By Mark Alpert
I was a late convert to podcasts. I’m a visual guy. When it comes to taking in information and stories, I’ve always been more comfortable using my eyes rather than my ears.
But when I was a kid I loved listening to mystery stories on the radio. My favorite show was CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which was broadcast on Friday nights during the 1970s. I remember one episode in particular that featured a scary god/monster who had the ominous name “Chin-dee.” I also loved the Bob and Ray Show. (“We’ve found that you listeners enjoy hearing these pathetic people tell their tragic stories.”) And Doctor Demento. (“They’re coming to take me away, ha-ha!”)
As I grew older, I sometimes listened to short stories on the radio, especially the Selected Shorts program broadcast from Symphony Space, right here on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But I’ve never listened to an entire novel on audio. I’d rather hold the book in my hands, so I can flip back to chapters that I didn’t read carefully enough the first time around.
When podcasts started proliferating a decade ago, my wife took to them immediately. She’s more of an auditory person, a meticulous listener. She encouraged me to listen to podcasts with her, but I often got antsy, distracted. Recently, though, I’ve become quite interested in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcasts, particularly the episodes about Curtis LeMay, the World War II general who planned the fire-bombing campaign against Japanese cities. What hooked me? This line: “If you make a list of the people responsible for the most civilian deaths in the twentieth century, at the top are Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Hitler, the familiar names. And not too far behind, uncomfortably close behind, is Curtis Emerson LeMay.”
A good podcast, in my opinion, has explanatory power. It can elucidate a complicated subject and reveal hidden truths and nuances. That makes podcasts a particularly good format for science journalism. And my former employer, Scientific American — where I was an editor for ten years — produces some excellent podcasts.
When my first novel, Final Theory, was published in 2008, I did a podcast interview for Scientific American. That novel was about Albert Einstein and the urgent quest to discover a Theory of Everything that would explain all the forces of Nature. In the podcast, I talked about the real science behind my fiction, going on and on about neutrinos and quantum theory and extra dimensions. It was great fun for me — I can talk all day about this stuff — and I think it also persuaded a few potential readers to buy my book. More than anything, I tried to convey my excitement about the subject, in the hope that some of my listeners would get excited too.
Since then I’ve done podcast interviews to promote several of my newer novels (Extinction, The Furies, The Orion Plan). I’ve talked at length about the real technologies described in those books: brain-computer interfaces, cyborg insects, genetic engineering, nanomaterials. Nearly every novel, no matter how wildly speculative, has some connection with the real world, and explaining those connections can make an interesting interview. The key is to find the right podcast for your books, so I think it’s worthwhile to explore the wide variety of audio programs being produced right now.
My latest podcast interview came out just a couple of days ago on the Scientific American website. The topic of that podcast is The Coming Storm, my novel about the Trump administration and its unwise disdain for science and scientists. Although I did the interview before the Covid-19 pandemic, I talked about the dire consequences of ignoring scientific warnings, and the events of the past few months have certainly underlined that message. You can listen to the interview here.