Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The New York Times Book Review podcast

Posted by Maximum Fun on 14th March 2011

Vital stats:
Format: NYTBR content-reflective segment collections
Episode duration: 15-25m
Frequency: weekly

I subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. I mean, you have to, right? Isn’t it the law? Besides, how else would I keep tabs on the number of weeks The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has hung in there? You may raise the matter of the internet, but to me, a web browser never quite feels like the right home for the NYT’s book coverage. Something within demands — needs — the sad preposterousness of all those ads for self-published memoirs, the unbridled decadence of Bauman Rare Books’ price lists, the joy of pictures not quite aligned with their own colors.

So if the web falls just short of suitability for the Book Review, what hope can we hold out for its podcast [RSS] [iTunes]? To be fair, the idea has merit, especially given what I imagine as the beyond-connectedness of such a literary-media institution. If they can’t arrange the cooperation of all the right authors, critics, and generalized “book people,” who can? This, it seems, drives the show to provide a sort of cornucopia each week: a single episode might easily contain an interview with an author, an appearance by a critic, some chat about current bestsellers, and a bit of miscellany.

One problem: all these episodes run under half and hour, and some merely half that. So we’re talking a few minutes with an author, a few minutes with a critic, a few minutes about bestsellers — thought that’s probably to the good — and a few minutes of miscellany. A focus group might eventually grind their way to a conclusion that they want this — life is short, gotta hustle, executive summary, etc. — but it winds up poisoning a show’s potential in about 400 different ways at once.

Take, for just one important example, what such a time limit does to conversations: specifically, it bludgeons them into grotesque anti-conversations, turning responses into response-flavored non-responses meant only to “keep things moving,” forcing hosts to resort to flat, dead pre-written questions. The host of this podcast, NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus clearly must have the interest and the chops this gig demands, but he apparently feels he needs to questions like this one of Walter Isaacson, who reviewed a new biography of Socrates: “You call this a ‘donut-shaped’ biography. What is that?”

This made me sad. Unless he somehow managed not to read Isaacson’s review, Tanenhaus knows the answer to that question. I don’t care how much interviewing experience you’ve racked up; you’ll never have anything approaching an engaging conversation by asking questions you already know the answer to you. No amount of fakery can paper over your lack of genuine interest in knowing the answer. I mean, jeez; Tanenhaus is an insider. He’s been around. He’s read a hell of a lot. Surely he has much to ask of Walter Isaacson — to ask for real — on the natural rhythm of a conversation, at the length of a natural conversation.

But alas. The NYTBR’s podcast remains mainly a bundle of potential, a condition that will obtain for as long as its producers insist on laboring under the conventions of a “magazine show.” As much as I’ve loved old media, the notion that you should cram a bunch of surface-scratching segments into half an hour belongs to it and it alone. I’d listen to all of these clips as episodes of their own, at whatever length they need. Therein lies the beauty of this new frontier; if you’re not into it, the standardized ground of newsprint has more to offer.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 205 new subscribers to survive the year.]