Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to… W C Fields. With apologies, there, not just to John Lennon, but to our loyal listeners, who have had to wait an extra day for this episode again, because I didn’t get my shit together on the right day. Wednesday was a busy day!
Another vaudeville star turned unlikely movie star, even six places along the back row of the Sgt. Pepper’s cover, a pattern is beginning to develop.
What seems remarkable about W C Fields is the way that his story of self-invention is so quintessentially American. It’s the story of Jay Gatsby, of Mae West, of Bob Dylan: a universal story about creating a character and living that character with every fibre of your being.
This is another episode recorded in the heat of summer, outside the house in the evening, this time with added SCREAMING BABY SPARROWS, as well as the usual background noise. A hosepipe. A bit of wind. Engines. And a chihuahua with a chain saw. Hopefully not to annoying and distracting to enjoy the fruits of Elodie’s research and my excellent dad jokes.
The Guardian, in typical, desperate old-media fashion, have published an article entitled 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear, which is just inviting a punch to the face. So here are some podcasts you might find interesting if you like that sort of thing.
2 Dope Queens (WNYC) – Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host standup which is more inclusive of women and minorities than you get from the mainstream. Funny.
Afoot! (Incomparable) – a mystery genre focused podcast hosted by the affable Glenn Fleishmann with a roster of guests. So far, the team have discussed Marple, classic radio mysteries, Sherlock Holmes – and the latest episode is about Veronica Mars.
The Eddie Mair Interview – the only thing I miss about listening to Radio 4 live is Eddie Mair on PM. This programme features him interviewing one guest – and you get a longer slice than you do on the radio.
Sophomore Lit (Incomparable) – a discussion show hosted by John McCoy with a roster of guests which is focused on those books you had to read at school or college.
TV Talk Machine (Incomparable) – in these times of confusion™ of too much TV™, how do you sort through the merely okay for the stuff that’s really worth watching? How do you keep up with the unbelievable quantity of scripted TV that is now in the world (and who would have seen that coming when ITV shares were down at 37 pence?). TV Talk Machine is the answer. Hollywood Reporter critic and Jason Snell will keep you up to date.
Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin (WNYC) – another interview show, with a single guest per episode, hosted by the gravel-voiced Baldwin. He does tend to ask a second question before his guest has answered the first, but that’s only because he’d so interested.
The Incomparable Game Show – my second favourite podcast, this. A rotating series of different games, from panel and quiz shows to family parlour games and tabletop adventure games, the usual Incomparable suspects play ’em all. They often *cough* borrow *cough* show formats from times gone by. Whatever your opinion of the original shows, the podcast version is guaranteed funnier. My favourite is the nerd quiz Inconceivable, which could surely find a spot in the mainstream, but they’re all very enjoyable.
My Favourite Album with Jeremy Dylan – documentary maker and music industry insider speaks to a variety of musicians about their favourite record. Not always going to be your cup of tea, but most of the time, an interesting interview.
Reconcilable Differences (Relay FM) – My favourite in the ‘two blokes talking about stuff’ genre, the chalk-and-cheese combination of the friendly, easygoing Merlin Mann and the hypercritical and uptight John Siracusa is an excellent listen. Starting from the premise of answer the question, How did we come to be this way? this show takes in a wide range of topics, from family and film to drugs and cars, and really digs into them. This is the podcast I would make if I made a podcast. Long.
Robot or Not? (Incomparable) – the antidote to long podcasts, the same John Siracusa sits with Jason Snell and delivers a verdict on the most vexed question of our times: is it a robot, or not? Short.
I spotted Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show podcast cropping up in the recommendations section of Overcast, and immediately downloaded episode one to give it a try. I was instantly charmed, and although I’m a jaded podcast listener who was into Serial long before you were, I promptly downloaded the rest of the half dozen episodes that have been broadcast so far.
I think Mystery Show definitely owes something to Serial, in that it’s a species of investigative journalism with a brilliant female presenter and clever editing. But whereas Serial tackled the life-and-death case of a possible, probable miscarriage of justice, Mystery Show tackles puzzles on a much smaller scale. The one rule is, these mysteries can’t be the kind of things you can solve with a Google search.
And therein lies its charm. Episode one features a woman who swears she once joined a video rental store, borrowed a video, and then, the very next day, when she went to return the film, the store was gone. Episode 2 tackles the mystery of a book Britney Spears was photographed carrying (apparently she is frequently photographed clutching reading material). Episode 3 is about a fancy belt buckle that some guy found in the street. That’s my favourite so far (made me cry). Also: the how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal episode is laugh-out-loud funny.
Presenter Starlee Kine is brilliant: very witty, with a savant-like gift for getting people to open up to her. The subject matter is light enough to be endlessly amusing, and the mysteries are trivial, everyday, and yet somehow deeply fascinating. It’s not studio bound, but somehow manages to get out and about, into the country, and Kine seems to encounter interesting people everywhere she goes. Every interview gives a little boost to your faith in humanity. It’s heady stuff: this podcast spreads happiness
I’ve culled a few podcasts from my list lately (my commute being so much shorter now), but this one makes the grade. It’s refreshingly different, too, coming from a different stable (not Radiotopia, not Incomparable, not 5by5 etc.). Starlee Kine is already a podcasting star, and I particularly thank her for introducing me to the guy who runs an artisanal pencil sharpening business.
Time for a regular update on what I’m listening to, podcast wise.
I’m on the cusp of a big cull, because (thank goodness) my days of long commutes are numbered, and in September I’ll be needing about 100 minutes less listening material every day, 500 minutes a week – over 8 hours of podcasts I won’t have time to listen to.
I’ve decided I’ve got too many storytelling podcasts on my list, so a few of those will go. And I probably listen to way too many tech podcasts – given that I’m going to be a bog-standard English teacher next year. I think I’ll probably drop a number of the NPR style shows as well.
As an English teacher, I’m enjoying Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist, which is a bi-weekly examination of word origin stories. It tends to be short, which is a blessing, and Ms Zaltzman has a proven track record of sharp wit, evidenced on her other podcast Answer Me This, which you don’t need me to tell you about. It’s been interesting to hear her pop up on The News Quiz a couple of times recently, and you know what? I can see her being a perfect replacement for Sandi Toksvig.
The Incomparable Game Show continues to be great fun. If you like Radio 4 6:30 pm comedies, you’d love this. They tend to be longer (podcasts allow for this) and sometimes stretch to absurd lengths (as when they play Trivial Pursuit and can’t finish even though they reduced it to just 3 wedges per person), but it’s fun. My favourite sub-episode is still “Inconceivable” but I also loved the week when they were answering questions from a 1970s home version of Family Feud, which is called Family Fortunes in the UK. Trying to guess what 100 idiots might have said in answer to questions in the 1970s – so funny.
Live From High Fidelity is great. I don’t always have time for it, I confess, and I usually don’t know who the interview subject is, but this show in which two guys interview a guest about their career and play some vinyl is terrific. I loved the Maria McKee episode, and the Glyn Johns episode was brilliant.
I might stop listening to Radio 4’s The Media Show, because, well, not going to be teaching media. But I’ve started listening to Mair and Peston’s Radio 4 Interview Show, in which they take turns, um, interviewing someone. The high concept is that one of them prepares and the other one doesn’t. The one thing I miss about listening to actual radio is Eddie Mair, so this is a pleasure.
My current favourite podcast is Reconcilable Differences, with Merlin Mann (of 43 Folders fame) and John Siracusa (of Accidental Tech, Hypercritical and long, long Mac OS reviews fame). They sit and discuss their personal biographies and related matters. The tagline is that they ‘try to figure out exactly how they got this way’. Both men are interesting, and to listen to them talk (at length, be warned) is a pleasure.
Finally, John Siracusa also turns up with Jason Snell on a short, short podcast (2-3 minutes per episode) in which they discuss whether something is a Robot or Not. So far, I think, only a Roomba vacuum cleaner is a robot.
One of the most popular podcast categories is comedy. This makes sense, when you remember that most comedians, like most actors, spend most of their time unemployed or doing something other than their primary career choice or goal. So to get yourself out there, in a world dominated by the lucky few who make it onto the panel shows, is to do it yourself. Podcasts are the equivalent of soundcloud or kindle for aspiring broadcasters and comedians.
But I find myself unable to enjoy most comedy podcasts and here’s why. While they can indeed be quite funny, they also tend to consist of people sitting around (or communicating over Skype) and making each other laugh. There is nothing wrong with this, except when there is. It puts me in mind of one of the main reasons why I never took to Jonathan Ross as a chat show host. I always felt he was pandering too much to the studio audience: building a rapport with them, playing up to them, sharing jokes with them, all at the expense of the audience watching at home. Graham Norton used to be guilty of this, but now you get much more of an impression that he’s pandering to the TV audience at the expense of the people he has in the studio.
Comedy podcasters making each other laugh do two things. The first is that they laugh too long and too often, so that an hour of a show can feel like people laughing non-stop for sixty minutes. Fun to do, I’m sure, but less fun to listen to. The second thing is that I think they laugh too hard out of insecurity. Because there’s no laugh track or studio audience to feed from, they probably feel like they’re being produced in a vacuum. Laughing at your co-host’s jokes a little bit too hard feels like overcompensation.
I like the No Such Thing as a Fish people, I really do, but sometimes the too-hard laughing grates. And when they do a show live, as they have done a couple of times, it also feels too shouty, because they’re responding to the noise in their room and not the noise in mine. Again, listening to a kind of one-note shouty thing for half an hour or more is tiring. All of this is a consequence of amateur broadcasting. I hate to admit that I prefer a more professional sounding podcast, but I do. That’s why I’ve adopted so many American podcasts, a lot of them coming via various public radio stations. The tech people are also rapidly adopting good practice when it comes to editing and recording. There have been a slew of recent posts on the best microphones, the kind of room, the best software. I have some expertise in this kind of thing, but now is not the place or time. In short, there’s very little excuse for a poorly recorded podcast, and I place too much laughter in that category. Some people need to learn to edit.
Simon Mayo’s Confessions podcast is professionally produced, of course, and includes an in-studio posse who do laugh at the stories. But Mayo, as a consummate broadcaster, is always careful to keep them in check and mindful of the listeners at home. And what we get in the podcast is properly edited.
I tried a couple of the “bad movies” podcasts. While I love the idea, in theory, of people sitting around talking about terrible movies, I found two main problems. The first, as outlined above, was too much of a sense of people laughing at each others’ riffs, some of which were less than successful. The other was that they were too long. A bad movie does not need to be discussed in real time. What seems to be happening is that people are forgetting that a well-crafted comedy panel show of 30 minutes will have been cut down from two hours. What we’re being served is the unadulterated, unedited, two hours.
Now, I’ve said before that, for an obsessive, there’s no such thing as too much. I will listen to people talking about Apple and related technologies for two hours. I will listen to an hour of This American Life followed by a 30-minute Moth followed by Freakonomics. But it turns out I’m not a comedy obsessive, and I’d be grateful for a 30-minute Bad Movies podcast, edited down from 2 hours. The one advantage a podcast would have over a broadcast slot is that, sometimes, that ’30 minutes’ could be 37 minutes, say, and sometimes, 27. Listening to three people riffing at each other and making each other laugh a little too hard for two hours is a bit like being at the table next door to a rugby team on a night out.
I’ve had my new iPhone 6 Plus a few days now, and I’m sure my experience is far from unique, but what the what.
I ordered online, and I ordered the black/grey in 64GB, which from what I’ve been reading seems like a fairly typical choice. Apple have been mean with the entry-level 16GB. After two phones with 16GB I knew it wouldn’t be enough for another two years, so I was thinking in terms of 32GB. But the new middle of the range is 64GB, which means the entry level ought to be 32. As for the 8GB included with the bottom of the range 5c, that’s just malicious. No way is a phone with that amount of memory going to be useful as anything other than a glorified iPod that can make and take calls.
My delivery date was estimated at around 20th October, but I was fully expecting Apple to under-promise and over-deliver, and so it proved. My phone arrived last Friday. It had a 3/4 charge and was up and running within an hour, following a connection to iTunes on a Mac and a restore from backup. This is a far quicker method than restoring from iCloud.
Immediate impression was that it was indeed huge, and it’s surprising how quickly the iPhone 5 starts looking dinky in comparison. In connection with the 5, it was passed to eldest daughter, and we took her old SIM (from her iPhone 4) into the Three store to have it chopped down in size. Amazingly, this worked, and the only upsetting aspect of that was the long wait in the shop, which was packed and had no clear queuing or waiting system. There is nothing more guaranteed to upset the British sensibility than no queue. What are we, animals?
My hope with the 6 Plus was to reduce the amount of stuff I carry and to have a device that was comfortable and convenient for reading. I’ve been in the habit of taking a laptop and an iPad and my iPhone to work with me. Unlike most teachers, that’s all I carry: so no huge bag full of planners, and binders and other stuff, but I still thought my bag was too heavy. So the iPad has been staying at home (or adopted by daughter as laptop replacement) and I’ve been getting by with the iPhone. So far so good.
The screen seems incredibly bright and sharp, and I’ve got no concerns about the 3x magnification scaled down to the 1080 resolution. Everything looks sharp and clean and you wouldn’t know anything about the image scaling going on in the software if you didn’t listen to loads of tech podcasts*.
It’s quite pleasant to read on, which I do mostly at night in bed. On the other hand, my posture is so bad that I do have some issues. These are mainly to do with the differences between iBooks and the Kindle app. Perhaps because of all their near-monopoly power, Amazon are shit at writing software. iBooks allows you to do two important things. One is to turn off justification. Once you notice the rivers of white/black down your screen caused by justification, you can’t not notice them. So I prefer to have it off. But Kindle app doesn’t let you do that. It’s a puzzle as great as the one about the shitty shift key on the iOS keyboard. The second important thing that iBooks allows is for you to tap either side of the screen to move on a page. This is very useful when you’re in bed and you’re holding the phone one-handed. I’m more comfortable holding my phone in my left hand, for some reason. With Kindle app I have to achieve a more awkward swiping motion, instead of a simple tap.
I have not made much use of the much-vaunted camera, with its image stabilisation. Partly because I haven’t had much opportunity to take photos, but also because I’m afraid the size of the phone makes it feel unwieldy. It doesn’t feel as naturally camera-like in the hand as the 4 or the 5. It feels almost as awkward as taking photos with the iPad, which I’m aware a lot of people do. We’ll see what happens when I’m in a more relaxed environment than work.
The 6 Plus isn’t too heavy, but I have bought a silicon case for it because I did feel like I was going to drop it every time I pulled it out of a pocket. When I do the ol’ scan and shop, I find it more awkward to hold to consult the shopping list whilst also holding the scanner. I don’t like having the case, but it does feel less slippery. Ironically, it’s harder to slide into a jacket pocket with the silicone case on it. I’m waiting for the Quadlock case to become available.
*I have, incidentally, gone Full Podcast with my listening habits. This means I’ve given up on live radio altogether. It means I don’t get enraged by Today on Radio 4, but it also means I miss out on PM because there isn’t a podcast of that programme. I do still listen to some BBC output, but through my subscriptions rather than tuning in. I’m subscribing to 32 podcasts at the moment, which means there is almost always something to listen to, and the range and variety of what I hear has extended. Getting a bit bored of all the SquareSpace sponsorship messages, though.
A while ago, I wrote about the podcasts I like to listen to whilst on holiday, or to fill what would otherwise be boring Sunday mornings in the kitchen.
Since downloading Overcast (which I recommend) to use as my listening/subscription app I’ve branched out a little and have started to listen to more non-BBC podcasts, so I thought I’d list some of them here. These have all been entertaining me for the past 6 weeks.
The Incomparable – this is a total nerd-out, a podcast dedicated to science fiction (crappy film and TV science fiction), computer games, and even comic books. I love science fiction (the printed kind) but most of what they talk about doesn’t really interest me that much. Still, it’s a good listen. Why? Because the contributors are all passionate and knowledgeable, and – whatever the subject – it’s always worth listening to people who truly know their stuff.
This American Life – this has appeared on Radio 4 Extra, but its existence predates the BBC adoption. Once you get used to the US presentation style, it can be very interesting indeed. As an example, try this episode (#492), about a doctor, who investigates the case of his coincidentally named predecessor, who murdered his father. It’s fascinating, gripping, and surprising.
Accidental Tech Podcast – another nerd-out. I’m more interested in technology than I am in superhero movies and computer games, so I prefer this to The Incomparable (there is occasional crossover of guests). A bit like The Talk Show (see my previous post), this offers exhaustive levels of detail, lots of follow up, and an aftershow that is sometimes longer than the main show.
Freakonomics Radio – similar to This American Life, this is another show that’s worth a listen, once you can get used to the US presentation style. Covers a variety of topics, and likes to look at data, in the same way as Radio 4’s More or Less, which I mentioned in the earlier post.
No Such Thing As a Fish – the QI Elves’ podcast. Always entertaining, sometimes inaccurate, but funny and engaging.
Simon Mayo’s Confessions. I’ve come to prefer this to the Wittertainment podcast. If you know Mayo’s Radio 2 show (and I confess I didn’t), you’ll know this. Listeners send in improbable stories which reflect badly on them. I suspect Radio 2 staff rewrite them for style. Mayo reads them out and his studio friends pass judgement. It’s funny.
Turning This Car Around – another American show. This is three guys talking about aspects of fatherhood and family life. Moderately entertaining, although their kids are a lot younger than mine.
Punt PI – Steve Punt Investigates. Good show, from the BBC, in which The Now Show’s Punt looks into a mysterious true life case from the past. Missing persons, mysterious bodies, head-scratching scams and robberies. He rarely reaches much of a conclusion, but it’s fun. A shame there aren’t more of them.
Just The Tip – This is Amy Gruber (spouse of The Talk Show’s John) with friend Paul Kafasis, talking about all kinds of stuff. It’s a little like Turning This Car Around, and can be funny. Never as long as The Talk Show.
Radio Today – Radio news and interviews from a radio industry perspective. Useful for Media students/teachers. Probably not very interesting for anyone else, which is the joy of podcasts.
In an ideal world, I’d just listen to the radio when I was on holiday in France, but unfortunately we only have occasional access to wifi, and the 3G I get through Orange France (using a French SIM) is not that fast on top of our hill and relatively expensive.
Which leaves me downloading podcasts whenever I visit my brother-in-law’s (aka the internet café), and working through them over a couple of days. Here are my favourites, and some I sometimes use but enjoy a lot less. I admit there’s a preponderance of BBC output, but wading through everything else in search of something I’d enjoy seems like too much hard work. I generally dislike the American broadcasting style, and find interruptions for sponsor messages irritating. The BBC provides high quality output and, after all, I paid for it.
Podcasts are not just for holidays, of course. They’re perfect for Richard Bacon avoidance, or Radio 4 Sunday morning output avoidance. My new kitchen radio has Bluetooth, so I’ll be able to broadcast podcasts from my phone whenever something shit is on.
In Our Time
The Big Daddy of podcasts, In Our Time is by now a vast resource of interesting discussions on a high variety of topics. Sure, you have to put up with Melvin Bragg, and you’re never going to get any depth, but you’ll learn enough to catch an interest, and might be prompted to further reading and research. You have to love the concept: get three experts in the field together in a studio to discuss a topic. The only real problem is the 45 minute running time, which is never long enough. I tend to pick and choose and prefer the science topics, but I’m not averse to a bit of history. This week, I listened to one about the Medicis. The great thing about In Our Time is that it’s a good listen while you’re rustling something up in the kitchen, or you can put it on as background and have a nice sleep. It can be very soporific. There are so many of them that you’ll never run out. Probably.
More or Less
One of my favourite Radio 4 shows is this brilliant half-hour about statistics in the news. Never fails to leave you better informed, and is key to taking all figures and statistics in the media with a pinch of salt. The show often asks the question, is it a big number? A classic example of this was when Osborne was railing about waste in the CPS and complaining about the amount of printing they do every day. Turns out not to have been a big number at all. When not on R4, there’s a 10-minute version on the World Service.
Friday Night Comedy
It’s either going to be the News Quiz or the Now Show. Neither are top drawer, but both are enjoyable enough for a bath time, or can be listened to during a meal. The kids enjoy them. We’d all rather have I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – what’s up with that not being a podcast.
The History Hour
One of my favourites, this, collecting the World Service Witness strand into one hour of podcast joy. A variety of historical topics, mini packages, complete with interviews. Always interesting, and even if not, there’s be an interesting topic along in a minute.
From Our Own Correspondent
Could be considered worthy-but-dull, and is not always the most cheerful experience, but this is a great listen for soft news, background, and colour, and far more interesting than the hard news and breaking news that obsesses the media. It offers a wide variety of content, and the best of 2013 supercut was a great listen.
The Talk Show
I rarely listen to an entire episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show, but when I’m in the mood for a completely obsessive discussion of Apple/tech minutiae, this is where I turn. I might survive an hour of the typical 90-100 minute running time. There are usually three sponsor messages, which can be irritating.
Thinking Allowed/The Media Show/Feedback
These afternoon half-hour shows are usually worth a listen. I’ll happily stick with these if they’re on when I happen to be in the car or kitchen, and they’re worth downloading as podcasts. Laurie Taylor is a fine broadcaster, and his sociological strand is generally interesting. The Media Show, along with More or Less, should be essential listening to all students of Media. Feedback is also a useful resource for Media students, as you often hear BBC News bods squirming when confronted with criticism of their preposterous overspending and ridiculous reporting. All three programmes are presented by people who are more independent voices – not necessarily spouting the standard BBC line.
In the absence of Eddie Mair’s PM, which would be a joy to download the day after it’s broadcast (please, BBC), I usually enjoy this, the weekend show that “starts with its listeners”. One of PM’s reporters puts together a package following contact from a listener. It often appears as if this might be an unpromising listen, but I’ve yet to actually be bored by an episode of this. The PM production team know how to put a package together.
Presented by different journalists each week, this 15-minute slot used to be a staple of late night TV. I don’t think it’s quite as good as it used to be in its television heyday, and some of the journos can be objectionable, but it’s still worth a download, and is perfect for shower time.
Hmm. I’ve gone through stages on this. At the moment, I can’t stand listening to Kermode, having fixated on his habit of not finishing sentences. If he’s got a cold, he can be a bit of a drone, too, not interrupted often enough by Mayo. On the other hand, it’s far more entertaining as a podcast than it is when broadcast live, interrupted as it is by news, sport, travel, trailers, stingers, etc. Best experienced when some of the substitute reviewers are in town during one of Kermode’s frequent holidays.
Best of Today
I generally hate this, but in the absence of regular news from home, I’ll download it in a pinch. It’s just a selection of packages and/or discussions, but rarely offers anything intelligent or properly interesting, and is frequently infuriating in the way of most of Today’s output. In desperation only, because the truth is, there is no “best” of Today. It’s all “worst”.