenty of fruits and vegetables to muddle. Muddling is a big part of mixing these drinks. Straub even has a whole episode dedicated to the art. She shows you the tools and the right amount if pressure to apply. With all factors going into these drinks it’s easy to forget that they’re alcoholic. The alcohol seems to be the easiest thing to get down, mixing some vodka or some gin with some liqueur. From there you have to master the delicate art of mint leaves. At the end of every episode Straub reviews all the ingredients and instructions in bullet point style so you’re ready to make your own concoctions.

Even if I have a hard time following along with the recipes Cocktails on the Fly is still fun to watch for Straub’s “flightiness.” Alone in her kitchen, she’ll start singing songs to herself and put on different voices. She’s a likeable personality and isn’t afraid to look a bit silly.

Three recent episodes broke the tradition of Cocktails on the Fly. Straub visited San Francisco gin makers Distillery No. 209. The multi-part guided tour is not unlike something you’d find on The Food Network. Straub and 209’s Technical Director Arnie Hillesand examine each step of creating gin. The lesson is filled with technical and historical tidbits. It’s pretty fun if, like me, you savor a nice G&T every now and again. That drink may not be as stimulating for a skilled bartender like Straub but at least it only takes a couple of seconds to make.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Filmspotting"

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In our regular feature Podthoughts, freelance journalist Ian Brill helps you navigate your way through the thousands of podcasts available on the internet. This week, he looks at the film criticism podcast Filmspotting.

When regular Filmspotting co-host Sam Van Hallgreen was out for a week it was The Onion AV Club’s Scott Tobias that sat in to discuss films with the podcast’s other host Adam Kempenaar. This choice for a substitute should inform you of the tone of this podcast. The hosts of Filmspotting have that same knack that the writers for the AV Club have for taking their knowledge and passion for pop culture and turning it into informative and typically entertaining content.

Van Hallgreen and Kempenaar’s discussions often reach the best type of criticism. The two aren’t giving “liked it/didn’t like it” reviews. Their analyses compliment a viewing of the film itself. A recent argument on Ocean’s 13 involved determining the film’s place in not just the “Ocean’s” series but in director Steven Soderbergh’s entire career. The critics paid careful attention to the acting styles and screenwriting of the film. The talk is always calm and intelligent, never colored by bias. One of the reasons to keep coming back to Filmspotting is to hear how Van Hallgreen and Kempenaar can be both in-depth and brief about a film. They can provide a review and still have time for plenty of other segments in each roughly hour long podcast.

Filmspotting is a rigidly structured podcast. Every entry for an episode on the website has it down to the time codes. There are one or two reviews, a look at new DVDs and gratitude for donations, Massacre Theatre (not a weekly tribute to Tobe Hooper but instead a segment where the hosts butcher a beloved screenplay), Polls and listener feedback, and then the Top 5 lists. They’ve also recently added “The Noir Marathon,” in which Von Hallgreen and Kempenaar dissect a classic like The Killers or Out of the Past. Occasionally a show will feature an interview with a filmmaker, such as a recent talk with A Might Heart director Michael Winterbottom. I was impressed how later in that same show one of the hosts talked about having a Filmspotting meet-up with fans. The podcast does a good job of straddling the line between journalistic professionalism and the looser, more fun feel of podcasting.

What keeps the show fresh is that, thanks to the hosts’ endless familiarity with film, these dependable segments can touch on virtually any subject. One episode can feature the hosts’ top five best films on music, then next week it can be top five best films on journalism. The fun of these lists is telling the other party how wrong they are, which is where the listener feedback comes in. These are the segment that best illustrate the main appeal of Filmspotting: the joy of being a movie geek.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing"

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Editor's note: this Podthoughts column, by Ian Brill, has not been edited for grammar. Feel free to point out below everything our author did wrong.

More than any Podthought this is one I worry about writing the most. No matter what I say about it, if this article is rife with grammatical mistakes is it any kind of recommendation? I’ll just hope that between listening to the last six episodes of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (oh, and possessing a degree in English Literature) I can come up with something worthy of the Grammar Girl.

Not unlike another Podthought subject, 12 Byzantine Rulers, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is an educational podcast with a single host speaking into a mic. Grammar Girl a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty devotes each show to one subject that people have trouble with when speaking and writing. Recent episodes tackle “on accident” versus “by accident” and “bring” versus” take.”

I cannot say I noticed dirtiness of any sort in the podcast but the episodes are indeed quick. None pass the length of ten minutes. Grammar Girl keeps it simple. The basic lesson format has our host introducing a subject, laying out the basics, sorting out the wrong way versus the right way and then ending on a review. It’s not just that Grammar Girl’s wisdom comes in snappy chunks; she’s also a fun host. She’s has a very inviting voice and she always has funny, personal anecdotes to go along with each lesson. The accompanying blog has transcripts of each show and supplies references for each episode.

There’s a certain type of comfort to Grammar Girl’s podcast. It’s how she’s able to turn a subject many dreaded in school into something worth listening to every week. The running time means you can fit an episode in the middle of the day’s playlist. That is of course if you’re the kind of person who, whilst jogging, wonders when to use “you and me” and when to use “you and I.”

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