I’ve been a big fan of audio-only media for a big chunk of my life. I grew up listening to NPR radio shows like Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on Saturdays while my dad drove us around to do errands. TV wasn’t allowed in my family on Sundays, but the NPR Sunday Puzzle was—depending on what time church was that year, we’d listen to it on our way to Sunday meetings. I discovered podcasts in their infancy, during my final years of high school, and started really getting into them near the end of college.
From the beginning, some of my favorite podcasts were the downloadable versions of radio programs—I’d keep up with the news and work on improving my French by listening to programs on Radio France Internationale. In grad school, I doubled down on podcasts, listening to them while doing the dishes and going running. As my running progressed from training for a 5k to training for a half-marathon, I added more and more podcasts, including a few from Radio Télévision Suisse. Now that “French teacher” was no longer my primary profession, I felt that it was especially important to keep up with the language. I also discovered that I could stream RTS channels over the internet and began listening to Option Musique on a regular basis. I flirted with streaming services like Spotify, but by the end of grad school, I was convinced that internet radio was the way to go. I somehow wound up with a great deal on Audible credit around this same time and used most of it on Audible versions of BBC Radio 4 shows, including the first season of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a The Complete Smiley collection that remains one of my favorite versions of Le Carré.
My anxiety has been high over the past few weeks, and when my anxiety gets high, listening to podcasts feels like a lot to keep up with (which is dumb, but it’s how my brain works). So, I’ve instead been re-listening to John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, a great BBC Radio 4 sketch show that I discovered sometime after listening to Finnemore’s Cabin Pressure, a fantastic radio sitcom. I’ve soured on Audible, and it’s not easy to find recordings of the show elsewhere, so I turned to the Internet Archive to find the files. (Truth be told, I may have discovered the show after trawling the Internet Archive for BBC Radio 4 recordings, so I doubt the story is as neat as I’ve made it sound here.)
Some of the uploaded recordings may well be pirated versions of purchased CDs or mp3s, but I’m currently working through the fourth series, and the recordings for that series are clearly recordings of the original broadcasts: For a few seconds before and after each episode, you get news snippets, continuity announcers, or even—if you’re lucky—an example of the pips. None of these things are the reason that I’m listening to the mp3 file in question, and it occurs to me that maybe I ought to find them annoying—kind of like the commercials on a VHS tape or my parents’ digital video recorder. You know, things to skip over to get to the good stuff. Somewhat surprisingly, though, I find them to be small delights; it would be an exaggeration to say that they’re my favorite part of listening to these episodes, but they add something to the experience, and I like the recordings that have them better than the ones that don’t.
Maybe this is because they’re from a culture that is different from my own. As a longtime student and teacher of French, I have a lot of practice with trying to learn something from “everyday cultural artifacts.” It’s one thing to read great French or British literature, but it’s another thing entirely to take a dip into the everyday culture of another country and just soak it up for a minute. I felt the same way a while ago when I began (but didn’t quite finish) the 1940s Superman radio serial “Clan of the Fiery Cross” (which inspired Superman Smashes the Klan, one of my favorite comics in recent years). Yes, the advertisements were dumb, and no I wasn’t listening for the advertisements, but they still provided fun glimpses into a world that I never knew.
I regularly feel the same way listening to DKL Dreyeckland, an Alsatian radio station that’s one of my favorites to listen to right now. Most of the internet radio stations I listen to are public and don’t have a lot of advertisements. I don’t mind that, but I also really enjoy listening to ads for an Alsatian audience. I hear a lot from the mattress store Matelas Hertzog (which always makes me think of the film director of the similar name), and because Alsatian towns have such a distinct, not-typically-French sound to them, I always enjoy hearing where the store featured in an ad is based.
These small radio delights have made audio media really fun for me recently. It makes me glad I listen to internet radio rather than streaming services, and that I downloaded BBC Radio 4 recordings from the Internet Archive instead of sanitized files from Audible.
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