“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 freeform 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….podcasts, by and large, establish a relationship marked by comfort.”
— Jonah Weiner, “The Voices”
I don’t know of any either, Jonah. And it’s not for lack of trying. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, Bunuel-loving, John Cage-worshipping avant-gardist, someone who craves the new and seeks out the assaultive cultural experiences saner folks shy away from, but I’ve never found them in podcast form. Hundreds of thousands of podcasts to choose from, an ever-expanding glut of content, yet not one has truly shocked me. And that’s a problem.
I thought I might find it in Welcome To Nightvale; instead, I got a droll take on sci-fi somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Prairie Home Companion. I had high hopes for Audio Smut (that name!), but I got Radiolab reads Penthouse Forum. (And then the name changed to the more prosaic “The Heart.”) The Worst Idea Of All Time Podcast has a promisingly bizarre hook, but it feels more like Clerks than anything else: two friends cracking jokes and bitching about their shitty job, that job being watching Grown Ups 2 ad infinitum. All good, even great shows; none the truly experimental work I’m looking for. My biggest “I can’t believe this is happening” moment listening to podcasts in 2014 was Scott Aukerman’s insistence his guests memorize the “Hollywood Facts” theme song on Comedy Bang! Bang!, and even that is just a well-executed example of the “rake effect.”
For all the vaunted variety of the Golden Age of podcasting, the endless proliferation of options, essentially all shows fall into a few predictable categories. There’s the classic interview show; there’s the straightforward newscast; there’s the terrestrial-style talk show ported to digital. There’s the ever popular hangout show, buddies riffing on various topics. There’s the pop-culture review show, a more focused hangout. There’s the radio drama, the medium’s oldest form; there’s the game show, nearly as old. And there’s the many children of Ira Glass working in “non-fiction storytelling.”
Lest you get the wrong idea, just about every podcast I love falls into one of these categories! I get more weekly enjoyment from podcasts than any other media, and it’s thanks to shows like Serial and Culture Gabfest and WTF and How Did This Get Made? and 99% Invisible that fall in these tried and true formats. But all of them, and even the ones that don’t, the oddball formats like Judge John Hodgman or Nerd Poker, or highly niche shows like The Dice Tower… they may inform and amuse and move and challenge me, they may make me cry or laugh out loud with delight. But they’ve never altered my reality. They’ve never made my jaw drop. They’ve never given me something I haven’t heard before.
Perhaps, like Weiner says, it’s because listeners don’t come to podcasts to get knocked out of their comfort zone. They come for the sound of familiar voices, familiar formats, shows that run the classic sitcom playbook of balancing novelty and familiarity week after week. Something to decompress to while driving home from work or doing laundry. Perhaps podcasters, who usually start as podcast fans, are driven to create the same experience. I’m no different, currently hosting a pop-culture hangout with game show elements and zero dadaist aspirations. (This is as close as I’ve come to creating a truly avant-garde podcast episode.)
If I’m being totally honest with myself, I’m scared of making a show no one will ever want to listen to. Why listen to something unsettling and ear-warping when you can enjoy the sturdy genre pleasures of Serial? But I’m tempted to give it a shot. Maybe someone braver than I will beat me to it. Because a medium that always aims squarely for the comfort zone of its audience isn’t a healthy one. Noisy art, transgressive art, is what pushes media forward, and to illustrate how I’m going to dip out of podcasting and into music for a moment.
Back when I was an electronic music student, one of our first lessons was on the meaning of noise. Noise turns out to be tricky to define; there’s a strong social component. In information theory, noise is quantifiable; any unintended or random parts of a signal are categorized as noise. But what distinguishes sound as noise? Is a square wave noisier than a pure sine wave? Are notes off the 12-part chromatic scale noise? On a continuum from Beethoven to a broken TV, where is the dividing line between noise and music?
Our professor drew just such a continuum on the board. The far left side was labeled “monotone,” the far right was labeled “noise,” and in the middle, “music.” Then he drew an arrow pointing from left to right, and labeled it “complexity.”
He explained that as sound grows in complexity, it gets more and more musical. An endlessly sustained C note is just about the simplest sound you can imagine, but when you add more notes, you get a melody, and when you arrange those notes in a predictable order, you get rhythm. Soon you have chords, then a sonata, then a symphony; the music becomes richer as the structure gets more intricate.
Keep going down this path, though, and you’ll reach a point of diminishing returns. Cram more and more 32nd and 64th notes into a piece of music, and soon it’s unplayable by humans; not long after, we can’t even distinguish between the notes, and it all blurs together. The end point is white noise, an endlessly changing mix of all possible frequencies that sounds to us like nothing at all. The space between total blank and total chaos is what we call music.
There’s a problem with drawing a hard and fast line between noise and music, though; the goalposts are constantly changing. As a young collegiate I loved bands like Korn and Disturbed. (Don’t you judge me! It’s not my fault I was a teenager during the reign of nu-metal.) This music was the product of an arms race launched at the very beginning of the rock era. As rock progressed, guitars got louder and louder until they were unrecognizably distorted, resulting in music that would be criticized by my parents as unlistenable noise. But the classic rock of my parents’ generation was miles away from the big band music of a generation earlier, so much so that rock n’ roll was classified as “the devil’s music.”
And speaking of, the six-semitone musical interval, or tritone, was for centuries considered so dissonant it earned the nickname “the Devil’s interval.” Composers of the Middle Ages wouldn’t touch it, thinking it completely unmusical and even unGodly; only in the 18th century would composers start using the interval freely. If I could travel back in time with an iPod and play Korn for an 18th century composer, their heads might literally explode, but three hundred years ago they were musical heretics, freely working with tones that until then were dismissed as noise.
The history of music is also the history of humans as music consumers becoming more and more sophisticated, and able to discern increasingly complex musical structures, structures we once literally could not hear as anything but noise. As a result, the popular musical innovations of the future often find their roots in the most dissonant, transgressive, avant-garde music of the present.
In the 1950’s, the most far-out, bleeding-edge music available was playing with sampling and tape manipulation. Collage artists like Pierre Schaffer created musique concrete from recordings of children laughing and passing trains, smashed together and sped up or slowed way down. By the end of the 60s, the Beatles would slip just such a collage onto the White Album. By the end of the 70s, a new form of music forged from looped and sampled disco breaks was created on the streets of New York City. Another decade later, hip hop was a major musical genre, and a looped Rick James sample could form the backbone of a smash pop hit. By 2015, chopped, screwed and otherwise manipulated vocals are de rigueur in even the most mainstream music.
I think of this as “trickle-up innovation”; as tastes change, listeners find old sounds boring and simplistic (more “monotone”) and seek out newer, stranger ones. This is facilitated by sounds and styles from the noisy fringes of music slowly inching their way to the center, until they fossilize and are discarded for even newer and stranger sounds. This is the true value of avant-garde and transgressive music; it’s not just for chin-stroking musos, it’s a breeding ground for the next big thing.
Do you know what Welcome To Nightvale and The Heart and Worst Idea Of All Time have in common? Three very different shows, but they’re all pleasant, easy listening experiences. Nightvale is a city full of horror, but Cecil Baldwin is an unflappable tour guide, speaking in the soothing, even tones familiar from NPR. The Heart switches between R-rated monologues, educational tidbits and open eroticism (perhaps the definition of a pleasant listening experience) with sound design that is consistently excellent but never jarring. Worst Idea Of All Time isn’t at the same level in terms of audio fidelity, but hearing Guy and Tim riff is significantly more entertaining than I imagine watching Grown Ups 2 fifty-two times would be. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case. Can you imagine versions of these shows willing to get truly terrifying or depraved or unfathomable?
A decade in, podcasts are still operating in the shadow of two monolithic progenitors. The first, This American Life, launched a hundred imitators looking to ape its thoughtful tone and slice of life realism. Even nonfiction podcasters coloring outside the lines TAL drew use Ira’s sense of story structure and ever-pleasant intonation. The second, The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, set a standard for elaborate comic routines and cranky commentary that’s echoed by every comedy podcast in its wake. Both shows were truly groundbreaking when they started, but these days they don’t sound so noisy. They sound normal. And so does everyone else.
I don’t even know what an avant-garde podcast should sound like. I suspect if I did, it wouldn’t be all that avant-garde. But I imagine something, to paraphrase Jonah, assaultive. Dynamic, disorienting. LOUD. (How many podcasts feel loud?) Fast, really fast; so many shows take the lack of a time limit as an excuse to move at a snail’s pace. No narrative, or a hugely unorthodox one. No jokes, no bits, or bits that get way too real. A Warholesque sustained tone for 12 hours. Screaming, distortion, literal noise. Marc Maron pulling his teeth out. Gilbert Gottfried reading the entire Bible. Sarah Koenig calling Adnan and sobbing without explanation. Doug Benson running a Leonard Maltin game through the left channel while popping bubble wrap in the right.
If you want a good look at a medium that’s failed to change or challenge its listeners for more than twenty years, look no further than the dead zone that is terrestrial radio. From the shouting right-wingers to the morning zoo crews, radio has fossilized. It’s become monotone. If all podcasts are taking their cues from TAL and Best Show in 2025, podcasting awaits the same depressing fate. Despite what the New York Times might opine, podcasts aren’t new. The Golden Age is transitioning into the Silver Age. And if podcasting is going to sustain the tremendous level of creativity its generated so far, it could stand to get a little noisier.