Three highly recommended non-fiction podcasts
Podcasts are audio programs you subscribe to. You can easily manage your subscriptions through iTunes, but finding great stuff that remains great over the long haul, month after month, is not easy. There’s lots of single issue podcasts, but not many programs you’ll want to hear on a regular basis.
For the past several years I’ve been actively auditing podcasts while in my car. I’ve tried all kinds of stuff — one time talks, home-made riffs, occasional raves by brilliant geniuses, and regular fragments of broadcast material. I have two criteria: I want to be surprised, and I want to learn.
In the past 12 months I have settled my listening time on three regular podcasts, which I look forward to eagerly. I can heartily recommend all three. They share these characteristics: they are one-hour, weekly podcasts of non-fiction that begin as broadcasts on public radio. I know the whole point of podcasting is to let a million amateur voices bloom, but what can I say? Week after week, what I crave is well-crafted, compelling audible surprises that tell me something I didn’t know. That is what you get with these free podcasts. One hour gives time to go deep, weekly gives room to experiment, but doesn’t overwhelm the way daily does (I dropped Fresh Air because I couldn’t keep up), and non-fiction keeps me learning.
One thing to keep in mind: podcasts are meant to be “subscribed to” as they are delivered, which means getting “back copies” or archived editions of formerly broadcast podcasts may not easy. You may have to either listen to them as streaming audio, or pay for a download.
This weekly broadcast from the BBC in London is a testimony to the benefits of intellectuals and professors. Every week the mumbling host Melvyn Bragg invites three English professors (usually from Oxford or Cambridge) to discuss the most obscure subject of their expertise. They are only too happy to talk about that thing they know more about than anyone. By forcing the eggheads to be succinct, or demanding they restate a concept until clear, In Our Time delivers an incredibly fascinating glimpse into an unknown world in sufficient detail to make the conversation memorable. Imagine a whole hour each on: The Speed of Light; Indian Mathematics; The Siege of Constantinople; Gravitational Waves; The Trial of Madame Bovary; Anaesthetics; Joan of Arc; Ockham’s Razor. Those are some of the topics I’ve heard in recent months. I’ve learned that the more obscure the subject, the more revelatory detail, and the more it becomes fascinating.
It’s hard to describe the innovative audio sensibility in a Radio Lab show. Sounds and speech are layered, cut, remixed, and spot-lighted in a way that could be very annoying, but isn’t. Instead these experiments add subtlety, animation, and depth to otherwise talking voices. Each session of Radio Lab takes a broad subject like Placebos, or Forgetting, and explores the idea in sound and words non-linearly, with great intelligence, originality, and daring. They ask hard questions, and keep circling it until they come close to an answer. It’s a lot of fun. They also do a wonderful job integrating their website material (links, bibliography, further research) into the hour. You can download past programs as mp3. Start with the Musical Languages show.
True stories about anything. Simply the best thing on radio. Possibly ever. Host Ira Glass has been pioneering the art of telling non-fiction stories for 10 years. He gives each voice time to stumble, pause, or lunge forward. But not a nanosecond is wasted. You hear what happened to people that makes their lives human. Every story on This American Life has an emotional narrative arc, and is often about transformation. Each story is told in an honest, original voice, and will make you cry or laugh. It is not uncommon for people to sit in their cars at their destination in order to hear the end of a story. That was the main drawback of This America Life: I wasn’t usually in my car when it broadcast on the radio. Now with the podcast version I catch the three stories — and their endings — every week.08/10/07