‘Serial’ may not be the new frontier that some commentators have claimed, but it has certainly brought many more listeners to podcasts. I listen to lots, and I’ve had a couple of requests for recommendations, so here goes.
These are the podcasts I listen to every week, in alphabetical order:
It took me a little while to find headspace for 99% Invisible. The first episode I listened to, after a reference from Helen and Olly on ‘Answer Me This’, was about some aspect of industrial design so esoteric that I struggled to grasp what I was supposed to be listening to. It probably didn’t help that I was doing the washing up at the time. Now it’s a treasure trove, prying into the environmental design that surrounds us every day and uncovering illuminating and surprising stories. All this, and Roman Mars – the most mellifluous voice in podcasting. Radiotopia, which he fronts, threatens to brings a step-change in the quality of the medium.
All Songs Considered (NPR)
Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton bring in mostly new music to inspire and delight each other. Their easy banter is a pleasure and their affection for and wonder at the tracks they are playing is infectious. Like most of the music podcasts I subscribe to, All Songs Considered is a great way to hear music that lies adjacent to my usual choices.
Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann answer questions from listeners and rip the piss out of themselves, each other and their correspondents as they go.
The Danny Baker Show (BBC)
It’s rare that I get two hours to listen to the BBC Five Live show as it goes out on a Saturday morning, so the podcast is perfect. Danny’s cavalcade of everyday exuberance is as good as its ever been. He may court an atmosphere of ramshackle piracy but he’s the consummate broadcaster and his callers, expertly shepherded, build up a patchwork of British life that’s hard not to love.
Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver’s weekly satirical podcast is not quite the regular fixture it used to me, mainly because they haven’t been able to keep up a regular schedule for the last 6 months, mainly thanks to Oliver’s new weekly HBO show. Still their dumbfounded take on the week’s news is silly, cutting and infectious and always very, very funny.
Or ‘Wittertainment’ as it’s known to acolytes. I listen religiously even though we get to the cinema about twice a year these days. I could cope without the increasingly forced bickering, which is just a little unnecessary, but like ‘Answer Me This’, this is like spending time with friends, again something I do much less of than I’d like.
More Or Less (BBC)
From the BBC Radio Four show, exploring the numbers behind the news. Usually revealing and an important reminder that all is not always as it seems.
A recommendation from Pop Culture Happy Hour. Pitch is a short podcast about music which pokes around behind the loose corners of the art, the business and the culture and tries to answer questions you never realised you had. Like, why the hell is dancing illegal in New York bars?
Politics Weekly (Guardian)
From the Guardian. I seem to listen to mainly American podcasts, and I do so mainly in the car, so the Today Programme on Radio 4 has had to make way. Politics Weekly gives me the illusory sense that I am keeping up with events and the entirely factual sense that I am so far behind in my grasp on UK politics that I may as well be hibernating. Warning: regularly features Michael White, the single most irritating contributor to any of the podcasts listed here.
Pop Culture Happy Hour (NPR)
One of the great affordances of podcasts is the opportunity to hang out with people who are like you only just a little bit smarter and more insightful. If you’re interested in books, films, TV or music there’s nowhere better to be than round a table with Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon and Stephen Thompson. If I ever hung out with my real friends, i’d be ripping off PCHH opinions left, right and centre.
One of the iron horses of Podcasting, Radiolab puts out relatively few episodes – just 58 since inception in 2002 – but they are almost always worth an hour of your time. Essentially a collaboration between experimental musician Jad Abumrad and Science Reporter Robert Krulwich that took root, it blends rationalist science with beautiful production values and, in common with the best in the field, a sharp instinct for storytelling. The most recent episode on the concept of ‘Patient Zero’ is a case in point. Frequently jawdropping, moving and enlightening.
Snap Judgment (NPR)
Think of it as This American Life without the implied coverage of the national state of being. Snap is an hour of personal stories told straight to the microphone without interviewers or additional editorial content. They are almost always interesting and sometimes absolutely remarkable. As I write they have just re-run an episode with three totally diverse stories loosely around the theme ‘Unrequited’. Any of the three might be the best think you hear this week.
Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot present music news and album reviews bookending a longer feature piece which could be a classic album dissection, a genre exploration, a live performance and interview or a consultation with the Rock Doctors. Their opinions veer from the staid to the surprising, but they are good guides and, like most music podcasts, the exposure to unheard stuff is the thing i’m after.
Now 7 episodes in, I look forward to StartUp as much as Serial. in it;’s own way it’s a comparable look at an often unheard aspects of a story we think we already know. Alex Blumberg, host of Planet Money and sometime This American Life presenter, is starting his own company. He has no idea how to do this, but he has an idea for the business and he’s recording everything he does.
There are two cute aspects to StartUp. Firstly, Blumberg is starting a podcasting corporation, intent on developing content and platforms to take podcasting to the next level in quality and exposure. When he started, Serial was just a TAL email list and he had to spend a lot of time evangelising for the format. Now the case has been made for him, and his business idea, with the likes of Radiotopia coming up on the rails, is starting to seem less novel as others get there first.
Secondly, as he tells the story of the birth of his business, he is also building advance interest, photo-loyalty and, as the episodes progress, interest from investors. His podcast about the process of building a podcasting business is building his business whilst he podcasts the process.
Meta textual narrative, cunning marketing ploy, or both, StartUp is fascinating, compelling and fun to listen to.
Tech Weekly (Guardian)
From the Guardian. This is my gesture towards keeping up with news in the tech sector. It sort of works, but it’s better at exploring the arena. This year they have been picking away at the dark web, crypto-currencies and Edward Snowden’s revelations.
Thinking Allowed (BBC)
Laurie Taylor’s weekly BBC Radio 4 show covers two recent contributions to the social sciences. That may sound dry, and initially the interviews with academics can seem daunting, but this soon drops away, to leave a series of almost random plunges into the cultural and social forces behind modern life. Professorial in tone, but nontheless accessible and revealing.
Goes to places not many others visit, brings back stories not many others do and tells them like no-one else does.
A newcomer, just a few weeks old, but interesting and revealing. Each episode spends time discussing the intricacies of the working life of one specific subject. After kicking off with Stephen Colbert, we’ve heard from a medic, a porn star, a waiter and one of the John’s from They Might Be Giants. Not quite as dependent on the job in question as you might imagine, the trick here is the fascination for detail. When this is high, it’s a good listen.
David McRaney’s long-form exploration of the science of self-delusion and cookies. In each episode he talks at length to an author or researcher on some aspect of the way our brains constantly prove themselves to be unreliable witnesses. His passion for his subjects and their areas of expertise comes through loud and clear and the results are revelatory. They’ll make you think differently about the way you think. And then he bakes and eats a cookie.
And that, surely, is enough for any week?
I’ve been trying to write about Serial, the new episodic podcast from the folks behind This American Life, but I can’t get my thoughts into a coherent narrative. I’ve realised that this is for a few reasons.
Firstly, i’m distracted by what I imagine lots and lots of others are saying about it. I have things to say against their views but have the problem that I haven’t read anything they’ve written or listened to anything they’ve said. I’m going to proceed as if this is fine. As if my railing against imagined or assumed opinions will somehow have more truth than a carefully reasoned fisking of each and every blog post I’ve been paging past for the last 5 or 6 weeks. Truth is something i’ll come on to shortly.
Secondly, my thoughts about Serial aren’t coherent, in that I have strong views about some quite distinct aspects of it and the reaction to it, and the rest not so much. Anyway, coherence is over-rated, I hope, and ambiguity reigns. Ambiguity is something i’ll come on to shortly.
Thirdly, my thoughts are much less about what Serial is then they are about what Serial isn’t. And it’s quite possible that everyone else out there agrees with me about what Serial isn’t. I may be stating the obvious and uncovering nothing. The opposite of Serial is something i’ll come on to shortly.
Still, I need something to pin my thoughts to and, as this is a murder story, perhaps bullets will have to do.
- I think Serial is great. I’m compelled and intrigued by it. It’s a clever, revealing and provocative piece of documentary story-telling.
- It’s a mistake to think of Serial as a radical new approach to podcasting or, indeed, storytelling. I’d been struggling to explain this until Linda Holmes, the always on-point host of NPR’s ‘Pop Culture Happy Hour’ put it perfectly this week: “If you think Serial is like an HBO show, you’re taking Ira Glass for granted. It’s This American Life – only longer.”
- And so certainly one of the things that has been irking me is the arrivistes suddenly getting excited, not about the format, audio is audio and all media is now essentially on-demand, but about the content. I recognise fully that this is a distasteful sentiment. I include it here as it’s part of the evidence, even if it looks bad for me.
- This American Life takes this approach all the time, and it unearths amazing stories and revealing vignettes all the time. It also unearths and pares down and bolts together reports from strange places the news media rarely go. If you’re sceptical, Google ‘Dr Gilmer’ or ‘Carmen Segarra’ and knock yourself out.
- Much of the debate around Serial seems, from what I can gather, to be around whether or not there will be a conclusion to the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee. As an aspiration this seems both futile and short-sighted. What Sarah Koenig and her fellow This American Life producers do for a living is take a story, build a heap from its fragments, and then attempt to piece these shards together to create something that looks like it might be a coherent narrative. That’s why they have found this case so perplexing. Had there been a clear cut sense of what had happened, they would have drawn their conclusion very quickly and this might not even have made a single segment for their regular gig. Instead they have not and in chasing down the details of the crime, they have instead traced the outline of the act of murder, only to find that it’s perpetrator is absent.
- They do this all the time. They are searching for a narrative, not always for a truth. Ambiguity is part of the truth of what they do, when they get it right. They don’t always and they’ve been in trouble before. In the last couple of years they have retracted stories that they had accepted verbatim (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction) and been forced to defend reports against accusations of gross errors (http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/03/22/this-american-life-features-error-riddled-story/193215). Commentators, including Harry Shearer, host of Le Show, have criticised them for privileging piecing together a good story above reporting the facts.
- But this approach is perfect for a crime story like this one. As anyone who has been close to the centre of a crime story, most likely as a juror, will know, there are no truths, there are barely facts that can be established without contest. When, after one or two or one hundred days of testimony (let’s not call it ‘evidence’) a jury sit down to deliberate, what they ponder is not the truth, but which version of the events described they find most plausible. I sat as juror on a murder trial once and if you’ve never done that then take my word for it, we were left to piece together an outcome based on our collective notes of what we considered important during the preceding 7 days of testimony. Half the people in the room hadn’t even made any notes, but were happy to sit and defend their gut instinct as to whether the accused was innocent or guilty. The truth bounced between us like a dizzy pinball for 24 hours and then dropped into one of the available gutters and was delivered as our verdict. It was, it had to be, our best guess.
- Ultimately it’s a mistake to think of this as a crime story. Serial is about ambiguity and the unattainability of truth. The murder of Hae Lee is the stuff it’s made from, but ultimately this is just material to be shifted and sifted and shaped and reshaped. Witnesses and testimonies are contradictory, partial and unresolvable. The point of the story is that you cannot get a single, truthful view through a shattered prism.
- It’s also pretty short-sighted to describe Serial as a step forward in crime reporting or story-telling. Both crime fiction and non-fiction have been portraying, trading in and pondering stories which conclude in a strangled mess or loose ends for decades. Also, without wishing to sound all prissy there’s something distasteful about commentators queuing up to describe the ‘rich and fully-formed cast of characters’. These are real people, not ciphers to be dragged out and pored over. One of them was murdered.
- And so finally, anyone expecting resolution within the 12 episodes of a podcast simply hasn’t been thinking. What we’re hearing each week is a thread of the story as they have been able to tease it out so far. These strands are being pulled out from the great mass of material they have collected and sorted and carefully presented. If, in the course of this process, they had come across one thread which was tied around a smoking gun proving that Adnan definitely committed the murder, or a piece of evidence which suggested that he should be exonerated, or indeed some evidence that clearly indicated that some other individual was likely to have been responsible, then they would have had an obligation to act upon it and the story would not have waited for the end of their run. If that had happened, we’d know. Koenig and co may come to a view at the end of all this, but they won’t solve the puzzle. And, essentially, that’s what the justice system does too. It sifts through the story, asks members of the public to come to a view and then coalesces behind this compromise view, its best guess at what most probably happened.
So, Serial. Enjoy it and you will learn things along the way. Principle among these is that there are no final truths. Sometimes all we have are our stories.