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Guests on the Word Up podcast. Image: © ABC

I’ve written many times about the dying state of theatre criticism in Australia; but on the other hand, at least there is a standard from which to decline. Podcasts are a whole different matter. As I refocus this column on podcasts, the primary question I need to face is: what is podcast criticism?

Over the past few years podcasts have risen from a niche product into a mainstream – and often profitable – pursuit. Yet coverage of the form, by and large, exists in hot-takes on the latest Serial, listicles of what you should be listening to, or podcasts of podcast criticism – which is rather different than criticism as a written form. There are some stunning critics – Sarah Larson, in the New Yorker, and Caroline Crampton, now publishing her own newsletter, among them – but they are largely the exception.

In a time where word counts for all arts coverage have been rapidly diminishing, there is scant space for media to cover this interesting, growing art form. Old art forms suffer for the loss; new art forms suffer from having nothing to gain.

Performance criticism ties into the industry in three ways: immediately as a consumer guide, long-term as a critical barometer, and even longer-term as a historical record of a transient art form. It is very much about recording what happens in a physical space, in a particular time. So what of podcasts? With most shows available for free, there isn’t the same consumer guide impetus as with ticket sales; podcasts aren’t tied to a time or space, and so an act of criticism doesn’t have the same historical grounding. But there is, I believe, something important about considering and critiquing an art form as it grows; in perhaps creating a guide for the consumer amongst the noise; and in providing a historical context for how podcasts fit into our lives now.

There is something important about considering and critiquing an art form as it grows…and in providing a historical context for how podcasts fit into our lives now.

I have written about podcasts for KYD on occasion in the past, and it’s been surprising while writing to realise how much of my critical vocabulary is built around performance. I know how to describe performance – from a technical aspect but also, more pertinently, from an ephemeral one. I’ve developed the neural linguistic pathways to at least attempt to translate a live, physical art form into the written word – and it is only in this shift I’ve realised how important these considerations of place inform my criticism. So how do I begin to create a vocabulary for myself to consider a medium free from the constraints of space and time?

Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about this act of translation from aural art form to written critique, I’ve been leaning into podcasts about language, programs that explore how we speak and where our words come from. Perhaps exploring this new form of criticism only makes sense if I begin with exploring language itself.

A recent episode of Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki’s The World in Words speaks to the art of translation: in this case, poetry between languages. In ‘Speaking Yiddish To The Dead’, poet Jennifer Kronovet talks about her journey learning Yiddish in order to translate the poetry of Celia Dropkin. Kronovet tenderly narrates her journey into the language, her hesitance in the face of a new world and the new friends she meets, the way a new language can fold itself into a life.

Into the narration, Kronovet weaves interviews with her colleagues, tracing their disparate relationships with the Yiddish language and with Dropkin. It’s a gentle podcast which leans into Kronovet’s relationship with this new (to her) language. As the episode progresses, we hear more and more Yiddish, as Dropkin’s poems are read in their original language, parsed for us in English.

These themes come up often in The World in Words, whose episodes alternate between conversations and highly scripted reportage: the way languages converge and diverge in the ways they perceive the world, the ways different languages can be more precise or more lyrical; the way they can lean into emotions or humour or stoicism.

I have listened to Cox and Porzucki talk about how machines learn our accents and how we learn to lose them; discuss the relationship between European and Native American languages; even explore how an alien might understand English. Even when looking at other languages, The World in Worlds is always looking back to English: what we learn about how our own language shapes the way we see the world, and the complex mess of languages that have gone to make English the strange language it is.

Even when looking at other languages, The World in Worlds is always looking back to English: what we learn about how our own language shapes the way we see the world.

Helen Zaltzman, of The Allusionist, is wonderfully obsessed with the strangeness of the English language. Taking a wry look at words and phrases, she speaks to linguists, etymologists, and a whole host of experts in their field, thinking about the way we understand Dickens’ England; where etymons and eponyms are formed; how US states get their mottos. The key to the show is Zaltzman’s obvious delight in words and language, and the funny sticky bits around the edges of our understanding of the ways we talk every day.

(And, for a genre which constantly tells me what website I should be ordering a mattress from, Zaltzman’s ads are simple and refreshing: a word of the day randomly chosen from a dictionary, which she implores us to ‘use in an email today.’ It is simple, in keeping with the show, and a light note to leave her audience with.)

But the show is equally adept at harder stories: ‘Eclipse’ explores a woman’s journey losing and recovering language after a stroke; ‘Sanctuary’ charts the evolution of the word, from a church haven for criminals, to the way we use it today to talk about refugees and immigrants.

Produced as part of the Radiotopia network, The Allusionist takes a similar tack to Radiotopia’s most famous offering, 99% Invisible. Where 99% Invisible treats the designed world as a mystery to be solved, The Allusionist treats language in this way: a thing we live with every day, with hidden stories that need to be uncovered and exposed.

Closer to home, Word Up is a delightful bite-sized podcast from ABC Radio National, cut from Daniel Browning’s Awaye! program on Aboriginal arts and culture. Australia is home to hundreds of unique language groups, and the episodes, which range from around two to six minutes, are an introduction to ‘the diverse languages of Black Australia, one word at a time.’ Word Up isn’t about teaching a new language, but rather about the pockets of insight we can learn by linguistically exploring this country.

Word Up isn’t about teaching a new language, but rather about the pockets of insight we can learn by linguistically exploring this country.

In each episode, a new guest introduces three words from an Indigenous Australian language. For some guests this is their first language; others learnt it later in life. All are committed to ensuring a vibrant life of their language in younger generations, and they generously give us a peek into their culture through these words.

Word Up positions itself as a language podcast, but like all considerations of language it is much broader. Because each guest only chooses three words, there is often incredible meaning behind them as they speak to terms of cultural or personal significance: the word for listen, followed by an explanation of why the act of listening is important; the word for fish, followed by an explanation that fish is the guest’s favourite food.

Around their words, it feels like guests are largely left to their own devices: Gubbi Gubbi elder, academic and former athlete Eve Fesl giggles through the retelling of her life story, of learning German in the hopes of travelling to Europe with the 1960 Olympic team; Senator Malarndirri McCarthy’s calm and steady voice shows her media training as she carefully repeats each of the words she chooses. This mix of speakers – their personalities, their approaches to the challenge, their accents – also gives us a new look at Australia. These podcasts are short and sharp, perfectly dropping between longer listens in your feed – but also uncannily addictive, easy to pop down one after another.

Podcasting as a whole would improve if more podcasts invested in transcripts: they create a searchable record and reference, and improve accessibility for listeners who speak English as a second language and/or have various disabilities. The Allusionist is the only one of the three discussed here that readily supplies them. But it feels like a particular oversight that the ABC doesn’t supply a transcript for Word Up, both for listeners like me who don’t speak these languages but would like to learn more; but also for the record it would create of these Indigenous words held close to the heart.

Perhaps it is because I work with words that I listen to so many podcasts on the topic: these mentioned here, but also those which explore writing; those which (optimistically) try to teach me a new language. But there is something simple they often share, which we can all do well to remember: there is a lot we can learn from taking a closer look at the little things we use every day. Through understanding words, we can begin to understand the world.