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

April 2019

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.

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.

March 2019

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. 

February 2019

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…

And here’s a fun thing I did in February