In my job as the lead instructor for College Media Network’s Music Journalism Course, I often find myself talking about the era when I really got into music writing: the 1980s. It was easy back then, I tell my students: If you bought records and you read music magazines (and occasionally turned on the radio), you had pretty much all the info you needed.
Not so much as the 2010s crawl to a close. You still need to buy records and read about music, but you have to keep up with streaming platforms, videos and websites. And oh yeah, you need to keep up with podcasts: people talking about music. (That’s one reason I also teach a course on podcasting, but that’s another post.)
With something like 70,000 podcasts in the world, not even the most dedicated William Miller-wannabe can keep up with it all. Here, then, are four podcasts you should subscribe to if you are an aspiring (or current) music journalist.
All Songs Considered
Hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton have been at this podcasting thing for almost 20 years (!) and while their show does occasionally veer into that ultra-dry public radio style, there is no denying they are the top of the heap.
The world renowned Tiny Desk Concerts are an offshoot of the show and Boilen is one of the most connected music journalists, writers and musicians in America. By no means is it essential to listen to every episode, but you should keep up with their weekly new music roundups and specials.
A product of the innovative Gimlet, this “hip-hop miniseries” debuted in 2017 and was hosted by Reggie Ossé. The first season told the story of Chris Lightly, an influential producer and influencer who was killed in 2012. It’s fast-moving, creative, insightful episodes feel fresh, even though they are two years old. This pod manages to treat recent history with a balance of intelligence, skepticism and perspective. And Lightly’s story is crazy.
Ossé was diagnosed with colon cancer just a couple of months after completing the first season of Mogul. He passed in December of 2017 (a tribute episode to Ossé was published in July).
Here’s hoping there is a second Mogul season, but even if it never appears, the first season is a great achievement and all music writers should be familiar with the excellent audio biography style it pioneered.
Show creator and host Hrishikesh Hirway hit on a formula that other shows have copied or co-opted in one way or another, but this is the original show to have artists analyze their songs piece by piece, riff by riff, lyric by lyric.
“Using the isolated, individual tracks from a recording, Hrishikesh asks artists to delve into the specific decisions that went into creating their work,” reads the description on the official Song Exploder website, but the show is more than a clinical deconstruction: it gets at the heart of the creative process. If you seek to understand art and its origins — be they musical, written or otherwise — you should dive into this podcast on a regular basis.
Cocaine and Rhinestones
On the subject of biography and pioneering styles, there is no podcast quite like Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine and Rhinestones. It’s a show about the history of 20th Century country music, but as the outspoken Coe (follow him on Twitter, if you dare) writes, “You don’t have to know what it’s like to drive a tractor. You don’t need to have spent the last 20 years listening to nothing but Merle Haggard 8 tracks while sipping Pearl beer from a can in order to appreciate these incredible stories and this genius music.”
Coe exhaustively researches each episode and spins each tale with a unique speaking style that comes from living most of his life inside the belly of the country music beast — he’s the son of notorious outlaw musician David Allen Coe.
The genius of the first season — the second is hotly anticipated and should be released sometime this fall — is in the way Coe picks such key moments in the development of the music and illuminates them. There are no less than three episodes on the song “Harper Valley P.T.A.” for example. Even if you think you can’t stand country music, give Coe two episodes and he’ll change your mind.
If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.