When you read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker article “Binge Listening” in the November 19th, 2018 edition of the magazine, you will walk away with an uncanny sense that podcasting is significant in ways you had never previously considered. If you then refer back to the story online, in a bout of beautiful irony, you’ll be prompted to listen to it instead.
The service is provided by the start-up Audm, who’s wagering that a combination of audio’s convenience and general screen fatigue will make articles read by professional voice actors a compelling alternative. Curio is following an identical business model, just with a different set of publishers. Swedish music success story Spotify decided to go all in on podcasts this year, purchasing distribution platform Anchor and the independent production company Gimlet.
Business is good for podcasters, and at a surface level, that is some indication of on-demand audio’s current appeal. I would like to argue that the medium of podcasting has both more broad-based and complex implications for today’s politics. Those implications extend far beyond the latest capital flows or acquisition strategies because as cutting-edge as podcasting may seem, it is — in most ways — a return.
It is a return to radio, established circa 1920. It is a return to narrative construction, which could perhaps be traced 1615, when Miguel de Cervantes finished Don Quixote (though the “first novel” is sometimes attributed to The Tale of Genji, written by Japanese lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu half a millennia earlier). But you can keep on going. First compiled in 40 BCE, Aristotle said that “spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul.” Some linguists hypothesize oral language could be 100,000 years old.
Considered on this scale, the significance of podcasting is not that Crooked Media is turning their back on VC money. Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message. His examples are as arcane as clothing, clocks, and light bulbs. In all of our objects, McLuhan believed there were inherent arguments about capacity and scale. Podcasting, viewed in this light, brings forth a whole continuum of new questions.
In my initial research, I have identified four categories for exploration: (1) concerns about the methods by which podcasts are made, (2) the defining characteristics of the human voice, (3) podcasting as a rejoinder to progress narratives and concepts of modernity, and (4) the power and trade-offs within narrative form. I provide an abbreviated reading list below. Over the course of the next two months, I will use these texts to engage those subjects.
Methods and Concerns
The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin (1921)
The Journalist and The Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990)
Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2001)
Infoglut by Mark Andrejevic (2013)
The Voice Remains Human
De Interpretatoine by Aristotle (40)
Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure (1916)
Politics and The English Language by George Orwell (1946)
The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul (1985)
Further Implicating Modernity
The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt (1958)
Theses on The Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin (1940)
The Post-Modern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard (1979)
Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen (2018)
Stories: A Necessary Evil?
The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin (1936)
The Shapes of Stories by Kurt Vonnegut (1943)
The Boys on The Bus by Timothy Crouse (1972)
More Truth Than Fact by Lisa Disch (1993)
There are certainly a plethora of problems in political media today, but in no way am I purporting to find “the solution.” I’m not even that interested in delineating “the problems.” Doing so implies a capacity to control the world around us that I am not entirely confident we posses. Instead, I am interested to engender in all of us a more skeptical and inquisitive spirit. How do we learn about our surroundings? What unwitting patterns do we rely on to turn complexity into understanding? Who is affected, and how, when we engage with and learn from one another? These questions do not lead to great “action items.” But sometimes action is better proceeded by slowness, by understanding. Slow understanding is the kind that comes with caveats, contingencies, and contexts. That is what I’ll aim for in the coming months.