What the Hell Is It About Podcasts All of a Sudden?

In my personal auditory life, and apparently in that of many of my fellow humans right now, there's a podcast revolution going on. Why this? Why now? 


Writing about how obsessed I've become with podcasts lately feels slightly embarrassing, like raving about some band everyone has been into for 10 years already. Podcasts aren't new, and no doubt many people reading this have been listening forever to Marc Maron's WTF or downloading MP3s of This American Life or something far more hip and obscure for the daily commute, and are wondering what's wrong with all these idiots thinking that Serial is the Second Coming or something.

But in my personal auditory life, and apparently in that of many of my fellow humans right now, there's a podcast revolution of some kind going on. I can't get enough of the things. In fact, even while typing this, I'm listening to Tim Ferriss' podcast even though it's cognitively impossible to process spoken and written text (even if you're the one producing it) at the same time.

As it was for everybody else, Serial was my gateway drug. Podcasts have been around for at least a decade. And Serial certainly isn’t the best one ever (though it is remarkable for a few reasons I’ll get into later). So why Serial?

a) Everybody (I respected) kept telling me that I absolutely had to listen to this thing RIGHT NOW.

b) iOS 8-point-whatever has a built-in podcast app. I can't stress the importance of this enough, even though it makes me feel pretty ridiculous, given how easy it must have been before that just to go to the "podcasts" tab in iTunes. But somehow the simplicity of the app opened up a world of podcast discovery for me (and for a lot of other people, I suspect).

c) I live in New York City and recently began commuting to work again daily after a year or so of freelancing at home. Podcasts are perfect for commutes. Also, for the gym, where previously I had been watching lectures from The Great Courses on things like Ancient Mesopotamian Civilizations. Now it’s all podcasts, all the time.

My favorite podcasts so far, in no particular order, have been: Serial, Marc Maron’s WTF, The Tim Ferriss Show, IE (BuzzFeed’s show about weird things on the internet), StartUp (Alex Blumberg’s show about himself, a former radio producer for This American Life and Planet Money, starting a company that makes podcasts, in real time, while making the podcast), Reply All (the first show that podcast company made, besides StartUp), Here Be Monsters, and 99% Invisible. Radiolab and This American Life, too, of course, but they were already popular radio shows before everyone went crazy about podcasts. 

All of these podcasts differ drastically in length and content. Some are 15 minutes long and some run over two hours. Some are funny and others are weighty and dramatic. The one thing they all have in common is a sense of immediacy: You are right there with the narrator, experiencing what she’s experiencing. This was especially so with Serial (and probably the main reason it was so popular). It’s about a real-life guy still in jail for a crime he may or may not have committed, and the reporter, Sarah Koenig, is wrestling in real time with that question of whether or not he’s an innocent man, as are we, the listeners. And she doesn’t really figure it out! At the end, she’s left with more questions than answers. Tim Ferriss, on the other hand, is a man obsessed with finding and sharing answers, especially about being healthier and more productive. Normally, this is the kind of content that I would hate and mock mercilessly, but what works about his podcast is that he allows himself to sit there for two hours or more with really interesting people, asking them questions that may or may not have concrete answers. There is surprise. There is uncertainty. Even though he’s the same old Tim Ferriss, focused intensely on self-improvement, the podcast is a lot more about the journey than the destination. StartUp, another of my favorites, works (like Serial) because you don’t know what’s going to happen and (unlike Serial) because you identify with the narrator and hang on every new development, hoping that his company doesn’t crash and burn (or maybe that it does, depending on how your mind works; one of the most compelling episodes, actually, is “Burnout,” about the production team almost imploding from mismanagement and overwork).

It's true that there's a strange, special intimacy to listening without watching. You're alone with the narrator (or narrators), a part of the conversation. With headphones especially, it's a closed loop — a secret just between you two (or three, or whatever). Reading a book is a bit like this too, but books (as powerful as they are) give you the stream of thought without the warmth and physical resonance of the human voice in your ear canals. 

So “The Golden Age of Podcasting” is upon us, with the predictable scramble of every brand and media company to get into the game (don’t be surprised if you see a Big Think podcast appearing in the not-too-distant future). It’s getting a little ridiculous. Looking at the Podcasts app on my iPhone right now, I see that there are no less than 12 unofficial podcasts about Game of Thrones, a Mad Men Pre-Game Show... oooh — and one called PopSmoke “where veteran Artists, Creatives, and Entrepreneurs share stories, ideas, and experiences to deliver trusted transition training.” I’m downloading the first episode now! Why am I interested in this? I have no idea. I don’t even know what “transition training” is.

Am I the only one who finds it more than a little ironic that in 2015 — the heyday of Snapchat and streaming video — we’re all excited about the same kind of experience our grandparents had back in 1938, huddling around their giant radios tuned in to War of the Worlds? I have no idea whether, or how much anyone will care about podcasts five or 10 years from now. But for now, the daily possibility of discovering some crazy new podcast, or hearing about Tim Ferriss’ controlled experiments with traditional entheogens, makes working out or riding the crowded N train something to look forward to.

Follow Jason Gots @jgots on Twitter

UPDATE: Jason Gots now has a podcast! It's called THINK AGAIN

You've got 10 minutes with Einstein. What do you talk about? Black holes? Time travel? Why not gambling? The Art of War? Contemporary parenting? Some of the best conversations happen when we're pushed outside of our comfort zones. Each week on Think Again, we surprise smart people you may have heard of with short clips from Big Think's interview archives on every imaginable subject. These conversations could, and do, go anywhere.

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