Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blogging the Hugos 2012: Best Fancast

I'm not as well-read in 2011 as I was in 2009, but I'm hoping to give my views on this year's nominees when it comes to the 2012 Hugo Awards. I'll start with a category I'm most familiar with: Best Fancast.

Best Fancast (326 ballots)

The Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe
Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts (presenters) and Andrew Finch (producer)
SF Signal Podcast, John DeNardo and JP Frantz, produced by Patrick Hester
SF Squeecast, Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente
StarShipSofa, Tony C. Smith

Disclosure: I'm a contributor to SF Signal and participated in one of their episodes.

The Category

As a background, Best Fancast is a "single, extra, one-time Hugo Award" exercised by Chicon 7 and defined as "Any non-professional audio- or video-casting with at least four (4) episodes that had at least one (1) episode released in 2011."

The last podcast to have won previously was StarShipSofa under Best Fanzine, causing some controversy back in 2010, although it's not the only podcast to have been nominated in the history of the awards (Writing Excuses, for example, was a nominee under Best Related Work).

As far as the ballots are concerned, Best Fancast has slightly more ballots than the Best Fanzine category, but fewer than Best Related Work (where Writing Excuses again competes, mostly due to its professional nature).

In an ideal world, any award-giving body rewarding podcasts should theoretically have several categories, in much the same way we have separate categories for the novel, novella, novelette, and short story. But this isn't an ideal world—nor, perhaps, would there be enough voters to create such a detailed categorization—and I'm personally thankful we have this category at all.

The Nominees

This year's nominees is an interesting list for two reasons.

The first is due to the format of the nominees: they're different and distinct from each other, some in major ways, others in the details. For example, only StarShipSofa is a podcast that features fiction. Another common trend in a lot of podcasts is the interview format, but that's the exception here rather than the norm. SF Signal Podcast is the only one to conduct interviews on a regular (in this case, weekly) basis, while The Coode Street Podcast occasionally dabbles in it (SF Squeecast has a brief segment at the end where they quiz their guest). The rest brings me to my second point.

There seems to be a gap when it comes to genre commentary, at least as far as the awards are concerned. It's as niche that seems to be occupied by the magazines, when they have columns, opinions, or fan mail; or occasionally, perhaps the Best Related Work category. A dominant theme (four of the five nominees) among the podcasts is that they provide commentary on a particular subject, not as individuals (which tends to be the case in print), but as a group, like an actual panel discussion, which, in turns, makes great use of the format.

Personally, I regularly listen to four of the five nominated podcasts, and it's a difficult choice. If I voted for the Hugos, these nominees would easily have made it to my shortlist.

Interesting fact: three of the podcasts started in 2010.

The Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe

This can be easily summarized as two friends informally chatting and talking about the genre, along with the occasional interview here and there. What sets it apart aside from "just two guys" is the fact that Strahan and Wolfe are articulate when it comes to the discussion, especially when you consider their background (as critics) and profession (one is a short fiction editor, the other has expertise when it comes the academe). They "ramble" but it's intelligent rambling (even if they make mistakes at times). Their schedule is also weekly, so material is timely and relevant.

One important episode from 2011, in my opinion, was their discussion with Farah Mendlesohn, and Tansy Rayner Roberts on Diana Wynne Jones (which arose from some shortcomings in a previous episode on the same subject—remember that I said they're informal and that they ramble?).

If I were to vote, it's honestly a toss-up between this and Galactic Suburbia (see below).

Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts (presenters) and Andrew Finch (producer)

When you have a group discussion, honestly, four's a crowd. Galactic Suburbia gets it right with three opinionated participants. While they have a common agenda, namely the speculative fiction field, Australia, and Feminism, they also each have distinct aesthetics and paradigms, and bring something different to the table (Krasnostein is a publisher, Pierce is a reviewer/fan, Roberts is an author). As for the format, they discuss relevant genre news and discuss the "culture that they've consumed". Personally, a two-hour podcast is a stretch, but Galactic Suburbia is worth it (they're also bi-monthly so the length isn't as overwhelming if it were a weekly podcast).

Since it's mostly timely commentary, the various episodes are a blur (you can read a summary here), but one memorable episode for me is their discussion on the works of Joanna Russ.

SF Signal Podcast, John DeNardo and JP Frantz, produced by Patrick Hester

Aside from any conflict-of-interest (see my initial disclaimer), credit here goes to Patrick Hester, who brings his previous podcast experience to the table. Honestly, when the show began in 2010 (outside of the scope of this year's awards), it began with a rough start. In the beginning of 2011, the podcast found its format, separating its roundtable discussions from the interviews, with each show appearing once a week. If you're just looking for sheer content, this is one of the podcasts to subscribe to.

What the podcast brings to the table is whereas the other shows in this category are professional (in its approach, in its participants, etc.), this is the opposite: it's a podcast by fans, for fans. That doesn't necessarily make for the most astute of interviews or moderated discussions, but this informality and "ruggedness" is what makes it stand out from the other nominees.

One important episode for me is their discussion with Cat Valente, Chris Roberson, Allison Baker & Alan Beatts on What the Borders Bankruptcy Means for Brick and Mortar Bookstores. They also recently started a mega-panel series, the first one being their Sword and Sorcery panel 1|2|3 that barely made it in 2011.

SF Squeecast, Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente

One of the most unique podcasts out there, not just because of the all-star cast, but because of the format: each one talks about a favorite text (book, movie, comic, TV show, etc.). Since each one gets their own screen time, the large ensemble doesn't overwhelm the listener. Frequently, there's also a special guest (like George R. R. Martin!), which adds variety to the dynamic.

If you're looking for media recommendations, this is the podcast to listen to. For me though, while cognitively I understand how difficult it can be to recommend a text more than once a month, I wish there were more episodes of the SF Squeecast. An hour's dose every month isn't enough!

In many ways, this, for me, is the "safe" vote, as it's not a podcast that's meant to offend (the agenda is to squee about your favorites!). As far as episodes are concerned, because they follow a prescribed format, nothing stands out too much (they're also new so it's slim pickings for 2011), although I find that their Winter Holiday Extravaganza-themed episode to be appropriate.

StarShipSofa, Tony C. Smith

I'll make this brief: I don't regularly listen to StarShipSofa (sorry Tony!), although I did listen to the previous incarnation of its sibling show, The Sofanauts. And that's due to my personal bias, not because of the podcast's quality: I'm not in the habit of listening to audio fiction.

And that's what makes StarShipSofa remarkable. It deserves its Hugo Best Fanzine win because when you think of the typical content in a fanzine, that's exactly what this podcast provides, except it's delivered aurally. You have a mix of nonfiction (including the occasional interview) and fiction. And Smith delivers this week after week, with talented audio narrators.

Personally not my cup of tea, but this is easily the successor of the fanzine format for audiophiles. And as far as the podcast category is concerned, this is the only nominee that publishes audio fiction.

Other Recommendations:

While I'm betting on The Coode Street Podcast and Galactic Suburbia Podcast, here's some podcasts that could have been nominees:

SFFaudio: If we're just talking about genre podcasts, SFFaudio is the website to visit (disclosure: I used to be a contributor for the site). They also have a podcast, which provides much-needed commentary on podcast fiction.

The Writer and the Critic: If you're looking for critical, no-holds-barred discussion on books, you need to listen to this show. The chemistry (or sometimes, lack of it) between the hosts and their guest is priceless.

Locus Roundtable Podcast: Intelligent discussions and impressive guests makes this a podcast that you need to subscribe to. It's focused and articulate, and since it tends to be limited to a pair of guests, everyone has ample chance to elaborate.

The Agony Column: It's not frequently visited by most genre fans, but Rick Kleffel does some of the best interviews... as far back as 2003. He also records the SF in SF panels and readings.


Andrew Trembley said...

Chicon7 is using their one-time category to trial the Fancast category that was passed at Reno and is up for ratification in Chicago. If the category is ratified this year it becomes a real category (for the next 3 years, then it needs another ratification to make it permanent).

I like this year's slate. It shows there is a strong field, and the category is likely to be ratified.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I hope it remains a category. There are so many podcasts as it is that they deserve a section all to themselves.

Charles: Don't forget The Skiffy and Fanty Show! Granted, I'm biased about that one... :P