Podcastination Nation


Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.

I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pension exactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.

Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.

Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)

I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.

Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.

There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.

Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.

One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.

Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.

Some Podcasts worth a listen

The Guardian, in typical, desperate old-media fashion, have published an article entitled 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear, which is just inviting a punch to the face. So here are some podcasts you might find interesting if you like that sort of thing.

  • 2 Dope Queens (WNYC) – Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host standup which is more inclusive of women and minorities than you get from the mainstream. Funny.
  • Afoot! (Incomparable) – a mystery genre focused podcast hosted by the affable Glenn Fleishmann with a roster of guests. So far, the team have discussed Marple, classic radio mysteries, Sherlock Holmes – and the latest episode is about Veronica Mars.
  • The Eddie Mair Interview – the only thing I miss about listening to Radio 4 live is Eddie Mair on PM. This programme features him interviewing one guest – and you get a longer slice than you do on the radio.
  • Sophomore Lit (Incomparable) – a discussion show hosted by John McCoy with a roster of guests which is focused on those books you had to read at school or college.
  • TV Talk Machine (Incomparable) – in these times of confusion™ of too much TV™, how do you sort through the merely okay for the stuff that’s really worth watching? How do you keep up with the unbelievable quantity of scripted TV that is now in the world (and who would have seen that coming when ITV shares were down at 37 pence?). TV Talk Machine is the answer. Hollywood Reporter critic and Jason Snell will keep you up to date.
  • Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin (WNYC) – another interview show, with a single guest per episode, hosted by the gravel-voiced Baldwin. He does tend to ask a second question before his guest has answered the first, but that’s only because he’d so interested.
  • The Incomparable Game Show – my second favourite podcast, this. A rotating series of different games, from panel and quiz shows to family parlour games and tabletop adventure games, the usual Incomparable suspects play ’em all. They often *cough* borrow *cough* show formats from times gone by. Whatever your opinion of the original shows, the podcast version is guaranteed funnier. My favourite is the nerd quiz Inconceivable, which could surely find a spot in the mainstream, but they’re all very enjoyable.
  • My Favourite Album with Jeremy Dylan – documentary maker and music industry insider speaks to a variety of musicians about their favourite record. Not always going to be your cup of tea, but most of the time, an interesting interview.
  • Reconcilable Differences (Relay FM) – My favourite in the ‘two blokes talking about stuff’ genre, the chalk-and-cheese combination of the friendly, easygoing Merlin Mann and the hypercritical and uptight John Siracusa is an excellent listen. Starting from the premise of answer the question, How did we come to be this way? this show takes in a wide range of topics, from family and film to drugs and cars, and really digs into them. This is the podcast I would make if I made a podcast. Long.
  • Robot or Not? (Incomparable) – the antidote to long podcasts, the same John Siracusa sits with Jason Snell and delivers a verdict on the most vexed question of our times: is it a robot, or not? Short.

Serial Box

Adnan_Syed_1998I don’t want to labour a point I already made on Twitter, but I started listening to Serial before you did (just deal with it). I heard the first episode when it was on This American Life, and it was not the first episode of that long-running show that had me gripped from beginning to end. I remember standing in the kitchen, in the middle of cooking, paused in mid-move so as not to make a sound, lest I drown out the distorted telephone voice.

My first exposure to podcasts was via The Word magazine, and I occasionally enjoyed listening to several middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about music obsessively. I am a middle-aged bloke myself, an accident of birth, so I was very much the target demographic. Never in a million years did I think that one day I would abandon live radio altogether in favour of a subscription list of (at last count) 45 podcasts.

mb9jGYeI listen to a lot of tech, and a lot of ‘true stories’ podcasts, but also things like Philosophy Bites, Life of the Law, 99% Invisible, and so on. I am still loyal to the Radio 4 podcasts I have always listened to, but they’re not longer at the top of my things to love.

Serial has generated a lot of column inches over the past couple of weeks as slow-moving old media finally caught up with it. It was even on Radio 4’s Media Show. Yes, I am sneering at them. Has Serial’s adoption by mainstream media spoiled the pleasure a little bit? I think it has. It’s a bit like when you love a band and expend a lot of time trying to tell people about them, only to have your dreams come true, and, oh, now everyone is talking about them and you don’t feel special any more. I know I’ll feel a wrench if I ever see a Larkin Poe feature in the Graun.

As someone with impaired hearing (I can’t hear the full frequency range), I struggle sometimes to hear what people are saying on Serial. The first podcasts I listened to were just people (blokes, usually) sitting around a microphone, but the more sophisticated podcasts are proper radio soundscapes with music, sound effects, and clever editing of contributors. I think they’re brilliant, but background music and layered voices can be hard. Some of the recordings are of sub-optimal quality. In the case of Serial you are of course dealing with 15-year-old courtroom testimony, police interview tapes, and all those phone calls with Adnan Syed. Some of it is hard to make out, but it is all compelling, and it underscores the sense that this podcast is a serious piece of investigative journalism, with an evidence base. Hunting around online, you can find scans and photos of documents, letters, maps, tables, and so on.

What makes Serial different from other examples of investigative journalism? After all, the idea of a journalist using some media platform to expose a miscarriage of justice is not new. But when TV or radio has done it in the past, they usually condense the years-long research and legwork into an easy-to-digest hour or 45 minutes for broadcast. But the thing with a podcast, and the thing I started to get as soon as I started listening to The Word, is that your audience can be so niche that there can be no such thing as too much information. It was listening to middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about The Beatles that gave me this insight. How much is too much to an obsessive? No such thing.

So Serial is investigative journalism and narrative for obsessives. Once the first episode has you hooked, you just want more and more, never ending. And while mainstream media has occasionally made noises about how disappointing and Lost-like it will be if there’s no real conclusion, I don’t think that really matters. The thing about serial narratives is that you have to find ways to keep it going.

In reality, you don’t have to dig very deep to find potential spoilers. As we keep being reminded, this is a real case with real people, and you don’t get 5 million downloads without somebody paying attention.

You’ll be wanting to know what I think (Chorus: Nobody cares what you think!)

From the very first episode, I knew that there had not been a convincing case made, that there was reasonable doubt. By the time you heard recordings of two of the jurors, you realised that, somehow or other, they’d been bamboozled and confused into convicting in a ridiculously short time. One of them said that she believed Jay because “he was going to jail anyway, so why would he lie?” When in fact the whole point was that Jay’s sweet deal meant he wasn’t going to jail. That, there, should be enough to invalidate the verdict: the jury were not in possession of all the facts. Not because they hadn’t been told, but maybe because they were a bit thick. Then there was the juror who judged Adnan guilty for not defending himself after being specifically instructed not to take that into account. As for all those who claim that you can’t help making such a judgement and putting this down to legal niceties, I disagree. If you think about it at all, if Adnan was innocent (which he has already said by entering a plea), it was up to the State to prove him guilty. So, no, you don’t judge somebody for not trying to ‘prove’ their innocence. The point is that there’s supposed to be a presumption of innocence. That recording of that juror showed that for at least one of the jury – and probably more than one – there was no presumption of innocence. Again, I have to ask myself if they were a bit thick.

As we all know, the case always rested on shaky ground, viz:

  • Cell tower evidence, which doesn’t show what the police claimed that it showed in 1999.
  • Testimony from Jay, who was clearly coached to the eyeballs by the prosecution and police who did a deal with him to keep him out of jail.
  • A supposed time-line of the murder and a time of death that makes no sense.
  • A phone call supposedly from a payphone that clearly didn’t exist at a time when some witnesses claim that Hae was still alive.
  • Witnesses and evidence that was not followed up by either the police or the defence team.
  • An discredited (and irritating) defending lawyer whose style of questioning must have been so fucking hard to listen to for five weeks, was it not? Was it not? Was it not?

Mostly, however, I think the case rests on prejudice against Adnan because he was an American boy with a Pakistani background. A lot of the police narrative of the case rests on the (implied) idea that this was some kind of ‘honour’ killing, by a stereotypically angry Muslim. All of the stories about him being dragged out of dances, about the secrecy surrounding his relationship with Hae – all of that implies that this was somehow unusual. As his cousin has pointed out on her blog, this is actually just typical for just about any Asian-American teenager.

I’m not Asian, of course, but this also rang true to me. When I was in my early 20s, I dated a girl whose over-protective father would not let her go out with boys. I used to park and wait at the end of her road. She would leave home to ‘go round a (girl) friend’s house’, and jump in my car. We would go out, and I would drop her at the end of the road and watch her walk home. We did this for several months, before she finally plucked up the courage to tell her old man. Who used to let his yappy little dog loose whenever I came to the door after that.

So I’m fairly clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice, that there was tons of reasonable doubt. But I’m also more sold on podcasts than ever before. And the best app, for my (actual) money is Overcast.

My nine favourite podcasts (and two more I tolerate)

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...
BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an ideal world, I’d just listen to the radio when I was on holiday in France, but unfortunately we only have occasional access to wifi, and the 3G I get through Orange France (using a French SIM) is not that fast on top of our hill and relatively expensive.

Which leaves me downloading podcasts whenever I visit my brother-in-law’s (aka the internet café), and working through them over a couple of days. Here are my favourites, and some I sometimes use but enjoy a lot less. I admit there’s a preponderance of BBC output, but wading through everything else in search of something I’d enjoy seems like too much hard work. I generally dislike the American broadcasting style, and find interruptions for sponsor messages irritating. The BBC provides high quality output and, after all, I paid for it.

Podcasts are not just for holidays, of course. They’re perfect for Richard Bacon avoidance, or Radio 4 Sunday morning output avoidance. My new kitchen radio has Bluetooth, so I’ll be able to broadcast podcasts from my phone whenever something shit is on.

In Our Time

The Big Daddy of podcasts, In Our Time is by now a vast resource of interesting discussions on a high variety of topics. Sure, you have to put up with Melvin Bragg, and you’re never going to get any depth, but you’ll learn enough to catch an interest, and might be prompted to further reading and research. You have to love the concept: get three experts in the field together in a studio to discuss a topic. The only real problem is the 45 minute running time, which is never long enough. I tend to pick and choose and prefer the science topics, but I’m not averse to a bit of history. This week, I listened to one about the Medicis. The great thing about In Our Time is that it’s a good listen while you’re rustling something up in the kitchen, or you can put it on as background and have a nice sleep. It can be very soporific. There are so many of them that you’ll never run out. Probably.

More or Less

One of my favourite Radio 4 shows is this brilliant half-hour about statistics in the news. Never fails to leave you better informed, and is key to taking all figures and statistics in the media with a pinch of salt. The show often asks the question, is it a big number? A classic example of this was when Osborne was railing about waste in the CPS and complaining about the amount of printing they do every day. Turns out not to have been a big number at all. When not on R4, there’s a 10-minute version on the World Service.

Friday Night Comedy

It’s either going to be the News Quiz or the Now Show. Neither are top drawer, but both are enjoyable enough for a bath time, or can be listened to during a meal. The kids enjoy them. We’d all rather have I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – what’s up with that not being a podcast.

The History Hour

One of my favourites, this, collecting the World Service Witness strand into one hour of podcast joy. A variety of historical topics, mini packages, complete with interviews. Always interesting, and even if not, there’s be an interesting topic along in a minute.

From Our Own Correspondent

Could be considered worthy-but-dull, and is not always the most cheerful experience, but this is a great listen for soft news, background, and colour, and far more interesting than the hard news and breaking news that obsesses the media. It offers a wide variety of content, and the best of 2013 supercut was a great listen.

The Talk Show

I rarely listen to an entire episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show, but when I’m in the mood for a completely obsessive discussion of Apple/tech minutiae, this is where I turn. I might survive an hour of the typical 90-100 minute running time. There are usually three sponsor messages, which can be irritating.

Thinking Allowed/The Media Show/Feedback

These afternoon half-hour shows are usually worth a listen. I’ll happily stick with these if they’re on when I happen to be in the car or kitchen, and they’re worth downloading as podcasts. Laurie Taylor is a fine broadcaster, and his sociological strand is generally interesting. The Media Show, along with More or Less, should be essential listening to all students of Media. Feedback is also a useful resource for Media students, as you often hear BBC News bods squirming when confronted with criticism of their preposterous overspending and ridiculous reporting. All three programmes are presented by people who are more independent voices – not necessarily spouting the standard BBC line.


In the absence of Eddie Mair’s PM, which would be a joy to download the day after it’s broadcast (please, BBC), I usually enjoy this, the weekend show that “starts with its listeners”. One of PM’s reporters puts together a package following contact from a listener. It often appears as if this might be an unpromising listen, but I’ve yet to actually be bored by an episode of this. The PM production team know how to put a package together.

What the Papers Say

Presented by different journalists each week, this 15-minute slot used to be a staple of late night TV. I don’t think it’s quite as good as it used to be in its television heyday, and some of the journos can be objectionable, but it’s still worth a download, and is perfect for shower time.

Kermode/Mayo Film Reviews aka Wittertainment

Hmm. I’ve gone through stages on this. At the moment, I can’t stand listening to Kermode, having fixated on his habit of not finishing sentences. If he’s got a cold, he can be a bit of a drone, too, not interrupted often enough by Mayo. On the other hand, it’s far more entertaining as a podcast than it is when broadcast live, interrupted as it is by news, sport, travel, trailers, stingers, etc. Best experienced when some of the substitute reviewers are in town during one of Kermode’s frequent holidays.

Best of Today

I generally hate this, but in the absence of regular news from home, I’ll download it in a pinch. It’s just a selection of packages and/or discussions, but rarely offers anything intelligent or properly interesting, and is frequently infuriating in the way of most of Today’s output. In desperation only, because the truth is, there is no “best” of Today. It’s all “worst”.

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