Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Posted by Maximum Fun on 5th July 2010

Vital stats:
Format: short ancient history documentaries framed by artifacts
Duration: ~15m
Frequency: every day or two or three
Archive available on iTunes: all (which, for the BBC, is astonishing)

We might divide the world of podcasts into two groups: those you have to pay a lot of attention to, and those you don’t have to pay a lot of attention to. My years of Podthinking have taught me that most podcasts are the latter. Most podcasts are driven by jokes, tone, personality, things like that; they’re more like content slurries, and thus don’t need you to follow them closely. The set of podcasts that demand the whole of your awareness is thinner on the ground and asks you to exert a more deliberate listening effort. But it repays that effort and then some; the best material in podcasting stands in those ranks. The BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects [RSS] [iTunes] is a prime example.

It will come as no surprise to hardened podcast-listeners that this show is a production of BBC’s Radio 4. No matter how atrocious, say, BBC TV gets, somehow Radio 4 keeps quietly chugging along untainted, putting out some of the finest radio (and thus finest podcasts) in the world. They’re best known (by me) for In Our Time, an academic roundtable on the history of ideas that ranks among my personal favorite things ever. A History of the World in 100 Objects is a shorter, more production-intensive affair, and presumably a limited edition: each day or three, it’s a nearly fifteen-minute documentary about a certain ancient artifact from the British Museum. The first was the Mummy of Hornedjitef [MP3]. Then you’ve got your bird-shaped pestle [MP3], your Mold gold cape [MP3], your Hoxne pepper pot [MP3], your Japanese bronze mirror [MP3], and so on and so forth.

That framing device is as fascinating as it sounds, and given the BBC’s resources, each episode reaches impressively far and wide for its voices. Any given object will bring together the show’s narrators, several experts on the object’s time and/or place, journalistic and institutional types who have encountered it, and “extras” like, for example, the people who first discovered the thing. They’re all united by a rich mix of music and sound effects which, though sometimes hokey — I swear I have heard a gong used to invoke things Asian multiple times — it gives the show an intriguing sonic depth, which you might say matches its informational depth.

That informational depth is a great asset of this show, as it is of most any full-attention-needing podcast. It’s also a strange sort of liability since, well, it needs your full attention. While I’d never claim that asking for a listener’s full attention is in itself a bad thing, it does somewhat limit the settings in which you can enjoyably listen. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve had to restart an episode after needing to focus on something in the “real world” for a moment and later realizing that I don’t know who’s speaking or quite what they’re speaking about. What’s this about Vikings? The monument to the who now? Buried where? Maybe this is why the production is so dense: so you don’t mind re-listening to the first five, ten minutes over and over. You hear different stuff every time in those layers upon layers, even besides gongs.

I doubt this would happen in the don’t-need-much-attention podcasts. You could lose a few minutes in the middle of Never Not Funny, say, and still be just fine. Not so with anything Radio 4 puts out, or many of the most admirable shows I’ve covered in this column before. So where and when, then, should we listen to these tightly constructed, information-dense, miss-a-moment-and-you-miss-it-all sort of shows? I’ve had decent luck on buses and trains, or just before going to bed. But it’s still awfully limiting. Maybe it’s high time we all just went back to gathering ‘round the wireless, heads cocked in rapt attention at a speaker.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]