When I was a teenager I watched a lot of C-SPAN. I know that sounds very weird, that at the time when most people were drinking and partying I was watching Congressional debates on allocating funds towards soybean farmers. What I valued most valued C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 (how lucky was I to live in a house with such a cable package!) was that it was and is an alternative to the braying disorder that is most of television. My favorite shows was Booknotes, the uninterrupted hour on Sunday where Brian Lamb and a single author spoke about the author’s latest book, always non-fiction. Short of public radio I could never witness discussion that was calm and intelligent like that on Booknotes and elsewhere on C-SPAN.
Thanks to the international language that is podcasting I have found another place that features such an exchange of ideas. Every week the BBC posts the latest episode of the weekly Radio 4 program In Our Time (iTunes link) with Melvyn Bragg, who with a name like that could have little choice in life but to host an intellectual BBC radio show. In Our Time is dryer than even Booknotes, which at least opened and closed each show with a bit of classical music. The 41 minute show opens with Bragg saying saying “hello” to us and giving a quick introduction on the subject of the week. While it’s pretty easy to describe what most podcast are abouts with In Our Time the general summarization I can give you is that it’s about, and I chose every word here carefully, important stuff. The current show of this week is the history of the Statue of Liberty. Past subjects include Plate Tectonics, The Fibonacci Sequence and Antimatter. The goal of the show is clearly to educate anyone with a radio or access to the Internet of what is around us but of which we know little about. If you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned about The Sassanain Empire from that one history class at college, if you ever learned about it at all, In Our Time is here to give you an healthy overview of the subject.
In Our Time’s format is as rigid as its choice of subject matter is fluid. Bragg hosts three experts on the week’s subject, usually professors. He asks pointed questions to each creating a clear portrait of the subject, examining the complexities as the show goes on. Bragg’s talents as a host shines when he’s juggling the points-of-view of three tremendously learned individuals. He keeps everything tight but nothing ever feels rushed.
For all its achievement I fear In Our Time might lost something in the podcast format. I’m one of those people who usually listens to podcasts while doing something else, be it cooking or riding the bus. The show is so dry that I find my concentration easily distracted and I end up missing large segments of conversation if I’m in the middle of something. Maybe that’s the fault of my own poor attention span although I rarely find this happening with other podcasts I listen to. You do have to devote your time to In Our Time but it is worth it.