Colin Marshall

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture

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Vital stats:
Format: One Presumably Thirtysomething Black Comedian and and One Fiftysomething Black Rock Star Bullshitting About Culture
Episode duration: ~1-2h
Frequency: erratic

Am I even allowed to review this podcast? When Max Funster Andreas “Duus” Pape — “mentioned at Min 30 sec 41 of Episode 162 of JJGO,” according to his e-mail signature — suggested I Podthink about The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture, my first impulse objected on grounds of my lack of qualifications: “But that’s not for white people!” My second impulse revealed the silliness of the first one. “Think of all the nerd-stuff podcasts you’ve written up,” it said. “If you can listen to two hours of discussion on Ringworld, you can damn well listen to a podcast with Negro in its title.”

It helps that this particular podcast with Negro in its title comes from two of the most likable fellows I’ve ever heard speak through an RSS feed. I already suspected I liked one of its co-hosts, comedian W. Kamau Bell, after hearing his JJGO appearance, which included a discussion of this very podcast in which Jesse brought up, with astonishment, the identity of its other co-host: Vernon Reid, guitarist, founding member, and “main guy” of the band Living Colour. As often as I deride the dominant podcasting format of Two Twenty/Thirtysomething Guys Bullshitting About Culture, hearing One Presumably Thirtysomething Black Comedian and and One Fiftysomething Black Rock Star Bullshitting About Culture comes as a veritable breath of fresh air.

Despite the early reservations about my suitability to review Bell and Reid’s program, I don’t actually buy the idea of a sharp cultural divide between “stuff for white people” and “stuff for black people.” I wondered if The Field Negro Guide would insist upon such a divide, but it actually does its part to muddle things up. Some think of space operas and comic books as white people-oriented, but damned if Bell and Reid don’t get into deep discussions of Star Wars and Spider-Man. Some think of rock music as white people-oriented, but damned if Living Colour isn’t a rock band and, if I can go by what I’ve heard from them, one hell of a rock band.

A career like Reid’s naturally generates all kinds of gripping stories — hopping on a plane moments after a show to secretly play on Mariah Carey’s debut album comes to mind — but so, even with fewer years racked up, does a career like Bell’s. For my money, their best moments come when comparing notes about the nature of performative careers, coming at performance as they do from two different angles. I’d normally prefer this, with infinite vastness, to analyses of Batman, but Bell and Reid at least do them with enough intelligence that the subject matter almost becomes irrelevant. You might expect this degree of sharpness from Bell, but Reid’s oratorial bombs impress me even more. I mean, who expects guitar geniuses to do just as well verbally? How did he find the time?

None of this is to say that these guys don’t get racial, especially as pertains to black presidents and black rock bands. All well and good, since I consider U.S. politics a branch of space opera anyway and, without the super-sized episode of Fishbone [MP3], I wouldn’t know much about Fishbone. I mostly just don’t understand a lot of it. I get what black is and what white is and all that, broadly speaking, but I find too few commonalities within those vast swaths of humanity for claims about “black people” and “white people” to resonate with me. So I wind up not feeling racial anxiety about all this, but anxiety about my absence of racial anxiety. (And if that reasoning seems tortured, wait until you see me review the other podcast “Duus” suggested.)

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Reading the World

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with literary translators, mostly about poetry
Episode duration: 25-50m
Frequency: monthly

Hot tip for aspiring interview podcasters: literary translators make solid guests. They have ideas. They have observations. They show up on time. They, as you’d hope, communicate quite well... using language and stuff. I’d actually hoped those sterling communicative abilities would’ve rubbed off on me, since I’ve interviewed a few of ’em on my own show, but I guess they haven’t. Still, talking to translators on the radio has given me a jones to talk to more of them. Until I do that, I’ve found a little something to tide me over: Reading the World [iTunes], a podcast featuring nothing but literary translator interviews. One of the episodes even offers a conversation with Suzanne Jill Levine, translator of such writing luminaries as Manuel Puig, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Jorge Luis Borges, so it’s got good taste, too. Hey, I also interviewed Suzanne Jill Levine — so it’s got great taste!

I should probably fear for my soon-to-be-eaten lunch, given that, as a production of the University of Rochester’s translation-dedicated Three Percent — so named for the percentage of translations among all books published in the U.S. — Reading the World commands the power of specialization over my decidedly unlaserlike generalization. But I breathe easier knowing two things: first, that this podcast only releases interviews at a leisurely monthly pace, and second, that it tends to focus on more translators and translations of poetry than of novels. Perhaps that makes the show less immediately accessible — talking about poetry already puts up a bit of a wall, let alone talking about foreign poetry — but such a degree of specificity interests me.

The Japanese Germanophone author Yoko Tawada once remarked that “the interesting lies in the in-between.” I’ve come not only to believe that notion but to try, with occasional success, to convince friends of it as well. Content can make a thing interesting, sure, and form can make it much more so, but I find myself much more jazzed by the thing’s position on the countless overlaid maps of geography, culture, nationality, language, etc. At their best, these positions fall into liminal, between-the-cracks, neither-here-nor-there spaces belonging to no single country or tradition. Sure, maybe I like novels, movies, albums, and podcasts. Maybe I don’t read much poetry. But if a piece of poetry emerges from the in-between, I’m down.

Or I’ll get on board if a translator of poetry emerges from the in-between, for that matter. If someone has, like Bill Johnston, come from the U.K. to make a career out of recreating Polish poetry in American English, you’re pretty much guaranteed that you want to hear that person talk about their life and career in a way that you aren’t guaranteed by, say, the systems analyst you meet at your roommate’s office party. Same goes for someone like Forrest Gander, who, assuming I heard this right, translates from Spanish and Japanese. Here we have people who, safe to assume, made some strong choices along the way.

Regrettably, Reading the World doesn’t quite escape its origins as the product of an academic institution. Despite the excitement of these translators’ literary adventures in Mexico, Eastern Europe, Argentina, the Middle East, Russia, and beyond, these conversations still produce tooth-grinding phrases like “this work deals with the historical and its problematics” and “translation is an inherently political act” with dispiriting frequency. As contradictory as it seems, in this show I hear both the bumper-bowling academization that drains literature — poetry, novels, stories, what have you — of some vital essence and the aggressive engagement with the wider world that could counterbalance it.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews

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Vital stats:
Format: movie reviews, movie interviews, Brit banter
Episode duration: 40m-1h40m
Frequency: near-weekly

Okay, even as a cinema, criticism, podcasting, and broadcasting geek, I'll admit it: a couple of critics' voices trading opinions about what's in the theaters? Often no great shakes. Podcasting has let a million of these flowers bloom, and for every long-lived blossom of informative entertainment like, say, Battleship Pretension (Podthought about by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill), vast fields wilt. Established radio programs about film have a better time of it, on average, in the podcasting arena. Having gone strong on the BBC's legitimate airwaves for about a decade now, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews [RSS] [iTunes] struck me right away as more promising than most. I almost wish I could make a dramatic flourish here and tell you that it went on to bitterly disappoint me with a salvo of pure state-bankrolled blandness, but nope; show's solid.

U.K. readers, so my impression says, probably know of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo. Readers outside the U.K. may or may not, but probably don't, so here comes what I can cobble together by way of introduction. Mayo, a beloved BBC Radio presence since the early eighties, mainly hosts a drivetime talk show. Kermode has risen to the state of one of these all-around "cultural presenter" types who seem to exist everywhere outside of America but mainly in England and of whom I feel all-consuming jealousy. The man talks about movies on the radio, but he also writes about them for papers and magazines, blogs about them, publishes books about them, and hosts other programs in various media about them. If you live outside the U.K., you may well know him as the guy who couducted the interview during which someone shot Werner Herzog with an air rifle.

Kermode's ongoing journalistic relationships with Herzog and other intriguing filmmakers ensure that we hear not only assessments of their projects on this show but rapport-y conversations with they themselves. Kermode and Mayo put on the rare show that combines reviewing and interviewing without inflicting much compromise upon either. Part of this has to do with Kermode's apparent willingness to speak his critical mind directly to the creators, as when he tells Herzog straight up that his new 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams plays better in 2-D. Variously respected and disrespected — known, let's say — for his contrarian positions, Kermode displays a deep, unvarnished suspicion of the ascendant style of 3-D, and I find that refreshing. He also goes short on acts of big-budget spectacle and does not reflexively go easy on "popcorn" movies. He'll occasionally let a movie off the hook due to its low ambitions, but at least he doesn't do it with the kind of pathological regularity you see in other critics of his media profile.

So what part does Mayo play in all this? First and foremost, and like the veteran broadcaster he is, he keeps the program moving through all its usual segments. These include the running down of of the U.K. box offices' current top ten and the real-time addressing of listener e-mails, texts, and tweets. Not to say that he appears merely as a facilitator; even if he doesn't make the theatrical rounds with the same dedication as Kermode does — he's not the film critic, after all — he matches him comment-for-comment with surprising gusto. But Mayo makes his most critical contribution to the show's entertainment value as a sparring partner in what I understand to be an age-old tradition of British friendship: taking unending amounts of lighthearted abuse from your buddies and manfully responding right back in kind. American broadcasters and podcasters do this too, or at least they attempt it; something about the English manner of speaking renders this type of banter infinitely more amusing. I suspect it has to do with how absolutely everything they say sounds, even if just faintly, like a question.

Like any long-standing comedio-cultural partnership, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews's has developed a certain suite of tics. Some of those tics I enjoy, especially the one that urges them to compare most films to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Less felicitious tendencies have them dancing nervously around plot details for fear of divulging "spoilers" — surely a cinephile as experienced as Kermode realizes that, if knowing a picture's events truly "spoils" it, then that picture sucks? — and inexplicably fixating upon the "age advisories" (like MPAA ratings in the States) the British Board of Film Classification issues each film.

But, as ever, the details matter less than the overall vibe the hosts put forth, and nearly without fail, Kermode and Mayo — but especially Kermode — summon the kind of energetic enthusiasm about film, good and bad, that makes you believe they've discovered a vaccine for critical burnout. I mean, I love film; I love film more than most things. But could I look myself in the mirror and honestly claim to be able to talk about Red Riding Hood — or the crushing grind of its week-to-week bretheren in mediocrity — with all the vim and zing that flows from a faith that what I'm discussing genuinely matters? Jeez, I don't know if I even want to think about that.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Back to Work

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Vital stats:
Format: episodic discussion of some of the most vital questions of human existence
Episode duration: 1h-1h30m
Frequency: near-weekly

I thought I’d hold off on writing about Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s new podcast Back to Work [RSS] [iTunes] until I could hammer together a sentence saying what it’s about. Then I thought, screw that — I admit defeat. I don’t know what Mann’s spookily popular, sporadically updated other show You Look Nice Today is “about” either, but that hasn’t stopped me from developing a hearty addiction to it. Benjamin, of course, we know from The Pipeline, an interview podcast with people who make internet stuff. So we’ve got Mann’s aggressively wandering yet intensely self-critical sense of humor combined with Benjamin’s becalmed inquisitiveness about technological creation. The original peanut butter and chocolate, right?

Okay, so maybe I don’t shoot entirely straight when, after over ten hours of Back to Work, I claim ignorance of its subject matter. But here, in some sense, subject matter doesn’t; if you like, you can enjoy the show simply for the level of verbal interplay between its hosts. They tell stories about the crappier, foodier jobs in their pasts; they remark upon what they see going right and wrong in the creative world; and they give their opinions on films written and/or directed by Charlie Kaufman. They make jokes aplenty. If you’ve listened to the show yourself, you might insist that Mann does all this, while Benjamin only stokes the Merlin-fires by tossing in occasional questions, prompts, and concerns. Sure, one of these guys racks up way fewer talking minutes than the other, I’ll grant you that, but I insist the dynamic runs much deeper.

I say that because, to my mind, this show takes no simple form: not a super-extended interview of Merlin Mann, not banter-based comedy, not two dudes yammering. As an enterprise, it actually faces the most vital questions of human existence, so vital that I can under no circumstances spell them out directly, for free, in a Podthought. Clap me into irons for crimes of grandiosity if you must, but I would argue that Mann and Benjamin’s conversations on Back to Work deal with no less urgent a matter than how to live an actual life. That is to say, a life where you create things, where you contribute, where you connect — where you have an effect. These lives turn out to be rarer than you’d think.

But oh, the obstacles in the way. According to this podcast, they include fear, lack of care, jittery attention spans, quarterlife crises, “tip” dependency, pathological inspiration-seeking, and the temptation to buy a new beret instead of doing your life’s work. Our many squirrely, irrational tendencies toward pathetic self-preservation, inbuilt by evolution, make it hard enough to do anything meaningful; figure in 21st century’s the veritable Horn of Plenty of distractions, and I’m surprised any of us can even fold a paper airplane. The question of how best to work on what matters remains a hard problem — possibly the hard problem — and I haven’t yet deluded myself into believing that Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin have it solved. But they do know that we can only hope to get our hands moving and muddle through our cycles of ever-improving failure, and they know how to remind us of that, almost weekly, in a terribly entertaining way.

Great, hairy issues naturally lurk underneath all this: even given the above, does it still make sense to have to depend on a podcast to urge us to pursue our crafts? Given both Mann and Benjamin’s horn-rimmed, smartphone-wielding, font-kerning-knowing, nine-keystroke-Mac-command-using audiences, might they anyway waste all this insight on a depressing, ephemeral grind like iPad app production? And considering that I always listen to new episodes of Back to Work on something-ahead-of-first priority moments after downloading, do these lingering questions mean a damn thing?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Rumpus Radio

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Vital stats:
Format: comedian, author, filmmaker, etc. interviews
Episode duration: 35m-1h
Frequency: once or twice a month

If you have any investment in the internet’s literary world, you’ll have encountered The Rumpus, which offers all kinds of stuff above and beyond its distinctive old-timey-guy-in-a-basketball-hoop logo: interviews, reviews, columns, links, and goofy-type pieces. The site contains, from what I can tell, an imposingly huge amount of content, much of it to do with books and writing, but a decent-sized chunk to do with non-book forms of culture that I assume I would know about if I lived in Brooklyn. Yet The Rumpus, masterminded by San Francisco-living writer Stephen Elliott, does not quite fall under the usual, ever-expanding category of “Brooklyn-y internet things.” I think of it as... something else, but not something easily described.

I have enjoyed The Rumpus’ sensibility enough to want to contribute to it, but every time I check their writers’ guidelines, they say that “we don’t have any money and can’t pay for writing.” This would keep me with the burgeoning Gen-Y norm of working my eyeballs out on non-remunerative projects, but I have grown tired. So very tired. (I foresee most of my generation dying young, of starvation, especially if they live in the first world.) Still, when I learned that The Rumpus had extended its non-moneymaking brand to the even more non-moneymaking medium of podcasting with Rumpus Radio, I had to check it out. I downloaded all its episodes with extra speed when I saw that they fell right into my personal wheelhouse by being long-form interviews.

Max Funsters, I return from my listening excursion bearing news of talks with comedians — Kyle Kinane! [MP3] W. Kamau Bell! [MP3] Marc Maron! [MP3] — and pretty meaty talks at that, ranging between 35 minutes and an hour. This might come as a surprise from the offshoot of an ostensibly literary site, but, as I learned from listening to this podcast, The Rumpus puts on live events in San Francisco which get comedy in your literature and literature in your comedy. Given the recent-ish rise of more cerebral stand-up comics with more unusual material — aided, I rush to assume, by podcasting itself — this mixture seems to nail a certain sub-sub-zeitgeist right on. As a writer I like once said, the interesting lies in the in-between; I don’t know about you, but I want few things more than comedians with a literary sensibility and literati with a comedic sensibility.

Though sometimes joined by a sidekick, Stephen Elliott does most of the interviewing himself. I’d thought of him as less the interviewing type than the gritty novel- and confessional memoir-writing type, but his conversational style actually sounds like it springs straight from his authorial persona. What a relief, given that, when some writers take up the microphone, they wrongheadedly ditch exactly what makes their books so compelling — themselves — and camp it up with their idea of what an “objective journalist” sounds like. Elliott makes himself, to whip out a vague term but the only suitable one, present. This sometimes results in his guests ribbing him about his troubled sexual life, but I call that a small price to pay. It makes perfect sense that Elliott talked with Maron so early in the show’s run: neither of these guys come from an interviewing background, but both succeed at it by being so very actual.

When not interviewing comedians, Elliott splits his time between authors like Steve Almond [MP3] (who has, shall we say, choice words about publishing and book reviewing), filmmakers like Blue Valentine’s Derek Cianfrance [MP3], and other cultural types of whom you may or may not have heard like “female hip-hop artist” (a say what now?) K. Flay [MP3]. All these conversations make me feel good about what we’ll all have to read, watch, and listen to in the next few decades. I wonder if anybody’s getting paid. Should we all form a 7-11 robbery collective?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Mike and Tom Eat Snacks

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Vital stats:
Format: two dudes eating and evaluating snacks, with tangents
Episode duration: 30-40m
Frequency: weekly

I tweeted this tweet:
What podcast should I review on Podthoughts this week? Open to all suggestions, except those involving "pop culture" or two dudes yammering.
In rapid response came suggestions of one show compulsively concerned with pop culture and another composed of, yes, the yammering of two dudes. These dudes, comedians Michael Ian Black and Tom Cavanagh, host Mike and Tom Eat Snacks [iTunes], or, if you prefer, MATES. But here’s the thing: they don’t just yammer; they chew. They eat snacks. Mike and Tom eat snacks.

At first, I didn’t hear much promise in that either. As a comedic ignoramus, I’d never heard of Cavanagh — he seems to have acted in Yogi Bear — but I remembered a couple distant media scrapes with Black. My irritation at the him-voiced Pets.com sock puppet (“Because pets can’t drive”) singing “Spinning Wheel” still burns, over a decade later, though time has cooled it a bit. I mainly associate him with an appearance on one of those VH1 shows about the eighties, on which he’s evidently made a whole mini-career out of turning up. I tuned in knowing they would talk about the Delorean DMC-12, one of my favorite automobiles. At the end of the segment, Black said something about John Delorean snorting too much of the “cocaína.” He used a really cartoonish South American-type pronunciation, but just on that one word. I could never figure out why.

As I foresaw from it hours of nothing but “Spinning Wheel”, cocaína, and Ranger Smith, this podcast could only pleasantly surprise me. I keep my expectations low for any show that could easily devolve into just one more TTWGBAC (Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girls Bullshitting About Culture) atop the heaping pile, but Black and Cavanagh turn out to use a couple of ingeniously, near-stupidly simple tactic to ward off the evils of that genre. First, though perhaps not by design, one host has reached his forties and the other has nearly gotten there. Second, they assign themselves a task, give themselves something to do, besides ridicule the coming Footloose remake: they have to eat snacks.

On each episode, Black and Cavanagh eat, react to, and evaluate Combos, cocktail peanuts, Blueberry Muffins, what have the snack aisle. They take their snacking seriously, or at least as seriously as you can take anything when two-thirds of the sentences you speak about it sound purely ironic. (Here we have another example of the relatively venerable podcasting tradition of Ridiculousness Uttered Flatly.) They discuss whether one particular manufacturer’s example of a snack can or should act as a representative of that snack. They get into such directly snack-related debates as whether the set “chips” contains the set “pretzels,” or if they share nothing. They slowly realize that, the more rigidly you try to define the boundaries of the concept “snack,” the less of a division you perceive between snack foods and all other foods.

Wine lovers consider favorite beverage as a nexus of subjects, offering gateways into discussions of subjects as various as history, geography, aesthetics, business, and botany. Black and Cavanagh seem to feel the same way about pizza-flavored crackers. Though their tangential discussions take them through exercise regimens, Canadian identity, life in the entertainment industry, and the Footloose remake, the hosts always return to the snack at hand. It anchors them. It’s just like in meditation, when your mind inevitably wanders from the object of focus; you just guide it back, leaving your practice none the worse for wear. When such freeform podcasts lose their anchor — or, more likely, never bother getting one — they lose their way. As long as Mike and Tom keep Eating Snacks, they’ll retain their compass.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Radio Conelrad

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Vital stats:
Format: a man briefly talking about mainstream cultural things
Episode duration: 5-15m
Frequency: weekly, but less so recently

I felt a blip of recognition upon reading the title of Radio Conelrad [iTunes], but I now think it was a false positive triggered by memories of the ColecoVision. “Coleco” stands, need I even explain, for Connecticut Leather Company. “Conelrad” turns out to stand for Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, the form of government broadcasting that preceded the Emergency Broadcast System. I could make a bunch of guesses as to why host West Anthony decided to name his podcast after it, but only one holds water: the old circular Conelrad logo looks sharp and important on an iPod screen.

Both the fellow who recommended the show to me (Rudie Obias of The Criterioncast) and Anthony’s own Twitter profile pitch brevity as its main selling point. That it has; nearly every episode I listened to ended just as I assumed it had reached “cruising altitude.” This usually takes five to fifteen minutes. During that time, West will have solo-talked about one to three topics. I figured he might talk about midcentury Americana-type stuff, given the show’s name, but no; his concerns revolve mostly around contemporary mainstream culture, like which Oscar nominees he doesn’t think deserve an Oscar, or which viral Miley Cyrus videos he thinks don’t merit the uproar they’ve raised, or how he doesn’t care about the Beatles’ appearance on iTunes.

People can have opinions on all these things, but I never fully understood why I was listening to this particular guy’s opinions on them. I don’t mean to call him not famous or credentialed enough to earn my attention; I just have no idea who he is. Plenty of my friends and favorite podcasters lack fame or credentials of any kind, yet I still listen to them because I know their personalities well enough to contextualize their statements. Even after listening to the complete Radio Conelrad archive, I can’t really tell you anything about West Anthony. He sounds neither young nor old. He speaks in a bold but occasionally halting fashion, sometimes with a slight echo. He tends to use a “radio voice,” but often to say things you wouldn’t usually hear such a voice say.

One of the least expected set of things he says comes in an episode recorded after the Arizona shootings where he just goes off on Republicans for a while. After a few minutes of this, I grew uncomfortable at my inability to tell how seriously he meant his claims about Republicans maliciously hoodwinking the population, ruining society, dismantling America, etc. I don’t even like the Republican party, but when the host of something I like starts grinding away in these directions, I just think, “Stop. Stop. Please stop.” I feel the same way when someone talks to me on the street, says a few sentences I agree with, then follows them up with scary schizophrenic monologues about how Dick Cheney poisons the water supply.

That aside, Anthony seems like someone you could hang out with. I know I could hang out with him because, in one episode, he insists that The Thin Red Line should have won Best Picture instead of Shakespeare in Love. I gather that we could easily talk about Terence Malick for a few hours, and that he has enough of a sense of humor to make a few cracks about Malick’s weakness for the image of the “noble savage” even as he admires the director’s greater aesthetic sensitivities. But what if he started talking about Sarah Palin or something? What would I do then?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 211 new subscribers to survive the year.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The New York Times Book Review podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: NYTBR content-reflective segment collections
Episode duration: 15-25m
Frequency: weekly

I subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. I mean, you have to, right? Isn’t it the law? Besides, how else would I keep tabs on the number of weeks The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has hung in there? You may raise the matter of the internet, but to me, a web browser never quite feels like the right home for the NYT’s book coverage. Something within demands — needs — the sad preposterousness of all those ads for self-published memoirs, the unbridled decadence of Bauman Rare Books’ price lists, the joy of pictures not quite aligned with their own colors.

So if the web falls just short of suitability for the Book Review, what hope can we hold out for its podcast [RSS] [iTunes]? To be fair, the idea has merit, especially given what I imagine as the beyond-connectedness of such a literary-media institution. If they can’t arrange the cooperation of all the right authors, critics, and generalized “book people,” who can? This, it seems, drives the show to provide a sort of cornucopia each week: a single episode might easily contain an interview with an author, an appearance by a critic, some chat about current bestsellers, and a bit of miscellany.

One problem: all these episodes run under half and hour, and some merely half that. So we’re talking a few minutes with an author, a few minutes with a critic, a few minutes about bestsellers — thought that’s probably to the good — and a few minutes of miscellany. A focus group might eventually grind their way to a conclusion that they want this — life is short, gotta hustle, executive summary, etc. — but it winds up poisoning a show’s potential in about 400 different ways at once.

Take, for just one important example, what such a time limit does to conversations: specifically, it bludgeons them into grotesque anti-conversations, turning responses into response-flavored non-responses meant only to “keep things moving,” forcing hosts to resort to flat, dead pre-written questions. The host of this podcast, NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus clearly must have the interest and the chops this gig demands, but he apparently feels he needs to questions like this one of Walter Isaacson, who reviewed a new biography of Socrates: “You call this a ‘donut-shaped’ biography. What is that?”

This made me sad. Unless he somehow managed not to read Isaacson’s review, Tanenhaus knows the answer to that question. I don’t care how much interviewing experience you’ve racked up; you’ll never have anything approaching an engaging conversation by asking questions you already know the answer to you. No amount of fakery can paper over your lack of genuine interest in knowing the answer. I mean, jeez; Tanenhaus is an insider. He’s been around. He’s read a hell of a lot. Surely he has much to ask of Walter Isaacson — to ask for real — on the natural rhythm of a conversation, at the length of a natural conversation.

But alas. The NYTBR’s podcast remains mainly a bundle of potential, a condition that will obtain for as long as its producers insist on laboring under the conventions of a “magazine show.” As much as I’ve loved old media, the notion that you should cram a bunch of surface-scratching segments into half an hour belongs to it and it alone. I’d listen to all of these clips as episodes of their own, at whatever length they need. Therein lies the beauty of this new frontier; if you’re not into it, the standardized ground of newsprint has more to offer.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 205 new subscribers to survive the year.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Overthinking It

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Vital stats:
Format: multi-man pop-culture scrutiny
Episode duration: 55-75m
Frequency: weekly

“Subjecting the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.” There we have the entire mission of Overthinking It [RSS] [iTunes], baldly stated in its subtitle. Yeah, you veteran podcast-listeners might respond, so what else is new? Fair point. Functionally, most of the podcasts I’ve ever heard come down to the subjection of popular culture to undeserved levels of scrutiny, but here’s the difference: none of them aim to do that. They just wind up there when their declared themes become too hard to maintain.

This show thus possesses a sort of purity, in that it didn’t devolve into what it is; it set out that way. That strikes me as a savvy act of prolepsis. Podthinking about nearly 150 podcasts has rendered me cold, hard, and unreasonably stern toward discussions of anything referred to by the phrase “pop culture.” But why? Beyond overbroadness, nothing inherent in it makes it a particularly unworthy subject. The problem lies in the fact that you need never go far to find pop culture; some of it always lays around right there. This attracts those with both an intellectual spark and a slathering of laziness, a combination even worse than laziness without intellectual spark. It smacks of the unambitious kind of American Studies grad students, the ones you’d have found heavily pierced and enrolled in one of Andrew Ross’ seminars fifteen years ago.

So unlike being about old issues of The Flash, West African pop music of the seventies, or Proust, 1910, mimetic desire, and the inflationary universe, being about pop culture demands little in the way of initial effort. I suspect the Overthinking It boys know this, since they seem to compensate with an unusually high degree of conversational effort. Shockingly, they mostly eschew the standard hand-waviness for nonstandard thoughtfulness. While four or more of them get together over Skype to discuss the issue of the day, be it Lady Gaga, the Oscars, Super Bowl commercials, or Justin Bieber’s cracking voice, they don’t shout or cut one another off; they fully make and respond to one another’s points. A true internet rarity.

Can I give this show a greater endorsement than saying that on no other podcast will you hear the sentence, “Happy crunk is all alike; unhappy crunk is unhappy in its own way”? Many times I found myself thinking, “Hey, one of these dudes I still can’t tell apart except by the varying sound quality of their Skype connections actually made a pretty sound observation.” Yet in the realm of pop-cultural discussion, you can hardly ever prove or disprove an argument, no matter how well you argue; the information at hand just doesn’t come in that fine a grain, even if certain ways of framing it produce chewy food for thought.

And of course, we have an (admittedly acknowledged) elephant in the room: most of this stuff really doesn’t deserve scrutiny, of any level. All of Overthinking It’s participants come off as so sharp and articulate that I can’t help wondering about the possibilities of a podcast where they discuss... well, anything other than pop culture. They accomplish their mission more skilfully than most, but a slightly higher mission couldn’t hurt. You can reach the top of a hierarchy, but consider the hierarchy itself: as the best tweeter I know once twote, “Humanity for the first time is burdened with a vast proletariat of literate, ambitious, and demanding people who can't really do anything.”

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 200 new subscribers to survive the year.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast"

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with travelers, plus travel news and tips
Episode duration: 25-45m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: number 30 onward

I can’t close the Kayak tab open as I write this. Interpret that as a testament to the power of The Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast [RSS] [iTunes], which, despite that title whose ungainliness I only now realize, stokes the trav’lin fires in (I assume) all who listen. In my case, it helped that the show’s archive of hundreds of episodes happened to offer one or more about everywhere I want to go, be it Mexico City [MP3], Seoul [MP3], Iceland [MP3], or Ethiopia [MP3]. I’m packed. Let’s do this.

But that’s not to call it an exoticist’s podcast. It first favorably struck me that the episodes on my well-la-de-da destinations listed above stood shoulder-to-shoulder with explorations of places that a regular old North American just might forget about, like Prince Edward Island [MP3], northern Ohio [MP3], and Wisconsin [MP3]. I smiled upon seeing a two-part special on Los Angeles [MP3] [MP3], my favorite (and most-visited) city of all. My enthusiasm for L.A. has reached such a strength that it barely took a ding when I listened to the episodes themselves, interviews with an L.A.- native (a) “social media expert” who (b) recommends the Sunset Strip, (c) makes no mention of Little Ethiopia or Koreatown, and (d) talks like he’s about to shove me into a wall of lockers.

Every episode of The Amateur Traveler takes the form of Skype interviews between host Chris Christensen and some resident of a place or a frequent visitor to that place, a format that works both to the good and to the ill. Episodes tend to stand or fall on the guests’ personalities: fantastic when they turn out to be engaging people with stories to tell, but less than fantastic when they don’t. Either way, they can’t expect help from the setup: despite coming off as a sharp, curious guy, Christensen uses a bewilderingly ineffective interviewing strategy.

Rarely do questions follow from the guest’s previous answer; base a drinking game on Christensen’s tendency to come back with nothing but “Okay,” “Interesting,” and/or a chuckle at your peril. Now, as an interviewer and an interviewing geek both, I labor under a hypersensitivity about interviewing principles, one of which dictates that you should aim to ask questions askable by nobody but you and answerable by nobody by your guest. Hard to think of a more flagrant violation than asking every single guest what surprised them about their place, what disappointed them about their place, what their favorite day in their place was like, what three words best describe their place, etc. These simplify the job, sure, but they also put up a thick barrier against genuine conversation.

Nevertheless, Christensen does a valuable service. You’d have to work hard not to learn from his podcast, and you’d have to work even harder to stop it from moving you to browse airfaires. The Amateur Traveler opens a window on the travel culture I so sorely yearn to join — I got my passport shamefully late, at almost 24, to go to Canada — but, like The Indie Travel Podcast, it also offers a glimpse at what looks to me like some habitual travelers’ bland unreflectiveness, which at times borders dangerously on nihilism. “I got to see one more cathedral,” goes the show’s theme song, “I got to sit in one more café.” But to what end? The travelers here get little time to go into their deeper reasons for doing what they do, mostly cleaving to talk of sights, food, and pure logistics, but perhaps listening to more of them will bring me to an understanding. This program certainly makes it easy to put in the hours.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 198 new subscribers to survive the year.]
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