Are you sitting comfortably? Why podcasts are perfect for short stories

Published on: 24 September 2011 Author: Clare Wigfall

Award-winning short story writer Clare Wigfall was our Writer in Residence in 2011. Here, she shares her favourite podcasts and explains why they work so well with the short story format.

Family from the 1950's

I've been wanting to blog for a while about some of my favourite podcasts, and now seems a good moment because another thing I've also been wanting to write about is the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award –  and currently all five shortlisted stories can be downloaded as, you guessed it, podcasts! This year's BBC story award will be announced on Monday 26 September 2011.

I'm on holiday with my family in Puglia at the moment and we've been listening to the shortlisted stories in the car on our day trips down to the beach and out visiting medieval Italian villages. We've already decided which story we would like to see win, and which we'd give the runner-up prize to, but we'll have to wait until Monday to hear the verdict of this year's judges.

More about Claire Wigfall's time as Writer in Residence

What it's like to win a big national prize

It makes me remember how incredibly exciting it was to have a story in the running for the prize – my story 'The Numbers' won the award in 2008. I'm not sure what the exact listener figures are, but having a story shortlisted and broadcast on Radio 4 for the award is quite possibly the largest audience any story you've written will ever receive. I remember that this was one of the things that staggered me at the time, and I think it's one of the reasons why this award is so important.

The exposure the BBC award brings to the short story form is vitally important because it raises collective awareness of why short stories are worthy of celebration. Certainly, when I was working away on my story alone in my bedroom, I could never have imagined it would eventually touch the lives of so many. The fact that it did, and the fact that the judges found it worthy of that year's award, meant a huge amount. In fact, it was perhaps one of the first points when I realised that there really was an audience out there for whom my work was of value.

Sometimes writing can be such a solitary occupation, it's easy to forget this. It might sound silly to say it, but knowing that what I create can move, entertain and bring pleasure to others is hugely encouraging.

Listen to more short stories

So I urge you to download the five shortlisted stories from the BBC Radio 4 website here. There's a fantastic selection this year and I know you'll enjoy them. You can also make up your own mind about who you think should win this year's prize. For the next couple of weeks you can download them for free, and I believe that after that they'll be available on iTunes.

For now, here's this year's shortlist:

  • 'Rag Love' by M J Hyland
  • 'The Heart of Denis Noble' by Alison MacLeod
  • 'Wires' by Jon McGregor
  • 'The Human Circadian Pacemaker' by K J Orr
  • 'The Dead Roads' by D W Wilson
Podcasts, you see, lend themselves perfectly to the short story. I've always loved to have a story read to me – don't we all?

I also love podcasts though for the fact that I can listen to them while I do other things: sometimes boring things, such as folding the laundry and cooking the dinner. But they are also wonderful when you're travelling – the story and the moment can become perfectly intertwined and utterly memorable, such as the Ron Carlson story 'Towel Season' (on a PRI Selected Shorts episode) that I listened to one snow-laden afternoon as I trekked through the Indian Himalayas, or Jhumpa Lahiri reading William Trevor's story 'A Day' to me (on a New Yorker podcast) while I sat inside a dark train carriage travelling to Paris one night.

7 of my favourite podcasts

So, what I'm giving you here are my most favourite podcasts – not just story podcasts – and they're in no particular order:

  1. New Yorker Fiction: For decades now, the New Yorker has been publishing short stories from the world's best short story authors. This amazing series plunders that archive of stories, asking current New Yorker authors to select a story from a previous issue, which they then read and discuss with New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman. A recent edition, for example, has Salman Rushdie reading Donald Barthelme's 'Concerning the Bodyguard'.
  2. PRI Selected Shorts: 'Let us tell you a story,' request the Selected Shorts team. This series is recorded in front of a live audience and presents usually two or three stories read live by stars of stage and screen. The stories and performance are always of the very highest quality. The most recent episode happens to be a reading of Tim O'Brien's story 'The Things They Carried', which my friend Eric thinks is a near perfect story.
  3. The Moth: Real stories told live without notes is the agenda of The Moth. The Moth storytelling series started on a front porch in Georgia and has spread across the States. Dedicated to the art and craft of the oral tradition of storytelling, unlike the two story podcasts above, all Moth stories are true. Very often hilarious, moving, or gripping, what unites these stories and their tellers is that they are consistently entertaining.
  4. This American Life: We first came across This American Life on a family trip back to the US a few years ago. The shows were the perfect way to keep our whole family entertained on a road trip from San Francisco to Portland and I'm still listening to them today. Each show usually has a theme, with three to four stories (or acts, as the show calls them). Most of the acts are documentary in nature, but occasionally they also include fictional short stories (David Sedaris and Etgar Keret are both regular contributors).
  5. Radiolab: Radiolab has a distinctly frenetic style that isn't to everyone's taste, but if you can keep up with its pace, the subject matter of this popular science show is very often absolutely fascinating. I've learnt a lot through listening. A recent podcast I was listening to, for example, discussed a scientist's discovery – through analysis of the language in her 80 books – that it is highly likely that somewhere around book 73, Agatha Christie started to develop Alzheimer's. How amazing that he can identify that today through her work, when it was never formally diagnosed in her lifetime.
  6. BBC Short Story Award: It's been a new initiative to offer the shortlisted stories as podcasts (unfortunately this wasn't yet done in the year I won the award, as I would have loved to have had a podcast of my story). I wish the BBC would begin to release all of its afternoon readings as podcasts too – please.
  7. Guardian Short Stories: this 12-podcast series began last year and ran just before Christmas. I hope it will become an annual affair. The idea is similar to the New Yorker fiction podcast in that the Guardian invited authors to select another author's story to read – the authors wrote about their choice in the Guardian Review. Again, some brilliant stories here, including Philip Pullman reading Chekhov and Helen Dunmore reading Frank O'Connor.

Well, that lot should keep you going for a while. You can subscribe to all of these series through iTunes or a similar podcast manager, then download them to your computer or MP3 player and enjoy. I hope you'll find something you love!

Read more blogs from Claire Wigfall

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