Podcasts review

Since I began producing podcasts I have become a frequent consumer of them. As a consumer of podcasts, I love that I can curate very specific listening experiences from the smorgasbord of free audio that exists on the Internet. As a producer of podcasts, I like that the DIY nature of the podcast means it is generally less subject to an established format or set of broadcasting conventions than traditional radio, and that podcasts can be produced along a broad set of criteria or for a highly specific audience. With radio production, the issue of listener numbers and ratings means that popularity must always be a consideration; however with podcasting, if I wanted to make a podcast about something like… I don’t know… eccentric, Victorian Taxidermists (to take the most random example I could conjure up at will) then I could upload that online and find the niche audience who would care to hear and interact with that content. And an audience would exist, and the members of it would be able to find each other!

I am listening to several podcasts at the moment – all loosely grouped around the theme of conveying “a sense of place” using audio – and I thought I would write about them here. All come highly recommended.

1. Coast & Country Podcast 20th November, 2010: “Richard Uridge goes foraging for fungi in the New Forest

The greatest asset of this podcast is the quality of the information it contains, which is down to several elements including the expertise of the interviewees and the quality of the research that underpins the production. Because of its long history of quality broadcasting, mentioning the BBC tends to open doors so that people at the very top of their field will make time to discuss their passion with an experienced interviewer*. That is why this podcast features interviews with notable figures such as John Wright, (who wrote The River Cottage Handbook on mushrooms) Mrs Tee, (the only license holder entitled to pick and sell New Forest wild mushrooms to chefs) John MacArthur, (who runs the New Forest Cookery School) and Howard Taylor – The New Forest keeper who recently spoke out against the Government’s disastrous plans to sell off the Nation’s forests. These august personalities deliver a great quantity of information in this podcast and Uridge does a skilled job of asking the right questions and leading the listener through his fungi forrays with them. We learn about several species of mushroom – cauliflower fungus, beefsteak fungus and the false deathcap to name a few; we also learn that the old wives’ tale that “if you can peel a mushroom you can eat it” is a dangerous fallacy. We learn some fine ways to prepare puffball and hedgehog mushrooms and we learn about conservation; the role that fungi play in the circle of life; and the laws surrounding the gathering of wild mushrooms. The whole podcast is backdropped by skilled audio recording which – while not interfering with the audibility of the conversations – conveys a sense of place in an understated and documentary field-recording style. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Open Country is produced with enough of a budget that a sound recordist can be employed to take care of that side of things. That is certainly the case with Clare Balding’s Ramblings – as is shown in the fantastic “behind the scenes” video here.

Re: sound and a sense of place, I really like that there is no spurious music in the background drowning out the speakers and drenching their voices in random tones and pitches; listening to this podcast, I feel the dull, comforting realities of the trees and the leaves and the forest as they actually are in November, and I like that Uridge & Co. do a good job of explaining or describing the landscape around themselves as they walk through it, allowing pictures mental pictures to form in response to what we hear. The straightforward documentary style does leave plenty of space for imagination and association – I like how you can hear the locations in which the programme is being recorded – but at times I feel the scope of the programme is limited by a sort of conservative emphasis on delivering quality information and factoids to listeners. It’s a conflicting point for me, as I love information and knowing more about it is definitely a route into understanding or appreciating any place… however knowledge is not the only route and sometimes when I listen to Coast & Country – or indeed most BBC documentary broadcasts – I find myself wondering what these talented producers might do if there was not a strict set of BBC-esque conventions within which they are obliged to work when producing their material…

…one example of what industry-trained broadcast professionals might do when let loose with their skills and equipment is provided by my 2nd podcast for review;

2. The Hackney Podcast, Episode 20: “Writers on Walking”

This podcast is produced under different conditions to BBC Radio 4 feature spin-offs; whereas the Coast & Country podcast is an offshoot of commissioned radio broadcast material and is produced by a relatively small number of people, The Hackney Podcast is created on a voluntary basis by a broader, loosely-knit group of professional producers who live in Hackney and have day jobs in broadcastwerld.

In “Writers on Walking” the theme being explored is that of writers walking in the city. And as with Coast & Country, The Great and The Good in this field have been wheeled in to espouse their views on this topic. Iain Sinclair, Lemn Sissay and Stewart Home walk us around various areas of Hackney and Sean Borodale’s lauded poem Notes for an Atlas leads us delicately through a montage of music, words, and low-level field-recordings. The edits are skillful and the background music is (mostly) thematically relevant, with its references to wayfaring and travelling. This example of The Hackney Podcast really delivers “rich soundscapes,” as promised in the About us section of the website, and there are some beautiful moments throughout, where layers of Sean Borodale’s poem intersect with sounds from the environment, and where the music evokes the cinematic quality of walking through the city with headphones on – a very particular and specifically urban experience. As with Coast & Country, the quality of the research and the expertise or specialism of the interviewees make for captivating listening and the writers speaking about their relationship to Hackney as a source of inspiration is something I both recognise and enjoy**.

However, regarding “a sense of place,” the music at times for me oversentimentalises some of the vox pops that pepper the production, and the disparity between the time given to Hackney’s intellectual set vs. the time given to the regular residents of Hackney is somewhat unbalanced in favour of the elite. Speaking from experience, this is a very difficult balance to strike; it is difficult – sometimes impossible – to get people to share an opinion on radio, and often the audio from pre-arranged interviews is far more usable than chance findings on the street wherein folk feel unprepared, suspicious and sometimes hounded by one’s well-intentioned but nevertheless aimed microphone.

I love the incidental snippets of conversation with passersby which infiltrate, illustrate and contextualise the longer, more considered interviews with Hackney’s resident writers, but sometimes I feel they are drowned in background music. The music also – while making its headphones-in-the-city references – dislocates the podcast somewhat (at least for me) from any real place. The sounds of a city – the street sweepers, the shrieking teenagers, the market stall sellers, the cheap stereos blasting out of buildings as you pass, the snippets of strangers’ mobile phone conversations, the bassy thrum of bus engines – are gentrified and softened, blurred out at the edges by music in “Writers on Walking,” so that one escapes from the actualities of a busy London borough into more abstract, mental geographies.

Never straying into random music, the third podcast in today’s set for review comes from Joe Stevens via the framework radio show’s afield series.

3. “Sounds of the Seaside”, by Joe Stevens, for the framework radio show on Resonance FM, as part of the framework:afield series.

Like the BBC’s Coast & Country, framework shows begin life by being broadcast on radio, and then move over to iTunes where they can be downloaded as podcasts. Framework is a long-running show curated and managed by Patrick McGinley and it showcases contributions from a global community of recordists and artists. In framework:afield episodes, a guest producer sends in a show which is organised around an idea or a theme, and though the scope is broad, the focus remains firmly on “phonography: field-recording: (and) the art of soundhunting.”

“Sounds of the Seaside” has been running as a solo project since (I think) July 2010, and I really enjoy the transparent way that Stevens evolves the project in writings and recordings online; all the questions and investigations that underpin the project go up on the tumblr blog that Stevens set up here. His work has a strongly interactive quality and I admire his continuous efforts to engage the public in discussions regarding sounds.

Joe Stevens’ podcast is a montage of the interviews and field recordings that he has collected in his quest to instigate conversations concerning the role that sounds play in our sense of the seaside as a specific kind of place. A long collage of sounds – seagulls, children playing, crunchy pebbles, waves etc. – backdrops interviews between Joe and nameless individuals contributing their views on the sonic aspects of seaside environments. The field recordings are untreated, environmental collected on numerous visits to coastline environments, and Stevens gives them plenty of space to speak for themselves. However, the effect of intermixing people’s spoken impressions and thoughts with those sounds has been done in such a way that there is also time for you to consider whether you agree or disagree with what the different voices are saying, and to recall your own memories of seaside locations.

When I am listening to this “Sounds of the Seaside” podcast, I get a very different sense of the places described in them than in either The Hackney Podcast or Coast & Country. There are no experts wanging on about the Situationists or giving us the Latin names for different types of fungi; instead there is a collection of people speaking about their localities in terms they may not have considered before.

“Sounds of the Seaside” causes us to reconsider our thoughts on places we thought we knew inside-out by offering us a whole set of other people’s observations to compare with our own. There is no music to make this thoughtful process feel hip; just the ebb and flow of the sea as it actually sounds, with layers of crunching pebbles, crying gulls and other coastal, audio drift occasionally phasing in and out of earshot. I feel less mesmerised while listening to this than I do while experiencing the submersive, densely spliced, musically-drenched montage of ideas in The Hackney Podcast; and I don’t come away with the feeling that I have learned loads of new facts like I do when I have finished listening to Country & Coast. However, what “Sounds of the Seaside” does, is give me new ideas for how to play in, and consider familiar places.

What podcasts or radio shows have given you memorable impressions of places, and can you explain why?

*although, to be fair, I have found many people are extremely accomodating of my desire to interview them, even when it is for an obscure project and even though I am – when compared to the BBC – a totally unknown broadcasting entity!

**but I have a feminist mistrust of the decidedly masculine cast that is given to the idea of the writing, urbane explorer in this particular example of The Hackney Podcast; where is the voice of the flaneuse amidst all the voices of flaneurs?

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