How Many Podcasts Do We Need?

The ongoing joke starting somewhere around 2018 is that everyone has a podcast. With the move towards ‘shelter-in-place’ rules the past few weeks, that maxim has only proven more true with more friends and relatives grabbing a microphone to unload their point of view. My cynicism has been grappling with how to feel about this, so I think a trip through podcast history might be useful in establishing context.

Back in the olden days of yore- a decade or so ago- basically two types of personalities drove the podcast movement forward. One one side, you have the comedian, announcer, or radio personality who can talk to anyone about anything and make it interesting. Examples of this range from WTF with Marc Maron, Joe Rogan, Pete Holmes, to Ben Shapiro, Rachel Maddow, Alex Jones, etc. These podcasts typically take the shape of a monologue and/or long-form interview filtered through their comedic lens or editorial worldview.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the subject-matter expert who takes the deep dive each week into their area of expertise. You see this in health-related podcasts, technology, politics, etc. Some include interviews, but many include panel discussions centered on current events, the latest technology news, business strategies, episodic analysis of Frasier, or cutting edge scientific research. These might be less far-reaching, but more fervently followed, especially the further niche they move.

A hybrid variation of the ‘radio announcer’ meets ‘subject-matter expert’ here is the well-produced, NPR-adjacent format seen from podcast ‘studios’ like Gimlet, Slate, and Serial-producers NPR. I see these as a separate category of podcast, more like a feature documentary than the daily local news segment. For the sake of this discussion, I’m more interested in the first two podcast genres, mainly because of the low production value and minimal editing required.

When podcasts first began, everyone was a hobbyist, because there wasn’t an industry around it. The only one seeing an upside was Apple, who basically “invented” podcasts to help market iPods. I’m hopeful that the last few years have seen peak podcast in terms of corporate influence, especially as the medium resists the type of detailed analytics-gathering that ruined the online version of news and print media.

And yet, while a podcast interview used to feel random and unique, most weeks in podcast land, the same few guests circulate through the top ten list the same way celebrities cycle through the late night shows when it’s promotional season for their new movie. In any given week, you’ll see the same name pop-up on more than a few podcasts, serving up half a dozen 1- to 3-hour interviews in the span of a few days, typically with a new book or show to promote.

For most of the podcasts, I think the comparison to television is apt. The comedian-based podcasts are the late-night talk shows, the expert and panel-based podcasts are the basic-cable niche channels, from CNN to HGTV. So much of traditional cable television becoming less relevant as time goes on, irrelevance accelerated by the internet and social media, which has blurred the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘influencer’ and ‘influenced’.

While the amount of “content” we are served a daily basis expands, it only makes sense that the expectations (and production values) drop. The more that we lose the distinction between creator and audience, the demand for who is “authentic” (or at least the Instagram version of authentic) rises to fill the gap. And COVID-19 has only accelerated this progress as we see Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert ditch their suits, interview guests over Zoom, and grapple with interruptions from their children and pets. See- celebrities ARE just like us!

Which brings be back full circle to the rise (again) of the hobbyist podcaster, and more than that, the rise of the amateur livestreamer in general. COVID-19 has seen my social media feeds flourish with livestreams from friends offering musical performances, tutorials, and classic vlog-style monologues (“hey guys!”). Most of this comes from people will little to no “influence” in the traditional sense. Just old connections, sharing something cool with their small group of friends. This new push of amateur content is beginning to trickle over from social media into podcasts.

I must admit that I was in the original camp that asks, do we really need to hear even more people rambling through an amateur podcast? Do we really need more “content”? Compared to people who do it for a living or have been doing it for a while, the average joe is probably not THAT funny or expert at anything. Not that our friends and family aren’t smart and humorous, just that we’re not making it our daily job to take smart and funny ideas and format them for an audience. The friends playing guitar into their cell phone aren’t going to be a slick as the rock star live-streaming from his in-home studio.

And yet, aren’t we all watching our friends Instagram stories and getting our news from that weird right-wing aunt who seems to have nothing else to do all day? Isn’t there something inherently more interesting about seeing a friend grow into an artist, than seeing a popular artist on social media pretending they’re our “friend”? In a sense, I should probably be more interested in what my friends have to say than someone like Conan O’Brien, even though Conan is probably going to be funnier than most people I’m related to.

So I’m interested in the shift from the celebrity podcast to the friends-and-family podcast. I might even like it. Like the Andy Warhol cliche, everyone gets their fifteen minutes of podcasting, sponsored today by Blue Apron.