podcast reviews: cheer, jeer

CHEER: Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast is “a weekly fact-based journey through the cosmos” hosted by Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, professor at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Of the astronomy shows I’ve sampled in the past few weeks, this one is by far the most educational. While HETDEX: The Search for Dark Energy, a project on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment, has a suave broadcaster and high production value, its 6-minute long episodes don’t do much except hint at the potential of the HETDEX project. The effect is like reading a press release.

The episodes of Astronomy Cast, on the other hand, are 30 minutes, just enough time for a brisk but thorough introduction to ideas in astronomy and physics. For example, recent shows focused on: black holes, galaxies, quasars, adaptive optics, and a three-part series on the shape and center of the universe.

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t astronomy junior high stuff? Why should I care? Well, since I’ve been working with light in my art, I’ve been thinking about how light symbolizes immateriality, yet it’s also comprised of photons. I can’t make sense of this, so I’m looking forward to Astronomy Cast‘s episode on Wave Particle Duality.

I like Astronomy Cast‘s format. Cain’s background is primarily journalism; he poses questions to Dr. Gay, who is a researcher and professor. She embodies the best of those two worlds—an awareness of recent research in this continually developing field, and the ability and patience to break down complex ideas into simple, digestible units without sounding condescending. The pair excel in using clear, everyday language. When Dr. Gay starts getting into challenging concepts like space-time or four dimensions, Cain provides or asks for an analogy, which is tremendously useful to concrete thinkers like me.

The production quality of Astronomy Cast is great. No complaints here. And their website is pretty thorough and interactive. Amazingly, the podcasts are recorded over Skype and mixed in Garageband. I’m all for podcasting as a democratic medium, in as much as the audio quality doesn’t tank!

Last, I also enjoy the male student / female teacher dynamic. How often do you see that in the sciences?

JEER: In/Visible by The Seattle Stranger

In/Visible is “Jen Grave’s weekly conversation with people in the arts.” “Conversation” is a key word here, as the podcasts are recorded very casually, with little to no lede, structure, or editing. The speakers seem seem mic’d, but not otherwise prepared.

I tried listening to a recent interview with Oliver Herring, but shut it off after a few minutes, due to the presence of background noise and the absence of background information. A podcast is supposed to compel a listener to connect to a different time and place, but—to use a video analogy—the interviewer was cutting straight to the close-up, skipping the establishing shot altogether.

I got through a different episode, “How Does It Feel Winning the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards?” in which the reporter sat down with a curator from the Portland Art Museum and five artists. The curator was the most polished of the lot, but it seemed like that’s not the interviewer’s style; she directed much of conversation to the artists. Unfortunately, she didn’t properly introduce the artists or their work in the show. Understandably, they needed the first half of the show to warm up and develop an exchange. The episode was lengthy (40 minutes), yet I can picture the work and understand the thesis of only one out of the five artists. I started to resent the laid-back tone, as it paved the way for sarcasm and jokes rather than facts or insights of any relevance to me.

These conversations might be more interesting if they were repackaged as 5-minute profiles of artists and curators, but that would require organization, editing, and having a point. Whether intentionally or not, In/Visible perpetuates an ‘insider’ attitude about the art world: if we listeners don’t know this scene, institution or artist, tough luck, because it’s beneath this podcast to explain it.


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