I think they’re tedious and samey and sedative, and when I’m feeling especially cranky, I consider them an enemy of music. Most podcasts are conversations for people to eavesdrop on — recorded talk that precludes real-life talk about real life with zombie talk about podcasts. Also, I like music. With all of the world’s unheard songs beckoning us with their endless mystery, why would anyone choose to waste their precious listening hours on a podcast?
Asking that question makes me feel very alone. In a March cover story, New York Magazine called the podcast “the most significant and exciting cultural innovation of the new century,” offering lots of boffo numbers to back it up. First, there were those 340 million downloads of “Serial,” the true-crime investigative blockbuster that made “podcast” a household word back in 2014. Then there was that $230 million transaction in February, when Spotify bought the podcast network Gimlet Media, foreshadowing juicier deals to come. And now there are well over a half-million podcasts currently in circulation, with new ones sprouting each day.
This is a serious new form, and it’s generating serious money — so instead of treating podcasts as a convenient way to feel smarter, let’s take them seriously. Let’s measure their worth by truly listening.
Like it or not, they’re invading a soundworld near you. The marquee names of podcasting — “Pod Save America,” “The Joe Budden Podcast,” “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and many others — are currently appearing on actual marquees, bringing their discussions into nightclubs and theaters usually dedicated to live music.
I’m anxious about music ceding all of that time and turf to the rise of “big podcast,” but I think I understand why it’s happening. While radio continues to blast out across the world, podcasts deliver warm human voices through our little AirPods, creating a highly intimate listening experience in which “together” feels more like “alone.” We often engage with recorded music the very same way. Plus, that intimacy runs parallel to the astonishing variety of subjects addressed in today’s podcasts, suggesting that there might actually be something for everyone on this overcrowded planet.
Is that why my revulsion with most podcasts feels so personal? Why does an experience so inherently intimate feel so alienating to me?
On a polar-vortexed afternoon back in January, when the snow outside my window was falling at a perfect 45-degree angle, I decided to listen to a podcast co-hosted by a writer whom I deeply admire. This person is beautiful and enlightening on the page but uneven and capricious on the microphone, so I threw off my headphones after 10 minutes and dragged my irritation to the digital complaint jar.
“I hate podcasts because of how they sound,” I tweeted. “Readers and writers collaborate, establishing a rhythm inside the reader’s mind. Podcasts dictate the beat. It’s tragic, all these great thinkers presenting their thoughts like that kid playing the drum pads at Guitar Center.”
It was one of those petty social media tantrums where you get a little dopamine hit for momentarily sorting out your issues in public, but the reasoning has stuck with me. Podcasts are bad because podcasts sound bad — and podcasts sound bad because podcasters aren’t thinking hard enough about what their talk sounds like.
Forget the lousy microphones and the dinky interstitial stock music — the thing that derails most podcasts is the blab. There are two kinds, more or less. The first is that soft, inquisitive staccato popularized by Ira Glass on “This American Life,” the source from which so much pod-voice appears to have sprung. The second mode is performative in a different way, and you hear it on most round-table podcasts — a tone that people use at parties when they want to be heard by people that they aren’t necessarily talking to. And it’s pretty much one or the other. Be podcasted to in a cozy, overly considered way, or be podcasted at in a hastier, less-considered way.
I know. Hating on podcasts because I don’t like how people talk would be like someone hating music because they didn’t like musical instruments. Also, it’s clear that most A-list podcasters have put hours of practice into the pace and timbre of their casting voices. On top of that, there are reported podcasts — including the wildly popular “S-Town,” which investigates a murder in rural Alabama — where the voices of the interviewees enrich the storytelling in a way that written quotations could not.
But I stand by my little Twitter fit, to which someone replied with a sensible thought: “Sounds like you just spent some time with a bad podcast!” It immediately reminded me of Sturgeon’s Law — a maxim by the late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who once said that “90 percent of everything is crap.” (Had Sturgeon lived to surf the glut of the information age, he might have cranked it up a few percentage points.) But perhaps that was it. Maybe my 10 percent was still out there, waiting to be discovered.
Fittingly, the someone who tweeted at me about bad podcasts was the voice behind an excellent one: Damon Krukowski, a writer and musician who had recently completed “Ways of Hearing.” It’s a podcast — recently transposed into a book — about how our migration into digital space has transformed how we listen. In many ways, Krukowski sees mass-digitization as a corporate attempt to eliminate noise from signal — a technological shift that has already made our pop songs louder and our phone calls flatter. (There’s an especially terrific chapter about how cellular phone technology forced us to swap sound quality for convenience— a loss of intimate listening that I think actually helps explain the rise of the podcast.) I’ve been pushing “Ways of Hearing” on my loved ones, promising that it will refresh their notions about how we listen to this world, podcasts included.
In an ecosystem of anodyne podcasts, does “Ways of Hearing” sound better to my eardrums because Krukowski brings a musician’s care and finesse to the gig? I’d like to think so. But most music podcasts still leave me lukewarm — even the ones recommended by my muso-friends.
My pal the country music obsessive likes “This Nashville Life,” a podcast where the singer Kelleigh Bannen interviews her Music City peers. It’s interesting. My friend the punk drummer got me into “The Trap Set,” a series of chats with drummers. It’s cool. More than a few comrades have pointed me toward “Talkhouse,” which often invites two musicians to interrogate each other. I like it. But I’d still rather read all of these interviews in pixels or print — and that wouldn’t bother my friends at all. None of them told me, “Wait until you hear how this podcast sounds!”
I wish someone would, though. We should be listening to podcasts with the same broad, discerning, variety-craving ears that we apply to music. If we’re really talking about “the most significant and exciting cultural innovation of the new century,” is that so outrageous of a demand?
It might be. I recently found myself at an impromptu dinner with some strange friends and some friendly strangers, and when I told the group that I was “against podcasts,” it was as if I had taken up against babies, ice cream or low humidity.
Make no mistake, I was delighted to be dining with these people. They were musicians, writers, poets, employees of more than one killer record label, plus a woman who told me about how she had once watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with Waylon Jennings while he did cocaine just a few hours after he’d performed for Jimmy Carter at the White House.
Everyone at the table had a certain degree of affection for their favorite podcasts — “Limetown” (a fictional podcast about a science lab mishap), “2 Dope Queens” (a comedy show recently transformed into an HBO special), “Expanding Mind” (psychonautic chit-chat hosted by the great outsider journalist Erik Davis) — and they politely began blasting holes in my position. I’ll try to plug those holes here.
First, I seemed to be arguing that “podcasts should sound good.” Wasn’t that like wishing that every rock band sounded more like Steely Dan? Not quite. By “sound good,” I meant that I wanted podcasts to sound considered. In fact, my problem is that too many expertly produced podcasts already sound like Steely Dan — reflexively calm, soothing and non-disruptive, conducted with an almost smothering courtesy. Podcasts are made out of sounds, and sounds can do so much more than that.
A second objection from the dinner table: Podcasts are these wonderfully democratic forums that allow far-flung strangers to share fringe ideas and niche interests. Isn’t that more important than what they sound like? I guess, but why draw that line between form and content? With a podcast, form is content. I’d love for tomorrow’s podcasts — through more inventive combinations of speaking, pacing, editing and scoring — to sound as wild and disparate as the topics they address.
Finally, one person wondered why the sound of a podcast matters in the first place. He said that he enjoys listening to news podcasts on his commute, and, sonically, he really only needed these things to be intelligible. Why should any of us need a podcast to be anything more than informative and clear?
I guess we don’t need podcasts to be anything more than that, but we should want them to be. I keep coming back to the lessons that animate Krukowski’s “Ways of Hearing.” Experience is information. Noise is signal. Sounds have meaning. If we’re still splashing around in the primordial muck, if the greatest days of podcasting are still ahead of us — and they must be — I think they’ll be ruled by the pod-people who understand that.
Or maybe just this: Whatever asks for our most attentive listening should aspire to be the most worthy of it.