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)


podcasts of the year

December 23, 2010 § 3 Comments

I listened to podcasts before this year, fairly sporadically – I think I downloaded Daniel Kitson’s “podcast” a year and a half ago, after I saw him support The Lucksmiths at their last gig in London (I say “podcast” because really it’s just an old Edinburgh show that’s been cut into four parts and put on itunes for free), and I downloaded a handful of BBC podcasts towards the end of 2009 to listen to while doing other things, which didn’t really work. But last Christmas, I started listening to Adam & Joe – I realised that to properly take them in, I needed to listen to them without trying to read things, without constantly checking twitter or whatever else I had on my computer screen at the same time. This fairly basic realisation meant that, this year, I fell hard for the format. I love listening to people talk about interesting things for half an hour. I even like them when they talk about boring things, as long as the people talking are funny enough. So here’s my list of the best podcasts I’ve listened to this year – I’ve put them in some sort of ranking, but it’s fairly arbitrary. They’re all great, and they’re all worth listening to.


The Adam & Joe 6music podcasts

adam vs. joe

Only three or so new podcasts went out this year (their special Glastonbury shows), although a few old ones are currently up for download as some sort of small present from the BBC, and there’s a new show airing on Christmas day (with the podcast following later on). The small level of their output is why they’re only getting a special mention – they’re not really a 2010 concern, unlike the other podcasts on this list. But Adam & Joe podcasts are the ones I listened to the most this year – they’re the ones I listen to when I can’t sleep, when I need cheering up, when I’m feeling groggy and sad and not particularly alert. They don’t have guests, they don’t usually pick a particular topic to base a show around – it’s just like sitting in the pub with two old friends, and listening to them talk. I’ve listened to some of them over and over again, I’ve listened to some of them while walking around Oxford, laughing stupidly and earned myself strange looks from strangers in return. They’re great. The blog post that announced their Christmas show, and the video that Adam and Joe filmed for it, seemed to strongly imply that this was it for them on 6music – that this was one last return to the station, and after that, no more. I hope that we’ve got it wrong. I hope they’ll come back for another run. But even if they don’t, we’ve still got the podcasts.
Daniel Kitson Podcasts

daniel kitson

As I say above, these aren’t really podcasts, and this year wasn’t the first time I heard them. But I listened to this whole show while walking through rural, hilly Devon, and there’s something about it that just got into my head. The things he talks about – his best friend Sam, his discovery of the way that failure can be exquisite, and his relationship with food, as well as many others – have really affected the way I think about things. I find myself quoting him when I’m trying to articulate concepts, I find myself seeing things differently to how I did before. And it’s just a beautiful show. The recording’s also incredibly, incredibly quiet – even when my iPod’s volume is turned right up, it’s sometimes hard to hear everything he says. One to listen to through headphones when walking somewhere quiet, or when curled up in bed while everybody else is asleep.

3. Little Atoms

tim minchin & rebecca watson

This is a podcast of a show on London’s Resonance FM., based around secularism and ideas of the Enlightenment. They usually get one guest in per show to talk about topics that are loosely related to this – sometimes they’ll be talking to scientists, sometimes comedians, and lots of other people besides. They also record shows with lots of shorter interviews backstage at Robin Ince’s Nine Lessons & Carols for Godless Children and other similar gatherings of nerdy people throughout the year – their special show from this year’s Big Libel Gig is great, especially when they ask all of the guests to libel one another, and they take to it with the amount of glee that you’d expect.

Their archive is fairly awe-worthy – you can click through to see any appearances made by particular guests, and often the most interesting speakers have returned lots of times. I’ve listened to a lot of their shows, but I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what they’ve done – next year I need to return and listen to more of their podcasts that feature guests I haven’t heard of. Their podcasts are available through both iTunes and their own website, which is wonderfully convenient, and there’s a new one available every week (although they’re currently on a break until January the 14th).

2. The Bugle

john oliver & andy zaltzman

Possibly the best thing that’s ever been part of The Times, and luckily it’s one of the few things that they make that didn’t disappear behind Murdoch’s paywall earlier this year. The show’s tagline is “audio newspaper for a visual world”, but really it’s a satirical look at the week’s news, with a focus on the stupid things that various world leaders have done, international sports events (Andy Zaltzman also does shows about cricket for the BBC, and has a blog about it too), and giant penises that have been graffitied on roofs and lawns the world over.

Andy Zaltzman’s extensive lists of puns and general, tenuously held-together bullshit that dances around various topics are wonderful, as with each new sentence he bulldozes over John Oliver’s cries of pain and anguish, but the best bits are when they just gleefully discuss whatever the most ridiculous items in the papers have been this week; it’s like having Reuters Oddly Enough read to you in the funniest way possible.

I love when they respond to listeners’ emails, and the current, strange war of words between the show’s listeners and the new producer, Chris, has produced one of this year’s most admirably shit websites; the running joke becomes funnier, and meaner, with every passing week. It’s a weekly show, although sometimes when one of them is busy they put up a compilation instead of something new, but they often include material cut from previous weeks in these so it’s always worth the download. If you go to the rss feed then you can download loads of past shows at once, and hoard them in your mp3 player like a greedy child.

1. Robin Ince and Josie Long’s Utter Shambles

i love you, robin and josie

This podcast is less prolific than the others that I’ve written about – it’s not really weekly, and currently there are nine in this series (although there’s another lot available on iTunes from a couple of years ago, and there’s an episode with Edgar Wright that Robin said he was hoping to put up before Christmas). It’s more like Little Atoms than The Bugle, because each week Robin and Josie are joined by guests, but it’s more of a general, knockabout discussion than either of the other shows are; people often talk over each other, and sometimes it descends into wondeful, clattering chaos. Guests bring in objects to talk about every week, as do the show’s hosts, but really it’s just a discussion of whatever topic comes to mind, or whatever the people talking are currently most concerned with. This is wonderful. The Mark Gatiss episode becomes an involved, wonderful discussion of horror films, while Jon Ronson and his son spend ages talking about public baths, and Ben Goldacre complains about people taking photos of him outside burrito shops with wild hair and posting them on Twitter.

Josie Long often talks about politics and feminism, as well as things like crafts and zines, and although it’s impossible to really pick, this is often my favourite part of a particular episode – it’s nice to hear funny, smart people talk about the sorts of things that concern me, and then go on to discuss a million other things I hadn’t thought of as well. I think this podcast is genuinely educational, especially when the discussion focuses on film and books, while also being incredibly funny and warm. It was hard to decide what order to put these podcasts in, but really, this had to win. I hope they continue to produce these next year.


Podcasts that I also enjoyed this year include The Hackney Podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage, and Richard Herring’s As It Occurs to Me. I know that I also need to try The Sound of Young America, This American Life and Answer Me This!, but let me know in the comments if you have any more to recommend (or if you want to disagree with my list, but I’ll probably disagree with you in return). 2010 was the year of podcasts for me, but there’s so much more that I still need to listen to. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to catch up with them all, but I look forward to trying.

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