Take a pause to let your mind work

Why the culture that destroyed attention spans is now turning to podcasts.

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: I'm feeling like a lot of people are feeling helpless lately with nonstop bad news. And even ADD has reduced our resistance not our resistance, but our capacity for nuance and for empathy. You know, if you are moving from moment to moment and avoiding a pause, consider that neurologists tell you that the pause is where the memory becomes entrenched. And it's where emotion is synthesized, after the event, in the pause. If you don't go down you can't feel the going up again. So in this era where every pause is filled with checking your phone, when porn, when you skip to the cum shot, you know? From cum shot, to cum shot, to cum shot. You know, and if there's no pause, the orgasm feels like nothing. And the same with joy, the same with sadness. If you never stop you can never feel, fully.

So my goal at times is to create pauses more than create the actual thing between the pauses, which some would call things, or events, or words, or just sounds, in this case with the podcast. I was very careful of, like, this needs to be 24 more frames of pause; I use the film term because there's 24 frames per second. I said, the audience is not feeling it because they don't have enough time to pause. So the art of the pause is what I'm encouraging now.

Anthem is the name of our series. Every season will be a different musical, in probably 10 episodes. And our first season is called Homunculus. My character, Ceann, is a down and out failed writer in a trailer park in the Midwest who's run out of insurance, and he's got a brain tumor. And the tumor, one of the names of the kind of tumor he has is homunculus, which is Latin for little man. And the tumor becomes a character. But my character's online, he's doing an app-based telethon to crowd-fund his treatment.

This piece is really more about me. It's really more of an alternative autobiography. The characters became really me; If I never left my small town, what would I be like? So I wrote it as a TV series. It was too weird for Hollywood, you know? The resting pitch faces at desks across LA were saying no. And a company called Topic Studios said yes, in New York, as a podcast. It was an old form that is being rebooted for today. You know, audio theater has always been a traditional part of radio, and it's sort of been forgotten, and except for some comedy, let's say but this, I really wanted something more like cinema of the mind. Obviously, it's much cheaper. Though, we may be one of the more expensive podcasts ever made because of the density of it. And it's really something that we want to push the podcast form into a more complex, nuance, dense, fictional place. I'm used to theater. I'm used to novels. You know, the words and the music evoke images. You know, sometimes a thousand words is better than a picture, too. Otherwise we wouldn't have Dostoevsky and Nabokov, you know, lasting so long. I'm a word person. You know, I'm a music person. But I love words. You know, when people say films shouldn't be too wordy, and, you know? It's like, why not? You know, Eric Rohmer, so many great filmmakers, they're word based. So in our case, when there is an image that's important to see, for our listeners to envision, we have characters that describe them in a poetic way, which is, of course, the ancient form of prose poetry, that evokes images, and evokes other feelings, and other senses.

I think that one of the reasons podcasts are very popular right now, because it's a bit counter intuitive in this day and age of peak sensory overload, is that people are finding one sense is just fine, thank you very much. We're overloaded. I wrote it all as a theater piece first, and then wrote it all as a television series, and then adapted it for podcast. So I've had a lot of time to parse it, to do readings, to edit the hell out of it. And it's that kind of time is really needed for something this dense.

I think one of the reasons you don't get as many wunderkinds on YouTube in a narrative way is because it requires a lot of skills. It's not just music, or just visuals, or just acting, or just comedy. It's all of those things, including the talents of production, which is, oh, my god, how do you get it onto screen or onto a camera. And that requires patience. It's an ADD world. A lot of young people, patience is not always the strong suit. In fact, the spontaneous, you know, 'shoot myself for Instagram', is the main format of the moment. And that doesn't always allow for the complexity of real narrative storytelling. It can make for something fun, and exciting, and funny. But the kind of stuff, the literary kind of stuff that I like, requires a lot of time and patience. And patience is not really something that's honored anymore, I find, in pop culture. And certainly not in politics lately. So I'm a tortoise as opposed to a hare. And I like to think it through, and gather my thoughts, and hammer away, and sculpt it, which is what I've been doing for the last year and a half.

  • Taking a pause after consuming a piece of art or media is essential to our memory, emotions, and intellectual digestion, says writer, director and podcaster John Cameron Mitchell.
  • We live in an age full of influencers and YouTube personalities, but fewer narrative powerhouses. Storytelling takes time, skill, and requires us to make space to gather our thoughts.
  • Podcasts are a storytelling rebellion against so-called ADHD culture. If the internet ruined our attention spans, can the single-sense format of podcasts bring it back?

John Cameron Mitchell's latest work is the epic radio-cinema podcast Anthem: Homunculus.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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