Top tales from around the world are find­ing their way into a grow­ing num­ber of ears, writes Eric Ge­orge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

If you had asked 10 peo­ple a year ago to name their favourite pod­cast, chances are they would all have named the same show: Se­rial. Ask 10 friends to­day and you’re likely to get 10 dif­fer­ent re­sponses. The defin­ing au­dio dy­namic of the past year has been the rapid growth of eas­ily avail­able high-qual­ity au­dio sto­ry­telling around the world. Ex­ist­ing broad­cast and print out­lets con­tinue to join an ar­ray of start-up com­pa­nies in em­brac­ing the po­ten­tial of so-called on-de­mand au­dio sto­ry­telling.

That pro­lif­er­a­tion has made it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to keep track of the lat­est pod­casts. Here are a few of the high­lights from the past 12 months to catch up on over your sum­mer break.

Amer­i­can start-up Gim­let Me­dia en­trenched its rep­u­ta­tion this year as a leader in the field with a range of ex­cel­lent out­put, but noth­ing felt quite as fresh as Heavy­weight. Cana­dian ex­pat Jonathan Gold­stein spends each 40-minute episode try­ing to help a close friend or rel­a­tive work through a highly per­sonal prob­lem.

Each of the eight episodes feels sen­si­tive, hon­est and in­ti­mate. Gold­stein has a knack for draw­ing sur­pris­ing and hon­est re­flec­tions from his sub­jects, and al­low­ing his own neu­roses to bleed into the show with­out seem­ing self­ish. His quest to help an old friend re­cover a box set of CDs from mu­si­cian Moby is a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable episode.

An­other high­light from Gim­let this year came in a minis­eries that ran on one of the com­pany’s long­est run­ning shows: Re­ply All. In May, the pro­gram delved into the story of a pris­oner who im­prob­a­bly main­tained an ex­ten­sive blog while serv­ing a life sen­tence in­side a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity jail in Illi­nois.

On the In­side pro­vides a very raw, per­sonal in­sight into the lives of those within Amer­ica’s prison sys­tem. And as with Se­rial, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to lis­ten to host Sruthi Pin­na­ma­neni de­velop a rap­port with a man con­victed of mur­der. At only four episodes, this doesn’t re­quire the in­vest­ment of time that many true crime dra­mas de­mand.

As for Se­rial, its sec­ond sea­son, fo­cus­ing on Amer­i­can sol­dier (and al­leged de­serter) Bowe Bergdahl, may have dis­ap­pointed in the wake of the pro­gram’s stel­lar de­but, but it’s still a very im­pres­sive piece of sto­ry­telling. Go in with fresh ears now that the dust has set­tled and en­joy the su­perb pro­duc­tion and ex­tremely thor­ough jour­nal­ism.

If you are af­ter sub­stan­tial sto­ry­telling that strikes a slightly lighter tone, check out The Real Thing, one of the many ex­cel­lent pod­casts launched by the ABC this year. Hosts Timothy Ni­cas­tri and Mike Wil­liams tell a di­verse ar­ray of very en­ter­tain­ing, and very Aus­tralian, sto­ries, from the ori­gins of Redgum’s Viet­nam War an­them I was Only 19 to the un­be­liev­able yet true tale of a li­on­ess that es­caped into western Syd­ney in 1995.

The magic of The Real Thing lies in its lively, imag­i­na­tive pro­duc­tion. The use of sound ef­fects and mu­sic in au­dio is a very chal­leng­ing thing to nail; even slight misses turn lav­ish pod­casts into tacky mis­takes. There are no such prob­lems here, as each episode sings with high­qual­ity de­sign.

US pub­lic ra­dio sta­tion WNYC’s Ra­di­o­lab has been enor­mously in­flu­en­tial in the imag­i­na­tive use of sound in au­dio sto­ry­telling. The show had an­other phe­nom­e­nal year, and pro­vides a deep cat­a­logue of doc­u­men­taries to work through. A great place to start is the very chal­leng­ing but fas­ci­nat­ing episode Play­ing God, which looks into the eth­i­cal dilemma of triage. When a dis­as­ter strikes a hospi­tal, how do you de­cide who gets to live or die?

At the other end of the spec­trum lie shows such as Ear­wolf’s Beau­ti­ful Sto­ries from Anony­mous Peo­ple. Dur­ing each episode, co­me­dian Chris Gethard takes a call from an anony­mous par­tic­i­pant, and isn’t al­lowed to hang up for an hour.

This is the po­lar op­po­site of the ABC’s ex­cel­lent Con­ver­sa­tions with Richard Fi­dler; Gethard’s is a messy in­ter­view style, where he es­sen­tially plays ther­a­pist on live ra­dio. But that messi­ness is what makes the show ex­cit­ing. True mo­ments of sur­prise are born from the fact that no one in­volved knows where the con­ver­sa­tion is head­ing.

The Aus­tralian has also pro­duced a num­ber of ex­cit­ing pod­cast se­ries this year. The Walk­ley Award-win­ning Bowrav­ille is a six-episode in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the 25-year-old un­solved mur­ders of three Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren. Bal­larat’s Chil­dren tells the back­story of the po­lice coverup that al­lowed pe­dophilia to flour­ish in the Catholic churches of western Vic­to­ria.

Cre­ative Ten­sion is a se­ries of in­ter­views about Aus­tralian art and cul­ture, hosted by Michaela Boland.

For the rapidly grow­ing au­di­ence of pod­cast lis­ten­ers, this year is de­scribed quite ac­cu­rately by the most tired po­lit­i­cal joke of the year: “There never has been a more ex­cit­ing time.”

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