Listening to the podcast “Serial”: comprehensive research, or boring and gossipy?

Today, I’ve been listening to the podcast Serial, that now-famous online audio series that’s garnered record numbers of listeners. It has been both praised and reviled in the press.

In recent years, I think that podcasts have taken a back seat to other online media, particularly social media and especially online video. Some reviewers have claimed that Serial has raised the profile of podcasts, attracting loads of new listeners to what was considered an old medium. You know, like from ten years ago, when people still thought iPods were revolutionary.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Serial, but I’ve also found it to be a bit less than formal. It feels unstructured, running along like a continuous conversation that we’re overhearing or listening to from the sidelines. Maybe it’s too conversational in format?

It feels like an editorial piece where the author’s points of view, questions or self-doubts become a major aspect in the story, competing with whatever objectiveness there may be in the story. Despite my concerns,  find myself still listening to it.

The thing is, I’ve loved listening to old-time radio programmes, especially comedies, and detective dramas. The dramas especially tend to put you in the head of the main character, where their thoughts and speech as rendered as equally important. It was first-person, in the “Raymond Chandler” sense.

After listening to the first few episodes of Serial, I found it difficult to stay engaged with the story. There were so many players, people who were involved, or who knew people who were involved, or who might have seen something. I found myself feeling a bit bored at times, drifting off mentally. I began playing episodes while I did other things, picking up the important points, and hoping the rest would just sink in. Maybe all my years of surfing the web for quick answers have destroyed my ability to absorb and enjoy long-form narrative. I’m ready to accept that possibility.

It’s not presented in a sensationalized style at all, but from episode to episode, it’s compelling enough to keep me listening, and like the chapters in a good detective novel, ending with a dangling question – a challenge to the audience – which sets up new mysteries and proposes new possible answers.

I think that many people like to play detective, to listen in on lurid details, gossip-style, and to speculate on all the pieces of a vast puzzle. This format is not unlike the lurid “true crime” detective magazines that you can still see on some magazine racks, and all over the web.

Serial also has a few other marketing and publishing characteristics that have greatly accelerated its popularity: it’s freely available at serialpodcast.org, and being online, it’s easily republished via social media.

Anyway, check it out for yourself, and listen to the first of the 12 episodes:


Related Links:

 

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William S. Burroughs: The terrible truth-telling Orifice.

I bought Naked Lunch back in 1997, I think. I never could get into it past the Introduction sections. I really liked William S. Burroughs’ opinions on addiction and the junkie mindset. His opinions sounded so authoritative, with a mixture of almost clinical objectivity (which drugs he’d become addicted to, how much and how often he’d tried to cure himself) and an acid-tongued cyncical editorializing on the Doctors and approaches that had failed him. Burroughs’ voice is cold and smart and sharp, but soaked in a bitter backwash of pain and regret. But, as much as I liked his observations in the intro and the epilogue of Naked Lunch, I’ll be damned if I could get into the guts of the book in any meaningful way. I wasn’t ready for it, I guess.

The closest I ever got to seeing the whole Naked Lunch novel rendered was by watching Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch movie, which was a collage of Burroughs’ stories and experiences, framed in a narrative featuring cockroaches, centipedes and throbbing anthropomorphized typewriters with talking assholes for mouths. I think the first talking asshole typewriter reveal was the biggest moment in that movie for me. It still makes me laugh.

Cronenberg captured or interpreted a lot of Burroughs’ imagery, and did his work as much service as possible, I think, while making somewhat necessary concessions to his own film tropes. I’m still crawling through Naked Lumch the novel, and digesting it slowly, while regurgitating scenes from Naked Lunch the Movie.

So, flash forward another 16 years, and I found myself reading Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time (and generally liking it), and getting a sideways introduction to Burroughs via Kerouac’s “Old Bull Lee” persona. Now I’ve restarted reading Naked Lunch, and it seems I’m ready for it now. Burroughs writes in this crazy, satirical voice with these cut-up chunks of narrative that mostly use a terse, clipped style, resembling a secret agent’s espoionage report, or a detective’s telegram. I found myself picturing him in his fedora and long overcoat, banging out reports in his almost anonymous, government worker voice, with hints of vernacular from the streets of New York or Tangier. It began to feel like watching a documentary film about a Raymond Chandler detective who was addicted to morphine, and whose cases were just falling apart in his face.

So, the writings of Burroughs are very interesting to me because of his challenging style. But Burroughs the man seemed a dependent, fucking mess. The portrait drawn of him in the book “Call Me Burroughs” demonstrates his ample wit and dry humour, but also his itinerant life, co-dependence in relationships, his many (many) addictions, and all the complicated pain that he endured as a gay (or bi?) man. I really don’t know what to make of his life from what I’ve read so far, except that he was probably fortunate to have survived it into his eighties. Burroughs took a beating, but a good deal of his misfortune arose (I think) from his own bad judgement and misadventure.

I started to envision something of a lineage growing down from the post-WWII Beats, down through later poets like Bob Dylan, and especially Jim Morrison. Old Beats like Ginsberg and Lucien Carr quoted Rimbaud’s idea of pursuing a “sustained derangement of the senses” as a path to finding the truth, or perhaps, as a way of escaping a rigid, distasteful reality. I could never do that, personally. I have often wanted to escape reality, but not through drugs or alcohol – just through my imagination or mental escapes into fantasy.

In my teens I loved Jim Morrison, and now after reading about the Beats a bit more, and relistening to “American Prayer” by the Doors, I truly think that no child of the Beats pursued a sustained derangement of their senses like Jim Morrison did. “Break on Through to the Other Side” was Morrison, singing about that same break with conventional values and ways of thinking that drove Burroughs, Kerouac and the Beats.

William Burroughs used a cut-up, collage technique in Naked Lunch. That is very intriguing to me. I’ve played with collage with images from magazines, comics and photos, inspired by Gary Lee-Nova, my art school multimedia instructor (himself a life-long fan and scholar of Burroughs). But I’ve never done it with words. Sometime, I want to look at different ways to derange my thoughts after I put them down on paper or record them.

These days, with composition and acquisition being commoditized into microscopic electronics, there might even be an app for that.

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Creating a Character Profile for Mike Coffey: #StoryMOOC Week 3

To finish Week 3 of the MOOC, “The Future of Storytelling”, my creative task is to publish a detailed profile of an original character. I must also provide a bit of “evidence” – some artifacts – of my character’s online presence.

This is an exercise in Transmedia – creating fiction across multiple media simultaneously – so that a character has resonance and persistence in social media and elsewhere, outside of his/her fictional universe. This, I believe, gives the character some extra depth, and can also assist online marketing efforts as well.

I have chosen to profile “Mike Coffey”, a significant character from my first novel, “Owe Nothing”.

Here’s Mike Coffey’s Character Profile:

StoryMOOC_Chap3_Character_Profile (PDF)

Here is Mike Coffey’s blog, where he describes some of the events in his life:

Mike Coffey’s Blog

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Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.

My hopes for an amazing, uplifting Superman movie have been sucker-punched by “Man of Steel”.

It’s really disappointing to say that too, because I’ve considered myself a Superman fan ever since the 1978 Christopher Reeves movie. I think I was hoping for a kind of mythical, spiritual reboot from this new movie franchise. (Is that too emo of me?)

[Spoiler alert: I give up a few key points from the movie’s plot. STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to be disappointed.]

Continue reading “Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.”

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Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

Father’s Day has come again, and I’ve been thinking of you. I have a little photo of you on my dresser, from when I was a little guy, when you were working on the Hollic’s farm that summer. I think it’s my favourite photo of you because you look suntanned and happy.

Anyway, I was chatting with Kim the other night, and she was very excited about a cancer treatment that was based on research done at TRIUMF at UBC. I know you were proud to have worked there, and we’re still proud of it today. It’s very cool to know that you were part of the team of RF technicians and engineers who helped to maintain equipment for the Cyclotron. In Grade 5, my teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, asked me if my Dad worked at the atom smasher at UBC. I didn’t really know what she was referring to until you explained how the particles get whipped up to near the speed of light, and then get smashed against gold targets so that the various particles break off and can be studied. Atom Smasher makes me picture a big hammer and anvil arrangement, which is kind of funny and old. Even back in Grade 5 I think I understood that if was really high-energy beams going through special pipes. You explained it as best you could. I’m sure I asked way too many questions. 🙂

You always seemed to have an interest in physics, and things electro-mechanical. Since we last spoke, I’ve read a *lot* of physics by many of the big thinkers. I’ve read Einsein’s book on Relativity a couple of times. I think it was rewritten for a general audience, but some of the calculus near the end was very cryptic and hard to follow (the Lorenz Transformation, and his final arrival at the famous equation, e=mc^2).

Stephen Hawking is also an incredible teacher of cosmology and large-scale physics. A lot of these fellows seem to get very philosophical and even a bit religious in some of their wider views. I think that means that the science they’re exploring is hitting on the same big questions that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with over the centuries. I think that in the future, science, philosophy and religion will continue to merge.

You and I never really talked about big ideas like that, but I have a sense that you thought about some things like that on your own, in private.

I really wish you and I had talked more.

Anyway, happy fathers day, Dad. I love you.

John.

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Amazon Studios & Bootstrapping Original Content

What does it mean when the major online retailer of books and movies is getting into the content production business? It’s more industry convergence that proves that “content is king”, even when it’s crowdsourced…

I think that Amazon is doing a kind of Zeroes2Heroes approach to getting original content, but on a bigger, Amazon scale: promises of “options”, coupled with free (but strings attached, I think) tools like their Storyteller storyboarding app and online network.

 

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Getting closer to writing again…

Other than the occasional blog post, I haven’t written anything of consequence, personally, in close to a year. So goes my on-again-off-again relationship with creative writing.

The stopper (or slower-downer) for me this time has been a preoccupation with  money (re: earning more) and enduring a series of extensive repairs and renovations to our condo.

Our building was built in 1995, and that, coupled with the fact that our suite is on the ground floor, makes us prime targets for receiving water from the world outside (a cracked cement planter adjacent to our bedroom), and from the upper floors (a broken pipe a few stories above).

These leak damage repairs began in November, and were finally completed in February, so we endured a few uncomfortable months living in our guest bedroom with all our master bedroom and en-suite bathroom contents piled up over our ears throughout the rest of our place.

My inner grateful voice told me many times “at least you weren’t unemployed this time”. Yes, dear inner grateful voice, that is true and I am indeed grateful. When things break and you don’t know how long it will take to fix them, it’s a good time to count your blessings.

Reading fiction is one of the best forms of escape from stress or grief that I know. I have been trying to finish Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserables”, and it’s reminded me of the meaning of true suffering and sacrifice. How can one compare a leaky condo to being homeless, ostracized, or physically and emotionally beaten down? I had a hard time beginning this novel, and at first found Hugo’s writing style rather hard to take, since his voice tended to switch from narrative, to period history, to philosophy, or to personal polemic. It requires a great deal of patience and perseverance,  but the reward is a deeper comprehension of his characters and the world in which they live.

As inspiring and beautiful as “Les Mis” is, it’s a monumental novel for a part-time reader like me. After months, I’m not even halfway through the epic.

The only writing I’ve been doing in recent months is business communications, and editing/reformatting training manuals for a much-appreciated contract. My inner creative mind has been eclipsed by my inner pragmatist. Of course, this delights my inner grateful voice no end, since in addition to blessings, it can also count a few new dollars among its reasons to keep on smiling.

I’v finally started to hear the voices of my own characters calling to me as well. I haven’t worked in the world of Jack Owen for a long, long time, but it’s starting to feel like writing time again. I’ve neglected Jack’s world for too long.

God, it’s getting crowded in there with all those bloody voices. But, they’re telling me good things. I just have to keep listening.

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Stream of conscious delight

My headphones are in. Robert Plant wails and Jimmy Page brings layer after layer of metal blues and funk. My heart has been uninspired to do anything creative for weeks. Fuck my own voice, I seem to have been murmuring to myself. Just work and get paid. Get it done, and climb out of that financial divot that you’ve chipped yourself into, and then get out of the weeds and play your ass back onto the green. Great. A golf metaphor – how creative.

Listening to songs that I love always makes me fantasize that I’m singing and playing guitar and having the time of my life with my friends. I don’t know if I have the patience to learn guitar, but I would like to sing. That’s an instrument I would love to cultivate. I like my voice.

When I was a little boy, I sang like a little bird. A beautiful boy soprano withe dirty blonde hair. Back then, singing in a choir was more my family’s idea than mine. I rebelled against it in my own way, yet also loved the spotlight and feeling of freedom. Singing well was work, but it was also about virtue. Notes had to be clear and pure. It might be the closest thing to flying or teleportation that I can imagine. On a grey, misty day, I’d love to see the sun shine. Maybe tomorrow.

Now Beck is saying “All right! Turn it up now!”
Yeah, I should totally turn it up now.

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How and what will I try to say today?

With just a little time, there’s a chance to flex my mind…
How and what will I try to say today?

Will it be words, peeping out from pigeonholes?
Scraps of memories in my ear…

Will it be pencil scribbles or little points of light?
In a way that you can see but not quite hear…

I guess it’s a wealth of riches – raw materials with nowhere to go.
I’ll give it up for now, and try some other day.

Maybe a little poem – painting pictures with words?
If only I could think of something clever to say.

 

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Sandwiches by the Lake

I just had this image of my Mum and Dad, not as they were in most of my memories, but from a time years before me and my sister were born, a time when they were younger, healthier and happier – maybe a time when they were truly in sync and in love as a couple.

In my mind, I expand it out into a littLe fantasy, where they’d rent a cabin at a rustic little vacation spot, adjoining a campground, near a lake.

Dad’s hair would still be mostly black with just a touch of grey near the temples. He’d wear a white knit pullover with a vee neck and short sleeves, and he’d be trim and in good shape, the way he was when they first got married in 1961.

Mum would have curly dark brown hair that was worn up off her neck. She’d wear a knee-length dress that had the colour and pattern to remind you of autumn leaves.

They would be on a vacation that they’d been looking forward to for months, and both of them would be smiling the whole time.

At lunchtime, Mum would cut a fresh loaf of white bread into thick slices and butter them, while Dad sliced up baloney or corned beef. They’d bring their sandwiches outside to their cabin’s tiny little front porch, and sit on a bench made from a split log, while munching away, talking and sipping on sodas. They’d watch the campers in their tents, and listen to kids splashing in the lake about fifty yards away. Maybe there’d be a nice sunset, and later, a clear and starry night sky.

I only have some snapshots of them in these clothes, driving to some location together on some bright sunny day. Why not complete the story, and wish this for them? At earlier times in their lives, they surely must have had it. They really did love each other once.

This is the kind of afternoon that I enjoy with my wife, at home or away, in our hearts, whenever we want. Just some food, some peace, and some good loving company.

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