We live in an age of informational excess. Twenty years ago, when I worked as a producer for the public radio program “On the Media,” my colleagues and I would bemoan the sad state of TV news with its short sound bites, its obsession with scandal, its tropism to heat over light and its “if it bleeds” aesthetic. In the decades since, none of those aspects of TV news have gotten better, but compared with the nastiness and disinformation that is everywhere on Twitter and Facebook, the cable channels increasingly feel like average sources of information. Regardless, whether you’re watching the television screen or scrolling through the apps on your phone, it’s hard to separate signal from noise — or, for that matter, even turn down the atmospheric din.
Despite my background in traditional radio news, I’ve come to believe that podcasts are the best tonic for all that toxicity. For the last five years, I have hosted “The Gist,” which is the longest continuous daily news and analysis podcast. In those five years, podcasting has evolved and improved, offering an exception to the downward trends that abound in the news business. They offer a respite of sorts, unusually fusing consumer choice and an opt-in audience, encouraging us to tune in to this one thing here while shutting the rest of the world out.
Podcasts, both by design and by accident, tend toward a more elevated — or at least focused — discourse and a more nourishing experience than many of the other news formats that bombard us. Most of broadcast media is governed by the fear that if a segment drags, is too challenging or offends a viewer’s understanding of the world, the audience will change to another channel. Podcasts are different. Because their interfaces are kind of clunky, because they’re all curated by the user and because they often move more slowly, podcasts do not promise speedy escapism. In fact, they’re not quick at all. Of the most popular podcasts the average playing length of an episode is rarely under 25 minutes.
At first glance, those traits probably don’t seem like virtues — and many of them are, indeed, indicative of flaws in the medium. But it is those very flaws that position podcasts as a more substantive, slow news source in our fast-twitch media world.
One indication of what makes podcasts such a compelling antidote is that even the most popular shows rarely go viral. Though podcast producers hate it, I’d suggest that this resistance to virality saved them from falling into the trap of becoming clickbait or, worse, easily weaponized tools of disinformation. Consider, for example, that podcasts, unlike YouTube broadcasts, aren’t at the whim of AI recommendation algorithms that autonomously direct listeners to crazier variations of what they just heard. When you finish listening to one episode, another one from another show you’ve personally selected typically plays, meaning that you’re still in a media ecosystem whose terms you’ve dictated. Sure, podcasts can be used to spread lies and propaganda, but not as quickly, not as surreptitiously and, generally, to not so wide an audience.
Twitter, that great engine of virality, actually rose from the rubble of a failed podcasting platform Odeo. But while tweets grab your attention, podcasts burrow into your consciousness. That may be because they tend to offer conversational environments: Twitter is a place where users get trolled, dunked on, owned and canceled. By contrast, the two major roles on a podcast are host and guest, a format that encourages dialogue, even in the face of disagreement. Recently, when journalist Ezra Klein invited the columnist Andrew Sullivan onto his podcast, the two quibbled about immigration (Sullivan wants it contained, Klein thinks its navigable), identity politics (Sullivan considers identitarianism cultlike, Klein for the most part thinks it has always been thus) and the immutable truths of nature (this animates Sullivan, Klein questions the premise). Importantly, though, neither questioned the other’s motivations, and each welcomed pushback from the other. It was the sort of conversation that modeled how truly conversational podcasts can be.
Not all podcasts are talk shows, of course: Some are essentially audio documentaries while other are panel discussions, but both benefit from the peculiarities of podcasting. Most of all that means they often encourage us to care about the nichest of niche topics: There is a podcast about pens, a podcast that spends each episode discussing one minute of a film in the Star Wars cannon and a podcast that features semi-fictional play-by-play of an actual women’s recreational women’s basketball league. At a time when huge stories constantly compete for our attention, it’s sometimes nice to just zero in on something so small and insignificant that it can feel huge.
And if you do care about the big issues of the day, podcasts give you the freedom to select how deep you want to go. I would recommend “Rational Security” to anyone interested in national security issues, whether they know the topic. True aficionados, however, can check in with the “Arms Control Wonk” podcast, and I’d push the “National Security Law” podcast only to those who really know their habeas from their corpus. These differing gradations of expected listener expertise mean that it’s easy to get informed without getting overwhelmed.
In traditional reporting, you’re expected to pitch discussions to a smart listener but not a particularly knowledgeable one. You never want to insult the people you’re addressing, but you also don’t want to assume they come to your article or broadcast with a wealth of information. But because podcasts are opt-in, with self-selecting audiences, they’re typically driven by the hope of thrilling willing listeners rather than the fear of confusing passive ones. The result is that the medium can be more daring, with an ethos of “come on now, keep up,” as opposed to “we’ll slow down to make sure no one is lost.”
And, sure, podcasts aren’t always brilliantly groundbreaking or thrillingly original. There is a surfeit of murder podcasts, for example, and there are more than enough interview-with-a-chief-executive podcasts, the important lesson of each always seems to be “build on your failures.” The basic mode of most political panel discussion podcasts, meanwhile, is “Three People Agreeing,” and by agreeing, I mean “agreeing in really predictable ways” and by people I mean “men.” But compared with the other ways we’re pushing information at citizens, these are barely flaws. Five years into my own podcasting projects, the maturity of the industry has astounded and thrilled me. I’m not sure podcasts are the cure for what ails the media ecosystem, I just know they are a consistent bit of audio antidote, two ears at a time.