As humans, we’re fascinated by the miniature. Dollhouses with their shrunken bathtubs and couches, train sets with their tiny shops and stop signs: humanity scaled down to be examined from a new angle. A whole world parsed in a glance.
Many podcast creators have taken an interest in shifting the way we see things; or making us see things we otherwise haven’t. 99 Percent Invisible reshapes our perspective on design, explaining factors which created the world we know – the design of the packaging for the Pill, hidden staircases in San Francisco. Gimlet’s Every Little Thing looks down into the mites that live on our face, and – in surprising depth – the age of Winnie the Pooh. There is something about the intimate relationship formed between podcaster and listener which creates the perfect space to find depth in the seemingly mundane.
Little Tiny, a five-episode podcast hosted by writer and comedian Kara Schlegl, is a new peek into this world of the miniature. Listening feels like cracking open a music box to watch a centimetre-tall ballerina spin. Produced by Martin Peralta for the ABC, the series is Schlegl’s exploration of ‘the small things that have changed the world’, taking big stories we know – the creation of the Walt Disney Company, the French Revolution, the Titanic – and whittling them down to a defining, tiny moment.
Listening to Little Tiny feels like cracking open a music box to watch a centimetre-tall ballerina spin.
The podcast is short, and regularly employs silence – it is just us and Schlegl’s voice, kind and personable as she narrates the series and takes on the voices of the various characters. Her narration over the silence is interspersed with small punctuations of sound effects and composition tied into the setting: ethereal erhu when in Ancient China; snare drums when with the American troops of The Great War. The auditory world she creates feels made for this space of the small. Perhaps it is in the simple way Little Tiny builds in music: before she embraces the silence, there is a gentle theme song that opens with dainty sounds of magic and the music-box ballerina, before growing into something booming and majestic. As listeners, we become compressed into this world, and Schlegl is able to make these tiny things grow.
While occasionally quoting directly from recorded history, largely Schlegl fuses historical figures with a distinctly Australian sensibility: ‘ugh, they’ve finally lost it’, scoffs Marie Therese looking at her parents; President Wilson is ‘like a mate who arrives late to a party, but is an absolute hero because he brings a slab of beer’. The series is, she tells us in her introduction, her reading of history: ‘which is maybe a bit contentious.’
As listeners, we become compressed into this world, and Schlegl is able to make these tiny things grow.
The episode that most fully realises Little Tiny’s premise is ‘The Key’, which explores how a missing key led to the sinking of the Titanic. It stands out because of the way we interact with keys in our lives: we understand the smallness of a key; the necessity of it. We understand the way we slip them into pockets and into bags; the way we lose them. It’s the tangibility of the object, and the way it is this little tiny thing that lead to tragedy.
There is something in this way Schlegl explores the tangible that makes the work strongest: a coin leading to the murder of Marie Antoinette; doughnuts being used to sell a war. When Schlegl strays from this premise, the work feels weaker: while the story of Chinese empress Wu Zetian is interesting, hinging the tale of her rise to power on a blood clot feels like a stretch – yes, a clot is a small thing, but they exist in our consciousness more as a process or a part of a greater catastrophic health event rather than a discrete, seemingly benign object that can unexpectedly change the course of history.
The show would be stronger, too, with mentions to references or further readings (Kiera Lindsey is credited as the podcast’s history consultant, but there is nowhere in the episodes or on the website detailing where these stories are pulled from) – not only so our interest in this history has a direction to turn to, but also because of the beautiful disparate ways it leans on different kinds of reference points: the movie Titanic as valid a contextualising source as any other. As the ABC continues to expand in their podcast production, the inadequacies in the web infrastructure surrounding their shows becomes increasingly stark.
In our current world of streaming television, it feels strange to watch a show without bingeing it – but it wasn’t until I listened to Little Tiny’s five episodes back-to-back that I realised how much I enjoy the serialisation of podcasts. I watch TV on my own time, but I like the way podcasts slip into your life; the regularity of certain series’ release schedules meaning you build them into your daily routine; or the haphazard release of others, which pop back into your life like a small gift every now and then.
I watch TV on my own time, but I like the way podcasts slip into your daily routine.
The ABC’s decision to release all five episodes simultaneously is an odd one, because it makes the season seem unfortunately slight: it takes less than an hour to listen to them all, after which they can be cast aside. Even for a mini-series, the beauty in weekly or fortnightly releases is how these works keep on playing through our lives; how, if one episode reminds you of another, you have to reach back into the archives; how you might want to listen to the one episode several times, because there aren’t others competing for your attention.
The simultaneous release, to me, interrupts the curation of Little Tiny and its narrative arc. I accidentally listen out of order – the first episode I listen to ends with Schlegl saying ‘And that’s it for season one! A pretty bleak way to end the season, with all those decapitations.’ The episodes stand alone and don’t require listening in order, but I wonder how my experience would’ve changed if I engaged with them the way Schlegl intended.
Little Tiny is a lovely addition to this world of podcasts about the small, but to me it seems closest to the brilliant 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy (now the latest podcast with a spin-off: this time, a book), a series of ten-minute-odd episodes from the BBC World Service in which Tim Harford takes an often seemingly mundane facet of everyday life, and uses it to tell human history. The expansive series constantly looks to the way economic factors influenced society. The two final episodes (before the bonus Number 51) make particularly strong links to women’s rights: ‘Cold Chain’ introduces the history of refrigeration, eventually ending up on the story of how electric refrigerators in homes helped more women enter the workforce; and ‘The Plough’, about the inception of modern farming, and how this pushed women into the role of homemaker.
Released weekly for a year, 50 Things wriggled its way into my life: a quick weekly history and economics lesson, shifting the way I see the world. Little Tiny has all of the ingredients to build this relationship, too: I hope it is given the space to grow and thrive.