In the last year there is perhaps no mode of popular culture that has taken up more of my time than podcasts. I listen to them during my hour plus commute, while I walk the dog, cook dinner, mow the lawn, shovel the walk, or drive my daughters around town trying to get them to nap on the weekend. Where I once listened exclusively to music, now I listen to podcasts. Their number has proliferated to a point that I am sure that there are amazing podcasts out there totally in line with my sensibilities that I will never get a chance to listen to.
I've been trying to put my finger on why I like podcasts so much, and I think it's mostly because they walk a road paved by radio, but are able to do some interesting stuff that you can't do on radio. Like radio, podcasts work exclusively with sound, and the voice of a person speaking directly to the listener. There is something very primal and immediate about that. Unlike radio, podcasts don't have to concern themselves with the lowest common denominator. For example, there is a great podcast devoted entirely to Hammer horror films (which I listened to incessantly last October), which would be too obscure to make it even on the tiniest of community radio stations. Podcasts also don't have to break as often (or not at all) for commercials, and listening to them pod-style means I get to fast forward right through them anyway (sorry, Squarespace.)
The format can let podcasters give an episode as much, or little, attention it deserves. Radio shows have to fit certain time parameters, meaning they are often crammed with filler, or that they can't fully explore their subject matter in the time allotted. Podcasts can be admiringly obsessive. Case in point: the film podcast The Projection Booth just did a SEVEN HOUR podcast this week about Conan the Barbarian that included interviews with several people who worked on the film and its sequels, along with a long talk with a biographer of Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator. To my surprise, I was actually able to listen to the whole thing over the course of a few days. The hosts are great at translating their love of film to the listener, and at doing the kinds of in-depth interviewing that actually illuminate, rather than help promote whatever new thing the guest is doing. After hearing it I actually want to read some of Howard's original stories, something I never would have done had I not heard this episode.
The kind of freedom podcasting affords also extends to the words that podcasters can use. Comedy is less interesting the more it is restrained, and comedy flourishes in the podcastverse largely because comedians can pretty much say whatever they want to say. The doesn't just make the conversations funnier, but also much more real and less studied. On the best episodes of Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast I feel like I have been given an invaluable opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between interesting people. Recently my friend Chauncey DeVega did an interview with the great author Joe Lansdale, and the result was something about ten times more compelling than what you'd hear on NPR. There was a refreshing lack of bullshit on display that normally saturates the official media.
Like blogging, podcasting shows the democratic potential of the internet, and also exposes the emperor's lack of clothes. Just as there are many bloggers out there writing more intelligent takes on current affairs than well-paid pundits at major newspapers and magazines, there are podcasters who are much better at telling stories and producing compelling interviews than highly paid radio hosts. It is an exciting world using the limited yet compelling instrument of the human voice, and I hope that it continues to surprise me in good ways.