I don’t watch much TV anymore. Not out of hipsterish disdain – more my complete inability to schedule a definite hour-long window where I can guarantee I’ll be present, on the sofa, every week.
Podcasts fit the slow, exploded breakdown that is my life. I like documentaries – good documentaries, with characters and stories, not C4 shock-doc compounds of saleable nouns: Nazi Dwarf Hotel. Porn Camp. Fat Serial Killers. Camp Dwarf Killers. Porn Nazis. Fat Hotel.
I have a suite of podcasts I download and listen to every week. I look forward to new episodes. They feel like a real treat – something to reward myself with after a hard day’s admin, or – more likely – to use to put off the admin for a while.
It occured to me recently that some of you might not have heard of the great shows I listen to and love. You might be going through your life missing out on something awesome! So I thought I’d tip you off on my absolute favourites. They’re free to download. Why not have a listen?
Radiolab is a – roughly fortnightly – podcast that mostly focuses around pop-science: new discoveries, the stories and characters behind old scientific breakthroughs, and sometimes just interesting, thought-provoking stories. It’s presented by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, who bring both a sense of wonder and a sense of humour to every piece. They make for incredibly engaging, likeable hosts.
When I first listened I found the sound design a bit distracting – it doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio – but once my brain had developed new receptors I started to really enjoy it. Now I’m hooked. I always look forward to new episodes, and here are five of my favourites that you can go listen to right now:
Detective Stories – this episode contains one of my favourite Radiolab stories, one that doesn’t have much to do with science at all. It’s the true story of a goat standing on a cow, and box of dropped letters, and the mystery about who wrote them that spans decades. Enthralling stuff.
War Of The Worlds – again, not a quintessentially sciency topic, but this live show delves into the history of the Orson Welles’ radio classic, War Of The Worlds. Think you already know the story of how he broadcast a dramatisation of Martians invading Earth and some listeners thought it was real and panicked? Think again. A fascinating, often shocking exploration into the secret history of WotW and public hysteria.
Bliss – I really loved the first story on this episode, about the man who renamed himself Mr Bliss and his quixotic mission to create a universal language, in the name of preventing all wars.
The Man Behind The Maneuver – this short episode delves into the history of the Heimlich Maneuver. They interview the guy who invented it – Mr Heimlich. Turns out he’s still alive! What transpires is a complex story of genius and hubris and a questionable scientific legacy. Very worth a listen.
The Fact Of The Matter – a very controversial show for Radiolab, after a guest walked out following repeated questioning over the source of the ‘Yellow Rain’ phenomenon reported by the Hmong people during the Vietnam War. The Hmong contended ‘Yellow Rain’ was a chemical weapon, and this contention was used by the US government to justify ramping up spending on its own chemical weapons, in order to take on the Soviets. In this show, Jad and Robert discover that ‘Yellow Rain’ may just have been bee pollen.
Some important points have been made about aspects of the way the show presented interviewees, playing up the qualifications of Western speakers while not acknowledging the expertise of Hmong interviewees. I agree that this constituted a form of unintentional racism. I don’t think the intent was ever to be insensitive or patronising, but I do think it was handled poorly, and for this, Jad and Robert have rightly apologised.
But I also think the decision to air this segment as it happened shows great integrity. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of radio. It sparked debate and raised awareness. And I do think Robert makes an important point – we mustn’t lose sight of facts and scientific rigour when approaching emotive subjects. It doesn’t get much more emotive than genocide. I don’t think he’s being uncompassionate, just a reporter. And I defy you to listen to the episode and not immediately want to learn more about what the Hmong went through.
That, to me, is what makes Radiolab so great. It allows for a plurality of voices. It may not always get things perfectly right, but the will is there – that desire to innovate, to question, to discover. It’s the basis of sound science, and – fortunately – it makes for bloody good radio. Check it out.
Oh – and if I’ve missed out any of your favourite episodes, be sure to share them in the comments!
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