Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Resonance FM

Posted by Maximum Fun on 13th December 2009

Since last column, your Podthinker has heard heard hip-hop, electronic dance music, remarks on conceptualism, a discussion of Bruges and Ghent, video game industry rumors, birdcalls from the 19th century, harrowing stories of bike wipeouts, walks through Longon alleys and a hell of a lot of field recordings. It’s been an interesting week on Resonance FM.

What radio station would dare allow such variety, you ask, let alone release it unadulterated in a single podcast? Having begun broadcasting operations in earnest in May 2002, Resonance has pumped out an unbelievably creative range of programs ever since. Readers living in central London can (usually) simply tune their radio dials to 104.4 and drink it in. Those outside of it can turn to the live stream. As for the especially discerning ones who, like your Podthinker, both live outside Resonance’s broadcast range and insist on listening to everything on demand, they can pull down the station’s podcast of everything [iTunes] [RSS].

Eager to engage in what Resonance’s slogan calls “the art of listening,” your Podthinker downloaded big chunk of the archive and let the station provide the background to every trip, chore and errand. This ever-shifting stream of entertainment and information was welcome, but it was the element of surprise that really set it apart. Every half-hour or so, the sentiment resurfaced: “Whoa. Radio can be like this?” The programs experienced by your Podthinker over the past week, each of which contributed, in its own way, to Resonance’s overall “whoa”-induciveness, are as follows:

Art Monthly, which seems to be associated with the magazine of the same name, featured a discussion of a newly-published reader on modern art culture. Sedate yet lively, this is the sort of art talk show bound to give rise within its listeners a feeling along the lines of “I am glad to be listening to this.”

While it rarely strays from its mandated topic, the gaming-centric One Life Left somehow doesn’t feel like any of the other video game podcasts your Podthinker has been suggested. This is perhaps thanks to the show’s triangular hosting team of Ste, Simon and Ann, who approach video games in a somewhat less insider-y way than others; theirs is the enthusiasm you could hear anyone have about anything. And even though their program sounds live, all their timing with segments and whatnot is absolutely spot-on. Maybe it’s a practice-makes-perfect situation — OLL stands as one of Resonance’s longest-running institutions.

But with Ventures and Adventures in Topography, the vast possibilities of freeform radio as practiced by Resonance truly revealed themselves. A show about “the rich tradition of early 20th century topographical walking guides to London and the South East” and nothing else, it combines literary explorations of a variety of old-school books on London peripatetism with field-recorded explorations of London today. Perhaps this is just his enthusiasm for Werner Herzog-style walking journeys and Will Self-style “psychogeography” talking, but by this point your Podthinker was already weeping for the radio projects as peculiarly delightful as VAT that have never been cultivated in the States.

Sean Williams’ Voice on Record, a weekly presentation of vintage recordings of the spoken word, had a similar effect. It’s not a show where people come on and talk, nor where people play typical sorts of recordings — it’s a show which plays atypical sorts of recordings of people coming on and talking: recollections from long-ago documentarians of wildlife, bowling tips, early English dialects, what have you. Again, could we just trade in a ranchera station or two for something like this?

The winning streak continued with The Bike Show, subject obvious. On this installment, host Jack Thurston told of his cycling trip from Montreal to New York City, but not just by sitting there in the studio and reminiscing — he actually played recordings he made all along the road. Hearing Thurston describe one leg of the journey into his sound recorder from inside his tent as the rain beat down on its roof, one wonders how he put together a more engaging, more evocative production than the best-funded public radio shows around can manage.

Rhythym Incursions came as one of Resonance’s many solid music shows, though how much of it can be conveyed in words? Perhaps it’ll suffice to say that your Podthinker, who owns next to no hip-hop, was nonetheless gripped throughout these (ostensibly hip-hop but not quite so genre-rigid) mixes.

Offering a supremely well-curated selection of field recordings, Framework won over your Podthinker immediately. But then again, those who read his Podthought on WFMU’s Airborne Event Dronecast could have predicted that.

It only makes sense that such an eclectic radio week would be capped off by a roundtable about Belgium. This week’s Wavelength focused on what Belgium’s like, who likes Belgium, why more people don’t get excited about Belgium and why more people probably should. Dull as this may sound to some Euro-readers, presenter William English and company pull it off splendidly. (And anyone who’s spent a healthy chunk of time tuned in to some of the U.S.’ top stations would doubtless kill for a half-hour on Belgium.)

Somehow, Resonance seems to have locked onto the magic combination of total freeform formatting (if that’s not an oxymoron) without the amateurishness that attends it in other settings. With luck, the less money there is to make in the medium, the more Resonance-style outfits will rise. This may irk those in thrall to the belief that radio’s dying, but: dying? Cripes, man, it’s only just emerging from the dark ages.

Vital stats:
Format: variety of freeform radio shows
Duration: ~30m-2h
Frequency: multiple episodes per day
Archive available on iTunes: last 50

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]