XO: the most emotionally intense podcast you'll ever hear


Podcasting is often described as the evolution of radio, but I consider it more an evolution of the telephone.

The Serials of the world notwithstanding, most podcasts don't draw mass audiences, nor do they intend to. The most satisfying moments of my life as a podcast listener come when I feel directly and honestly communicated to by the show's host and producer — two roles podcasting has finally allowed the same person to play simultaneously.

Many of those most satisfying moments have occurred while listening to XO. Its Toronto-based host/producer Keith McNally weaves together memory, music, and a magpie's collection of appropriated media, often with a This American Life-style aesthetic, to reflect upon matters like lovesickness, marriage, phobias, the "bystander effect", the sound sensitivity disorder misophonia, podcast craftsmanship itself, and the end of the world.

Sometimes he makes episodes about works of art. Elliott Smith fans will notice that the show shares its title with one of that troubled singer-songwriter's albums, and it has one of its own. So does Alice in Chains' Dirt, Bryan Lee O'Malley's video game-saturated comic series Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, video games themselves, Adam Cadre's piece of interactive fiction Photopia, and the Harlequin romance novel he attempted to write as a teenager.

He also makes shows about the lives of other people, from those of comedians like Tracy Morgan, Patrice O'Neal, and Louis CK to even more unusual ones like that of Ultima designer and real-life spaceflier Richard Garriott to the tragically short life of Japan blogger Rodger Swan to the still-going but perhaps equally tragic life of his own drug-addict brother.

And the more XO I ear, the more I enjoy the episodes based directly on McNally's personal experiences, whether a bus trip, his joyfully drunken move back to Toronto after a stint in New York, or his rooftop hangout with his ex-girlfriend in which he tells the story of a house fire he survived.

After years of listening to his show, I recently went to Toronto to interview McNally on my own podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. We drank beers in secret out on the ostensibly closed back deck of a bar. We talked about life, love, culture, where we live, video games, the internet, death, and the mementos mori that keep our heads in the game — all the guiding themes of XO.