Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Sound Opinions"


Freelance journalist Ian Brill offers another quick take on a popular podcast. - Jesse

FM radio, once the home of the personality DJ, is now a wasteland. MTV has all but forgotten what its first initial stands for. MySpace is one of the few places to find new music, but there you’ll find nothing but self-promotion. There seem to be few places that brings audiences new music and put that music in any kind of context. There is, however, one beacon of harmonic hope ,and it comes from a city with a great musical heritage.

Sound Opinions broadcasts from WBEZ Chicago, the public radio powerhouse that produces This American Life. The show used to be found on commercial radio, and it still provides archival material from that time, but since moving to public radio last year the podcasting service has greatly improved. Shows are posted only a day or two after their original broadcast and are easily available on iTunes. The website includes helpful notes accompanying each episode.

The show mirrors the classic Siskel & Ebert approach to criticism, right down to the newspapers the two hosts work for. Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis can be sure to champion rock ‘n’ roll tinged with psychedelic or otherwise intellectual elements, such as The Flaming Lips or Wire. The best glimpse into DeRogatis’s taste would be his book Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Music. While DeRogatis can be counted on to enthusiastically expound upon the merits of personal favorites, Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot tastes proves to be far more eclectic in the music he showcases. In past shows Kot has extolled the virtues of Rock en Espanol and soul music legend Mavis Staples.

While the hosts may have their favorites Sound Opinions covers a wide range of styles. Each show usually includes about two reviews. The discussions of albums such as Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky (Kot has written a book on Wilco) are intelligent, passionate and informative. It’s rare to hear popular music engaged with such trenchancy. Because the hosts look for music that is worthy of discussion the show will often spotlight lesser known artists making music that is in someway smart and/or complex. Recent guests on the show include songwriter/producer Jon Brion, known for an improvisational approach to performance that has garnered him a cult following in his home of Los Angeles. Another guest on the show, the experimental group Parts & Labor create music so challenging I wonder what public radio listeners must think when they hear these sounds coming out of their car radio.

It’s such a relief to hear a professional radio show pay so much attention to new music. Sound Opinions doesn’t see artists and songs as “units” that need to be sold as TV commercials or ringtones. For the people who want more out of the music industry this show is there to help them.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "The Savage Love Podcast"

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Journalist Ian Brill is offering us a weekly review from the world of podcasting -- "Podthoughts." This week, he examines The Savage Love Podcast, from the Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger. The program's host, Dan Savage, was once a guest on The Sound of Young America: here's the MP3.

Dan Savage can’t seem to go twenty seconds into his podcast without dropping a few expletives. It’s a bit jarring, but there’s no point in getting offended. In a typical episode, Savage answers four or five pre-recorded calls that seek his opinions on strap-on dildos, rape fantasies, vagina destined Splenda and any other number of matters far more extreme than the simple utterance of expletives. If you’re offended by that sort of content, you probably won’t get anything out of Savage Love. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot of get out of it.

Savage is clearly committed to educating the world on a subject we all deal but rarely talk about directly: S-E-X. The lack of communication about sex between so many people leads to a lot of dysfunctions. Savage brings it all out in the open so people can start living happier lives.

Occasionally Savage will call someone back to get a better handle on the subject. Those times Savage proves himself as being the empathic soul his listeners needs. Even though it’s the stranger fetishes that get the most attention (Splenda? In the vagina?) most of the problems Savage is given concern arguments between lovers and misinformation on certain medical issues.

Not that Savage always plays the Dr. Ruth-like gentle sage when he’s helping out his callers. He’s not afraid to call one an asshole if it’s warranted, and in some cases it certainly is. Thankfully, though, most of the time Savage needs only to be thoughtful and informative to fix the problems he’s given.

Savage has a similarly low tolerance for BS. Many times the calls he gets are from people who have more worries than they have actual problems. In the June 12th edition, a very sexually open mother is concerned her daughters’ sex lives may be too “vanilla.” Savage phrases his advice simply: “back the fuck off.” I really appreciated this. Savage could be like so many other advice columnists and just create a culture distress and confessions that are blown way out of proportion. Instead he’s able to put these people’s situations into perspective and tell them what’s really going on.

People still come to Savage for advice, perhaps because they know he’s going to be straight with them. He’s also one of the few people in the public sphere whose counsel comes from a sex-positive point-of-view. Savage’s personality, a beautifully paradoxical mix of wise and exasperated, is always entertaining. It’s the reason why I’ve found Savage Love one of the most addictive podcasts around.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Twelve Byzantine Rulers"

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Editor's note: long-time listener and freelance journalist Ian Brill will be contributing a weekly podcast review to the blog called "Podthoughts." I've decided to institute this feature because I feel there's a great vacuum of useful information about podcasts, and a lot of folks who want to make informed choices about what they download. This week, Ian covered "Twelve Byzantine Rulers," a history podcast produced by Lars Brownworth of The Stony Brook School.

Lars Brownworth announces in the introduction to his podcast that he will explain the history of the Byzantine Empire by telling the stories of its rulers. He rejects the idea that history should be told from the point of view of the common man and instead focuses on individual achievements.

I was skeptical of this approach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read my share of Howard Zinn, but I prefer when history is told with an eye towards to daily lives of average citizen. That way that we get the temperature of the times and understand what the mindset of the general populace was. Once we realize how a segment of people in time and space chose to see the world, what they believed was right and wrong, how they saw themselves on the world’s stage, then we get a good sense of why their leaders got away with what they did.

With roughly 1,000 years of history to deal with, I see why Brownsworth, a history professor at The Stony Brook School on Long Island, New York, decided to take a different tack. With the so much time to cover it’s important to have clear markers. Granted, one of the appeals of podcasts is that there are no limits on running time. As long as your voice doesn’t give out you can go on as long as you want for as many episodes as you want. But I presume Brownsworth wants his podcast to be accessible and to appeal to the bite size chunks of information podcast listeners are used to. Profiling 12 distinct rulers is a smart way to attack this subject matter.

Brownsworth presents these podcasts in the simplest way possible. He lectures into a microphone for 15 to 30 minutes, detailing the chronological events of these leaders’ lives.

Brownsworth comes across as the knowledgeable and patient history teacher he probably is at Stony Brook. He never reads too fast and his voice is always clear. It’s effective, if a bit dry. The introduction had some liveliness to it because there was some drama in the way Brownsworth described the different approaches to history. Of course there’s plenty of drama in the life of Constantine, to whom Brownsworth devotes two installments, but the academic approach, while informative, can be a bit austere for my taste. Granted I’m the type of student who never warmed to up to just sitting in a desk and hearing lectures. If you are you’ll probably have an easier time with “12 Byzantine Rulers” than I did.

There are still moments in the podcast that fully captured my attention. The profile of Basil II includes an incredible moment of mass eye gouging. Hearing such violence told in such a clam and assured way really jolts a listener. It was actually the end of those segments where Browsworth put this leader’s life into perspective that I was most interested in. It’s there that Brownsworth’s telling of history meets that populist approach I prefer. There the big themes of power or religion are contemplated and we can apply the lessons learned on this podcast to our own lives.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Escape Pod"

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Editor's note: long-time listener and freelance journalist Ian Brill will be contributing a weekly podcast review to the blog called "Podthoughts." I've decided to institute this feature because I feel there's a great vacuum of useful information about podcasts, and a lot of folks who want to make informed choices about what they download. This week, Ian covered "Escape Pod," a science fiction short story podcast produced by Steven Eley.

Escape Pod,” produced by one-time The Sound of Young America guest Stephen Eley, offers a real service to those who are interested in smart, literate science fiction but are having trouble finding a place to start.

I’ll use myself as an example: Ever since junior high, when my Dad insisted my brother and I spend a few days a month at the library, I’ve gravitated to the works of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. Later, I would become interested in Philip K .Dick and Douglas Adams. Each writer matched pointed views of human nature and society with big, imaginative ideas.

More recently, though, it’s been difficult. During my four years working towards a degree in English, I was too busy studying the accepted classics like The Great Gatsby and As I Lay Dying to catch up on any sci-fi – and certainly not any new stuff.

Walking the aisles dedicated to sci-fi in a bookstore or library can be intimidating for a casual fan of the medium. Lining the shelves are dozens of authors who, while prolific, are unknown to anyone not deeply committed to the genre. Even someone who pays a lot of attention to the world of letters may not be familiar with all these works. While there were once be magazines like “If” and “Fantastic” that published short stories and novellas, it’s hard to find any such services today. That’s why you should turn to “Escape Pod.”

It’s appropriate that a new media technology should give new hope to those searching for good sci-fi short stories. Each week on Escape Pod, listeners hear a new short science fiction story, typically from authors who’ve chosen to license their pieces using the Creative Commons license.

Most stories come in under an hour and flow nicely when spoken. It’s clear that Eley is looking for stories that may contain big ideas but still manage to communicate them in a very clear and direct manner. The 100th episode’s reading of “Nightfall,” read by Eley himself, felt like it could have been an audio play. While some of the episodes have actors brought into to read the stories, (Steve Anderson does a great job with Kevin J. Anderson’s “Job Qualifications” in episode 96), it’s Eley who reads a lot of the stories. In “Nightfall” and Bruce McAllsiter’s “Kin” from episode 108 he proves himself to be really adept and creating distinct and interesting voices for all the characters, no matter how strange and alien they may be.

While the readings take up most of the air time Eley does discuss listener feedback at the beginning of many episodes. The listeners all enjoy sci-fi but have different viewpoints on what the genre can give us. These samples of the discussions place the stories in a valued context for listeners not overly familiar with sci-fi.

Bringing these stories into digital audio form – where they can be enjoyed in a car or on a lunch break – is a wonderful use of new media. Literature like this doesn’t have to fall to the wayside because there are more temptations to not read out there. Instead, Eley has found a way to bring these works into the future -- which is where they belong.


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