Cast Away

The podcast came of age in 2015. Possibly released from the perception that it was edited radio without the music, people realised that the concept was so much more and that the format was awash with great stories.

Serial was the tipping-point, part murder-mystery with elements including a potential miscarriage of justice, you could forgive the occasional irritation caused by the presentation style because you were gripped by the story. It opened a gateway to a world of information and a marketplace for would-be broadcasters everywhere.

I was an early-adopter, having worked in radio that was probably to be expected. Long before the internet took hold I used to harass people to record stuff on cassette tape so that I could hear presenters like Howard Stern, Chris Tarrant and Christian O’Connell. As podcasting launched it enabled me to catch-up with great talent like Geoff Lloyd, Andy Bush, Frank Skinner and Dave Gorman. A period working at Absolute Radio had given me an insight into their genius whilst making me slightly playlist-phobic, hearing them without the music could be a bonus! As a qualifier I should note that there’s few better music stations, I was just over-exposed.

2016 and finding an easy way to listen to more podcasts in my car has greatly broadened my horizons. Spurred by a suggestion that you’re likely to be more intelligent if you listen to stimulating audio in the morning, I immersed myself in the world of podcasts. This immersion allows me to share the following ‘insights’ which could help if you’re looking for similar inspiration.

The first thing I discovered was no great surprise. There’s a lot of crap out there. The reason radio is, in the main, so good is that they have trained and talented broadcasters and producers. They also have decent facilities and production values. That is clearly not the case for a lot of podcasts and podcasters. A huge amount of subject matter that I may have been interested in hearing about was ruined by the presenter or the production.

I suspect I’m a snob but I’m sure the home-technology is there to ensure that the basics are adhered to – stuff like varying levels of audibility, interviews where the interviewer is loud and the interviewee is so quiet that you can’t get the balance right when you’re listening. More common still is that you’ll find a level for the speech only to get a musical stab part-way through the ‘cast that practically bursts your eardrums.

Presentation style is a particular bug-bear. A podcast which looked into old mysteries and tales was ruined by three cross-talking presenters who didn’t appear to have much clue about how to tell a story coherently. Similarly, some voices can be profoundly irritating. The presenters of Strangers and Modern Love had a peculiarly grating effect on my ability to listen to their output. There were many more besides, the fact that a lot of them had recorded so many podcasts suggests that the problem may be with me rather than them.

I’ve also struggled with some subjects where I know there must be great podcasts but I have yet to find them. Football is one such example, frequently the ‘casts I’ve heard have a tendency to think that they’re far funnier than they actually are and they fail to give me any new insight at all. Again the failing is possibly in my exploration than anything.

The gems are truly great though and I heartily endorse the following.

Spycast . This is a regular pod issued by the International Spy Museum, I was previously unaware that such a thing existed but my addiction to the podcast ensures that I aim to visit it, should I ever be in Washington DC. This series of interviews and discussions offers an incredible insight into the world of espionage. If your tastes are more le CarrĂ© than Ludlum or Fleming then this is definitely for you. An episode called ‘Whistleblower’ an interview with Thomas Drake is one of the most absorbing hours of audio I’ve ever heard. Some of the episodes delve too deeply into procedural or legal issues but it is easily one of the most intelligent podcasts available.

Freakonomics Radio.  I like this because it questions preconceptions and beliefs with statistics. It’s often too-American (a significant issue with a lot of others) but generally hits the mark. There’s enough in the 5 year history to delve into.

The Allusionist  A podcast for language nerds or for everyone who has ever wondered how a word’s usage and origin has evolved. The style is sometimes a bit too breezy for my liking but it’s great when they hit a theme and explore it fully. A recent two-parter on the evolution of dating sites was particularly entertaining. If you already know what etymology means then The Allusionist is almost certainly vital for you. It is also usually under 20 minutes making it perfect for a short car journey.

This American Life. Though this spawned Serial, I’m not a convert as yet because I haven’t found enough topics there to make me a subscriber. I was guided to a recent episode, Anatomy of Doubt, which is the best audio documentary I may have ever heard. I suspect I have a lot more listening to do.

The Untold appears to be Radio 4’s attempt to anglicize This American Life, it’s a bit hit and miss so far and ‘Tainted Love’ was one of the bleakest podcasts I may have heard. I’m not averse to the dark side but the end of that episode definitely felt like being dropped into a vacuum. This might be a sign of great story-telling, I was too much in shock to properly judge.

Ted Radio Hour. As Ted Talks have become embedded in modern life a podcast might appear backwards-looking.  Where this succeeds is in taking a subject and editing a previous ‘talk’ or two to give greater insight and summary. I found the Headspace episode to be of great value.

The Slump. Because there has to be some slight relief there is The Slump. I’ve no doubt that the BBC has a raft of clever podcast comedy but this creation isn’t trying to be too clever or show-off. It is essentially three guys working with their complementary humour and shared grievances against things like bad advertising and absurd kickstarter projects. It’s refreshingly laid-back listening, languidly and gently amusing befitting of its title. Radio programme podcasts can fail because they’re often relevant to the day of broadcast, without that context some of the perspective is lost. As The Slump is made specifically for a podcast it has a slightly longer shelf-life. I can imagine many hating it but I often find moments of laughter which are essential for traffic jams. I doubt that line will be used in their own advertising.

There are a number of others worth a look, The Guardian’s politics weekly ‘cast is generally a lively debate, The FT’s version was surprisingly American (wasn’t expecting that) and The Comedian’s Comedian is good in places, generally providing that you like the comic being interviewed, but can be a little too anal for the average individual.

As I was wrapping this blog up I was pointed at a US feature recommending some of the same podcasts, if you have a desire to see where we differ here are Business Insider’s podcasts to make you smarter (theoretically). and as it obviously became the week to write about podcasts (again) comedian Sara Pascoe had this piece in The Guardian 

All these pieces prove the breadth of choice, there’s plenty of it. Coming to podcasts at this stage is like finding an artist you like but has been around for years, the back catalogue and possibility for exploration is huge. It’s easy to get lost and important to enjoy the journey of being so. Dig in!