Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Faroe Islands Podcast

Posted by Maximum Fun on 12th August 2013

Vital stats:
Format: interviews with the movers and shakers of an archipelago you probably haven’t heard of
Episode duration: 15-45m
Frequency: 2-5 per month

When I first heard of The Faroe Islands Podcast [RSS] [iTunes], I heard it as a sort of punchline. “Oh man, this archipelago off of Europe? That only has 50,000 people? The Faroe Islands? There’s an entire podcast about it.” But really, how far does this separate it from so many other podcasts? This show covers all aspects of life on the Faroe Islands, and going by its episodes on Faroese broadcasting, any media pertaining to the place manages near-automatically to draw the attention of a sizable chunk of the population. A reasonably successful podcast about, say, one particular Doctor Who Doctor might attract five or ten thousand listeners. But a Faroe Islands news broadcast pulls in an astonishing fifty percent of the viewership. More than a few of those 25,000 — or of the English-speaking fraction of that 25,000, anyway — would, I wager, want to take a listen to The Faroe Islands Podcast, a production about a niche country in a niche-friendly medium, even if only out of curiosity.

This narrow focus has another advantage. Listening the show’s 182-and-counting episodes, I kept thinking back to, of all books, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Pirsig relates a story from his alter ego Phaedrus’ teaching days at Montana State College. One of his students wants to write “a 500-word essay on America” but can think of nothing to say. When Phaedrus suggests she write about just the city of Bozeman instead, she still comes back empty-handed. He then tells her to write just about Bozeman’s main street, but she again comes back without a paper. He finally suggests she write only about the front of Bozeman’s opera house, beginning with its upper-leftmost brick. Lo and behold:

She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.

[ … ]

She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

In this way, The Faroe Islands Podcast runs on a consistent volume of steam in a way that The America Podcast might not. While it might at first seem unambitious to podcast about the goings-on of such a tiny country, it ultimately presents a greater challenge than podcasting about the goings-on of a large one. Or at least it presents a greater disincentive to laziness: the folks behind The Faroe Islands Podcast have to constantly seek out interviews, stories, and field recordings, whereas those who would make The America Podcast could simply dump their “analysis” atop a handful of New York Times articles and call it an episode.

To put the bar even higher, host Matthew Workman doesn’t actually live in the Faroes. When he began the podcast, he’d never even visited them. According to his Twitter profile, he now resides in Portland, Oregon, a city that, with its population of 580,000, seems sedate when you’ve come from one of the United States’ majors, but one that must feel like Tokyo when you’ve come from the Faroes, whether from its villages or its difficult-to-pronounce capital city. But when he first became aware of the Faroes, Workman lived in the smaller Oregonian town of Medford, where his increasingly Faroe-centric blogging caught the eye of the local media. “He’s Never Been There…” announces the headline of a 2009 Medford Mail Tribune article, “But He’ll Tell You All About It.” Though the piece mentions the imminent launch of The Faroe Islands Podcast, it mostly covers the origin of the blog from which it sprang, which “fits right in the Faroese tourism board’s mission to bring greater awareness about the country and its offerings.”

The Faroes, so I gather from the podcast, have recently come up in the world. Running on a fishing economy seemingly since its first inhabitation and essentially disconnected from international media since the nineties, the country has in this century set about building itself a profile. In that it faces a host of challenges, not least the fact that much of its initial appeal lies in its very obscurity. It happened that way for Workman himself, who plunged down the Faroe hole because he hadn’t heard of the place before, which he describes as “a big deal for me because I’m a huge map nerd.” My own minor cartographical fixation had never led me to discover the Faroes either, though at world-map scale they barely reveal themselves to the naked eye. Unified with Norway in 1035, ceded to Denmark in 1814, and only granted home rule in 1948, the Faroes have also no doubt endured a few identity issues. Yet as Workman’s mostly Skype-based interviews with Faroese and Faroes-based expats reveal, the place has held fast, culturally: they’ve retained their own language, their own door-locking habits (they don’t), their own TV station. And boy, do they have their own scenery.

The Faroe Islands Podcast’s guests make much of the striking panorama of sea and sky which surrounds the Faroes, not to mention the clusters of hyper-quaint Nordic architecture at the center of it all, but words inevitably fail them. Then again, podcasting has few strengths as a visual medium; you get a clearer idea of the islands’ aesthetic from the field recordings collected by the show’s Faroes-based producer. Snapshots, and visitors take many, give you an idea of what caliber of beauty to expect, but as the desginer Tibor Kalman said, “I have no problem with beauty, but it isn’t very interesting.” Yet I get the sense that a visit to the Faroes makes you realize what my visit to the New Zealand’s south island made me realize: some kinds of beauty, especially when presented in unreal remoteness, only turn interesting when physically experienced. This Workman discovered recording the stretch of episodes when, at long last, he goes to the Faroe Islands himself. Even if the country wouldn’t suit your own tastes — I once lived in the similarly picturesque Santa Barbara, population 90,893, but had to move when I just couldn’t take the smallness anymore, so it probably wouldn’t suit mine — but that doesn’t change the show’s fascination: that is to say, Workman’s own, with such a little-known part of the world. Behold all the original and direct seeing (and hearing) such a fascination can generate, from such an old and long-isolated setting, with modern tools of connection.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]