Commercial radio is deader than Marconi, and so those of us who listened to the medium all our lives have three options: listener-sponsored stations, satellite radio, and podcasts. In NYC, the first option has never come in on portable radios (“college radio” signals have never had enough strength; NPR is informative, but more often than not makes me doze). The second is a manifestation of the “niche” factor in American culture (hide the good stuff in niches that cost dough, while the mainstream garbage is free). And thus a few years ago I moved to the third option, which is thoroughly dependent on you knowing that the show exists.
Like trees in the forest, a veritable swarm of podcasts compete for your time and attention (and in some cases, for your dollars), but you could easily overlook the best ones on the journey to read another bite-sized piece of text on the Net. Since this past weekend I turned “another year older and deeper in debt,” I figured my gift to you, the reader of this blog, would be a short discussion of the five podcasts I most eagerly await. Four of them I’ve written about before on this blog; only two charge a subscription fee, and both of those have ample archives of older material available for free. Four of the five hosts began on radio, and all of the programs have their own individual charms and addictive qualities. I would've linked to the downloadable version of one of my favorite remaining radio programs, Idiot's Delight with Vin Scelsa, but that is available only as .asx files, which can't be carried around on an MP3 player.
1.) Lionel Media: Lionel, whom I wrote about here, is a former radio talk-show host who was on both liberal and conservative stations, and always seemed to stake out his own turf. His only book to date labeled him a “contrarian,” but I’d prefer calling him a skeptic, which, given the extremely bored yet dogmatic way in which Americans view both politics and religion, is a valuable thing.
If you want to sample what Lionel is like when he’s in his hyper-kinetic mode, check out his wonderful three-minute commentaries on local WPIX news. On his website, he currently offers an audio podcast on which he goes into depth on the same issues as the PIX commentaries, and also ponders a host of others.
Although I disagree with him on some issues, and there have been a few times when I’ve felt that 30-45 minutes would’ve sufficed on certain topics (his podcast usually runs an hour), the best episodes have found him carefully deconstructing some statement or action made by the government. That is when he is at his best as a “decoder” (his own term) of the mainstream media’s coverage (and blind acceptance) of the government’s pronouncements. My personal favorite episodes of the ’cast have been more personal ones, where Lionel (in perfect Henry Morgan mode) tells us about people who annoy the hell out of him. Examples of this from his WPIX commentaries are here and here.
Sometimes I do sense a slight “disconnect” between the high-energy commentator on TV and the soft-spoken podcaster, but in both roles Lionel is a talker who always forces his viewers/listeners to think about what’s going on around them. Plus, he’s extremely funny, especially when in an exasperated or annoyed mode.
Check out his WPIX commentaries on YouTube for an intro as to how the man’s mind works. I’m still surprised that a local news show is airing his radical (read: logical and well-argued) messages. He is well worth your time:
Price: $5.99 a month, but free “sample” episodes every few weeks
Frequency of podcast: 3-5 times a week.
2.) WTF With Marc Maron: Marc is the only podcaster on this list lucky enough to have commercial sponsors and to seemingly be making a profit from his Net-show. Ostensibly an interview show concerned with the world of comedy, I detailed in my last post about WTF how, pretty early on, the show started offering odd and fascinating “therapy sessions” for the comic figures interviewed.
I’m still not sure why the guests consent to talk in detail with Marc about their biggest fears, grimmest memories, and most tangled familial relationships, but it most definitely makes for a riveting listen. A few guests have indeed moved away from discussing anything too personal, and still others have acknowledged the fact that the show frequently goes in that direction (“I’m not gonna cry for you, Dr. Maron,” declared “the pitbull of comedy” Bobby Slayton).
As I mentioned last time, I have little to no interest in some of the people Marc has on (how many members of “The State” or “The UCB” can one honestly care about?). But it is a testament to his unique method of “sharing neuroses” and getting his guests to open up that I often wind up listening to these episodes anyway — developing a sympathy or simpatico for the individual, even though I still don’t find them funny or ever want to watch their work.
There are exceptions, though. While, for example, I already enjoyed the work of Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall) and standup Maria Bamford, and just wound up loving ’em a whole lot more after they opened up to Marc about their private lives (in minute detail), I found recent episodes (one posted today) with two major “name” comic personalities, Jimmy Fallon and Amy Poehler, to be shows one could avoid entirely. But I listened — yes, I listened, and have learned my lesson; I will spend no more time hearing reminiscences of SNL or UCB alumni. (Both institutions have crafted startling amounts of unfunny, unwatchable sketch comedy.)
Marc will frequently refer to the ghosts of Comedy Giants Past — Lenny, Pryor, Carlin, Hicks — and people who influenced the current generation of standups like Mitch Hedberg and Dave Attell (all of whom I enjoy very much). But one need only hear Fallon talk on WTF about Will Ferrell being the funniest man he’s ever met “in my entire life” and understand in a flash the “mediocritization” of American comedy. Steve Allen used to say Groucho was the most naturally funny man he’d ever met; Fallon points to Ferrell — why say more? (I've seen Fallon gush over top-notch British humorists like Chris Morris, the Pythons, and the Mighty Boosh elsewhere, but his taste in the American comedy of his own generation is as piss-poor as the "stupid human tricks" performed on his program.)
But I come to praise Marc, not to bury him with one of his more famous guests’ sadder statements. The single best example of what Maron is capable of with WTF was a recent episode in which he interviewed a comic legend who still dwells among us, Jonathan Winters. The last time I saw Winters being interviewed it was on Jimmy Kimmel, where he did a rather dazzling bit of improvisational material as a deranged scoutmaster for boys who dressed his charges in little dresses and bonnets. As Winters went on, the routine was alternately hysterical and then not funny at all (the sign of true improv). Around the time he reached a wonderfully Faulkner-ian image that wasn’t funny at all but was still wonderfully haunting (a flood that sent all the little boys’ dresses downstream…), Kimmel stopped him cold and asked, “Can I speak to Jonathan?” thereby ending the routine for good, and proving that however friendly and nice Jimmy K. is, he hasn’t the foggiest when it comes to playing straight man to the comic Force of Nature that is Jon W.
By comparison, Maron let the now-85-year-old Jonathan simply wail at points during their interview. Winters talks much slower now, but his mind still fires on all cylinders, and around the 1:05 mark of the interview — after having discussed his stays in mental institutions and his grim relations with his parents — Jonathan started riffing. What came out was a dark piece in which he played both a wimpering patient and his stern psychologist. The latter is so fed up with their sessions and his patient’s spinelessness that he begins to urge him to commit suicide, in graphic detail. The bit has no punchline, but it is Winters at his best, and it is incredibly dark (bringing to mind the much-circulated “Hee-Hee-Larious” unsigned party record that “JW” made made many years ago).
I would definitely love to hear Marc meet up in the future with more of the “old lions” of comedy who dwell on the West Coast, and continue to hold “therapy sessions” with his extremely tortured and very funny contemporaries. The talks with friendly but anemic (and boringly non-neurotic) sketch-comics aside, WTF remains a show for comedy fans to keep an eye on, if only to hear Marc “trauma-bond” with funny standups whose secrets and memories make for fascinating listening.
Price: Free, but a “premium membership” (with access to the older episodes) is available for $.99 for 1 month, $4.99 for 6 months, and $8.99 for a year.
Frequency of podcast: twice a week
3.) The Bitslap with KBC The NJ-based free-form radio station WFMU is a bastion of eclecticism that is listener-sponsored and, sadly, unable to be heard on any portable radio in NYC. Thus, the station’s podcasts provide a portable way to listen to the station, and the show I’m about to discuss can be heard only as a podcast.
Though he’s never been one of their “celebrity” DJs, a gent who simply goes by his initials has been on my short list of favorite air personalities since the dim, dark late Eighties. He left his regular berth on the station back in the 1990s (early? mid? I’m reaching the point where memories start to blend together….), but has been producing a weekly music podcast for the last two years for the WFMU website. It is mind-warpingly weird, and by that I mean wonderful.
KBC’s stated heroes on the program are Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, and the Firesign Theater, but there’s a lot more to his show than novelty tunes and “headphone comedy.” He cleverly blends rare singles with 78s and what are now called “deep album tracks” to create a mind-altering effect (without chemicals!) that calls to mind the best aspects of Sixties and Seventies free-form radio, as well as the strange vibe that permeated Seventies radio comedy (the best example being The National Lampoon Radio Hour).
He arranges most of the shows thematically and does a superb job of venturing down the “rabbit hole” of recorded comedy music to discover the catchiest, silliest, most hypnotic, and yes, at times even abrasive, music and vintage comedy sketches. The show is clearly a labor of love and, as an access producer, I can well understand KBC wanting to “give it all away.” (Remember, before YouTube, there were zines, public access and, most definitely, FM free-form radio.)
Check out KBC’s playlists to see the breadth of material he covers — and be sure that no one on the planet has a wider collection of rare, unique, and downright strange Xmas music than he does!
Price: absolutely free
Frequency of podcast: once a week
COMING UP: Two shows that have lengthier intervals between their episodes, but are well worth the wait!