Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pod people

The best things in life are free, as the song says, which is good news for those who hesitate to part with their hard-earned income. One of the aforementioned things I've really got into in recent years is podcasts. They're affordable, portable and cover a range of subjects as vast as the Internets themselves.

I bring up the subject of cost for a reason. As anyone involved with newspapers will tell you, the Internet is notoriously difficult to monetize. Giving away content for free is somewhat shaky as a business model, and the listener is under no obligation to financially support the producer. Why would anyone do a podcast if they're not going to get paid? There are the obvious answers, of course, such as building one's brand, garnering attention or just liking to hear one's self talk. They might just find it fun.

It also bears mentioning, though, that this new form of media can be more than just a vanity project. There are people out there who have taken the act of yodeling into a microphone for free and turned it into something that strangers around the world can enjoy and possibly be willing to pay to access. The purpose of this post is not to tell you how to do that -- I haven't the foggiest. Rather, I'd like to introduce some of the podcasts I enjoy and either have or am willing to support with my own money.

My first mp3 player was a little Creative device I bought in Boise around 2006 or so. It was basically a 2GB thumb drive that also had a headphone jack. The problem was, my computer at the time was a desktop that ran Windows ME, so it wasn't advanced enough to use the player's software, leaving me with a $70 trinket that sat unused for a couple years. It wasn't until I swapped the desktop for a laptop (with Windows Vista!) in 2007 that I could finally get the thing to work.

Said laptop has appeared on this blog before, and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with its carcass.

Now, I have an 8GB Philips GoGear device, and the extra space has made a world of difference. Not only do I have a few select music and comedy albums at my fingertips, I can also store many more podcasts. I have more than a hundred podcast pages bookmarked on the new laptop, but this post will go through the best I've found so far.

For starters, I'll go through those podcasts which I've already supported financially, either through direct donations or purchasing merchandise.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: One of the granddaddies of skeptical podcasts. Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan hit the airwaves each week with their special blend of science, skepticism and humor. The crew is frequently joined by great guests (James Randi, George Hrab, Brian Brushwood, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott and many, many more) and has a series of regular bits, such as Who's That Noisy, Science or Fiction and Name That Logical Fallacy. Of all the podcasts I frequent, this is among the most well-rounded. It has a bunch of smart, funny people covering science, technology, skepticism, culture and all-around geekery. Highly recommended.

Radiolab: On its Twitter page, Radiolab describes itself as "a show about curiosity." That's as good a description as any. This podcast covers topics as wide-ranging as the nature of consciousness and existence to talking to machines and why we play games. All the while, it does so with a scientific lens yet still manages to retain a sense of wonder. It's not the kind of show you throw on in the background while working out or doing chores around the house -- rather, it's one that makes you want to sit down and genuinely think about what you're hearing. One example of such an episode is my favorite: The Ring and I. Wagnerian opera was a bridge too far for the classical music lover in me, but the show and their subject matter draw you in and envelop you in their mad little world so much that I seriously began exploring how to get to the Bayreuth Festival.

Now Playing: A bit more focused than the previous two, Now Playing does movie reviews, and it does them well. The main format is three hosts watching and reviewing films in a series, be they short ones like Human Centipede or Back to the Future to longer series such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th (horror is where this bunch made their bones). The current series is the show's most ambitious to date, part of its heroic -- in length and subject matter -- Marvel retrospective leading up to this summer's release of The Avengers. As you can imagine, buying so many DVDs or movie tickets gets expensive, so from time to time the team holds donation drives in which people who pledge get access to extra content. Past drives have involved reviews of Child's Play, The Exorcist, Jaws, Poltergeist and more, but if you don't donate during that drive, those shows are lost to you forever. Thanks to a six-month spat I had with PayPal, I missed out on the Child's Play retrospective, something that haunts me to this day.
The interplay between the hosts is great fun, and I find my movie tastes fairly similar to Arnie's in all but horror (I prefer creepy, atmospheric J-horror; he likes a bit more gore). As they explain in the show open, episodes include detailed spoilers, so it's best to have watched the film in question before the podcast. Regardless, Now Playing is appointment listening for me and should be likewise for all film fans.

This American Life: Like its public radio peer Radiolab, This American Life is less newsy and more about telling a story or stories that revolve around a central theme. It generally tries to give a picture of what life in America is like at that particular moment, though how it does that varies. It does venture into newsy territory once in a while, though, and when it does so, it excels. Some of the show's subject matter can be hit or miss, depending on your tastes, but when it's on it's easy to lose yourself in the story it's telling.

Hardcore History: Dan Carlin -- the man, the myth, the legend -- does this in-depth look into history as well as a show more focused on current events, Common Sense. While the subject matter of the two shows differs, Carlin and his intense, uncompromising style set the tone for both. Rather than stick with a straight chronology or an orthodox approach, he frequently detours down side streets that take the listener to much more interesting places while challenging many preconceived notions about historical events and their impact on modern society. When one episode just isn't enough, he's been known spread it out over a series, from the Punic Wars to the eastern front in World War II to the almost crushingly ambitious death of the Roman Republic. His one-shot episodes are excellent, too, and I recommend trying Apache Tears, Judgement at Nineveh, Steppe Stories or Scars of the Great War to get a taste of Carlin's work. I've put more of my money into Hardcore History than any other podcast, and I'd happily do so again.

There are other shows I'd gladly support with money, but they either haven't asked me to do so or I haven't had the opportunity to do so. I may not be as generous with donations once I go back to school, but until that happens, I'd be willing to chip in if asked.

The Bugle: This is timely, given that The Bugle just released its final episode as part of The Times of London's digital arm. The Bugle, the world's pre-eminent audio newspaper for a visual world, is a satirical podcast featuring John Oliver (of The Daily Show and Love Guru fame) and Andy Zaltzman (of Cricinfo and Edinburgh Festival infamy) riffing on the subjects of the day. While Hotties From History has gone by the wayside and Bugle favorites Muammar el-Qaddafi and Kim Jong-il have popped their clogs in the past few months, the show itself is still going strong. These gentlemen specialize in industrial-grade bullshit, hogwash and buffalo biscuits, and they do it better than just about everyone else.

Nerdist: There's not too much to say about the Nerdist that hasn't already been said. Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray and Matt Mira head the audio flagship of a movement that's helping make it OK to be openly, joyously nerdy. Hardwick's star continues to rise on TV as well as online, but you'd never know it from the relentlessly positive way he seems to embrace life with both arms instead of a non-committal side-hug. He's also building up a network of podcasts -- including Sex Nerd Sandra, which I also highly recommend -- that could one day rival the podcasting behemoth that is Kevin Smith's Smodcast network. Quality guests, hostful goodness and more nerdistry than you can shake a large, wooden object at -- an all-around excellent show.

Adam & Joe: I first learned of this show at the aforementioned Nerdist site. It is, quite simply, radio comedy gold. The chemistry and timing between the multi-talented Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish (director of the sleeper hit Attack the Block) is delightful and more than makes up for the occasional references to pop music about which I am utterly clueless. As usual, though, things are a bit different over in Blighty. Apparently the BBC runs its shows three or four months at a pop rather than a whole year, and Adam and Joe have been on hiatus since June, due at least in part to Cornish's success with Attack the Block. If you're new to the show, start from the April 2 "Denny Different" show -- they explain most of the recurring bits after coming off another extended break. If, like me, you're pining for more Count Buckules and Scornballs ... courage.

Skeptics With a K: Skeptics With a K and its companion podcast, InKredulous, are from the Merseyside Skeptics Society. Unlike many of my other favorite podcasts, I can't really pinpoint one SWAK episode that sticks in my mind. Rather, I can download just about any episode regardless of the date and be both entertained and informed. Mike, Marsh and Colin keep up a brisk pace discussing science, skepticism, society, sci-fi (Marsh less so), the media and whatever else catches their fancy, all with that unique Scouse sense of humor. They don't just talk, though -- the MSS is also the group behind the 10:23 campaign, which aims to raise awareness of what homeopathy really is, its lack of efficacy and its danger for consumers.

Geologic Podcast: George Hrab is a man of many talents -- singer, songwriter, percussionist, budding pianist, skeptic, emcee, author, snappy dresser and so much more. His wit, intelligence and creativity are evident in every project he pursues, and this podcast (which, incidentally, has almost nothing to do with geology) is no exception. Like many podcasts I listen to, Hrab's frequently touches on science and skepticism, but he also spends a good deal of time on music (not surprising, given his day job) and has several recurring bits (Minoishe Interroberg’s To Make With the Good English, Rupert McClanahan’s Indestructible Bastards, The History Chunk, etc.) to keep things fresh. And while you're trying out the podcast, give Hrab's music a listen, too -- it's worth your time.

You might notice a lack of sports podcasts in that list. I listen to a fair few of them, but given how many of them there are, I can't think of many I'd pay for if asked. The Tony Kornheiser Show would be top of the list, but given that the people at WTEM think that making listeners wait 24 hours for a podcast is a good idea, anything as bold as a listener-supported show will have to wait until Mr. Tony gets fed up and strikes out on his own. There is promise, too, in shows like the Football Ramble, The Best Soccer Show and The Ginge, and I seem to keep adding podcasts all the time. Given how much time I spend with earbuds in, it's a wonder I can still hear at all.

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