Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Podcasts Yews May Enjoy

If there's one thing that's kept my brain from turning to mush since I left varsity, it's podcasts. I was last a full-time student in 2006, and it was sometime in 2007 that my good friend Damon discovered podcasts and started sharing them with me, manually, on a little 256MB memory stick, since the internet back then was like a post-apocalyptic world several generations after the apocalyptic event; it had developed some good places offering good things, but getting between them was still awkward. (This cumbersome analogy sponsored by my dread of how bad Mad Max 4 will be.)

I couldn't tell you Damon's exact podcast genesis, he may not have given things to me in the order that he discovered them. But I do know that the first two podcasts I ever heard are still my favourite two today. They are The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe and The Bugle.

The Skeptic's Guide (or SGU) wasn't the very first skeptical podcast, but it was an early one and it's grown into the absolute, objectively best source of science and skepticism news and opinion that can be poured directly into your ears. The three Novella brothers are all wonderful humans, all very different from each other, but all so well-informed and articulate and fun. Rebecca Watson is equally awesome (if I had been told she was their sister, Rebecca Novella, I wouldn't have been surprised in the least) and she's certainly served her initially intended function of making the show suitable for all genders. Evan Bernstein is less exciting to me, but he's not actually a negative element and I'd be sad (if only due to sentiment) to see him go. And if you go back far enough in the archives, you'll find episodes that include the late Perry DeAngelis, who was a much more aggressive sort of fun. They do an annual meeting and live recording of the show in his name now.

The whole show is expertly made (and it should be, with over 360 episodes recorded so far) and they've found a perfect balance between serious education and reporting, and light fun and silliness. If you don't love listening to the SGU, then I have to reject your friendship and gifts of dangerous animals.

The Bugle ("Audio newspaper for a visual world"; "Fuck you, Chris!") gives me similar emotions and memories, but looked at objectively, it doesn't have much in common with the SGU. The Bugle is a British news-mocking show, similar to the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, but more British. Its two hosts, Andy Zaltzmann and John Oliver, are first and foremost stand-up comedians, though far better suited, I think, to the podcast medium. John Oliver (which was coincidentally the legal name of my matric maths teacher, though he went by his middle name of Tom instead, which in turn was the name of The Bugle's first and most Scottish producer) is also a regular on the Daily Show and carries over a lot of that show's sarcastic, ridiculing style to The Bugle. Andy, on the other hand, is unique. I've never seen anyone who can so effortlessly make up the biggest possible lies, except perhaps the insane Spike Milligan, and his record-breaking puns are masterpieces. I can't easily compare Andy to any other comedian.

The net result is like having the Goons (or the Pythons, minus visuals) present the news to you through performance art. And I don't just mean "funny," because then I could have said it was like having any old comedian read you the news. I mean it's intelligent and insightful AND funny. And being smart makes it even funnier. Their creative numbering system means they're officially on episode 203 now, and yet I have 254 episodes of theirs in my collection.

But apart from those two, there's not much correlation between when I first heard a podcast and how much I like it. Consilience, for example, is still relatively new and yet I can definitely list it in my top 3, and not just because they let me talk about spaceships. They copied the basic model of the SGU, and I think that's worked well. It's not as professional and refined yet, but it's still good to have more of the same, but covering (usually) different topics. The hosts have been a bit varied recently, due to Meadon-spawning season, but the core trio of the Meadons and Owen Swart works well. I feel like I'm the weakest among the guest hosts so far, but at least I don't have Danny Kopping's fucking painful sense of humour. One decision the Consilientists made that distinguishes them from the SGU, and which I approve of, is to be completely open and natural about "naughty" words, primarily fuck. Think of it as a step in the same direction as Penn & Teller: Bullshit. It's the only SGU policy that really annoys me.

Let me also briefly mention Skeptoid and Planetary Radio.

Skeptoid is another old-ish skeptical podcast, but with a very different model. Instead of a longer news and interviews show, its lone host, Brian Dunning, just does quick (5-10 minute) crash-examinations of the evidence surrounding a single claim or phenomenon. It's very useful for getting the basics in a rush, which makes it useful for sharing with random people when you're discussing that specific thing with them, but it's not as "filling" as the longer shows and I find something a little bit annoying about Dunning's manner of speech.

Planetary Radio is the official podcast of the Planetary Society, established by Carl Sagan & friends, and currently headed by Bill Nye, who regularly appears in the podcast. You should now already be completely sold on it. It's very professional and a bit more formal than the SGU, but light-hearted enough, and has probably the most highly-degreed set of hosts, with multiple PhD's and I think only the main host, Mat Kaplan, having less than a master's degree. Unfortunately, I have to admit that astronomy just isn't always the most exciting topic for a purely audio show, and it's not always easy to be as engrossed by it as these excellent, hard-working hosts deserve.