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Podcast Round-up 2011

June 8, 2011

Every year, around this time, I like to put together a piece on the different podcasts that I have been listening to over the last few months.  In 2009, I recommended these ‘casts and, in 2010, I recommended these ones.

If this piece is a little bit longer and more involved than previous pieces in the series it is because there has been a good deal of churn in the podcasts that I have been listening to. As my interests and affections have shifted, old favourites have retreated from the foreground while young Turks have earned my attention.  In at attempt to communicate my preferences with a bit more precision, I have decided to adopt the same taxonomic system as Halford J. Mackinder, creator of the ‘Heartland Theory’ and father of geostrategy.  My preferences breakdown into the following categories:

  • The Heartland – Composed of podcasts that I not only subscribe to, but listen to as soon as they come out.
  • The Periphery – Composed of podcasts that I subscribe to, but dip in and out of.
  • The Outliers – Composed of podcasts that I no longer subscribe to but still retain an interest in.
  • The Beyond – Composed of podcasts that I neither subscribe to, nor listen to despite having once been an active listener.

Each of these entries contains a link to the podcast’s main website so that you can dip your toes in and have a browse of their archives but all of these podcasts are available on iTunes for free:

The Heartland



1.  The Marketplace of Ideas: While I have dipped in and out of love with this podcast over the last three years, 2011 has been extraordinarily strong for Marshall as his interview technique and choice of interviewees continues to improve.  The format is simple: Marshall locks onto a writer, film-maker, musician, critic or podcaster and talks to them both about their work and about their area of the cultural map in general.  Particular high-points include Marshall’s recent head-to-heads with Geoff Dyer, Gabriel Josipovici and Jonathan Rosenbaum but given the flexibility of the format and Marshall’s skill at getting the best out of his interviewees, pretty much every episode has something to offer.

 2.  The Writer and The Critic: A monthly genre podcast in which Ian Mond and Kirstyn McDermott discuss a selection of books in depth. Genre podcasting has seen something of a boom over the last eighteen months with a number of new casts launching while more established casts bed in as important parts of the online genre community.  Unlike many genre podcasts that tend either towards serving as outlets for short fiction or as magazine programmes in which issues are discussed, The Writer and The Critic focuses on the books themselves. While recent podcasts have seen the pair shift (somewhat disappointingly to my mind) towards covering more and more works in less and less detail, the chemistry between the hosts and the cogency of their opinions are such that this podcast continues to be one of the highlights of my month.

3.  The /Filmcast: This recent addition to my iTunes has filled something of a void in my life.  One of the problems with an interest in film is that the film blogosphere tends to split into geeky stuff on the one hand and serious critical stuff on the other. As readers of this blog might well have surmised, my writing tends to skew more towards the latter than the former while my taste in film tends to be more heterodox than this divide traditionally allows.  In other words, serious critics tend to write about serious films and geeky critics write about geeky films. Hosted by David Chen, Adam Quigley, and Devindra Hardawar, /Filmcast covers mostly commercial, mainstream and non-serious films but does so in a very critical and analytical manner.  Yes, they may enthuse about Fast5 and Bridesmaids but their enthusiasm contains enough intellectual heft and critical distance to ensure that their recommendations serve to cut through rather than add to the froth of hype that surrounds much online film discussion. In my view, true cinephilia means loving not just acknowledged classics but also beautifully made trash… /Filmcast is my guide in the rubbish dump that is my local multiplex.

4.  Shooting the Poo: Brought to us by the team behind The Writer and The Critic, Shooting the Poo is what Colin Marshall refers to as a ‘dudecast’ in so much as it features a bunch of 30-something men sitting around and discussing pop culture.  Updated monthly, this podcast has thus far devoted each episode to an entirely different medium for which each of the hosts (Mondy, Dave and Mitch) will ‘champion’ a particular series, film, book or artist they think are worthy of our time. Neither particularly original in its format nor spectacularly erudite in its recommendations, Shooting the Poo’s appeal lies chiefly in the individual charm and collective chemistry of its hosts. Mondy, Dave and Mitch are not only genuinely funny and insightful, they are also incredibly quick to pick up on each other’s ideas meaning that despite having only produced three episodes thus far, the series is already acquiring its own mythology. I began listening to podcasts in order to feed my mind but Shooting the Poo is the first podcast to really make me laugh.

The Periphery

1.  Notes From Coode Street: Another genre podcast, this one features the veteran critic and academic Gary K. Wolfe and the award-winning editor and anthologist Jonathan Strahan discussing many of the issues surrounding the fields of science fiction and fantasy.  For a long time, this podcast was an instant listen for me.  Not only did I subscribe and systematically listen to Jonathan and Gary, I would frequently listen to the podcast whilst sitting at my computer, which is something I almost never do. The appeal of this podcast lies both in the chemistry between the two hosts and the knowledge they bring of the field. However, over the last month or so the punishing weekly schedule has started to tell and the gents are starting to repeat themselves and rely more and more upon special guests of decidedly uneven quality. Part of the problem is that Coode Street is almost entirely dependent upon Skype for its conversations and despite the logistic challenges inherent in keeping a conversation going between people who are speaking from different continents, the podcast flies very close to the wire in terms of basic technical competence. As the two hosts try to shift the burden by inviting new people in and opening up discussions to more and more guests, the technological limitations of the show become more and more evident resulting not so much in spirited conversation as in an extended series of awkward pauses, unexpected drop-outs and stilted exchanges of misheard conversation fragments. The show works best when it is just Jonathan and Gary tossing the ball back and forth and while I can fully understand the desire to have other people help to carry the conversation, I would suggest either a more aggressive approach to editing or a move towards a biweekly schedule as the standard of discussion is sadly starting to slip.

2.  In Our Time: This was the first podcast I ever listened to and it remains one of the most thoughtful pieces of programming on British radio. However, while the format of having a bunch of academics discuss a particular issue remains solid and worthwhile, Melvyn Bragg’s increasing irascibility is starting to harm the show. Traditionally, Bragg invites his guests to provide him with a pre-show briefing that he then uses to guide the conversation while his guests refrain from using any notes or pre-planned talking points of their own.  Up until recently, this mixture of order and chaos invariably yielded brilliant discussion as the academics sparked off each other until Bragg reeled them in if their points became either too obscure or too complex.  Unfortunately, the last series has seen a real dip in quality as Bragg has come more and more dictatorial in his demands that his guests stick to the letter of their briefing notes.  Time and again, a discussion will be in free flow only for Bragg to stop it in its tracks with some lead-footed correction. “These are your notes!” he invariably protests but the truth is that academic opinion is invariably more complex and less cohesive than can be easily contained by a set of simple briefing notes aimed at a lay audience. This tendency comes and goes and so In Our Time is still worth subscribing too but whenever I listen to the show and Bragg pops up to remonstrate I am left yearning for bygone years in which Bragg would have allowed discussions to develop of their own accord without feeling the need to systematically drag things back to notes that should serve as a starting point for discussion and not a set of rails.

3.  Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Last year, when I wrote about this podcast, I said that I lived in fear of the moment when the show would break from its delightful ‘one topic per episode’ formula and return to its comfort zone of looking at one historical period in greater depth.  Well… 2011 saw the other foot drop in resounding fashion as the last year has seen six episodes in a row devoted to the fall of the Roman Republic. Though less tedious than Carlin’s forays into military history, this format is rendered astonishingly tedious by the fact that the episodes appear months apart meaning that, by the time Carlin gets to what happens next, you have forgotten all the names and dates that he raised in the previous episode.  Carlin is an accomplished storyteller with a gift for distilling complex historical narratives but his dramatic style and the rate at which the series updates means that there is really no point in listening to Hardcore History until the current series ends. Of course, whether or not you actually want to listen to seven and a half hours of Roman history (time in which you could read a book on the subject) is your own look out but I really do wish that Carlin would return to looking at separate issues in each episode.

4.  Out of the Past – Investigating Film Noir: Something of an accidental discovery, this podcast sees academics Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards looking at a series of crime films that – more or less – fit under the rubric of film noir. I say more or less as this podcast covers not only classic works of film noir but also works of neo-noir, films that have been influenced by noir and films that occasionally feature a gun and a bit of existentialism.  Despite the somewhat regrettable semantic creep, the podcasts are actually pretty good with Clute and Edwards speaking knowledgeably about all aspects of the films they discuss while carefully relating each film not to the wider genre context.  I include this series in the periphery rather than the heartland because, while the discussion is good and I like podcast that focus on particular works, Clute and Edwards lack the personality that makes me inclined to follow them into discussions of films that I have not yet seen.  If this podcast does return during the summer I will happily subscribe to it but I am aware that there are better film podcasts and books about Noir out there.

The Outliers

1.  The Film Programme: One of the problems with this podcast is its tendency to hide its light under a bushel.  What I mean by this is that when I check the description to find out what an individual show is all about it’ll invariably say something like “Francine Stock talks to top-producer Jerry Bruckheimer” conjuring up images of yet another fan-wank on the great Pirates PR tour.  However, when you download the actual podcast and listen to it you discover that the discussion revolves around an attempt to work out why it is that people keep paying to see Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  This need not prove fatal but add to this the fact that the programme’s most interesting segments seldom get mentioned in the description and the fact that the quality of interviews is hugely dependent upon Stock stumbling across someone with something interesting to say and you get a podcast that is impossible to dip into as you really can’t guess whether it is any good until you actually listen to it.  I still check it out occasionally if Stock is interviewing someone I know to be interesting but, by and large, I struggle to find a time to listen to this on a regular basis.

2.  Bookworm: Michael Silverblatt remains one of the great interviewers.  He begins every episode with a very short critical appraisal that cuts to the heart of his interviewee’s work and his choice of interviewees tends to be good enough that there are seldom weeks when he finds himself struggling to illicit responses from an author who manifestly puts very little thought into their own work.  The problem for me is that, while I could listen to Silverblatt interview all day, I seldom actually read the work of any of the people he interviews.  If Bookworm spread itself more easily across fiction and non-fiction or included the work of anyone aside from literary novellists, I would listen to this podcast as soon as I downloaded it but as I only very occasionally read the types of books the podcast devotes itself to, I simply do not find that much of real interest in it.

3.  Battleship Pretension: A ‘film cast’ very much in the same mould as the /Filmcast, Battleship Pretension is, at its best, substantially more interesting than the /Filmcast as Tyler Smith and David Bax are happy to look not only the releases of the week but also to some of the wider issues surrounding film and film culture.  I am only dipping in and out of this one at the moment as, for some reason, the show is going through a phase of cringingly self-indulgent live shows and extended interviews with random comedians but once they settle back down I can image becoming quite a devotee of this somewhat unpredictable show.

4.  Entitled Opinions: A long-running podcast in which Robert Pogue Harrison interviews a fellow member of the Stanford university staff. Over the years, this series has acquired quite an effective formula involving a poetic opening monologue that gives way (after some music) to a thoughtful interview touching on a wide array of issues.  Since I first began listening to it, Entitled Opinions has been hugely influential not only upon my interests but also upon my style of writing and if this blog has acquired an increasingly ‘academic’ feel over the last couple of years it is due in no small part to Harrison’s influence. However, this past series saw me lose faith in Entitled Opinions for two distinct reasons. Firstly, Harrison’s ‘value’ has always lain not in his analytical capacity but in his poetic disposition. There have been a number of podcasts over the years in which Harrison’s limitations as a thinker have been laid bare in quite a hilarious way (particularly fun is listening to Harrison having his arse handed him by a remarkably punchy Richard Rorty) but despite not having much faith in his judgement, I could not help but enjoy Harrison’s company because he could always be relied upon to summarise a point or forge a connection in a way so beautiful as to humble more systematic and accomplished thinkers.  Indeed, as Harrison’s books and articles in such places as the NYRB suggest, his true academic gift is for popularisation. Unfortunately, this season has seen Harrison assume a more doctrinaire stance that only serves to highlight his shortcomings as a thinker.  For example, given the chance to talk to a distinguished neuropsychologist, Harrison opens the show with an extraordinarily ill-informed rant about how scientists shouldn’t be allowed to comment on the mind.  Harrison’s interviewee proves far too polite to take the bait but this sort of ignorant grandstanding really does play to Harrison’s weaknesses and makes the entire podcast feel quite bitter and petulant.  The other problem with Entitled Opinions is that Harrison (and/or his current producer) have lost the knack for finding decent topics to discuss.  So while previous years might have featured Rene Girard talking about violence and the sacred, this year we were stuck listening to Harrison apologise his way through a discussion of Italian film and the Nouveau Roman.  Hopefully next year will see the standard pick up but this really was an uncharacteristically weak series of podcasts from what was once one of the best things on the net.

The Beyond

1.  Thinking Allowed: This BBC-produced Radio 4 podcast features Laurie Taylor discussing the latest pieces of sociological research.  This is a podcast I used to listen to religiously both as a source of inspiration for my own writings and as a source of entertainment for Taylor’s affable presentation of the issues. However, as time has gone by I have found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the kitchen-sink approach to topic selection. For example, one week you might find yourself punching the air as Taylor and guests skewer the hypocrisy surrounding white-collar crime only to then be marooned amidst discussions of what it means to be a scouser, a topic likely only to interest people who are sociologists and/or scousers. While Taylor does usually make some effort to tie the specific topics back to a wider body of research, I all too frequently found myself wondering what to do with all of this information about lunchroom etiquette in Indian call centres.  The shortcomings of Thinking Allowed are partly the shortcomings of the discipline of sociology itself but whenever I decide to give this podcast another chance, I invariably wind up forgetting to listen meaning that I really am better off leaving it alone.

2.  Galactic Suburbia: Part of the growing Australian genre podcasting ‘scene’, Galactic Suburbia is a monthly podcast devoted to discussing SFnal issues featuring Alisa, Alex and Tansy.  Galactic Suburbia suffers from two major problems.  The first is that, despite being a genre-related podcast, it seldom actually discusses any works of genre. Instead of analysis or evaluation, what you get are discussions of the publishing industry and genre culture in quite general terms.  This problem is compounded by the fact that the hosts take their cues from online discussion, which is notoriously fast moving.  The upshot of this is that, by the time Galactic Suburbia weighs in on an issue, the issue has been completely exhausted and the hosts lack his historical or conceptual overview that would allow them to rise above the cut and thrust of online debate and offer a meaningful overview.  The second problem is that the people involved in Galactic Suburbia are clearly on the way up in the genre community and, as they are honoured in awards, they feel the need to comment on these awards in great length meaning that a number of recent podcasts have felt like extended discussions of how awesome the people involved in the podcast are. I enjoy genre, I enjoy talking about genre and I even enjoy talking about the genre community but the combination of smugness and tunnel vision displayed by Galactic Suburbia really sets my teeth on edge.  Hopefully, as the season turns and SF moves away from awards the self-congratulations and logrolling will cease but, until then, I am giving up on this podcast.


3.  Behind the Black Mask – Mystery Writers Revealed: Another Clute and Edwards podcast devoted, this time, to noir fiction. The problem with this podcast is that, while Clute and Edwards are comparatively good critics, they are also massive fans of the genre in a way that makes this series of interviews distinctly uncomfortable to listen to.  Silverblatt and Marshall invariably positive in their interactions with authors but both interviewers tend to assume a stance of curiosity and engagement rather than fannish deference. Frequently, Clute and Edwards’ questions are phrased in such a way that might be summarised as ‘That way you do X is really awesome… how do you go about being so awesome?” as someone who reads a lot of crime fiction, I find this actually quite grating as Clute and Edwards do not limit their attentions to the more thoughtful writers operating in the genre. Much like Out of the Past, Behind the Black Mask is currently on hiatus and due to return but unless the format changes significantly, I can’t imagine giving them a second chance, which is a shame as I do enjoy this style of writing and value Clute and Edwards’ insight.


4.  Back to Work: There’s a lot to be said for the power of labels. For example, few grown-ups would knowingly purchase a toffee milkshake but millions of us happily pay through the nose in order to guzzle caramel frappucinos.  Similarly, few men would walk into a book shop and buy a piece of self-help literature but millions regularly visit life hacks and sites like it.  If you drink toffee milkshakes you’re a child but if you drink caramel frappucino’s you’re a sophisticated adult.  If you play with dolls you’re a girl but if you play with action figures you’re masculine.  If you buy self-help literature then you’re a whiny new-age simp, but if you read 43 Folders you’re a sophisticated thinker in search of useful tips.  Merlin Mann is the Wired Generation’s version Tony Robbins… he is a dispenser of simple truisms and easy insights.  I first came across Mann when he was interviewed by Colin Marshall and I was impressed by his motor-mouth delivery and his ability to balance wit, whimsy and thoughtfulness.  Back to Work is a weekly podcast in which he and Dan Benjamin discuss issues such as priorities and fear.  Strip away the humour, the references to industrial psychology and management consulting (“I help with email” says Mann) and you have what is, in effect, a self-help podcast and, like all self-help literature, Back to Work suffers from a diabolical noise to signal ratio.  It is not that Mann and Benjamin are not charming and it is not that they are in any way lacking in insight it is just that, more often than not, 90 minutes of podcast will only yield one insight and this insight can invariably be contained within a single very short sentence. Life is too short for such fruitless babble.

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