Monday, December 15, 2008

Podcast Review - In Our Time

I listen to a lot of podcasts instead of the radio when I drive. Why? Content, of course. Let me tell you about one of my favorite podcasts, "In Our Time" and perhaps you'll see why I prefer it to long commercial breaks and a sparce selection of today's top hits.

"In Our Time" (IOT)hould be a national treasure. I don't think it is in its native Britain, but it should be.

IOT is a weekly radio program broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Fortunately, it's also available as a podcast, which is how I receive it. The program, hosted by novelist Melvyn Bragg, examines the important events, concepts, and people that shaped Western civilization and brought us to where we are; basically, the history of ideas.

The program's format is simple enough. Bragg invites three guest experts, and through a series of questions the topic unfolds. If I could, I would require everyone I know who's intelligence I respect to sit down and listen to this program. Why? Three reasons.

1) The topics. I have learned an amazing amount about science, history, philosophy, religion, and culture just by listening to this program. Check out some of the topics covered this season alone:

Dante's Inferno - to Hell and Back
Neuroscience - does the brain rule the mind?
The Translation Movement - Aristotle in Arabic
Godels Incompleteness Theroms - the dirty little secrets of maths
Miracles - will they never cease?

2) The organization. Take the recent program on the Great Reform Act of 1832. This was a subject I knew absolutely nothing about. And yet by the end of the program, I had a working knowledge of the event, and understood why it was an important turning point in English political history, leading to the reforms of 1848, and eventually sufferage for women.

The program is very carefully organized to quickly provide background and context for the subject within the first few minutes of the program, and as the show progresses, Bragg ably serves as the listener's advocate, asking clarifying questions and rephrasing technical information in everyday language.

3) The panelists. While there are some returning guests, the field of panelists is wide-ranging. But almost all are extremely articulate, and thanks to the aforementioned organization (the questions and the outline of the program are worked out in advance), generally stay on topic. And there's usually some nice interaction between the panelists, as minor disagreements arise, or in some cases, additional clarification added by a more expert member.

Instead of listening to the radio, for forty minutes I enjoy the company of articulate people who aren't apologetic either about their education or their field of study. Guided by the incomprable Melvyn Bragg, they examine an important topic in such a way that, regardless of how little I know about the subject, I can comprehend at least the basics.

So, for example, while I had encountered the Fisher King reading Edmund Spenser, I discovered during a program about the subject, the symbolic importance of this character in Mallory, and even his possible pre-Christian origins (and his reinterpretation for Twentieth Century writers).

If I had to, I would pay to receive this podcast. But I don't -- and neither do you. It's available as a free download from the BBC. And you can subscribe to the feed, which means that each new episode can automatically download to your computer. It's made my daily commute time well spent.

- Ralph

Day 175 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Should we do something special for day 200?)


  1. Yes, IOT is a great great podcast. I have reviewed it many times on my blog.

  2. Thanks for posting! Your blog is a great resource for anyone wanting to sort through the plethora of podcasts available. I'll be adding you to my blog roll.