listening at 5km per hour

May 29, 2011

I’ve been walking a lot lately. It’s bit of a worry, mostly because walking, lots, and alone, is the sort of thing I associate with tall loping homeless men, and professional dog nannies, and guys in tracksuits hanging out in parks.

As a functional adult, I should possess clearly defined goals (shops! market! cafe! bar!), and shoot for them, in straight and decisive lines.

But instead, I’ve been wandering.

And it’s the fault of my iPod.

Radiolab is a series of podcasts produced by WNYC public radio. Ranging in length from about 15minutes (2.5km) to 1 hour (5km, with perhaps a stop for a drink half way), each episode defines and then explodes your preconceptions about something you’ve probably never throught about before. Like the nature of gravity. The cultural history of zoos. Blinking. Or shopping malls.

My iTunes library tells me I’ve listened to 23 episodes in the space of about three weeks. So it’s official: my name’s Deborah and I’m a Radiolabaholic. But for me, the appeal of the series is not the content per se – rather, it’s the way it recognises how the podcast medium is both incredibly intimate and utterly contextless, belonging equally to the the commute, the kitchen, and the aimless suburban wander.

To illustrate, this is my recent playlist:

  • The Effect of Zoo Cage Design on Mountain Gorillas [3.2 km; Caulfield back streets; series of hot lunch smells, possibly goulash.]
  • The Relationship Between Blinking and Film Editing [3.9km; up Chapel Street to work; blur of bleared commuters.]
  • The Nature of Gravity and Vertigo [One a lap of Albert park; 4.5km; dodging under-8 soccer training.]

On each of these occasions, the place defines the experience as much as the audio – and Radiolab seems to recognise this. The show’s sound design is full of bleeps and glitches, full of flubbed lines and jarring segues: in the words of one of the hosts, it’s about “consciously letting people see outside the frame.” The pauses often linger a tad too long. There are silences and hiccups, spaces which invite the intrusion of sounds from your real world, your pedestrian world.

In this way, Radiolab is one of the few podcasts I know that recognises how the very medium of mobile audio lends itself to weird conjunctions.

Decades ago, the introduction of the Walkman made it possible to experience space in a different, sort of doubled way, in which

…the outside world profoundly alters its character; it is perceived like a film … The subject speaks of his feeling of being outside reality while at the same time being aware of living in this reality…

I think podcasts do something similar to the listener, opening up a double kind of listening space, in which pedestrian crossings co-exist with quantum theory, and garbage trucks collect Sanskrit verbs, and a train trip can take up the whole nineteenth century.

It feels like the kind of place where ideas are bound to happen.

And it’s utterly addictive.

I’m going for a walk.

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