Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Arts and Ideas

Posted by Maximum Fun on 15th March 2010

Far be it from your Podthinker to listen to the BBC and then bitch and moan that “they don’t have anything like this in America,” but, well, they don’t have anything like this in America. After a critical mass of Euro-bloggers favorably referenced the Radio 3 program Night Waves, a bit of diligence came due. The show’s official site calls it the station’s “flagship arts and ideas programme, featuring in-depth interviews; vociferous debates on key cultural and philosophical questions; and critics’ judgement on the latest releases.” All of that — save, of course, that wacky spelling of “program” — sounded intriguing indeed.

Alas, there is no Night Waves podcast. But the BBC’s internet arm offers the next best thing in the form of Arts and Ideas [RSS] [iTunes], a podcast offering the “best of” Night Waves. Now, your Podthinker is immediately dubious about all “best of” operations, for one simple reason: who decides what’s “best”? All too often, whoever does decide interprets “best,” programmatically and predictably, as “most popular.” Ponder, for a moment, all those unloved and unlistenable hit-singles CDs stacking up in landfills.

Maybe that’s what’s happening with the compression of Night Waves into Arts and Ideas, but the listening experience still beats, say, Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, and that’s like the best-selling album in America. This tip fortunately retains the rest of the iceberg’s intellectual variety: one episode includes a segment on Martin Amis’ new novel, a not-entirely-unrelated segment on the state of feminism today, and a probably-unrelated segment on cloud computing. The currently available podcast offers coverage of figures as disparate as “French intellectual” (because that is its own job title) Helene Cixous, Gothic novel originator Horace Walpole, Harvard doctor and social network buff Nicholas Christakis and novelists Hilary Mantel and Jonathan Safran Foer, the latter of whom ponders his vegetarianism pretty hard.

So it’s like a thinker’s salon piped directly into one’s ear canal. And yes, more than a few podcasts fit that description, but how many have hosts and guests willing to take one another to the mat in intellectually honest ways? This is the part we don’t have in America. When one of these Night Waves correspondents grapples with their interviewee or one panelist on a subject gets another in their crosshairs, you can tell their attacks are composed of roughly 70 percent thought and only 30 percent emotion or identity, where, in most U.S. programming, the numbers are reversed. At least. Brit talk show hosts seem trained for this sort of thing; they’re always prepared with a corralling technique or a plummy comeback to a visitor overstepping their bounds.

An iTunes user review of Arts and Ideas, submitted by one “supasamurai” and subject-headed “Blah blah blah blah blah,” complains: “If you like to listen to a bunch of know it alls [sic] chat about random issues, this is the podcast for you.” This supasamurai fellow has a point! These people do seem to know a lot — it not exactly all — and the show they’re on moves from issue to issue with an unpredictability that feels exhilarating. Your Podthinker would have gone with at least three and a half stars rather than two, but star ratings suck anyway.

Vital stats:
Format: discussion of arts — and ideas!
Duration: 50m-1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: only the latest one, as usual (damn you, BBC!)

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]