This time last year I undertook something of a lifestyle change. From being largely a sedentary person, I became a rather active one walking for several hours every day in an effort to lose weight. During the countless hours in which I pounded the streets of London, I listened to podcasts. I wrote up my experiences as they were last September. Since then, my exercise regimen has shifted into a form that does not permit the use of an iPod and so the list of regular podcasts I listen to has shrunk after expanding considerably. What is left is a list of podcasts that I genuinely enjoy and admire and I thought that I would share them with you in order to raise awareness of them and maybe get people to talk about them a bit more.
I shall begin with some thoughts on the podcasts that made the list last year.
A) In Our Time : This BBC Radio 4 podcast remains the only podcast whose output I systematically trust. Regardless of how ‘off my radar’ the content may sometimes be, I know that sooner or later these — sometimes surprisingly combative — chats between academics will produce an insight that will justify the forty five minutes a week I devote to the podcast. As ever in podcasting, the quality of the individual show (which continues to deal with art, literature, philosophy, history and the sciences whilst devoutly ignoring continental philosophy and elements of contemporary culture such as film) depends upon the personalities of the people speaking but Bragg’s moderation is usually invasive enough to ensure that the show ticks along neatly. In Our Time is also a wonderful show to subscribe to as, even if you don’t necessarily listen to every episode, its episodes constitute a real resource. Frequently I will find myself scrolling through my back-catalogue of old episodes in order to learn more about some topic of interest. It is almost like subscribing to an encyclopaedia that comes to you one topic at a time. The BBC seem to have realised this aspect of the show and nowadays you can not only get most of it online, you can also buy a book containing the text of most of the early podcasts. Still an absolute gem.
B) Thinking Allowed : When I wrote about Thinking Allowed last year, it was something of a new discovery. I loved Laurie Taylor’s witty and informed presentation style and the fact that it dealt with a different sociological topic every week. However, over the past year, my appreciation for Taylor’s show has grown enormously as I have come to realise quite how political the choice of topics can be and how willing Taylor is to use current research in sociology to attack trends in contemporary British political culture such as the belief that big government is necessarily bad and the misperception that white collar crime is somehow less harmful than burglary or violent crime. When Thinking Allowed strays into my areas of interest it invariably rewards me with some key insight. When it deals with something I have no interest in, it still manages to make for an interesting and engaging show. As with In Our Time, most of the back-catalogue is now available online and Taylor provides a fun weekly email that you can subscribe to.
C) The Film Programme : Having flirted with the Guardian’s Film Weekly and (very) briefly returned to the Kermode show, I am now firmly of the opinion that Radio 4’s The Film Programme is the best film podcast currently running in the UK. Its strength comes from its ability to mix an interest with the history and the making of film with a desire to engage with the newer titles. With an endless line of celebs looking to promote their latest release, it would be easy for the Film Programme to fall into the trap of servicing the PR industry by only concentrating upon the new titles but instead, Francine Stock will generally do one interview per week with a director or actor (and it is usually an excellent interview) before devoting the rest of the show to a critical piece, a think-piece or an interview with some retired member of the British film industry. Indeed, 2010 has seen the Film Programme continue Matthew Sweet’s interest in unearthing the lost gems of British cinema and this continues to be a deeply rewarding strand that has run throughout the show. I still think that Sweet’s stint as presenter last summer during Stock’s holiday constitutes a high-water mark for film podcasting but even when Stock returned and the contemporary reclaimed its prominence in the show’s editorial selections, The Film Programme has remained unrelentingly thoughtful. A refreshing antidote to film journalists as handmaidens to PR companies.
D) Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History : 2009 was not kind to Hardcore History. After a fascinating episode devoted to the question of how a society could become addicted to slavery, Carlin then devoted eight months of the show’s output (admittedly only four podcasts) to an extensive discussion of the Russian side of World War II. Lots of battles. Lots of logistics. Very little interest. Since then, the series has slowly been clawing its way back into my affections with a discussion of the age of exploration seen through the lens of globalisation and a recent episode devoted to whether or not it makes sense to talk about one culture being ‘tougher’ than another. This episode was particularly interesting as it spiralled out into a discussion of how fine-grained academic history had become and what had been lost by the tendency of modern historians to refuse to look at “big questions”. I’m still a subscriber but after two good ideas-driven episodes, I am waiting for the other foot to drop and for Carlin to subject us to six months on the Battle of Britain or something equally excruciating.
E) Binge Thinking History Podcast : I really like Tony Cocks’ style. He has a nice personality and speaking voice without which I suspect I would have unsubscribed a long time ago. The problems with the Binge Thinking History Podcast are twofold — Firstly, Cocks only updates from time to time. This means that in a year, the podcast covers very little ground indeed. Secondly, Cocks has locked himself in to a history of the British Navy. And he is taking it very very slowly. Cocks’ style and a willingness to focus on personalities and politics over battles and tactics (as Carlin can lapse into) makes these slices of naval history more interesting than they might otherwise be, but at this point I am only hanging on in the hope that he’ll move away from ships and start looking at a wider array of topics.
Having dealt with my opinions on the state of the podcasts I was listening to last year, I will now move on to some of my discoveries from this year.
F) Notes from Coode Street : A recently-launched science fiction podcast hosted by Jonathan Strahan who wears a number of hats in the SF field including that of an anthologist and of the reviews editor for industry and sub-culture bible Locus magazine. Initially, these podcasts were quite short and featured mostly Strahan talking about whatever came to mind but more recently, he has shuffled the show over to a more rewarding topic centred upon a weekly hour-long discussion with the critic and academic Gary K. Wolfe (though the excellent critic Graham Sleight has also featured). These podcasts are a real ray of sunlight for me. They are fun, they are engaged and they manage to walk a fine line between talking about new books, old books, ideas and issues affecting the field of science fiction. Recent discussions have included the question of whether you could retell the history of science fiction using only female authors and whether there are works of classic SF that people simply no longer ‘need’ to read in order to fully grasp the history and shape of the genre. I have flirted with SF podcasts in the past (and been asked to contribute to a couple) but Notes From Coode Street is the only one I actually listen to. Anyone with an interest in science fiction should find it intensely rewarding.
G) The Marketplace of Ideas : A recent discovery (tip of the hat to Richard at THE DRIFT) that has proved incredibly rewarding for me. The format is simple : An American radio show in which every week a different author (of a novel, a work of non-fiction, a piece of journalism or a scientific study) is invited on and interviewed over the course of an hour by host Colin Marshall. What is fascinating about this show is the extent to which its quality varies enormously depending upon who the guest is. One week you get Alexander Theroux ranting and raving about idiot reviewers before comparing himself to Cervantes, Shakespeare and Christ but the next you will have an interview with someone who has written about the decline of French cookery and who spends the hour making huge sweeping and condescending generalisations about French and European cultures. Marshall has an endearingly ‘bloggish’ fondness for interviewing the hosts of other cultural podcasts and radio shows but despite elements of navel-gazing, these episodes are a great way of discovering other podcasts and they tend to produce quite fascinating and wide-ranging chats. Particularly worthwhile is Marshall’s interview of Bookworm’s Michael Silverblatt (available at their archive) that really gets to grips with what it means to be a) a cultural commentator and b) an intellectual. Hit and miss overall but when the show gets it right, it is genuinely brilliant as it not only gives thinkers enough space to lay out their ideas in detail, it also holds their personalities up to the light.
H) Bookworm : I have only recently started getting into this (largely as a result of Marshall’s interview with the host Michael Silverblatt) but I am already impressed. The format of the show is a half-hour interview with, usually, a single author but what is most impressive about the show is not so much who they get on as Silverblatt himself. Engaging, passionate and wildly intelligent, Silverblatt approaches the authors not as a fan or as a petitioner in search of wisdom, but as an equal. Every episode is effectively a meeting of minds with Silverblatt not only managing to coax great performances out of his guests but also challenging their ideas and providing insights of his own on the themes and ideas they have engaged with in their writing.
I) Reading Marx’s Capital : I was tipping off to the existence of this short series of podcasts by Thinking Allowed’s interview with David Harvey a little while back. Every year, David Harvey runs a reading group that works its way through Capital chapter by chapter. He has been doing this for a huge amount of time but every year the class changes as new students bring new comments and Harvey’s interests change. Back in 2008, some bright spark decided to record Harvey’s classes and put them online giving us a series of 13 two hour-long discussions of Marx’s Capital with a couple of extra podcasts at the end for good luck. Fiercely challenging stuff that had me struggling to keep up but I am planning on re-listening whilst re-reading the book chapter by chapter. When I get the time. Warmly recommended though.
Suggestions for podcasts I may be missing are, as ever, more than welcome.