Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year of the Podcast

I blame my boss.

It was our staff Christmas party last year, and our Christmas bonus for the second year running was an iPod. Now before you say something obvious-ish about getting iPods from the same person two years in a row, be informed that last year's iPod was a Video Nano, while the previous year was a Tie-clip shuffle.

I can't explain why the shuffle didn't have the effect that the Nano did, but upon receiving it I launched myself into a personal experiment in podcast listening (and viewing) which almost immediately turned into a full-on addiction. The amount I use my iPod for listening to music is a small fraction of the time I have my ear buds in place. I'm going to hazard a guess at 5% music, 90% podcasts, and 5% other uses.

For those who don't know the term, podcasts are essentially downloadable shows (audio or video), usually made by independent content providers (I.E. people in the comfort of their living rooms) but increasingly by small companies which manage to make money off of advertizing within podcasts and even by major media outlets (CBC is a leader in podcast access with many of their shows available for download.) They vary in length from a minute to over an hour. They vary in quality – not necessarily in line with the level of provider. They vary in content – the 'niche' audience aspect of podcasting is a key element, you can find shows on very specific topics. (Just go to the iTunes store and put any odd word into the search bar... a podcast will come up in the results.) They vary in frequency from daily, to "X" per week on no fixed release schedule, to once a week or once a month, or "whenever we feel like it". In many cases any given show's back-catalogue of episodes remains available for download online. And of as much importance as almost any other aspect, yet easily overlooked, iTunes has excellent management software, the details of which would take up a post of its' own. The simplest summary of what a podcast is that I have thought of is 'TiVo for talk-radio.' I know I just lost those for whom short-cutting the tech by referencing TiVo, is no shortcut; and those who have no love for talk-radio (podcasts are predominantly talk-based, but not exclusively.)

Okay, enough framing. That's not why I am writing. What I want to do is recommend my favourite podcasts for others to check out. A bit of a year-end list... made appropriate as I've just passed the one-year mark as a fan and advocate. I can't tell you how many different podcasts I've checked out over the last year, there are dozens which never lasted past the first few episodes. There are others that I liked at first and eventually bored or even outright sick of... "Sci-Fi Surplus" I'm looking at you. There are still others that had limited runs for reasons ranging from being serialized novels; to, the providers ran out of material; to, the hosts reached the end of their inspiration to continue – I will include a few of there in my honourable mentions, but to make my top recommendation list it must still be producing new episodes on some sort of schedule, no matter how informal. Another rather arbitrary rule – which I will practically break further down – I'm not including any TV shows that are made available as podcasts. I do download The Hour, Real Time with Bill Maher, and the Global BC News Hour, but this is the only time I'm mentioning them. I will however include a few radio shows that were originally available as podcasts. I will also be including video podcasts (technically vodcasts, but that's such a stupid name) that are purposed as podcasts. Anyhow, enough 'rules'! On with it!

First up, a few podcasts that are practically every day podcasts for me:

CBC Radio 3 Track of the Day – A mixed bag, but that's why I like it. It's always Canadian music, but beyond that it's up in the air. Each day one of the hosts picks a track, briefly justifies their choice, and then plays it. Sometimes 2 or 3 will back up on my iPod, but I always listen eventually and in a few cases I've found an artist who I've been inspired to find in the iTunes store. My latest discovery thanks to the track of the day – Zoe Keating. Check her out. Every noise you hear is cello... and it's all done with loops, so she can actually play each song live. Amazing stuff.

AC360 – I said I'd break the 'no TV' rule. But this is a slight difference. Anderson Cooper's CNN show is re-cut and re-purposed for podcast. Some content is podcast only. It's my preferred way to catch up on international (with a strong lean towards American) news analysis on a daily basis. The podcast format isn't particularly good for breaking news... at all. But it's a good way to start my day with a bit more of an in depth look at what happened in the world yesterday.

Canucks Video Podcast – Well, it's not quite daily, and days after games there are usually two podcasts. It's pretty much the same video material that is posted on their website, but it saves me the effort... oh the luxury of RSS.

Onion News Network & Onion Radio News – Again not quite daily, but between the two podcasts it's rare that one isn't available. If you aren't familiar with the Onion, do yourself a favour, check out their website. The funniest faux news-source available. And their podcasts are the cream of the crop. Particularly ONN. Each episode usually provides at least one true howler, and several subjugate chuckles as well. ORN is less reliably funny I find, and often (like their print material) the joke is the headline, so the rest is kind of a waste of time... but at 60 seconds an episode, I can afford to chance it.

60 Second Science – Scientific American's daily update on one item of Science News. Concise, usually delivered with a bit of whimsy, and pitched to be understood by someone with only rudimentary scientific knowledge. I have other sources for getting details, but this is usually where I hear about discoveries first.

Moving on...

The kind-of Top Ten:

Not really ordered beyond "My Absolute Favourite", "Six I'm always giddy about when a new episode arrives", and "Three more really good ones that I can round out a top ten with."

In reverse order...

"Three more really good ones that I can round out a top ten with."

The Moth – A rather new discovery for me, but apparently The Moth has existed for ages. It's a live storytelling event in New York and Los Angeles. It's now available as a podcast – one story a week, I believe, though I don't pay too close attention. The stories are usually 15 to 20 minutes long, often have no actual point and are regularly structurally flawed. But they are almost always amusing or touching. Some storytellers are charismatic. Many are Famous. Some storytellers are utterly off putting, like the Jewish comedienne who screamed her tale of woe about a lousy boyfriend, or the guy who told about being raised to be weird... and damn did it sound like the rearing had been successful. For the most part though it's a reliably satisfying listen.

It's All Politics – I rode this one through the primaries and right into the US election. It's been less entertaining since then, but for a weekly encapsulation of the political scene south of our border, its good listening. It's definitely left-leaning (which places it right of most Canadians) but manages to cover the good and the bad on both ends of the spectrum with good humour.

Savage Love – I've been a fan of Dan Savage's syndicated column for over a decade, but I have always found it hard to read on a regular basis. But his podcast version is far more entertaining. Imagine the same bleeding edge sexual advice being doled out in actual conversations. Dan actually phones the people on his podcast, he doesn't just write up a snide couple of paragraphs. He actually calls them and usually treats them with great respect... but not always – and that's often when it's most fun, 'cause usually they deserve it.

"Six I'm always giddy about when a new episode arrives" (In no particular order.)

TED Talks – Perhaps you are familiar with the TED Conference? I wasn't. Apparently, (I have totally gleaned this from context, not from actual facts.) every year a bunch of people gather together and share lectures with one another. The people are the greatest minds in their fields and they just get together to share ideas. I don't know who or how they get invited, and the scope of discussion is remarkable. Presenters have included; Al Gore (Before it was ever a film, An Inconvenient Truth was a TED Talk), Rick Warren (yes, THAT Rick Warren if you are up on current news – I just wanted to highlight the variation of speakers right off the top), to Thomas Dolby (Science!), Richard Dawkins, Steve Jobs, Dave Eggers, Jane Goodall, Bono and a bajillion (I exaggerate) other folks who you have never heard of. TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design" – though it doesn't seem to be that strict. One talk per podcast with a backlog of talks videotaped back to 2002. My one complaint... that by monetizing the podcast (I.E. Adding advertisements to the end of each.) after initially posting them, the old episodes are now seen as new episodes... which means iTunes wants to re-download the entire 400+ episodes all over again, and I can't faithfully recall all the ones I've already seen – particularly the ones I was least interested by. Argh.

This American Life – Chicago Public Radio's best loved program with good reason. As host Ira Glass explains each week "...we choose a theme and then bring you a variety of stories based upon that theme." The scope is spectacular. Every single week I hear a story that makes me think 'THAT is a film.' This past week, the 'film' was the true story of how the American Union of Real Bearded Santa Clauses (I shit you not) had a very disturbing and un-Santa-like internal political schism. Imagine – you can experience that kind of unbelievable reality every week.

Radio Lab – I kind of see Radio Lab as the This American Life of science... but that's not quite right. Each week they choose a subject – say 'time' or 'memory' or 'perception of self' or 'armageddon' or 'distance' or ' language' or ' DNA' (you get the idea) and then they do their best to come at it sideways. Often the subject itself is one that can really only sort of be attacked for popular consumption by abstracting it. Yet at the same time there is always an undercurrent of science. It's not hard science, it's not rigorous science. That would be hard to maintain when producing a seeming stream of consciousness exploration of a topic. Regardless, when Radio Lab is in its 'off' season, my listening options are not as fulfilling.

Movies You Should See – Sometimes you have to take issue with the show's recommendations of what 'Movies You should See' ("The 'Burbs" – are you kidding me?) but of all the shows in my top ten, it is the one that will give me the most reliable laughs. It is also one of the two podcasts in my top ten that is not professionally produced. Four Brits sit around their living room and talk about the chosen movie of the week... and whatever random discussion that follows from the core discussion. My one criticism of the show is the levels of 'IN' you need to have to fully appreciate it. But trust me; you'll 'get' it eventually. I could even try to help explain some of the in jokes – like how Bloom (Shorthand for Orlando Bloom) is such a bad actor that he actually sucks good acting off other actors who are nearby – he is a black hole of acting... as is 'Mannequin Skywalker' (Hayden Christensen to those of you on the 'out' side of things.)

To the Best of Our Knowledge – The triad is complete. This American Life, Radio Lab and To the Best of Our Knowledge. TTBOOK, as it is called, sits somewhere between the other two. It's the Radio Lab of social sciences. It is based more upon interviews than reporting, and is far less limited in its subject matter, both overall and even within its weekly theme. Unfortunately it is currently on hiatus and is re-airing some of the best shows of the past year... which isn't such a bad thing really except that it's a podcast, so if I wanted to hear the old episode I could just go download it. (Not everyone has fully grokked the nature of podcasting – even the providers who are transitioning from Radio to internet delivery.) To the Best of Our Knowledge might actually be my favourite of the three similar shows. I'm not sure why though; I just want it to come back soon.

Filmspotting – Another Chicago Public Radio offering. It's little more than a weekly movie review show. There are a few additional features – such as a top five list such as 'Top Five Films About High-School' or 'Top Five Actors Who Died in their Prime' and a weekly challenge to identify a snippet of dialogue from a beloved film as performed by the non-performer hosts. Occasionally the hosts travel to the TIFF or SXSW or Sundance and come back with interviews which they dole out at appropriate times too. For upcoming and current movies Filmspotting is my favourite source.

"My Absolute Favourite"

My number one favourite podcast is The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. It was one of the handful of podcasts I first downloaded without really knowing what I was getting into and if there was a podcast I listened to before it, I have forgotten. I was randomly searching the iTunes store for interesting stuff to sample and in the Science and Tech category I found a podcast name that intrigued me – Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. I had no idea what I was in for.

I could have decided to label 2008 as the year of rational thought – as it was my other big 'discovery' this year. I have clearly been a rationalist practically all of my life, but didn't realise it or that there is a formalized movement of rational thinkers in the world. Skeptic's Guide was my gateway drug. So, as it was podcasts that led me to my big awakening of the year, I choose to give them the honour of being the catalytic paradigm of note for 2008.

I began listening to the SGU in mid-December 2007 and was 'caught up' by late-April. Their early episodes were rough, but they soon found a groove. I found that the various personalities on the show evoked a variety of responses from me. I hated Perry originally, but later found that I laughed uproariously at his sense of humour more than anyone else's. (The show has never quite recovered from losing his presence.) I immediately loved Skepchick Rebecca (as did every geeky guy listener in the world, it seems) but as she began to believe in her own superstar status, I began to find her more and more tiresome. I don't think I could be alone. About the time I wrote an email complaining about her smug self-importance she seemed to calm down a bit – coincidence? (Oh ho! Rationalist humour!) I expect I could not have been alone in wearying of her egocentric legend. The lead-host Dr. Steven Novella is extremely well spoken and intelligent. His well practiced ability to dissect any argument down to its core principles is laudable. His younger brothers, the uber-geeky Bob who sports wood at the mention of the prefix 'nano', and my favourite, Jay who has a puerile sense of humour but is always the first to congratulate the others on a job well done. Last but not least there is Even Bernstein, who also puts time into producing the SGU's companion podcast "SGU 5x5" – a shorter, tighter, weekly podcast that alternates with the main one.

I have cried listening to the SGU (I won't spoil it for you; you simply have to listen in order from the beginning. I cried shamelessly, on public transit.) But more often I laugh and I always find it interesting if not usefully informative. Their guests have ranged from Richard Dawkins to President Jimmy Carter and included many names that would be familiar to the rationalist community and even a few names that any media savvy person would recognize. It is very conversational and feels like sitting in on a weekly chat with friends about the week's more preposterous 'science' and the social politics surrounding it.

Some Honourable Mentions for those of you who really just can't stop reading:

I could have filled up my top ten with Skeptical podcasts (Notice how I slipped SGU 5x5 in?) but I didn't feel it was good use of space. Skeptoid is perhaps a bit brash. Host Brian Dunning is very no nonsense, perhaps to a fault. But for 'just the facts' analysis of a range of topics, Skeptoid is excellent. Skepticality is kind of the 'touchy feely' skeptical podcast. Some excellent interviews – I particularly enjoy their ongoing relationship with secular lobbyist Lori Lippman-Brown, but the real highlight of Skepticality came from tragedy. Originally Derek was much more outgoing than his co-host Swoopy. But then – while at a podcasting conference dinner – he had a stroke. He survived. But it was left to Swoopy to continue. Swoopy blossomed, and while Derek is still a part of the show – and the show indeed was part of his recovery – Skepticality is Swoopy's show now. Listening to Derek's recovery and Swoopy's chrysalis unfold on the show was awesome. Also The Amazing Show is quite entertaining. Not consistently about skeptical thought, but it features the mac-daddy of skeptics, James Randi usually imparting some anecdote which occasionally has something to do with skepticism.

CBC has many podcasts as I noted earlier. Most have a lot to offer and I listen to about six of them, but only one makes my top ten. Podcasts of "As it Happens" and "Morning Edition" are merely single highlights from the most recent daily show. "Vinyl Cafe" – I largely listen to for Dave & Morely stories. "Ideas" was a limited series that I am slowly working my way through. "The Hour" is a truncated and chopped up version of the TV show.

Wait Wait Don't Tell Me – Chicago Public Radio scores again with NPR's current events quiz show. It's usually very funny, and occasionally I pick up a piece of news I'd previously missed.

Astronomy Cast – They posted their first episode the week Pluto quit being a planet, and slowly, week by week they have tackled a new astronomical subject. Sometimes I find it hard to fully understand – I've never fully appreciated the wave/particle duality except in a superficial kind of way. Other times it has clarified things I only mostly 'got' – The Theory of Relativity... I thought I understood it, but then listening to one episode I suddenly realised how cursory my knowledge of one aspect was. And still other times it expands upon the now outdated high-school astronomy (from the ground-based telescopes to the edge of the universe) that got me listening to the show in the first place.

Crash Test Kitchen – The lowest tech video podcast I watch. It's a very irregularly posted cooking show. Hosted by Woz and Lennie – a globetrotting pair of Aussies who have delivered episodes from no less than four countries (including Canada... actually, come to think of it they might be better characterized as 'Commonwealth trotting') from various kitchens where they have made all kinds of meals... some not very successfully and rarely without pissing each other off. Oh, the schadenfreude!

Geek Brief & Epic Fu – Two podcasts that are as market savvy as they are informative. Cali and Zadi, respectively, are each hotties who dish out a sampling of tech and web-culture news. Cali is more tech, Zadi more web. Put a scrumptious lady in front of a camera for the nerds to drool over as they get a fix on the news that is most important to them. An excellent choice. Cali has 3-5 minute shows a few times a week. Zadi is 10-12 minutes once a week. I'll watch them anytime... occasionally I'll listen to what they are saying.

In Our Time – A BBC radio show. Each week a group of experts is provoked into giving a much briefer explanation of the subject of the week than any of them ever seem comfortable giving. They would much rather expound about their specific sub-category of knowledge, but host Melvyn Bragg cajoles them on.

And finally, four shows that are on notice:

Slice of Sci-Fi – If I could find another shorter and less self-indulgent show to get my sci-fi entertainment news, I'd ditch this one in a moment. It's the THIRD podcast on the subject that I've tried, and certainly the most successful, but there is an air of unwarranted intellectual superiority about the geeks who want to do these types of shows that grates my last nerve. The consistent worst problem? They always seem to think that 'because I like it' should trump any networks business decision to cancel a TV show that isn't producing numbers. Doesn't mean the system isn't broken, but the underlying premise of their argument is just as broken.

Stuff You Should Know – Interesting, but I've had to quit calling it informative. You would think that a show called 'Stuff You Should Know' would have some rigour. Yet they give pseudo-science the journalistically corrupt 'equal time' and often have obvious gaping holes in their research. This past week – the proverbial straw – they were talking about plane crashes. They got around to the infamous Uruguayan rugby team who crashed in the Andes – the subject of the feature film "Alive," and mentioned that there was a documentary being made about and they'd have to see it when it comes out 'whatever they call it.' Well, it came out LAST YEAR and is called 'Stranded.' I saw it last year. I found it on line without using the title. A two word google search: "rugby cannibalism". I could go on with further damning detail, but the essence is clear... shamefully lazy reporting.

The Productivity Show – The irony of this podcast is remarkable. The original episodes, though not terribly focussed were quite useful and interesting. But gradually the regularity of release stretched further and further. Then the show was taken over by another host... who was less interesting, but more regular... for a while. I suspect no new episodes will ever surface. It has been months since the latest one.

John Cleese Podcast – Delightful. Such a mixed bag. Some short new sketches. Some direct to web-cam anecdotes. Some excerpts of lectures. Not one wasted moment in the entire batch. But I suspect that it too will never air another episode.

I have over 1200 backlogged podcasts on my hard-drive, and listen to an average of about 15 per day, but at least ten new ones download on the average day... and most of the backlogged podcasts are over 30 minutes in length, while at least ten of the 15 I burn through in the average listening day are under ten minutes.

It's going to be a long hill to climb. I thank my boss.

No comments: