What’s That In Your Ear?


I’ve been listening to WNYC’s terrific Radiolab podcasts for a while, and was pleased to see it in the British press recently, with full-page articles praising the show. While I don’t agree that it’s quite the audio revelation that the Guardian suggests (they rather condescendingly said that audiences below forty would have trouble following the auditory speed, but it doesn’t seem abnormally fast to me) I do think it’s a wonderful reason to encourage more listeners for podcasts.

Personally, I’ve not listened to radio in years because it seems to work on a set of rules that play out predictably, rigidly and too slowly – the worst example has to be ‘The Archers’, which feels like the world when you’re ninety seven – but podcasts have changed the production rules. You can multi-track, overlap and run multiple strands to explore concepts, unencumbered by committees that require the station advertisers to be kept happy.

And so to the excellent Radiolab, a mainstream show that marries the peculiarly American genius for clarity of explanation with smart lateral thinking that explores scientific and social notions. The shows are an hour long, but the big problem for me is finding space to listen to words.

My artist friends all listen to podcasts, but I don’t drive to work, don’t have these built-in spaces in my life, and my job requires me to think through language in my head, so I can only listen to things that have no language in, or at least in languages I can’t understand.

As a consequence I miss out on a great many wonderful Radio Four programmes (although I did listen to ‘The History Of The World In 100 Objects), mainly because I was taking train rides. But some episodes of Radiolab are best listened to when you can pair them with their website – their show on symmetry talks about the way we see ourselves in mirrors, and on the site you can flip images.

For many people, podcasts have rendered most radio stations obsolete because they provide the commentary element separately from your MP3 choice of music, and combining them makes your own personalised radio station. But here’s the problem. By choosing what you listen to, you remove the possibility of stumbling across music and news that you may not have been aware of. So how do you find music, say, if you don’t get it from peers (ie you’re not a teenager or you don’t work in an office)?

I don’t know the answer about how you get interested in stuff – I have a fairly well-developed sense of curiosity and will hunt down lots of obscure subjects – but it seems that often two similar news items have to come to my attention before I initially grow interested.

And there’s a fear; if you consistently create your own content choices rather than stumble across them, do you stop being curious?

7 comments on “What’s That In Your Ear?”

  1. mel says:

    I don’t often listen to podcasts myself but I did see the Radiolab live show for this episode in San Francisco and it was excellent. I agree that this episode is much improved if you have the accompanying imagery. btw love this blog and am impatiently awaiting the next Bryant and May.

  2. athena says:

    de-lurking to list my favorite podcasts (which i sadly no longer have any time to listen to):

    *npr’s all songs considered — where to find new music that is not awful mainstream pop
    *studio 360 — also from wnyc, the podcast for pop culture, media, and the arts, hosted by kurt andersen – genius
    *this american life — yes, it’s about the us, but the stories are wide-ranging “human interests” stories and totally astute, engaging, and compelling

    my 2 cents 🙂

  3. JaneT says:

    Hi. Have just finished ‘On the Loose’, which was as great as all the other Bryant and May books. I live in Germany (with the British Army) and when I’m in England, look forward to buying books. However I can never buy your books over the counter and usually have to buy them over the internet…I am hoping this is because you are so popular. Many thanks for B and M and I am hoping above all hope that Janice gets some action as some point…plus a lasting relationship…don’t you think she deserves it. I’m hoping this is in ‘Off the Rails’ which I’ve yet to read. I like to think of your books as a good wine, to be savoured and not rushed!!

  4. Gretta says:

    Even this NZer loves This American Life, although I haven’t been able to listen to it much atm. There’s another NPR one called StoryCorps which are only about 5min long, but have also managed to open up new worlds to me. RadioNZ National is a good place for obscure and quirk, and offers podcasts on pretty near all of its locally made programmes. It’s along the same lines as Radio4, but without those blasted Archers. New music can be found on their shows The Sampler, Music 101 and The Music Mix.

  5. Andy says:

    I don’t do podcasts. I do listen to a little portable digital radio on the hour 15 mins or so into work on the bus. I appreciate the radio precisely because of the point you listed above, I catch things I’ve never heard before, a documentary on Radio 4 or a bit of music on Classic FM or Chill. With 50 channels (and a habbit of channel hopping if what I’m listening to at that moment doesn’t catch my fancy) you get to hear all sorts of stuff, and I have subsequently gone out to buy CDs after hearing a piece of music I’d neveer heard before and really liked. Also you get to hear some wonderful vintage comedy on Radio 4 Extra (formerly Radio 7), Navy Lark, Round the Horne (With Kenneth Williams camping it up outrageously) and The Goodies and Cleese in I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (with Professor Prune and his Electric Time Trousers- “The library is down the bottom of the left leg.”, “Really? That’s a turn-up for the books!”).

  6. Helen Martin says:

    the CBC has podcasts and I know people who listen to them, but I listen live or not at all. I’m a Radio 1 person (words and such) rather than Radio 2 (music and such). I thought Walkmans would be the answer to being away from home, but they go in and out of reception as you travel, unless you’re listening to R2, which is FM broadcasting. Oh, never mind.

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