A Golden Age of Podcasts

I like to say that I was listening to podcasts before they were hip (check out this post from waaay back in 2009). Maybe I don’t really think that’s true, but I have been listening to them for a long time. Word on the street is that we’re currently in a golden age of podcasts, and there’s definitely a lot to choose from.  Quality and content range from three guys celebrating their love of pencils to a multi-part GE sponsored radio play/commercial publicizing new ultrasound technology. You know podcasts have gone mainstream when even Lena Dunham has gotten into the game.

There are currently 27 different podcasts on my phone (I have a Galaxy and use the Podcast Addict app).  Some you might have heard of – five are produced by Slate, three by the BBC, and at least five are radio shows you can listen to on National Public Radio. Welcome to Nightvale and “You Must Remember This” are two projects that were conceived as podcasts and are performed as theater.  Both have received huge amounts of well-earned media attention.

What is the attraction? When you think about it podcasts appear like a step back into another golden age… of radio.  Which is a large part of their charm. The majority of the ones I listen to, while better produced than their predecessors, stay true to what’s proven to be a successful formula.  They are still, for the most part, just recorded conversations.  Usually between two and three hosts.  The limitation of the medium is precisely what makes it intimate and warm.

Here’s an updated list of a few of my favorites, all with a literary spin of course:

Book Fight!  Tom & Mike are university professors by day, underground podcasters by night (literally, they record in a basement). Book Fight! is the only podcast that regularly has me laughing out loud… I’ve completely given up listening to it at work. Whether they are discussing a book, critiquing NaNoWriMo forums, exploring the deepest darkest corners of fan fiction or breaking raccoon news – listening to these guys is like grabbing a beer with a couple of good friends.

The Longform Podcast is a series of interviews with journalists. They have recorded 177 episodes to date. Past guests include Ira Glass, Gay Talese, Alex Blumberg, Hanna Rosin, Tavi Gevinson and Malcolm Gladwell.  They’ve interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates three times.  If you have even the smallest interest in writing you should be listening to this podcast.  Not only is it interesting and entertaining, it’s a capsule education in journalism.

There’s not much to say about The Erasable Podcast other than it’s a podcast devoted to pencils. The three hosts are pencil aficionados who review different brands, critique the quality of graphite, lament off-center cores, rate the best sharpeners and erasers – to be honest, it’s a bit nuts. They’ve spent multiple episodes discussing Field Notes notebooks at great length. To date they’ve recorded 43 episodes. 43 episodes devoted entirely to the subject of pencils. I try to explain it to friends, but they stare back at me blankly.  Then they take the perfectly sharpened pencil I offer them (I now own several different varieties, as well as a schoolhouse-style hand crank sharpener and a Field Notes subscription) and wander off.

Here’s The Thing is a national public radio show hosted by Alex Baldwin. Regardless of how you feel about Baldwin as an actor or human being, he is one hell of an interviewer. He has a gift for engaging his guests in conversation, and within minutes they are laughing and joking like old friends at a cocktail party.  And it doesn’t hurt that the man has the most beautiful voice on radio. Warning: Baldwin mostly has Hollywood and TV celebrities, with the occasional NYC personality, on his show. So if you aren’t one for celebrity interviews (I’m not either) you might think Here’s The Thing isn’t for you. But you’d be wrong.

The LARB Radio Hour, hosted by Tom Lutz, Laurie Wiener & Seth Greenland reminds me of an old-style late night television show – all about books.  I think it’s the opening music.  The hosts are knowledgable, irreverent, and just generally lots of fun. Michael Silverblatt, host KCRW’s Bookworm, was a guest for two episodes.  It remains one of my favorite interviews of all time.  Silverblatt revealed that a listener called him to task for the lack of diversity amongst his guests. Not only did he acknowledge it – he promised the reader that he’d make a change. And if you listen to the show now, you realize that is exactly what he did. Lutz, Wiener & Greenland are publishing industry insiders (Lutz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books) talking to their peers and colleagues. Their guests trust them – you can hear it in their interactions. It makes for fantastic radio.

You & me. Playground. Recess. It’s a BookFight!

This is a pop-in post, fellow lovers of all things bookish!  In my constant search for the next great literary podcast I recently discovered Book Fight! hosted by Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister – who I swear must be twins separated at birth. Take a look at the evidence: both men are from Philadelphia (a welcome change from the NYC-centric world of lit we’ve all become accustomed to); both are editors at Barrelhouse magazine and professors at Temple University.  They’re also both writers.  It’s like they were destined to host a podcast together.  Which brings us to the premise of the show:

The Book Fight podcast is, in a nutshell, writers talking about books. Books we love. Books we hate. Books that inspire us, baffle us, infuriate us. These are the conversations writers have at the bar, which is to say they’re both unflinchiningly honest and open to tangents, misdirection, general silliness.

Each episode starts with a particular book, chosen either by one of us (Tom or Mike) or by our guest, though you don’t need to read the books to enjoy the show. We promise not to spoil anything too serious, plot-wise, and the books themselves generally serve as jumping-off points for larger discussions about writing and reading: craft issues, the ins and outs of publishing, the contemporary lit scene, such as it is.

Episode 18 featured a discussion with author Stewart O’Nan about Theodore Weesner’s disturbing 1980’s novel The True Detective.  I won’t give anything away about the book itself, but the show was a great mix of honest criticism, goofy stories and advice on writing.  A look through past episodes shows more of the same.  The two hosts have a strong commitment to good writing.  Which means BookFight! features a lot of discussions on older books.  I’ve been downloading past shows and find they’re fresh and topical and everything I want to listen to on my morning commute.  So I recommend checking BookFight! out.

On a less violent note – ALTA, The American Literary Translators Association had their annual conference in Rochester, NY last weekend.  I couldn’t attend, but the Translationista has a great write-up of the panel sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee and  about a project they’ve been putting together to make life easier for reviewers and bloggers who aren’t feeling qualified to discuss the translator’s contribution to a translated text.  It’s interesting stuff.

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