Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beyond Radio: Podcasts

Last week I explored what I saw as the best options for new musical discovery on local terrestrial radio. But let’s get real… even at its best, terrestrial radio is only as good as the DJ’s talent and creativity (and mood that day), within the context of their usually quite restrictive format (...even “free-form” is often just a slightly expanded format). Then you have to be listening during their particular broadcast time, and be in the right place and right mood for taking it all in. Yes, there are devices that enable you to record live radio to time-shift at your convenience... I own one such device, called Radio Shark, which does this very efficiently, but that involves a level of commitment that’s hard to muster these days. Case in point: I haven’t actually used my Radio Shark in over a year.

That’s because there are now many better options. Satellite and HD radio greatly expand the offerings, but both are specialty-equipment dependent, and satellite requires an additional monthly subscription fee. Both are essentially a live medium, which means you’re often again dealing with supplemental technology if you want to time-shift.

Clearly, the internet has become the primary source for discovering new music. The problem is, it is a vast and largely unchartered universe. At last count there were over 8 million artists on MySpace alone. A great radio DJ serves as both a gatekeeper and tastemaker; a tour guide to that expansive universe of music. On the internet, it’s the bloggers and the podcasters which serve those functions.

There would be no Cedar music blog if we did not believe that blogging can be an effective tool for sharing musical discoveries. And in a future entry I’ll explore other music blogs that I find useful for this purpose. But the obvious advantage of podcasts (which refers to episodic audio “programs” that can be downloaded and played at your convenience on your computer or portable music device), is that it’s an audio format. The better music blogs include music and video streams, but that chains you to your computer to listen/watch. Podcasts can be taken with you, and listened to on the move, in a time and place of your choosing, which is a pretty essential feature in the modern age.

Before I share a short list of my favorite podcasts, I do have to mention The Cedar’s own. It’s largely an audio version of our monthly newsletter, but contains 30-60 second music clips of every band headlining at The Cedar that month. If you’re local to the Twin Cities, not only can that be a nice way to discover some new music, it’s all music that you have the opportunity to then see live. And one technical note: most of these podcasts are available as streams from the links provided, and also as downloadable mp3 files. Now on to my choices:

1. I consider the grandfather of new music podcasts to be National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered. Created as a streaming webcast years ago by former All Things Considered producer (and musician) Bob Boilen, this is essential listening for anyone curious about new, alternative music. I consider Bob Boilen to be about the most trustworthy music tastemaker in the country, and he regularly has other critics and bloggers on the program giving reviews and previews.
2. NPR Music also started another posting called Second Stage, which each day presents one song by a band that would be under almost everyone’s radar, but consistently has something very worthwhile to offer.
3. Similarly, a number of “alternative” stations offer a “song of the day” podcast (albeit with a more narrow rock slant), including The Current and KEXP in Seattle. KEXP also has a bi-weekly podcast worth hearing called Music That Matters.
4. The nationally syndicated radio program Sound Opinions is also available as a podcast. The show is hosted by Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, two Chicago-based music critics who provide entertaining banter and views. Again, it’s overly rock-centric for my tastes, but I find the music news segment at the beginning to the program alone worth the download.
5. I wish there were a podcast of Nic Harcourt’s Sounds Eclectic, but there is one of live in-studio performances on the daily Morning Becomes Eclectic (from which Sounds Eclectic is compiled). Harcourt is another trustworthy tastemaker, but he just left his post as host of the daily program and music director of KCRW, so we’ll have to watch and see what he’s up to next, and how his host replacement, Jason Bentley, fares.
6. I do listen each week to The Current’s Musicheads podcast, but not quite as enthusiastically since the format changed about a year ago. It used to be Bill DeVille and his two guests each picked an album for discussion for each program, which brought a good variety with the rotating guests. Now the three albums are pre-selected, invariably all in the same narrow range of alternative rock to which the station itself is increasingly limiting.
7. I feel the need to mention two non-music related podcasts here, because I think they happen to be the best-produced radio programs and podcasts in existence: the perennial public radio favorite This American Life from Chicago Public Radio, and WNYC’s Radiolab. Both of these hour-long programs manage to consistently inform and entertain thoroughly and effectively, with humor and thoughtfulness.

The biggest challenge, really, is finding the time to listen to all of these offerings. Like so many other things, there's just so much information and content out there these days, that even filtering out the best barely leaves enough time to do anything else.

So, what podcasts or internet sources do you turn to for discovering new music? Please post your's in the comments section!

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