Format: lessons in the Korean language, Q&A segments, photographic vocabulary sets, explanations of how to say and how specifically not to say certain things, lessons on Korea’s many dialects, interviews, casual conversations, and even English-language discussions of Korean life
Episode duration: 1-25m
Frequency: weekly regular grammar lessons, with all that other material interspersed
매일 팟캐스트를 들어요. 매일 한국어를 공부 해요. 우연이 아니에요. 팟캐스트 듣기를 시작하기 직전에 한국영화 보기를 시작 했어요. 그때에 대학교를 이미 졸업한 상태이었는데 아직 대학도서관에 접근할 수 있었어요. 거기에서 무수히 많은 한국영화를 발견했어요. 사실은, 거기의 거의 모든 재미있는 영화가 한국영화였어요. 보면 볼 수록 한국문화에 관심이 많아졌어요. 결국에는 제가 한국어를 배울 수도 있겠다고 생각 했어요. 처음에 몇년 동안은 혼자 교과서로 공부했어요. 그리고 선현우와 최경은의 Talk to Me in Korean이라는 팟캐 스트가 [iTunes] 나왔어요. 이제는 로스 앤젤레스의 한인타운에 살고, 한국어 수업을 듣고, 한식을 먹고, 한국책을 읽고, 한국텔레비전을 보고, 한국친구가 많고, 한국인 여자친구도 있고 한국에 이사가기로 했는데 아직도 현우 선생남하고 경은 선생님한테 배우고 있어요.
And the aforegoing paragraph, basic though it may sound to any native Korean speaker, should stand as some evidence of the abilities I’ve developed listening to this podcast. Not that they came immediately, or even quickly; Talk to Me in Korean launched in 2009, and I subscribed the next year. Since then, I’ve listened to every one of the over 250 grammar lesson episodes they’ve put out, at least three times each. I’ve even reached the point where I put in an hour or two per morning transcribing their 이야기, or natural conversation episodes, to improve my listening and writing skills. I do still feel more than a little ashamed that my Korean, over six years after I began studying the language, sucks — but hey, before I picked up my Talk to Me in Korean habit, it blew chunks. Journey of a thousand miles, first step, etc. But why, you ask, would I take that first step at all?
The story I’ve long pawned off on bemused friends, involving a chance encounter with Korean film (and if you've never seen the films of Hong Sangsoo yourself, do), begins this Podthought, but I don’t know that it adds up. “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul,” as Calvin once said to Hobbes. Fourteen years ago, in the summer after ninth grade, I took a video-game programming class. “Don’t worry, guys,” said the instructor on day one, “I won’t expect you to learn to program in C in a week, just like I wouldn’t expect you to learn to speak Korean in a week.” Korean? I thought. Why on Earth would I want to learn Korean? It struck me as an example unsuitable in what I imagined as not only its punishing difficulty but its total irrelevance. (Ironically, I did have a girlfriend with a Korean mom at the time, which perhaps shows the seed already sown.) How did I get from that life to my current one, where I — as I said above, albeit in Korean — live in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, take Korean classes, eat Korean food, read Korean books, watch Korean television (had to get a second satellite dish installed for that), have many Korean friends, and plan to move with my Korean girlfriend to Korea itself? Some of it comes down to a tale of two countries, and interesting ones, in East Asia.
Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up fascinated by Japan, that cornucopia of movies, music, video games, animation — culture and technology of all kinds, really — that just seemed so much cooler (and seemingly so much less audience-insulting) than what my own country put out. But even then, the economic bubble that had turned Japan outward in the seventies and eighties had already burst. In the following years, Korea would come to engage with the wider world as Japan withdrew from it. I hasten to add that Japan remains a country of vast cultural wealth with much to recommend it, and one whose language I also pursue. But for a study of this contrast, we need only compare the most popular Japanese-learning podcasts with the most popular Korean-learning podcast, i.e. Talk to Me in Korean. Not only do the former not match the consistency, production value, and comprehensiveness of the latter, I don’t even think they have the same conceptions of consistency, production value, and comprehensiveness. Though in this framing a representative of Korea’s new era of cultural outreach, the show hardly comes as an official project of the Ministry of Language Promotion or whatever. It and the whole operation of videos, textbooks, and sentence-correction services that has grown around it began as the brainchild of that fellow 선현우, or Hyunwoo Sun, mentioned earlier.
A voracious language-learner himself, Sun one day discovered — or so I gather from his interviews — the dearth of online resources available for those wanting to learn his native language. His initial response to this vacuum took the form of Talk to Me in Korean’s early episodes, where he and his teaching partner Kyeong-eun Choi, the 최경은 above, would go over various basic phrases, grammatical structures, and sample sentences. You probably know that format well if you’ve ever listened to a language podcast before, and the show’s core lessons retain it today. But now they find themselves sharing an RSS feed with an abundance that probably surprises Sun and Choi themselves: Q&A segments, photographic vocabulary sets, explanations of how to say and how specifically not to say certain things, lessons on Korea’s many dialects (for which watching so many EBS documentaries about the countryside has, I feel certain, only partially prepared me), interviews, casual conversations, and even English-language discussions of Korean life.
I see Sun (not to mention his now-many collaborators) as representing not just a new Korea eager to share itself with the wider world, but the autodidact’s equally new empowerment by way of the modern internet’s facilitation of teaching and learning. (It may not surprise you to hear that I’ve found no better medium for this than the podcast. Never underestimate the convenience the ability to study while on your bicycle.) Apart from a persistent tendency to say “let us” instead of “let’s,” he’s attained a truly astonishing level of English for never having spent serious time in an English-speaking country (Kyeong-eun speaks a slightly less advanced and therefore much cuter version), to say nothing of the Japanese, Spanish and French he also mentions speaking. He thus sets an inspiring example both as an unconventionally studying student and an unconventionally teaching teacher.
I don’t expect to get as proficient with Sun’s native tongue has he as with mine through only his podcast — hence my balanced daily diet of Korean reading, Korean writing, Korean viewing, Korean meetup groups, Korean language partners who correct my mistakes (고마워요, 미영 씨), upcoming trip to Korea, and upcoming life in Korea after that — but listening to it gives you a clear idea of what a small country like Korea, a new technology not quite yet taken seriously like podcasting, and an untraditional way of doing something as traditional as language teaching can accomplish. So why study Korean, anyway? The fact that a podcast like Talk to Me in Korean exists seems, at least to me, reason enough. Today, as I end my journey as a Podthinker, one that has gone on nearly as long as my continuing journey toward some kind of competence in the Korean language, I leave you with words I couldn’t say had I not taken it: 여러분, 읽어 주셔서 감사합니다. 인터넷하고 해외에서 뵈요.
Format: topics in physics explained by physicists, to web comic artists and podcasters
Episode duration: 30m-1h20m
Frequency: one or two per month
The science podcast The Titanium Physicists [RSS] [iTunes], it may not surprise you to hear, sometimes references the web comic xkcd. The enterprises share not only a sensibility, catering to the now-proud “geek” culture, but, seemingly, a business model: xkcd creator Randall Monroe supposedly makes the lion’s share of his revenue by selling themed T-shirts, and The Titanium Physicists host Ben Tippett often pitches garments similarly branded in accordance with his own intellectual property. He comes right out and calls them “a little expensive” — $22.99 to $27.99, turns out — but then underscores their durability. I may have a weak grasp on most if not all of the ideas of physics discussed on this show, but I do know a thing or two about higher-quality and thus pricier yet long-lived garments costing, in the long run, less than cheaper ones. Witness my essays on the matter for Put This On.
Admittedly, I also don’t know who actually buys the T-shirts that keep all this internet content afloat, from web comics to podcasts to vlogs to MP3 albums to multi-user dungeons. I myself seldom have occasion to wear a T-shirt as my outermost, visible layer when not actually asleep, no matter how inflated my enthusiasm for the logo, joke, or URL emblazoned on its chest. Yet even now, thousands of human beings just like you and me order the T-shirts, and even hoodies, that subsidize the things we like to watch, read, and hear. I have similar questions about other supposedly popular wearables, such as Teva sandals: people buy them, obviously, but which people? Not that I claim total ignorance. We’ve all noticed that Tevas have achieved a strange prevalence in the science and engineering communities. In fact, I’d bet folding money that some The Titanium Physicists’ regular panelists — the Titanium Physicists themselves — have on Tevas even as they record. Don’t ask me how I know; at this point, I simply feel it in their voices. And that aside, I think even cold, hard Vegas odds would back me up, given the correlation between the percentage of a person’s life dedicated to the natural or applied sciences and the likelihood of that person’s wearing Tevas — or podcast- and web comic-branded T-shirts, for that matter.
I settle even deeper into my suspicion when I scroll through the roster of Titanium Physicists, some 25 strong, whose bios include phrases like “works on relativistic astrophysics," “studies accretion disks around black holes,” “expert on superconductors,” “knew all the unix commands,” and “went to Princeton.” On each episode of the show, Tippett, who “does research on black holes and gravity and stuff,” summons a handful of them to Skype to talk about such advanced-sounding physics concepts as dark matter, the ice cube neutrino detector, particle decay, and Cepheid variables. So we have here a sort of physics-centered In Our Time (written up by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill here), though where that show always enjoys the reliable presence of Melvyn Bragg to ask the simple questions unapologetically, forcing his academic guests to break down their sometimes-esoteric subjects into publicly digestible chunks, this one has to look around for its equally necessary nonspecialists.
This pack of podcasters and web comic artists (and another occupation or two, if you can believe that) includes the one and only Dave Shumka, best known as Canadian comedian co-host of Maximum Fun’s own Stop Podcasting Yourself. No accident, his professional comedian-ness; these non-physicist guest come not only to inquire about the very basics of particle acceleration and quantum cryptography and superfluids and such, but to crack a few jokes as they do so. Not that the Titanium Physicists don’t have senses of humor, but you know how sometimes, amid a group of scientists, you actually get more alienated, not less, when they start dropping punchlines? (Again, think xkcd.) Shumka’s Canadian-ness also lines up with the podcast’s apparent mission, or at least slight quality, of Canada-centricity; a fair few of the Physicists went to Canadian schools, some even to the University of British Columbia with Tippett himself.
This strikes me as all to the good, what with my personal inclination toward place-rooted projects and fascination with things Canadian, though I wouldn’t want to overstate it, since the show does make serious use of Skype’s capacity to connect people based in all manner of geographically far-flung but physics-rich places. (Why, exactly, physics-rich places tend to get flung into obscure geographies no episode has yet revealed to me.) Yet I do come away from The Titanium Physicists with the impression of a more deeply Canadian quality retained. It brings to mind the only quote I know from Ernest Rutherford, the guy who seems to have invented nuclear physics: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” For all the outward modesty you’ll find in most of them — almost to the point of celebrating their supposed ignorance, not knowledge — I have a sense that many physicists, in their heart of hearts, believe themselves engaged in the sole truly productive human endeavor. By the same token, I wonder how many stereotypically meek, self-effacing Canadians, on some reflexive, unconscious level, hold the iron conviction of their country as the only one truly worth living in. But who among us dares dispute either of them?
Format: David Lee Roth's “social-studies lectures by way of rock ‘n’ roll Babylon, at carnival-barker cadence”
Episode duration: 20-50m
Frequency: biweekly, with hiatuses
I found out about The Roth Show [RSS] [iTunes] from an in-depth profile of its host, yes, former and current Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth. The article, Steve Kandell’s “David Lee Roth Will Not Go Quietly”, appeared on Buzzfeed, of all places, but I didn’t judge, I just marveled. Specifically, I marveled at Kandell’s description of Roth’s lack of furniture and possession of “a rack of Japanese katana swords,” his successful completion of an EMT program in New York and tactical medicine training in Southern California, his 600-pound ex-sumo wrestler language mentor, his apartment in Tokyo, his lifestyle “rich and weird and singular and driven by very particular and exotic enthusiasms ranging from mountain climbing to martial arts to tending to gunshot victims in the Bronx.”
Needless to say, Kandell’s mention of a Roth-helmed “sprawling one-man video series and podcast that aspires to do nothing less than tell the history of modern culture through the eyes of someone who has been everywhere, done everything, met everyone, and hired a couple of midgets to be his security detail along the way” raised my eyebrow. “It’s nothing more or less than David Lee Roth speaking for a half hour on, more or less, a single topic. Tattoos. FM and underground radio. The history and semiotics of pop videos by way of Picasso. A long-ago trip to New Guinea. His personal history with drinking and smoking. Slideshows from an unending vacation. The episodes are monologues, history lessons, personal taxonomy, but really, mostly just talking and more talking, social-studies lectures by way of rock ‘n’ roll Babylon, at carnival-barker cadence.”
I quote so heavily from this profile not just because I couldn’t describe this podcast any better, but because I come from a different place than Kandell, who grew with a bed over which a Van Halen poster hung depicting Roth “frozen in an eternal mid-air split.” Having barely ever listened to Van Halen myself — as “eighties bands” go, farther askew Brit names like Wang Chung and the Human League have always dominated my playlists — I, on the other hand, didn’t have a voice to put to the voice, if you will. In listening to the seventeen currently available episodes of The Roth Show, I listened not to the pronouncements from on high of a rock star I once worshipped but to the stories of a man who has engaged in a great many fascinating pursuits, living a life from which only the consummately dense could fail to learn a few lessons.
It seems Roth himself now prefers notoriety for his high-octane joie de vivre than for his rock-god status, inside or outside Van Halen. Yes, he’ll talk on his podcast about “Jump”, but as a means of talking about the cinematic techniques employed in its much-imitated video, and even then as a means of talking about the various “languages” learned in the infinitude of human disciplines, from video production to ballistics to swordsmanship. Or maybe he’ll bring up the song in order to talk about a more recent remix he commissioned, hoping to give listeners as much of a Judas jolt as they got when Eddie Van Halen whipped out that synthesizer in the first place. He embraces the now, whether that means oscillating between his bases in New York, Pasadena, and Tokyo; seeking out only the finest inks to use in his agonizing, years-long traditional tattooing process; continuing his decades-long process toward kendo mastery; or attending two to three hours of Japanese-language school a day, all at an age, as he often puts it, “just south of sixty — in my generation, the new eighty.”
You’ll notice a certain tendency toward things Japanese in this account of Roth’s interests which, as much as anything else, pulled me into a podcast from the frontman of a band I haven’t followed. Roth has stories — my, does he — about how this happened, a process which had to do with his growing up in Southern California amid a large chunk of the Japanese diaspora for whose sensibilities he found himself developing a great respect. He often mentions the inspiration he drew from frequenting a number of other cultural, social, and artistic “neighborhoods,” usually black and Spanish-speaking, but when he talks about Japan on the show (which, of course, he sometimes does at home from Japan), he reveals a connection to that culture that resonates with a deeper drive in his own being: the drive to craft which, as manifest in Japan as well as in the world of David Lee Roth, has as much to do with creating as it has to do with endurance, humility, and near-obsessive focus. Jiro Dreams of Sushi has, I suppose, become the modern reference for this sort of thing.
We might say that Roth, whom few have presumably ever called either humble or focused, brings an unexpected touch of Jiroian intensity to the variety of his activities, from handling a blade to getting tattooed to learning languages to stopping bleeding to taking harrowingly extended trips to remote islands to warming up with thirty or forty renditions of the O’Jays’ “Love Train” to, indeed, performing “Jump” and jumping around an intricately designed stage as he does so. The deceptively advanced musicianship of Van Halen figures into the stories he tells, and his sense of craft feeds back into the storytelling itself. Kandell frames the project of The Roth Show as Roth “using his own war stories to educate a generation driven to complacency,” and, as energized a such a mission gets me, I assumed its hiatus last may would turn permanent. But lo and behold, Roth returned with the debut of his second season just this past Wednesday, the first chapter of a veritable multigenre rock opera build around the countless musical traditions that have influenced him since childhood. I’d fallen for the same emotional trap at the core of the Van Halen machine: they “create the aura that it may never happen,” as Roth puts it to Kandell. “Has this served us well? It’s served us superbly.”
Format: talk about Hong Kong, but mostly talk in Hong Kong, from two chatting 23-year-old friendst
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly, but with gaps
I read quite a bit about Hong Kong, not because I have any business there, nor because my fascinations in Asia incline that way (I’ve invested more in Japan, and far more in Korea), but because the place has proven a rich object interest for some of my favorite writers. Dated as they may now seem, books like Jan Morris’ Hong Kong and Christopher Rand’s Hongkong: The Island Between have put in my head all manner of captivating images of an omnisensorially vibrant entrepôt, bustling beyond bustle, where East meets West with both a time-worn casualness and a constant hum of undissipating commercial energy. Then again, other favorite writers regard the place more guardedly; Pico Iyer’s description of “a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea” has gained traction with the tourism bureaus, but I also remember him calling the place what you’d get if Manhattan’s financial sector completely absorbed the cultural one. Hong Kong, then, perhaps falls under the category of places you just have to go see and judge for yourself, but until that day comes for me — sooner, surely, than later — I figure I’ll prepare myself with podcasts.
Hong Kong’s English-language podcasting industry, while hardy mature yet, has produced a handful of intriguing shows. Dear HK [iTunes] in particular pitches itself by invoking “Stinky Tofu, Smokin' Tai-Tais, and a Smashing Harbour,” declaring a mission to “talk all things Hong Kong.” Having smelled (though not eaten) stinky tofu last summer at a night market here in Los Angeles, I decided to start downloading. I must have done so before reading the unfortunate second half of its blurb: “Join Charlotte and Felix in their weekly random ramblings!” Oh dear. To ultimately devolve into aimless, unstructured gab has by now become a standard podcast syndrome, but what to make of a show that out-and-out declares it as a form? Most discerning podcast listeners would, I imagine, preemptively chuck it onto that enormous and ever-growing heap of probable time-wasters, atop the shows by 23-year-olds, the shows made up of nothing more than a couple of friends chatting, the shows produced in a parent’s basement, and the shows whose hosts talk about nothing of greater consequence than whatever they happen to have watched or eaten lately.
The content of Dear HK, to go into greater detail, comes out of the often movie- and food-related chatting of a couple of 23-year-old friends living with their parents. On the very surface, then, we have almost a parody of a classically unappealing podcast, a near-Platonic ideal of the form’s detritus, but for one striking factor: the Hong Kong thing. Even though its young hosts go so far as to call one episode “Random Ramblings”, and indeed even suggest it from the jump as a more truthful title for the show itself, how dull a listening experience could it possibly offer if they record it in as exotic a city/state/city-state/Special Administrative Region as Hong Kong? Felix Tsang and Charlotte Raybaud live in just such a place, and perhaps if I did too I wouldn’t pay much attention to their observations of, complaints about, and jokes on daily life, but I don’t, so I do. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve arrived on the brink of a theory about free-form podcasting as the most revealing gauge of a foreign land. Or maybe I could dial that in a little and say that those podcasters’ personalities provide that gauge: get to know the podcasters, as I’ve come know Tsang and Raybaud after listening to episode after episode, and you get to know their home.
And yet I experienced many moments, especially during Dear HK’s first few episodes, where, references to the MTR aside, I’d forgotten the show had anything to do with Hong Kong at all, moments where the conversation turned toward fast food, zombie apocalypses, the latest Iron Man or James Bond or Hobbit movie, or the disorienting void of life after college, moments where Tsang and Raybaud might as well have been podcasting out of Van Nuys. This, needless to say, renders “exotic” inapplicable, though I suppose the place in which one lives, let alone the place in which one grows up, never really qualifies for that adjective. Still, listening to the hours and hours of these two voices coming from 7000 miles away, I can’t ignore one faintly troubling quality: they even sound American. This goes more for Tsang, who tends to refer to his female co-host as “dude,” than it does for Raybaud, whom I gather comes from a family divided between Britain and France. This grants her the sort of faint, drifting, context-dependent accent with which American girls hope to return after six weeks’ studying abroad in England.
But seeing as both modern Hong Kong and America emerged from British colonies, I guess I can’t begrudge the similarities between our podcasters’ manners of speech. Hell, I don’t know what I would have expected Hong Kongers to sound like, apart from the millions of Cantonese-speakers and the occasional Blimpian leftover. And you meet more than just Tsang and Raybaud on the show: they at some point decide to begin bringing on guests, putting themselves into conversation with a film critic (part one, part two), a nightlife reporter, and an entrepreneur whose business has something to do with making it easier to prepare dinner. These two-on-one interviews have done the most to enlarge my own conception of Hong Kong, and I thus look forward to more of them, although Tsang and Raybaud seem to regard guestless episodes as the purest expression of their concept. I understand, given the rapport these two friends since school days display on their many episodes without a third party, but hear enough from them and the same curiosity sets in as when you’ve hung out with a new friend a few times: you want to see how they interact with other people.
Even without other people in the room, Tsang and Raybaud have endeared themselves to me, especially by the standard of early-twenties gab podcasters. Part of it has to do with the fact that they utterly without embarrassment have the conversations about Life, the Universe, and Everything — the state of the generation, positions on marriage and childrearing, anxiety about not having “accomplished anything great” by 23 — which we compulsively make fun of ourselves for having conducted back in our dorm rooms. (They even use the word “deep,” which in Asia may not yet have succummbed to the debilitating poison of American-style irony.) Good to know that they have just the same ones across the Pacific as well, and that the podcasting of place — place, in any medium so often providing a suitable nexus for a dense variety of subjects — can incorporate them. I’ve come to realize that we distance ourselves from those grand bull sessions not because we grow so much wiser, but because we’ve grow somehow weaker, stripped by time of our will to explore and reflect. Though a few years older than the hosts of Dear HK, I find I haven’t lost that will yet. I certainly still want to visit Hong Kong, which I now suspect would, framed correctly, offer today’s twentysomething Jan Morrises or Christopher Rands more than ever to write about.
Format: comments on Los Angeles and the changes therein, followed by interviews with those tied to the region’s past
Episode duration: 1h-1h30m
I’ve never taken a trip with Esotouric, which offers “provocative and complex, but never dry” bus bus tours of greater Los Angeles which mix “crime and social history, rock and roll and architecture, literature and film, fine art and urban studies into a simmering stew of original research and startling observations” on such territories as “Hot Rods, Adobes, and Early Modernism,” “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man” (i.e. Charles Bukowski), and “Pasadena Confidential with Crimebo the Crime Clown.” Until such time as I cough up the sixty bucks to board an actual Esotouric bus, I’ll opted for the next best thing: You Can’t Eat the Sunshine [RSS] [iTunes], a weekly podcast hosted by the company’s proprietors, the husband-and-wife team of near-obsessive Los Angeles enthusiasts Kim Cooper and Richard Schave. Each episode opens with a local place-name-checking theme song by a ukulele-playing lady known as the Ukulady, who looks, as her site reveals, exactly like she sounds, thus embodying a perfect union of form and substance. The podcast on which she plays enjoys a similar alignment between its own expansive form and that of the city/county/”mega-region”/half of the state of California it examines.
You Can’t Eat the Sunshine doesn’t make the obvious choice of offering audio versions of Esotouric tours, but it surely burns as much gas each time out with its actual mandate: to track down unusual people — poets, craftsmen, professors, impersonators of historical figures — living in Los Angeles and its environs, most of whom have strong ties to the place’s past, and interview them. On some episodes this just means going downtown; on others it means rolling to Long Beach, Eagle Rock, UCLA, Downey, La Mirada, or Lake Elsinore, the names of which wear me out in the typing alone. “We were born here,” announces Cooper in the 90-second back-and-forth spoken intro that precedes the Ukulady, and indeed, I’ve come to notice a certain divide between native Los Angeles appreciators and those transplanted. I fall into the latter group, having moved here for no better reason than that it fascinated me more than any other city in America — well, that and its robust revival cinema scene — and now my current projects include not just a book on the place but an interview podcast more than half of whose episodes deal with Los Angeles. By all rights, I should have taken every available Esotouric journey already, if not up and launched a competing provocatively complex, research-and-observation-stewing bus tour company of my own.
One explanation, grounded in the nature of the place, almost provides itself: we live in such an incomprehensibly vast city that even the like-minded seldom encounter one another. Yet here, even the likest minds diverge on many points. The Ukulady sings, for instance, of “the long-lost neighborhood of Hermon between South Pas and Highland Park.” The idea of a long-lost neighborhood between South Pasadena and Highland Park may, even if you live there, hold out little immediate appeal, but Cooper and Schave see things differently. For seemingly every square mile in and just beyond greater Los Angeles, no matter how marginal, they know a story uniting the historical, political, social, and architectural layers that lay sometimes above but mostly beneath it. Admiring this skill, I’ve also tried to cultivate it by doing as much reading, writing, and talking about Los Angeles as possible. Many of books I’ve picked up and enjoyed in the process make much of the city’s sheer size, whether in celebration (The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, from whom our hosts took college classes) or in a kind of nonplussed curiosity (The Ultimate City by the New Yorker’s Christopher Rand): Los Angeles itself already covers something like 500 square miles, so why not treat Malibu and Orange County as Los Angeles too — or even everything north to Santa Barbara and south to San Diego?
At that scale, decoding the urban palimpsest becomes to me, for whom traveling more than about twenty miles by land — least of all by bicycle, my default mode — tends to feel fundamentally unacceptable, an off-puttingly arduous task. Still, it sounds as if Cooper and Schave have dedicated their lives and careers to pursuing that, and (to use a favorite expression of Schave’s, with his deeply earnest interviewing persona) God bless ‘em for it. Their interest comes though with special impact in the “Closely Watched Trains” segment of the podcast, which happens somewhere after the Ukulady and the shared monologue, but before the interviews. Regularly clocking in at half an hour by itself, it finds our hosts running down the list of what has changed recently in greater Los Angeles, what seems about to change, what needs to change (usually back to some previous state), and what may or may not receive special protection from further change. Some of what they discuss strikes even me as inside baseball, these two having clearly visited city meetings and offices where angels fear to tread, but others have some familiarity. Let me take one example: Johnie’s Coffee Shop. Every Angeleno knows Johnie’s, and most visitors to Los Angeles have at least passed it, as I do every few days on bike rides west on Wilshire from home in Koreatown.
There Johnie’s silently sits on the corner of Fairfax, totally non-operational as a coffee shop, and at best intermittently functional as the movie-shooting location it claims to offer. This may sound like a structure in immediate need of replacement with a skyscraper, but heed the words of midcentury “Googie” architectural historian Alan Hess, who says the 1955 building “tells us as much about that period in L.A. history as the bungalows of Pasadena told us about the 1900s or the missions told us about 19th century Southern California,” embodying “all of the changes in L.A.: becoming suburban, auto-oriented, also becoming a city of the future." He speaks for a surprising number who value this, just as do Cooper and Schave, who have made Johnie’s acquisition of landmark status a very closely watched train indeed. I myself have taken two minds about Johnie’s, just as I have about practically everything else in Los Angeles. Despite feeling enamored, like most everyone, with what the pure Googie aesthetic evokes, I’d really like to, y’know, eat something there. Even more so, I’d like to see a subway station there, the looming construction of which reportedly had preservationists sweating for a few minutes.
Still, Cooper and Schave know too much to present themselves as either straight-up preservationists or (not that this counts as a word) redevelopmentists. Nor, even though they describe themselves as loving Los Angeles with a Banhamian “passion that goes beyond sense or reason,” do they come off as modern-day boosters. But their fascination itself functions as a valuable corrective to the kind of reflexively dismissive sentiment so often and so stultifyingly aired in Los Angeles’ direction. This doctrine regards any given one of the city’s assets as merely evidence of its deficiencies: its variety underscores its incoherence; its colorful history, a comparatively dull present; its recent proliferation of urban amenities, just how long it inexplicably did without the basic qualities of a city; and its great size, its great inconvenience. That last point actually still resonates with me, but then, I come from a different generation of Los Angeles obsessives — Johnies come lately, as it were — drawn by its new centripetal force, ever-increasing diversity and density, and weakening expectations of car and/or home ownership — but a generation that, perhaps for that reason, still has much to learn from a show like You Can’t Eat the Sunshine.
Format: questions about Chicago history, culture, and infrastructure, investigated
Episode duration: 9-23m
“Not so long ago Chicagoans were convinced that their city would soon be the greatest and most famous on Earth, outranking New York, London, and Paris, the centre of a new world, the boss city of the universe,” writes Jan Morris, our most astute observer of place, in a midcentury essay on the capital of the midwest. But now, “the blindest lover of Chicago would not claim for the place the status of a universal metropolis. Too much of the old grand assertiveness has been lost. Nobody pretends Chicago has overtaken New York; instead there is a provincial acceptance of inferiority, a resignation, coupled with a mild regret for the old days of brag and beef. For one reason or another, the stream of events generally passes Chicago by.” Chicagoans, a people still famously full of pride, may take issue with the passage quoted above, but they should note that Morris goes on to sing the praises of their city’s “magnificent art galleries,” “splendid libraries,” “plethora of universities,” “excellent symphony orchestra,” and so on. Why, just last night, I sat down to pizza with a couple of New York- and Los Angeles-loving urbanist friends just returned from the Windy City, both of whom had many strongly favorable impressions of its robustness, cleanliness, and comforting solidity to share. One of them even declared Chicago’s downtown his very favorite in the world.
Still, they laughed when I told the old joke about the discussion among Chicago’s founders: “Okay, we like New York; we like the crime, and we like the overcrowding. But consarn it, it’s not cold enough!” But our conversation, quite pro-Chicago overall, came at an advantageous time, for I’d spent the past few weeks listening to Curious City [RSS] [iTunes], a newish podcast from well-regarded Chicago-based public radio station WBEZ. Each week, the show hits the street in search of answers to questions about the city’s history, culture, and infrastructure submitted by residents: “Are there tunnels under the Loop?”, “What Do Aldermen Do?”, “How do they clean the Bean?” These questions will no doubt make more sense to you — some sense, anyway — if you’ve lived or spent time in Chicago, but the show, seemingly aiming toward even a non-Chicagoan audience, usually takes pains to explain, in simple, outsider-friendly terms, even the most beloved local landmarks and institutions.
Curious City comes as one of the latest in a long line of contributions to the world of listenable entertainment from WBEZ, the cradle of such nationally high-profile broadcasts as Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and This American Life. Though the latter remains nominally “from WBEZ, Chicago,” Ira Glass and company pulled up stakes and put them down in New York back in 2007, and don’t seem to have looked back. Most of my friends born or schooled in Chicago departed as soon as it made sense to do so, and have since shown far more attachment to the place in word than in deed. The Onion moved from New York to Chicago last year, a choice surely made for financial rather than comedic reasons. Still, the king of satirical newspapers, though in some sense weakened, has shown a sense of humor about it. I think of a line from the article “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’”: “‘I like it when they really get into their roles as residents of an actual city and complain about traffic and subways not coming on time,’ Chicago native James Camden said. [ … ] ‘I mean, we play Big City here in Chicago, too,’ he continued, ‘But we’re nowhere near as good at it as the people in Boston.’”
Just as it rings faintly odd to hear Boston brought up in conversation outside Boston, if you ever do hear it brought up, I can’t quite get over how Curious City talks so much about Chicago. I mean, sure, the show has taken on Chicago as its sole subject, fuels itself with questions about Chicago, and comes out of a radio station based in Chicago, but I do tend to wonder what reason they have to focus on all this beyond the fact that they happen to be there. (I often hear people in cities like New York or Los Angeles asked where they’ve come from and what brings them, whereas I often hear people in cities like Chicago asked what’s kept them.) Does the larger creative zeitgeist, in other words, lay out any more of a mandate to make a show about Chicago than it does to make a show about, say, Indianapolis? Yet I’d certainly also listen to a podcast about Indianapolis, perhaps with even more interest than I listen to this podcast about Chicago. And, as someone in thrall to an almost distracting fascination with all topics urban, I listen to it with great interest indeed. Somehow the more regional and obscure the subject matter, the better: most of my favorite episodes investigate things like Chicago’s terribly off-putting native accent or its bizarre preferences about hot dog condiments.
In my previous Podthought on Follow Your Ears, I named curiosity as “the one quality I can unambiguously call a virtue.” A show like Curious City, regardless of its location or its subject matter, further demonstrates this virtue. I’ve learned a great deal about Chicago since I began listening, though I began from an admittedly small knowledge base, much of it derived from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the stories of a Chicagoan friend who, weary of the routine muggings he endured on his commute home, moved to the suburbs of Seattle. In fact, the podcast has imbued me with my own curiosity about Chicago, one that drives me to ask a question from which, so far, it has shied away: how can such a high-profile city have such a low profile? Why, in Morris’ words, have its people, no matter how much of an interest they have about their home, “accepted their station in life, no longer swaggering through the years with the endearing braggadocio of their tradition?” This question may exceed the investigative scope of a ten-minute episode, but still, one wonders. Perhaps I’ll satisfy this curiosity by taking my own podcast to Chicago in the coming years. Not in the winter, though.
Format: various segments, mostly interviews, on subjects like guns, cycles, rebels, and unemployment
Episode duration: ~1h
Nearly a decade into the medium’s existence, quitting one’s first podcast and starting a second continues to produce intriguing results. It did for Caleb Bacon, whose The Gentlemen’s Club gave way to Man School. I like to think it did for yours truly, whose The Marketplace of Ideas gave way Notebook on Cities and Culture. And it seems to have for Edward Champion, a man even earlier into the podcast game, first known for The Bat Segundo Show. When he decided to put an end to that cultural interview program, he didn’t wait long to bounce back with Follow Your Ears, a podcast dealing not with individual guests, but with concepts: guns, cycles, aid, rebels, bullies, unemployment. (I’d have done lawyers, then guns, then money, but only out of personal preference.) Each of these episodes comprises not just an interview, but several different segments around the day’s theme. It reminded me, even when first I heard of it, of certain topical This American Life episodes, which appear whenever that show decides to ask questions about large-scale problems of war, politics, health, finance, what have you.
Despite having always done a solid job with those sorts of topics, This American Life never struck me as fully suited to that territory. (I found myself tuning in least often — or tuning out most often — in the stretch when they might as well have titled the show This American Foreign Policy.) Perhaps Follow Your Ears, seemingly born out of such an investigative nature, might offer a less awkward integration of forum, if you will, and substance. But This American Life operates, as I’ve heard major public radio programs tend to, with a staff and an office and legitimacy and everything. From what I can tell, Champion runs Follow Your Ears pretty much the way he ran Bat Segundo, as a one-man show. A tall order indeed, but you’ve got to respect the willing acceptance of that challenge, especially in podcasting. If I had to name one consistent source of disappointment during this five-and-a-half-year-long-and-almost-over tour of Podthinking duty, I’d point my finger straight at podcasters’ tendency to avoid challenge: to talk to people they already know, to talk about things they already know about, to fall into forms already familiar — to hang their proverbial pictures wherever they happen find the nails.
Champion may put together his shows on his own, but he also commands a variety of his own on-air personalities. (An “intellectual shock jock,” someone once called him.) This technique, judging by the iTunes reviews, became Bat Segundo’s most divisive element, especially when Champion assumed the role of the title lowlife for pre-interview comedy bits. As the host of Follow Your Ears, he does neither particular characters nor overt comedy, but we do hear him make a variety of relatively subtle shifts in persona: the hard-nosed reporter, the AM-radio pitchman, the theatrical storyteller, the wisecracking commentator, the earnest questioner. Time will tell if listeners have trouble digesting this as well; when some people open a can, they want to find exactly one thing inside, and exactly what the label promised. So what does the one on Follow Your Ears’ can promise? Curiosity, I suppose. “We encourage you to follow your ears,” Champion says at the end of each episode. “You never know what little nugget you might pick up. Curiosity is too essential to existence to ignore.” An adman diagnose this slogan as insufficiently catchy, but I certainly can’t argue with it. I always land on curiosity, in fact, as the one quality I can unambiguously call a virtue.
Doing an interview show myself, I tend to conceive of it as a virtue expressed primarily by asking the right questions, and I doubt Champion would disagree. The most interesting of those topical This American Life broadcasts, such as thosetwo on why we’d heard so many high-profile stories on ever-rising medical costs, ask the right questions. But you’ll notice that, most of the time, the right questions don’t produce the “right” answers; that is to say, by their very nature, they seldom accommodate neat, simple, reassuring, or even fully explanatory responses. As I recall, those This American Lifes on health care didn’t leave us with anyone in particular to blame about our insurance situation, just as, for instance, the Follow Your Ears on guns doesn’t pin the fact that people get killed with them on any one party. Oh, sure, the National Rifle Association comes in for a hard time — we hear a segment of Champion on the phone, after a lengthy hold period, with one of their hotline workers, the sole representative of the organization he could get ahold of — but I doubt they mind, having, for reasons explained in the podcast, actively assumed the position of political lightning rod. Champion asks how and why the NRA did that, and the question counts, to my mind, as one of the most fruitful. Others almost suggest themselves: given the enormous number of guns already extant and uncontrollable in America, why do we care so much about banning new ones? What counts as an “assault weapon”? And what if we all just fear finding out that gun control, even if completely implemented, may well not put an end to the killings?
Directly or indirectly, the expert interviewees, many of them authors of relevant books on the subject, address these questions. Most episodes of Follow Your Ears pursue their broader lines of inquiry with what feel like shorter-form Bat Segundo-style conversations. Some of them seem built around nearly full-length Bat Segundo-style conversations, as in “Bullies”, roughly half of which consists of a talk with the writer James Lasdun, who recently put out a memoir about his ongoing harrassment at the hands of a schizophrenic-sounding former student. In a similar proportion of “Cycles”, Champion speaks with famed Scottish mystery novelist Ian Rankin about the cyclical nature of his Inspector Rebus stories. That episode, which arrives at Rankin after segments on bicycles and a Finnegans Wake club and continues to segments on time-related data and those former kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark suggests an especially promising (and thus especially challenging) way forward: episodes on more, er, purely conceptual concepts, the more seemingly abstract but ultimately concrete the better. Resonance. Obsession. Doppelgängers. Transposition. Androgyny. No podcaster of my acquaintance has yet attempted this, but I know of none better equipped to try.
(Oh, and Bat Segundo itself has come back. You’ll know it if you subscribe to Follow Your Ears, since both shows share the same feed.)
Format: Jeff Garlin talking before a live audience with people he respects and/or people who interest him
Episode duration: 1-2h
Frequency: 2-3 per month
I suppose we must live in the Age of Conversation. Podcasts gave me that impression, and podcasts — the ones I listen to, at least — have given me no reason to deny it. Despite having rejoiced at the seemingly limitless formal possibilities newly opened up by the medium, especially against the seemingly numberless limitations under which many radio programs still labor, I notice that my most memorable podcast listening experiences come from nothing more innovative than people talking to one another. Then again, the least memorable podcasts I’ve heard (to the extent, of course, that I can recall them) also featured nothing more than people talking to one another. Indeed, most podcasts, the enjoyable and the less so, need nothing more than a few microphones and enough people to speak into them. Out of this easiest of all configurations comes, it seems, podcasting’s both highest and lowest moments. Into this peaceable ring of extremity Jeff Garlin dares to throw his hat with his very own conversation podcast, By the Way, in Conversation with Jeff Garlin [RSS] [iTunes].
We must here define a subgenre: within the bounds of the conversation podcast, we have the more specialized celebrity conversation podcast, in which a certain celebrity, presumably feeling they can hold, in their own personae, conversations of interest to audiences wider than those actually at their dinner parties, hold them and turn them into MP3 files. Sometimes this assumption works out; sometimes it doesn’t. Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing stands out in my mind as a particularly successful example of recent years, though he takes the strategy (with assistance from WNYC) of making the proceedings sound as public radio-y as possible. Conan O’Brien’s Charlie Rose homage Serious Jibber-Jabber strikes me as ranking in a similar league, despite appearing only as videos, and sporadically at that. Garlin goes the route of maximum rawness, recording in front of a live audience at Los Angeles’ Largo — a place I tend inexplicably to conflate with Los Angeles’ Spago — and cutting out, apparently, only what absolutely needs currently out. But he has taken this on as a mission: a mission, he says, set against the highly produced, thoroughly pre-interviewed, rigorously edited interview programs so prevalent today. I can sign on to that.
You probably know Garlin, as I do, from his role as Larry David’s agent on Curb Your Enthusiasm. You may also know him, as I do, from his current appearance on countless billboards and side-of-the-bus advertisements for a sitcom called The Goldbergs. I see these as I bike around, often past Largo, often listening to By the Way, a show on which Garlin admits that, despite starring in it, he’ll never watch The Goldbergs. That comes as only one of the confessions freely made, by interviewer and interviewee alike, on this podcast, which adheres, so I gather, to the principles on which he has built his stand-up act. Knowing Garlin, again, primarily from his role on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I hadn’t realized that he made his name in stand-up, but apparently he did, and on top of that, he did it with an act either mostly or wholly improvised. His podcast conversations. proceed on a similar absence of a planning. Some guests understand this immediately, while some, like Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, take their time to do so, but Garlin manages to draw each and every one of them out in the end.
Arrested Development fans will remember that Garlin did a stint on that show, which may have had something to do (whether he got the role from knowing Hurwitz or whether doing the role got him closer to Hurwitz, though a combination of both seems truest) with that particular choice of guest. And his position as a driving force of Curb Your Enthusiasm no doubt played a part in the arragement of By the Way’s debut episode: a rare conversation with none other than Larry David, who, so the episode reveals, has never in his life put a quarter into a jukebox, nor taken a photograph of any kind. This, as any dedicated podcast listener will by now have gathered, reveals the advantage of the celebrity conversation podcast: celebrities know other celebrities, and other celebrities whom interviewers less close to them couldn’t convince to sit down for a show, much less a podcast, much less an unedited podcast. For his second episode, Garlin interviews Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, whom he seemed to half-know through a few of the same circles and maintained an entertaining SMS-based relationship. One night he finally encountered into her at a party, so the story told on the podcast goes, and not much time passed before they found themselves seated at a ¾ angle across from one another at Largo.
Garlin’s connectedness gets him in the podcasting room with a wide swath of people he admires, as he puts it, and people who simply interest him: J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, Marc Maron, Michael Moore. The freeform nature of By the Way allows Moore to do about half an hour on why he thinks that O.J. Simpson might not have committed those murders, or at least why he thinks those murders may have had a less-than-sound investigation. While I didn’t come away completely convinced of his points, neither did I come away completely unconvinced of his points. But those looking for less politically charged interviews will find them in Garlin’s episode with former band frontmen like singer-songwriter Colin Hay, who rode the Men at Work rocket up in the early eighties, or Black Flag’s onetime singer Henry Rollins, who has much more to say about travel, his water usage (our host’s opening question: “How do you shower?”), and the value of curiosity than his particular brand of activism. Garlin’s questioning itself illustrates the value of curiosity, call it self-indulgent though some may. Sure, you’ll hear him deliver several variations on the same stories — his manifold health problems, the loss of his virginity to a heckler in a lifeguard shack — but I defy you to find many more illuminating Conan O’Brien interview in recent memory than his. Garlin calls O’Brien the funniest man he knows. But the funniest person? Amy Sedaris. I eagerly await their talk.
Format: conversation’s about the man’s life with men who’ve lived it (including quite a few entertainers, comedians especially)
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly, plus shorter supplements
What, exactly, happened to my generation? We got off to a promising start, but at some point in the past few years took a hard look in the proverbial mirror and found our reflection badly wanting. This tidal wave of self-doubt causes problems of its own — most of our problems, perhaps — but no smoke comes without fire: have look at film and television, its Judd Apatow characters standing as unkempt, juvenile evidence of men so feckless they can no longer even romance women, its Lena Dunham characters not worth romancing in the first place, and tell me how much confidence we can possibly have left. For all our high-profile technological and cultural successes, many of us thirty-ish-year-olds feel dogged by something obscurely yet manifestly broken in our capacity to lead self-respectable lives. In America, some of this has to do with coming of age in an economy crippled by nostalgia for the postwar years and of inheriting a social contract between the sexes torn up long before we got here. Blaming such broad conditions, alas, just makes us lazier about rectifying our individual situations.
To vaguely gesture toward Candide, then, we must grow our own gardens. Maybe, just maybe, we can cultivate ourselves out of the reach of greater generational dissolution. How my distaff peers can manage this I haven’t had the time to learn, since I’ve had so much catching up of my own to do. Hearing Glenn O’Brien on The Sound of Young America and reading his book How to Be a Man helped. Writing about other men’s style books for Put This On has certainly done its part, but most of the knowledge there has come, of course, through the particular lens of clothes. Not that clothes make for a disadvantageous place to start; take one look at modern man’s hoodies, greying tube socks, and jeans with walked-on hems, and you’ll sense a serious underlying problem. (Modern woman puts on a far superior display of outward maturity, though in many cases a display with deliberate intent to conceal.) But now we Millennial males have one more broad-spectrum resource for our quest: Man School, a new podcast from Caleb Bacon, television writer and former host of The Gentlemen’s Club.
I remember The Gentlemen’s Club as an interview show geared broadly toward the interests of men, or at least one particular concept of men that assumed boundless enthusiasm for comedians and porn stars. “The episodes I put out over the show's last eight months were sporadic and often uninspired,” Bacon writes in a Huffington Post piece on retiring his first podcast and launching his second. “The great thing was that once I made plans to end the show, my imagination opened up and an idea for a new show popped into my head. I realized I needed to produce a show that was about more than goofing around.” In a snarkier mood, I’d write a paragraph about how that important realization remains one thousands of podcasters have yet to make. Instead, I’ll share my own conversion experience: that is, my experience of converting my previous show, an intellectually wide-ranging in-depth public radio interview program The Marketplace of Ideas, into the geographically wide-ranging in-depth interview podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. What at first felt like a loss necessitated by a move from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and away from the station from which I’d broadcast became a gain in focus, connection (by getting out of the studio and into face-to-face settings), and incentive to explore travel (plus, through Kickstarter, ca$h money).
Not to make this about me, but I did feel motivated to share my experience. The impulse comes from listening to Man School, a show that has everything to do with men sharing their experiences. Bacon sits down with what he calls “life experts” — always men, sometimes well-known men, and usually (but not always) men at least a few years older than himself — in search of the wisdom they’ve accumulated on their own journeys through maleness. So the pornstars have gone, but the comedians definitely remain: Mike Schmidt on violence, Paul Gilmartin on depression, Chris Mancini on becoming a father. We also hear Bacon converse about the male experience with other figures, some already well known in podcasting: Adam Carolla associate “Bald Bryan” Bishop on getting brain cancer at 30 (and, in a shorter “extra credit” episode, on the tonsorial condition that gave him his nickname), writer Paul Samuel Dolman on the mid-life crisis that got him hitchhiking (and, at one point, picked up by Larry David), profesional poker player Jason Somerville on coming out of the closet, and Pretty Good Pocast co-host Randy Wang on coming out of the closet only to discover his straightness. If credibly virtuous “role models” stand thin on the ground these days, Bacon looks for the piece of role model within each of his guests, most all of whom readily admit — if not all but make a Christmas meal of — their imperfections and mistakes.
This holds especially true for the travelers Bacon brings on, or rather, for the men whose relevantly male trials and revelations happened to occur while traveling. They may grab my attention because the idea of the trav’lin’ man (as referenced, last I checked, in the theme song to Mike Siegel’s podcast Travel Tales) remains, as have few other male types, properly leathery, reflective, and William Hurt-ish. Or maybe I think so because my own writing and podcasting interests have spent the past few years turning toward place, and from the world of trav’lin’ men I have thus drawn my real and virtual mentors. Finding mentorship wherever, whenever, and from whomever you can seems a central component of the Man School ethos, and an episode like, say Jordan Harbinger on his survival of not one but two kidnappings, illustrates that. He and Bacon draw several useful lessons (applicable as well, I daresay, to the fairer sex) from these stories, the first a brief one from Mexico, the second a longer and more painful one from Serbia. Outside a show like this, I doubt any of us would have known to look to someone like Harbinger, a youngish former (seemingly halfhearted) lawyer and friend of Bacon’s, for lessons in manhood. Then again, he also runs a company called The Art of Charmthat teaches men to date more effectively and hosts a show called The Pickup Podcast. Could’ve made for quite a Gentlemen’s Club episode.
Format: interviews (and at best, unedited interviews) concerned with religion or systems of belief and/or perception more generally
Episode duration: ~50m (produced shows) or up to 2h (unedited podcasts)
Frequency: ~8-10 total per month
I recall hearing years ago on Jordan, Jesse, Go! how much Jordan enjoys listening to On Being [RSS] [iTunes] with Krista Tippett, which constituted endorsement enough to get me tuning in as well. I also recall hearing years ago on Jordan, Jesse, Go! that Jordan enjoys hearing discussions about the consistency, or lack thereof, of the fictional “universes” in which movies, television shows, books, and video games take place. Those Jordanian enthusiasms might seem to have nothing to do with one another, but the more On Being I hear, the less they strike me as unrelated. Formerly known as Speaking of Faith, the show aims to “draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life” — or, as I think of it, to talk as clearly and non-judgmentally as possible about religions, broadly defined. Most shows about religion, I would think, come the perspective of the One True Faith — whichever of the One True Faiths to which its creators happen to subscribe — and therefore must reject outright the term “religion” in the plural. On Being, should it need a third title, might as well call itself Religions, Plural.
No one comes off as a believer in religions, plural as much as Tippett herself. She doesn’t sound like she actually follows all religions, or even several of them — she identifies, I gather, as some type of Christian — and indeed, the incompatibilities of their tenets would make that quite a difficult life. But you might say that the believes in their compatibilities, to the extent those exist. Or she believes in the potential for such compatibilities. To go back to the show’s about page, she operates on the premise that “there are basic questions of meaning that pertain to the entire human experience,” and often conducts interviews with religious or religion-oriented guests in pursuit of those questions. Tippett’s conversations thus make for valuable resources when you need to understand “the deal” with a certain faith: Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet on Mormonism, rabbi David Hartman (recorded in Israel, no less) on Judaism; nine different Muslims on Islam. If you like this kind of thing, make sure you don’t miss Tippett’s live conversation with not only a Muslim scholar, and not only a chief chief rabbi, and not only a presiding bishop, but the Dalai Lama too.
I suppose we can approach this side of On Being — a side dominant in the Speaking of Faith days — as we approach the Indiana Jones movies. If you consider all four pictures together, they constitute a fictional reality — a “universe,” if you will — where not only does the Ark of the Covenant exist, filled with ghosts, but magic-using, human-sacrificing Indian cults exist, Jesus’ immortality-granting Holy Grail exists, and ancient space aliens exist. While many fans take an interest in each of Indiana Jones’ adventures, it must give even the most obsessively devoted a headache to get them all logically aligned. The same must hold for humanity’s countless belief systems, and Tippett avoids these headaches by taking each one on its own terms, just like sane Indiana Jones fans must take Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (assuming, fridge-nuking and all, that they even acknowledge its existence) on their own terms. Tippett asks not, to continue this analogy, whether the Indiana Jones movies stay consistent with reality; she asks what human need watching Indiana Jones movies fulfills in the first place.
Still, arguments about Indiana Jones remain, by their very nature, contained; nobody loses their lives over them, and no wars erupt in their name. We can hardly say the same of arguments about religion. Some claim occasionally — and some claim daily, at least on my Facebook feed — that anybody talking about religion, any religion, even those deigning to discredit them, do humanity a disservice. And they have a point, if you go by certain major faiths’ tendencies toward social control and cavalier attitudes toward the truth. Listening to discussions of religion from On Being and other venues, I do wonder if the mere fact that someone, somewhere believes in something makes that thing worthy of attention, let alone consideration. But then I remember to frame a more interesting question: not about what people believe, and not about why they believe it, but about what aspect of their lives needs it to be true. The show’s intellectual broadening over recent years suits just this frame of mind by having more conversations that, as I say, take the concept of “religions” broadly, not just as systems of belief, but as, perhaps, systems of perception. This allows guests that may not have fit into the earlier mandate: I point you to Tippett’s interview with Seth Godin, a figure best known for writing forward-thinking books on marketing, but whom our host gets talking about “the art of noticing.”
Specifically, I point you to Tippett’s unedited interview with Seth Godin. Extending itself into the age of podcasting, On Being now offers Tippett’s interviews as recorded straight off the board, from the moment her engineer in St. Paul links up with the guest’s studio, working out the connection hitches and elusive echoes, right up until the time comes for her to tell the guest thanks, we’ll may have more questions, we’ll let you know when this should air. You can still download the produced broadcasts, which cut together segments of talking with music, sounds, and radio-y “resets,” but I daresay the unedited podcasts, which often run well over an hour, render them superfluous. Tippett prepares herself to hold actual human conversations — a rare willingness, believe you me — and she tends to do so with interlocutors who can rise to the challenge. Combine this with the way her program has now managed to increase its generality while maintaining more or less an appearance of specificity — a move I always admire — and you get, at least in the conversations that have kept me most rapt — Godin, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah on difference, writer Alain de Botton on adapting religion for atheists — two humans connecting about connection itself.