These are the best podcasts/bits of audio I've listened to this month...
That Infernal Noise (title translated from the Danish Der var en infernalsk støj-net) is a sound art piece by the Danish sound artist Niels Pugholm. This is a Google translation of the Danish description of the piece on his website: Through a series of recorded conversations with old workers from the Frederiksværk steel rolling mill, I have made a sound installation based on their remembered sound pictures of the steel production.
Moon Graffiti – The Truth: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Truth has replayed (repodcast?) their first ever episode, back from 2010. The story is inspired by a real contingency speech written in 1969 by William Safire for Richard Nixon titled “In Event of Moon Disaster.” If you were going to be left to die on the moon, wouldn’t you want to write your name in moon dust too?
The Quiet in the Land – Glenn Gould: As well as being an extremely gifted pianist, Glenn Gould also made film and audio documentaries. Excellent, weird ones. This audio documentary is about Mennonites in Manitoba. We hear the intimate, raw, sometimes certain and sometimes confused reflections of Mennonites as they consider the impact of modern life on their culture. I’m not sure if Gould intended this to be listened to on headphones or not. There are often two entirely different tracks playing on the left and right channels. You might hear a sermon in one ear, and a Mennonite man talking about how many in their community now have TVs in the other. In headphones, you can kind of switch the sides of your brain to concentrate on one or the other. But on a speaker, it comes out as a very confusing cacophony of words and sound. The Quiet in the Land was made for CBC Radio in 1977 and is the third part of the Solitude Trilogy, three documentaries united by the theme “withdrawal from the world”. Part one of this trilogy, is The Idea of North an entrancing mash-up of voices talking about Canada’s far north. This track is an except, but you can listen to the whole thing on Spotify here (there’s also a few bootlegs on YouTube). Thanks to Andrea Valentino for sharing this recommendation in the Bello Collective.
How modern life is changing our feet – BBC The Compass: This is the first of a three part series called ‘Changing World, Changing Bodies’. It covers depressing changes to our feet, backs and faces as a result of our sedentary and tech-filled modern lifestyles (spoiler alert the common theme is decay). It’s a pretty straight-up BBC doco style but full of interesting info, such as thr delightful tidbit that will make you feel smug if you live in Australia – turns out our outdoor living is good for our eyesight.
Your Undivided Attention – Centre for Humane Technology: This is a new podcast from CHT, a nonprofit organisation set up by a bunch of ex-silicon valley dudes who have seen the error of the former was and are now on a mission to reverse the evils of technology and “realign it with humanity”.
Episodes 1 and 2 feature Natasha Dow Schüll, the author of Addiction by Design. Schüll’s book looks at the addictive nature of pokies – she’s spent years studying how they hold people in an endless loop of play. The parallels with social media and smartphone design are quite terrifying.
Is America Ready to Make Reparations? – The New Yorker Radio Hour: This podcast is one of few that I am actually subscribed to and have set to automatically download and enter my queue. In my view, the New Yorker consistently publishes some of the best writing in the world and their podcast is usually of an equally high calibre – albeit less carefully crafted than the magazine. This short series on the case for reparations to African-Americans includes the voices of Ta-Nehisi Coates and a bunch of other, lesser-known clever people, as well as the particularly interesting story about the history of Georgetown University and how students voted to pay reparations to the descendants of the enslaved people who built it.
Itch – Pitt Medcast: This eight minute episode of the University of Pittsburgh’s medical school podcast explains the interesting relationship between pain and itch, as well as some interesting recent breakthroughs in this surprisingly complex matter of neurobiology. Thanks to Caroline Crampton‘s podcast recommendation feed The Listener for this one.
Sound and Health Cities – 99 Percent invisible: I’m writing this recommendation from a Hong Kong hotel room where I’m hiding from the incessant barrage of jack hammers, pile drivers, heavy hands on car horns and loud, hissing busses one is subjected to on or near street level (19 floors up I have relative quiet). This episode examines how little attention has been paid to sound in cities and the impacts of this neglect. There’s a ray of hope in words from people championing good sound design but I remain pessimistic and sometimes want to run away to live in the wilderness. Then I realise I lack survival skills and this is a terrible idea. Maybe just a country town?
Forest 404 – BBC Radio 4: I am not the biggest fan of audio drama, although I do have a couple of regular exceptions to the rule such as The Truth and Everything is Alive. Here’s another exception. BBC describes it as immersive sci-fi drama with unique soundscapes and accompanying talks. The story is set in a future with no trees and the protagonist’s job is to delete the excessive bytes of data irresponsibly created by the humans of ‘the slow times’ (us!). The storyline is whatever you call the audio equivalent of a page turner. Each episode is then accompanied by a short talk (<10 mins) from an of expert about some aspect of nature and humans. Then there’s also a nature soundscape for each episode.
We Don’t Say That – Rough Translation: This episode describes some fascinating linguistic issues relating to how the French language describes blackness (as in people who are black). And introduces some particularly admirable people out to change the French language for the better.
The Chinese Surveillance State – The Daily: This two part episode gives a good overview into the crazy shit that has been rolled out in China over the past ten or so years. The first part focuses on Kashgar, a mostly Uyghur city in Xinjiang, in the far north west of China. Security was already pretty intense when I went to Kashgar in 2011. Now it sounds dystopian. The second part tell the story of a family torn apart by the ‘reeducation camps’ where Uyghurs are being sent en masse. Warning these episodes are quite harrowing.
Lebanon, USA – Kerning Cultures: Once I was driving from Toronto to New York and I saw a turnoff for a town called Damascus. I was really excited by this but the driver, more familiar with these parts, told me it was nothing special. There’s a lot of towns across the states named after biblical places. So many there’s even a Wikipedia entry on it, in fact (omg Half Hell, North Carolina!!!). Anyway, this story is about a Lebanese man’s plan to visit the 47 American towns named Lebanon. He doesn’t quite get to all of them because is in Lebanon South Dakota, he comes across some particularly interesting roots. This episode introduced me to Kerning Cultures, who describes itself as a podcast “made by children of the Middle East, telling the kinds of stories in which we can actually see ourselves”.
Palaces for the People – The Kitchen Sisters: No fancy production here, just a fascinating conversation with Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. My favourite part is how he expresses his wonder at the fact libraries exists, by asking us to imagine there are no libraries and how we would have to put it to the local mayor to establish them: “We want to have these things called libraries. We are going to set up buildings, we’re going to put them in every single neighbourhood, fill them up with comfortable furniture, let’s throw in a bunch of computers, and let’s put wifi access in there, why not? And let’s have lots of books and DVDs and there will be people we will hire as public employees, called public librarians, and their job will be to open the door and say ‘how can I help you?’. We should make sure everybody in the city can use it regardless of their age, social class, or their race or ethnicity. And let’s make sure people who are not citizens feel especially welcome here and we will have ESL classes. Oh and we want all this to be free?”
(I’m paraphrasing a bit because sadly the Kitchen Sisters does not post transcripts de16).
He is so right. Libraries are these AMAZING places and their very existence seems to defy all neo-liberal reason. If you love libraries as much as I do, have a listen to recent episode of This American Life – The Room of Requirement.
The Dropout – ABC Radio(USA): The story of Elizabeth Holmes and her failed biotech company, Theranos. The company claimed it would revolutionise blood testing by reducing the amount of blood required from test tubes full from an intravenous needle, to a couple of drops from a finger prick. When Theranos was on the rise, Holmes was heralded as the next Steve Jobs. She was profiled in the New Yorker, she was on the cover of Forbes and Fortune magazine. And then, in 2015 the Wall Street Journal published a piece detailing the fraudulence of most of the company’s claims. It catalysed the end of the company. Holmes and former Theranos COO Ramesh Balwani have been indicted on several counts of fraud. This podcast’s production is overblown, they’ve made some dubious sound design decisions, but the story is a cracker and I whipped through it in a couple of days.
National Sword – 99% Invisible: China used to buy most of America’s (and Australia’s, and Canada’s) recycling – we sorted it, they recycled it. Then, in 2018, the Chinese Government surprised the world with a new policy, ‘National Sword’ (国门利剑), that banned the import of most foreign waste. A stab straight to the heart of waste management! This typically excellent episode of 99pi explains the impact of China’s decision, inspires outrage at the messed up geo/sociopolitical world order that got us in this murky situation in the first place, and forces you to think about the ‘recyclable’ waste you produce.
The Punchline -Radiolab: This is a story about sport – ice hockey. Only skilled storyteller like the legends at Radiolab, could make a show about sport that I not only got to the end of, but actually loved.
I listened to a story about a piece of graffiti on a wall in a tiny village in Italy, and how that graffiti was identified through a piece of oral history. The graffiti was done by an American soldier in the final days of WWII (or was it WW1?). More broadly, the story was about a young librarian who had developed a clever method of archiving oral history so that it’s contents were searchable. This is really interesting to me because it confounds me how invisible audio content is to the amazing searching powers of the internet. The fact that I have not been able to search my way into remembering on which podcast I heard this story is really a delightful case in point. Does this story ring a bell for anyone? I thought it was an episode of the Kitchen Sisters but I haven’t been able to find it on their website…