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.
How many people’s kids should I keep track of? Should I know all their names and ages? What if we’re related, does that change things? Nieces and nephews, how important are they? Are second cousins a real thing? Should I know what grade every one is in? Should I watch what my own kids did without me today or should I let them tell me about it?
How many friends’ weekends should I know about? Should I know what everyone did last summer? Should I follow all the updates and stay abreast of the current statuses? Should I reach out personally in case there’s something going on outside of what they’ve shared?
How many health and fitness gurus should I keep tabs on? Should I be taking notes or cataloging recipes? What about the new research they just mentioned, should I fact-check it? Should I make sure they’ve cited their sources, should I check Pubmed for a general consensus or opposing view from the scientific community?
How many celebrities should I follow? Musicians? Writers? Do they have a new project coming out or a Patreon I could be supporting? What about artists, how much time should I spend with each piece they share? Should I like it? What if its something painful and vulnerable, is Like really the best response?
What about comedians or satirists or political commentators? What if they have a great one-liner on todays headlines, should I read it? What if I don’t understand the context, should I find the news story they’re talking about?
How much news should I follow? Foreign affairs? Local? State? Domestic? What’s the government up to, especially those hundred new congressmen and women? Is it OK to just ignore anything about the President? Are there any bills I should be researching, Supreme Court cases I should have an opinion on?
Hows the global climate doing? Is there anything I can do about it? Is there anything I can learn about it? Were there any natural disasters? Should I be donating towards the relief efforts?
Maybe I should research the charities to make sure my donation is going to a good cause? Should I double back and research the news organization to make sure my information came from a good source? Should I triple back and make sure that the tech company’s platform that curated my newsfeed did so with minimal bias?
What about opinions that challenge my beliefs? Should I check in with the conservatives, with the christians, with the conspiracy theorists? Should I engage critically or just listen? Should I open a dialogue or shut my mouth?
What about my own thoughts, should I listen to them? Should I share them? Should I write them down and publish them immediately? Should I wait a day or will I wake up tomorrow in a completely new zeitgeist? Or will I wake up tomorrow and it’ll be exactly the same thing?
Waiting for the eggs to finish cooking – open the news and check in on the entire world.
Going out to walk the dog – grab the headphones and listen to a podcast.
While the barista makes your coffee – check your email and delete a few unwanted promotional offers.
Your daughter steps out of the room to grab a book – find the right animated GIF to respond to your friend.
Putting the car in park and turning off the engine – look through recent photos I took so I can begin planning my next post.
Your wife is looking up something on the calendar – ingest some Twitter.
Waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green – clear your Facebook notifications.
Taking a shit – scroll through Instagram until you’re ‘All Caught Up’.
When I was a smoker, I was always on the lookout for a break in the flow- that chunk of free time for a cigarette. Finished my meal a few minutes early? Step outside. Just arrived at the grocery store? One in the parking lot before I go in. Commercial break? I’ll be right back.
This was not usually a conscious effort. I was not actively thinking about when my next cigarette would be, but when a good ‘let’s grab a smoke’ moment would strike, my body would react instinctively. As if responding to a signal implanted in my mind under hypnosis, my hand would walk itself down to that rectangular bulge in my pocket, a fresh pack of American Spirits (or Marlboro Lights or Newports or whatever it was that year). I’d find myself carried out the door to the nearest open patio.
There was no inner dialogue with myself (Fancy a cigarette, Brian? I think I do, Brian. Then let’s go stand by a dumpster alone under that six inches of ledge protecting us from the rain, Brian. ). I never really asked myself because I never needed to ask myself. Asking me if I wanted a cigarette was like asking Rivers Cuomo if he wanted to date an Asian girl. It all happened automatically, a habit ingrained over years of mindless self-indulgence.
I may be overly sensitive to the gravitational pull of my iPhone, but I do feel the same impulses rising up. Unlike cigarettes, a smartphone isn’t inherently bad for you, which makes it more or less insidious, depending on how you look at it. In some ways it’s easier to quit cigarettes because you can look at quitting as a black and white choice. You can remove them entirely from your life, because you’re not also using them for anything productive or meaningful. When it comes to smartphones, however, we still would like to engage with them, which means we have to actually deal with the underlying problems, namely our fractured attention, our yearning for distraction, and our fear of silence.
I stood next to my daughters as they rode in circles on a carousel. It was the ultimate forced move into helicopter parenting- I’m required to stand there in case my two year old gets thrown from a plaster panda bear, even though she’s four feet off the ground, affixed with a massive leather strap, and all on a contraption moving at the brisk pace of three miles per hour.
As we turned in circles and I searched the horizon for balance, I thought about taking a picture of them. We’d been on carousels before and the natural inclination these days is to snap a few shots to archive as digital proof- See! Your childhood was fun! We gave you magic for only three dollars a ticket! Show that to your therapist when she starts to blame us!
But then I remembered, I already have pictures of my daughters on a carousel, I’m sure of it. One of the girls at least. So do I really need another picture of a kid on a carousel? I mean, it’s not like they’re climbing Mt. Everest here. It’s a goddamn merry-go-round. Maybe if they were actually doing something impressive, like a magic show or a spot-on Christopher Walken impression, then I’d get out the camera. But they’re just sitting there, mildly enjoying themselves.
What would I do with a picture of my kids on a carousel? I could send it to my wife, but she knows what they look like on a carousel. I’m sure she’s taken a few of these pictures herself. She’d get the text message, she might smile, then she’d scroll on by, not even saving it to her phone.
What about sharing it? I haven’t posted to instagram in months, so I’m not going to break that fast with this. Even if I could catch a truly authentic moment of happiness- hopefully with a little lens flare or golden hour glow, find just the right filter, a witty caption and ironic hashtag, etc- what would be my time investment here? One simple picture would turn into a series of jobs that may take my entire afternoon: photographer, photo editor, art director, copy editor, social media strategist. How long is this carousel ride anyway? Could I even look at a phone for more than a minute while spinning in circles? Just the thought of it makes me dizzy and overwhelmed.
So I didn’t take a picture. I stood a few feet away, at the request of my 5-yr-old, who wanted the world to know how independent she was. I watched as they went up and down, as we all traveled in circles between a pretzel cart and an H&M. And I wondered if I’d finally reached peak photography, peak social media, peak sharing. If we’d all start to feel dizzy from spinning in circles, bobbing up and down, staring at our phones.