One of the best things about 21st century culture has been the explosion of intelligent talk on public radio and a surge of intelligent, witty podcasts just about everywhere. There is now so much available from MTV News, WBUR, NPR, American Public Media, RadioLab, and endless others that is funny, poignant, outrageous, well-reported, and everything else. The vast majority of it is entirely free. So how do you get people to pay for content?
That’s the challenge that Audible is tackling as it launches Channels, a new subscription service that comes free with the Audible audiobook app and costs $4.95 for others. The main event here will be original programming, though Channels also offers commercial-free versions of other podcasts and access to TED Talks, narrated stories from The New Republic and other magazines, Dan Savage, and a lot more.
Audible, which is owned by Amazon but whose service operates largely independently, has been doing podcasts and the like for a very long time. What it seems to be offering here is shows that would interest the audiobook crowd. There is a show on books and authors (“Authorized,” hosted by writer Ashley C. Ford), one on presidents (“Presidents Are People, Too!,” with historian Alexis Coe and former “Daily Show” head writer Elliott Kalan), and a popular-science show (“Breasts Unbound,” hosted by journalist Florence Williams.) If you like any of these shows, Amazon won’t have to work very hard to recommend books that will match your taste.
The one show that’s a bit less predictable is “Mortal City,” a look at the eccentricities of New York. Host Kathleen Horan calls it a show that will “introduce you to something I can’t believe exists.” The opening episode chronicles Rocky Robinson, who runs an emergency medical service for people in Bedford-Stuyvesant who’d otherwise be dangerously overlooked. Robinson tells his story well, if not entirely credibly. He says he was a cab driver, club DJ, pimp, and thief earlier in life, all of which are plausible; he also says he invented hip hop, which is a bit harder to swallow. In any case, he’s fascinating to listen to.
The quality of these shows is strong, for the most part. Let me break them out for a moment.
The presidents show is full of fascinating information, like the way Theodore Roosevelt’s drive came at least in part from his trying to fight his family’s history of depression, and he had a complicated relationship to feminism. But this episode, at least, leans toward the goofy, both with Kalan’s delivery and excursions like visiting a Queens taxidermist because of Roosevelt’s passion for hunting and mounting animals.
Ford’s interview with Janet Mock, the transgender author of the memoir “Redefining Realness,” is intelligent and lively. Ford has a gift for rapport and the result is a smart conversation about race, gender, family, and literary passion.
The first installment of the breasts show visits the Texas housewife who became the first woman to get silicone gel implants, as she’s reunited with the doctor who did the surgery. (Both were born in the early 1930s.) The show is snappy and well-told.
There’s also what seems to be a Malcolm Gladwell-ish show hosted by Jon Ronson called “The Butterfly Effect,” and another about “the afterlife of violence places” called “Damned Spot,” for which I’ve only heard teasers. (I’ve got high hopes for both, though the latter is necessarily morbid.)
But the one thing I couldn’t stop thinking about was how these resembled other shows I’ve heard on the radio or on existing, free podcasts. The style is also similar – unobtrusive music, joking hosts, oddball turns to the storytelling.
Audible will be dropping shows every week or two, and the people in charge have good, smart taste. Nothing here is pandering or cynical. But it will take at least a few weeks to get a full sense of how much noise its new service will be able to make.