Monday, August 29, 2011

Review: Top 5 Podcasts

If you know me, you might already know of my fondness—and possibly slight obsession—with podcasts. It all started when I was younger: during long car rides my sister and I pass the time creating our own radio station, Radio KATH, station 99.9. We’d take turns singing songs and having conversations, a la Ryan Seacrest, but with less celebrities. Sometimes I’d have my own special segments in which I was the only host-—no sister to butt in with her juvenile comments. We even had our own Radio KATH theme song. I still remember our fake-radio jingles.

So it’s no wonder that I enjoy podcasts so much these days. They’re FREE portable radio programs, minus the music—but considering most radio stations play the same 40 songs over and over again, missing the music doesn’t mean much. 95% of my driving time is spent listening to podcasts from my iPod. When I’m stuck in the car alone, driving to work or commuting from home, I listen to a podcast or two and it fills the time perfectly. I get engaged in the conversation, and suddenly I realize that it’s been 30 minutes and I’m already home. Being an auditory learner, I also find listening to these podcasts as a handy way to learn something new. I can retain the content I hear easier than with reading articles or books.

I’m currently subscribed to 20 podcasts feeds through iTunes, and have sample episodes from at least 10 other shows. I have 4 days worth of podcasts on my iPod. Yet I find that I tend to return to the same few podcasts over and over. Their content varies: some are news-based, others are about the arts, and many are based in pop culture or technology. But regardless of their stories, my favorite podcasts have the same few qualities: lively hosts with great chemistry, professional sound quality, and moderately clean content. (I say moderate, because some of these podcasts definitely have some R-rated content. But when there is strong language, it’s said with a laugh or in the heat of the moment. It’s not cussing for the sake of cussing nor is there anything sexually overt. Any explicit content is said with a laugh and with passion for the content. But for the most part, I like my audio to be clean and family friendly.)

Now that you know what I look for in a podcast, let’s take a gander at my Top 5 Favorite Podcasts. The shows I look forward to listening to, that I’m always excited to download new episodes, that I might even go back and re-listen to old episodes or archives. The best of the best.

1) The TV Talk Podcast with GMMR and Ducky

First things first: this podcast is HYSTERICAL. (All caps, that’s how seriously funny this show is!) Dan and Kath provide commentary on all things TV and pop culture, with a seriously funny bent. They watch tons of TV shows, everything from So You Think You Can Dance to True Blood to The Good Wife to Raising Hope. I don’t even watch half the shows they talk about, but they discuss the shows in such a way that you don’t need to know the show to enjoy the discussion. Sometimes their conversations are intelligent, and I’ve uncovered a lot about TV editing and directing from listening to this podcast. Sometimes they’re completely unintelligible, but it’s so hysterically funny that it doesn’t matter. This is my #1 favorite podcast, no doubt about it.

Unfortunately they don’t have a regular airing schedule, so new episodes may not come out for weeks at a time. But luckily they tend to run long (2+ hours isn’t uncommon for this podcast), so when you get an episode, there’s plenty to enjoy. But be warned—they definitely can have some mature content (nothing scandalous, more like hilariously accidentally raunchy), so this isn’t something for the whole family to listen to. Unless your family is older than 16 and ready to laugh at some outrageous content. A must listen! (Average runtime: really really long.)

2) Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

Wait Wait is a downloadable version of the popular NPR news quiz show. Every week Carl Castle and Peter Segal, along with a cast of rotating guest hosts, discuss the week’s news through clever quizzes and limericks. Half the fun is learning what’s going on in the world—I’m not super up-to-date in the world’s news, so Wait Wait is an easy-to-digest form of news in fun packaging. The other half is in the commentary and the hosts. Most of the hosts are comedians, so I constantly find myself laughing aloud at their comments on the week’s news. They’re always making fun of our government, so if you lean right, this podcast may not be the best choice. Otherwise, take a gander and laugh along with Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! (Average runtime: 45 minutes.)

3) Mouth Off
Mouth Off is my go-to podcast for all things a cappella. Dave Brown and Christopher Diaz get together every week to discuss a cappella news, uncover great new a cappella tracks, and review albums. The sound quality on this podcast can be uneven, especially when they get super-enthusiastic and start screaming (which happens a lot), but their hilarious yet totally serious discussions about the art of vocal singing make it worth listening through the screeching microphones. It’s a great podcast for those currently immersed in the a cappella world, but it’s also great for those who aren’t currently singing. They’ve always got tons of clips to play and intelligent insight on the art form. The other downside is that this podcast gets expensive—not that you have to pay to download, no no no. Instead, you hear a bunch of great clips and suddenly go and spend way too much money on amazing a cappella tracks. It’s an addiction, I tell you! (Average runtime: 50 minutes.)

4) Miss Molly Bell’s Creative Habit
This podcast is a new one (only five episodes as of yet), but it’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. Local Bay Area celebrity Molly Bell and her creative partner Daya Curley spend half an hour every other week discussing how to bring creativity to day-to-day life. At least, that’s what their show description says. They tend to go off on tangents (they spent two episodes discussing pretty much nothing but Zappos), but it’s always with intelligence and good intent. They’re a little bit snarky and sarcastic, which I find absolutely hilarious! And even though I’m not sure that they’re always talking about creative habits, I always finish up the podcast with something new to think about and explore.

One minor downside is that sometimes they talk a lot about their projects without giving context—for example, Molly mentions creative jobs with Netflix but doesn’t tell us what she does. This was a problem with the first few episodes, but it’s definitely getting better as they learn the art of podcasting. With this series it helps to know their projects and their work, but it isn’t necessary. Not to mention the insanely catchy theme song. I highly recommend the podcast and hope to hear many more episodes in the future! (Average runtime: 30 minutes.)

5) Mugglecast
If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, then you’ve probably visited at least once in your life. This podcast is an extension of the site, with bi-weekly (or so) episodes featuring Harry Potter news, book discussions, and occasional interviews and Harry Potter-themed games. I enjoy Harry Potter, but I don’t visit the fansites often or reread the books every year, so I find Mugglecast to be an easy way to stay updated in the Harry Potter community. The podcast has been around for years (currently on episode #238!), so they have the craft of podcasting down with perfection! The hosts vary week to week, but they’re always intelligent and clever. When I listen to Mugglecast, I feel like I’m listening to a bunch of friends talking and laughing over my generation’s biggest phenomenon. And that is exactly what Mugglecast is. (Average runtime: 1-1.5 hours.)

So what do you think of my favorite podcasts? Are you a podcast fan? What do you listen to? Are you inspired to listen to any of these now that I’ve professed my podcast geekdom? I’d love to hear what you think!

Podcast Links (iTunes):
The TV Talk Podcast with GMMR and Ducky
NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!
Mouth Off
Miss Molly Bell's Creative Habit

Look Ma! I Have a Website!

The title of this post is actually a little bit ironic, because I actually did go "Hey Mom, I'm making a website. Check it out!"

That isn't a direct quotation, but it's pretty darn close.

Then she looked at it. And liked it! And you should do the same. =)

Click here.

More updates coming soon! I haven't blogged much recently, but I will. Things are starting to pile up and hopefully I'll have some exciting new posts soon!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: Commencement

Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan.
From Publisher's Weekly: It isn't quite love at first sight when Celia, Sally, Bree and April meet as first-year hall mates at Smith College in the late 1990s. Sally, whose mother has just died, is too steeped in grief to think about making new friends, and April's radical politics rub against Celia and Bree's more conventional leanings. But as the girls try out their first days of independence together, the group forms an intense bond that grows stronger throughout their college years and is put to the test after graduation. Even as the young women try to support each other through the trials of their early twenties, various milestones—Sally's engagement, Bree's anomalous girlfriend, April's activist career—only seem to breed disagreement. Things come to a head the night before Sally's wedding, when an argument leaves the friends seething and silent; but before long, the women begin to suspect that life without one another might be harder than they thought. Sullivan's novel quickly endears the reader to her cast, though the book never achieves the heft Sullivan seems to be striving for.

Confession time: I tend to be pretty picky with my chick flicks/chick lit selections, because oftentimes I find them too wimpy. If I'm going to invest time in a movie/novel, I don't want to feel my intelligence insulted. I want to go on adventures with characters that are strong and interesting. And while I enjoy goofy girly-adventures, I don't want to laugh at their expense: I want to be laughing with them, not at them.

When I first heard about Commencement, I heard it was a grown-up beach read. A mature chick-lit novel. A mature, good chick-lit novel. I was intrigued, especially since it covers the stories of women who are in college (like me! Well, not anymore... One Happy Kat's officially One-Excited/Terrified-Trojan-Alumna-Kat, lol!), but didn't get around to reading it until I found it for sale on the Amazon Kindle store ($3.99! Yay sales!!), enjoyed the sample, and bought the book. Let me tell you--it was a $3.99 well spent.

The women in Commencement are strong and independent. It's the story of a sisterhood. In a way, it kind of reminded me of a grown-up version of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants story, but with more mature drama. (Side note: after reading this, I want to read Sisterhood Everlasting--the finale of the Traveling Pants series). The four women are all distinct, with unique stories and points of view. They fight, they laugh, they change. The book's set partially at Smith College, and it was amusing to re-live some of the college experience through the book. Not that USC's anything like Smith, but it was still a hoot! For the most part, there isn't one central plot that the book centers around. Instead it tells stories of all four women, and how their stories intersect. Sometimes that format is distracting, but the structure of Commencement was really well done.

I'm not doing a good job of explaining how much I enjoyed this book, but let's put it this way: I finished it in 3 busy days, refusing to read anything else. The book was well-written and completely engrossing. The characters were interesting and honest. They weren't perfect, but I understood why they made the choices they did. I felt like I was part of this circle of friends and I cared about all four of them, even when they did things that drove me crazy!

My only quibble is the third-person voice used to write the book. Sometimes I got confused as to which character was talking. She covers all four women in rotating POVs, always in a third-voice tone, and the characters sometimes got muddled. If I think about it, I remember exactly what makes Bree, Sally, and Celia distinct. But their distinctions weren't always apparent in the writing of the chapters. April was the exception, being the iconic liberal of the book. She was always distinct. The other women--sometimes, not so much. But this minor quibble really didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book! Like I said, I really enjoyed it!

Also, one last confession: one of the twists? I kind of called it. Or rather, I thought it might happen, then didn't, then might...? Not going to tell you what the twist was or when it was, because I don't want to spoil it for you, but talk to me if you read it and I'll tell you which one I figured out.

Final grade: A-