Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Just a quick follow-up to a comment I made on Twitter. Over the past several years I have listened to dozens and dozens of podcasts, on a very wide range of subjects, with the result that there is now not a single podcast that I listen to regularly.

Podcasts, overall, are

(1) People struggling to articulate for you stuff you could find out by looking it up on Wikipedia (e.g. In Our Time);

(2) People using old-timey radio tricks to fool you into thinking that a boring and inconsequential story is fascinating (e.g. Serial);

(3) People leveraging their celebrity in a given field as permission to ramble incoherently about whatever happens to come to their minds (e.g. The Talk Show); or

(4) People using pointless audio-production tricks to make a pedestrian story seem cutting-edge (e.g. Radiolab).

The world of podcasting desperately needs people to take it seriously and invest real thought and creativity into it. There are a lot of not-so-smart people who invest all they have in podcasts; there are a lot of smart people who do podcasts as an afterthought, giving them a fraction of the attention they give to their "real work." So far it's a medium of exceptional potential almost wholly unrealized.

All that said, The Memory Palace is pretty good.


  • Are you referring to BBC-4's (Melvyn Bragg's) In Our Time?

  • Love me some History of Rome and Revolutions.



  • Generally agree. That's why I tend to stick to talks set up as podcasts or sports (better version of sports radio). That being said Podcasts allow folks (like me) who drive a lot to experience something more radio. A few that are decent… "Emperors of Rome"… "EconTalk"…"I Was There Too" (a bit hit and miss).

  • Interestingly enough (not least because of your frequent appearances there), my mind went right to Ken Myers' Mars Hill Audio Journal. Obviously it's not a podcast in either in it's infrequency (bi-monthly) or cost (north of, well, nothing). Is it a model for what podcasts could or should be? Could podcasts ever be that good and remain "free" (if littered with sponsor messages and other forms of advertising)?

    By the way, The Guardian's Football Weekly is the only podcast I regularly listen to.

  • Sadly so.

  • I guess I have different goals for listening to podcast than you do. The podcasts that stick with me - that I'm still listening after 6 months or more - are those that feature interesting people having interesting conversations about interesting subjects. Generally, it's not so much about me wanting to learn something, but to be the fly on the wall of a conversation that I'd like to join. Examples of these include The Incomparable, The Pen Addict, Back to Work, Random Trek, and Slate's Hang Up and Listen.

  • Preferring Wikipedia to "In Our Time" is like preferring the YouTube comments section to YouTube.

  • This is rather amusing considering the post and comments:

  • In Our Time couldn't carry MHA's jockstrap. If MHA had a jockstrap.

  • MHA is by far the best radio show and/or podcast I've ever listened to... even though it is neither of those things.

    And I seriously doubt any podcast could really equal MHAJ, since the latter is a free-standing operation employing three people full-time.

    (I should confess my bias, since Ken is a friend and parishioner and my wife's former employer).

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