Podcast of the Month: With Her

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I’m not an American citizen, so am interested in their election only so far as what happens over there seems to affect us anyway. I’m not usually one to talk about politics either, because it always seems to be to be a topic that causes arguments and resolves little. Even so, I think it’s worth highlighting a presidential candidate who has set up her own podcast, called With Her, to cover the last few months of the campaign.

The podcast is gloriously low-key, just a host with one of those soft radio voices chatting with Hillary wherever she happens to be that week. Having said that, I’ve listened to four episodes and Ms Clinton has only been available for two of them. Some interesting guests filled in, her daughter, her running mate, and both had stories to tell that were still worth listening to, but you have to wonder that she must have known she would be busy when agreeing to start up a podcast in the first place. How big a commitment to it did she make?

The show is interesting to me, though, because for the most part it has avoided actual political discussions – presumably because Hillary gets to do a lot of that on a daily basis – and instead focuses on the more human side of the campaign trail. Is there any down time, what do you do to relax, how do you stay in touch with friends and family, etc, etc. It opens up a more accessible side of a presidential candidate, who you otherwise would see mostly shouting policies at cheering or booing crowds.

It’s not a groundbreaking show but it’s refreshing to have such personal access to such a high profile political figure. I assume the podcast has a shelf life too, there would be no reason to continue if she doesn’t succeed, and I can’t see a president having time to chat every week. Even so, however you feel about the election and its participants, you have to applaud the boost this gives to the podcasting cause.

Podcast of the Month: Criminal

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Criminal is part of the Radiotopia network, a selection of well-produced shows from hosts that all have wonderfully smooth and captivating voices. I have listened to a few of them over the weeks and months, and Criminal is one of the few that has stuck. They describe themselves as a podcast with a different take on crime. This, from the about page:

Criminal is a podcast about crime. Not so much the “if it bleeds, it leads,” kind of crime, but something a little more complex. Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.

That’s exactly what is great about it. Sometimes the stories are from people affected by crime, sometimes it’s by the criminals themselves, occasionally it is of crimes that are ongoing, more often they have taken place and are worthy of investigation.

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This is no Serial, we’re not trying to overturn convictions or highlight failings in the system, it’s more about just shining a light on the many different facets that make up crime. Truth and lies, good and evil, justice and redemption, there’s a fine line between all these things and that’s the line the podcast explores. And it’s all hosted by someone called Phoebe Judge, it couldn’t be more perfect.

Recent episodes include the legality of keeping a tiger at your truck stop for entertainment, how to deal with a relentless stalker when you’re just trying to talk about Harry Potter, and one of my favourites, the legal and not-so-legal ways to get hold of some incredibly limited edition alcohol.

Criminal is full of oddities and fascinations, told without judgement or prejudice, and it’s well worth a listen.

Podcast of the Month: The Tennis Podcast

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The 2016 Wimbledon Championships drew to a close this past weekend with Williams and Murray taking their respective crowns and bringing to an end two weeks of spectacular tennis. I’ve never felt quite so on top of all the Wimbledon action as I have this year, well not since I once took a whole week off to watch nothing but the tennis.

There are two reasons why I’ve managed to stay so informed. One is the brilliant Live at Wimbledon radio, which provided all day every day coverage either of everything going on across the grounds, or more specific channels for Centre Court and Court One. The other weapon in my knowledge arsenal was the fantastic Tennis Podcast.

An independent, but associated with the Telegraph, production, the show features long-time tennis correspondents David Law and Catherine Whitaker chatting about recent events, often alongside a rotating stream of guests. They get the interviews, provide the insight, and follow the news in all its detail.

Usually sticking to a weekly schedule, the show was upped to a daily podcast release across the Wimbledon fortnight, and it was fantastically done – although you could tell the whole team weren’t entirely convinced they’d make it to the end!

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There are three things I particularly love about it:

  1. They’re not afraid to dive into the details. Particularly with reference to the Sharapova doping situation, I really welcomed the coverage of her hearings. Catherine made sure to lay out the findings as they were documented, regardless of how long it took to do so, because we all need to be on the same page when discussing the situation.
  2. The bickering. At first it put me on edge a little, when the two presenters seemed to get snippy with each other at least once per episode, but after listening for a while it became clear it’s simple that affectionate banter you have with someone you work with or hang around with for a long time. I admire Catherine’s ability to express her opinions and stand her ground against David, and I love the references to their one and only tennis match against each other.
  3. Their great knowledge. Working as full time tennis reporters and broadcasters, the pair really know their stuff. Law commentates and presents on Radio 5live, and Whitaker presents for ESPN and the Live at Wimbledon video channel, so they really know what goes on in the tennis world. For situations like Murray’s coaching changes or how Serena is dealing with the pressure, it’s great to get some insight from experts who aren’t just shouting out for the headlines.

I could add a fourth reason, in that the pair are also very brave in making their predictions, and often happy to revisit their predictions whether right or wrong. As someone who has done plenty of sport podcast predictions, I know how awkward that can be!

The podcast is taking a much deserved rest after their Wimbledon extravaganza, but if you watch tennis at all, I recommend giving it a listen to keep up to date on what’s happening from all around the globe.

Podcast of the Month – Anna Faris is Unqualified

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This podcast popped up out of nowhere but instantly became a regular part of my audio entertainment. It’s a simple concept – Anna invites over her Hollywood friends, has a bit of a chat with them, and then takes calls from listeners with relationship and other problems. Anna and the guest attempt to dispense advice, but make sure to point out they’re unqualified to do so.

It’s a lot of fun, Anna is genuinely sweet and insightful, and seems to care enormously about not only her guests but every single person that calls in to ask for help. I didn’t know much about Anna before, other than seeing her roles in films like House Bunny and Yogi Bear, and so it’s really interesting to find out what she’s really like (hint: not like those films).

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The podcast is recorded in an intimate fashion, with Anna and her friend/producer Sim talking huskily in the privacy of her dining room and sometimes her kid and her husband (Chris Pratt!) pop in to add a bit of atmosphere to proceedings. The friendly, close and intimate setting allow both Anna and her guest to open up and reveal surprisingly personal information. It makes for a fascinating listen, and the revolving selection of guests have been incredible – Chris Evans, Ellen Page, even Lisa Kudrow!

It’s lovely to hear someone enthusiastic about podcasting, about helping people, about simply sharing a small part of their life in a way they have full control over. I highly recommend giving it a listen – although warning, it is in no way family friendly.

What a lonely web we weave

A recent episode of Note to Self highlighted a really interesting concept that they’re unfortunately calling the ‘Lonely Web.’ The idea is that for all the popular social media posts that get hundreds of views every day, there are those that don’t get any visits at all. It’s an interesting listen, if a little hamfisted at times – you sort of get the feeling that it’s not a huge issue, particularly as not everyone is out there to be famous, and there’s an awkward moment at the beginning where Manoush only just manages to remember there’s a world outside of America. Nevertheless, it’s a thought-provoking podcast with great production values.

I’m calling it the lonely web. It’s a result of thinking about how we access content. Most of it’s through social media and too much content is getting posted every day. It’s getting lost in the noise. A lot of the noise is the product of the social media sites themselves, which encourage us to post everything from our thoughts on the election to what we had for breakfast.

There is something pretty lonely about broadcasting your deepest thoughts and having no one see it, especially in an environment that encourages you to share yourself.

I’m in two minds, really, because firstly, I don’t think people should post random stuff they don’t care about – if you’re having an exciting breakfast, then sure, but every day corn flake updates aren’t necessary. However, I also don’t think people should feel pressure to get any views. Post for yourself and if anything comes of it, that’s fine, and if it doesn’t, that’s also good too. That doesn’t automatically mean you’re lonely.

Picking the tunes with DJ Dench

I pick and choose my way through Desert Island Discs, but the wonderful thing about it is the timeless nature of all the interviews. The BBC have made the full archive available indefinitely, so you can listen to anyone at any time. I subscribe to the podcast, but often don’t get around to listening until well after the interviews have been aired.

I just recently listened to Dame Judi Dench’s show, and fell even more in love with her than I already was. Rather than joyously recounting stories for each of the brilliant songs on the list, Dame Judi gradually comes to the realisation that all her songs are actually quite depressing. It’s really fun to hear, as each track passes by, Judi’s reaction that she maybe should have taken a look at the eight songs as a whole.

It’s even better, right at the end, when host Kirsty Young asks the beloved Judi which track she was save from the waves.

“Which one would I save? Hmm. I don’t want any of those. I don’t want to go to the island and I don’t want to take any of those with me.”

Highly recommend listening to this one.

The hype around Serial

If you listen to podcasts in any capacity, you’re unlikely to have missed hearing about the new spin-off from This American Life called Serial. It’s a documentary series focusing on one story and following it for as long as it takes, rather than the multi-storied This American Life style episodes. And whereas TAL is all about the radio with podcasts attached on the side, Serial is designed to be a podcast first and foremost – variable lengths, both in individual episodes and potentially seasons as well.

The hype that surrounds this podcast has been absolutely staggering. There are podcasts about the podcast, spoilerific and spoiler-free. There are blogs reviewing and highlighting the facts from each episode. There are discussion forums and endless debates about the rights and wrongs, and my Twitter stream has been filled with people literally counting the days until the next episode arrives.

I listened to the first seven episodes and thought it was good. The editing and production values are fantastic, the storytelling captivating and the presenter inquisitive and pretty well-balanced, considering the subject matter.

And the subject matter? That’s where it falls down for me. This first series tracks a murder case – a teenage girl was killed, and her ex-boyfriend jailed for the crime. It happened fifteen years ago, he has always professed his innocence, and some of the evidence against him does seem a bit lacking.

After seven episodes, I came to a halt. Half of me wants to listen on but the other half doesn’t. It makes me feel grubby. The premise, at first seeming innovative and exciting, now feels misguided and unsettling.

Serial is a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season. We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.

These are real people’s lives. Everyone that talks to the show is obviously comfortable with the format, but there are plenty who must have been affected by the murder that don’t get to interact. The poor murdered girl’s parents don’t get much of a say in how many people are now obsessed with the case.

The length of the podcast is a mystery, as is the end goal. Is there going to be an angle of vying for the prisoner’s innocence, for overturning the case? Or is this all just a bit exploitative, dragging everyone through the case again with little to show for it at the end?

What if they never get to the bottom of the case? As a podcast that has really leaned on it’s storytelling capabilities, I’m wondering if they’re going to end up with a tale that just has no end. There’s going to be a lot of people left unsatisfied if that does happen. I’ve already seen complaints that it feels a bit wandering now, getting further away from the crux of the case. Serial never promised a definitive answer, but there has to be something to wrap things up, doesn’t there?

At first, I was on board the Serial train, but the longer it goes on and the bigger it gets, the more people obsess over the intricate details of these people and their lives, the less inclined I am to listen on. There should absolutely be space to investigate real life situations, particularly if it involves righting a wrong, but at what point does it cross the line from investigative journalism to just plain seedy entertainment?