Every day we find new ways to be online. One man’s refrigerator texts him alerts about a coolant error. Another’s baby monitor sends photos of his child in night vision. People wielding phones chase apparitions in the park — Pokémon Go, a layer of childhood pixel monsters draped over physical reality — streaming trails of data behind them. There are tablets at the airport, browsers in rental cars. No screens yet on the subway, we think, and examine print ads for a chat-based pharmacy. But then, as if summoned, the screens appear! It’s our stop, crumbling and dirty as ever, newly outfitted with luminous displays shilling an expanding internet of things. Out on the street, a row of boxy storefronts displays the same pastel objects that have been following us around the social networks via tracker pixel. It’s as if the Instagram square has leapt from the screen. We look around, do a double take. Is this the internet, too?
We accept it, we guess. We like the internet. And really, we’d be online all the time if it weren’t for our eyes, those sensitive organs. Sidewalks fill with blue-light protection ads (on screens, of course) while we wait for our phones to learn to track eyestrain. In the meantime, we tear ourselves away to do the laundry and wash dishes, to drive to the grocery store or navigate on foot via . . . our screens. These activities demand the attention of our eyes and hands, for now. But we still have ears and mouths. Alexa! Play the Goldberg Variations. Actually, no — play the Song Exploder episode about Fleetwood Mac!
This is why we love podcasts: they are the internet for our ears. Now we can be on the internet all the time.
Every corner of the internet has its corresponding podcast. We can’t read left Twitter when assembling Ikea furniture — at least, it’s not in the instructions — but we can listen to The Dig’s deep dive on The Eighteenth Brumaire. Reading the New York Times while attempting Times recipes isn’t recommended, but those who want the Gesamtkunstwerk experience can queue up The Daily. If all you watch on TV is basketball and Top Chef, you can listen to a podcast about Top Chef hosted by two basketball journalists. Or say, just hypothetically, you fell off your bike trying to take a selfie, concussing yourself, and the doctor said not to watch anything on a screen, not even Making a Murderer. Luckily for you, podcasters love murder. A woman we know just posted on Facebook, “FAVORITE MURDER PODCASTS??” and the recs go on for days. The gray ellipsis is still bouncing.
Listening to podcasts is a soothing kind of saturation, like ASMR, if you replaced the crinkly sounds and sensuous whispering with reedy-voiced dudes and cool girls with vocal fry. It’s hard to get riled up by a podcast, when the hosts are inarticulate and the episodes run over an hour. Done right, what the medium encourages is binge listening: each episode, a smooth little capsule, perfectly self-contained, can be popped one after another. The overall effect is pacification, a balm for burnout. As we fall asleep to podcasts and extend our time online into the first REM cycle, their murmuring voices drift into our dreams. There are words in our heads — thoughts, opinions — but for once, they’re not our own.
With your precious metal parasite humming happily in your hand, the only thing stopping you from listening to a podcast is you. Just plug in, pick the show, and play it: there’s no flipping through stations, no snatches of song or prayer, no scraps of news, and no chance you’ll settle on something without knowing what it is. There’s nothing intrusive, accidental, surprising — no static, no interference — and it’ll cut out all the other unwanted noise of life, too. An unbroken stream of sound, a stealth multitasking machine, the podcast has no natural predators. The only interruptions are the ads, but we don’t mind them. They’re for the same five free-delivery, life-in-a-box, order-from-your-phone services we stare at on the subway anyway.
Above all, podcasts make us feel less lonely. We tell ourselves offer codes in order to live. They simulate intimacy just enough to make us feel like we’re in a room with other people, or at least near the room . . . definitely in the same city as the room. But these people with podcasts are so much sharper than us, so at home in their corners of the world, with easy command of their respective bodies of pop-culture knowledge. The appropriate response is fandom. Coughing up $5 on Patreon feels like paying the cover at a dive for our local band, and we’re pleased to be part of something. Some podcasts even do live appearances, for which we might buy tickets. Listening to our heroes’ once intimate voices on a booming sound system, though, surrounded by a thousand fanboys, feels like a betrayal. We thought we had something special, with their voices so close to our ears. Podcasts were the first medium designed to be listened to primarily on headphones, by a single person. Hell is other listeners.
Actually, hell is other fans — specifically, fans of podcasts we don’t listen to. People give each other recommendations, barely better than the algorithm’s, and describe it as “discovery.” “You have to check out Pod Save America,” we hear a journalism student say to a barista. A rookie error, to admit to not listening; once you do, you’ve brought the proselytizing upon yourself. By now we have learned to lie, just like we learned to lie about watching Six Feet Under. Of course we love 99% Invisible! That episode about the artists squatting in a room accidentally built into the mall? So good. Back when we were honest, we suffered more.
The more culture we consume and process alone, on our computers and phones, the more we appreciate the company of others who, in dishing about our common interests, can approximate the collectivity we crave.Tweet
Maybe we were better off with loneliness. In that meme “How It Feels to Listen to Podcasts,” three laughing friends eat sundaes in a brightly colored ad while our IRL stand-in laughs along beside it, a bowl of ice cream slowly melting in his hand. Is that us? Podcast hosts are the friends we think we love hanging out with but who we suspect don’t love us back. You know the types. There are the explainers, at the start of the party, who corner us at the drink table to talk about blockchain-transferred solar power and the fine points of cosmetic dentistry. There are the recappers and decanters, who narrate TV episodes at length, spinning their theories and dispensing gossip. Over on the couch are the nihilist shitposters, politically incoherent but reliably mean about other people’s outfits, and the endearing deadbeats who record from their closets. Standing up straight, beers in hand, are the professionals: producers and reporters who either work for NPR or migrated from the once stable profession of print journalism. They’re talking to the big-name comedians, who invited — ugh — the storytellers. Holding forth by the door is the human-interest host, a descendant of congested Third Coast favorites like Ira Glass, and his rival, the stoner MMA fanatic whose favorite website is a tie between Pornhub and the Wikipedia page for the singularity. Then there are our favorites, the charismatic weirdos: people we like for no reason, people who are just good at talking. Maybe not even good. Maybe just talking.
Did we actually learn anything useful from these people, or just suffer through for a moment of company? Did we stay for that little high of accruing knowledge, however thin? At least now we’re armed with a collection of blithe anecdotes, prepped for retelling. At the next party we can all just talk about what we heard on this week’s podcasts. It doesn’t matter if we remember what they say, or if it’s all nonsense. This is friendship.
We should start a podcast! How hard could it be? Pretty hard, actually, if you want it to sound legit. We had a good podcast once, before our producers left for brighter climes. (If you’re reading this — we miss you!) But we could pivot to DIY, do one of those sprawling phone-conversation shows you record on Skype and master in a free software download. Lo-fi podcasts, when you think about it, are just like blogs. The first real podcast, Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source, even went out over RSS; its raison d’être, like many an early blogger’s, the Iraq war. Our own generational catastrophe is now upon us, as are the means of production. It’s our time!
But blogs . . . were maybe better than this. Bloggers wrote as badly as podcasters talk, but the medium had the charm of being genuinely amateurish. Podcasts, on the other hand, tend toward the unlistenable or the painfully overproduced. The sound quality is bad or the “improvisation” is forced, and the latter can be more grating than the former. There’s a camp on Cape Cod where, for $9,000, you can learn to make the perfect NPR segment. The gist of Ira Glass’s advice: sound “like a real guy telling you something he’s interested in, not a news-robot.” Three more episodes of that guy!
And what would our podcast be about? Surely we can come up with something. Podcasts are second-order cultural productions, records of reactions, consumption in real time. Most of them expand on existing mass-culture obsessions: sports, TV, gossip, crime. They create more culture by attending to culture, but without ever lapsing into criticism. Hosts instead serve as panel commentators on our niche hobbies — Korean skincare, Spider-Man comics — and pet political concerns, such as Supreme Court oral arguments or Pew Research Center polling data. They take the amiable chatter of live television — where our interests would never get the ratings to warrant a dedicated show — and carry it into the more affordable realm of audio. The more culture we consume and process alone, on our computers and phones, the more we appreciate the company of others who, in dishing about our common interests, can approximate the collectivity we crave.
Yesterday, while cooking dinner, we had a strange desire to mainline neoliberalism. We turned on a live-taping of Vox’s The Weeds, with special guest Mayor Pete. This guy spends a lot of time listening to Vox podcasts, we thought. Industrial decline, electric cars, industrial decline, he droned. But then, during the Q&A, one of the attendees asked the host a question that had nothing to do with his guest. Mayor Pete just had to sit there. That’s real power: you have the first gay, polyglot presidential candidate onstage and you, the podcaster, are still the star. Soon, candidates will start lobbying for podcast endorsements the way they meet with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register. Peak podcast will be when The Daily goes rogue from the New York Times and endorses Beto.
It’s tempting to think of podcasts as the left-wing equivalent of talk radio. The Republican Party has the AM dial; we have the iTunes Store. But the Silicon Valley libertarians and members of the “Intellectual Dark Web” — a child’s collage of Hegel quotes with way too many gluey fingerprints — have a raft of podcasts as popular as those on the liberal left. If you listen to The Joe Rogan Experience, you might also like The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast or The Ben Shapiro Show, which ranks as highly as Rachel Maddow’s podcast on the big streaming platforms. Tim Ferriss’s four-hour workweek has left him with plenty of time to innovate two-hour podcasts. These hosts’ mission, as Slate has reported, “is to convince the world’s least-informed people that they are actually the most-informed people, and they are very good at their jobs.”
Even for leftists, it never feels risqué to download a podcast from the cloud. Someone let Chapo Trap House publish a book with no problem at all. What does feel edgy is ascending the ladder of podcast-subscriber engagement — paying, monthly, for content — or descending into the realm of subreddits and burner Twitter accounts, where fellow fans unpack the pod. Here, in the dank basement of the political unconscious, you’ll find the clean, sublimated consumable that is the “conversation podcast” returned to the forum from which it sprang: the comments section. That the imagined community of podcast listeners is functionally indistinct from these semi-yucky spaces where democracy died isn’t encouraging. Still, the Dead Pundits Society (a podcast for surviving the “neoliberal hellscape”) isn’t fascism. It’s just depressing.
Maybe podcasting would be more interesting if it were an instrument of fascism, or terrorism. ISIS knows better: they don’t make podcasts, they make YouTube videos. Talk radio can still control the listener’s emotional response, but no one feels threatened by the infinitely banal podcast. Instead of emotion or camaraderie, what podcasts produce is chumminess — reminiscent of the bourgeois club atmosphere, reconfigured as the desperate friendliness of burned-out knowledge workers. They aren’t pieces of media so much as second jobs or second lives — a way to pursue our hobbies when we have no time to spare, to have smart people talk at us when we have no time to think, to have new books summarized when we have no time to read. Our relationship with podcasts exists in uninterrupted parallel to the rest of our existence, a wealth of knowledge ready to be tapped at any moment. Podcasts intensify our saturation while pretending to relieve it. It’s like a voluntary authoritarian state, except instead of state-funded sitcoms, we have Marc Maron. But what would we do without it? Die, probably. Be murdered. Become a true-crime podcast. Don’t forget us when we’re gone; please rate us on iTunes.