I have been on leave the last couple of weeks, though not quite on holiday. I’ve been decorating various rooms of our house, sanding walls, filling holes, painting. So I have been in the house for two weeks, apart from forays to Swindon’s enormous B&Q for supplies. I have ended up listening to an awful lot of radio as a result, which has become a project in itself. There is BBC Radio 6 of course, thankfully saved, but actually quite difficult to listen to all day – too much ‘mortgage indie’. Oddly, I did end up listening to 4 days of county championship cricket, an unexpectedly exciting end of season round of games – I can’t ever remember first class county cricket being broadcast on the radio, but digital radio makes is possible. I suppose, when I think of it, this wasn’t really broadcasting, not even narrowcasting, rather something like sliver-casting.
Between these delights, I have been catching up with some favourite podcasts, or experimenting with some new ones. I usually only listen to these in the car on the way to work, and over the summer haven’t really kept up the habit. I first started listening to podcasts regularly in 2008, during the US Presidential election, and it’s election time again in the US, so I have been listening to various things to keep up – Slate’s weekly Political Gabfest is fun in an anguished liberal sort of way, and there are now a couple of podcasts which provide regular highlights from progressive/liberal radio and TV in the US – the Best of the Left podcast, and Democracy Now! I have also discovered Stephanie Miller, who is a bit like John Stewart on speed, without the pretence of exasperated moderation. More soberly, The New Yorker has a great weekly podcast The Political Scene, and The Nation’s Chris Hayes has a regular podcast The Breakdown. These provide my sources for up to date analysis of the currently ever more bizarre world of US politics. There isn’t anything I know of which does the same sort of thing in the UK – The Guardian’s Politics Weekly is very good, but in general this medium of public debate doesn’t seem well developed in the UK. Maybe because we don’t have a madly partisan media scene. Yet.
These sorts of podcasts work well because they have a regular rhythm to them, updated daily or weekly, and none of them is too long – an hour or so at most, for the ‘magazine’ style podcasts. The other podcasts I have been listening to these last couple of weeks, and which I sometimes listen to in the car, are more resolutely academic. I feel I should listen to these ones more often than I do, but actually after two weeks of trying, I have decided that many of them do not really suit the ‘medium’ of the podcast as well as they might. There are some exceptions, but these prove the rule – Philosophy Bites, which consists of short, 15 minutes or so of interviews with philosophers talking big philosophy – Pat Churchland on ‘eliminative materialism’ , Galen Strawson on conceptions of the self. Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds, who host Philosophy Bites, have an interesting podcast about podcasting here. The OU also has a great list of podcasts, some of which are bespoke course materials, some of which are ready-made for iTunesU. These shows work because they are relatively short, and often take the form of the interview or round-table discussion. There are some longer ones – Canadian educational broadcaster TVO has Big Ideas, which seems to be mainly lectures by academics – I listened this week to a great talk by the late Gerry Cohen, using Olivia Newton-John to elaborate on his distinctively radical understanding of conserving existing values, and Toby Miller laying out a great agenda for studying the environmental impacts of cultural practices. Australian public radio has The Philosopher’s Zone, which is more interview based. And Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, has a magazine style monthly podcast as well.
These podcasts all work well. I’m not so sure about all of the stuff you can access on iTunes mind. Lots of the content available on iTunesU seems to be there for promotional or recruitment purposes, without a lot of thought being put in to making material interesting. The OU has a big presence on iTunesU [I’m even on it], but this material is well produced with an eye to the nature of the medium being used. On the other hand, while you can download lots of famous people talking and lecturing from UC Berkeley or Oxford, much of this material is just recordings of seminars or lectures, which means that you don’t get the benefit of any visual aids people might be using, and the overall lesson I learnt from two weeks of trying to listen to these sorts of podcasts was that the academic lecture, as a communication form, really is pretty dysfunctional.
One of the first things I listened to over the course of my two weeks of decorating was David Byrne on TEDTalks, reflecting on how far different styles of music are generated in symbiotic relationship with the architectural spaces of performance, recording, and listening. I think you might extend the same sort of idea to thinking about how well different styles of talk-heavy analysis – of news, cinema, or philosophical concepts – translate to platforms that are beyond-radio, as it were. Lectures work in so far as they literally have a captive and immobile audience. But the academic podcasts which work are shorter, less analytical, and tend to work more as ‘tasters’ than substitutes for reading – they are better attuned to the spaces and rhythms in which one might find oneself listening to them, in the car, or standing on a ladder with a paint brush in your hand.
Back to work now – writing/reading/thinking work, that is, not painting/listening work.