The Internet, we’ve been told, is the greatest library in the history of man—immediate, boundless, constantly expanding. In practice, though, many of us experience the Internet more like history’s greatest nightstand: piled high, and endlessly replenished, with guilty-making tokens of our unfulfilled intellectual ambitions. The bedside bogeymen of the physical world taunt us in updated guises—the Pikettys, Knausgaards, and other half-read doorstops that now burden our Kindles, the unfinished New Yorkers that now accumulate in our Newsstand apps. And they’re accompanied by new ghouls: unexplored tabs, undigested takedowns, unheeded #longread tips, unfinished explainers, unwatched unearthed footage, unplumbed Netflix queues, and un- and un- and un-.
Podcasts, somehow, are different. I just tallied up the 53 unheard episodes sitting in my podcast library, and, doing so, felt none of the guilt, dread, or FOMO that, say, my clogged Instapaper queue can inspire in me. What I felt instead was excitement at the prospect of 53 ingredients for a binge that will come with no bloat, 53 pieces of candy that will make my teeth stronger, 53 ways to feel like I’m being productive with my time while I’m wasting time. Podcasters cite this 2004 Guardian story as the first use of the term podcast, and as the medium winds down its 10th year, it’s more robust than ever. According to Apple, subscriptions of podcasts on iTunes reached the 1-billion mark last year and a study by Edison Research shows that 39 million Americans listen to podcasts monthly. Trend pieces declare, and explore, the podcasting renaissance. But while we know that podcasts are unprecedentedly popular, we still haven’t developed a critical language to talk about them—to think about what makes them work, what makes them great, and how they are able to reconcile an aura of virtuousness with one of utter addictiveness.
Podcasts embody what is arguably the essential promise of the Internet: a means for surprising, revealing, and above all ennobling encounters with people, things, and ideas we didn’t know. Listen to enough podcasts and you may come to feel that they are not merely of the Internet, but improved, microcosmic versions of it. Podcasts occupy a sophisticated position within what we might call the feel-good Web—that sunny slice of the neighborhood where uplifting listicles and heartwarming tales of compassion form bulwarks against the cruelty and nastiness that overflow from YouTube comments and other online hellmouths. Animal-rescue slideshows are, in this sense, a lot like animal-rescue segments on the nightly news: soothing, if ephemeral, respites from an otherwise uninterrupted drumbeat of horror. Podcasts participate in an aesthetics of personal uplift, too, but go deeper. Almost all popular examples of the form stage an implicitly or explicitly bettering encounter with expertise—sustained but, crucially, not overlong; involved but, crucially, not intimidating. The eighth most-popular podcast series on iTunes as I write this sentence is Stuff You Should Know. The 10th is The Tapping Solution Podcast, filed under self-help, which offers, according to its description, “SIMPLE, inspiring information to BRIGHTEN your day, motivate you, and help you live your best life.” At No. 15 is the TED Radio Hour, a virtual expert-parade, and at No. 34 comes a new series called The Canon, in which movie critics hash out the great films pantheon, episode by episode. Dominating iTunes’ uppermost reaches are the titans of podcast reportage, which promise betterment more subtly, but no less alluringly. Listening to Serial, This American Life, Radiolab, WTF with Marc Maron, or 99% Invisible, we expect to come out the other end edified and enriched, in complex ways. The hosts and producers on these series may be experts themselves, but not necessarily. Ira Glass and his acolytes cultivate an approachable, grad-school-Columbo aesthetic of unpolished, “hold up a sec—let me, like, try and wrap my head around this” narration. Still, the best podcast hosts are ninjas when it comes to sniffing out expertise from all manner of refreshingly unlikely people—professors of anomalistic psychology, ace comedy showrunners, Long Island car salesmen—and rendering it not just broadly intelligible but emotionally gripping.
The progress bars of the best podcasts trace elevating trajectories, and this sensation of momentum relates to a formal fact about them: They are precision-engineered to be easy to get through. The thing that happens when you find yourself reading and re-reading a single sentence, no longer seeing the words, tediously unable to proceed till you’ve broken through your own fog and untied the sentence’s knots? There is no podcast equivalent. The language in podcasts is as a rule seldom very tangled—producers work hard to never leave listeners feeling disoriented, at least not for long or without dramatic effect—and if you temporarily zone out during an episode, there is no obstacle you have to surmount before you can proceed, because the podcast keeps moving blithely onward. You can either smoothly tune back in or, if you’ve missed something crucial, rewind and pay attention this time.
Most podcasts are structured around the oral traditions of either storytelling or conversation, which underscores the most obvious formal fact of podcasts: They’re driven by voices. Recognizing this, we talk about the form’s special sense of intimacy and even its erotics: the dulcet phonemes of Jad Abumrad, issuing into us from earbuds snugly nestled into our heads. Abumrad, the Radiolab host, has himself observed that, in the absence of visual information, when he describes something to listeners on the radio, “In a sense, I’m painting something but I’m not holding the paintbrush. You are. So it’s this deep act of co-authorship, and in that is some potential for empathy.”
The point in the specific case of podcasts is that this empathic partnership unfolds in the context of the Internet, where we’re constantly trying to combat novel forms of loneliness with novel forms of connectedness: I dial up a TV recap, my Twitter feed, or a blog post, and the air around me suddenly thrums with friends, fiends, and other lively interlocutors. In the case of podcasts, the air literally thrums, our eardrums vibrate, and the cliché of the “human touch” is physicalized. The empathic encounter in a podcast can be comforting, in this sense, even as it knocks us outside of a blinkered comfort zone—actually hearing the students at Harper High School narrate their experiences, on This American Life, and following them down the school hallways helps us begin to understand their circumstances with a different kind of nuance and immediacy than print can muster.
We tend to trust voices instinctively, which helps to explain the potency of what we might broadly categorize as curation-style podcasts—like the hilarious hip-hop talk show Desus vs. Mero, or Slate’s own Gabfests—which present us with knowledgeable people taking us through a kaffeeklatsch digest of, loosely defined, “what we need to know,” and in the process sculpting the Internet’s chaotic overgrowth into topiary. There’s a certain parallel here with the appeal of cable-news pundits and their fake-news counterparts, who at least putatively “cut through the crap,” assemble messy news into a clean prerogative, and create, in the process, a community of fans whose shared sensibility organizes around a dependable voice. There is no shortage of noise online. Podcasts promise signal.
When they seem not to work, the failure often unfolds along the same lines: a veneer of expertise gives way to displays of narrative ineptness, we lose trust in our host, and are dislodged from what we’re hearing. This happens when WTF’s Marc Maron, granted an interview with Garry Shandling, keeps steering the exchange to his own issues with his father; it happens in the first, faltering episode of Criminal, a successful true-crime podcast that has since improved but played initially like a facile imitation of This American Life, substituting curious trivia, meaningless rhetorical questions, and moody interstitial music for rigorous thinking and philosophical profundity. In a podcast, the moment we lose faith in our guide, it becomes increasingly excruciating to keep listening—intimacy curdles into invasiveness.
In this light, it’s an especially interesting fact of podcasts that they rarely consist of a single narrator: The job of the authoritative steward in podcasts is constantly fragmented and delegated to many voices, whether it’s segment producers or interviewees, who advance the narrative relay-race style. This structure can feel both tradition-bound—think 60 Minutes—and distinctly contemporary, in the era of Storify tweet anthologies, collaborative Reddit investigations, and “let us know what you think in the comments” news items. The multitude of voices in podcasts has become its own sort of aural joke in the hyper-collages of speakers reading credits on Radiolab and mispronouncing MailChimp on Serial. The most prominent monologue I can think of in podcasting is Maron’s introductory ramble, before the interview portion commences—a way to tether the show to Maron’s stand-up pedigree, and an anomaly.
Speaking of pluralities of voices, there does lurk a sense that podcasting is, like pumpkin spice, high on the list of “stuff white people like”—dominated, in other words, by one kind of voice in particular. The most obvious reason for this is podcasting’s strong ties to public radio, and the white, liberal listenership that NPR commonly connotes. Last month, seeing something more insidious than a pumpkin-spice joke at play in this dynamic, Jay Caspian Kang wrote an essay criticizing Serial, whose host is white and Jewish, and whose three central characters are black, Pakistani-American, and Korean-American, for embodying “white reporter privilege.” There are a variety of podcasts produced by and for people of color; if you’re the stereotypical podcasting fan, you just likely haven’t heard of most of them. (Ditto those podcasts that have sprung from the conservative talk-radio circuit.) The question of who gets to narrate whose experience is as crucial in podcasting, as its conventions and contours snap into place, as anywhere else in the culture. If parochialism in podcasting is a bug, of course, it can also be a feature, and podcasts devoted to digging deep into niche interests thrive online in a way they couldn’t elsewhere; the success of something like the Longform Podcast, for instance—built around weekly interviews with magazine journalists—proves that eavesdropping on shop-talk can fascinate those outside the shop, too.
NPR and its affiliate stations produce many popular podcast titles, because they were better positioned than anyone else, in terms of talent and infrastructure, to corner the market early. To a degree, this means that podcasting has functioned as a glorified signal booster—one of the greatest interviewers working is Elvis Mitchell, a Los Angeles–based film critic who hosts the indispensable The Treatment for KCRW; thanks to the podcast version, I can devour his show despite being hundreds of miles from KCRW’s transmitters. But dedicated podcasting networks like Nerdist, Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, and Earwolf have begun to take market share away from NPR, each of these offering its own slate of programming. Such networks might help us to envision what “pure” podcasting might sound like, as distinct from radio repackaged into podcast form. What kinds of stories, and storytelling, might arise from this new medium?
Serial, which grew out of This American Life but has no NPR timeslot, is a helpful example, too, engaged in a style of storytelling that is far too shaggy, circuitous, and ad hoc to imagine in a traditional broadcast context. Comedy Bang! Bang!, the flagship Earwolf title, is another: a faux-talk-show built around the anarchic comedic gifts of a rotating group of L.A. improv-scene mainstays and visiting stars. Comedy Bang! Bang! is hosted by Scott Aukerman, who was a writer on the seminal HBO sketch-comedy series Mr. Show, and who also directs Zach Galifianakis’ online public-access spoof Between Two Ferns. Humor does extremely well in podcast form (as it seemingly does everywhere online) and Comedy Bang! Bang! can get away with chubby running times and all manner of structural curveballs that narrative podcasts can’t, or at least haven’t tried to. Still, I don’t know of any truly experimental or avant-garde podcast—the kind of off-kilter gem you might have once stumbled upon at 2 a.m. on a local free-form station, or, indeed, on public-access television—where part of the experience of listening is to be knocked askew, assaulted, and otherwise disturbed, even as you’re enthralled. This connects to the earlier point about the role of empathic connection in the medium: Podcasts, by and large, establish a relationship marked by comfort.
This must have to do, in part, with the fact that so many of us turn to podcasts when we’re traveling—unmoored, in flux, in between ports. As the continued dominance of drive-time radio demonstrates, traveling creates a circumstance in which we desperately want something familiar, accessible, and digestible to listen to—not only to help the miles whoosh by, but, on a deeper level, to make ourselves feel oriented. There are certain kinds of stories we most like to encounter when we’re in motion: It seems no coincidence that entertainment and news magazines, true-crime paperbacks, and popular works on economics and science dominate train-station and airport kiosks, and that each of these has its iTunes-topping podcast corollary.
The inherent mobility of podcasts is obvious, but a feature worth truly appreciating. At their best, podcasts, capable of accompanying us out of our homes and into the world, aren’t merely ways to kill a commute—we have Flappy Bird for that. Touted technologies of augmented reality, like the much-mocked Google Glass and the much-buzzed-about Magic Leap, which promises to weave digital phenomena seamlessly into our visual fields, suggest a coming era of the mobile Internet in which we are radically untethered from—or, more ominously, made radically indistinguishable from—our screens. But haven’t podcasts, returning our eyes to us in exchange for our ears, already perfected precisely such a technology? Staring at a laptop or a tablet for hours on end exacts a physical toll; podcasts present a way to re-enter, and move through, the natural world without logging off. In an antidotal, and almost paradoxical way, podcasts are the Internet freed from pixels.