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This is an audio column, as opposed to a radio-only one, or one that’s just about podcasts. I cover anything created especially for listeners: plays, podcasts, phone-ins, music shows, investigations, live broadcasts, constructed soundscapes, day-in-day-out programmes. If you can hear it over headphones, I’ll consider reviewing it, as long as it’s not a music album. For a while I’ve wondered whether I should include audiobooks. After all, many use broadcast techniques – Adam Buxton’s Ramble Book even included jingles – and I can already review several “actor reading a popular book” programmes on Radio 4. Audio genres are blurring and overlapping all the time.
Which brings me to Paperless, an audio magazine by nonfiction production house Vespucci. Several episodes are simply a famous person reading a specially written article out loud. The most recent, Joy Boy, by Hallie Lieberman, is read by Steve Buscemi, and is – there is no way of disguising this – about dildos. Specifically, it’s the story of a man, Gosnell Duncan, a car mechanic who in 1965 had an accident at work. Afterwards, though he could no longer get an erection, Duncan still felt erotic urges and wanted to have sex, so he set up a home business making the best dildos he could. “He was building back his manhood,” narrates Buscemi, lightly, “one dick at a time.”
So, you know, maybe listen to this one on headphones. You’ll enjoy it. It’s a great, surprisingly heartwarming story, read beautifully by Buscemi. There’s a bit of subtle soundscaping that helps the tale along (nothing too rude, don’t worry), and the episode proved cheering company as I marched around the park with the dog. (Actually, as a side point, our dog once found a dildo in the park. It made an excellent chew toy.) If you enjoy it, there are another 16 Paperless stories, including one narrated by Elle Fanning. Not all are read-aloud longform journalism though: I recommend Guarding Saddam, about the sort-of friendship that developed between the ex-president of Iraq and the young US soldier told to guard him. This takes the form of an edited interview with the soldier, Kelly Hillyer, carefully done by journalist Michael Weiss. It’s a remarkable listen, one of the most moving and thought-provoking things I’ve heard in a long time. It reminded me, a little, of Love + Radio; it has a similar emotional “pull back and reveal”, an unexpected gut-punch story twist.
Anyway, if this sounds like your sort of thing, there are several other read-out-the-story podcasts for you out there. The Guardian started one a couple of weeks ago: Weekend. Though it’s offered as a way to “switch off from a busy week”, perhaps its biggest selling point is the regular narration of Marina Hyde’s always brilliant Friday political column. Who could fail to be delighted? Readers Emma Powell and Oliver Cudbill are clear and upbeat, and this is a lovely way to enjoy the Guardian’s great writers. (A small thing: if you’ve ever heard the real Marina Hyde speak, then you might find yourself taken aback when you hear her words read by Powell. Hyde’s real voice is more cut-glass and world-weary.) I remember my gran being sent tapes by the RNLI when her sight started failing: this is so much easier and more up-to-date for anyone who can’t access journalism in the usual way. And anything that gets Hyde’s columns to more people is good by me.
Going back to the Guarding Saddam episode, I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past few days. How can a human be human and order such terrible deeds to be done to others? This has been a pretty horrendous week. If you can cope with the news cycle, Amol Rajan and Martha Kearney have been doing well on Today, holding politicians to account, as they should. For analysis and live reporting, the BBC is always hard to beat in a news emergency. If you want a single programme to keep you up to date, then its new daily, Ukrainecast, is one you should try. Hosted by the warm but rigorous Victoria Derbyshire and Gabriel Gatehouse (The Coming Storm), this brings in analysts, reporters, experts and people on the ground in Ukraine. We’ve been hearing from Max, whose wife and oldest son Mark were seriously injured when a missile hit their building last week; Derbyshire came back to him on Tuesday. He was tender about his family; uncompromising about the situation. “This is slaughter,” he said. “There is no other term. Hellish slaughter, and my position and my demand to these demons is, Stop now and go to hell, to where you have come from.”
For some historical context, and a way of countering any “but Ukraine is really Russian” arguments, then try The Rest Is History, hosted by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, who brought out a special episode on Monday, explaining Ukraine’s long and upsettingly difficult past. Occasionally, Holland and Sandbrook’s presenting skills can be a little slack (at one point, there were so many “ums” and “sort ofs” that I wondered whether to start a drinking game), but their knowledge, coupled with their silly camaraderie, is very comforting. There’s now a spin-off podcast, too, which launched last week: The Rest Is Politics, hosted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell. It’s … OK, I suppose. I’m not sure that I need any more blokes who met Putin a few times a few years ago to speculate on how his mind works.
Finally, I know that several programme-makers and podcast creators have been wondering whether they should carry on making their silly-but-diverting content during such terrible times. Speaking as someone who very much enjoyed a story about silicone penises read by Steve Buscemi last week, I say please continue. You’re needed more than ever.