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The pleasures and perils of podcast listening

Don't always believe the phrase 'We have something special for you'. But also beware of that some podcasts will temporarily blind you – by making you cry

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

No phrase is better calculated to tense the neck muscles of a regular podcast listener than ‘We have something special for you now.’

Having your radio shows downloaded to your phone, music player or computer, rather than plucked out of the air the old-fashioned way, immediately grants the listener a great deal of extra freedom: you choose the feeds to which you subscribe, you decide which episodes to hear and in which order. But it also demands from the listener a measure of extra trust, or at least a ruthless readiness to skip, because what a producer puts on a feed can vary much more than in the scheduled-to-the-second world of broadcast radio.

Sometimes, instead of a show, you’re sent an apology for a show: several of my favourite American podcasts have been replaced in recent weeks by cheery chats about the snowstorms that prevented their recording. Quite often you’re sent a show and a half: In Our Time now routinely podcasts the what-did-we-miss discussion in which its guests indulge after their live audience has moved on to Woman’s Hour, a trick that might make you newly grateful for Melvyn Bragg’s chivvying skills. And increasingly often, it seems, you are sent a tape of the regular host saying that they have something special for you, followed by an episode or fragment of another show entirely.


Maybe we should blame Serial. After its vast success as a well-advertised spin-off from This American Life, any new podcast or new initiative in an old one gives rise to an orgy of cross-promotion. Invisibilia, a psychology podcast launched by one producer from This American Life and another from the equally well-regarded science show Radiolab, seemed to stalk me from feed to feed for weeks; first as trails, then as extracts, then as a whole episode or two, then as studiedly excited you-should-be-listening-to asides. It’s possible that I would indeed be listening if it would only leave me alone. ‘Bored but brilliant’, an experiment in rationing one’s smartphone time launched the other week by the technology podcast New Tech City, seemed also to be an experiment in how much time could be seized from other podcasts put out by the same radio station, WNYC. I always nod sympathetically when people complain about the trails on BBC radio; but at least they don’t arrive disguised as shows, or run to show length.

And then sometimes — just often enough for the phrase to retain a dangerous touch of its original promise — a podcast host will say they have something special for you not because there is a new show to cross-promote but because they mean it.

There was a perfect example from the design show 99% Invisible shortly after Christmas (another freedom granted to listeners by podcasts is that you can download many of them months or years after they come out: this one can be found at bit.ly/1AcN0Lw). It seemed deeply unpromising — a festive repeat of two previous episodes. The first concerned the political origins of the teddy bear and a failed attempt to repeat them: where President Theodore Roosevelt had his bear, his successor William Howard Taft was to have the ‘Billy Possum’, launched somewhat unwisely by serving possum to him at a banquet. This was just the sort of pleasure that 99% Invisible can be expected to deliver: a surprising twist on what had seemed a familiar story, delivered in the deep, warm Californian radio voice of the euphoniously named Roman Mars.

Then came the something special: a show that one of the previous episode’s guests, Jon Mooallem, had recorded with a bluegrass band, Black Prairie. This time Mars’s voice disappeared, replaced with Mooallem’s slow deadpan monotone over a swirling folky background (99PI normally tends more to electronica) that occasionally broke into song. The story told was not about design but about nature. Specifically, about how much of it has vanished and about the methods used to preserve some of it, from taxidermy to shepherding turtles across airport runways.

As a regular format, it could quickly become unbearable. As a one-off expression of a producer’s enthusiasm — Mars professes to have heard it live and asked to record it — my main complaint is that it made me cry. Wandering around in headphones is dangerous enough without being temporarily blinded. In this case, however, the risk was worthwhile.

Kate Chisholm is away.


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