Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Big Ideas

Posted by Maximum Fun on 13th May 2012

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.]