On my iPod

I’ve just started listening to two podcasts from NPR: Krulwich on Science and Playback. They’re somewhat buried in the iTunes Store podcast directory, and I suspect they don’t have much of an audience. No doubt my mentioning them here—on a blog visited by literally tens of people a day—will launch them into the stratosphere.

Krulwich on Science is the weaker of the two; I’m still not really sure I like it. The problem is the host, Robert Krulwich, an enormously talented broadcaster who’s been kicking around public radio and ABC News for a couple of decades. He’s known for taking complex topics and simplifying them for a mass audience. And therein lies my problem with Mr. Krulwich: his simplifications often go too far, cutting out the meat of a topic and leaving only his sugar coating. There’s a tendency for cuteness that is perhaps best exemplified by the podcast’s title. Although I’ve referred to it here as Krulwich on Science, the full name is Hmmm…. Krulwich on Science. Ick. (And what’s up with the extra dot in the ellipsis?)

The shows are usually under 10 minutes, and my early review, based on 4-5 episodes currently available through iTunes, is a qualified thumbs up. Two of the episodes I listened to featured Oliver Sacks, whose presence would make any show interesting, so my opinion of the show may be inflated. I’ll stay subscribed for now, but as soon as I feel I’m being talked down to, I’m out.

Playback is a monthly podcast with an episode length of about half an hour. It’s subject matter is almost unfairly interesting to someone my age: it’s a summary, with audio clips, of the stories NPR was covering 25 years ago that month. So it’s a trip back to the early 80s, when I was in graduate school—young, vital, and with a full head of hair. And aside from this natural advantage, the show is appealing because the clips are well chosen. Yes, there’s a bit of self-congratulation (NPR had a story about global warming in 1982!), but overall the stories are well balanced.

And the balance does not always reflect well on NPR. One of the episodes I listened to covered July of 1982. Susan Stamberg and another reporter (can’t recall his name) were interviewing a record store manager and learning about these weird new musical styles called New Wave and ska. And these bands with wacky names like The Clash, The Go-Go’s, Talking Heads, and Bananarama. “How do you keep up with all this stuff?” asked Stamberg, as if she were some Victorian-era dowager. Amazingly, she was only in her mid-40s at the time—younger than I am now. I think this was the tail end of the era in which mainstream media figures often showed complete ignorance of popular youth culture without embarrassment and with no little condescension.

(Let me put this in perspective for you youngsters out there. By 1982, New Wave had peaked and ska was about 20 years old [admittedly, ska had never been big in the States, but still: 20 years old]. The Clash were known as “the only band that really matters,” and the London Calling and Sandinista albums had been out for a couple of years; the Go-Go’s were all over the radio and the year-old MTV; Talking Heads had put out four of their five best albums [Speaking in Tongues was 1983]; and Bananarama—OK, Bananarama hadn’t really done anything in the US by 1982. But anyway, what Stamberg did was like a reporter today asking what hip-hop is.)

So yes, Playback is fun to listen to and fun to think about after listening to it. Maybe not so fun if you’re too young to remember the 80s; you can wait until Playback gets to the 00s.