Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Signal

Posted by Maximum Fun on 6th June 2010

Vital stats:

Format: crafted, hosted, almost old-school hybridized electronica, freaky folk, avant-garde jazz, post-rock (and so on) music mixes
Duration: 1h
Frequency: every Thursday
Archive available on iTunes: all

Okay, full disclosure: I did once interview Laurie Brown and Andy Sheppard, host and producer, respectively, of CBC Radio 2’s The Signal. But in my defense, I did it because I think the show is awesome, and thus it only stands to reason that I’d review the podcast version of the show once it inevitably emerged. Plus, as you’ve surely gathered from my previous reviews of Canadian podcasts, I am a stealth Canada fan — a traitor to mom and apple pie, practically.

The Signal Podcast [RSS] [MP3] is, just like the nightly “real” radio program that spawned it, a music show. But what kind of music are we talking about? Tricky question. That’s actually part of the reason I invited the program’s creators onto my own show; even after many hours of fandom-driven listening, I couldn’t produce even a marginally descriptive answer. Here’s what I got:

Laurie Brown: It’s just as hard for us as it is for you. We’ve got lots of different names, and because we play so many genres of music, it’s really easy to spout off a whole bunch of different things: “Oh, it’s ambient, it’s electronic, it’s electronica, it’s sort of freaky folk, it’s avant-garde jazz, it’s post-rock…” The thing that makes the most sense to me is, just think about late-night radio and think about the kind of music and the places you really want your brain to go at 10:00 through to midnight.

Andy Sheppard: We’re programming a lot of music that exists at the intersection of different styles. We’re not going to play straight folk music or straight singer-songwriter or neo-classical music but music where the lines cross. You’ll have a classical musician paired with a DJ or a world musician and an electronic artist.

“Late-night radio” might not sound so descriptive as a musical aesthetic, but in this case it turns out to apply quite well. The Signal isn’t exactly all about the music; it really is the sort of crafted, continuous-yet-discrete radio experience that’s so awfully difficult to come by in this day and age. Each show begins with the most accessible edge of the particular sort of theme or subgenre or sensibility of hybridized electronica, freaky folk, avant-garde jazz, post-rock, etc. being explored, and then it gets deeper, obscurer and — natch — more interesting. In our interview, they liken it to first offering the gateway drugs, then sliding into the hard stuff.

Brown comes in between the tracks to talk a little about what’s being spun, sure, but mostly to exist as the quintessential friendly, intimate, unconventionally and sometimes inexplicably cool DJ presence. Her persona is inseparable from the musical sensibility, and vice versa. Maybe I’ve simply been desensitized by all the — no kind way to put this — doofuses one finds announcing on mainstream music radio, but Brown just seems like this perpetual tidal wave of wit and urbanity in comparison.

Though us non-Canadians wouldn’t necessarily know it, she’s a veteran of the Great White North’s art media business: she’s hosted a bunch of shows and put in her time, I believe, as a DJ on that country’s equivalent of MTV. This storied life has given her much to talk about; when she’s not discussing the emotional nuances of the experimental cut just played, she’s delivering one in her seemingly bottomless barrel of quirky personal anecdotes.

While I’ve essentially been describing The Signal in its traditional broadcast incarnation — which, as a southern California resident well out of the CBC’s range, I routinely stream on Internet — the podcast is more or less exactly a shorter, “podsafer” version of it. The songs it features are of the very same barely-describable flavor, though there presumably the ones that happen to have been authorized past all that nasty copyright business. But frankly, I’m just biding my time until the creaky apparatus of intellectual property law comes crashing down, bringing us all a music podcast paradise. At least that’s what I think Cory Doctorow promised me. He’s Canadian, right? He knows about this stuff.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your frosh mixer? colinjmarshall at gmail.]