Is Podcasting Becoming Overcrowded?
In an apt holiday metaphor, a visit from the three ghosts of podcasting breaks down the ups and downs of the evolving medium.
Computer Love is a monthly column that investigates technology with the purpose of making it feel less dense and more fun. In this installment we examine a personal history of podcasting and the shaky ground the medium rests on today.
Can you feel it? That sinking feeling… that the podcasts you love aren’t hitting the same? They don’t take you into a reverie. They’re not making you question your reality or opening your eyes to a world you never knew existed. Podcasts may be quietly entering an era of existential crisis. In the spirit of the holidays, it’s time for a forced seasonal metaphor. It’s time for a visit from the three ghosts of podcasting.
The Ghost of Podcast Past
I first heard about podcasts during my sophomore year of college from my friend Sujay, who suggested I download a show called This American Life onto my iPod Video. It’s easy to take the show for granted today, but at the time, it was completely immersive. I would spend hours building architecture models in the studio, listening to explorations of faith and stories about groups of people I’d only ever known as caricatures in movies. I have the crisp memory of listening to the gentle voice of Scott Carrier describe his obsession with chasing antelope on foot to become closer to our ancestors. He seemed deranged, lost, and brilliant in a way that I felt I had the potential to be.
Sujay also introduced me to the only podcast I have listened to in its entirety… multiple times. You Look Nice Today was originally meant to spotlight the best of Twitter every week, back when Twitter only had a few thousand members. They ditched that premise and built a show that often spiraled into bizarre business ventures evoking adolescent logic and imagination. You Look Nice Today avoids the cliche of the three-guys-talking podcast with Adam Lisagor’s meticulous editing style that adds a comedic element of its own. When I was interning at an architecture firm in Cincinnati, YLNT carried me through the boredom of my first 9-5 and gave me a taste of the California nerd phenotype. The hosts blend a very specific early aughts hipster with deep D&D lore and 80’s karate schtick. It was enough to motivate me to do my next internship in Los Angeles.
After I graduated and started my first real architecture job in 2011, I used Marc Maron’s WTF podcast as my guide for discovering up-and-coming comedians and venues around New York. I also started listening to one of the YLNT hosts' new podcast Roderick on the Line, with indie rocker John Roderick from The Long Winters. There is a certain vulnerable and emotional masculinity at the heart of Roderick on the Line that made it difficult to share with others because it honed in on such a specific frequency. It’s a show that can wildly oscillate from fantasies about forcing Dick Cheney to microdose in a shipping container in the desert to unpacking the banality of evil that enables genocide, to heartbreaking empathy for the Sea-Tac employee that took an Alaskan Airline jet for a joyride before crashing it into an island near Seattle. The show manages to carry simultaneous levity and depth in every episode.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, I attempted to elevate my podcast listening habits by listening to _Pod Save Americ_a, which I would abandon for the more rambunctious Election Profit Makers, which introduced an element of gambling to political news. EPM features long-time friends Jon Kimball and David Rees (whom I had seen perform “comedic pencil sharpening”) that place bets on political outcomes on a site called predictit.org (which has become somewhat stagnant as they navigate the legality of their operation). As the country was beginning to entertain the idea of female leadership, it occurred to me that maybe I should make more of an effort to seek out podcasts created by women. I started listening to Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This season about the Manson murders and would revisit it a few years later for the season on erotic 90’s cinema. Both You Must Remember This and the Lolita Podcast offer academic level deep dives into essential media as a way of unpacking developing feminist and sexual ideologies.
I can’t discuss women and podcasts without bringing up the maligned Red Scare podcast, which alerted me to The Drunken Canal, which led me to Byline. I don’t have the energy or word count to fully dive into the dicey territory that is Red Scare, a podcast I still enjoy and listen to out of some unresolved masochistic impulse. As problematic as the show is, I can’t resist their criticism of the bizarre narratives we are expected to take at face value. The show also serves as a personal barometer for where my secret edgelord impulses tap out.
When I was in college, I was unable to resist the call to podcast and created one with the aforementioned Sujay that has thankfully been lost to the annals of time. I made a second attempt with a new roommate in New York that was abandoned after my cohost was advised by her friend that “people may listen to it.” Until writing this article, I had forgotten that, during the pandemic, I joined the Book Wine Club podcast for a season, which was a delightful reprieve from the isolated early months of quarantine. I’ve been told that I have a very “NPR voice” but I can’t decipher the degree to which the statement is a compliment or insult.
The Ghost of Podcast Present
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how our perception of the world is based on the convergence of “personal knowledge” and “cultural knowledge.” Personal knowledge being a very specific understanding of one’s own reality founded on epiphanies, upbringing, and interpretations. Cultural knowledge, then being the rules and systems generally agreed upon by a local or global community. Podcasts play an interesting role in shaping both of these by building decentralized communities across the world tied to specific personalities. Due to their ease of creation & consumption, they transcend class and region.
Hive of villainy and scum that it is, the Red Scare subreddit, known for spitting venom at its members and the show it’s built around, has moments of sincere gentleness for those brave enough to risk vulnerability. Even in an environment that mocks the medium, countless online and IRL scenes have sprung up around podcasts and launched massive careers and networks. Between the insane contracts being thrown at personalities like Joe Rogan and the multiple rounds of layoffs at Spotify, it’s difficult to gauge how financially stable the format has the potential to be.
It’s relatively easy to start a podcast with a cheap mic and a Patreon page. The challenge lies in finding something interesting to do with the formula and growing an audience organically. There’s also the issue of financing the operation in a sustainable way. This is what many commenters blame as being the downfall of the medium in this Reddit thread about the decline of podcasts. The tone and frequency of podcast ads have changed dramatically as podcast networks begin embracing advertising packages that are divorced from specific listenership demographics. Insincere and disconnected ad reads start to deteriorate the hard-earned credibility that initially led to a show’s success. While ads are a necessary evil in the podcasting world, there’s an undercurrent of blandness that’s saturating the overall quality of the format in the name of creating amorphous blobs of content to wrap in ads. I hesitate to blame the decline of podcasts on “capitalism,” not because it’s an invalid criticism, but because it tends to kill the conversation. The creative person should have reverence for the medium they are working in, and their objective should go beyond financial gain and personal expression.
The Ghost of Podcast Future
As the shimmer starts to fade from podcasts, they could benefit from a few guiding principles. Editing is the secret savior of podcasting. Shows that are edited by one of the hosts develop a certain tightness as the host begins steering the conversation in real time away from something they wouldn’t have the patience to edit (or even listen to a second time). Podcasts need to embrace seasonality. The trend toward open-ended podcasts leads to overindulgent glut and, ultimately, audience fatigue. Creating podcasts with different themes and seasons allows those making them time to ebb and flow and fold in new ideas. Podcasters should have the courage to be independent. Podcasting networks and advertisers are spiraling, and the window for massive cashouts is closing. The real power will always be in the fans of a show. If audiences love a show, they will find a way to support it, and Patreon makes it very easy to do this as a show grows over time. Great podcasts like Mystery Show have been lost because larger networks like Gimlet couldn’t find a business reason for them to exist.
These suggestions are undoubtedly in opposition to marketing recommendations for “growing your podcast,” but that’s the point. Podcasts need to move away from content to be commodified and back in the direction of finely tuned works of art. That’s how they retain their real value.
If you’re looking for a new podcast, here is a sample of what 27 surveyed people are listening to:
The Daily, The Journal, BBC Global News Podcast, Today in Focus, ABC Conversations, Chat 10 Looks 3, The Ezra Klein Show, Throwing Fits, The Rewatchables, Bowery Boys, Red Scare, Critics At Large, Nymphet Alumni, Binchtopia, Cutting Room Floor, Articles of Interest, Ride the Pod, Grace Kuhlenschmidt and Joe Castle Baker’s “Finally,” Seek Treatment, The Bald and the Beautiful, Ride, Pessimistic at Best, Good Children, The Read, The Receipts Podcast, Changes, Modern Love, Stuff You Should Know, H3 Podcast, Loud About Nothing, Emotionally Online, Emergency Intercom, Very Really Good, The Psychology of Your Twenties, After Work Drinks, This American Life, Heavyweight, Las Culturistas, Goop, A24 Podcast, Design Matters, Death, Sex, and Money, Normal Gossip, Ologies, Dear Sugar, Nightvale, Exploration! Live with Charlie and Nathalie, How to Talk to People (The Atlantic), Hurry Slowly, Blank Check, The Flophouse, If Books Could Kill, My Brother My Brother and Me, Pop Culture Happy Hour, You’re Wrong About, Maintenance Phase, Podcast the Ride, Doughboys, The Bechdel Cast, Code Switch, Election Profit Makers, Mangasplaining, How Long Gone, Almost 30, Forbidden Fruits (Julia Fox & Niki Takesh), Ghost of a Podcast (astrology), Marketplace, The Kids of Rutherford County, The Gun Machine, Rachel Maddow: Ultra, Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery, The Ion Pack, The Dig with Daniel Denvir, Too Scary Didn't Watch, Doggzone 9000, The Goods from the Woods, The Worst Idea of All Time, Secretly Incredibly Fascinating, Bigfeets, Unpopular Opinion Network