Podcasts: The iPinion
Better thinking through podcasts
Last Updated Oct. 19, 2007
By Dave Conabree
Most of us of are busy people — we run from one event to another, multi-tasking madly, and this frenetic pace comes with benefits and costs. However, the toll these demands take on our ability to form well-reasoned opinions is one that's considerably under-appreciated. This can have consequences, not the least of which is the susceptibility to being blindly led by those who agree with our "gut" feeling or are merely skilled at conveying their message.
The vast amount of information that hits us every day gives us a wide scope of knowledge, but oh-so-frequently, the sheer volume of the input tends to make our knowledge of any one subject painfully limited. Popular media isn't a big help. Knowing the blow-by-blow details of Britney Spears' personal life is perhaps entertaining, but it isn't making anyone a better voter, citizen, community member or consumer.
That lack of depth makes it difficult for us to effectively assess issues, leaving many with a sense that any two sides of an argument are of roughly equivalent weight. Sound bites are frequently the way the media makes information fit into a news broadcast — they are, however, very rarely an effective means by which to get a full understanding of an issue.
If you want to have a well-reasoned opinion, you'll need to go deeper than that.
Even for those who plan their lives in 15-minute increments, there are ways to make time to try to understand the many shades of grey that make up the big issues. For me, the answer came in the form of a glossy black iPod and the choice to reserve some of the space on it for the amazing array of in-depth, informative audio programming, also called podcasts, that are freely available online (In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared "podcast" the word of the year, with the accompanying definition of a podcast as "a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the internet for downloading to a personal audio player.") Feedburner, one of the more well-known podcasting services, boasts over 140,000 of them.
So who listens to podcasts? A recent ComScore study identified that 67 per cent of podcast users were male and half of all people downloading podcasts were in the 35 to 54 age group. Despite the large selection of available material, though, Edison Media reported earlier in 2007 that only 13 per cent of respondents to their survey had ever downloaded a podcast, a rise of only one per cent from the preceding year. That's a shame, because there's so much great content out there if you know where to look.
Comprehensive explorations of virtually every topic can be found in university lectures, public speeches and debates, political commentaries by newsmakers, special interest group presentations, public broadcasting documentaries, talk shows, and even audio versions of current affairs magazines. And they're free, and available with views from virtually every perspective.
The beautiful thing about podcasting is that once you subscribe to a podcast from a particular provider, new material just rolls in automatically whenever it's available. Every morning, your computer can be chock full of research and debate from around the world. Just scan through the titles and pick what you like. Or, if you are more like me, let them all download into your portable device and then just scan through the titles when you have the time to listen. I am often pleasantly surprised by fascinating material appearing in the menu list that falls well outside of my normal interests.
To help get you started, I've included a short list of personal favourites so you don't have to find the proverbial knowledge-bearing needle in the seemingly limitless podcast haystack. (See sidebar.) Just copy the links into your podcasting application and away you go. If you're not sure about how to do this, check this link for an excellent primer.
Finding the time
Where do you get the time to listen to all this material? Thanks to tiny and affordable digital audio players, you can listen just about anywhere — and most of us have a lot more time than we realize.
On your commute, waiting in lines, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, working out, painting the fence, installing hardwood floors or walking the dog are all times when we find ourselves less than mentally engaged in the task at hand. They are, however, the perfect times to plug in your player and go beyond the surface of an issue.
You will be amazed at the quality and variety of the material out there and at just how fast eight hours of home landscaping can pass by when you mind is readily occupied.
History is filled with bad decisions enabled by an uninterested and poorly informed public. You need not be one of them.
- TVO: The Agenda with Steve Paikin
- TVO: Big Ideas
- Canadian Voices
- APM: Word for Word
- TED Talks
- The Aspen Institute Podcasts
- CBC: Best of Ideas
- CBC: Best of the Current
- BBC Documentary Archive
- PRI: To the Best of Our Knowledge
- You can also browse podcast selections available on university websites. For no cost all, you can enjoy the same calibre of expertise and speaking skills that draw people to the top schools. If you use iTunes as your podcasting software, the "iTunes U" package of programs has a very extensive selection of these. Alternatively, you can find a an exhaustive list here.
Steve Paikin is arguably one of the best interviewers and moderators in the business. He comes to each show well prepared and uses his knowledge to make sure that his interviews and panels don't degenerate into a one-sided soapbox for a particular viewpoint. Even better, he manages to do it without the cheap shots and innuendo so common in today's media. A good example of the kind of material you'll get here would be the coverage of funding for religious schools in Ontario, a huge issue in the recent campaign for the Oct. 10, 2007, Ontario provincial election. Steve interviewed both PC Leader John Tory and Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, and then had panels of experts with various perspectives discuss the issue. It's an excellent way to get a real grounding in a subject and you'll find that The Agenda provides a great deal of this type of material on a wide range of social and political issues.
Big Ideas captures lectures and speeches of prominent academics on subjects ranging from public affairs to science, to literature and history. The selections share the common thread of being given by people skilled at delivering lectures and conveying complex information to a general audience. A few of my favorites were the lecture by a University of Toronto professor Jeffrey Rosenthal on probability and why most of us worry about the wrong things, Ontario's information and privacy commissioner on privacy in the internet age, and Steve Levitt discussing his book, Freakonomics.
Kootenay Cooperative Radio in Nelson, B.C., puts together this excellent speaker series featuring prominent Canadians. You can hear John Ralston Saul speaking about democracy, citizenship and sovereignty, David Suzuki on biotechnology, retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire on child soldiers in Africa, Maude Barlow on the pitfalls of Canada-U.S. integration or Buzz Hargrove on Canadian unions.
This is an American Public Media podcast that provides audio recordings of public talks from prominent speakers. Although most of the speakers are American, you'll find much that applies here when Marvin Kalb talks about the deterioration of modern journalism, when Sam Harris provides his perspective on the conflicts of faith and science, when Jimmy Carter gives his take on the current state of the Middle East, or when Stephanie Coontz gives you the ever-changing meaning of "traditional marriage" throughout history. There is an excellent selection of material here, almost all of it delivered with great skill.
The TED conferences are a world-renowned speaker series that brings out people from around the world — experts who are at the top of a wide range of fields — to share their knowledge. These conferences cost upward of $4,000 for you and me to attend, but you can get to hear a great deal of the archived material through their video and audio podcasts. You'll get material like Al Gore on climate change, Jeff Hawkins (Handspring and Palm) on how brain science will change computing, or Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com) on web innovation. Probably my favourite so far is the talk by psychologist Dan Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) on why our brains so regularly fail to accurately predict what will make us happy. A close runner up is the talk by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice".
Similar to the TED conferences, the Aspen Institute holds an ideas festival in the United States and has prominent speakers share their thoughts and opinions on a range of issues. The current catalogue boasts talks by British billionaire Richard Branson, cyclist Lance Armstrong and retired U.S. general and secretary of state Colin Powell. One of my favourites was an expert panel discussion on the impact of China and India on North American economics.
Ideas is a show that delves deep into issues of general interest, and I have always found much there to keep me thinking. I quite enjoyed "The Zone of Absolute Exclusion," about the modern state of Chernobyl, some 20 years after the great nuclear disaster. You also get programs like the "The Cold War Declassified" and the opportunity to hear it again with the benefit of hindsight and recently released documents, and "Economics and Social Justice" on the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Not all the older shows are available, but new material comes in regularly.
The Current takes many of the issues in the news and goes a few steps further though 20-minute segments. Some recent favourites include shows on corn as a fuel source, Canada's role in Afghanistan and food safety regulations.
The BBC has an excellent repository of its documentaries covering topics from places all over the world. It is a great place to get you thinking outside of the North American frame of reference and learn a bit about how things work (and don't work) elsewhere. From this source I have learned about the psychology of consumerism, what happened to Hong Kong since the handover to China by the British, and how countries in different parts of the world are dealing with ever-widening waistlines.
This is another U.S. public radio program well worth listening to. To the Best of Our Knowledge picks a particular issue — such as pop culture, women in Islam, consciousness or manipulating national economics — and spends an hour approaching the issue from various angles through different interviews and stories.
If you'd like a quick sampling, I also recommend you give these a try. They provide a regularly updated list of material covering an almost limitless range of interests:
- UCTV: Public Affairs
- University of Bath: Public Lectures
- University of British Columbia: Public Lectures
- Main page: Internet
- Net neutrality FAQ
- Life after Google
- Facebook photos
- Online outlook
- Facebook phonies
- Internet radio
- Social networking: Moms unite online
- Social networks
- Virtual worlds: Second Life
- Personal brands: Is your online image what it should be?
- Podcasts: The iPinion
- Virtual mourning
- VoIP at work
- Web awaits its electoral watershed moment
- The era of RIA: Rich internet applications transform the web
- Building online communities isn't as simple as it sounds