At the intersection of technology and obsolescence sits the podcast. Without a doubt, the technology of the iPod revolutionized the way we consume our culture in its sleek appearance, easy-as-pie interface, and seemingly limitless storage capacity. The iPod made all technology from the charmingly archaic Walkman, the comparatively cumbersome Discman, and the thoroughly misdirected mini-disc player look like relics from the Temple of Doom.
Yet, what is one of the fastest growing formats played on this tiny little morsel of technology? It’s the most outmoded form of social interaction you can possibly have – a long, meandering conversation with someone else free from interruption, format restrictions, or FCC constraints. A conversation you can have at a pub in 2011, or on the goddamn prairie in 1835. Sure, the content would be different, but the spirit remains very much the same.
The podcast is the perfect marriage of technological advancement and that which we decry is missing from many of our interactions in day-to-day life: real depth, real connection, and real conversation. Technology we blame on alienating us is also bringing us together in unexpected ways. It’s a culture come full circle, and I’m here to tell you why it means so much to me.
In a recent AV Club article, Noel Murray wonders what the future of shopping holds with the decline of big box retailers. He opens autobiographically discussing “The List.” What is “The List?” Here’s Murray’s explanation: “More often we kept it in our heads, and if we were on the road in a new city, we’d hit the local record stores, bookstores, comic book stores, and video stores, checking for the items we could never find in our neighborhood boutiques.”
Basically, it’s a by-product of media nerd-dom frustrated by small town isolation. Those of us out of college by now have some degree of experience with this. When I was 10, I had to have my mom drive me to the record store to buy the new Color Me Badd cassette and endure the worst conversation of my life as my mom grilled the clerk on the lyrical content of the song “I Wanna Sex You Up.” That conversation made me wish I was dead, but it made me realize if I was spending capital with my mom to take me to the music store, I needed to make these trips count. That little encounter accelerated my taste in music quickly, and rarely did I waste the opportunity to get new music again.
If I were 10 years old today and I wanted, I don’t know, Ke$ha’s “Take It Off,” or something, I’d just go on the computer and download it illegally and anonymously. That’d be much easier. By the same token, if I were a kid today, I wouldn’t have to seek out a subset of other wrestling nerds from nearby schools to order WWF pay-per-views with, I’d just go online and get on the forums at 411Mania, and bitch about Vince McMahon’s retarded booking with 100 other anonymous dorks.
What’s my point? While it’s easier to connect with people you have something in common with, and find any and all media at your fingertips, it was that difficulty and resultant loneliness that made people get off their asses and find new people to hang out with. It’s what made you leave your shitty small town and jaunt off to the big city. It’s what made you get out of your dorm and explore your college campus. It’s what forced you to connect with people you didn’t know that well. Technology has, for better and worse, made a lot of that effort unnecessary.
The podcast is rediscovering those joys of connection.
And while we’re not necessarily doing it on an interpersonal level, at least we’re having the experience of it vicariously. Many of my favorite podcasts consistently chart on iTunes’ most popular lists: The B.S. Report w/Bill Simmons, The Adam Carolla Podcast, This American Life, The Nerdist, and WTF w/Marc Maron all show up regularly in iTunes most downloaded. While all different in thrust and scope, all of these podcasts primarily use long form interviews as their format. Granted, Adam Carolla has devolved into what sounds like a typical morning zoo, and This American Life focuses less on interviews and more on large story arcs, but they all employ a presentation style largely dead everywhere else in the media spectrum.
Back when I subscribed to FHM and Maxim and all that shit, I remember reading a story on Ryan Seacrest. The reporter followed Seacrest around over the course of his whole day, and Seacrest was about as busy as any media personality anywhere in the world. He was lacking for something to talk about in one of his many radio hours and someone casually mentioned something pertaining to Britney Spears. Seacrest grabbed onto this and managed to tease an entire hour of this announcement, whatever it was. I don’t even remember why she was in the news then, but here’s the thing: even at the time, neither did Seacrest. The content of the story was irrelevant, what mattered was that Seacrest had a hook that he could blather on about for an hour divided into bite-size segments between vapid pop songs without really saying anything. That’s the nature of radio jocks – what they say doesn’t matter as long as they’re saying something and filling their vast expanse of air time.
Podcasts take this mentality and turn it on its head. We’re going to talk for as long as we need to about things of substance, and what we say doesn’t matter as long as we’re being interesting. Seacrest took what was probably 5 seconds of content and stretched it to over an hour’s worth of radio. Given the vast amount of subject matter covered in one Bill Simmons’s two hour chats with Chuck Klosterman, that’s what, like 9 years worth of radio? Radio, by its nature, is the most polarizing medium. It’s either the most inviting form or the most antiseptic. Podcasts have invited listeners in.
In Marc Maron’s outstanding “WTF” program, Marc offers some of the most naked self-analysis anywhere in the media spectrum. He’s been candid about his problems with drug abuse, his neuroses, his shitty behavior and resentment to other comics, and his personal relationships. And then we get to the interview where he and his guests talk very intimately about their journeys through the world of comedy and their trek through the difficulty that is life experience. Listening to WTF is often very raw (as it was when he interviewed comedy pariahs like Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, or old friends like Louis CK), but always rewarding. And because Marc is so personal, as listeners, we’re right there in the room with him. People often come up to him at shows and talk to him like they’re old friends. I’d probably be tempted to do the same if I ever met him.
The reason is that Maron describes WTF as his own personal journey toward becoming a better a person. He notes that before he began interviewing people in his garage for a living, he rarely sat down and had a long conversation with someone where you really listen, and really share yourself with the other person. This format allows him to re-examine his relationships with his friends and colleagues, and as a result, Maron ends up apologizing for a lot his misguided and petulant behavior. It’s a fascinating journey.
Think about your own lives. How often do you really do this? Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite thing in the world is to sit on a porch or a patio with beers and bullshit an entire afternoon away with close friends, but even I don’t really know most of the people in my life. Opportunities to do this become rarer and rarer. Real life impinges, and there’s always so much shit to do. Conversations like these are where real friendship happens. And when it happens again, friendship grows. And when it happens again, friendship is nourished.
I can thank Adam Carolla for my entree into this format. When Adam Carolla got laid off from CBS Radio, he got a severance package with a no-compete clause that prevented him from working elsewhere. Since Carolla is a born talker, he simply took his talents to the internet and started talking to interesting people for free. I immediately fell in love with this show as I gained insight into people like Dicky Barrett, Seth MacFarlane, Christoph Waltz (Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds), and a ton of others. He modeled his show after Charlie Rose, which really gave his guests room to share themselves. I never would have guessed how interesting MMA referee Big John McCarthy is based on how boring Senor Limon told me his blog was, but his story was fantastic.
This is what had been missing from the media landscape. Sure, Playboy and GQ often had good long form interviews, but when translated to text, a lot of the intimacy of a good, meandering conversation gets lost. In the case of a podcast, it’s right there. And as a result of that, you’re right there. Television is the worst about this in terms of traditional media as segments get shorter and shorter. And then the internet generally somehow finds 5 additional layers of awful to rest at in terms of substantial content.
I hardly go anywhere or do anything without listening to a podcast anymore. My new job has me taking little day trips all over the state, and since my old-as-fuck car doesn’t have an MP3 port, I burn podcasts onto CDs and listen to them wherever I go. I listen to my iPod on airplanes. I taped off our bathroom so we could paint it the other day, and I had Marc Maron talking to Ray Romano to keep me company.
The podcast is the antidote to an increasingly fractured media landscape. Facebook posts are limited to 420 characters. Twitter is 140 characters. TV shows play out in short webisodes on the Internet. We don’t have space to connect in any meaningful way. Our technology almost outpaces us.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to sit down with two people who seem to have all the time in the world and just get to know each other. It’s like sitting on the patio with the most interesting people possible. We connect. We breathe. We explore. And it’s all at the tip of our fingers housed in technology we couldn’t even dream of a mere 15 years ago. Intimacy housed in a tiny technological marvel.
That’s the simple majesty of the podcast.
18 Mar 2011 E Dagger