My favorite podcast.
I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I have very particular taste in music, don’t like much of it and get bored with the songs I like. But podcasts…they generate anew every week, sometimes twice a week! I download them on the very day they come out, and I seriously get impatient while I watch the progress bar creeping toward complete. Here is my weekly podcast calendar, just in case you’re curious or looking to add to your Itunes queue. It looks like a lot, but I don’t have television and unlike television, surfing the internet or even reading a book (although I certainly don’t discourage that!) you can very easily do other things while listening to a podcast. I do the dishes, clean, and sometimes do data entry for work while listening to these.
It’s important to note that not all of these are kid friendly— some would be actively hostile to children’s ears and some would just bore them, however, the Stuff You Missed in History Class or the Stuff You Should Know Podcast, might interest some younger kids. HOWEVER, in small doses the two podcasts I am writing about today I think could be GREAT for kids who have shown an interest in science or history. They’re my two favorites. WNYC’s produces a monthly podcast called Radiolab with fresh insights on scientific concepts. They often reveal the mundane to be wonderous, by finding an outlier or oddity that exposes how miraculous the normal functions of our brains or ecosystems actually are. Radiolab finds the exceptions that prove the rule.
In recent episodes, they describe one of the best ultra-runners in the world, who only ascends to the top after a seizure-prevention operation impairs her short term memory. She concludes that she owes her success in these grueling, long distance runs through extreme tempertures and terrains precisely to her inability to mark time as we do. It suggests that human limits, even under extreme conditions, may be tethered to boredom. Another powerful episodes include the sad story of Lucy, a chimpanzee who was raised by humans and later abandoned by them, to her psychological detriment. The story of Lucy shed light on how fine the line between human and animal can be, how much ‘nurture’ can and cannot conquer nature and finally, what a scientist’s responsibility to its own subject of study is, when that subject is capable of thought and emotion.
In a head-to-head between the two, I have to choose Backstory. Unlike my favorite History-centric television show, History Detectives on PBS (new season starts June 22, and yes, I’ve marked my calendar), Backstory doesn’t really focus on forgotten or marginal bits of history, they tend to focus on more well-known and well-trodden subjects. I am a history buff, so I don’t consider the Panic of 1873 such a very exotic subject. Their gimmick is a brilliant one (and quite post-modern) they assemble a specialist on 18th century, 19th century and 20th century America, focus a show on a broad subject area that still has relevance in the 21st century and debate it from the perspectives of three centuries. This is a brilliant setup; it gives them license to cover American History from inception to present day and they can cherry pick incidents or events that highlight the larger point they’re trying to make. In terms of incidents, they don’t veer too far off the menu of traditional American fare. The Fox sisters (the sisters from Upstate New York who claimed to communicate with the dead and touched off the spiritualism craze) are a well-known footnote; the assertion that Pilgrims might have been averse to the Native Americans because they farmed differently is not so controversial. It’s the insights and the connections they make between America’s “B-material” that elevates this podcast to a real work of art.
They manage to connect the rise of Spiritualism with the devastation of the Civil War, (makes sense, ok, I’m still on board), the nascent women’s suffrage movement (wait…huh?) and then invention of the telegraph (ummm…check your Morse code there buddy, I think the wires are crossed). Almost always, mediums were women, and they were often celebrities. They could be permitted, as attractions, to speak before live audiences (often the first time men had ever seen women speak publicly) and since they were possessed by the spirits of the dead, they could speak freely and even say scandalous things. I’ll let the historians describe the podcasts best insight in his own words, “the telegraph was not unlike that. There was a sense [with the telegraph] that there was a new medium, so to speak, to connect the “departed” with the living, which is not so crazy when you think about it…ok, we can now send messages instantaneously, anywhere, and not be there with our bodies. Is that really so different from imagining that people who used to be here can now communicate with us? Almost instantly, as soon as the telegraph was invented, it became the embodiment of what we’d longed to do throughout human kind, which is: talk to those we’ve lost. What it really did, in essence, it eliminated distance that stood between two people being intimate. You couldn’t have that kind of intimacy when you had geographically, physical distance but the telegraph really kind of allowed that, in an instantaneous fashion.”
“…The people who really brought spiritualism to the American population, the Fox Sisters, ironically communicated with the ‘spiritual world’ through something that was a lot like Morse code. It was knocking… it requires an interpreter. It requires somebody whose the equivalent of a wire, who’s more sensitive than normal people…I think that one reason why the word was called ‘medium’ early on.”
It doesn’t get any better for a podcast buff and history buff!