Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Truth

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Vital stats:
Format: sound-oriented radio fictions
Episode duration: 9-18m
Frequency: 2-3 per month

“I thought there would be a revival of fiction and theater on the radio,” says science-fiction author Terry Bisson, “and I’ve been very disappointed that it hasn’t, kind of, worked out that way.” You and me both, brother. I say this as someone who, in childhood, obsessively collected bootleg tapes of old-time radio shows like Amos & Andy and X Minus One and had the newer, more internationalist productions of the ZBS Foundation playing on infinite loop. I dreamed of re-introducing “movies for your mind,” in the words of one radio-drama survivor whose tapings I attended as a kid, to the dead airwaves of my benighted time. Bisson made his lament to producer Jonathan Mitchell on an episode of Mitchell’s podcast The Truth [RSS] [iTunes] which adapts Bisson’s story “They’re Made Out of Meat” [MP3]. I bet Mitchell went through similar youthful befuddlement, wondering what made all those cool old shows go away and hoping — knowing, in some quasi-messianic sense — that they would return. It hasn’t, kind of, worked out that way.

What to blame? Maybe the increasingly utilitarian slant of modern American radio, which either feeds listeners’ anxiety over not having the latest news and information or numbs them completely with three-minute shots of anesthetic familiarity. But I get the sense that, deep in the minds of even dedicated tuners-in, radio just isn’t for fiction. They may express great admiration for the idea of new radio drama, and they may even bemoan the past 50 years’ lack of it, but they’ll keep turning the dial if they suspect what they’re hearing isn’t true. I doubt they do it for strictly gray-flannel-suit reasons; they probably just fear that they can’t keep up with a fictional narrative on the radio, or that they’ve already missed some plot point critical to understanding what happens next, or that they’ll get where they’re going before the big twist ending when everything falls into place. Or they just assume the story won’t give them much to talk about at the water cooler.

Today’s radio fictions often try to pull listeners in with intricate production, artful editing, and heavy (to use a program-director term) sound-richness. But this tends to simply fill listeners with guilt about not paying attention: “Man, somebody worked hard on this piece. What a shame.” This American Life has built one of public radio’s most startlingly successful brands by refining their particular sensibility with intricate production, artful editing, and heavy sound-richness, but then, they run a Journalistic Enterprise of Facts — unless, of course, they wedge a bit of fiction into the week’s theme. (Or unless someone pulls a Daisey.) Some listeners feel faintly ripped off when Ira Glass announces a short story, skit, or dramatic monologue coming up, but a few minutes in, don’t they get caught up in it just the same?

They certainly seemed to when This American Life aired The Truth’s “Tape Delay” [MP3]. The piece, a tale of a lonely man who edits and re-edits a phone conversation recorded with a failed blind date, showcases a sonic awareness that separates Mitchell and co. from other radio fictionalists. At its strongest, The Truth takes sound not just as its tool, and not just as its medium, but as its subject. The New York story “Interruptible” [MP3] juxtaposes the snappy, authoritative media presence of an FM relationship-advice guru with her real, boozy, yet no less sensible physical presence. The other New York story “Everybody SCREAM!!!” [MP3] — actually, they’re almost all New York stories, and they satirize just the kind of neuroses that make me live in Los Angeles — pits twitchily human thoughts in a struggle with the driving thump and chintzily amplified barking of a “spin” class. Bisson’s all-dialogue “They’re Made Out of Meat” becomes what sounds like a two-way transmission between alien intelligences evolved to the point of disembodiment.

If you have ears to hear, you will respect The Truth, and not just because its mission seems so Quixotic. It aims for the world of listeners we’d like to be: attentive, empathic, adventurous, unfailingly engaged, aesthetically discerning, and appreciative of the technical points of soundcraft. You’ll come away from most of its episodes feeling seriously impressed by their inspiration, their construction, and their humanity. But whenever you go to play another, that little voice inside will always object: “What, you’re going to listen to something made up? Are you sure you’ve already listened to every real podcast you have?” Jonathan Mitchell must understand this. His program’s very title must reference this. But if any show can finally fire up that revival of fiction and theater on the radio, The Truth can. I admit that I ultimately tend to put my money on people who don’t need human nature to change — but I myself am probably not one of those people.

Comment or suggest a podcast on the Podthoughts forum thread

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The KunstlerCast

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Vital stats:
Format: interview-conversations about “the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl”
Episode duration: 12m-1h20m
Frequency: weekly

Suburbia sucks, and ever-rising energy prices will soon destroy it. There you have the collected ideas, in caricature, of self-styled public intellectual James Howard Kunstler. For twenty years, he’s worked the city-planning, architecture, transit and urbanism/New Urbanism beats, territory where self-styled public intellectuals have been known to tread. Perhaps you’ve read the work of activist-journalist Jane Jacobs, to whom Kunstler often gets compared. When her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities grew famous and influential, the caricature of her ideas developed as follows: modernist urban planning (i.e., freeways and function separation) sucks, and if you let it happen, it will soon destroy you. These caricatures fail to convey the depth and nuance of Jacobs and Kunstler’s writing, as caricatures do. Alas, it seems that public intellectuals, especially self-styled ones, pay the price of caricaturization to find purchase in the zeitgeist.

If you wish to know more about precisely why Kunstler thinks suburbia sucks, allow me to suggest The KunstlerCast [iTunes] [RSS]. Taking a more unusual form than it might at first seem, the podcast presents a weekly conversation — more formal than a two-sided gab session, but looser than an interview — between Kunstler and co-host Duncan Crary. Aside from the occasional field trip to real streets and malls and such, each episode has Crary asking Kunstler for his thoughts on a certain subject, be it a city he’s recently visited like, say, Portland [MP3]; the work of another urbanist like, say, Jane Jacobs [MP3]; or even the very definition terms as basic as “urban” [MP3]. This may sound a tad technical or academic, but Kunstler, neither an academic nor a technician, seems constitutionally unsuited to letting conversations go dry. The man comes armed with judgments, often swift and harsh, about which cities he finds livable, which cities he finds hellish, and which cities he feels certain that energy crises will simply sweep away.

Kunstler premises many of his opinions, if not all of them, on his observation that the end of cheap energy — the “peak oil” crowd has taken to him, and he’s reciprocated — means the end of the energy-burning lifestyles dominant in America since the Second World War. Your detached, single-family, lawn-surrounded McMansion? Your hour-long freeway commute? Your 11-miles-per-gallon SUV? (Or your hybrid SUV, for that matter?) Prepare to kiss ’em goodbye, warns Kunstler. He worries that the country has fallen into hopeless denial about all this, but I feel no particular anxiety. If you, like me, grew up in a remote bedroom community dreaming of the ability to go to a building that wasn’t a house, you probably have the maracas out and ready for your dance on suburbia’s grave. Suburban energy inefficiency didn’t really bother me, but crushing suburban tedium sure did. Like the rest of a wave of twentysomethings Kunstler at times acknowledges (and whose presence I notice more and more in Los Angeles), I’ve made a flight, perhaps permanent, to density, diversity, and carlessness.

Listening to The KunstlerCast therefore gives us urbanites the buzz of having our suspicions spoken back to us, although Kunstler and Crary can get themselves into such acerbic feedback loops about suburbia that the show starts feeling like an echo chamber. As these guys beat up on the defenseless ’burbs, I sometimes want to cry out like the kid who watched Homer Simpson beat up the Krustyburglar: “Stop, stop, he’s already dead!” Much more interesting conversations happen when Crary gets Kunstler going on the hows, whys, and whats of suburban development: how did so much of the United States wind up so sterile, same-y, and inconvenient? Why did we let it happen? What physically makes these cities so undesirable? Kunstler does his best, in other words, when generating less heat and more light. I’ve thus found Kunstler’s descriptions and analyses of various cities, heighten them though he may, the most fascinating of all. (Though I admit to wincing when he exaggerates about places I know, as when he flatly speculates that it must cost Angelenos “a thousand dollars a week” just to park their cars [MP3].)

Unfortunately, people seem to like to pay Kunstler, as they like to pay most public intellectuals, to talk about the future. Forced into prognostication, a mug’s game if ever there was one, even the best tend to fall back onto an uneasy mixture of untestable provocation and squirrely hedging. Kunstler doesn’t wallow in that, but I get the sense that his proclamations on the coming age, some of which border (if only psychologically) on the apocalyptic, serve more as potential memes than tools of enlightenment. Murmurs of “James Howard Kunstler says peak oil will turn women back into homemakers” or “James Howard Kunstler says we’ll travel only on rivers by 2030” may not accurately represent either the future or Kunstler’s idea of the future, but I suppose they get him attention. And attention, I note with a sigh, seems to be the name of the public intellectual’s game.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Big Ideas

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Vital stats:
Format: elucidation of oft-name-checked but thinly understood ideas
Episode duration: 9-20m
Frequency: monthly, almost

My brain has filed Benjamen Walker, host and producer of WFMU’s Too Much Information, as one of our time’s major public radio martyrs. Yes, the man seems alive and well, but public radio martyrdom doesn’t require literal death. He can go on breathing, eating, sleeping, and working, making intricate audio pieces for which people express great admiration on the internet; he simply must symbolize the bizarre thanklessness of crafting fine sonic media. When Bill McKibben wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on just this phenomenon a couple years back, he quoted Walker directly:
[Too Much Information is] good enough that 240,000 people have downloaded some of the twenty episodes he’s made so far. That’s a lot of people, but it’s zero money, since podcasts, like most websites, are by custom given away for free. Walker’s previous show, a similar effort called Theory of Everything, was widely promoted on the Public Radio Exchange, and six public radio stations across the country actually paid for and ran it. “I think I made $80,” he says. “If I thought about it too hard, I would just quit. It’s much better not to think about it.”
This brings to mind Memory Palace creator Nate DiMeo’s alternately encouraging and debilitatingly discouraging article on public radio production. Walker commented with a j’accuse against stations willing to pay for digital consultants, brand consultants, and “content executives” instead of, uh, content. A bold declaration, you might think, although I personally would have tossed in an indictment of stations’ badly limiting and increasingly shameless tendency to pander to, and only to, listeners’ fear of having their ignorance exposed at the office water cooler. No surprise, then — or not so much of a surprise, anyway — that Walker’s latest high-profile project comes not in collaboration with a traditional public radio outfit, but with the British newspaper the Guardian. Together they bring you The Big Ideas [RSS] [iTunes], a podcast on just those.

Though new, the show has already attracted an engaged following. Just look at the robust commenting going on below its posts at the Guardian’s site, especially those about Nietzsche’s declaration that “god is dead” and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” By “big ideas,” The Big Ideas clearly means the ideas you hear referenced every day, but of which — let’s face it — you’ve probably never sought a full understanding. Conventional media wisdom surely endorses not only this podcast’s method of using what many people feel kinda-sorta familiar with as a “hook,” but also its episode length short enough for any attention span. You’ve heard how Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message” and don’t quite grasp what he meant, right? Well, you got ten and a half minutes? [MP3]

The program’s iTunes page reveals a certain listenership overlap with the BBC’s In Our Time (reviewed by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill), another venture dedicated to the elucidation of semi-known concepts. Think of The Big Ideas as In Our Time Walker-ized: still made up of conversations with scholars of the day’s subject, but artfully cut together and compressed with music, historic sounds, and a unifying sense of humor rather different than any you’d hear on Radio 4. The show’s constructive critics tend to complain about the fact that no episode, even the ones on especially complicated or relatively obscure ideas, runs longer than about twenty minutes. They’re not wrong to do so, since Walker’s skills have shone brightest in his long-form productions, but I do admit that, in my ideal radio world, all shows would resemble the most recent installment of Too Much Information: 57 minutes with the guy who draws Zippy the Pinhead. Alas, I suspect that sort of thing meets limited immediate acceptance in our bite-oriented, post-99% Invisible soundscape.

Still, I enjoy 99% Invisible as I enjoy Too Much Information as I enjoy In Our Time as I enjoy The Big Ideas — let a thousand flowers bloom. DiMeo actually cites 99% Invisible as the rare bright, shining star in the chilly emptiness of podcast-to-radio professionalization. McKibben named Ira Glass as a similarly respected (and thus imitated) force for creativity in the radio-to-podcast direction. Long ago, I heard that Glass once toiled and toiled for only $60,000 a year and furrowed my brow at the injustice of it all. Now the forbidden thought of ever making that much — or half that much — triggers my wildest, most opulent fantasies. With The Big Ideas, Benjamen Walker offers us a hybrid of In Our Time and 99% Invisible while playing the Glassian combined role of guide, audience surrogate, interviewer, and auteur. I hope he’s well-compensated these days. If not, I hope he’s read McKibben describe radio in England and Australia — “new programs appear regularly,” “how literate and engaged the programming” — and considered setting sail for greener, more appreciative broadcasting pastures.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Allan Gregg in Conversation

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews about politics, history, science, and culture, both Canadian and non-
Episode duration: 8-28m
Frequency: 10-20 per month

Though it strays more often than it used to, I do keep an eye on Canadian politics. I do it for the same reason I keep an ear on Canadian media. The products and actions of a country with fewer than 53 million people and little direct influence on world affairs may strike you as less interesting, by definition, than those of a country with over 312 million people and arguably too much influence on world affairs. But since the small country doesn’t face nearly as harsh a glare of attention as the large country does, it can to that extent provide a setting for items of greater interest. So as marginal as Canadian politics and media can seem, I enjoy both because things exist within those systems that feel like they couldn’t exist in the States. Here, burdened with the need to appeal to hundreds of millions of people at once, politics and media get “blanded down.” They certainly haven’t produced anyone like Allan Gregg.

Neither a straight-up politician nor a traditional media figure, Gregg often gets called a “pollster” or a “pundit.” He’s advised politicians and parties, but he’s also run a record label, co-managed several bands, chaired the Toronto International Film Festival, and written magazine columns. But you read about him in Podthoughts today because of his talk show, Allan Gregg in Conversation [RSS] [iTunes]. Though produced as a television show for the Ontario public station TVO, it goes out as an audio podcast as well, and nothing I’ve heard on it suggests that I’m missing out by not getting the visual. From what I can tell, Ontarians sit down every Friday night for a half-hour program comprising a conversation or three between Gregg and noted writers, politicians, artists, and academics. The podcast feed distributes these conversations individually, and sometimes throws in a curveball of a talk from five, ten, even fifteen years ago. Ready to cast your mind back to the personal and professional failings of Bill Clinton? [MP3] [MP3]

Wait a while, you might say. Wasn’t this supposed to be a Canadian show? So where do they get off having spirited discussions about Bill Clinton? Fair enough; perhaps you’d prefer Gregg’s interviews about Jack Layton [MP3] or Pierre Trudeau [MP3] or Brian Mulroney [MP3]? Or perhaps you’d like to skip to the tour de force, Gregg’s sit-down with Jean Chrétien [MP3], the former Prime Minister who once bore the brunt of an infamous attack ad launched by Gregg himself? I don’t know about you, but when I listen to conversations like these, the same fascination centers of my brain light up as when I hear people discussing sports I rarely see played or fictional universes to which I have only occasional exposure. You might call it the intellectual thrill of partial information, as opposed to the dull intellectual throb of too much, a saturation level many Americans have long since reached about, say, George W. Bush.

So I don’t want to front like too much of a universally engaged world citizen here, since I mostly turn toward this Canadian stuff simply because it feels kinda different. And Gregg concerns himself with much more than Canadian politics or even Canadian affairs, inviting onto his program such true world citizens as Pico Iyer [MP3], Salman Rushdie [MP3], and Kazuo Ishiguro [MP3]. Douglas Coupland, the interviewee whose two appearances [MP3] [MP3] brought me aboard the show in the first place, has one foot on each side of Gregg’s guest list. Since writing Generation X those twenty years ago, he’s become both a proud icon of Canadian culture (just look at the line he designed for Roots, festooned with literal icons of Canadian culture) and a much-translated author popular across the world. Something about his manner, on this program and elsewhere, gets at exactly what draws me in about the Canadian sensibility, as it manifests itself in politics, in media, and — for all I know — forms beyond.

Both Coupland and Gregg speak in a manner that at first seems mild, subdued, measured — beige, almost. And if you don’t look or listen closely to Canada as a whole, much of it, too, can seem beige. But give your close attention, and it resolves into a highly unusual, nuanced shade of beige indeed. On their surfaces, Coupland, Gregg, and other pillars of Canadian media like Ideas or The Signal exude a calmative force. That in itself I value, but they also carry a payload of secret interestingness afforded by their northern provenance. Alan Gregg would appear to follow all the standard rules of interviewing — read the guest’s book, play devil’s advocate when necessary, “keep things moving” — but he does so with a subtly individual style and a seemingly genuine curiosity. The cumulative effect of these qualities over hours upon hours of listening to Allan Gregg in Conversation has led me to think of him as one of the most quietly incisive general-interest interviewers of our time. Show me the American pollster who can transcend talking-head status to achieve that — or would even want to.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Subaltern Podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: one young writer interviewing others
Episode duration: 30-50m
Frequency: weekly, in series of ten episodes

If you’ve passed through an institution of higher learning in the last twenty years, you twitch, almost imperceptibly, when you hear a word like “subaltern.” You do the same when upon hearing the terms “hegemony,” “rearticulation,” or “(dis)loc[a/u]tion.” You twitch because you remember feeling plunged into insoluble confusion, right where you sat in the lecture hall: you didn’t know whether to believe your professor was feeding you these whole verbal grapefruits in the good-faith service of important points, or whether they were just screwing with you. Maybe, as certain high-profile academics argue, their complicated arguments could only find honest expression in a vocabulary whose very comprehension demanded a mental struggle. But maybe, having themselves started out as wide-eyed undergraduates with an unquenchable love for novels or a pang in their hearts over the world’s injustices, these professors ultimately found themselves marooned in an academic hellscape of fear, insecurity, and obfuscatory self-justification. Maybe they knew only one way to rattle the bars of their cage: to make you share their painful bewilderment.

Imagine my relief, then, to find that The Subaltern Podcast [RSS] [iTunes] comes not from a haunted-eyed lecturer but from a hard-tweeting novelist. This novelist, a certain Nikesh Shukla, seems to have written a book called Coconut Unlimited, about some young British Indians who form a collectively inept hip-hop trio. I would like to read this book, just as I would like to read the many hundreds of other books that new writers all over the Anglosphere (and, in translation, beyond) are putting out as we speak. But how to choose where to begin? Even the most dedicated readers suffer under the burden of many, many thousands of exciting novels they could never hope to live long enough to crack, and that doesn’t even include the countless undoubtedly brilliant ones to be published over the rest of their lifetimes. This problem surely weighs even heavier on Shukla and his Subaltern interviewees, all reasonably young writers who must compete against every novel ever written for vanishingly scarce readerly attention.

No wonder the faces I see at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conferences look freighted with such woe. Yet I remember a reading at one of them from a someone seemed entirely, or at least relatively, free of despair: the Israeli short-story writer Etgar Keret, whom Shukla interviews in The Subaltern’s seventh episode [MP3]. Despite never having read Keret, I’ve caught enjoyable impressions of his personality in the literary zeitgeist, just as I have those of Colson Whitehead [MP3] and Teju Cole [MP3], two of Shukla’s other guests, both of whom write critically acclaimed novels, both of whose writing I know primarily from Twitter. Most of the other writers on the show appeared as, and remain, unknown quantities to me. Perhaps they publish only in the United Kingdom? Even Coconut Unlimited looks not to have gotten a release here. I imagine a United States publisher trying to figure out how to explain to American readers that, in Britain, “Asian” doesn’t just mean Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, then just shrugging and saying “screw it.”

I downloaded all of Shukla’s pub-, hotel room-, and Skype-recorded conversations after getting word that he’d interviewed Cole, whose debut novel Open City caught my eye last year. Random House, as Cole tells Shukla, mounted a strong media strategy for the book, which culminated in a capture of that literary golden calf, a review from the New Yorker’s James Wood. Referencing diaristic prose, Iain Sinclair, urban internationalism, unjudging gazes, and W.G. Sebald, this article fired me up in a way that nothing about any new novel has done in years. This led me to Cole’s Twitter feed, an exercise in reinterpreting the “small fates” described in the newspapers of modern Nigeria and old New York, which led me to The Subaltern. My collected knowledge of Cole and his work enriched the listening experience — even the parts of it mainly about Mos Def.

Alas, my lack of knowledge of many of the others on Shukla’s guest list might have hurt my listening experience. I come away from these interviews having gotten all sorts of vibes of irreverence and intellectual energy, but also regretting that I hadn’t spent time familiarizing myself in advance with whatever it is they actually, y’know, write. Even without laying the usual explanatory groundwork, Shukla draws out many an insight into their writing processes and the cultural pursuits — zombies, viral videos R. Kelly — that drive them. And hey, this is, after all, The Subaltern, whose site defines that term as “persons socially, politically and geographically outside the hegemonic power structure.” I should accept, amid my twitching, that I’ll occasionally have to do my own research. Or maybe I’ll have to stop doing most of my listening while riding tipsily home on the Blue Line. One night, I looked across the aisle and noticed another fellow, also with headphones in, and what was he reading but Open City. Even I haven’t gotten around to that!

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Travel with Rick Steves

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Vital stats:
Format: a travel guide talks to travelers and tourists
Episode duration: exactly 53:30
Frequency: weekly

Growing up in Seattle, I thought of Rick Steves as a guru for locals aspiring to European travel just as I thought of Dan Savage as a guru for locals suffering sexual complications. But even though both men initially became famous in western Washington state and continue to reside there under auras of regional heroism, they’ve eluded the attentions of that cruelest mistress, “Seattle fame.” Unlike the work of, say, Ted Narcotic, Savage and Steves’ writing has spread across pretty much the entire Anglophone world. Both have reached even wider audiences still by launching first radio shows, then podcasts. I wager that most Max Funsters already know about Savage Love (reviewed by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill here), but stand to benefit by learning about Travel with Rick Steves [RSS] [iTunes].

Just as Savage’s sex-advice column, reliably printed each and every week in Seattle’s “cooler” weekly paper, quickly became a fixture of my adolescence, Steves’ television program Rick Steves’ Europe felt ever-present. Yet I never really sat down and watched it, since I got from some of Steves’ fans the vague impression of a certain detached, cheapskate Europhilia, the kind that obligates Joe and Jane Washingtonian to go somewhere rustic in Italy or France, marvel photographically at boulevards and cathedrals, fumble through a phrasebook, and after two weeks return essentially unchanged to Microsoft or Boeing or wherever. This impression sounds uncharitable, I realize, but surely you understand the essential distinction of in-depth travel versus perfunctory tourism. While Steves is not to blame for the attitudes of his less intellectually engaged followers, I do faintly recall seeing him, in one of his shows, provide tips on how the busy traveler can best wash his underwear in the sink. This still horrifies me.

Yet possessed of the native amiability every advice-giver needs, Savage and Steves, both highly experienced men in their respective fields, outstretch their hands to pros and novices alike. Travel with Rick Steves brings in guests, more and more famous over the years, who have become icons of worldliness: Adam Gopnik [MP3] on France, David Sedaris [MP3] on France and Japan, Bernard-Henri Levy [MP3] on France and America, Paul Theroux [MP3] on more or less the entire world. Steves tends to spend time talking one-on-one with his guests, then bring callers into the mix. Phoning in from places like Des Moines, Eau Claire, and Minot, these people have what you might call a different set of concerns and sensibilities than, say, Bernard-Henri Levy does. But the collision between the guests’ slightly world-weary public-intellectualism, the callers’ but-will-they-understand-English practicality, and Steves’ own mixture of the two creates a conversational spark I rarely hear elsewhere. In its most fascinating moments, the show brings together three disparate perspectives on approaching the world: the traveler, the tourist, and the travel guide.

The world “avuncular” has lost a few threads to overuse, but I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe Steves’ on-air persona. He comes off like your unfailingly friendly, goofy uncle — the one we always assume we had, but probably didn’t — who happens to know a lot about Roman budget lodging. Perhaps this very quality led me to find him a little bland in my formative Seattle years. Yet as with any television or business personality, you have only to pay close attention to discover Steves’ more distinctive qualities. Listen to enough Travel with Rick Steves and you’ll notice, for instance, his hair-trigger awareness of cannabis culture (not that “hair-trigger” and “cannabis” come as naturally associated concepts). I mean, he makes correct inferences about David Sedaris’ pot-smoking years from nothing more than the way the man phrases a single particular descriptive sentence. Read up, and you’ll learn that, chief among his many activist-type pursuits, Steves advocates for marijuana decriminalization. The decision to do it so publicly must have taken no little bravery on his part, if my assumptions about the conservative, grandmotherly slant of a large segment of his audience are valid. (Hey, maybe we did have this uncle after all!)

Charmingly, Steves produces this show from the small town of Edmonds, Washington, where he grew up and still makes his home. Maybe he draws a feeling of balance from incessantly globetrotting as a career yet basing himself within shouting distance his junior high school. For a program built around senses of place, it comes as no surprise that he occasionally mentions Edmonds, but it did at first come as a surprise that those mentions triggered fond memories for me. I never had any reason to make the 25-mile drive there except to eat Korean food, but I now realize that one particular Edmonds restaurant — Ho Soon Yi, I believe — got me interested in Korean food, which got me interested in Korean cinema, which got me interested in the Korean language, which got me interested in traveling to Korea. I haven’t actually gone there yet, but that cascade of enthusiasms did its part to break my long-standing travel trepidation. Maybe I’m just waiting for a Travel with Rick Steves episode on the country. So Rick, I know it ain’t Europe, but what’s stopping you? Haven’t you tried Ho Soon Yi yet?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: CB Radio

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Vital stats:
Format comedian interviewing comedians (but in Austin!)
Episode duration: 12m-45m
Frequency: twice weekly

Cameron Buchholtz interviews comedians. This places him alongside several well-known podcasters, including public radio’s own Jesse Thorn (and public radio’s nearly nobody else). Cameron Buchholtz also does comedy, which places him alongside several well-known comedian-podcasters, including Marc Maron, Pete Holmes, Dave Hill, and Julie Klausner. He sets his own podcast apart in three ways, first and most obviously by giving it the delightfully punny name of CB Radio [iTunes]. (You’ll also notice its site’s sweet design.)

Second, he tends to record interviews in Austin, Texas, his city of residence. You might assume that this choice would limit him to marginal if nevertheless funny interviewees, but nope; for better or for worse, Buchholtz talks with a great many of the same comics that Los Angeles or (to a lesser extent) New York podcasters do. By catching them when their circuit — or, less often, a to-do like South by Southwest — rolls them by, he’s interviewed the likes of Jimmy Pardo [MP3], Doug Benson with Graham Ellwood [MP3], Paul F. Tompkins [MP3], Jackie Kashian [MP3], and even fellow comedian-interviewers like Pete Holmes [MP3]. I don’t need to tell you about these comics’ conversational skills; if you’ve listened to podcasts for any time at all, you already know. Holmes, in fact, somehow gets Buchholtz to publicly admit his schoolyard nickname: “Crammin’ Buttholes.” Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.

When not taking things in that direction, Buchholtz’s guests, most of whom are just passin’ through on their way out from or back toward their New York or Los Angeles homes, comment on how “cool” or “great” or “awesome” they’ve always found Austin. Sometimes they even wistfully express a desire to live there. You can tell that none will make the move, of course, unless they get pregnant or their careers hit the skids. High-profile visitors to an Austin, or a Portland, or a San Francisco — or even a Santa Barbara, which I left for Los Angeles — can’t stop drinking in the good vibes of these places, but they know in their heart of hearts that, if they actually lived in them, the world would assume they were just “dicking around.” They won’t move to Austin or Portland or wherever because it would seem like they cared more about living in a “chill” place than honing their craft. Is this a shame? Maybe it is; I don’t really know. The fact that the Onion can’t even move to Chicago without taking a death blow to its writing staff speaks volumes, though.

Yet given that he started out in Oklahoma City, Buchholtz’s move to Austin looks like a more boldly advantageous career choice than any of us have ever made. I doubt he’d have gotten a convenient chance to record with Maria Bamford [MP3] in his old hometown. Yet I wonder: does the world of podcasting really need one more conversation with Maria Bamford? Now, I relish any and all opportunities to hear Maria Bamford speak and always will, but something inside me wouldn’t mind hearing Buchholtz really get down into it with Oklahoma City’s funniest. There remains much I don’t know about that town — and almost as much I don’t know about Austin, for that matter — and I’d jump at the chance to learn more. This would necessitate a dramatic re-framing of a show like CB Radio for accessibility’s sake, since an episode title simply announcing a guest like Joe Oklahoman outwardly promises little — yet it contains the possibility of so much.

Nearly as often as they express their frustrated admiration for Austin, Buchholtz’s guests express amused surprise at his young age. In his early twenties, he doesn’t strike me as freakishly precocious, though his consistency and prolificacy do exceed that of his podcasting peer group. Though he’s probably had a birthday or two since, I’ve heard episodes where he tells inquisitive interlocutors that he’s 22. Clearly smart and a practiced performer, the man could pass on the air for, oh, 34. But just as I’ve felt my curiosity fired up to hear him use CB Radio to embrace and express his particularly Oklahoman (or Austinite-by-way-of-Oklahoman) perspective, I feel it fired up to hear him do the same with his particularly 22-or-maybe-23 perspective. Buchholtz sets his podcast apart in a third way, by usually limiting his sit-downs to under 30 minutes — and in podcasting of any kind, that is freakish — but he holds the power to become much more interestingly different still.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Dave Hill's Podcasting Incident

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Vital stats:
Format: Dave Hill talking to comedians and other people he knows, bracketed by Dave Hill talking (or shredding)
Episode duration: 45m-2h
Frequency: one or two per month

I feel the time has nearly come to define a new genre of podcasting: comedians interviewing their friends and, if they seem entertaining enough, their acquaintances and friends-of-friends. Marc Maron’s Los Angeles-based WTF became a notable early example of this, though he’s found even more success by widening his mandate to include people he doesn’t much like or simply has a curiosity about. More recently, Pete Holmes gave the idea his own peculiar spin with You Made It Weird, and Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week transplanted it into rich New York City soil. A couple years back, comedian Dave Hill launched a similar project from his own NYC base: Dave Hill’s Podcasting Incident [RSS] [iTunes].

Then again, “comedian” doesn’t quite cover it. The man also writes articles, contributes to This American Life, and plays guitar or bass in a bunch of current, former, and semi-fictional bands. He also maintains a faintly Wildean personal style, on display when he hit fashion week as a correspondent for Put This On. Hill, in other words, has made himself into a man of many skills. This would have gotten him all kinds of traction in, say, the eighteenth or nineteenth century, but in our debased modern era, this sort of thing seems to drain one’s notoriety rather than boost it. But I suspect this very range has allowed him to cultivate such a striking podcast guest list: accompanying the comedians like Tig Notaro [MP3] or Rob Delaney [MP3], we’ve got New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell [MP3], no-longer-uptight (so he claims) musician Moby [MP3], and charter Culture Club member Boy George [MP3]. See a mix of names like those, and you more or less have to download a few episodes, just to hear what could possibly be going on.

Additional intrigue gets stirred up by the occasional negative reaction to Hill mixed in with all the star-burstingly positive ones. “Most Annoying Man Ever,” reads the headline of one iTunes review. “Dave Hill is so deeply cloying, so far down the hipster ‘hands off’ irony hole, so removed from his own insincerity, that the only solution, it seems, is to hasten the destruction of the world, and everything beautiful in it, just so that Dave Hill no longer exists.” Scroll past dozens more breathless accolades, and you find someone declaring Hill “a boy playing a man” whose “detached, worldly style and fashion sense aren’t earned.” I quote these lines partially out of jealousy, since they’re just the sort of extreme reactions I myself have longed and failed to provoke, but also to underscore a point: if you either love or hate the monologues at the top of Julie Klausner’s show, the ones at the top of Dave Hill’s will force you into an even starker polarity.

The monologue, you see, has become as characteristic of the comedian-as-interviewer podcast as the interview itself. Before he cuts to his chat with Moby or Malcolm Gladwell or whomever, Hill talks solo into the microphone about this and that. He might fire off a few runs on his guitar or answer listener mail. Sometimes this runs on for a truly astonishing length relative to the interview, which is maybe what bothers those two iTunes reviewers so much. If you want to enjoy these segments, you first must get a handle on Hill’s monologue persona, which, like Marc Maron’s or Pete Holmes’s or Julie Klausner’s, doesn’t quite match the conversational one. Read Dave Hill’s Podcasting Incident’s episode descriptions. Observe the phrases used: “Part 1 of two incredible parts that most people can't even handle,” “we are both from Cleveland and how fucking sweet that is,” “Cancel everything as I unleash episode 31,” “Have a super day.” If you cannot handle these — and especially if you cannot handle them spoken in the style of a mid-period Matthew Broderick character — step carefully.

Perhaps I don’t need to say any of this to real Max Funsters; they probably know Hill well already from his appearances on The Sound of Young America and Jordan, Jesse, Go!. But if they don’t, they can always use Hill’s conversation with Jesse [MP3] as a gateway into the Podcasting Incident. It will give them a sense what separates this comedian-as-interviewer show from the others. Hill conducts what I would call “low-momentum” interviews, which sounds like a slam, but which I only mean as a description. Only podcasting allows a gentle meander like Hill’s, and only such a gentle meander yields moments like the interviewer getting up to use the bathroom while the interviewee sits alone, speaking into the recorder about the orange box his newly released DVD comes in. That interviewee’s name? Dick Cavett.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: How Did This Get Made?

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Vital stats:
Format: discussion of the various unbelievabilities of non-respected movies with comedians — and sometimes the filmmakers themselves
Episode duration: 35m-1h30m
Frequency: biweekly (with previews on the weeks between)

When I grew old enough to watch, I began watching films. When I grew old enough to read, I began reading film criticism. I’ve never slowed in either pursuit, but only lately have I realized that I don’t care if a movie is “good” or “bad.” By that I mean not only that it doesn’t matter to me if a critic, even one I read religiously, thinks a movie is good or bad — I figured that out first — but that it doesn’t matter to me if I think a movie is good or bad. We build no more rickety structures than opinions, instinctively slapping them together in the heat of the moment on foundations of shifting sand. Thumbing a picture up or down may make for a satisfying declaration of self — “I feel this way about this movie, and moreover, I exist!” — but I need to hear more. I long to discuss film as an experience, not as a mere object of acceptance or rejection — and I suspect, on some level, that you do too.

How Did This Get Made? [RSS] [iTunes] keys into that desire, though it doesn’t announce its mission in quite those words. “Have you ever watched a movie so terrible, so unwatchable, that it actually is amazing?” its iTunes description asks. Admittedly, that question alone hardly gets my blood flowing; I felt forced long ago to, in the manner of Dave Erdman, abandon enthusiasm for the intellectual and aesthetic dead end of the so-bad-it’s-good. But I didn’t replace it with undivided pursuit of “the good,” since, when I try to get my mind around it to define it, the concept disperses like smoke. I began to conceive of all cinema as a circle, with the movies people call “good” and the movies people call “bad” meeting at one particularly fascinating point. I downloaded a slew of this podcast’s episodes when I heard Patton Oswalt, in a guest appearance on How Was Your Week?, tell Julie Klausner that its crew doesn’t just bitch and moan about movies they don’t like; they treat their widely reviled subjects as sources of interestingness equal to their most respected brethren.

This crew, by the way, comprises comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas (who, we are often told, is not on Twitter). They watch recent and recent-ish releases like Sucker Punch, Gigli, and Battlefield Earth, movies whose box-office performances vary but around all of whom the stink of failure hangs heavily. They sometimes discuss them with comedy-type guests like Matt Walsh [MP3], Paul Rust [MP3], and Maximum Fun’s own Jordan Morris [MP3]. In a series of clever coups for a show not about to dole out praise, they occasionally bring in guests involved in the production of the fortnight’s film, like Greg Sestero, co-star and jack-of-all-trades on Tommy Wiseau’s immortal The Room [MP3] or — wait for it — the star of Cool as Ice, the one and only Vanilla Ice [MP3]. (For the last fifteen minutes of the episode, anyway.)

The talk with involved parties, a raid on the store of curiosity-satiating behind-the-scenes details they possess, highlights the best instincts driving How Did This Get Made? While certain films feel distant and thus somehow malevolently shoddy, reducing the panel to bouts of angered dismissal — Battlefield Earth comes back to mind — others provoke a richer question: no, really — how did this get made? The conversations usually revolve around what the Internet kids call “WTF moments”: the inexplicable events, actions, and creative choices these selections offer in spades. The show’s most memorable times come when Scheer, Raphael, Mantzoukas, and guests don’t just point and gawp in astonishment but genuinely try to figure out what they’ve seen, why they’ve seen it, and how it came to be seeable in the first place. Some of these questions have no answers. Perhaps none do, but grappling with them casts light on so much about how movies work and how different viewers engage with them in different ways.

But I don’t want to make this sound too heady. How Did This Get Made? adheres to several old showbiz commandments like the one about leavin’ ’em wantin’ more, which it does by usually ending on or before the 45-minute mark, and the one about keepin’ it light, which it does with invitations for the listeners to submit Love Guru character names of their own invention. I don’t know if Vaudeville had anything to say about reading aloud Amazon.com reviews by the semi-literate, but if it did, Scheer and co., with their recurring segment “Second Opinions,” have pulled off a hat trick. Yet I would submit that they ignore the cinematic brain trust of Netflix user-reviewers at their peril. About Ran, for instance, one Netflicker lamented that “there was too many horsehoof beats.” Not that any Kurosawa film would ever land on the chopping block of a show like this. But it makes you wonder: wouldn’t a movie podcaster face the greatest of challenge of all not in actively watching and discussing not the Sucker Punches of the world, nor the Rans, but the vast desert of apparent unremarkability between? CineMediocrity: one of you, please, take this idea and run with it. If you can bear it.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: How Was Your Week?

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Vital stats:
Format: Julie Klausner talking to comedians and other people she knows, bracketed by Julie Klausner talking about her week
Episode duration: 40m-1h30m
Frequency: weekly

Besides the red hair and gay fanbase, do I have any reason to think of Julie Klausner as “the good Kathy Griffin?” Undoubtedly not, but I can’t force the label out of my mind. Among their countless points of dissimilarity, Griffin lives in Los Angeles, while Klausner remains insistently New York-based. I say “insistently” because of how many comedy people seem to glide inexorably toward Los Angeles these days, as if on rails. Even if you actually do it out of pure inertia, staying in New York always strikes me a choice — as a stand, even. Oh, and Klausner does this acclaimed podcast called How Was Your Week? [RSS] [iTunes], which Griffin doesn’t. That’s a big difference.

Listen to How Was Your Week?, and you will hear all about Klausner’s insistently New York life. Sometimes her weeks involve suffering poor customer service at the hands of a sneering, transgendered Uniqlo employee; sometimes they simply culminate in bed, ice cream, and eleven episodes of something. She offers these details in the solo segments that come at the beginning and end of each episode, which usually bracket an interview. It plays a little like what Marc Maron does on WTF, leading into the day’s conversation with a life’s vicissitudes-inspired improvised monologue, but Klausner gives you more monologue and less conversation. Each installment showcases Klausner the speaker roughly one half of time, and Klausner the interviewer in the other half.

On some days, though, it feels like Klausner the speaker stretches out to overtake most of the runtime. This will delight some and make others wince, since I get an audience-polarizing vibe from the persona she uses alone at the mic, which heavily involves the comedic technique of spinning out a sentence to just a few words too many, or clarifying just a little too much. She might drop a reference to some oft-referenced element of pop culture, for instance, and follow it up with a singsong “Ref-erennnnce!” Or she’ll describe her attempt to end an e-mail argument with a nutty enraged stranger and then add, “You know what didn’t work? That.” Or she’ll mention her “bodarino — because that’s what I’m calling my body now.” I imagine listeners, depending upon their disposition, either eating this up or fasting it forward, though Klausner’s tendency to follow all oratorical lines to their fizzling end does produce moments of what I would call brilliance. That e-mail argument had to do with women who she feels manically affect elements of youthful sloppiness: purple nail polish, Smartie necklaces, rompers, in which Klausner wonders aloud how you’re supposed to urinate. “Are you naked on the toilet?” she asks.

Rompers actually provide some of the most socially relevant subject matter covered in these stretches, when Klausner typically sticks near-exclusively to the aggressively inconsequential: upper-arm flab, Nancy Grace’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, Michael Keaton. Early on, I felt like this left me with little to show for my time spent listening, but the more episodes of How Was Your Week? I hear, the more I come to see it as, consciously or unconsciously performed, an act of balance. When Klausner brings on her guests, she rarely wastes time getting right into the substantial stuff. It doesn’t take long for her talk with David Rakoff [MP3] to turn to cancer, AIDS, and Jewish cakes; nor can she and Patton Oswalt [MP3] resist launching into fascinating discussion of the psychological mechanics of writing. And by now I’ve heard so many thoughtful chats when Tom Scharpling [MP3] guests on podcasts that I find myself on the verge of rolling up my sleeves and plowing into all the Best Show lore I assume I must master before listening to it.

As you can see, Klausner’s New-Yorkiness also results in a somewhat different guest list than those of all the Los Angeles-based comedians-talking-to-people podcasts. Sure, sometimes she records in Los Angeles and sometimes Los Angeles people come to her in New York, but How Was Your Week? remains the only show I know of equipped to offer Ira Glass and his wife [MP3] and Sandra Bernhard [MP3] within four months of one another. And I realize I must now sound like one of those insufferable coastals who assumes that Los Angeles and New York are the only places to live in the United States, but hey, if you can show me another American city that inspires such fear and loathing, be my guest.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]
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