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The Intelli-Audio Revolution
October 26, 2010 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Shows like This American Life, All Things Considered, and similar stalwarts of Public Radio in the UK, Australia, and Canada have combined with the explosion of podcastery to inspire hordes of (fantastic) imitators. The result? An irresistable smorgasbord of intellectual content. Bill Mckibben examines the history of the trend, and how it can be maintained.

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posted by mreleganza (36 comments total) 99 users marked this as a favorite

 
This has become a pet issue for me this year. I have the iPhone app for TAL and have now listened to nearly all of the episodes; I think I have listened to all of the Radiolabs, and am branching into many of the same places as the author. One quibble: I find the listing of "BBC 4" to be quite a cop-out. BBC 4 alone has a number of fantastic podcasts; I think that Material World, Science in Action, and Medical Matters are standouts.

Others to consider: Re/Sound was called out, but other podcasts through the Third Coast project have been fantastic too. I'm also surprised that The Moth wasn't mentioned, even though it has done everything right: big names, good stories, a great show length (usually about 15 minutes), and occasional placement on This American Life.

Last: a pet peeve. Why, considering all of these great podcasts out there, are the sport podcasts still so awful? Universally they tend to be blowhards talking off the cuff, with no editing or production help, and with awful audio quality. What the hell? There is a huge niche waiting to be exploited if some producer heads in that direction.
posted by norm at 2:23 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, Norm. That was kind of amazing...I also lament the dearth of non-boorish sports podcasts, and I was kind of hoping for some "I'm surprised they didn't mention..." responses. Your check is in the mail!
posted by mreleganza at 2:26 PM on October 26, 2010


I'm surprised they didn't mention....
.... CBC Radio 2's Concerts on Demand. A mind-blowingly huge repository of concert recordings. Almost 600 2 hour shows in many genres.
posted by bonehead at 2:36 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


iTunes? Is that the only way to get these podcasts?

Individual recommendations are appreciated ...

Also, what's new here? How are these shows any different than the radio shows we (ok, some of us) grew up with?
posted by mrgrimm at 2:41 PM on October 26, 2010


Check, hell. I want to *moderate* the "Non-Boorish Football Podcast". ESPN/NPR/Fox Sports, call me!
posted by norm at 2:41 PM on October 26, 2010


Individual recommendations are appreciated ...

If you haven't heard of A Life Well Wasted and you've ever thought TAL needed to be all about video games and the people who play them, you're in for a treat. Currently on hiatus while he works on a new I Come to Shanghai album, though.

iTunes? Is that the only way to get these podcasts?

In the case of ALWW, that's a no.
posted by juv3nal at 2:48 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


BTW, each episode also features a limited run (all sold out though) of neat posters by Olly Moss.
posted by juv3nal at 2:52 PM on October 26, 2010


Last: a pet peeve. Why, considering all of these great podcasts out there, are the sport podcasts still so awful? Universally they tend to be blowhards talking off the cuff, with no editing or production help, and with awful audio quality. What the hell? There is a huge niche waiting to be exploited if some producer heads in that direction.

I like some of the ESPN Radio podcasts for daily sports news and discussion, but yeah, I've never really looked for a TAL/Radiolab type sports podcast. Something like 30 for 30 in radio form would be great.
posted by kmz at 2:57 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


(That link to just plain iTunes is sorta weird to me, but whatever.)

BTW, after a bit of a lull, to me TAL has been hitting on all cylinders lately.
posted by kmz at 3:05 PM on October 26, 2010


It's a slight tragedy that Joe Frank, one of the greatest progenitors of this style, has never received any sort of major publicity for his endeavors. His body of work comprises over 230 hours, and has been airing since 1978. The shows might be fiction, they might be Frank hanging out with homeless folks for a trash can fire chat, or he might call his mother and talk to her about his day. It was almost always dead brilliant.

Ira Glass got his start working for All Things Considered when Frank was the co-anchor for that show. Says Glass, "The very first National Public Radio show that I worked on was Joe Frank's. I think I was influenced in a huge way... Before I saw Joe put together a show, I had never thought about radio as a place where you could tell a certain kind of story."

Personal favorite series from Mr. Frank is Somewhere Out There, which aired between 1996-1997 in Los Angeles. My older brother lived in LA at the time, and would tape the show and mail them to me up in Seattle. I would listen to them before going to bed just about every night.
posted by krysalist at 3:09 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Why, considering all of these great podcasts out there, are the sport podcasts still so awful?

Wait, are you guys not listening to Hang Up And Listen? These guys are so good that I keep it on even when they cover sports I don't follow.
posted by escabeche at 3:24 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm partial to Football Weekly from the Guardian as far as sports podcasts go, but it's not exactly in the vein of what's being discussed here (and it's solely about football/soccer).

One quibble: I find the listing of "BBC 4" to be quite a cop-out.

I agree. I had a distinct sense of "one of these things is not like the others" when I saw this piece earlier today.
posted by hoyland at 3:29 PM on October 26, 2010


Re sports broadcasting: why is it necessary for someone with a microphone to shout? If the action does not produce excitement in the viewer/listener, does shouting? If so, why not skip the event and just have shouting?
posted by Cranberry at 4:20 PM on October 26, 2010


iTunes? Is that the only way to get these podcasts?

Bittorrent
posted by mmrtnt at 4:29 PM on October 26, 2010


nthing BBC 4 (and BBC 3). My job involves manual work, in a solo workspace, and having that resource available is beyond calculation! But some of the US-based stuff in the linked story looks interesting, and I'll give some of it a try ...
posted by woodblock100 at 4:36 PM on October 26, 2010


An irresistable smorgasbord of intellectual content.

Intellectual? Hardly. It reminds me of something the Last Psychiatrist said:

"300 people were shown either a real or altered photo of two different protests, and then asked to recall what happened back then. The point of this study was to show that altering a photograph will change how the events are actually remembered (in this case, as bigger and more violent.)… But, here’s the thing: these subjects weren’t actually at the original protests. Their original memories also came from images– hopefully not altered images, but certainly selected images. Right? The TV newspeople didn’t pick the boring pictures, did they? I get that doctored photos are bad. But how much of our memories and knowledge of the past are largely determined not by “reality” but what, or how, we were shown it in the first place. Obviously, a lot. Therein lies the question: is it worse to see a doctored photo, or doctored reality?

Here’s an example: search your mind for recollections about the Tiananmen “episode” in 1989. Can you remember anything– anything at all– other than that guy standing in front of the tanks? Do you remember who was protesting? Why? The question isn’t why you don’t remember anything, hell, it was 20 years ago and a solar system away; the question is why you do remember that guy. Are you better off for knowing this? Are you smarter? Or do you carry the false impression that you know something about which you really know nothing? That’s the Matrix– not only do you have false memories, but you get to feel good about being a knowledgeable, aware, citizen of the world.

NPR runs a cult this way. It offers an eclectic mix of topics, selected on purpose to allow you to think you are getting depth. You listen to NPR, and you think you’re learning, growing, becoming a Renaissance Man. You’re not. Sure, it beats CNN, but that’s not a battle anyone is supposed to lose. Its target audience is insecurely intelligent people who want desperately to be intellectual and well read but who don’t actually want to read too much. What NPR offers is sentiment; the feeling that you know something."


Generalizing a bit, listening to public radio is typically actually worse than knowing nothing at all about a subject. At least an ignorant person knows that he or she is ignorant. "A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not," etc.
posted by gd779 at 5:02 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


"A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not."

Aptly demonstrated.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:27 PM on October 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


I do get that feeling about NPR sometimes. But I was listening to a recent Economist podcast in which they went into detail on computer vision ... their tech correspondent appeared to have read the same computer vision textbook I used in grad school, was totally up to date with the latest research in that field, and did a fantastic job summarizing how new companies might apply a new learning algorithm called a convolutional neural network. No idea how they get people who would be rockstar college professors on a journalism budget. (I'm in CS, though not in computer vision.)
posted by miyabo at 7:23 PM on October 26, 2010


Generalizing a bit, listening to public radio is typically actually worse than knowing nothing at all about a subject. At least an ignorant person knows that he or she is ignorant. "A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not," etc.

Horseshit. Ignorance is not bliss. And you apparently have no faith in the ability of listeners to be critical and discerning in how they process the information they receive, or to be inspired by it to find out more, to take that deep drink.


At least an ignorant person knows that he or she is ignorant.

Could that statement possibly be more ridiculous? Different font, maybe?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:10 PM on October 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


Artful Codger: It's calling back a Persian proverb (there are numerous slightly different iterations, but they all drive home the same point):

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not, is a fool ... shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not, is ignorant ... teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows, is asleep ... wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows, is a wise man ... follow him.


I don't know if I would agree fully with the closing of his comment, unless he's trying to point out that getting all your news from one source (and one that reflects your only own worldview, to boot) is a bad thing, then yes. While I think that NPR is a better news organization than say, FNC/MSNBC/CNN et. al, if you rely soley on that one channel, then the only difference between you and someone who merely parrots what Glenn Beck/Keith Olberman/Lou Dobbs said last night is one of degree, not of kind.

Which is why the explosion of independent podcasts (something that article linked in the original post doesn't really touch on, focusing on podcasts associated with professional radio shows instead) is so awesome and a small but healthy sign in a media landscape that seems wasted and poisoned.
posted by KingEdRa at 8:50 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ironically enough This American Life did a piece about thinking/acting like you know it all based on one NPR story/blog post/article out of the New Yorker - the hilarious "Modern Jackass" opening of the A Little Bit of Knowledge episode.
posted by mskyle at 8:57 PM on October 26, 2010


I like Ideas on CBC Radio One.
posted by emeiji at 9:32 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I second the recommendation for Joe Frank. And this post needs more science shows! posted by foonly at 11:40 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Benjamin Walker's 'Too Much Information' and 'Theory of Everything' got only brief mentions in the article, but are worth checking out. I also like The Dusty Show with Clay Pigeon, for the street conversations and sound collages, although his singles-going-steady shows and recent live chat openings I feel aren't representative - go for the taped material.

Nthing Joe Frank. Love "Telephone Prayer."
posted by marco_nj at 12:00 AM on October 27, 2010


Great post, thanks. The Bill McKibben piece is really an excellent overview of recent radio history.

Individual recommendations are appreciated ...

To the Best of Our Knowledge is a podcast/show I always recommend. Oddly, it seems to be a bit of a sleeper, at least on the East Coast where not too many affiliates carry it. Each 1-hour segment features two authors with recent nonfiction books, exploring a topic in depth. It's absolutely wonderful and has probably done more for keeping my awareness of current nonfiction work current than any other source of information, including bookstore browsing.

You listen to NPR, and you think you’re learning, growing, becoming a Renaissance Man. You’re not.

Oh, this is so ridiculous it hardly bears comment. I no longer have television; I'm a radio junkie, listening live during much of the day and to podcasts when traveling or exercising. I also read two major daily newspapers. One has to ask, what is the purpose of a magazine- or newspaper-format show? It's not necessarily depth, although longer, more analytical and investigative pieces are a feature of shows aired on public radio. Instead, it's breadth - a survey approach to identifying and making known a wide range of the significant people, ideas, and events of current times. As always, where depth is desired, it's available through the personal effort of interested people. And, quite simply, there is nowhere else in the broadcast media where you will find stories of this length, this thoroughly reported.

If you want to critique broadcast media for lack of depth, public radio is the wrong place to point. If you want to critique people for using a news and information source in a shallow way, I suppose that's all right, though I would far prefer that they use some source rather than no source at all, and if choosing some source, would also prefer that they use public radio rather than commercial radio.

Also, pet radio peeve: "NPR" does not equal "public radio." There's a lot of public radio, and it's not all - in fact, it's not mostly - produced by NPR. Railing at "NPR" when you mean "public radio" shows a lack of understanding of the structure and diversity of public radio, which is kind of one point of the post. The infrastructure is built on public radio stations. These are stations which are run by independent nonprofit organizations to which the FCC has granted a license for educational, noncommercial broadcasting. These publicly chartered and mostly publicly supported stations can broadcast anything they want within FCC guidelines for their licensing. Many such stations choose to become NPR affiliates. This means that those stations pay a membership dues to join the NPR network, and then pay per-show fees to rebroadcast programming created by NPR. NPR as a network exists independently of the public radio stations themselves, but is largely funded through these fees to participant stations.

If one wants to critique NPR, then, it's useful to focus one's comments on the management and programming of NPR the entity, and be clear about when and where one is talking about public radio as a widespread American phenomenon which includes some NPR programming, and where one is talking about NPR, the independent nonprofit network. It's lazy to use "NPR" as a stand-in for all public radio, when in fact much of the broadcasting on your local public radio station(s) may not originate from NPR at all.
posted by Miko at 6:40 AM on October 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


thanks to itunes, I became a podcast junkie for this kind of stuff. Everyone I know is sick of me saying, "I heard on the radio that..." or "I heard on a podcast that..." But, truth is, these are high quality dialogue presentations of information given far more in depth than I encounter in print (news) media or television. Only books come close -- but even then -- books are not as efficient and lack the immediacy of the radio program. I suppose film documentary is a close second. Do I know it all? No. Am I hearing possibly biased information? Well, yes, but isn't that part of media literacy, an awareness that statistics lie, that point of views are one among many, etc. But, at least from listening, I probably know more than someone who did not expose him or herself to this information at all and bases his or her beliefs and ideas on mere personal opinion.
posted by foxinsocks at 8:35 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


and one last point, the Giant Pool of Money from This American LIfe was a fantastic program.
posted by foxinsocks at 8:40 AM on October 27, 2010


and one last point, the Giant Pool of MOney was a fantastic program (I had to rewrite this with the link... sorry)
posted by foxinsocks at 8:41 AM on October 27, 2010


Generalizing a bit, listening to public radio is typically actually worse than knowing nothing at all about a subject. At least an ignorant person knows that he or she is ignorant. "A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not," etc.

I think this is a remarkably disingenuous statement. For a few reasons. First, this link and the discussion is not about "public radio", per se, it's about long form radio podcasting, where the subjects are typically discussed between half an hour to an hour (or more), and in some detail. As foxinsocks points out, the Giant Pool Of Money did the best job of any news or media outlet I know of (devoting a full hour to it, too-- who else did that?) to explain what a "credit default swap" was; and the impact of collateralized debt obligations; and mortgage securities in general; and their relationship to the current economic situation. You'd rather people just not know about that?

Second, people don't just know they are ignorant. People will straight make up shit and believe that before they admit they are ignorant. You see that every single day in "normal" news programs, or from people at the proverbial water cooler.

Finally, I'd rather get a little bit of information from an NPR/PRX/PRI sponsored podcast than I would from Fox News any day: at least the podcasts that have been mentioned here will readily admit when there's speculation or editorializing involved. When do you get that from (dare I call them) mainstream media outlets?

I can agree that a goodly number of NPR listeners are faux-intellectuals that listen to get a snooty sense of awareness about the news. But both you and the Last Psychiatrist take that thin premise and each take it to a new place unsupported by logic. TLP appears to be arguing that NPR plants false memories and engenders smugness (the latter is arguably true). You are literally saying that it's better to stay ignorant than to "think" you're learning about a subject. And that is, to say bluntly, stupid.
posted by norm at 9:23 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is alot of good info, people. Thanks.
posted by ServSci at 9:44 AM on October 27, 2010


Oh man, thank you all for posting! I commute 2+ hours a day, and was starting to get to norm's status, having listened to everything, seemingly. This is awesome. I only wish I had something to contribute!
posted by nevercalm at 1:43 PM on October 27, 2010


From Mckibben's article, this really struck me:

Public radio claims at least 5 percent of the radio market. National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week. These NPR shows have far larger audiences than the news on cable television; indeed, all four television broadcast networks combined only draw twice as large an audience for their evening newscasts. Morning Edition and All Things Considered are supplemented by well-regarded programs like The World, a BBC coproduction with Boston’s WGBH, and the business broadcast Marketplace—programming produced outside of NPR itself but within the larger world of public radio. In polls, public radio is rated as the most trusted source of news in the nation. The audience for most of its programs dwarfs the number of subscribers to the The New York Times or The New Yorker, or the number of people who read even the biggest best sellers.

Wowsa. To listen to right-wing radio, but not just those guys, you'd think that public radio was this tiny throwback people only hear for seconds when they accidentally flip their radio to the other band. Really it turns out to be the elephant in the room, a juggernaut of news reporting!

No wonder Republicans so avidly decry its existence.
posted by JHarris at 4:29 PM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Generalizing a bit, listening to public radio is typically actually worse than knowing nothing at all about a subject. At least an ignorant person knows that he or she is ignorant. "A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not," etc.

Careful now. I'd hate for you to throw your back out from all that posturing.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 6:48 AM on October 28, 2010


I went and found the "Hang Up And Listen" podcast after this was posted, and had a mixed reaction. I like Pesca and Fatsis, and enjoy listening to their analysis, which is good. But it still doesn't fit into the category of high quality podcasts like most of those mentioned. This is another "all-in-one-take" model of sport podcasts, and the fact that these three are about the best of the bloviators doesn't cover up the fact that someone has apparently decreed that there shall be no production assistance for sports podcasts.

I'm looking for a) topical analysis and b) intellectual depth and c) some actual reporting on those topics. It's not the same thing as news, but then again, neither is This American Life. That a topical analysis can and often is timely is almost besides the point.
posted by norm at 7:46 AM on October 28, 2010


norm: How about Only a Game?
posted by skoosh at 10:20 PM on October 28, 2010


Great call, skoosh. Much closer to what I was looking for. I'll be subscribing to that one for sure.
posted by norm at 8:49 AM on November 3, 2010


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