Sunday, October 7, 2012

The best Podcasts in the world

I get yelled at quite a lot. Chances are I don't pay much attention when that happens. After which the volume of the yelling increases. I will lift my headset and listen to what they have to say... 'Are you alright, sounds like you're having a fit. What are you laughing about?' Slightly unaware of my surroundings, as I often am, I reply 'Oh', pointing an index towards my ear, 'it's just this podcast I'm listening to.' This scenario has repeated itself for years now.

I am a big fan of talk radio. However, the national radio stations intent on destroying the only thing they still have going for them, insist on playing a song in between every other sentence. Breaking up the conversation into bitesize chucks as to guarantee that every hipster twenty something doesn't loose attention mid-sentence, causing them to change the channel or more to the point: pick up the smartphone. Of course picking up the phone is the first thing they do, showing that radio bas become something so old only a progressivist would listen to it. I was once such a person. On the lonely road during the bike ride home, I would listen to the radio on my cell phone, which had a built-in radio and used a headset that acted as an antenna. I use the past tense here because the daily use of the headset, as clearly wasn't intended by Sony Ericsson, broke it after only a few weeks.
Not much later smartphones became the norm and Sony Ericsson lost the plot. I poured one out for Sony Ericsson... during my personal celebration of the "restructuring" (when Sony bought out Ericsson) of the company that would have charged me another €50 for the flimsy proprietary replacement earbuds. Good riddance to bad business. My love for people having an interesting conversation remained and the loss of the radio wasn't too bad, because I had discovered something better than live radio: podcasts. Portable, available whenever you want and uninterrupted by popular music. Here are some of my favorites:

Games For Windows Radio
I got into podcasts thanks to my interest in games, of course, that was years ago and today I listen to few gaming podcasts. I used to follow the 1UP podcasts but since the big collapse of the site, 1UP failed to profit from the popularity of the podcasts, at which most of the staff was let go, I lost interest. When the interesting people left, so did their conversation. The biggest star to rise from 1UP was, in my opinion: GFW Radio.

I'll have a hard time telling people out of the loop why the legendary GFW podcast is legendary, but let me just say that this was the best podcast about PC gaming bar none. Or was it? The rhetorical question is there because games were only part of the discussion, most of the talk spun out into, often eye tearing hilarious anecdotes of shenanigans, online or otherwise, comic books, movies and popular culture as a whole.

More serious discussion about game criticism was the other half of it. Thanks to the internet, game magazines found themselves in a unique situation because they were always one step behind the online sites, but this gave the editors pause, and a chance to focus on game criticism rather than product review. How is the story? What are the themes? What does this mean for gaming? In stead of: How are the graphics and is this worth your money? This made the podcast more of a highbrow affair, and the editors wouldn't mind telling the audience at large. Right before the discussion would turn into a retelling of how so and so would make it rain dildos from the sky in Second Life. Classic!
The podcast finally ended when the majority of the staff made their way into game development, surely a testament to their personal quality. Jeff Green went to the Sims team at EA, quit and went to Popcap, which was eventually bought by EA. Sean Molloy went over to Blizzard. Robert Ashley had his own quality podcast with A life well wasted about gaming culture before becoming a fulltime musician and Shawn Elliott is currently a level designer at Irrational Games, working on Bioshock Infinite. The illustrious Ryan Scott went on to found the Geekbox, but more about that later.
GFW radio was the first podcast I listened to on a regular basis. And unlike with many other podcasts, I listened to them repeatedly, even years later. Listening to GFW made me realize that Games do merit open discussion as part of the wider cultural spectrum, which is partly the reason why I started blogging about games. I was pretty gutted when it finally stopped. And I know I'm not the only one, the Brodeo still has a large following, wishing that someday the band will come back together, thus far it happened once. On a special episode of the Comedy Button. The archived podcast files are still available on the 1up website. I heartily recommend you listen to a few of the later episodes if you like intelligent (pc) game discussion. Be advised though, the podcast stems from the period when the Wii, Xbox360 and PS3 were very popular, often at the cost of PC game development, a fact that often gets mentioned. Interesting times make for interesting talk.

Giant Bombcast
The Giant Bombcast from Giant Bomb is another gaming podcast that's fun to listen to. However don't expect the collected gentry to discuss game design philosophy as GFW did, but prepare to be entertained. Recently, the discussion has shifted a bit more towards PC gaming and away from console gaming, which speaks to my theme. The conversations mostly revolve around new games and often times leads to talk about the gaming industry. Very nice if you want to keep up with the times. Anchormen Jeff Gerstmann and Ryan Davis have been game reviewers for years, so they're well versed in gaming history and they have their facts straight. I don't always agree with their opinions, Gerstmann's aversion to inverted mouse controls gets my goad every time, but at least I know where they come from. For years, from Gamespot to Gamespot (now there's an insider) I have either read, seen or heard their opinions, and the occasional rant.

The Geekbox
The bombcast remains as the only gaming podcast I listen to. A bit further away from gaming and more towards geekdom is The Geekbox. Created by Ryan Scott, the Robin to Jeff Green's Batman. The silent force of GWF grew into a rather illustrious podcast host himself. The discussion is often hilarious, seemingly without the host of talking heads realizing it. The Geekbox podcast often starts up a little slow. But as time goes along and opinions get a bit more heated, the show hits its stride. This is one of those shows where the chemistry is right. On their own, the people on the show are probably just like you and me, but as a collection become very amusing. The topics are typical geek fare: comics, movies and gaming. Not surprisingly when the cast all works in the gaming industry. I feel that in more than one way, so not just because Ryan Scott provides a familiar voice, this is the spiritual successor to GFW radio. Because it's so much fun to listen to these opinionated, involuntary funny geeks. like minded people band together?

Comedy Bang Bang
Comedy Bang Bang is the roaring flagship podcast on the Earwolf Podcasting network. Host Scott Aukerman, a comedian without actually sounding like one, is a pretty good host. His program is famous for its open door policy, more like a revolving door, letting in a cavalcade of oddball characters with curious opinions, who usually disrupt the interview going on with a luminary from the comedy and/or movie industry. Go visit the site and download an episode with a guest you know the name of, and you won't be disappointed. And I'm talking names such as: James Adomian, Paul F. Tompkins, Jessica St. Clair, Matt Besser, Adam Pally, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Daly, the list goes on.

Comedy Bang Bang isn't the only good comedy podcast, the entire Earwolf network has worthwhile podcasts, most of them funny.

Gelmania by revolutionist Brett Gelman For instance, I really like this disturbed, psychedelic and irregularly scheduled podcast. I admit it's not for the faint of heart, but the string of insane raps, screaming scetches, inhumane characters are Cathartic in a way. Listen to it on a friday. Inhale. Press play and when it ends: exhale.

The absolute best the network has to offer though is a recent addition called Improv4Humans. A podcast made out of fully improvised bits, inspired by twitter suggestions, discussions, youtube movies... The host Matt Besser is one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy group. He's one of the most creative improvisors I've heard so far. His fellow improvisors are too numerous to mention but it is amazing how well these different people harmonize when it comes to comedy. The personality, spontaneity, discussion and creative energy surging through this podcast while being absolutely hilarious makes it the most popular pick of all my suggestions. This podcast will get you a six-pack within weeks. I'm living proof!
If you want to get a good sample, I suggest you start at the recent best of episode.

Oddly enough, all of the above podcasts are based in California. But I like some European publications as well. The BBC, unsurprisingly forward thinking compared to the competition, puts a lot of its radio programmes online as podcasts. I'm sure there's something for everyone, but these two are my favorite picks.

Rhod Gilbert's Best Bits
I'm quite fond of Rhod Gilbert's Best Bits collects the most funny fragments from the Saturday morning broadcast. The program usually is a string of, often improvised, radio segments like reading the best "non-story" from the local newspaper, the loser of the week or when all else fails, read out some inspirational listener email.

Thinking Allowed
A more serious broadcast is Thinking Allowed, a podcast about current affairs. But not the stuff you see in the news on television. The subjects are a bit more scientific, and usually about social matters. Very well made and researched, hosted by Laurie Taylor who's scholar with a sense of humour.

I frequently listen to a few more podcasts, but for brevity's sake I should keep them for another post. Podcasts are a sign of modern times. After experiencing radio whenever wherever, adapting your life to the schedule of live radio feels both needlessly restrictive and overly wasteful with time because I can listen to the music I appreciate with the press of a button, so why force a music choice on the listener?
I hope the same can't be said for my blog, but perhaps there is something to be said for not having to read a wall of text. So at times I consider making a Bonesnack podcast or audio-post. At last you'd be able to take my husky, Yorkshire voice with with you on the bike, while I whisper my thoughts into your ear "Follow me on Twitter".