Monday, March 18, 2019

My Radiolab Rant

I give up.

My podcatcher shows that I've listened to 279 episodes of Radiolab. It will stay at that number. This has been a long time in the making (obviously), but at some point the delightful edutainment podcast left and was replaced by a well polished approximation of what idiots think intelligence sounds like - the Big Bang Theory of podcasts. Where once I listened to episodes eager to learn something new, now they sit, continually being pushed to the bottom of my queue. I should have stopped a while ago - it is partially anger at myself for not having done so which is fueling this particular rant.

My first annoyance - the thing I always had to grin and bear to get to the content - is the way the hosts waste my time by speaking for the guests, often intersperced with the stupidest babble imaginable. A fictitious example:

Host 1: And so we went to Philadelphia to interview Simon
Simon: Hi, I'm Simon
Host 1: He's an expert in flags.
Simon: I live in Philadelphia and I'm a vexillologist.
Host 2: What did he say? Veximotoxilist? Vexipagoloist? Fleximotologist?
Host 1: Vexillologist - he studies flags.
Host 2: Ohhh, a vexillologist!
Simon: I like studying flags.
Host 1: And we brought him in to talk about flags.
Host 2: Flags? Like the flappy things? The things you put on flagpoles?
Host 1: Yes, the things you put on flagpoles.
Host 2: Red, white, and blue? The Star Spangled Banner?
Host 1: The very same!

This is how they introduce every guest (okay, an exaggeration). Instead of just having the guest say their name and not wasting the listener's time getting into whatever it is they're trying to teach, they stretch. It'd be one thing if they were trying to fill time in a radio broadcast, but it's a podcast. I can press the back button and listen to the information again if I need to.

This is a general complaint I have about podcasts produced by radio people - they think they're working on a radio program and edit as such. Guess what? I didn't "just join you" - no one did. We all started the podcast at the beginning. There's no need for the recaps and reintroductions for listeners who just turned on the radio or changed the station. There's no need to tell me "and we're back" after no ads played because whatever ad service you use doesn't play ads to anyone outside of the NYC metro area (I assume). I have a fast-forward button - I'm going to use that on all the filler you've been trained to include to pad a small story into radio broadcast length, despite you not having to care about that anymore.

But back to Radiolab, specifically - the scripted, inane, "everyman" babble is beyond infuriating. I could understand an honest question. I could understand throwing in a clarifying question. I can't understand why they turn the dial all the way to "profoundly ignorant of basic information" when the show, in theory, is supposed to be educational.

All this, though, I could deal with if I thought I was going to learn something. That the hosts had something to teach me. An interesting story to share. But listening to the episode "Asking for another friend" and its celebration of ignorance I realize I can learn no more from this podcast and must delete it from my feed.

Before I do that, though, let me go through this episode bit-by-bit and really kick this bitch session into high gear.

Classic Opening. Good, on brand, "brought to you by WNYC" reminds me that my local station, WHYY, spends most of its budget on pampering its CEO instead of creating good content, but that's not Radiolab's fault.

We're treated to a reasonable introduction of Rupert with only a few cuts to the host. This lasts less than a minute before we get into cutting back and forth every other word.

Another minute in and the host is finally letting the guest speak complete sentences. That said, my ire is rising at the content of the piece. It's a man - a powerful, 71 year old man - who was completely ignorant of anything scientific (he's just learned about the periodic table). This is meant to make the listener go "it's never too late to learn" or "look how marvelous it is to become educated" or "Science! Cis-boom-bah! Rah! Rah! Rah!" but what it's making me think is "what a different world the rich live in". This guy controlled a country's finances, if I'm understanding things right. It's a gentle reminder that it doesn't matter how smart you are, it matters who your parents were. Society is doomed.

The show now starts in general.

After SEVEN repeats of the hosts names (Molly Molly Molly, Arianne Arianne Arianne Arianne Arianne), we get to the next segment, with the guest. Naturally, the guest is cut so they don't say more than three words in a row. Then they play a clip from Conan.

The host now describes what the guest is going to say, then the guest says it, which is a partial description of the Conan clip. I guess with my description we're at three levels of meta?

The question of the segment actually appears: if a kid is so cute we say "I could eat you up" do we actually want to eat the kid?

It turns out that feeling certain strong emotions (e.g. being overwhelmed by cuteness) can make a person want to act, which we verbalize in a societally approved way. "I could eat you up" or "I wanna punch your cute face" just mean that one is feeling an impulse to act. Everyone is surprised.

This is likened to classical elements and the theory of bodily humours, which one person says "I'll probably get this wrong" then says the wrong thing anyway. Educational podcast. Yay learning! Rah! Rah! Rah!

A new segment begins, without the usual introduction repeats, though also without the key bit of information that Samson is the dog's name.

The guest is allowed to talk - maybe because she's the host of her own show? Her goal is to adopt a dog and she settles on one specific dog.

In a line skirting so close to introspection, the guest actually says "maybe this is the patronizing, human, adopt-a-dog thing". To skip ahead a bit, this person is so self-centered and self-important that she had to have this dog instead of letting it go to a home where it might be more comfortable or a better fit. I know, I know, how would she ever find a different stray dog to adopt?

It turns out the dog's "racist".

They get into the "fun" conversation about race. Spoiler: if a dog isn't trained and socialized properly, it may react poorly to some things in the world. I know a dog that doesn't like people wearing hats. This seems like a difficult concept for everyone to grasp and it will take several minutes and a few of the dumbest questions I've ever heard to figure out that dogs don't have a racial purity test and, instead, bark at shit they've not been trained to accept.

Before we get to that revelation, we have the another guest: Alexandra Horowitz, a dog expert. I've actually met her. She doesn't have her own podcast, so she gets edited over.

It turns out that dogs notice differences. Astounding. Jad rephrases this as a question, after it's been stated as a fact. Mere moments later, he raises this fantastic question, twenty four minutes in:

"But they can't see differences in skin color, right? Aren't dogs colorblind?"

I knew I was writing this blogpost the second that spilled from his mouth. Let's break this down. After the whole segment of "dogs notice differences" and "my dog barks at black people" it might be trivial to accept that, among the differences they notice, skin color might be included. Not to Jad. If this was an unscripted question, I have nothing more to learn from these people. If this was a scripted question, I am not their target audience, as I can retain information for fifteen seconds or more. The kicker - THE KICKER - is the colorblind addition. What the fuck does Jad think being colorblind means? Assuming the worst - that he thinks it means people see in "black and white" (grayscale) - is he, himself, unable to tell differences in skin tone in black and white photographs? Did he watch Casablanca and go "I couldn't keep all the characters straight, since they all looked the same"? What. The. Fuck.

There's a new guest as we move on from "dogs notice differences" to "dogs have memories" - the team seems skeptical. They introduce a test that tells if you have an implicit bias - sorting things into good and bad. The team is absolutely astounded that we have given a version of this test to human babies, as if they haven't produced any episodes in the previous 278 that dealt with research with infants.

The guest exits saying that they don't have scientific evidence that dogs are born without biases. The segment closes with the revelation that dogs pay attention to their owners and some gushing over how much they love Samson.

A new segment starts with a little ado. The segment is about picking up dog poop. Robert calls the bag in which you put the poop an "envelope" which reminds me of the time Cards Against Humanity sent people poop in the mail.

The takeaway from the segment is that people who don't pick up their dog's poop are actually people who wish to return to a more natural, chaotic state and identify their own desires to poop in nature with their dog's ability. Robert, who was skeptical of the actual science in the previous segment, accepts this as truth. Maybe because this guest is a man?

Time to take a break! Who supports Radiolab? What other podcasts should I listen to (did you know money is homophobic?)? At least these are quick and actually edited into the show, so the return seems natural.

In this segment, the producer is astounded that the amount of DNA an organism has is not correlated to a human-centric version of complexity. I'm guessing the team thought that humans have the largest genome and other great apes have a bit less than us, then other mammals even less, and so on down to single cell organisms.

We're treated to a list of things that have a lot of DNA.

An expert guest is brought on. He must not have podcast of his own, because the producer does the usual repeat / restate / edit over. We're treated to a wonderfully self-centered sentence by the producer about these organisms being "just a tree, or a frog" &c. I want to scream "We're the new kids!"

We get close to the revelation that nothing has DNA, DNA is the thing and it's created us, but naturally we miss the interesting idea of evolution and self-replication and are treated to safari sounds.

There is an interesting bit about a salamander that is hindered by the size of its genome - apparently it's losing senses as it shrinks over time and its already large genome stays the same size (forcing the cells to stay the same size). I suppose this is the nugget of gold? I always think I'm going to find in new episodes. Does this transition to a discussion of how this is the process through which evolution works - trying out mutations until a species dies out? No. Instead we get a rundown of the producer's closet.

There is a moment of education when it is revealed that some of the DNA we pick up isn't just junk - through mutations it can lead to things like the placenta in mammals (FUCKING HELL THE MORON AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SHOW DIDN'T KNOW WHAT A MAMMAL IS).

"We were amazed that this gene came from a virus." Because viruses are lesser beings than humans? Lower? Inferior products of evolution? I bet you don't vaccinate your kids.

Then more rummaging in the closet followed by a worthless cheerleading of hoarding. No mention of how the human genome actually changes, no mention of cancer or telemeres or anything, just "good job us" for having DNA.

Alright, I will admit to liking this last piece. The question posed is a great rabbit hole question and it would make for a fantastic 99% Invisible episode. Unfortunately, we're not listening to 99% Invisible, we're listening to Radiolab, so we must push on and commit the unforgivable sin (see if you catch it).

The question in my words: was the sound that NYC Subway trains make as they leave the station designed specifically to be the opening notes to a Somewhere from West Side Story?

The producer gets some good sound and even snags Leonard Bernstein's daughter to chat about it (and even lets her say a full sentence! Maybe she has a podcast). Eventually they make it to the first interviewee, Sheldon.

Sheldon gives some basic information then, because this segment had been going great so far, the producer doesn't include the rest of what Sheldon says because it's "too technical" for our puny minds. It'd be fucking terrible if we learned something new today. Instead of including him saying it and talking for a bit about what he says - even if they are wrestling with understanding it themselves - they shrug their shoulders and tell the listener to fuck off. Hell, they even come up with a cute name for the thing - "the singing box" (real name: a phase module).

Thank you Radiolab. I'm never listening to another episode.

The next guest adds a few more pieces to the puzzle, starting with the fact that the phase module is in the train because it needs to convert DC to AC. This sparks (heh) some discussion in the team about the difference between DC and AC which is good and necessary for this type of podcast. Of course they explain it in a way that makes no sense, but what do you expect?

Naturally, following the bad explanation of the differences between AC and DC, there's a bad explanation of how the phase module works to convert one into the other. Then we get something that is frustrating for me: the producer explains they don't understand how pulsing electricity makes sound. YOU WORK IN RADIO, DO YOU THINK YOUR HEADPHONES ARE POWERED BY MAGIC?

The next bit of discussion is interesting, though of course we get Jad repeating what we just listened to. Eventually we land on the final guest - the guy who designed the train. I am annoyed the producer is so shocked that the engineer is also a musician, but whatever. I'm also annoyed that this guy already wrote a paper explaining that the whole thing is a coincidence, but I suppose that if the producers had read the paper, they wouldn't have done the story. It is an interesting story.

They tie the story up with a bow - this would be so good for 99% Invisible, but alas.

As an epilogue and just a little turd to remind you it's Radiolab, they mention one of these devices can play Ode to Joy; naturally, they made the choice any of us would make and didn't include this to close out the segment.

All the segments are done and it's time to wipe and flush. Of course, it's never that simple, because Robert doesn't know the show's email address or even the difference between an email address and a URL. If it's scripted so they get to read the email address five times, I hate them. If it's unscripted and they honestly don't know, well I can learn nothing further from them. Luckily the toilet bowl doesn't overflow and the episode is deleted from my device, soon to be followed by the show in its entirety.

I remember liking you, Radiolab. I remember when you had a regular spot in my feed. It's those good times that kept me around for 279 episodes, but it's time I let go.

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