I simply can’t follow music anymore, and just listen to what’s in the air, or on the shelves/hard drive — next to nothing post-2009, you understand. Nor can I do more than read the reviews of books and movies, and catch what I can. Springsteen reckoned there were 57 channels and nothing on, but then the Hollywood Hills do seem remote from humanity.
Podcasts, ah, podcasts you can find and access them from home. And like Fido, it’s ready when you are. I’m lucky enough that I can often tune into words while working — whichever whorls and sand dune corrugations in that strange walnut up top are involved with images, they don’t seem to mind text directly streaming into the shell-likes.
Here are my favourite podcasts of the year:
9. World Book Club (BBC)
Big name writers come on this monthly show to talk about their book, usually the one which made their name. These are writers who’ve sold cargo-loads and have a large, global following — I’m taken aback by how many of them I don’t know, and whose books I haven’t seen, never mind read. Nonetheless the interviews, around 50 minutes, by the warm and well-read Harriet Gilbert are at the very least, entertaining, and sometimes elicit the kind of answer that makes you think differently about the author. Also of interest is that the audience — in the room and on the phone around the globe — ask questions and make comments, and the authors have to cope. This year’s highlight for me: Colm Toibin talking about Brooklyn — Toibin is charming, self-effacing, subtle and deeply crafty.
8. Radiolab (WNYC)
You might be familiar with RN’s The Night Air (“Radio abstraction for listening pleasure”). Radiolab has a not dissimilar approach — “obliquely connected material is re-assembled with sonic glue allowing the listener’s imagination to build a new story.” Radiolab’s discontinuous sonic collages are introduced by hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, who also provide a kind of running exegesis. An acquired taste, it’s enlivening and delightful when you’re in their groove. Radiolab comes twice a month, in Shorts, around 20 mins, and the standard hour. See this gorgeous video Symmetry and listen to the program that inspired it, Desperately Seeking Symmetry.
7. The Philosopher’s Zone (RN)
Presented by the beautiful mind of Alan Saunders, PZ is a very enjoyable bluffer’s guide in 25 minutes, but also manages to pass us small crystals of ideas which glint and shimmer as we turn them later in our minds. Saunder’s voice is amber pillowed on velvet, and his tone of judicious cool is unique on radio. This one on robo-war ethics by P.W. Singer is fantastic, and anyone who saw and admired, or was unconvinced by Terence Malick’s film Tree of Life will find this discussion a fascinating entree into the director’s philosophy.
6. Canberra Calling (Crikey)
You’ll forgive a little logrolling. Crikey editor Sophie Black’s weekly chat to Bernard Keane in Canberra is distinguished by the combination of Sophie’s light-fingered scepticism with Bernard’s dry realism. One might say Bernard’s reading of Canberra is pitiless. Slightly plagued this year by problems in broadcast consistency, it’s back on track the last few months. Dare I say, they could lash out and have a bit more fun. 15 – 25 minutes.
5. Culture Gabfest (Slate)
Like them or not, the Slate culture trio of Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner can make for a refreshingly mainstream-alt-east coast 45 minutes. Set apart by the Metcalvian trademark note of self-mocking snooty disdain and patronising high culture humour, they deliver on Beyoncé and dance plagiarism, movies, TV, literary theory in Beavis and Butthead, and the cultural canon of this century, so far. Maddening, but also splendified by Metcalf’s occassional riffs and rants.
4. Politics Weekly (Guardian)
The Guardian‘s excellent weekly update on politics in the UK. Sharp, clarifying and a whole lot less ideological than you might assume; in the best British tradition, the presenter Anne Perkins entertains a selection of voices who are not often in agreement. The star is Michael White, a very old hand who’s seen it all and whose acerbic and dry-eyed comments cut the mustard, and through the grease.
In the unlikely event you don’t know, the Wheeler Centre is a year round forum for books, writing and ideas, with its home and stage in the south side of the State Library on Swanston Walk. For those who can’t get there in person, you can view their videos of the talks and discussions, or just do the podcast thing. The line-up is stellar, so you can cherry pick: Paul Keating on himself; Simon Leys on lit crit; Michael Kirby on the love that dare not be spoken of by Julia; you can check out Christine Nixon’s apologia; and also people who you’ve never heard of on subjects which are esoteric but surprisingly pertinent, such as Mandy Brett’s Why the World Needs Editors Even if it Doesn’t Need Books. Shorts at 30 minutes, otherwise an hour.
American politics through the contrarian prism of Slate editors David Plotz, John Dickerson and Emily Bazelon. An unmissable, weekly 20 mins.
An hour of sheer pleasure. Every week Adam Kampenaar and Matty “Ballgame” Robinson talk/argue/dispute about current films, and review past movies in a theme suggested by the week’s pick (Drive led to Top 5 Movie Vehicles). Their hilarious Movie Massacre has the duo act a scene from a film (badly, naturally) with listeners going into draw — first correct guess wins a Filmspotting t-. And you know it’s really good because (i) people subscribe from around the world, with quite a bunch from Australia — at up to $5 or $10 a month, and (ii) even their reading out of the subscribers’ names and whereabouts are great fun. Very nicely produced, these folk know and love their subject, and it’s very easy to love them.