what’s making me happy this week – podcast edition

February 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the first posts I made on this blog was a list of the best the podcasts I’d listened to in 2010 – at the end of it, I mentioned the podcasts I wanted to listen to in the year ahead, and asked for some recommendations. Over the past couple of months I’ve spent a lot of time listening to radio programmes and podcasts – more of my spare time than I’ve spent on books, certainly, since the more work my degree entails and the closer I get to my finals, the more reading feels stressful and difficult. Listening to people talk feels like a break, a way to relax, more than reading does, in a way I can’t quite explain.

There’s no ranking here – I’m altogether too tired and my choices too splintered and disparate for that. I make no grand claims. But these are all things I have enjoyed, and that you might enjoy too.

pop culture happy hour

I love pop culture. There. I always liked Chandler on Friends, and that was largely because he referenced Gloria Estefan lyrics and whatever else people liked in the silly distant/recent pop cultural past (also he was neurotic and less annoying than the other characters, at least until the last few series). I like television shows and films and songs that quote other television shows and films and songs. I like when people put serious effort into discussing the more traditionally ephemeral parts of culture, the kinds of things that people engage with for fun rather than out of a sense of obligation (usually, at least). That’s kind of why I started this blog. So a weekly podcast dedicated to in-depth pop culture discussion, covering a lot of the things I like? That involves discussions of magazine articles, video games and the super bowl, an American institution which I am only aware of because of all the American sitcoms I have wasted my life watching?! Yes, please.

It helps that all the people on it are funny and aware, and that they genuinely seem to be having fun putting the show together. I’m working back through the archives at the moment, fairly haphazardly (once I’ve finished writing this I’m going to listen to a show from August just because it’s about Scott Pilgrim), and they’ve all been good so far.  Linda Holmes hosts it, and she’s wonderful, but really, so is everybody involved. I listened to my first episode of this while waiting for like forty minutes for a train to Canterbury, and I have not looked back. I play it on speakers in the kitchen while my boyfriend’s cooking dinner. I listen to it when I’m breaking from work. It’s genuinely funny while also being informative and smart. What could be better than that?

Also, I nicked the title for this post from the feature that they always end with. Whatever. I steal because I love. That’s a valid defence, right?

planet money

One thing that will become very clear from this list is that I have basically fallen for NPR. I tried listening to shows through an NPR app a year or two ago and just didn’t get it, I didn’t understand what they were or what they were for. I get it now. Planet Money is a show that gets put together twice a week or so about economics and finance and all that stuff that usually scares me and sends me to sleep. Stuart recommended it to me after I posted my list of podcasts up over the Christmas vacation, and although he said it really honestly wasn’t boring and was really worth a listen, I was still a bit scared, a bit like, I don’t know if it’s what I want to spend my time listening to. I was wrong. I was listening to an old episode of This American Life (on which I will write more later) and the best segment in it was one that was put together by the Planet Money team, when they went to see fruit and vegetable buyers bartering with sellers in a warehouse throughout the night. They interviewed everybody around, and talked about how the mood and power balance shifted throughout the night. It was fun and the people were normal and interesting and funny in places, and I came out of it suddenly knowing more. When my college has some weird fruit in for lunch now I find myself thinking well I bet the sellers just had too many of these. Planet Money means I find myself talking to my friends about tiny Spanish savings banks until they glaze over. I listen to twenty minutes about the gold standard before bed and suddenly know something about the Great Depression.

NPR do a lot of great, informative programmes about politics and current affairs, but a lot of them are too long for me – I can’t take an hour or more out of my day to listen to a list of daily programmes about whatever’s happening in the world, although I wish I could, honestly. But Planet Money is twenty minutes, it’s not daily, and I can fit it in. I have to, now.

this american life

Okay, so This American Life is wonderful. It basically, as Ira Glass says at the beginning of every episode, takes a theme and then gathers stories around that theme. Sometimes it’ll focus on just one story for the whole show, but usually there’ll be about three to five different stories covered. It’s not comedy, but it’s often very funny (one of my favourite stories they’ve done, “Brooklyn Archipelago”, is largely narrated by a teenager called Alex, in this edition – he’s great), and it’s not meant to be particularly educational or informative like Planet Money is… but it just is anyway. I’ve learned so much surprising stuff – from the piece about food sellers and buyers that I mentioned above, from the whole episode dedicated to the story of Bobby Dunbar, the boy lost to a swamp who appeared to have come back from the dead, and from the episode about a rest stop, where they talk to Ukrainian college students who spend their summers working in a remote part of the US, a man who works giving tourists incredibly detailed information, and people just passing through.

It’s so comforting. I’m finding it harder to talk about than the other two (although I rarely shut up about it in real life), but I recommend it so strongly. Start here. Or here. Or at any of the shows I’ve already linked to – the Bobby Dunbar one is possibly my favourite, but they’re all good.

answer me this

My friend Matt kept going on about this, and they had a book out over Christmas which, in my head, made me believe that they were on some sort of superpodcast level, because, you know, a book! They don’t even have an ironic tumblr like these dicks! But I still took ages to get around to actually listening to them.

It is actually really funny – probably the most hilarious of any of these, but then again it is the only one that is meant to be a funny above all else. They basically answer questions that people have phoned in with (or emailed to them) in an amusing way – it’s all there in the title. I’m amused by the fact that Martin-the-soundman, who is essentially the third presenter of the show, always has an echo on his voice, as if to distinguish him from Olly. They don’t even sound similar! (If anybody from Pop Culture Happy Hour is reading this, though, adding an echo to like Trey Graham’s voice and making Stephen Thompson high pitched so I can distinguish the men from each other would be a great step forward. Just a suggestion).

You don’t learn much from it (although it depends on the episode) but then that’s not really the point. If you want to feel educated and smart then listen to Planet Money. It’s not very relaxing, either – mostly quite hyper and loud. But it’s quick and smart and full of an incredible array of jingles made by comedy friends (Josie Long!) and, you know, all that good stuff. I might ask them a question and hope they make me feel special by answering it in a sarcastic way. Yeah! That’s a good way to spend my Monday night, right!

This is also the only British (and non-NPR/PRI!) show on my list. I’m not only a pop culture fan, it seems, but mostly a fan of American pop culture. Please, recommend me British podcasts/radio shows in the comment. I feel like there’s a massive Radio 4-shaped hole in my radio knowledge.

Other podcasts/radio shows/whatever that I’ve listened to recently have included Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me (which is great and you should listen to), Radio 4’s Americana (which is also good but I need to dedicate more time to), and… WTF.

WTF is one of those big podcasts that features high-profile interviews (most notably, for me, Marc’s interviewed Stewart Lee and Ira Glass). It’s interesting and well-made but… I just cannot get into it. I’m halfway into the Ira Glass interview at the moment, and although it’s one of the most interesting discussions I’ve listened to in forever, I find Marc Maron, who does the podcast… kind of irritating. I can’t really explain why. He’s quite self-obsessed, but so are a lot of podcasters. Maybe he seems kind of self-righteous, or self-referential, in a dickish way? Baffled. Anyway, listen to it if you want to hear good, long interviews with comedians – he’s good at what he does – but don’t come to me for advice about where to start with it. Sorry. I tried.

(photo at the top from flickr, by patrick tobin)


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