Surveying the Podcasting Landscape

I just hit publish on the latest episode of my podcast, which marks the end of my show’s first season. The second season of the show is in the works (along with some exciting developments), but for now, I just want to sit back and survey this renaissance of podcasting.

In 2008, I was working for the public radio show that would become On Being, but I wasn’t happy. My job was primarily technical, not creative. I booked guests, did research, wrote promos, fact-checked, proofread scripts, and occasionally cut tape. What I really wanted was to make radio stories of my own, and I started to, on a freelance basis, for a show called Weekend America.

But then the economy crashed. Weekend America got canceled just before Christmas, so I no longer had a show I wanted to work for. I wound up quitting my job that spring and taking a new job teaching writing. I hoped I’d be able to do some freelance radio on the side, but the freelance market had largely dried up. So I sold all my radio equipment and gave up on the medium.

I knew about podcasting at the time. But aside from podcast versions of radio shows, most podcasts were just guys sitting around talking. At best, podcasting consisted of long form interviews. At worst, it consisted of meandering panel discussions. That wasn’t the kind of radio I wanted to make. I wanted to tell stories.

But then I heard 99% Invisible, Love + Radio, The Longest Shortest Time, and Criminal. These were the shows that started me thinking about getting back into radio. I realized that in order to create a great show, you just needed to find your singular vision, and then use that vision to tell one beautifully-crafted story after another.

We’re now living in a golden age of such shows. Of course, there’s the recent favorites like Serial, Startup, Reply All, Death, Sex, and Money, Strangers, and The Heart, but there’s also independent shows like How Sound, Pitch, Song Exploder, The Memory Palace, Home of the Brave, and newer shows like Neighbors, Arrvls, Nocturne, and First Day Back. Each of these shows has their own unique vision, and each is bringing new voices and new perspectives to light.

All of this is why a recent essay in The Timbre (a publication I read avidly and have even written for), gave me pause. The overall argument of the essay is that more podcasts should try to follow the model of shows like Serial, telling a single story week to week, rather than a new standalone episode each week. That makes sense. But the part that hit close to home for me was the following passage:

The problem is that every other podcast imitates This American Life in creating a character-driven, sometimes newsworthy, sometimes human-interest segment or two of nonfiction radio. They often don’t do it as well, but the influence is stark. What seems to work for inspiration for new shows is pretty obvious: lay claim to some small, unoccupied piece of turf and do it exactly how TAL would do it, only shorter in length….The problem with copying TAL is that they are usually going to be better than you at their brand of radio.

My first thought upon reading that was, “Shit, that’s me. I’m trying to create the TAL of technology podcasts. I’m just a knockoff.”

But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s just fine. This American Life didn’t narrow the definition of non-fiction radio, they broadened it. There isn’t one type of TAL story, there are dozens. And while they’ve done their best to find a diverse set of voices to tell their stories, there’s a world of content out there they won’t have time to explore in their one hour of radio a week.

What podcasting offers, not unlike blogging before it, is the ability for every radio reporter, every audio storyteller, to decide that they don’t have to sell their stories before they make them. If their stories are good enough, and especially of they have a singular vision, those stories can stand on their own. Of course, this has been true since the dawn of podcasting. What's new is that there's now a sizable chunk of people willing to listen.

When I left radio in 2008, it was because no one would pay me to make the kinds of stories I wanted to make. Now I’m just making them, and it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my life.

And people are listening. And that’s amazing.

Podcast Episode 11: The Window Seat

The first time I ever flew on an airplane, I was seven years old. My brother and I had woken up that morning, assuming we’d spend the day in frigid, Illinois winter, but our parents surprised us with a trip to Disney world, so by late that afternoon we were landing in warm, spring-like Orlando, Florida. Now, the point of the trip was Disney World, but when I think back on it, a huge part of the experience was that first airplane ride, the suddenness of it, that we could be in one specific place in the morning, and one completely different place in the evening. It felt truly magical.

Of course, I don't feel that way anymore. The modern annoyances of flying have wrung all the magic out of the experience. But on the latest episode of podcast, I interview an Egyptian man who retains that sense of magic. He fell in love with flying at a young age, when his family would fly back and forth between Egypt and Kuwait. He tells the story of how his relationship (and access) to air travel changed after he moved to the US, and how that change affected his life.

The World as It Might Be

Ben Thompson writing for Stratechery on why the implications of the Apple Watch might be bigger than we realize:

For all of the changes that have been wrought by technology, a huge amount of our daily existence really hasn’t changed in a very long time. Consider keys: in my bag I have several pieces of metal, hopefully unique, that unlock doors or start up machines that run on controlled explosions. It’s positively barbaric! Money has improved a bit – cash is certainly a very old concept, although credit cards are more modern – but the idea that we physically hand someone access to a huge amount of money (i.e. our credit cards) without even thinking about it is odd. We operate lights with switches, print disposable tickets for everything from airplanes to concerts, and pack identification from a whole host of authorities, including the government and workplace.

It’s increasingly plausible to envision a future where all of these examples and a whole host of others in our physical environment are fundamentally transformed by software: locks that only unlock for me, payment systems that keep my money under my control, and in general an adaptation to my presence whether that be at home, at the concert hall, or at work.

Altering Perception with Wearable Devices

Great thoughts from Ryan Budish on how hearing aids can give a sense of what future wearable devices might be able to offer:

In order to justify being part of our bodies, wearables need to offer something beyond an additional screen or input device. This means that sensory-enhancing wearables will need to mediate between reality and our experiences, altering our perception of the world around us.

For hearing aids, that role is enhancing sound, replacing the too-soft sounds of the real world with louder, more comprehensible ones. But modern hearing aids don’t simply make everything louder; instead, they provide a substitute soundscape tailored to my needs and my environment. When I go into a loud restaurant, the devices can identify the clatter of glasses and the din of conversation, and tune out those sounds, while tuning into the sound of a nearby voice. The result is an audio experience that is substantially different from the objective reality; the device replaces a reality that would be challenging with a substitute that is easier to understand and utilize.

Oliver Sacks on Mortality

In a heartbreaking and beautiful essay for the New York Times, Oliver Sacks writes about learning that he has terminal cancer:

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Podcast Episode 9: I Was Deprived

Every parent I know struggles with their children, at least a little bit, over access to technology. On the one hand, we don't want our kids' brains to rot. On the other hand, they need some technological freedom, if only to learn how to use these devices. So where do you draw the line?

On the latest episode of my podcast, I have two stories, from two extremes, about that struggle. One is the story of a woman who grew up with almost no technological freedom. The other is the story of a single mother who worries she's giving her kids too much technological freedom.

I'm trying something new with this episode, editing together two separate interviews so that the two stories weave in and out of each other. Both stories are interesting on their own, but there's something especially fascinating about hearing, for example, one woman talk about unwrapping the first cellphone she ever bought as an 18-year-old (against her mother's wishes) while the other woman talks about giving a cellphone to her five year old.

I'm really proud of how it turned out. So if you're reading this and you haven't checked out the podcast yet, or if you haven't listened in a while, I highly recommend trying this episode.

Technological Vulnerability

Colin Dickey writing for Aeon on why it's dangerous for modern civilization to be so dependent on technology:

On 1 September 1859, the British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a burst of solar winds and magnetic energy that had escaped the corona of the Sun. The Carrington Event, as it came to be known, was not only the first recorded CME, it was also one of the largest ever on record, and it unleashed a foreboding and wondrous display of light and magnetic effects. Auroras were seen as far south in the northern hemisphere as San Salvador and Honolulu. As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: ‘From twilight until 10 o’clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before.’

At the time, the event caused some minor magnetic disruption to telegraph wires, but for the most part there was little damage caused by such a spectacular event, its main legacy being the fantastic displays of light across the sky in early September. But should a solar flare happen on the scale of the Carrington Event now (and there’s a 12 per cent chance of one hitting the Earth before 2022), the effects might have a radically different impact on our advanced civilisation. If a CME with the same intensity were to hit the Earth head-on, it could cause catastrophic damage.

A National Research Council report in 2008 estimated that another Carrington Event could lead to a disruption of US infrastructure that could take between four and 10 years – and trillions of dollars – to recover from. Particularly vulnerable are the massive transformers on which our entire power system relies. Massive fluxes in magnetic energy can easily overload a transformer’s magnetic core, leading to overheating and melting of their copper cores. In the worst-case scenario, a repeat of the Carrington Event would cripple our infrastructure so severely it could lead to an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a threat utterly unknown to our ‘less civilised’ ancestors.

Rat Cages

Fascinating critique of the idea that drugs cause drug addiction (I'm quoting at length because this section sets up the whole rest of the piece):

The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.” But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

The whole piece is well worth a read, especially for the results of a similar experiment on the heroin addicts in Portugal. The author also has a book.

When the Body Attacks Itself

Meghan O'Rourke on the bewildering, self-alienating experience of an auto-immune disease:

To be sick in this way is to have the unpleasant feeling that you are impersonating yourself. When you’re sick, the act of living is more act than living. Healthy people, as you’re painfully aware, have the luxury of forgetting that our existence depends on a cascade of precise cellular interactions. Not you.

Reading Minds to Serve Ads

Raffi Khatchadourian writing for The New Yorker about how an effort to teach computers to read emotions got hijacked by the marketing industry.

The free economy is, in fact, an economy of the bartered self. But attention can never be limitless. Kaliouby put me in touch with Thales Teixeira, the business professor who collaborated with her, and we met at the Harvard Club in New York. “There are three major fungible resources that we as individuals have,” he said. “The first is money, the second is time, and the third is attention. Attention is the least explored.” Teixeira had recently tried to calculate the value of attention, and found that, like the dollar, its price fluctuated. Using Super Bowl ads as a rough indicator of the high end of the market, he determined that in 2010 the price of an American’s attention was six cents per minute. By 2014, the rate had increased by twenty per cent—more than double inflation. The jump had obvious implications: attention—at least, the kind worth selling—is becoming increasingly scarce, as people spend their free time distracted by a growing array of devices. And, just as the increasing scarcity of oil has led to more exotic methods of recovery, the scarcity of attention, combined with a growing economy built around its exchange, has prompted R. & D. in the mining of consumer cognition.

Podcast Episode 7: Not a Phone Person

It's amazing to think how rapidly communication technolgies have changed just over the course of my lifetime. I'm not even 40 years old, but I can remember a time when there were only two ways to communicate over a long distance: by letter or by phone. And for most of my youth, that phone was plugged directly into the wall.

These days, you can choose to send an email, send a text, send a Facebook message or write directly on the person's Facebook wall, Tweet at them or send a direct message, snapchat, Facetime, Skype, etc. If Apple has their way, people will soon be virtually tapping on each other's wrists.

The latest episode of my podcast is a case study in the technology of communication. Specifically, it's the story of one woman who struggled against all the technological tools of communication, who didn't even enjoy talking on the telephone, while living apart from the man she loves.

Video Review of Due

One of the most indispensable apps on my phone is Due, a reminders app that’s simply better at reminding me to do stuff than anything else I’ve ever tried. It got a lot better with its update to Due 2 this week. Its $5 for new customers, and the developer has finagled a $3 price for old customers through in-app purchase.

If you want to read a detailed review of the updated version, I highly recommend the review over at MacStories and the review at Beautiful Pixels. What I’ve created below is just a simple video demonstrating my favorite details of the app.

Time Is Money but Money Is Not Time

The Economist on why we all feel so busy:

The relationship between time, money and anxiety is something Gary S. Becker noticed in America’s post-war boom years. Though economic progress and higher wages had raised everyone’s standard of living, the hours of “free” time Americans had been promised had come to nought. “If anything, time is used more carefully today than a century ago,” he noted in 1965. He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

That economic prosperity would create feelings of time poverty looked a little odd in the 1960s, given all those new time-saving blenders and lawnmowers. But there is a distinct correlation between privilege and pressure. In part, this is a conundrum of wealth: though people may be earning more money to spend, they are not simultaneously earning more time to spend it in. This makes time—that frustratingly finite, unrenewable resource—feel more precious.

Humans Speaking for Themselves

This episode of the poscast Love + Radio is a perfect exampe of the power of great tape. The story begins when a guy named Jerome catcalls a radio producer.

When Jerome called out to her in the street, she pulled out her microphone and asked if he could repeat what he said to her. This is the conversation that followed.

Love + Radio made a name for itself early on with its amazing sound design and musical scoring. But what I love about the way the show has evolved is its focus on people. Most episodes are sound portraits of unlikely characters, many of them disreputable characters: bank robbers, extortionists, strip club managers. But it never feels like the show is exploiting its subjects, judging them, or sensationalizing them. The interviewer might challenge them, but they always get to speak for themselves.

This, to me, is the real potential value of podcasts. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote of radio:

Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.

Most episodes of Love + Radio could never appear on the actual radio. Podcasting made this show possible. We should all strive to take advantage of that opportunity. If you're making a podcast, don't just sit in front of your computer talking to people you already know. Try to turn your microphone outwards at the world, to increase the number of human voices (both reputable and disreputable) speaking for themselves.

Before and After a Tweet

Andrew Goldman has written a harrowing essay For Slate on how a tweet can ruin your life. He doesn't come off as especially sympathetic in the piece, but I do think he perfectly captures the way the internet can amplify our basest impulses if we make the mistake, in moments of weakness, of casting those base impulses into public language.

In light of what happened after, this is the moment I’ve thought about every day since, the thing that my mind always goes to when I can’t sleep and I need to take inventory of the great mistakes and regrets of my life. How, as a father of two, could I have been so selfish and shortsighted to risk a steady paycheck? It’s been 801 days now and, whenever I see 3 a.m., it’s still there, hanging on to the No. 1 blackest spot in my soul.


Emily Nussbaum, one of the characters in Goldman's story, has weighed in with a series of tweets arguing that Goldman's offending tweet wasn't as important to his downfall as he thinks.