Let’s Talk About Podcasts

I shouldn’t be surprised that mainstream media hasn’t figured out how to cover podcasts. Podcasts—at first, second, and even third glance—have entered the world as a lawless frontier with an ever-expanding horizon. Their numbers multiply overnight. The good ones are hard to find. And once you do, they require time and devotion. Streaming apps are not intuitive. Advertising has barely started to come around. Original on-demand content creation has only just begun. So of course not many media outlets cover podcasting. The fact that podcasts aren’t an official beat at any major news source (aside from The Guardian) should be of no surprise.

A third of America is unclear about what a podcast is, another third has only ever listened to Serial, and the remaining third has converted podcast consumption into a way of life. Certainly this division plays into the difficulty of how to angle a story. As the form grows, the chasms between these groups grow along with it. A reporter can’t talk to one group without totally alienating the others.

The void in coverage indicates what the pillars of reporting could never have approximated: that something can be worthy of popular coverage, like podcasting, and yet defy news values almost entirely. Digital audio is untethered to time and space, which immediately makes it journalistically unpalatable. That it’s hard to cover in every other sense as well—podcasts are too specific, too frequent, too long—doesn’t help.

Trendcasters and marketers have probably been monitoring the growing blind spots in the foundational elements of news for awhile, but I didn’t notice a changing tide until podcasts began to occupy so much of my time. I wanted my audio freefall to be celebrated in writing with even just a few inches of scroll dedicated to dissecting their makeup. But podcasts have remained almost only in our heads. The disconnect between how much they matter and the share of the limelight they deserve is something I’ve considered dutifully, hoping any day to be thrown a bone with even the slightest bit of substance. I thought, perhaps the media no-show had to do with the disaggregation of platforms or the old-guard style of gatekeeping, or some swirling confluence of factors concerning the appeal of on-demand that, for so long, I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on.

I was finally able to pin down my thoughts about the lack of coverage after listening to a recent podcast—I so often understand myself and draw conclusions this way. Salman Rushdie was explaining the basis for his new book while on The Moment with Brian Koppelman, and he articulated exactly the lacuna between podcasting as an art and its lack of serious attendance by cultural critics:

“Suddenly, it seems like every day the world is metamorphosing, and it’s doing so at a higher speed than it ever has, and I feel, and I think many people feel, that the strangeness of things is such that it’s as if the familiar rules, the kind of world we thought we lived in, that those rules don’t apply anymore, and we’re not exactly sure what the new rules are.” Bingo, Rushdie. You nailed it. The rules have changed. And we don’t know what the new rules are, yet.

I can’t purport to know how many truisms have wilted or the specific and random, inevitable and totally accidental factors that contribute to what has shaped the ever-tilting culture machine that is the age of new media. But I know that art is an expression of how artists process the world around them. Art is the response an artist has to his or her world. It often trends toward escapism during depressions and realism during times of opulence (as this episode of The Beginning of the End explained). Sometimes, it’s just a mirror. And, right now, our cultural artifacts reflect staunch individualism. We want what we want when we want it, on demand—i.e., Netflix original series, HBO NOW, Showtime Anytime, Amazon Prime, soft paywalls, one-to-one advertising, dating apps, and yes, podcasts, too. But nothing on that list is reproducing, expanding, and dividing at quite the same speed as podcasts.

Podcasts were created in direct response to our à la carte, on-demand lifestyles. The utter independence podcasts express very closely reflects our actual, disparate lives. They are one part of the shift in entertainment our smartphones, social media, and global living have inspired. They are the part that doesn’t adhere to traditional notions of time and space. Podcasts are built for highly specific groups of people. News values are built on the exact opposite. And so digital audio transcends news values. They require something else. And the coverage hasn’t yet found its timbre. Like Rushdie said, the rules have changed; we just don’t know what the new rules are.

When a reporter decides to write about podcasts, at peace with the fact that perhaps half the people in the country won’t understand what the hell she’s talking about, the first thing she faces are questions about how to engage the audience that does. It’s a particularly difficult task, given that the major appeal of podcasts is that they defy one-size-fits-all consumption. So writers make an attempt by offering enthusiasts one of the following archetypes:

  1. This just in: Something called podcasting is making sound waves; or, This just in: It’s the golden age of podcasting; or, This just in: Podcasts are starting to make money. Why is it that, even after so much repetition, the story remains nearly identical? Are these publications doing absolutely no research on their subject? Why aren’t they in on the joke? I’m referring to the mentions of the Edison Research’s Share of Ear, the whole Mad-Men-has-fewer-viewers-than-Serial-had-listeners stuff, and the advertisers-have-arrived thing. How on earth could anyone be so detached from the world that they could consider this, in and of itself, newsworthy? My guess is pieces like these run because they’re easy. In journalism jargon, they are a product of prefabrication and consonance. This template makes an attempt at “cultural proximity.” But the lag time is too great between when the phenomenon is occurring versus when it’s being reported.

    And while it must sound like I’m only throwing shade, I feel tremendous compassion for writers. When I heard Chipotle was the sponsor of WTF’s Episode 636, let alone the sheer number of sponsors Maron read on the Fred Armisen show, I said to myself, “Hello, mainstream! Welcome to our world! Feel free to bring your diamonds and rubies with you!” I felt compelled to write a story about the subject of mainstream sponsorship in podcasting—Ford sponsored StartUp, Showtime’s The Affair sponsors Love+Radio, and now this! I knew I was one of very few writers who could productively engage with the material, because no one else was doing it. But then I realized I had no idea how many other mainstream sponsors were out there sponsoring shows. I realized that, despite considering myself an industry expert with access to many other industry experts, I couldn’t ethically declare any facts about the subject without the help of a small army. So I gave up and wrote this op-ed instead. Perhaps if I had an editor pressuring me for podcast news, I, too, would have to resort to, “This just in: Podcasting is a Thing.”
  2. A famous podcaster is coming to town. Most likely the podcaster is Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass, or Marc Maron, and the article will either give a quick event breakdown or an interview. Generally, this piece will be presented as something for superfans, but is actually so basic that a superfan could have answered the questions on the podcaster’s behalf. I mean, we listeners know our dear ones.

    The reporter, in this case, can justify the article based on the classic journalistic tenet of celebrity (the aforementioned audio ingénues are podcasts’ heaviest hitters) and because they are telling a story that might matter to people in a particular location (a celebrity is coming to [Your Town, USA]). But it evades the material of a podcast itself. It’s like running an interview with Keith Richards without ever having reviewed the music of The Rolling Stones.

    But, again, I sympathize. Generally speaking, the material of a podcast has neither celebrity value nor physical demarcation. For one, the medium is flooded with celebrity. The fact that a celebrity spoke on a podcast or started a podcast is not newsworthy—unless, of course, it’s the president, the pope, perhaps another world leader of equal ilk, or someone who is famous and usually close-lipped (see: Lorne Michaels). And for two, the physical location almost never matters in terms of why a person would or would not be interested in the material of the podcast. Talking about a podcast celebrity coming to town is as close as the news can get to either.
  1. Something about Serial. Next.
  2. We liked the [business/book/comedy/product] of this person, and now this person is keeping that [business/book/comedy/product] alive by creating a podcast about it. I once overheard a man on a plane say that he worked at Random House. He said that Random House wouldn’t publish a book by a writer who didn’t have a “platform.” Platform meaning—apparently—a place where the writer engaged in direct conversation with his/her readers, creating a ready-made audience to which to market a book. Friends, it looks like podcasts have become the new platform. So, occasionally, they get some media coverage when a hot celeb joins the ranks, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons, The Late Show Podcast with Stephen Colbert, and pretty much any alt/indie comedian you can think of.
  3. A writer has decided to pluck a podcast from obscurity for no apparent reason. The writer, in this case, most likely just discovered that podcasts are a wonderful medium, and the podcast she/he is reporting is her/his first love. Because it’s meaningful to him/her, this writer assumes it will be meaningful to everyone.

    Of course, we pre-Serial folk have all been there, noodling through podcasts, and then turning one on, and kicking back because we found the exact right pilot to fly the plane. In this scenario, the writer likely has an editor who doesn’t understand podcasts either and so believes anything podcast-related is timely. The article runs regardless of whether the podcast is producing new episodes, or premiered two years ago, or is a rip-off of another, better podcast. I occasionally discover podcasts in this way. If these stories were presented as what they are—exposition on something a writer likes—this archetype wouldn’t be offensive. But it still wouldn’t be news.
  1. Listicles. These help with discovery, and they’re easy to pump out (though, actually pretty difficult to do right). Like every other archetype, they evade substance all together.

Other archetypical approaches don’t exist, because, so far, writers haven’t cracked the code of how to cover podcasts in a mass-appeal way. You can’t skim a podcast. You can’t sound-bite it. They’re not snackable. They don’t want to be.

The articles about podcasts that the mainstream media feels comfortable running, then, read as out of touch and random. I wonder if it doesn’t stem from a simple lack of confidence. When the Internet first arrived, we didn’t know how to governor it, quite literally, or how to fruitfully discuss it. (Have you heard this early Reply All about the guy who invented the pop-up ad?) In a 1973 article from a publication called Minicomputer News, computer linking and xeroxing data-banks and public packet systems were the words du jour that predated Internet; at least, I think that’s where those words were going. We didn’t know where we would land. But we talked about it. Writers wrote about it. We all looked at it, and we scrutinized its evolution. In short, we went for it. We’re still going for it.

And here we are, at yet another cultural pivot point. The rules have changed, like Rushdie so eloquently noted, and maybe the lack of substantive coverage is because nobody wants to be the first to call something a minicomputer, only to have someone else talk about how ridiculous it sounds 40 years later. The word podcast itself is rapidly become passé as iPods go extinct.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.” If we don’t attempt discussion, than the experience of podcasts will remain nebulous and cloudy. For instance, I can’t prove that the Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything three-part series, “New York After Rent” is, without a doubt, groundbreaking. I know that it is—he blends fiction and nonfiction and uses soundscapes as the primary tool for listeners to distinguish reality from his imagination—but I have no concrete reference points or ways to mine the past to prove that I’m right in this moment. I can’t support the claim. I have listened to radio and podcasts for many years, but I have no documentation of what broke ground before and no database of important moves in podcasting as a form to search through, except for what I’ve noticed and remembered. In my relatively limited roster of podcast listening—which, by the way, is more extensive than that of a heavy user—I am certain that I’m correct. But I can’t Google Search to be sure Walker’s not biting off someone else. I just have to have done the requisite listening, then trust myself to know. From a journalistic perspective, we cannot ethically make a claim like, “‘New York After Rent’ is groundbreaking.” I just have to say it—and I have to use the I, or else I can’t say it at all.

Perhaps because journalists aren’t certain of how to properly handle the medium and perhaps buoyed by all this talk of podcasting having its moment, a trend has emerged: If print or online media makes a concerted effort in the podcast space, it’s not in writing about it—it’s in the making of their own podcasts. In order to participate, publications are compelled to throw their hats in the ring (see also: Esquire, Vogue, Slate, BuzzFeed, The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc.).

The cumulative effect is a massive piling on of audio content without a governor. It’s Lord of the Flies up in here, and no one has the conch. But art requires leadership—by way of criticism, language, discussion, innovators, deep thinking—if it is to grow and take shape. It needs to fit into the cultural conversation, and it needs a mirror.

We need to talk about podcasts, to just go ahead and make declarative statements about the form, with or without the I, and then let those statements be challenged if need be, so they can evolve. We won’t know how to successfully cover the form unless we just go ahead and do it. The only way to figure out what we want from podcasts and their coverage is by blundering through—or making them and writing it ourselves.

Like J.D. Salinger’s Franny famously said, “All you have to have in the beginning is quantity. Then, later on, it becomes quality by itself.” In podcasting, quantity has buttressed the emergence of quality. Now, let’s hope that the coverage of the medium can follow suit.

~

Author Description

Laura Jane Standley's work has appeared in The Guardian, The Believer, Vitamin W, The Rocky Mountain Oil Journal, American Contemporary Artist, 303 Magazine—where she was the editor in chief, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art—where she was the managing editor. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, works as a copyeditor at an ad agency on Wall Street, and lives in the dumpy part of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Tait Sougstad

    It’s almost like we need some kind of ‘blog’ or ‘webzine’ to cover these ‘podcasts’. One of you should get on that right away. Seriously, though, thanks for the work. I’m a recent comer here, though a ‘long-time’ podcast listener (way back when History of Rome was starting!) and you guys have validated my loneliness and disorientation as a lover of this medium. Keep it up!

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