So many great responses to my musings on audio documentaries yesterday with lots of suggestions: Radioopensource.org, with the inimitable veteran Christopher Lydon and his equally inimitable producer Mary McGrath; 99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars; On the Media, which is probably the most useful sustained media criticism in American journalism, Hardcore History with Dan Carlin, which was new to me; and Stuff You Missed in History Class were among the many vote-getters.
I wanted to take the chance to plump for a show I’m always trying to get people to listen to, because I think it exemplifies what radio can do so well. Even though I’m not obsessed with popular music, I listen to Sound Opinions every single week without fail. It comes from WBEZ in Chicago, just like This American Life, and it’s executive produced by the same guy, Tory Malatia. And it’s very simple: two talented music critics, Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, review a couple of new records, maybe host a short live concert, and often dissect some classic album or genre. (This week it’s a thoughtful take on the new wave of the 80s for any Duran Duran fans out there). It hits the perfect middle ground between geeky-obsessive and overly broad and obvious: that is to say, between the Internet and TV. It’s companionable, smart, and a wonderful hour. I keep pitching it because I don’t want it to ever go off the air.
I may have mentioned that most of this week is being spent cleaning. That means I’ve had my earbuds in for several hours at a time. And that means, in turn, I’ve been reflecting on just what a golden age of radio, or at least of words spoken magically through the ether, we are lucky enough to live in.
Almost no one ever covers radio, though its reach is astonishing: All Things Considered beats the network tv newscasts (in more ways than one). But ATC and Morning Edition are smooth and dependable but rarely intriguing, provocative, sublime. Those adjectives are better reserved for the various podcasts that have grown up in the wake of This American Life. There’s only one Ira Glass, but there are other wonderful and quirky voices, many of them at the moment allied together in the Radiotopia collective, a kind of Justice League for smart documentarians and sound artists sponsored by the wonderful Public Radio Exchange, one more brainchild of Jay Allison who is the man behind much of the great radio that ever gets made. All seven of the podcasts in the series will draw you in and make you forget you’re washing windows; one of the newest and most intriguing voices belongs to Benjamen Walker, whose Theory of Everything evolved from a show he did on WFMU for years. He specializes in a kind of shaggy dog storytelling that lingers in one’s ear.
Most of these shows are not on most of your radio stations—they largely get listened to on podcasts, because most public radio program directors are about as conservative as it’s possible to be. (There are times when it appears public radio stations are in a contest to see who can achieve the oldest possible demographic).
I don’t promise I won’t write more about some of my favorites this week, in part because it annoys me how little attention gets paid these programs. The Times reviews almost every movie that comes out (I enjoy reading their reviews of part 6 of some slasher series) and even though I’ve never seen Breaking Bad I can tell you pretty much everything about it because of the number of stories I’ve read. Radio not so much—the people who make it do so without much public feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. So plug your favorites via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: Read the follow-up to this post here.
(Photo, which has been cropped, by Johan Larsson)