The end of this month has somewhat snuck up on me. I did fully intend to track down some interesting and different sound projects to talk about this month but it never really happened. But what this month did involve was a lot of podcast listening, so having talked about my favourite new fictional podcast discoveries last month, I reckon its high time I talked about some recent non-fiction podcast discoveries.
For years people have been trying to convince me of the joys of This American Life, but I’ve been resisting it. When I first got into podcasts the best part of a decade ago, I really struggled with American podcasts – I found them really disconcerting, something about the accent or the subject matter, I just couldn’t get into them. Listening to podcasts from here in the UK was fine; perhaps because I was used to speech radio as the BBC does it and much of their podcast content is essentially the highlights of their arts and current affairs output. While podcasts from other UK providers in the early days of podcasts, were heavily influenced by – or reacting against – the BBC’s speech radio output. Over time my antipathy to American podcasts has faded – probably as a result of podcasts in general getting more adventurous and coming into their own more – and with my continuing fondness for Welcome to Nightvale and Serial – more about the latter later – I tried This American Life again. I fully accept that this will be considered sacrilege to many podcast fans, but I just don’t feel the love for it. I don’t hate it, it doesn’t annoy me, if I listen to an episode I generally find it interesting, but it just doesn’t compel me to listen to episode after episode.
For me, 99% Invisible fulfils the promise that so many people made me about This American Life. Perhaps its because the podcast started out in its presenter’s bedroom before being pulled into the public radio realm, it retains an idiosyncratic and charming quality that I prefer. (Maybe my interests just align better with that of their production team?) Maybe its because the episodes are shorter, I’m not sure, but somehow they manage to give just enough information to satisfy your curiosity so that even if the subject isn’t fascinating to you, what you learn is still interesting and you don’t have time to get bored. To me they’re little snippets of insight into unfamiliar worlds and the oddities and eccentricities of American life that I would never otherwise have considered.
I love food. My other blog is a food blog. Cooking is my go-to form of stress-relief and I recently became a vegetarian. I have lots of feelings about food.
I’ve been consuming Gastropod irregularly for a while now. Someone recommended it to me and I looked up the website, listened to the soundcloud imbed of the current episode, enjoyed it but had too much of an existing podcast backlog to subscribe. However, I never did close the tab it was in, so over the last year I would occasionally discover it in a tab, browse the latest episodes, listen to one and move on again. I only recently subscribed because I figured that something I kept coming back to and enjoying was worth making time for. It’s the history and science of food and while its not necessarily life-changing, it is certainly perspective changing. The episode titles are quirky, the science is interesting and the hosts are funny and likeable. They get in a whole range of interesting experts and passionate amateurs, and they seem really interested in each topic which I think really helps in terms of making it interesting to the listener.
Weirdly, given my antipathy towards This American Life, I love this podcast. The same team makes it and the story that kicked it off was at one point intended to be an episode of that show that grew arms and legs. And perhaps that’s the reason that it grabbed my attention. It wasn’t just an interesting real life murder mystery; this story had taken over the reporter’s life for an entire year. (There’s a passion there, that fantasy of the passionate crusading journalist you’re sold as a kid.) There’s something about long-form journalism that I adore. Between the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle we live in, there’s such an overwhelming volume of constantly changing and shifting news. Thousands of tiny sound bites, too much for any one person to take in. Long-form, investigative journalism is expensive and its hard work. Given that the prevailing narrative since I was a student, has been that the internet is killing this kind of journalism; I do take a special pleasure in the fact that actually, the internet has made it much easier for me to find new and varied sources of this kind of journalism and for this kind of material to find an audience. Serial is almost the perfect storm of this, it’s a podcast, its long-form – episodes are anything between half an hour and an hour – and its serialised. The pieces come out week by week, but they aren’t set in stone; the story might branch off in a new direction as new leads come to light. It takes its time, it goes in to detail – in the case of the current series, it will stop and diverge into the history of particular events, places or groups to give the audience backstory that sheds a new light on events in the story, or makes seemingly inexplicable events make perfect sense. It’s not patronising, it assumes that its audience is smart and has a decent grasp of current events, but that this is not their specialist subject. It’s smart, intriguing and compelling listening. Also the presenter/reporter Sarah Koenig has a really listenable, compelling voice. That helps too.
If this month’s listening had a theme, then I think its enthusiasm and passion. They’re all podcasts by people who seem – whether or not they actually are – genuinely interested or intrigued about the subjects they talk about. Whether they’re passionate about discovering the truth or just about learning something new and interesting, they talk to the audience like we should be fascinated too. As though they’re saying to the audience: “You’re smart, but this is complicated, bare with me, this is interesting/important, we’ll get there together and all will become clear.” I like that.