Voices from the machine

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a podcast fan.  Being an every-day podcast listener is a big part of what led me to become an every-day podcaster.  I listen to lots of stuff, I find the gaps that no one seems to be covering in either subject matter or format, and off I go, so excited about starting on a new show that I momentarily forget that it’s been nearly 30 years since I worked in radio, and somewhere in the vicinity of 15 years since my last TV voice-over.  Still…I know how to Put Shows Together, either by myself or for someone else, so I get behind my battered microphone and keep trying.

Full disclosure: I must be doing something right, because I now edit Mission Log: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast, as well as handling graphics and technical production of its live-streaming offshoot Mission Log Live, for part of my living. That’s one of the only things that meant I actually had an income when the outbreak hit the U.S. and the stay-at-home orders (and, in my state, the far more spineless, less effective stay-at-home gentle suggestions) began. Except that Mission Log Live then went on hiatus…taking about half of my income with it…which put me into Barely Getting By mode for a while. That also meant that I had, whether I wanted it or not, more time on my hands to listen to podcasts. I thought I’d take a moment to give a shout-out to the shows that have been helping me sustain…well, I’m not going to call it sanity, let’s just call it “as close to an even psychological keel as I’ve been able to manage in 2020”.

In a recent edition of my friend Rob O’Hara’s “You Don’t Know Flack” podcast, at about four minutes and ten seconds in, Rob drops this insight: “One of the things that has helped me greatly over the past few months has been listening to podcasts…you know, the voices of the people I know. There are some I listen to that are done by celebrities or ‘big podcasters’, it’s always fun to listen to those, but there are podcasts that are done by people that I know and that I’ve met in real life, and it’s just good to hear their voice and hear them talking, and there’s something soothing about it.”

He’s right on the money there.  One of the tipping points in my life that saw me going from “I listen to some podcasts” to “I listen to a lot of podcasts” was the divorce.  I suddenly needed a lot of podcasts, and not necessarily the big-name ones, but I kind of wanted to hear my friends talking, like they were just sitting behind me on the couch while I cleaned house.  It was around that time that I suddenly caught up on a lot of Rob’s stuff, a lot of the stuff being done over at Retroist by my friend Vic Sage, Ferg’s Atari 2600 Game-By-Game podcast, even if the topic at hand wasn’t really “me”.  Rob and Vic both have a love of cult classic horror movies that isn’t really my thing, but I’ll gladly listen to them talk about it.  And yeah, I listened to a lot of Mission Log at around that time too, which is why I consider my current role as the gatekeeper of its sound/editing quality to be something just this side of a sacred trust: there may be someone else out there who needs to hear their friends-who-they’ve-never-met talking about Star Trek episodes, and knowing that Mission Log helped me keep my sanity and not descend any further into depression at the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016, I owe it to those listeners in that same position to pay it forward and keep the show going.  I’m grateful, and just stupidly lucky, to be able to do that.

And 2020 is one of those years where it’s been really important to hear your friends’ voices again.  So much time is expended on gnashing teeth and clutching pearls about podcasting replacing radio, that no one realizes what’s really happened: podcasting has replaced the phone call for a lot of people.  People are in different time zones, or work different hours, of have different level of work and family obligations, so even the phone call has become a rarity.

Here, then, is what I’ve been listening to to hear from my friends, both old friends and new alike.  I’m going to exempt my own shows from this list – who really spends a lot of time listening to their own stuff after it’s done? – as well as Mission Log and Mission Log Live, though obviously I recommend those to you (if you’re a fellow Star Trek fan).  But for me to recommend Shows I Work On would be kind of inside baseball here.  The shows below are my pals, my buddies, and a few people who wouldn’t know me from Adam if you asked them.  These are the voices that have been keeping me sane.

Atari 2600 Game By Game

Atari 2600 Game By Game Podcast: Ferg dives deep into one game per episode from this storied video game system – so storied that it sometimes takes some real doing to come up with anything surprising or any piece of trivia or background information that isn’t already known, and yet Ferg does precisely that show after show.  There are a lot of listener letters and comments, little known (or, at least, forgotten-to-time) strategy tips, and recently, even an interview with a classic Atari game designer, something that I hope he has a chance to continue, because it’s a really good interview.  Whether you’ve played Atari today, or haven’t played it in several years, this is always a fun, informative listen.

Diary Of An Arcade Employee Podcast: So a bit of disclosure is in order – I occasionally appear on this podcast talking about various topics, frequently home console versions of the arcade games discussed in each episode.  But this podcast was here long before I was participating, and it could easily survive without me, because this show is all about host Vic Sage’s fascination with classic video games and the stories behind them.

Vic himself often offers a disclaimer at the end of each show that “he’s just a fan of classic video games”, but that’s really the mission statement of Diary, not something that needs to be in a disclaimer: he genuinely loves this stuff, so we’re hearing what he likes about it, without him taking one long verbal dump all over the topic at hand – a mistake a lot of podcasts make.  The cheerful, upbeat nature of this show is kind of infectious, and that positivity is a huge part of its appeal.  The Diary also has an active Facebook page, with frequent (and pretty well-attended) Facebook watch parties to see stuff also related to that topic area, so there’s a whole package that comes with this podcast, including a community that is, more often than not, as welcoming as the show that started it all.  It’s amazing how one little pebble of positivity sends out ripples.

Down And Safe

Down And Safe:  This one breaks my heart a little bit – I’ve revisited the entire run of Down And Safe, despite the fact that the podcast ceased to exist three years ago (according to my Plex server’s built-in podcatcher).  The four hosts – SF/F novelists L.M. Myles, Michael Damien Thomas, Scott Lynch, and Amal El-Mohtar watch Blake’s 7 one episode at a time, rave about how forward-looking and genre-changing Blake’s 7 was, and…oh yeah…Amal’s never seen the show before.  That’s the coolest thing about the show, and it’s really the reason it couldn’t suddenly be revived with different hosts.  Another show could follow an identical format with new hosts, but I would love to have heard Amal (edit: who is now a Hugo winner!) reach the end of the show.  Or even just the game-changing third season.

The other hosts routinely ask her what she’s expecting to happen in upcoming episodes based on the latest episode’s plot developments, because Blake’s 7 was the first show to make a serious effort to remember what happened from one episode to the next, and to build on that.  And for those of us who have already watched Blake’s 7, the three remaining hosts then have a discussion without Amal in the room, pointing out why her expectations are now within a week of being shattered into unrecognizable pieces.  The podcast started in 2015, and quickly became one of my favorite TV podcasts – the chemistry and banter between the four hosts is amazing, it’s foul-mouthed, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny, with running jokes like sassy Decimas, the Space Cooler, and spotting-the-Doctor-Who-guest-star.  But it’s the fact that the hosts are themselves science fiction and fantasy authors, and therefore understand a few things about plotting and pacing and universe-building, that lends their colorful opinions a lot of authority.  They bring in literary references from outside the obvious genre comparisons, so Les Mis and Hamilton and Jane Austen come into play.  All four of them have been really busy with their writing day-jobs (or more high-profile podcasts in some cases), which is good for them and I wish them nothing but the best, but I miss this podcast terribly, and what there is of it is worth a fresh listen.  (The last word from any of the hosts, posted in their comment section in 2018, was that Down And Safe is “on indefinite hiatus”.

In A Few Minutes: Full disclosure here – I used to work with Ken Ray in my behind-the-scenes role on Mission Log Live, but – true story – I’ve barely heard a word out of the guy since he left Mission Log and the live show, but so help me, I kind of miss his take on… (waves arms around vaguely) …everything.  One of the things he launched once he was no longer talking Star Trek week after week was In Just A Few Minutes, a daily podcast with a simple idea – Ken and a guest talk for just a few minutes each day, a different topic every day (with callbacks to shows from earlier in the week).

In A Few Minutes

While topics are often related in some way to Apple’s technological ecosystem, it strays into other stuff – and was in just the right (?) place at the right (?) time to find some really interesting “other stuff” to discuss when the outbreak began.   Even if I’m not going out of my way to dive into anything Apple-related, the opinion/discussion based format makes this much more interesting to me (a guy whose last Apple purchase was a second-hand Apple //c) than Ken’s other, more news-oriented show, MacOS Ken.  And even if it does get overly Apple-related on a given day…it’s usually a topic discussed from the standpoint of societal implications of what’s being discussed.  How does some new development in the App Store affect privacy?  Is some new app hopelessly ableist?  It’s genuinely interesting stuff…and even if it’s not something that interests me that much, it’s at least lively, and it wraps up just a few minutes later.

I See Robots

The ISeeRobots Stuck At Home Show: I was already a fan of The Toys R Us Report and other past shows from ISeeRobots Radio, but when he found himself shut-in like the rest of us, ISR started a two-or-three-times-a-week show called the Stuck At Home Show…and man, I hope he doesn’t take it wrong, but I think this may be my favorite show that he’s done.  He has guests drop by in a digital sort of way with cooking tips, exercise tips, and other genuinely helpful stuff, while ISR himself talks about getting out of the house to play Pokemon Go, and occasionally opens a newly-arrived action figure or two and offers background info on that.  A whole cast of robotic supporting characters does everything from overcharge ISR for comics to try to get him to take The Lifestyle Survey (don’t do it, man!). 

At a time when it’d be easy to just go on and on about stuff – I mean, let’s face it, a lot of us have a lot of time to fill by listening – ISeeRobots has been cranking out a nicely-balanced, genuinely entertaining show that doesn’t overstay its welcome.  And I love the action figure opening segments.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that when I’m really bummed out about everything going on around me, that’s often the time when I’ll break somebody free of their blister bubble and put them on the shelf, ready to stand alongside their allies and do battle with their enemies (if any – sold separately).  All of my stuff – including my shelves! – is still packed up from the Cross Country Move From Hell, so I’ve gotten to live vicariously through ISeeRobots during one of the longest extended dance mixes of a bad year that I’ve ever lived through.  I don’t want the virus, or the lockdown, or the quarantine to continue…but I kind of want this show to continue, alongside the Geekfest Rants and the other ISR shows, even when we’re no longer stranded in a state of emergency.

Throwback Reviews:  This one has been out of circulation for a while (see the entry below on You Don’t Know Flack), but it’s always a fun listen with two guys of A Certain Age (spoiler: they’re both right around my age) reminiscing about movies, TV shows, and sometimes just bygone things like one-hour photomats, shopping malls, and so on.  There’s kind of a happy world-weariness to it, which is much better than it would be if it was a couple of guys screaming not just toward, but at, middle age, complaining the whole way.  Instead, Sean and Rob find the humor about it all, as well as doing some deeper digging – i.e. have these movies aged well?

Throwback Reviews

But they never lose sight of the fun – and that’s what makes this a fun listen every time.  If I was ever part of a show with more than one host, I would count myself lucky if it came out like Throwback Reviews.

Trek Profiles Podcast

Trek Profiles Podcast:  I find myself not listening to quite as many Star Trek podcasts as I used to, though I will sample some around the time a new series or season premieres (which, let’s face it, is now happening at a rate of about twice a year).  Part of it is that I now work within the ecosystem of a Star Trek podcast or two, so in a way, Star Trek has become “work” again, and I do need to spend a little bit of time away from it.  But Trek Profiles is different because it focuses on the fans, on the experiences that brought them into Star Trek fandom, and on the experiences they’ve had in that fandom.  And yes, episodes are discussed/ranked/reviewed, as in nearly every other Trek podcast out there.

But this show is primarily about the guest – it’s really about the fandom and not the show itself, and the episodes discussed are viewed through the lens of why the guest thinks they’re particularly important on a personal level.  The guests frequently tend to be from the world of Trek podcasting, so there’s a lot of ground yet to be covered, and there’s plenty of material left to mine, and plenty of fans left to meet.  Just about any fandom could benefit from a podcast taking this approach; in this age of fractious, factionalized fandoms, it’s too easy to “other” people and assume they’re Not True Fans (see also the No True Scotsman fallacy) because of a difference in opinions over something frivolous.  This podcast’s even-handed approach is one thing that can be done to mend some of those fences.

You Don’t Know Flack:  Another podcast by Rob “Flack” O’Hara of Throwback Reviews fame (or does Throwback Reviews feature Rob “Flack” O’Hara of You Don’t Know Flack fame?), You Don’t Know Flack has been around for years, and is kind of the granddaddy of the “tech geek with fond memories of things now considered retro” genre.  (Believe me, it is a genre.  My own Don’t Give This Tape To Earl is, and I’m not afraid to admit this, my attempt to do my own version of You Don’t Know Flack.)

You Don't Know Flack

Rob’s good humor, vast depth of retro reference points, and the kind of geek cred that comes from having spent a lot of time sitting behind computers from an early age, is what makes this show.  (In person, it also makes him a good friend of mine.)  But there are also anecdotes about skateboarding, breakdancing, and ninjas (but – to the best of my knowledge – no skateboarding breakdancing ninjas….yet), so it’s not just about sitting at a computer.  Rob’s recent move took him out of the podcasting world for a while, but he’s suddenly back in business, and his return is very welcome.  (I also recommend Rob’s Commodore-64-centric Sprite Castle gaming podcast as well as Multiple Sadness, which humorously dissects movies, particularly horror movies that are, perhaps, not on the A-list, or necessarily on the list of the next 20 letters of the alphabet either.)  There’s also a very good chance that at least one show you enjoy, even if it’s not this one, was inspired by Flack’s “About Podcasting” episode, which was kind of the shot-heard-round-the-world that got a lot of podcasters started.

Through the magic of the interwebs, providing nobody’s RSS feeds move, this post will always show the most recent edition of each show, no matter when it’s visited.

These have been the shows helping me hang on to just a few shreds of my sanity over the past few months.  They might help you do the same too.  There are others not mentioned because they’re “pro” podcasts – Science Friday, Planetary Radio, The Trek Files, The Writers’ Panel – and maybe I’ll cover those in a separate post another time.  But here you have, really, a cross-sampling of my friends (and, sure, a few folks who don’t know me at all whose work I admire) who have helped talk me through some really bad times – even if they’re talking TV shows or video games – and continue to do so in this huge-hailstone-to-the-head of a year.

As a podcaster myself, I can only hope that maybe anything that I’m involved in producing perhaps serves as that same kind of warm audio blanket for someone else.  That, I’ve found, is really the win condition of podcasting – it’s not getting sponsors or making money or gaining fame from it.  The win condition of podcasting is that you’re putting something out that that comforts someone and has meaning to them.

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