There’s Nothing like Hopping on the Air Yourself to Make you Appreciate the Modern Craft of Podcasting
“Are you into podcasts?”
It’s a question that comes up more and more, regardless of whether or not the person I’m speaking to knows I host a podcast myself.
The most surprising thing to me is how many people have no idea how to download, subscribe to, or listen to a podcast. I thought this was generational but have recently run into a few people 20 years my junior who are podcast illiterate. Some don’t even know there’s a podcast icon right there on their smartphone home screen. SMH at them TBH.
If you haven’t taken the podcast plunge, it couldn’t be easier: Like I say, the app is right there. Like the health app and stock market tracker that came with the phone, you’ve probably just zoned it out. But if you tap it, a world of wonder awaits, one which will transform your commute, your gym time, maybe even how you conquer insomnia. (More often than not, I fall asleep with bluetooth earbuds in and a podcast playing; the sleep timer iPhone feature turns it off for me after a set amount of time.) If you need a helping hand into the Pod-verse, there are many primers out there, like this one from Wired.
When my buddy Jimmy Bradley and I were getting ready to do our old, now-retired podcast, I had scarcely listened to any of them myself. But in preparation for going before the mic, I spent the months leading up to our first show training by listening to and studying as many as I could find time for; each in its own way helped me figure out what I wanted our podcast to be, and eventually my own podcast to be. During that time, I fell in love with a few of them and still listen to them two years later. Thought I’d share a few with you as a sort-of public service announcement for any podcast-phobes out there, or podcast-philes in search of new fodder:
I’m a stand-up comedy junkie going back to childhood; I can still recite entire routines by Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and that Jell-O pitchman I shan’t name here. When I arrived in New York City for college in 1985, it was a golden age of stand-up; a personal highlight was the night at The Improv that Rodney Dangerfield showed up in a pajama shirt, jeans, and trenchcoat, a yellow legal pad in hand, and hopped onstage to try out some just-penned jokes. So I’ve known of Marc Maron for years. In the podcast universe his WTF occupies, for me at least, the same spot Andrew Sullivan did in blogging: somebody who realized the potential of the medium before most of his competitors, who found their greatest expression there, and who got going early enough to dominate. Maron starts each show with a long monologue in which he speaks directly to the listener, often for more than 10 minutes, catching us up on his quotidian struggles and triumphs. Some friends of mine hate these openers, but if you’ve ever tried do anything like this, it’s awe-inspiring that he’s able to pull off what are essentially little monologue performances twice weekly. (I’m so bad at flying solo that Ms. Toqueland graciously joins me for my introductions each week.) His interviews are usually straight-forward biographical affairs, but his stated personal goal in all of them is to establish a “connection” with the guest, something to which I relate deeply. For me, WTF is the North Star, so much so that when I pitched Andrew Talks to Chefs to Heritage Radio Network, I described it as “WTF … with Chefs.” Not that I achieve that lofty goal, but it’s something to strive for.
THE TENNIS PODCAST
Seems to me that, generally speaking, there are four categories of podcasts: The solo-host-no-guest podcast (none of these grab me); the duo podcast; the group podcast; and the interview podcast.
When well-cast, the duo podcast is probably my favorite, and there’s no duo I love more than David Law and Catherine Whitaker, the two Brits who host The Tennis Podcast. The secret to a great two-person show is chemistry, and these two have it in spades. They are firmly entrenched in and adore the tennis world, and each other, but aren’t the least bit hesitant to one another out. They banter: Catherine chides David for his love of “Poll Vaults” (quickie polls he loves posting on Twitter), they never let each other live down past “rubbish predictions,” and so on. If you have a person in your life with whom you relish arguing over tv, movies, restaurants, politics … whatever, then you will relate to the exquisite, loving, witty (a friend compares them to the Thin Man movies) conflict between these two.
To keep things interesting, they–as do many other podcast duos–have a recurring cast of guest participants who pop in from time to time, the podcast equivalent of a sitcom’s wacky neighbor. On The Tennis Podcast, it’s more often than not Simon Briggs, tennis columnist for The Telegraph. David and Catherine also record on the fly, especially during the two-week grind of Grand Slams from which they post daily. (Having been crendentialed at more than 10 US Opens, and filed match reports regularly from a few of those, I can testify that getting a nightly podcast up from these circuses is impressive, to say the least.) Their chemistry is such that you don’t need to be a tennis fan to listen to the show; it’s one of the few podcasts Ms. Toqueland enjoys, and she hasn’t enjoyed tennis since Pat Rafter hung up his racquets (she didn’t like him for the tennis, either, but that’s another story).
Another great duo-show, Filmspotting hails from Chicago, where two-person film criticism was made cool by the late Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Josh Larson and Adam Kempenaar break down the hot releases, indy movies you should know about, forgotten or overlooked classics and cult films, and usually work in some kind of top five or top ten list that ties into whatever the main thrust of that week’s episode is about. They also have a recurring set of drop-in guests, most fabulously the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips, who is as dry as his city is windy–the perfect foil to the two wholesome, super-enthusiastic hosts; when he’s there, I’m in heaven. The show is not without its flaws–episodes can run long, and they spend a lot of time on housekeeping, thanking donors, etc.–and the guys often haven’t seen every film by an examined director or within a given genre they’ve taken on, but on balance the entire thing is a joy, especially a weekly bit called “Massacre Theater” where they mangle some dialogue from a film scene and listeners who guess the source movie become eligible for entry into a drawing in which they might win a prize… this might be a podcast, but that feature reminds me of good, old-fashioned radio, and radio doesn’t get any better than that.
POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR
For me, Pop Culture Happy Hour is the gold standard of the group podcast show: a bunch of smart NPR personalities gather at least once a week to kick around whatever movie, television show, CD, podcast, or other bit of entertainment demands our attention. They aren’t too stuck-up to take on, say, The Last Jedi, and they don’t get as esoteric or high-minded as I’m sure they’d be capable of. If the Internet and Smartphone Ages have presented us with an endless selection of virtual watercoolers around which to gather and process, this is the one where I’m spending my coffee break.
As with any podcast featuring more than one host, chemistry is key and the core group here has it in such abundance that they could translate it to a sitcom: Friends for brainiacs. There’s the leader, Linda Holmes, who exudes smarts, charm, just enough sarcasm, and endearingly refers to her coconspirators–male and female–as “buddy”; there’s Glen Weldon, book and movie reviewer for NPR, whose wry, often self-mocking gay humor would seem out of date from most other personalities, but who walks that delicate line brilliantly and often hilariously; and Stephen Thompson, editor and reviewer for NPR Music. There’s also a carousel of guest contributors, both NPR personalities and non, often booked for their expertise relative to whatever is being reviewed that week. Each show ends with a recurring feature simply titled “What’s Making Us Happy” in which each panelist shares their own discovery from the past seven days. Those alone are often worth the listen.
POD SAVE AMERICA
On Pod Save America, a bunch of former Obama staffers get together every few days and try to make sense of life under President Donald J. Trump. That’s a losing proposition for any of us, but their no-BS insights into how Washington works can be informative to even the most ardent political junkie, and their willingness to call out even members of their own party in no uncertain terms can be cathartic. They can be unbearably snarky–like the poster boys for everything a certain subset of conservatives loathe about liberals–but if you can get past that (it put even me off for a while and then I came back around), it’s useful, virtual group therapy for these surreal times. (If you notice a little politics creeping into my posts of late, that’s because I’ve decided the right has become so tragically lost that I see no reason to keep my feelings out of my little chef-centric blog; if major network late-night hosts can wear their sentiments on their sleeves, I see no reason to conceal mine.)
SAVAGE LOVE CAST
That’s right, I said it: I listen to this sex and relationship show. The main reason, honestly, is Dan Savage, as casually brilliant a host as you will find on any podcast, about any topic. Savage has mastered the art of making the thought-out seem spontaneous. He’s gay, but doles out sex and relationship wisdom to people of every conceivable orientation and kink (there are way more of both than most people imagine). All advice-seekers leave their queries on a voicemail, so we hear their voices–often tinged with pain, confusion, and/or anger–as they explain their quandry. In responding, our host–a Mr. Lonelyhearts for the modern times–can be funny, brutally honest, compassionate, and about once an episode gets a caller on the line to engage them directly. Savage is also a political commentator (he created the hashtag and a line of clothes that go by ITMFA, which stands for the Impeach The MotherF***er Already) and his opening monologues are often centered on some political news and can be stunningly moving; somehow the mashup of sex and politics feels perfectly natural and poignant as he delivers it.
Personal note: I moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester County just north of Manhattan, two-plus years ago and there is no show I more adore have filling my eardrums on a morning commuter train filled with latter-day Don Drapers than this one. Somewhere John Cheever is smiling.