Peace in a pod Entertainment

Podcasts, a new vocabulary of sound

There are tens of thousands of podcasts to choose from.

There are tens of thousands of podcasts to choose from.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images


Switch off that bhangra-pop and switch on romance, humour and debate

It all begins, like so many urban stories, in the middle of the most horrendous traffic jam. The car ahead of me seemed to have its engine turned off. The snarl wasn’t clearing any time soon. My itchy fingers reached for my mobile, tethered to the charger plugged into the USB port below the car’s audio system. I’d grown a bit weary of the super-peppy Hinglish and Tenglish on the small range of FM stations, but there wasn’t really that much to choose from.

And then one day, I discovered podcasts. I was rummaging through the Internet looking for the web stream of a favourite radio station, hoping to serendipitously catch a familiar voice. I was delighted to find that not only did the station have a live stream, several of their programmes were available as discrete downloadable episodes.

And as often happens in the super-linked space of the web, one discovery led to another, and before I knew it, I was up to my ears in the world of downloadable audio. While a few of these are radio programmes repackaged for time-shifting listeners, the majority are produced exclusively for distribution on the web or for smartphones through iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, Podcast Addict or other audio streaming services.


Podcasts have now reopened the door to the realm of sound, regenerating the habit of listening, of drawing meaning and colour from the spoken word and its accompaniments, allowing us to regain the vocabulary of the aural. Radio is no stranger to us, but our modern, urban lives have relegated it to the background and our sensible lives have been taken over by a messy combination of the visual and the textual. Podcasts make it possible to slip into a space that offers a refuge from this messiness, allowing the inner eye to reclaim its vision, its imagery stimulated by sound.

Specific tastes

There are thousands — or tens of thousands — of podcasts to choose from, on topics ranging from food to physics, politics to philosophy, literary podcasts featuring authors reading their own fiction, and podcasts of language lessons; there’s romance, humour, argument and pop culture. Most of these are produced as a limited series — or a serial — while others are simply repackaged episodes of ongoing radio shows. Selecting a podcast can be as delightfully confusing as picking a title in a bookstore. The reviews and ratings don’t always give you a sense of what might appeal to your specific tastes — or mood. Many media outlets produce their own podcasts, trying to extend their audiences and take advantage of a range of digital platforms and information consuming behaviours.

Podcasts, a new vocabulary of sound

My own journey through this rich and varied soundscape has been a combination of happy accident and strategic searching. In this series, I hope to help you navigate this audio archive and point to some I have particularly loved and wanted to share.

The first of these is an eight-part miniseries that I’ve just finished listening to. It tells the “story behind the story” that marked one of investigative journalism’s finest moments — Watergate. Through the years, some stories have reaffirmed our faith in the power of the Fourth Estate — in India, we have had Ashwini Sarin’s exposé of human trafficking or Arun Shourie’s searing articles about the cement scam (often dubbed ‘India’s Watergate’). But for journalists everywhere, it was Watergate that sort of set the bar for the kind of journalism that toppled presidents.

Slow Burn, conceived and narrated by Leon Neyfakh, is one of many podcasts produced by Slate magazine. In this tightly woven series, Neyfakh asks the question: “What did it feel like to live through the scandal that brought down a president?”

Our sense of the Watergate scandal and the investigation that brought it to light comes mainly from the Hollywood retelling in All the President’s Men, based on the 1974 book of the same name by The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Neyfakh’s story — or stories — skirt the boundaries of this popular account, and draw on a cast of fascinating characters to explore the context and the peculiar political culture that made possible the event and its cover-up.

In the first episode of Slow Burn, titled ‘Martha’, Neyfakh introduces us to Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon’s first Attorney General and confidant, who was (believe it or not) tranquillised and forcibly held in a hotel room to prevent her from speaking out about the Watergate break-in. If we thought Woodward and Bernstein’s story was captivating, well, there’s more than enough drama in this and the episodes that follow to keep one engrossed — and listening. And it’s no accident that at times the Nixon presidency, with all its firings and sudden turns, sounds eerily familiar.

(The first instalment of a fortnightly series on podcasts.)


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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 1:32:01 AM |

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