Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “Stuff You Should Know”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 20th July 2009

Readers who, like your Podthinker, were slacking their way through high school in the early 2000s — cue groans from readers who were rushing to maternity wards or negotiating mortgage terms in the early 2000s — understand that, in that benighted pre-Facebook, pre-YouTube, pre-podcast (!) technological era, one method of goofing off in computer lab classes stood head and shoulders above the rest: playing Java games. But if the school’s bumbling information technology staff somehow managed to disable Java, we had an almost-as-compelling backup: HowStuffWorks.com.

A colorful, information-rich repository of answers to such burning questions as “How do brakes work?”, “How do camcorders work?” and “How do goji berries work?”, the site continues, your Podthinker hopes, to entertain stultified seventeen-year-olds the world over. Fortunately, given what must me an omniscient grasp of how media technology works, HowStuffWorks’ creators have diversified from just articles to be read when the teacher’s on the other side of the room to podcasts to be heard through headphones the teacher can’t see. (Vaguely ironic that educators would crack down on the consumption of such educational content, huh?) Though they put out a few different programs, the one most in line with HowStuffWorks’ core mission is Stuff You Should Know [iTunes link]. As disparate as the two forms may be, the difference in subject matter between the text and the sound could hardly be smaller: “How does toxoplasmosis work?” [MP3], “How do Ponzi schemes work?” [MP3], “How do redheads work?” [MP3], that sort of thing.

But whereas the main HowStuffWorks site tends to deal primarly in words and images, Stuff You Should Know plays out as a conversation between the co-hosts, Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark, two regular-ish guys (probably) just like you. Though they clearly have their own mild obsessions — urban exploration, spontaneous human combustion — they don’t deliberately bring any super-advanced knowledge they may possess to bear on the questions at hand, preferring to approach them like curious, motivated nonspecialists — just like the listener! And, being something like goofs themselves, they imbue the proceedings with levity by way of a healthy amount of goofing. Their japes, jabs and personal anecdotes season the podcast with a bit of the flavor of a TTWGBAC, except a tad more erudite: instead of discussing The Karate Kid Part II, they discuss the intricacies of cannibalism and extended warranties. So, win-win!

Another refreshing element of the show is its length, whose average hovers around 25 minutes but which sometimes brushes the mid-30s. The lazy podcaster’s method for handling this same material would be to bust out five minutes per question, speed-talking a brief answer and then telling to the listener to get to the web site and click on the ads already. While your Podthinker certainly wouldn’t mind hearing an even greater amount of time devoted to each question, the healthy chunks Stuff You Should Know puts forth don’t want for rhythm, substance or that ineffable organic quality that gets killed when shows try to compress too ambitious an amount of conent into too small a temporal space.

Vital stats:
Format: burning questions scientific, technological, medical, social, etc. answered
Running since: April 2008
Duration: 15m-35m
Frequency: twice weekly, at least
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions or threats for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]