A note from the Editor: It brings me deep joy to have another podcast review here on Aber Student Media, and on the traditional Friday no less. Check out the rest by Megan in our Arts Archive – which is also full of even more cool articles!
WHEN writing reviews, I often have a worrying thought on the back of my mind; that a reader might choose not to listen to a podcast based on what I write. This may seem like the most foolish of worries; after all, you may say, that is the entire point of a review. That is not what I view a review as being for, which is why the notion of someone deciding not to listen to a podcast on my recommendation worries me.
I view podcasts as art, much like games, radio plays, theatrical productions and films. If you are not convinced on this point, I recommend listening to Welcome to Nightvale, Alice isn’t Dead or one of the more impactful episodes of This American Life (like “The Anatomy of Doubt” or the final segment of the recent episode “Show Me The Way”). Like any art, one’s taste in podcasts is subjective. A film can be poorly constructed on a technical level, with lacklustre acting, a laughable script and inexplicable cinematography, but that does not mean that you will not like that film. It is very possible, if not likely, that you will, at some point, find that you love a film despite, or perhaps because of its flaws.
Simply because I may find a podcast to be fundamentally flawed, does not mean that you will not enjoy it. It may resonate with your personal experience or worldview in a way that I will never experience. I view a review as a way to bring a podcast to your attention and discuss it in more detail than a cursory mention; this involves discussing its flaws, but our tastes may well differ, and I would hate to see you miss out on something you may enjoy.
That said, I did not enjoy Unexplained, and could not recommend it to anyone with similar tastes to mine.
Unexplained is a new bi-weekly podcast from Richard Maclean Smith. It claims to delve into stories of the unexplained, and offer a possible explanation. This is a premise which may understandably seem familiar. There are a number of podcasts with a similar premise, such as Thinking Sideways which feature the discussion of mysteries and conspiracy theories, or Lore, which explores the strange true stories behind tales of the supernatural. However, Unexplained manages to carve a niche, and make a distinct identity for itself.
Unexplained is much less concerned with the truth behind the story, focusing far more on the weird possibilities behind it than any explanation or interest in historical storytelling.
This tendency can be seen in a recent episode focusing on the possibility of giant sea creatures, which featured a number of stories of mysterious occurrences; but not addressing them with any level of depth, and ending with a closing statement which mentioned the possibility of such creatures, but didn’t offer any evidence either way other than the aforementioned stories. The podcast prefers to be retell unusual stories rather than investigating or relating them to science or reality, sometimes ending with statements which mention scientific ideas, but do so in ways that would cause any scientist in that field to sigh with exasperation.
This doesn’t necessarily make the podcast bad; focusing on storytelling is a perfectly valid creative choice. But it is one that places certain demands on the podcast. Firstly, it means that the content is not an original story that the audience could not have heard before, nor is there original research. This means that the focus must be on the delivery of the story, as it is not, in terms of content, particularly novel. This is entirely achievable; Thinking Sideways contains large sections which recall the incident as it is said to have happened, and yet is done with an enthusiasm and sense of fun that makes it entertaining and engaging. Similarly Sawbones, which focuses on retelling unusual aspects of medical history, does so in an engaging way.
Not every story needs to be humorous, and it is still possible to be engaging while retelling a dramatic story. for example the Myths and Legends podcast, which focuses on retelling myths and folk tales, uses sound design and a well-researched script and occasional diversions to talk about other versions of the story to remain interesting.
Unfortunately, Unexplained doesn’t quite manage this. While the stories themselves are interesting, the lack of depth, research and the lacklustre sound design make the end result seem somewhat bland. The tone of the podcast, while perhaps intending to revel in the wonder of uncertainty comes off as bland, uncommitted, and lacking a sense of curiosity. What may have been intended as a stance that the story is what is interesting and important rather than the reality instead comes across as almost lazy, choosing to go no further and explore nothing more than the existence of the story. Unexplained wouldn’t have to necessarily attempt to solve the mysteries in order to be interesting, merely placing the stories in context and examining them more as stories would still produce a compelling podcast, or even just improving the sound design and dramatic presentation. Yet without these things it remains woefully bland.
Unexplained could well become much better over time. It is, after all, still relatively young as a podcast, with only a handful of episodes released. It certainly isn’t beyond hope, and has a solid foundation. It’s this that prompts me to mention my worry that someone may decide not to listen to something simply because I cannot recommend it in its current state; Unexplained is certainly not my cup of tea at the moment, but you may enjoy it if you have any interest in weird stories of the unexplained, so I would recommend giving it a listen and deciding for yourself.
Unexplained is available on iTunes.