Podcasting continued thriving in 2016. With more high quality shows coming from some recently established and surprising sources, there was so much activity in this sector it was hard to keep up with every new show being launched.
For instance, who’d have thought MTV — of all outlets — could provide actual decent cultural commentary beyond which ever shallow ‘pop star’ was trending on Instagram that week? Yet a whole slew of podcast programming proved otherwise. From The Stakes — which provided a believably genuine heart felt reaction to present political upheaval in America — to North Mollywood — directly relating world events to the popular culture that surrounds it — to the appropriately forthright and feminist Lady Problems to… the list goes on because with over 180 podcasts stretched over 7+ individual shows since April, their output escalated exponentially this past year.
Not even Gimlet Media — the high profile venture into creating a purely podcast-based broadcasting company — could keep pace with MTV this year, although they did escalate the number of new program launches to make up for the lack of actual episodes broadcast, including their first foray into fiction, the excellent slow burner — Homecoming — and giving a warm welcome to their new Australian import, formerly of public broadcaster Radio National, Science vs with original host Wendy Zukerman now resident in the U.S.. Slightly less successful was their guide to the world of podcast content — Sampler — which although did it’s best to have something for everyone, was frequently weighed down by host Brittany Luse’s explicit political agenda, very relevant to U.S. listeners but heavy handed to anyone hoping for more of a ‘world view’ of podcasting.
Gimlet’s stand-out series continues to be the always innovative Reply All, which not only takes a close look at new online technology and, most importantly, how human beings are using it. As well as continuing to mess with their own podcasting format in exciting new ways such as opening up Stack communities and 24-hour phone lines to invite listeners to go real-time with hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. Making their back catalogue, pre-Gimlet, available was a genius move too. If you haven’t dropped by Reply All you haven’t heard the full potential podcasting can, and has yet to offer.
Which brings us to an interesting point. As diverse as the topics and stories podcasting has now covered, since the rise of This American Life and 99% Invisible, the most well known and easily accessible podcast content still seems to come from U.S.-centric sources and world view. In the U.K. there have been a few individual broadcasters making headway into the realm of public consciousness. Adam Buxton ramped up his output with some ace and enlightening interviews (or ‘ramble chats’ as he prefers to call them) with the likes of Kathy Burke, Caitlin Moran and Bill Hader proving what’s mainstream media’s loss is podcasting’s gain.
Likewise, music artist Scroobius Pip found firm footing with his Distraction Pieces podcast and the occasional ‘drunk-casting’. Podcast stars outside the U.S. still proved elusive, apart from queen-of-all-that-is-U.K.-podcasting, Helen Zaltzman whose ‘The Allusionist’ podcast broke through the U.S. centric barrier by being made available via PRX’s Radiotopia network.
The Guardian continued to experiment with audio content, launching new podcast such as the excellent Guardian Long Reads which converts their written content into audio-based programming (Guardian editor, Katharine Viner’s ‘How technology disrupted the truth’ is a must read/hear) relaunching others such as their technology podcast which became Chips with Everything, introduced by Zaltzman’s partner-in-crime, Olly Mann and closing others such as their regular Film review show.
Back to the U.S., podcasting remained a realm in which hidden gems were plentiful and tastes relatively customisable. Perhaps you followed a meme and ended up at Caroline Goldfarb’s This Week Had Me Like where she took down all the celeb social media shenanigans and gave them the proper crit they deserved… so you didn’t have to. Or maybe you were so hyped about a series you just watched that you ended up listening to one of the many AfterBuzz teams chatting, in depth, about Westworld or Black Mirror or whatever. Or maybe you were checking in on what yours or other gens were up to via Magan Tan’s Millennial podcast.
And this veritable cornucopia of quality content doesn’t even touch upon the radio/podcast crossover occurring with stalwarts such as film critic, Mark Kermode & popular broadcaster, Simon Mayo’s extended version of their BBC show, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. Now that podcasting is well and truly lit, here’s hoping new and existing media outlets will continue to expand on the diversity promised by the medium and we start to see a truly international world view emerge in the coming years.
As half the world watched global politics slide into a Boomer-backed dystopic future that was never meant to happen, numerous creative types had already began mobilising against the dark forces threatening to further polarise the folks Pollies like to call ‘the public’… to various degrees of success.
This year’s most visible bolt-from-the-blue came in the form of a new long player from Solange Knowles which threatened to eclipse sister, Beyoncé’s epic Lemonade project. Solange’s A Seat at the Table took Blood Orange’s gentle mix of race and gender politics, curious sound bites and ‘quiet storm’ styling (as witnessed by his 2016 release, Freetown Sound) and emboldened it. Solange (and invited collaborators) spoke literally during tracks titled ‘interludes’, expressing succinctly in crisp, clear intonations, on exactly why ‘Black Lives Matter’. These ‘interludes’ were interspersed between a series of tracks that managed to be warm and sad, melancholic and hopeful at the same time. The message was often exclusive — as was a lot of the very binary commentary coming from America during the year (even before the spectre of a real Trump presidency reared it’s head) — but the sound and the basic emotes Solange’s new music expressed were universal. Along with a couple of music videos produced with her video director husband, Alan Ferguson, Solange took many who hadn’t seen inklings of her Zeitgeist-y precision before, by very pleasant surprise.
Speaking of Zeitgeist-y surprise, the queen of it — Róisín Murphy — released another sequence of tracks taken from recordings she made before her previous album, Hairless Toys, with current creative partner, Eddie Stevens. Take Her Up To Monto separated itself from Hairless Toys with visuals and self-directed videos portraying London as a city constantly under construction, where domestic settings have been replaced by cranes (an obsession for Solange too), monoliths and building sized holes in the ground, where everyone inhabiting this newly bizarre landscape are either dressed for business or part of the Hi Viz army that swarms over our cities and suburbs today. I caught up with a couple of LPs that were released last year in 2016 that followed a similar path, namely Warm Brains’‘Big Wow’ and The Chap’s ‘The Show Must Go’, both albums that wore it’s weary world view on it’s sleeve echoing the way pop became political during Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s (see Fun Boy Three, early Bananarama and ABC’s ‘Beauty Stab’ for a handful or examples).
At the other end of this particular spectrum, there were a number of releases that came into view in 2016 that mainlined pure escapism. The Shears twins, Wyatt and Fletcher — of The Garden fame — both released tracks under their individual monikers. Fletcher as Puzzle and Wyatt as Enjoy. Enjoy’s full length release, Another Word For Joy providing a bonkers kind of jagged pop that proved insular enough to be comforting yet with an expansive, if naive, world view. As Wyatt explains on closing track Geography, “Do you know why I like Geography? Cause I can visit all the places that I wanna see.” Wyatt and Fletcher even pushed out a couple of frankly bizarre single plays this years as The Garden, accompanied by increasingly wacky videos, namely Call This # Now and California Here We Go.
On this music as escapism tip Connan Mockasin — an artists seemingly allergic to releasing music under his own name — teamed up with Sam Dust of LA Preist to release a series of similarly bonkers tracks under the banner of ‘Soft Hair’. Apparently, the pair had been working on tracks together for many years before putting them together on their debut release. Thank goodness they finally got round to it in a year when we really needed something this languid yet intriguingly subversive in tone to distract us. If you needed even more distraction Seth Bogart, formerly Hunx of Hunx and his Punx infamy, was on hand to supply some sleazy but silly enough nativity to affairs with a confident solo release giving a well needed buff and polish to his previous collaborative outings. Along with a look and feel home grown in his Wacko Wacko clothing and artwork store in L.A. this was an exciting and well bred release that deserved a heck of a lot more attention than it received.
2016 was a good year for Raveonettes fans as well as they experimented with releasing a fresh track each month via YouTube, a project they initially described as “potentially schizophrenic & disjointed” but proved more eclectic and thoughtful than even they seemed to have predicted. A compilation of these 12 tracks is expected to be available to purchase in the new year.
Our ‘2016 up in lights’ playlist
Another Queue At The Coinstar byWarm Brains E.V.P. byBlood Orange Don’t Touch My Hair bySolange Like a Real Girl byPuzzle Different for Girls byOf Montreal Eating Makeup bySeth Bogart Mastermind byRóisín Murphy Neon Demon byCliff Martinez Drag byCat’s Eyes
Choke on Love byThe Raveonettes Damned byUnloved Long Goodbye byCharlie Hilton Call this # Now byThe Garden My Dog’s Eyes byZammuto The Devil and his Anarchic Surrealist Retinue byDeerhoof Alive Without Medicine bySoft Hair Heading Towards Happiness byEnjoy Along the Coast byAzealia Banks
Fake news is not the main story. The main story starts a few years ago with a batch of social media applications, each with it’s own simple premise that, after a glut of early adoption, start to attract the wrong sort of attention…
Attention that requires large amounts of data storage and eventually the floating of a series of public companies, with all the entrapments that entails — i.e. the hire of hoards of people with little interest in the original idea, some of whom may or may not have qualifications in marketing; the elevation of user data to the status of an amorphic blob of supposedly valuable collateral; the slow-slow-fast shoe-horning in of tired, old, traditional models of advertising (such as TVCs)… the latter being key to this thread. The discussion of which was more eloquently presented midway through this year by Guardian News & Media editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, in a Guardian Long Read entitled‘How Technology disrupted the Truth’:“In the last few years, many news organisations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment)”.
Personalised search results, customised newsfeeds, non-sequential user content are all things initiated by executives (many of whom have been shown to seldom publicly use their own products, preferring to remain shadowy figures in the background) to appease advertisers. Advertisers that have refused to improve their own offers, relying on these new social media executives to push old fashioned advertising models such as the aforementioned TVCs (i.e. commercials made for television, something the creaky old advertising industry still churns out in bulk) and classified style advertising often disguised by variations on the term ‘Sponsored Posts‘ (i.e. advertising made available to a vast majority of users at bargain prices, so even your Mum can promote her new ‘D.I.Y. Marketing’ print-on-demand publication to all and sundry) into newfangled technology.
This old school type of quick-fix advertising relies on interrupting viewers / readers / visitors which is exactly what many of the founders of social technology such as Twitter was originally trying to circumvent, rendering most of these services suddenly redundant to all but the most staunchly immune users. Which turned out, in Facebook’s case, to be mostly baby boomers who were largely afraid of strangers responding to their posts (and therefore comfortable ignoring anyone outside their limited network) and happiest talking to themselves anyway.
Early adopters feeling locked out of the now established social media outlets their content and commitment originally helped build, started resorting to more personal means of communication in 2016. This year saw the subtle reinvention of email subscription lists or subs as a way to keep up with a strictly limited number of people by sharing all manner of information such as lo-fi mixtapes (with links to YouTube or SoundCloud etc.), carefully curated links by guest editors such as those supplied in the ‘In Wild Air’ email list and even Kickstarter rewards such as Offscreen’s Rebranding Diary.
Stack became a complicated way of holding onto the idea of twitter without using twitter — downside being you ended up in a very specific silo of not-always like minded individuals with only a tiny aperture to the outside world, filtered through the lens of often voracious opinion. Sure, it meant you could keep up with your friends (both personal but mostly professional) as long as you were okay with their random associates loudly butting in as well.
On the subject of semi-closed networks, let’s be real about Snapchat for a sec. It’s really only used for the filters isn’t it. Everything it has had to do to grow it’s audience without infringing any Insta-patents has so far been convoluted and overly complex. The Snapchat spectacles (their much wackier version of Google Glass) made a bit of a splash but it’s still not for everyone (which may actually be a good thing for dedicated users). There were the hopeful glimmers of developers finding chinks in the patents of the current social media giants. Imzy was this year’s Ello (which, in turn, became several years ago’s DeviantArt/Etsy mash-up) although their heavy handed use of the term ‘community’ turned out to be a massive turn off.
So the underlying struggle for social media outlets to stay relevant whilst continuing to bend over… I mean appease advertisers and executives hasn’t let up yet, but people are still using online outlets to circumvent the silos advertisers are inadvertently creating, which is something the internet is still happily very useful for.