Podcasts from Cambridge and Somerville
There’s an estimated 1.5 million podcasts to listen to with a collective 34 million episodes as of October, according to Edison Research, but these audio efforts are a bit like blogging in the 2000s: Plenty of people create one to try out the medium but walk away from the mic after an episode, or a few episodes. And some podcasters set out to make only a set number because they have a finite story to tell – like a “Serial,” to name the podcast that marked the new age of commercial acceptance, without a second or third season.
Cambridge and Somerville have birthed plenty of podcasts, but there are a handful that not just capture something about the nature of the cities, but are ongoing enterprises you can subscribe to and expect to see pop up on a feed with regularity. Here are four local podcasts across a range of categories that fit that description, followed by some others that are worth checking out if you don’t mind long waits for new stuff to drop – or to be reminded that all things end.
Begun March 23; typically posts every other Friday
If you love movies, and talking about them, you’ll devour this product of the pandemic – launched as the Harvard Square repertory cinema was forced to shut down by anti-coronavirus measures. The podcast began with more frequent postings and slowed to biweekly when it looked like things were reopening, which suggests accurately that it’s not just abstract talk about mise-en-scène but a peek into the Brattle’s projection booth and back office. Ned Hinkle, Ivy Moylan, Alissa Darsa and Ian Brownell are plenty entertaining sharing insights into why they love or hate certain movies or genres, but listen also for industry insights, such as what it’s like to attend film festivals around the globe or to work behind the scenes on Boston-set fare such as “Gone Baby Gone,” and some good transparency into the business of the Brattle itself. The hosts also occasionally solicit audio memories from listeners and filmie friends. We can only hope it goes back to a more frequent schedule so we’re guaranteed to get that episode we’ve been promised about opening credits.
Begun Jan. 2, 2019; posts every Tuesday
Perhaps the ultimate hangout podcast, with not much more agenda than a group sitting around and catching up – with the throughline that the topic of comedy’s guaranteed to come up sooner rather than later. Comedy Studio club owner Rick Jenkins is every episode’s “special guest,” and every episode includes recommendations of something having to do with comedy (a Netflix special, an insightful book) and local businesses to support. But the bulk of every show is chitchat and war stories with hosts Danny Hatch and Eli Levy. Though you’d imagine a heavy rotation of comics, weeks can pass without new voices. It’s a congenial time, but verges into slackerdom when Hatch, Levy and Jenkins semi-regularly bemoan how few people are downloading without seeming to do anything about it. Since Jenkins has a Rolodex filled with literally thousands of comics, some by now quite famous, and there are various models that could be tweaked to suit their tastes, from “WTF with Marc Maron” and Vulture’s “Good One” to “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “The Bugle,” there’s not much reason the show couldn’t be shifted into a higher gear. (Written with a resigned apprehension that I’m about to be roasted again on air.)
Begun March 4, 2015, posts every Sunday
This now-venerable offshoot of the Annals of Improbable Research and its Ig Nobel Prizes, each about scientific “achievements that make people laugh, then think,” has lately been producing delectably bite-size bonbons of gentle weirdness perfect for these distracted times. In one recent episode, host Marc Abrahams and etiquette maven/wife Robin Abrahams (“Miss Conduct” in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine) go over perversely antiquated rules of society from an Emily Post book circa 1942; showing a good grasp of comic timing, they cut off the reading at “L” for a tidy seven and a half minutes. Abrahams is avuncular but not toothless, like a local Alex Trebek, and is interested in using a sharp intelligence to inform and clarify. In a Nov. 1 episode about recognizing boredom, he interrogates guest Nicole Sharp into translating lab jargon into simple English that shows to what degree this is a podcast for everyone, no matter how improbable it may seem.
Begun Jan. 28, 2018; posts every Friday
An intense focus on what happens within the borders of one small city means this podcast is of no interest to anyone outside those borders – except, perhaps, politicians looking for new ways to connect with constituents. As hosted by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and vice mayor Alanna Mallon (but begun when each were first-term city councillors), the show has settled into a pandemic-era pattern of catching up with political and civic doings that allows for more extended commentary than a public meeting without having to type it all up for a newsletter. Expect to hear about what’s coming up at the next City Council meeting, the latest on coronavirus testing and safety precautions and a grab-bag of other mainly blandly useful items; do not expect to hear shock jock antics or any especially juicy takedowns of town personalities. But if you need to keep up with city life painlessly, this may be the solution. (And every once in a while the mask slips and listeners get a peek at what happens when city officials are off the Zoom camera, including a recent anecdote about a sudden need to throw up in City Hall’s historic Sullivan Chamber.)
- Greater Boston (Begun March 15, 2016; currently releasing monthly mini-episodes during a hiatus) This widely admired audio fiction series empowered Alexander Danner and Jeff Van Dreason to found the PodTales festival last year. By then they’d already guided “Greater Boston” through three seasons of increasing weirdness set among actual locations, with each episode featuring the voices of interviewed Bostonians. But it’s set in a world where the red line has seceded to form its own government, placing “Greater Boston” somewhere between “Welcome to Night Vale” and David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” It’s an absorbing listen that stands out for its fractal, ever-increasing puzzle box levels of complication but never forgets to be fun and funny. And if 2020 is driving you crazy, “Greater Boston” offers a whole other dimension to lose yourself in – one where someone else is doing the driving.
- Republic of Camberville (2019; an eight-part fiction podcast) A project of short story author Danielle Monroe (also behind the interview-based podcast “Artists of Camberville”) about what she calls the artists, addicts, dancers and dreamers who call Cambridge and Somerville home. This season of tales is larded with places and moments residents will recognize, such as the callouts in Episode 5’s “Bombay Princess” to a Harvard Square of the immediate past. Wow, remember when we still had a Crate & Barrel? “Republic of Camberville” does. (Read the full story from Sept. 21, 2019.)
- Soonish (Begun Jan. 11, 2017; no set release schedule) Journalist Wade Roush looks at how world-changing technology comes about and how societies choose to use it or not, ranging from emerging meat substitutes and why monorails never became a thing, but still might (and Boston’s unique connection to them), to “how ‘Star Wars’ killed serious science fiction” and why it makes sense to delete your Facebook account. The most recent episodes have dipped into our ongoing political chaos; to underline Roush’s value as an editorial conscience and not just as a skilled explainer with sophisticated sound mixing, keep in mind that it was June 24 that “Soonish” released an episode called “Unpeaceful Transition of Power” that asked “What if an incumbent president refuses to concede after losing the election?”
- Tina Lives! (2018 to 2019; a 16-part autobiography)Cantabrigian Kristina Kehrer has done what lots of people say they’ll do – write their memoirs – and doubles down on the accomplishment by turning it into audio with a slickly interspersed soundtrack that captures well the era: the ramshackle 1970s, when a 6-year-old could burn down her hippie family’s home and never be punished, and into the disintegrating 1980s, when a sultry teen heads into young pregnancy and a touch of jail time. If there’s one quibble I have with the work, it’s that the translation to audio is a little too direct, and that I’d have preferred a framing that gives the listener a more overt peek at the wild ride ahead instead of plunging immediately into a chronological recounting. But “Tina Lives!” will resonate not just as an achievement, but as an enticement to all to explore the medium on their own; the series was produced through Cambridge Community Television, which opens its doors (or, rather, will one day do so again) to anyone with an interest in learning podcasting technology. Finally, it’s a reminder of the intoxicating, fascinating messiness of the lives of the strangers around us, some innovating in the fields of science, others in the fields of freedom.