Saturday, December 12, 2015

Another Podcast Review

Just another review in which I remember which podcasts I like and which pissed me off.

Podcasts are important to me because I have a 45−90-minute bus commute to and from work, five days a week. If I don't want to listen to disadvantaged adults abusing their children or tedious phone calls interrupting whatever book I'm reading, then I must don my over-ear headphones and listen to podcasts.

Now, even a podcast can affect my entire day, so mostly I'm looking for good comedy or interesting storytelling. Sometimes I feel guilty about not being more educated so I seek out nonfiction and professional analysis podcasts. Still other times, I'll try out anything that looks interesting, and sometimes my friends even have recommendations for me.

Recently I discovered my iPod can search and download podcasts without ever installing stupid fucking iTunes on my computer! What a relief! So I've been exploring that option, how to load my iPod with podcasts, without ever having to reinstall every lousy stinking goddamned iTunes update, remembering to shut off its background data hog subroutine between times. With the latest iPod update, however, my device now thinks it's January 1970 and refuses to be corrected on this, and despite how many unplayed podcasts I've cached, the Unplayed Podcasts button yields zero results.

These are some of the petty annoyances that people of certain breeding call "first-world problems", where "real" problems only pass the test of moral relativism.

Anyway. Here's what I've been listening to in my latest spate.

Whose Fault Is That?
This could've been really funny. The premise is great: reading the worst of the comments section. The execution brings it down, as the narrator recites each one with the overwrought expression appropriate to a kindergarten class.

Facing Evil with Candice DeLong
Hot on the heels of Serial, this is hosted by someone who's worked "20 years in the FBI, 10 years as a Psychiatric Nurse" and ten years as a criminal reporter. Each episode focuses on one crime each, where she interviews someone who's done something horrible and how they feel about it. Again, this could have been really interesting, but in the one episode I listened to, the host sounded sympathetic in interview but disingenuously appalled and condemning in her review. This is just cheap sensationalism.

The Bunker
A British comedy/drama in which post-apocalyptic survivors learn about themselves and work to survive. I thought I grabbed the second episode, but it turned out I listened to the last one. That's all I needed, as the script was so densely worded and repetitive that every moment reviewed every prior episode and I was able to piece the entire story together. This was nearly two hours long, and if every episode is two hours long, that would've been too arduous for me to listen to. Even my commute, when I miss all favorable buses, is never two hours long, and why would I wade through protracted setups for marginal punchlines and threadbare tropes? The sound effects were great, and the English humor provides some nice seasoning to an otherwise bland meal, but really, you miss nothing by skipping the prior eleven episodes.

Black Girl Nerds Podcast
I'm very much looking forward to hearing this one. I've never been able to because they have profoundly limited downloads by whomever's hosting them, so instead I stock up on a string of 30-second clips explaining why I can't listen to any given episode. The clips are absolutely intolerable, too (Black Girl Nerds is not responsible for or party to these clips), where someone's speaking over a ukulele and whistling and hand claps. People have been killed for much less.

Futility Closet
This one is another frustrating podcast where it could've been great but the execution ruins it. It investigates weird phenomena and interesting events, scrutinizes the substantiating information, brings in tangential theory and study... just a lot of fun stuff with really good info. It is hosted by a husband-and-wife team, and—on the few I've listened to—mostly the man leads the exposition and tells the story and related facts. The woman, who has taken some effort to announce to the audience how smart she is, persistently interrupts the podcast with "I didn't know that!" and "I had no idea!" This would be a great opportunity for character growth, showing someone who believes they know everything as they follow a trajectory of self-realization and humility to approach true enlightenment as they reopen themselves to the wonder of the world, admitting they know nothing, but this never happens.

Rick Steves' Europe Video
This is just awesome. Nothing bad to say about this at all (except the recent addition of ads are really annoying, but I recognize the money's gotta come from somewhere). Steves explores the highlights of Europe, from the glorious cities to the out-of-the-way villages, rounding out the presentation with intimate interaction with friends and incredible depth of knowledge. Each video is about five minutes long, too, so it's perfect for a short bus ride with lots of interruptions.

I used to love this. It's a bunch of improv comics at the height of their game, enacting various scenarios with sharp humor, and then the sessions are edited down to strip them of incidental pauses, so what you get is a blast of talented comedians and a rapid-fire performance.

I stopped listening because they lean heavily on dick jokes, gay jokes, and child rape.

This podcast is what happens when someone grows up with All Things Considered, 99% Invisible, Radiolab, etc., and therefore becomes convinced this is what a podcast should sound like. Each episode is around ten minutes long, which is again great for short listening, and the premise is that the host explores urban or traditional legends and obscure mysteries. There's a lot of research behind them and these could really be fascinating, except the host doesn't know how to pronounce certain words and it never occurs to him to look them up, just to be sure. Personally, I would much rather he work on his own voice and presentation rather than straining to sound like the love-child of Ira Glass and Roman Mars, right down to the thoughtfully amused pauses and tension-building vocal fry.

I Was There Too
This is another Matt Gourley joint (he's part of Superego) but in this one he interviews the extras from classic and popular movies. This is a brilliant idea, based on the premise that the extras have their own amazing stories and insights to share. And they absolutely do! Best of all, very few dick jokes and no homophobia or pedophilia, a refreshing change from a talented comic.

The Message
This is a traditional-feeling podcast, starting with "GE Podcast Theater" as producer (reminiscent of Mercury Theater). It's a short series, each episode around 10−15 minutes, and it presents itself in podcast vérité style, following the investigation of an old extraterrestrial transmission in present day. The actors work hard at sounding genuine and extemporaneous, and the story is compelling... genuinely compelling. This show represents a good return on minimal investment and so is worth anyone's time.

No Such Thing as a Fish
There's an English TV game/trivia show called QI, which sounds like the reverse of "intelligence quotient" but actually means "quite interesting". It's hosted by Stephen Fry, which is reason enough to love it, and the competitors are a selection of UK celebrities (athletes, comedians, actors, etc.), and the whole thing is a rollicking affair.

Now, the team that works on hunting for this trivia is known as the "QI Elves", and this is their podcast. You get to listen to them crack wise over extremely strange facts and trivia, in this podcast. That's all it is: smart, charming, witty people trading facts and making jokes. This podcast is on my short list of the few I could listen to forever.

The Moonlit Road Podcast
I grabbed a lot of these podcasts right before Hallowe'en, as I was researching traditional storytelling and campfire stories. This one came up, and it's a treasure: traditional Southern ghost stories and urban legends, recited by enthusiastic and expressive voice actors. Suitable for adults and very bold children, this is a rich resource of distinctly American tradition, and by that I mean stuff that originated here after pulling from all the world cultures that ended up here, one way or another. In that sense, it testifies to the true worth of our nation as a hub of inclusion and diversity, something we should embrace with curiosity and maybe a healthy jealousy.

A narrative drama recited by the deceased residents of PleasureTown, an experimental Utopia formed around the westward expansion. A subtle blend of Spoon River Anthology and Deadwood, each episode can go in any direction, with recurring characters or one-offs, and some stories are user submitted. This makes PleasureTown a delirious experiment in storytelling and performance, and it at least could sit on the shelf next to Welcome to Night Vale. In fact, it was recommended to me by a good friend when I complained about where Night Vale had gone, and it made everything better.

Incredibly Interesting Authors
This is a very low-budget and straight-forward podcast. A guy interviews various authors for a dozen minutes, more or less, and just talks with them about whatever. Sometimes they discuss their latest book, or interesting things that happened in their career, or what motivated them to start producing and then stick with it. It could be anything, and it's fun to listen to these people just go off about whatever's in their head. That means some episodes will be more to your taste than others, but nothing is lost in listening to them all.

Coffee Break Spanish
This is a strange one. The instructor teaches you elementary Spanish vocabulary and phrases, but does so with a thick Scottish brogue. The learner in this episode has a beautiful, flute-like voice, also in lilting Scottish, and the combination of these two make it a delight to listen to, even if you don't want to learn another language. The theme song references haggis, so I wonder if it never occurred to the hosts that this would be of interest outside of their home nation; contrary to this, I just found a post from a Korean national asking for a translation and explanation of the theme's lyrics. That was a fun discussion.

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