Did you know that there are weird auction groupees in America who compulsively bid on storage units whose owners have run into financial difficulties, usually only to find broken lawn mowers, porn magazines and dusty wine inside once they’ve paid hundreds of dollars for them? Did you know that in the Haitian voodoo tradition the souls of the newly dead reside beneath the water in rivers and streams for exactly a year and a day before being reborn? Did you know that the English are less likely to use a serial comma –a comma placed before the ‘and’ at the end of a list- or even that it was called a serial comma?
No? Then you need to delve into some of the truly wonderful podcasts I have been enjoying over the last couple of weeks.
After receiving a few recommendations from fellow podcases, I have been battling through the elements of a morning in the company of our friends from across the Atlantic.
The star of the show definitely has to be This American Life – not surprising as this hour long show, broadcast on a weekly basis in the US to about 1.7 million listeners, is apparently also the country’s most popular podcast.
As the show’s website admits, “it’s sort of hard to describe.” Each week’s programme has a central theme linking its four or five features together. This allows them to explore phenomena and human experience that might not be particularly topical, but are certainly fascinating and worth dedicating time to to really get a sense of the characters behind each story.
This week, I learnt about the storage auctioning mentioned above (and that Paris Hilton auctioned a unit containing previously unseen titillating pictures of herself), and about the first under water excavation of a Byzantine ship which started 50 years ago and is still underway. I also learnt that us Brits are the only country to have ‘last resort letters’ on every British nuclear submarine which are instructions from the current PM, never seen by anyone and destroyed when they go out of office, that tell the reader what to do in the event of Britain being obliterated by nuclear holocaust. The show then ended with a really fascinating account of someone who ‘woke up’ in a train station in India with no idea of who or where he was; he’d developed amnesia fter taking the Malaria drug Larium.
Each story’s designed to make the listener think about the people featured in an unresolved, thought-provoking way. Although the interviews and accounts are deeply searching, the show declines to provide any sense of answers to why, for example, people are addicted to the thrill of bidding on what they know is likely to be other people’s junk. In this way, This American Life was a refreshing break from current affairs podcasts- there aren’t too many facts to remember or new occurrences to keep up with, just the chance to contemplate the strangeness and varied nature of life.
In contrast with these sustained meditations, my other favourite podcasts this week have been short and pithy. One of them has also been extremely geeky and, as it is solely dedicated to quandaries on correct grammar usage, might not be to everyone’s taste. Grammar Girl is one of the helpful, if a little irksome and smug, characters populating a website called Quick and Dirty Tips. Advice can also be found here on law, maths, public speaking and money, among other topics.
Each podcast is around 8 minutes long and focuses on a certain contentious point of grammar, usually in response to a query from a listener. This week I have learnt how to write a dialogue, whether a space before a full stop is ever appropriate, and that the Cohen brother’s claim for their film True Grit, that people didn’t use contractions back then, is actually incorrect. They are surprisingly interesting and easy to digest as you walk along- an actually much less painful way of getting your ps and qs right than wading through books on these subjects. (Despite the best of intentions I’ve yet to complete Lyn Truss’ or even Bill Bryson’s forays into this area.)
If grammatical dilemmas fail to get you going, maybe ethical dilemmas will. New York Times magazine fans may already be aware of Randy Cohen’s article The Ethicist. The podcasts are simply Randy reading the articles in which he gives his opinion on ethical dilemmas presented by readers. For example, he advises a lady who is worried that she should report a recycling collector for slacking on the job, that she should consider that while she is staring at him reading a magazine she is not getting on with her own responsibilities (i.e. caring for her children), and that all humans necessarily have to take little breaks while they work. This is another really good podcast for when you’re in an easily distractible mood, or when there’s heavy traffic to contend with, as you get drawn into the dilemmas without having to concentrate on a sustained, complex explanation of something. The podcasts are only around 5 or 6 minutes long.
So this weeks podcast trialling conclusions? Well it seems again that they can work really well not only for a wide range of subject matters but also a wide range of approaches. This American Life is so successful because, with each story, they employ music and beautifully captured individual voices to make them atmospheric; to capture your imagination and absorb you in what’s being described. And lest we forget, you’ll always have a fascinating story or quirky fact to regale and impress friends with.
Of course, geeky tips and moralising verdicts learnt from Grammar Girl and The Ethicist might be best kept to yourself at a dinner party…