When wireless radio became a thing, people thought it was haunted. Even to those who knew better, the new media seemed spooky and spectral — all voices untethered from bodies, passing through walls. This was the 1920s. That events transpiring elsewhere could appear close — and in real-time — was thrilling, but also disconcerting. People had to recalibrate themselves to a whole new understanding of what it meant to hear voices. And though the listening apparatus could be switched off and on, the broadcast itself never went away, every still and silent moment now shivering with currents and vibrations. “Wireless is a permanent guest,” wrote media theorist Rudolph Arnheim in 1934. There was something in the air.
The radio was penetrative. It got inside a person’s home, trespassing personal property like it was nothing. It made borders, privacy, categorical distinctions (all Victorian and Edwardian staples) into a joke. In the UK, the men (yes, they were all men) who founded the BBC in 1922 saw themselves as swashbuckling pioneers, pushing into the nation’s living rooms on a mission to entertain, but also to raise better, more enlightened citizens. In order to do so, they had to meet people where they literally, physically were. “It is nothing to create a studio atmosphere,” BBC exec C.A. Lewis wrote in 1924, reflecting on the corporation’s first year and declaring its manifesto for the future, “The programme has got to get into the home atmosphere.”
Where music might attach to your inner narrative, podcasts are a direct delivery system for narrative and chatter itself
Radio took a singular event — a performance, an announcement, a piece of art — and sent it rippling into the world. Writing in 1921, the Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov predicted a world in which the radio would become a kind of “spiritual sun” and “unite all mankind.” Even to those with a less lofty vision, the mass quality of the media was not lost. “From palace to slum people are listening. It is the most democratic form of entertainment ever invented by man,” C.A. Lewis declared.
It feels a little facile to point out that in the digital age, the “broad” cast of radio has been stuffed into the singular, contained unit of the “pod.” That the metaphor is obvious doesn’t make it untrue. It also seems worth pointing out how the podcast (a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast) is fundamentally yoked to Apple products, whose dominance often seems like some kind of dystopic punchline about what it costs to be the same kind of special as everybody else. When you think of a podcast listener, tell me you don’t picture a person whose ears are stuffed shut with little white buds: the now-universal sign for “I’m not listening.” Or, rather, “I’m not listening to you.”
Like music, podcasts neither require nor encourage you to stop whatever else you’re doing in order to enjoy them; they are designed, quite beautifully, to be palimpsestic, a soundscape ready to track over just about any non-verbal activity. But where music might attach to your inner narrative and drag the tone and emotional tenor up and down like a movie score, podcasts are a direct delivery system for narrative and chatter itself.
In that way, they’re not so different from old-school radio, except that the wild increase in portability is a game-changer. The radio needled at a 20th century crisis of boundaries by admitting public experiences into private spaces. Podcasts have turned this inside out, allowing us to have private experiences as we go about in public. If to the turn-of-the-century listener the presence of the radio seemed like a haunting, in the age of podcasting, it’s more like we’re the ghosts — floating through the world in a fog of semi-presence, both deeply engaged and fundamentally checked out.
Listening to a podcast while you go about your life is an act of almost literal dislocation, allowing a person to essentially perceive themselves in two places at once. The disjunct is only reconciled in the experience, memory, and body of the listener. The result is something rich and singular and unrepeatable — something that’s happened just to you.
I can remember a spat about a Taylor Swift album tracking past boarded-up houses in Ohio; a prison visitation room crackling with the static of fresh laundry
If you’re a podcast person, you’ll know what this is like — how the media integrates with the conditions under which it’s heard, imprinting on a person’s memory like a double-exposure. The results are oneiric. I can remember a whale carcass sinking to the ocean floor in Toronto’s Dufferin subway station; a spat about the cultural significance of a Taylor Swift album tracking past boarded-up houses in Ohio that seemed to be shutting their eyes; a prison visitation room crackling with the static of fresh laundry.
The thing people always say about podcasts is that they feel so intimate. The beautiful thing about intimacy is that, by letting other people in, we are reminded that our lives are porous, that the difference between humans is arbitrary and surmountable. And, of course, the horrifying thing about intimacy is that it reminds us that our lives are porous and the differences between us are arbitrary and surmountable. Intimacy is a kind of productive erosion — a sense of self acquired by allowing the boundaries of selfhood to dissolve. We can come to depend on it, lose ourselves in it, give up our integrity in order to feel it.
Maybe I should have said this earlier, but I love podcasts. Like, I love them. There are programs I’ve been tuning into for 10, 11, 12 years at this point. Which means I’ve been dosing myself with certain voices, ways of speaking, ways of thinking, since before my brain was, developmentally speaking, all the way cooked.
I fell in love with podcasts as a stationary form. In college, I tore through the This American Life archive on my heavy, barely-portable laptop. Then came Radiolab, the various Gabfests, whatever I could get. I want to say I listened while doing other things, like maybe household chores, but as former roommates will attest, I did shamefully little of anything like that. I lay on my unmade bed. I lay on the floor of my filthy room. Listening was the activity; the podcast was the event.
This was a time before I owned any iThings. I lived in a city draped over a four-mile-long peninsula, and I used to burn my angst by running the length of it in multiples — down, up, halfway back down again — listening to nothing but the churn of my own brain. How could I stand it? What was I thinking? That ability to endure myself now sounds absurd.
If early radio programming was meant to “get into the home atmosphere,” the 21st century version belongs to a smaller, more contained theater: it’s like a podcast is set inside your own skull. More than a decade into my listening habit, I find myself on what feels like cellular, neurological intimacy with people I’ve never met — who don’t know I exist. And as podcasts have exploded, I’ve started to wonder about their cumulative effects. At what level do these encounters remain world-expanding and empathy-provoking? How much is too much other people to chug into your head?
My concern is that on some level, I’m prone to mistake any voice that pours so convincingly into my brain for my own
My concern is that on some level, I’m prone to mistake any voice that pours so convincingly into my brain for my own. And maybe it’s not even a mistake, per se, so much as a calculated strategy on the part of my ego to maintain its primacy, targeting and claiming any foreign object that would stray so far into the inner-sanctum of my consciousness. Whether the medium is insidious, my mind a greedy assimilation machine, or both, it seems that at least some of the time, podcasts don’t just drown out my inner-monologue — they actually overwrite it. When I listen to a podcast, I think some part of me believes I’m only hearing myself think.
Twentieth-century critics worried about this, too. Writing sometime around the late 1930s, Theodore Adorno theorized that a solitary listener under the influence of radio is vulnerable to persuasion by an anonymous authority. He writes: “The deeper this [radio] voice is involved within his own privacy, the more it appears to pour out of the cells of his more intimate life; the more he gets the impression that his own cupboard, his own photography, his own bedroom speaks to him in a personal way, devoid of the intermediary stage of the printed words; the more perfectly he is ready to accept wholesale whatever he hears. It is just this privacy which fosters the authority of the radio voice and helps to hide it by making it no longer appear to come from outside.”
I’ll admit that I have occasionally been gripped by false memories as a result of podcasts — been briefly sure that I’d seen a TV show I’d never watched, or convinced that it was a friend, not a professional producer, who told me some great anecdote. But on the whole, my concern is less that I am being brainwashed and more that I’m indulging in something deeply avoidant: filling my head with ideas without actually having to do the messy, repetitive, boring, or anxious work of making meaning for myself. It’s like downloading a prefabbed stream of consciousness and then insisting it’s DIY. The effect is twofold: a podcast distracts me from the tedium of being alone with myself, while also convincingly building a rich, highly-produced version of my inner life. Of course that’s addictive — it’s one of the most effective answers to loneliness and self-importance I can imagine.