This article is in The Spectator’s October 2019 US edition. Subscribe here.
‘Man the food-gatherer,’ wrote Marshall McLuhan, ‘reappears incongruously as information-gatherer.’
Once we foraged for information in the library. Now we graze among the podcasts. In the age of compulsive eating, podcasts are compulsive listening, an attempt to fill the silence. Nothing better to do? Click on a podcast, and let your attention drift. It takes no effort, it dissolves minutes into hours, and talking about the ‘great podcast’ you just listened to can sound just as smart as saying you’re reading War and Peace. After all, podcasts were originally made by nerds, for nerds.
McLuhan divided media into ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ styles. Radio is hot media, because it involves minimal participation and leaves fewer areas for our imaginations to ‘fill in the blanks’. The telephone is cool media, because it requires more personal involvement, and you have to think about filling in those blanks after you hang up. If books were cool, podcasts are hot. Imagine saying that on a Tinder date.
While radio cools to the point of rigor mortis, podcasts are getting hotter and hotter, both in terms of ratings and setting the cultural agenda. The craze began with NPR’s Serial, which covered the investigation into the murder of 1999 Maryland high school student Hae Min Lee. Serial’s weekly releases kept listeners on pins and needles, like old-time television episodes. Its popularity led pro bono legal groups and activists to reexamine the case online.
Podcasts also modify older media by supplying news, but podcast users aren’t listening. The top 10 podcasts this summer mostly concerned crime, with light relief from reality show The Bachelor and, somewhere in between, comedian Chelsea Handler’s Life Will Be the Death of Me. And there is, of course the perennially popular Joe Rogan Experience, in which Rogan discusses culture, news and drugs, or interviews celebrities about culture, news and drugs. Rogan ended his recent interview with Elon Musk on a high, by sparking a joint with him. His audience thought that was hilarious.
Podcasts hosted by political pundits and ‘science guys’ confirm the world contains an inordinate amount of people who not only describe themselves as experts, but also believe everyone wants to hear them drone on in their alleged field of expertise.
Listening to a pundit’s podcast is like being a child at a dinner party. When you’re seen and not heard, a ‘hot’ listen becomes a ‘cool’ one. You might as well have stayed in the library.
Other podcasts are there for cheap laughs. The three British hosts of My Dad Wrote a Porno, Jamie Morton, James Cooper, and Alice Levine, have discovered Morton’s father had written a mildly explicit erotica fiction series. Dad gets his when they read it aloud for the world to hear. It goes without saying that Morton learns a bit more about his dad than he wanted to know. It’s like laughing at a Charles Bukowski book.
Some turn to podcasts to graze through history and legend, as they once did in libraries. You can find information on anything in the podcast library, if you trust the people you’re listening to. Myths and Legends and Lore, hosted by Aaron Mahnke, regale you with medieval or Norse or Middle Eastern legends interspersed with modern jokes.This will save time and money spent on specialized college classes. Graduates of these pod-courses wishing to insert themselves into something niche will enjoy the obscure History of Yugoslavia podcast by Alex Cruikshanks, a self-confessed ‘anarchist and antinationalist’ who holds a PhD in Bosnian War diplomacy from the University of East Anglia. Chelsea Handler he is not.
The caveat is that podcasts aren’t like classic novels. They haven’t been around long enough to be tested by time, and you can never be too sure who you’re listening to. We can’t automatically trust the information the podcaster spews out. A celebrity gossip podcast or a clearly biased political one is no more reliable than an article published by Vox or Breitbart.
The good news is, we don’t need to worry that the young are losing interest in knowledge or reading. Americans under 30 are more likely to read a book in print than the over-thirties. Gen Z is on its way to being the most educated and diverse generation, with more enrolling in college and fewer dropping out of school. Yet Gen Z is also the most depressed generation, or at least more anxious about being depressed. Is the computer revolution a democratizer of knowledge or, as Dale Beran argues in It Came from Something Awful, a generator of apathy and social disconnection?
The time may come when the general population realizes podcasters cannot give us what a dive into Dostoyevsky will give us — plunging into the icy waters of existential dread, gasping to the surface with new perspectives on community and spirituality. You could still look up a pod on Dostoyevsky. Maybe the host, a digital Raskolnikov, will give some really good laughs.
Radio may be lost, but libraries may yet make a comeback. Nostalgia is a selling point in our unconfident age, after all, and so is uniqueness. Vinyl, for example, is collected now as it was in the Seventies, albeit in smaller quantities. Fashion constantly looks backwards, with Nineties and even, God forbid, early Noughties styles hitting the streets. It’s even said that print magazines are back, though I have my doubts.
All podcasts mentioned in this article can be downloaded from iTunes and other major podcast providers. This article is in The Spectator’s October 2019 US edition. Subscribe here.