Podcasts: The Slate Culture Gabfest

For a long time podcasts were a mystery to me. They were mentioned on the BBC website so were sort of mainstream, but why would you need them with Listen Again? And anyway who had time to feel even more of a fogey trying to learn the next new technology? More recently, thanks to the Guardian and the estimable US webmag Slate, it began to dawn on me what gems I was missing. You don’t even have to go and find podcasts but can arrange for them to come straight to your computer. Or even to your phone! Sometimes the modern world is so wonderful I can hardly stand it.

For all the newness of the technology though it’s also a case of plus ça change, and good podcasts can become as essential a part of one’s life as TV and radio classics. I remember watching Nationwide as a kid. Every few weeks someone would write in to say they hadn’t missed a show since 1969 and how great was that? The seventies were obviously a barren period but still, they must (I thought) have had f*** all to do if they were  tuning into Frank Bough every night.

It was a shock then to realise that I have become one of those people who never misses my favourite programme. The show concerned is Slate’s culture chat podcast, the Culture Gabfest, and I have a 100% record since the middle of 2009. Not due to some anal completism you understand and not, of course, due to having an otherwise boring life, but simply because it’s so good there’s no reason to miss it. Ever. Not unless you’re actually dead, and even then I expect Apple are currently working on a gadget for streaming audio in the afterlife. I just hope Steve Jobs is making a fuss about the quality of the celestial interface device. Maybe Hell is simply not having this pop up in your iTunes every Wednesday.

The show is in the venerable tradition of a group of journalists/critics sitting round gassing about the highlights of the week. Think Late Night Line-Up and the insight of (and indeed sight of) Joan Bakewell. Or Late Review where Tom Paulin (highbrow and in agony at the dreck he was exposed to) duked it out with the cheekily lowbrow Tony Parsons and the dazzlingly sharp Allison Pearson. How good can such a simple format be? Very, it turns out, if you have a panel of funny people who don’t see eye-to-eye, and a range of topics from the serious and esoteric to the most risible dross. Preferably all in the same episode.

The “Culturefest” (fans use only a single identifier) fullfils these criteria perfectly. The topics move freely from Derrida to Dancing with the Stars (the US version of Strictly) and the panel fizzes with disagreement. The line-up is Stephen Metcalf (cynic and guardian of the elitist flame), Dana Stevens (cerebral movie critic and sage), and Julia Turner (Slate’s deputy editor and the panel’s official young person). They have occasional guest contributors, most frequently Brit  emigré June Thomas (expert on sexual identity politics and trash TV). That, along with Jesse Baker in the production booth, is more or less it.

Within this modest frame though what fun they, and we, have. Brits get very used to the restraint promoted by Auntie Beeb. The benefit of a pure podcast outside of this straitjacket is that there is more room to play. Dana swings effortlessly between opera and Oprah, saying exactly what you would have said yourself if only you had thought to say it; and Julia, possessed of eloquence and a Lauren Bacall husk, can get you enthused about anything from Beyoncé’s pregnancy to songs that will make you strut (actually strut) to work. There’s always excitement wondering what will happen when Steve is pulled from his ivory tower contemplations of Hegel and Nozick to watch Keeping up with the Kardashians. At points his apoplexy is so great you fear he will need to be taken to a quiet room. It can’t be good for him but, like a prizefight, real danger simply adds to the thrill.

All of which is a long way of saying thatI can’t recommend the Culturefest enough. Put it on your iTunes subscriptions or just go to their webpage and listen to one. Really, any one. They vary in quality but only between great and fantastic. And if the show itself isn’t enough they also have a Facebook page where they’ll pop up and talk to you. Wednesdays will soon be your favourite day of the week, as it is mine.

Posted by Dr Crane


Filed under Podcasts

5 responses to “Podcasts: The Slate Culture Gabfest

  1. Qwerty

    Yes! It’s completely true. It’s the best listen of the week. I especially love the not infrequent times that they all start laughing uncontrollably. And the way that nearly all the podcasts start with the warning, ‘This podcast contains explicit language.’ The one time there wasn’t that warning Stephen felt the need to apologise for there being no swearing. Marvellous.

  2. Bert

    I am a long fan of this podcast and its older sibling, the political gabfest. Although podcasts are by their nature, topical to the week of their production, there is also an ongoing relationship that develops among the panel and between them and the listener. I don’t have a perfect attendance record with any of my 10 or so subscribed podcasts, but I can certainly understand how one could go years without missing one. Others to recommend: the Slate Spoiler, the Slate political gabfest, Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome, and Kermode and Mayo (a podcast for those of us across the water).

    • Dr Crane

      I love Slate Spoiler Specials! Only problem in the UK is that the films usually come out a bit later. Their one on the film “Anonymous” was a little tour de force (unlike the film itself by all accounts).

      Hopefully we’ll do a few more podcast reviews shortly. As I said, there are some gems out there.

  3. Amanda Holloway

    I’m a complete newcomer compared to you, but within three months I’ve been hooked by the programme and presenters who feel like they ‘d be my (very clever) friends if they didn’t live 2000 odd miles away. Is there a british fanclub? Will we start one??? My tube journeys have never been such fun.

  4. Dr Crane

    Couldn’t agree more Amanda. My Wednesday morning drive to work is now a complete highlight (only tempered by having to do some actual work when I arrive). One of the comments relating to this review on their Facebook page was that they should come and do one of their live shows in London. In my fantasy it would at somewhere like the Cadogan Hall by Sloane Square and true fans like ourselves would head off to dinner with them afterwards.