These are the best podcasts/bits of audio I've listened to this month...

May 2020

Times of Cloud – The Paris Review Podcast

This is the first episode of the Paris Review podcast and to be honest I would recommend listening to all of them. The podcast brings together readings of poetry and prose and tape (sometimes reenactments) of interviews from the Review’s enviable archive.

This episode features a delightful interview with Maya Angelou interviewed by George Plimpton, who opens with: You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

And Wallace Shawn reading “Car-Crash while Hitchhiking”, a mind-bending story by Denis Johnson.

Bonsai – Ochenta Stories

This podcast is from Studio Ochenta, a Paris-based outfit that specialises in multi-lingual storytelling. Ochenta Stories is a series of short fiction stories/mini-docs/audio art from quarantine. (Yes more multilingual podcasts please!)

This episode, presented first in Italian and then in English, is about one mans’s troubled relationship with his bonsai plant. I speak a bit of Italian but not enough to understand the story in Italian. Nevertheless, as with all episodes from this show, I find it really enjoyable to listen to languages other than my native tongue.

Punk in a Pandemic – Mike Williams and Friends

Mike Williams, ace storyteller and all round great guy, has embarked on an ambitious indie endeavour to publish three episodes a week of this new show. Each episode features a phonecall with a random Facebook friend. I have my suspicions about just how randomly they are selected.

Punk in a Pandemic tells the hilarious story of ‘Fucking Carnage’, a punk band started in a Toronto sharehouse in the height of Covid lockdown.

A wine night with friends in May – covid style!

April 2020

You may have noticed a bit of a gap between entries here. Sorry. The end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 was a crazy time. Not only was Australia burning down, and the world facing off a pandemic, but also I had a baby. And in the weeks before she arrived, I made two episodes of History Lab and a documentary for ABC Radio National. So yes, there was a lot going on.

In some ways, I’d recommend having a tiny baby in lockdown. A mini smiling face and gorgeous gurgling noises are a welcome distraction from the news. And ultimately it’s not that different to normal life with an infant: lots of time at home, and going out requires both a good reason and a lot of preparation.

But in other ways it is tragic. My daughter is missing out on cuddles from her grandparents and extended family and I am devastated that I can’t share the amazing development of the first months of her life.

Anyway, enough prevaricating. The one good thing about lockdown is it’s given me a bit more time between nappies and boobs to listen to podcasts. Here are April’s recommendations.

The NHS Symphony – BBC Between the Ears

I discovered Between the Ears in my podscriptions but have no memory of subscribing. This episode sits in a lovely liminal space between documentary and sound art. “Life in the NHS captured in immersive stereo and specially composed choral music. NHS staff join with the Bach Choir to mark the 70th anniversary of the health service.” Weird and wonderful and now more than ever worth a listen. Thank you to every health worker in the NHS, and beyond, for continuing to work in this crazy, scary time.

The Coronavirus and Climate Change, the Great Crises of Our Time – The New Yorker Radio Hour

This episode of the New Yorker Radio Hour (one of few podcasts I set to autodownload) opens with in the Vermont forest that is home to Bill McKibben. He walks us down to a swampy marsh to listen to wood frogs croaking for mates. Slightly puffed, McKibben tells us we will have to wait a little bit for the croaks to start as they’ll be shied by his approaching footsteps. This sequence gave me some comfort in lockdown as I pine for the natural world (pun intended). The rest of the episode gives a depressing account of how and why President Trump is rapidly rolling back environmental protections, as well as a fascinating interview with a disease ecologist who hunts down viruses among cave-dwelling bats.

The Last Sound – Invisibilia

This episode is all about biophony which is one of my favourite things. Biophony evolved from the acoustic niche hypothesis, which in a nutshell, is the idea that all animals in a given ecosystem make sounds in different parts of the acoustic bandwidth. So they don’t talk over each other!

The hypothesis was made by soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause. In a move that I think is rare for Invisibilia, this episode involves only two voices – that of Krause and the interviewer/narrator. Krause is really engaging and he has a very interesting personal story as well.

The Songs of Trees – Conversations

A typically excellent interview by Richard Fidler with subject David Haskell, a biologist obsessed with trees. He recounts the year he spent visiting 12 of his favourite trees, including a palm on a barrier island in the State of Georgia; a pear tree in Manhattan; an ancient Hazel tree, which had become archaeological charcoal; and a bonsai pine which survived the Hiroshima bombing.

The way Haskell thinks about sound is eye-opening. The lack of an aural metaphor here proves one of his major points – our culture neglects the ears in favour of the eyes. But our hearing faculty is very sophisticated and we should spend more time focussing on it.

There’s also some amazing factoids about trees and the life they contain, such as a zombie fungus that lives in the trees of the Brazilian jungle. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis invades ants’ brains to control their minds, leading them to chomp into a leaves that are deadly to the ant but life giving to the fungus. Nature! You couldn’t dream this stuff up. More on this fungus here if you’re interested.

October 2019

1619 – The New York Times

This is a series that “examines the long shadow of slavery”. Starting with the arrival of a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia, in August 1619. It looks at an interesting range of slavery’s impacts – such as how it shaped the economy, American music, the ownership of land. I am really enjoying short series like this one. Series that go deep on an issue with engaging storytelling and high production values. The host, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is straightforward and authentic. I like show she shares her own personal stories. Here’s the first ep but I strongly recommend the whole series.

September 2019

If – Sherre DeLys and John Jacobs

This is a stunning piece produced in 2002 and inspired by the New Children’s Hospital at Westmead. It lives in a blurry grey spot between radio documentary, sound art and music,
Cello and voice: Ion Pearce. Featuring Andrew Salter.
If won the Best Documentary: Silver Award in the 2002 Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition.
Recommended to me by Emma Lancaster.

Cypress Knees – Jay Allison

Produced for All Things Considered way back in 1996, this piece about cypress knees (who knew trees had knees?!) is a real delight. It’s not just about tree knees though, it’s also about memory, hardship and death.
Darcy Christ (maker of Audio Envelope – the plugin that facilitates my What I’m Listening To playlist), reminded me of this piece and we listened to it again together.

On Conquering Fear – The Open Ears Project

I’ve been really enjoying The Open Ears Project. It describes itself as “Part mixtape, part sonic love-letter”, In each daily episode, a different person shares a classical track, and explains why it’s important to them in about five to ten minutes. Then we hear the track. I like this for its simplicity, and for the way it is reinserting classical music into my life. This episode features a New York City firefighter, Rob Vogt. Vogt spent the months following 9/11 as part of the “bucket brigade”, searching the rubble for the bodies of those killed in the attack. His chosen track is quite galvanising and I can totally image wanting to have that blasting into your ears as you looked through the rubble of the twin towers. The first episode, with Alec Baldwin, was also particularly enjoyable because turns out Baldwin is quite hilarious. Who knew?