Other gubbins

Podcasts caught during 2014

I was listening to the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast last night while everyone else was watching the Christmas Dr Who. The first item discussed whether, with the rise of Serial in particular, podcasting was one of the tech and social media highlights of 2014. The conclusion was that podcasting continues to grow in popularity, but there was nothing particularly notable about 2014.

But 2014 very much was the year when I started listening to podcasts in a big way. In part that was because I started making my own, very intermittent, podcast and was interested in what was possible and how others do it. But it is also because I don’t really watch broadcast TV or listen to the radio, apart from the occasional news programme, although I do catch up with a few things on iplayer and the like. I mostly get information from broadsheet newspapers and online sources. Now I increasingly consume political commentary via podcasts.

Of course, there’s more to life – and the world of podcasting – that politics. I also listen now and again to popular science programmes and quite a bit of comedy and general nonsense.

So, for my own amusement as much as anything else, I thought I’d give an overview of what I listen to.

When I started listening to podcasts regularly the two podcasts that were first into the podcatcher (I use Doggcatcher for Andriod) were the New Statesman podcast and Inquiring Minds, a podcast which discusses broadly topical issues from the world of science at the point where it connects to policy. The New Statesman podcast is a slightly curious mix. I always listen to the political discussion at the beginning, and often to the science and technology segments that follow, but I have to admit I don’t always get to the end. Inquiring Minds is a US podcast and is a bit too gee-whiz in tone at times, and sometimes it covers a topic that I’m not massively interested in, but it is a great format for a long form discussion with a bit of depth – on the sort of topics that wouldn’t often be given so much time and space in the MSM.

I make some vague attempt not to be entirely parochial in my political interests. I listen to the Slate Political Gabfest. I enjoy it because it is uncompromisingly for a US audience and, for an outsider, conveys some of the intricacies of the American political system that we don’t necessarily appreciate from the way it is reported in the UK. Some of the discussions about political strategy, and how the various sectional interests can or cannot be accommodated, are fascinating.

Similarly, I’ve started listening to Stilgherrian’s The 9pm Edict, which is about all sorts of things, and draws its cultural reference points from all over the place. Australian politics looms large. Not all the dramatis personae are therefore well-known in the UK, but it is not too difficult to follow the nature of the current political debate or the critique. Stilgherrian has a distinctively combative style – irreverent would be to understate the case somewhat – but it is underpinned by a fierce intelligence and independent, progressive sensibility.

Distraction Pieces with Scroobius Pip is another recent addition to my playlist. It an intriguing mix of reasonably straight-down-the-line discussion of science (for example, the recent episode with Simon Singh on the enigma machine and codebreaking), music, philosophy, comedy, and new-agey cosmic musings.

I quite like Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre podcast, but it is a bit hit and miss. When he hits it off with his guest it works really well. They just riff off each other with ease and the hour flies by. But, given that it’s all a bit free form, when the guest is a less willing to engage with Herring’s sometimes surreal, and often a little puerile, worldview it can be a bit more laboured.

The first comedy podcast that entered into my “must listen” category was Rhod Gilbert’s Best Bits, from his Saturday morning radio show on Radio Wales. When Rhod Gilbert is hosting the show it can work well with a variety of different co-hosts. It works best when he can riff off of smart people he knows very well. There are only one or two co-hosts who don’t really add anything to the format and Gilbert has to keep it afloat on his own. The weakness of the podcast is that Gilbert is quite often not hosting his own show, and it is nowhere near as good when he doesn’t. I don’t tend to listen to it if he isn’t on it.

That brings me to the five podcasts that I most look forward to. They cover politics, satire and comedy. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • The Bugle podcast: One of the podcast pioneers – now on its 282nd episode – made by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver. The Bugle has appeared a little more irregularly since John Oliver has had his own TV show in the US, but it continues to serve up bleep-laden, close-to-the-bone satire that isn’t for the faint-hearted.
  • The Guardian Weekly Politics podcast:  I generally quite enjoy the Guardian podcast, although it is a little bit of an echo chamber. Some of the commentators are great, while in some cases the analysis owes more to wishful thinking, or their own beliefs, than a strong grasp of what’s actually going on. And when Michael White is on it can be difficult to listen to at times, when he feels the need to patronise one or other of his younger colleagues.
  • Josh Widdicombe on Xfm: This podcast from Widdicombe’s Sunday morning programme is largely just enjoyably inconsequential chat, usually with a couple of guests from among the group of up and coming London-based comedians. James Acaster is a regular on the show and brings with him his characteristically off-kilter perspective.
  • The Times Did you read? opinion podcast: Generally speaking, I don’t like The Times as a newspaper. I sometimes buy it for the crossword and for commentators like Philip Collins and Matthew Parris, but not much else. The podcast, on the other hand, is rather good. There are genuine differences of opinion between the participants and therefore some interesting exchanges of view. Tim Montgomerie is a good host who comes across as less ideological than is often the case in print, as long as the discussion doesn’t stray on to issues such as the pro-life/pro-choice debate upon which he has particular views. One weakness of the podcast is that Melanie Phillips is an occasionally a guest. I’m afraid I can’t bear to listen to those episodes.
  • Elis James and John Robins on Xfm:  EJ and JR have only been presenting their show on Xfm for about a year. It is a strange but enjoyable mix. The key is the dynamic between the show’s two presenters. They style themselves “the unproducibles”, which hints at the fact that the programme always comes across as endearingly ramshackle or, perhaps more accurately, permanently teetering on the edge of chaos. The veneer is of laddish banter. But this is interspersed with a range of cultural references that signal both presenters are both well-educated and highly intelligent. I am quite a way from the Xfm target demographic, but I think that unnecessarily constrains the breadth of the show’s appeal.

Image: Serglo Alvarez via flickr.com under Creative Commons.

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