Radio Shows Fer Yer Musiky Thingy

Author: Joseph Nugent (Boston College)

UCD Scholarcast. Directed by P.J. Mathews.

Who listens to podcasts these days? A technology now ten years old (that’s seven million in techno-years) is surely the preserve of fuddy-duddies in tweedy jackets and gray-haired geeks of yesteryear who haven’t moved on. And me. Or so I thought…

In fact, I’m far from alone. Podcasting, the internet tells me, is on the up-and-up. Podcasts are back. Never really went away. One billion subscriptions on Apple alone since 2004. Podcasts, it seems, are The Next Big Thing. Again.

And still, a musty smell hovers over podcasts and podcasting. Why?

For one thing, the history of podcasting is, while short, not very interesting: even the usually effervescent Wikipedia can barely manage to jolly the reader along past its Section One, “Precursors.” Section Two, “Timeline,” struggles to maintain its fervor past the year 2004 (when podcasting began) and meanders to a mumbling halt in 2012 with a couple of unconvincing hurrahs for the medium’s “future promise.” And that’s it. Communication 101 undergraduates pulling an all-nighter in an effort to complete that paper on “The History of the Modern Media” will find little to plagiarize here. 

Seeking an accurate bead on the history of podcasting, I turned to the hormone-driven columns of Urban Dictionary (which, like the teenagers who populate it, is right about everything). Only two desultory entries appear after a splutter of mild enthusiasm (think of the contributor demographic) in, yes, 2004. Then, one of the more prescient of its pimply contributors defined this spanking new technology as “radio shows fer yer musiky thingy.”

That’s a pretty excellent definition—one that remains, in this helter-skelter world of pop-up technologies, surprisingly, but thankfully, true today. 

Surprisingly, because podcasts really should have faded away when the dedicated, eponymous iPod stepped aside for the multi-tasking iPhones 1, 2, 3, 4, and now, 5 came careering down the technological highway. That’s how very old the iPod is. And yes, Apple does still offer the steam-powered contraption for sale but surely not for long: it’s now mainly branded “The Classic iPod”—a designation that invariably whispers desperation on the part of marketing departments which, having overshot the mark with novelties, do a sheepish U-turn into the comforting lap of the retro: cf. Classic Coke.

Thankfully, because in a media universe product-placed, red-topped, tabloidized, and generally buzzfed out of all credibility, radio (well, some of it) remains one of the last refuges in which words can be believed.  And the very very best of that radio can be had on demand, right here, right now, as they say, wherever you are, on your very own musiky thingy through the magic of the podcast.  Which brings me finally to UCD Scholarcast. It’s a model of what podcasting should be; a model of what radio once was.

Radio got a bad rap after the arrival of television. True, radio (and by radio I mean not just Auntie—the BBC that is—but Irish radio in Bhabhaian colonial mimicry) was somewhat stiff, a little arch, ever high-minded, always annoyingly determined to improve you, the listener, in one way or another.

One way it set out to better us—and who could quibble with this?—was to bring literature into our homes. Irish scholars will immediately recall the radio plays of Louis MacNeice and of Samuel Beckett (while tuning out, perhaps, to the very different broadcasts of Francis Stuart). Others will thank radio for giving voice to Dylan Thomas and Dorothy L. Sayers, to Pinter and Stoppard, and for all the riches they’ve bestowed on us. You don’t get much better bettering than that.

Somewhat apropos of which, let’s spare a thought for James Joyce who, if he didn’t speak to the microphone as much as one would wish, listened with great care and replicated the sound, indeed the experience, of “listening in” (as we used say) to the tolvtubular high fidelity daildialler…eclectrically filtered for allirish earths and ohmes with astonishing verisimilitude in the pages of Finnegans Wake (try Book II 3 [309-310] for a wonderful example).

Given the debt that we literary types owe to radio, it’s only right that the admirable people over at UCD should continue that civilizing mission on radio broadcasting’s electronic grandchild, the podcast. In UCD Scholarcast, they do that with style.

In UCD Scholarcast, you’ll find forty-three (at the time of writing) lectures, traversing the landscape of Irish Studies. Divided into series ranging from the reassuring to the challenging, all are a delight to the listener over here crawling across the parched intellectual plains of American radioland. Check out series such as The Art of Popular Culture say, or Reflections on Irish Music—or the more daring The Literatures and Cultures of the Irish Sea, or the challenging Reconceiving the British Isles. Yes, Declan Kiberd and Diarmaid Ferriter and Frank McGuinness are there, and welcome they are, it’s unnecessary to say. But the breadth of director P.J. Mathews’s vision is evident in some of the more surprising presenters—here’s Riverdance man Bill Whelan, and singer/songwriter Paul Brady, and renowned sculptor and metalworker Kevin O’Dwyer, all enthusing with erudition (not an easy balance) on their chosen topics.

Or take the current series of lectures, which appears under the rubric “Dublin: One City, One Book,” edited by Lucy Collins of UCD’s School of English, Film, and Drama. The first podcast here brings us Micheál Ó Siadhail pursuing the poetry of the Dublin street. Ó Siadhail engages with Kavanagh, Kennelly, and Montague in his choice of poems from the anthology If Ever You Go, before ending with his own hymn to Grafton Street made all the more listenable-to by those melodious tones of his. Next, Peter Denman turns with lyricism to the people of Dublin portrayed in that same anthology. Lucy Collins does us all a favor in a lecture entitled “Mine by Right of Love” by retrieving one of the neglected women poets of Ireland, Winifred Mary Letts. For the poet Peter Sirr, Dublin’s streetscape always “draws us towards the past.” Sirr’s contribution is a moving meditation on how poetry works on us. The city is “a map of our emotional life,” he remarks, as he leads us through works by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Thomas Kinsella, and, quite properly, himself.

Other topics that caught my eye include Clair Wills on “Neutrality and Popular Culture,” Eddie Holt on “Yeats, Journalism, and the Revival,” Paige Reynolds on “Hollywood and Contemporary Irish Drama,” Elaine Sisson on “The Boy as National Hero.” And all those gems I’ve picked are just from the first series. There are eight more.

Thanks to UCD’s Media Services division and the admirable P.J. Mathews, UCD Scholarcast is a pleasure on the ear; its production values are up there with the very best. Each cast is a delight to listen to. Each is a bus-ride or so long. And every one is free.

Put UCD Scholarcast on yer musiky thingy now. Here: