They serve as workout partners, walk companions, backseat passengers and workplace buddies. Podcasts – as a medium – bring conversations to where we are, everywhere within ear(bud)shot. The best ones, the ones we manually check on iTunes subscriptions before a sync-and-go, create downloadable environments in which we feel like an important part of a conversation. Subscriptions come and go, but these podcasts proved to be my favorites in 2011.
The Basketball Jones – In both good times for the sport and bad, TBJ proved to be an indispensable part of being a fan of the NBA. The daily video show emanating from The Score’s Toronto studios spurred the excitement of an already stellar 2010 playoffs, breaking down each night’s action with passion and proper context. When the Dirkus Circus ended its run, though, labor issues clouded the future of the league and the podcast. The summer saw the full implementation of “The BLANK Jones,” bringing the goofiness at the periphery of the daily show to the forefront by talking in half-hour increments about everything from karaoke to the movie Real Steel. But the most impressive part of the podcast’s year began just as the league announced its first cancelled games. The show took its act on the road for the No Season Required tour, including a Chicago stop I was lucky enough to attend. And it helped lead to little videos like this, which provided proper distraction from the realization we wouldn’t get to see Derrick Rose glide to the hoop for a full 82 games in 2011-12:
Firewall & Iceberg – Overwhelmed by the steady stream of new shows debuting seemingly every week? TV critics Dan Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall provide a great navigational tool through these choices, and complement the show with in-depth discussions on the shows (Breaking Bad) that deserve them. The disagreements are slight, and most of the jokes are dampened by the destroyer of timing known as Skype. But when either host gets on a roll about a show he really likes or really H8s, it’s a must-listen.
Giant Bombcast – As a casual gamer who arrived at the newest generation of hardware a few years late, I caught up with Gamespot’s Hotspot podcast. But recent changes to that show (video, more compact, less nonsense) left me wanting more. The cup runneth over in the way Giant Bombcast filled that void. Whereas the Hotspot appeared to stumble in what it wanted to be, one episode of the Bombcast revealed Jack Palance levels of confidence. The hosts will dissect the new releases, but aren’t beholden to the format and will digress into recent releases, older games or off-topic conversations as need be. Most of my friends now pick up diapers much more often than a controller, but this podcast allows me listen in on what our conversations might have been like if social status hadn’t changed since the Goldeneye days.
Never Not Funny presents Rock Solid – This music podcast started somewhat conspicuously, with sound level issues marring the full impact of the debut episode featuring hosts Pat Francis and Gary Lucy. But the show quickly found its footing in its unabashed love of all kinds of music, organized conceptually each episode. Be it songs starting with a certain letter or favorite solo albums, the selections hit on rare gems that don’t always coincide with the accepted notions of what’s cool in music. And, yes, that means Journey. But both guys are quite funny in bantering about each selection, no surprise given their respective writing and performing careers. And five months into show, it has resisted any ruts, a testament to their broad taste in music and their favorite songs about broads.
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour – This show, helmed by Linda Holmes, takes the concept of the podcast as a controlled conversation and inches the show closer to the ideal. The regular panelists, discussing a wide swath of popular culture, own such a unique chemistry that any time one of the crew is missing, it tips the scales in imperceptible ways and I almost refuse to listen. If you think NPR can’t be funny, Glen Weldon will prove you wrong. If you think an NPR host can’t love both a good stage production and a well-placed sexual innuendo, Trey Graham will prove you wrong. And Stephen Thompson proves that even a Green Bay Packers fan can move beyond understanding culture as something cheese-related. The weekly Friday release matches the mood of the show perfectly.
Reasonable Discussions – If anyone could channel resources into an informative, engaging pop culture podcast, you’d think it would be The AV Club. A strong stable of critics makes the site required reading, and the staff retooled its previous podcast into a more organized distillation of cultural criticism (and a few laughs, in case you were scared off by the daunting nature of that description). It would be easy to call it a nerdier, more specific version of the Pop Culture Happy Hour. But the show has its own unique attributes, including an implementation of those critics that focuses on their areas of expertise. I think in the new year this podcast will find more ways to exhibit the sense of fun that’s present in the writing. Right now, various “games” among the staff fill that role, which go on a little too long and showcase a level of knowledge that alienates even fellow pop culture obsessives.
Rockford Register Star podcasts – My friend Melissa Westphal contributes to this podcast, so I am horribly biased in this regard. But this shows the way that a regional paper can engage with the local audience in ways that don’t always have to be specifically local. Westphal, Chris Soprych and Will Pfeifer break down episodes of Breaking Bad and Community for those of us whose options for conversation at the water cooler might be lacking. But I really enjoy the Monday podcast called What We Watched with Soprych and Pfeifer. Each episode starts with the box office breakdown and DVD release schedule, then diverges into corners of the movie landscape both appreciable and odd. They wade through the pop culture mire, and while it isn’t always worth their effort, the conversation is always worth your time.
Joe Posnanski’s Poscast - 2011 was a tumultuous one for Posnanski, who took leave from his usual assortment of prolific blog posts and columns to focus on a Joe Paterno book, back when that idea seemed innocuous. It’s hard to say what the Jerry Sandusky case has done to his project, and Posnanski wisely stayed away from the public avenues of his Twitter feed and Sports Illustrated blog when initial steps into the spotlight showed that the post-revelation tide threatened to tear everyone involved asunder. Before going silent, though, he started an interview podcast. As previous examples can attest, I much prefer the “usual gang” setup over the varying nature inherent in interview podcasts. But I particularly enjoyed any time Posnanski talked with writer/producer Michael Schur. They geeked out over baseball story lines throughout the year, and capped each episode with a conceptual fantasy draft (“Five Athletes You’d Invite Over For Dinner”). Both Schur and Posnanski clearly enjoyed themselves, and – selfishly – I hope they come back soon.