4 April 2010

Favourite podcasts

Podcasts are one of my main sources of information these days mainly thanks to my iPod touch and the daily commute to the office. These are some of my favourites.

Africa gets so little coverage in the mainstream media that I rely on Africa Today to fill in the gaps.

Unfortunately many of the news stories are bad at the moment with coup d'etats, missing presidents and serious violence (i.e. dozens killed) in places like Niger, Sudan, Nigeria, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and Guinea Bissau.

These are all big stories but they barely scratch the surface of the main news channels. Africa is not unique in this respect; anybody know how/if the recent elections in Ukraine were resolved?

The news may be bad but we still ought to hear it.

Composer of the Week is a cultural gem.

As you may have guessed, each week the programme/podcast looks at the works and life of a composer. For the more prolific and important composers, e.g. Bach, then the programme may look at only part of their life.

When broadcast, the programme is five hours long but recording rights on the music mean that this is cut down to just over an hour but that is still plenty to both learn about the composers life and to hear how this is reflected in their work.

I like the fact too that the composers do not just come from the familiar classic canon, e.g. Bach, but also ventures in to the world of music for films and the theatre. Sondheim was a recent subject.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is the BBC's flagship history series covering, as it says, the entire history of the world.

I'm not a history buff by any means but I find this programme gripping.

The main reason for this is that it is a true history of the world, rather than just a part of it, and it jumps around the globe to explain to us either how ideas were formed in different places at the same time (e.g. the formation of cities) or how they spread from one area to another (e.g. pots were invented in Japan).

The concept of telling this story through objects works well too as it gives a specific focus to each programme that allows it to cover both the detail of the object and the generality of the world in which it was made.

I know too little of the history of the world (outside of the UK) and this is a welcome gap-filler.

I started my working life as a computer programmer and have retained an interest in technology ever since even though it no longer plays an important part in what I do.

I loved my time at IBM and love the technology they produce. The IBM Developerworks podcast keeps me up to date not just with IBM's own technologies but also the increasingly important open source products (Linux etc.).

The format is normally pretty simple with the presenter, Scott Laningham, talking to an IBM engineer or, often more interestingly, an IBM customer. It's this simplicity and Scott's intelligent questioning that makes the programme work for me.

There are several science programmes on the various BBC channels and I listen to quite a few of them but Material World is easily the best.

The reason for this is that the science is simply a little harder; it covers quite complex issues, from how cells mutate to forecasting earthquakes, in a lot of detail so that you really learn something.

Key to making this work is Quentin Cooper who has a phenomenal understanding of all the sciences and the presenter's skill of extracting information from guests and delivering it in an entertaining way.

He also includes a lot of humour which is just about sufficiently above the cheesy level to make the effort worthwhile.

I first came across Robert Elms when he was a regular of Loose Ends many moons again and I found him pretentious and boring. And the odd travel programme that I caught him on after that did little to dispel that opinion.

Now, almost thirty years later, maturity has won through and his Radio London programme is an entertaining feast of information on London's culture and history.

You could be for mistaking this as another plug-my-book programme and while there are elements of that the talks come across as accidentally being on the same subject of a new book rather than the book itself being the centre of attention.

Robert Elms adds significantly to these stories of London through his obvious knowledge of and passion for the subject.

For pure thought provoking talks it is hard to beat the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). The RSA hosts many talks at its central London offices and many of these are made available as podcasts.

The format of each talk is broadly similar with one of more speakers introducing the topic for around half an hour and then fielding questions from the audience for another half an hour or so.

The success factors here are choice of topics and the quality of the speakers.

It's hard to pin down common themes because of the breadth of topics covered but you can get some idea of what the talks are like from some recent titles; The Future for the Arts, The Robin Hood Tax and Visions of the Good Society.

Laurie Taylor is another product of Loose Ends and carried the same baggage of pretentiousness and pomposity that prevented me from discovering his programme on social history until relatively recently.

As with many of my favourite podcasts, it covers territory that I am not familiar with and that is one of its attractions.

Each week Laurie digs out two recent papers that have caught his eye and invites the authors to introduce them to his audience while gently nudging them along and probing them for more information.

The style is conversational but not deferential and the authors are allowed to explain their research in some comfort but cannot get away with poor arguments and unjustified conclusions.

I listen to lots of business programmes because the subject interests me and also I need to know this stuff for work. If I'm having a conversation with a director of, say, a telecoms company then it is very useful to understand what is going on in that industry.

Most of the business programmes just deliver facts, e.g. the latest oil price, and while that is useful it does not get under the skin of business in a way that enables you to understand it better.

The Bottom Line gives these insights through discussions with three industry leaders each week with the incomparable Evan Davis who has grown nicely from knowledgeable economics nerd to a formidable interviewer.

As with Laurie Taylor, the style is relaxing and informal but any trickery from the guests is quickly spotted and stamped on.

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