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Podthoughts: UnFictional

Vital stats:
Format: independently produced documentaries, mostly from Los Angeles and the U.K.
Episode duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly

It’s not easy to title a show, granted, but avoiding fiction strikes me as a mark of no particular distinction in public radio. Indeed, in more judgmental moments I pin the blame for the creative malaise afflicting the industry on its upper ranks dominated by people who began in (or have spent a little too much time in) newsrooms. This produces a number of deforming forces, from flamboyantly pious J-school convictions about the truth all the way down to simple stodginess. What a pleasant surprise, then, to hear in UnFictional [RSS] [iTunes] very little stodge at all. Why, airing stories about colossally powerful car stereos, self-immolation, blind baseball, and the U.K. roller derby, it almost makes us describe it as stodge’s opposite — but let’s not go crazy. We’re talking about public radio standards here. In fact, I suspect I’ve already implied more radicalism than the show can realistically offer.

Despite no doubt having rattled a few cages here and there over the past three years, UnFictional comprises, for the most part, radio documentaries of the same basic type we’ve been hearing for three decades. (This tradition tends these days to favor things like “sound-rich” portraits of barrio life, which explains why I find so little support for my own projects, most of which are multi-hour conversations about Graham Greene.) The whole production comes as one of the newish offerings from KCRW, long the “cool” public radio station in Los Angeles. Don’t read those air quotes as sarcasm; KCRW really does have the coolest programming, in part due to shows like this one, though it also trades on “cool” as a vibe — again, public radio standards, mind. Yet as a listener, I’ve in recent years begun to glimpse a frown of deep discomfort behind the station’s Wayfarers. With its schedule split between music, news, and cultural talk — not to mention Tuesday night’s unmissable Santa Monica City Council meetings — KCRW probably fears the simultaneous eating of its lunch by predominantly newsy KPCC and music-oriented KCSN. An understandable fear, but one born, I would argue, of a framing mistake.

Read the whole thing at Maximum Fun.

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