Podcast listening is rising sharply though many people still find podcasts hard to fathom. On the one hand podcasts’ ‘long form’ story structure doesn’t fit into some people’s social media consumption habit filled with memes and GIFs. Or, they tend to be dismissed as too mundane, given how many ‘vlogs’ (video blogs) bubble over with rants and risqué material guaranteed to harvest clicks. There is, however, a wide chasm between these two. Plenty of gaps being filled by experimental podcasts. Atlantic magazine has ‘The Experiment’ to do a deep dive into the culture and politics. Slate, in 2016 began what it called a ‘rolling podcast’ style of delivering fresh content around the elections, as did the New York Times’ podcast ‘The Daily.’ While these niches await proper nomenclature many podcasts have mined the gaps that the media were once reluctant to invest in.
My hypothesis is that podcasts are lighting a fire under the media, giving rise to a new journalism. The climate couldn’t more right for it, with people cloistered in make-shift home offices, or tired of the formulaic story arc on the evening news. There’s also the smart-speaker set, who can listen to something different while making coffee, or doing laundry.
The term ‘New Journalism’ isn’t a new label. It was used in the Nineteen sixties and seventies when journalism was invigorated by fiction writing techniques.
What differentiates this kind of journalism is that in a podcast, the journalist-as-host brings in a sense of immediacy not possible in print media. The journalist tiptoes in and out of the story to connect the dots.
In December 2019, the Pulitzer Board announced a new category for audio reporting – basically podcasts. It called this an experimental move in recognition of a “renaissance of audio journalism” that opened up “non-fiction storytelling.” I’ve been listening to The Daily for about a year now, alongside This American Life, On the Media and This Week in Tech. So I was delighted when This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer. This long-running show may have been the spark for many podcasts today.
Even as the pandemic closed many, many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling. Here’s to audio journalism!
Note: A longer version of this post appears in Medium
More interesting than the fact that I still have a collection of cassette tapes is what they contain. I managed to play one of them on a not-so-ancient player, and realized it has the edited and raw recording of a program I produced at Broadcasting House at the BBC in London in 1988.
On it are unedited interviews with Margaret Douglas, a TV producer, director and feisty executive during the Thatcher years, who ended up being director general of the BBC. She passed away in 2008. Also there’s one with Allan Little, a well known foreign correspondent at that time, and Nicholas Hinton from Save the Children’s Fund.
But as they say, wait, there’s more! This tape, below archives some work done some years before when I was in advertising, at Phoenix O&M. Our clients’ names are on the tape label. A courier company, a milk-powder and the sugary syrup kept us creatives busy into the night. Driven, of course by persistent account managers who hovered around our desks with 8-page briefs, screaming about a three o’clock deadline.
Between Barnes Place, Colombo and Langham Place, London the voices and sounds on these tapes are like a time capsule. This week I plan to digitize some of the material to share with my friends. If you’re reading this and are one of those who worked on my team at the Beeb or at O&M let me know.
I often teach podcasting, but from a different angle now – nearly ten years after I began one at ASU. Now it is all about the planning, the content, and the delivery –rather than the technology and distribution.
In my Public Speaking (COM225) class at junior college, I ask my students to work on a group podcast when we cover ‘Speaking to a global audience‘ and ‘Virtual audiences.’ This semester too I threw out the challenge to create a podcast on topics they randomly picked.
Here is one, created with some planning plus a great interview that makes it sound quite authentic, rather than a class project. The surprise: It was basically recorded on a phone! She used the app from Anchor FM, which provides unlimited hosting.
Gone are the days of needing to buy a special device such as the Zoom H2N I once used. Or downloading software such as Audacity, which I still find valuable. Take a listen and see what I mean.
In case you’ve not noticed the podcast landscape had changed. I’m so glad this genre – audio story-telling –has survived in a digital age that at one time seemed to gravitate toward video, slapstick entertainment, and uninformed opinions.
These are highly-researched, well-produced shows – not just opinionated rants.
Here are a few:
Code Switch – Fascinating takes on race and identity
Rough Translation – A great way to escape the echo-chamber!
The Hidden Brain – Shankar Vedantam’s insight into human behavior
The Tip-Off – Peeling back investigative journalism, by Maeve McClenaghan of London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Some older podcasts still give the newbies a run for their money. Those such as:
- This American Life – Ira Glass’ extremely topical take on all things social, political, personal
- Invisiblia – Gripping tales and insights about the forces that shape us.
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a knack of breaking down complex ideas into simple concepts. He is the kind of teacher who makes you enjoy learning, without feeling you’re being lectured to!
Some of his statements (and tweets ) are legendary, as are his wide-sweeping statements about science, technology and life. Such as:
“To be genius is to be misunderstood, but to be misunderstood is not necessarily to be genius”In a Popular Magazine feature, August 2015)
“An informed opinion is never based on somebody else’s opinion, lest you empower others to do your thinking for you.” @neiltyson Aug 28, 201
But as much as I respect DeGrasse Tyson, I don’t agree with his stance on God and creation. But that’s another topic.
If you want to probe the big questions about science, or even current events seen through the eyes of a scientist, (as this one about the digital revolution) it’s worth tuning into his podcast.
There seems to be a growth spurt for podcasting.
I love the fact that the audio format has been on the upswing, even despite the explosion of screen-based communication options. Depending on who you ask, they will tell you video didn’t assassinate the radio star for various reasons. Such as
- Podcasts is immensely portable, and does is perfect for multi-tasking
- Podcasts capture the ‘authentic’ voice of the person or the moment being represented – no fake ‘DJ voice’ required
- Podcasts have in their DNA something akin to long-form journalism – deep dives into content, rather than skimming a topic
- Podcasts lend themselves to drama, even while being authentic. The nearest thing to the documentary.
My recent favorites are Snap Judgement, Serial, Invisibilia (former radio Lab producers), and Star Talk.
Apart from the usual line up of This American Life, For Immediate Release, and EdReach, an education podcast for Ed-tech matters I now dabble in.
Interestingly this year will be six years since I first got into podcasting. And this year may be the year we begin podcasts at my school. More on this in a later post!
I came across a podcast by Tracy Swedlow of BitGravity in 2009, when I worked at ASU’s Decision Theater. It made me go back to the early days of podcasting, and how it lit a fire that made me look at social media and self-publishing in a whole new light.
Link here: Podcast with Bitgravity CEO
New News Podcasts with Tracy Swedlow on BlogTalkRadio with The TV of Tomorrow Show with Tracy Swedlow
Whenever I get tired of reading the news, I switch to SoundCloud.
I’m currently doing a series of lessons with my students on audio, and having them experiment with the power of voice. (I know: It fits nicely into the theme I’ve been plugging in my book, Chat Republic.) Truth is, young people are enamored by video, and instinctively see audio as its poor-relation.
But ever so often, one of them says something in a microphone that makes them realize how simple and real an audio experience could be.
Here’s one that is part of an NPR experiment itself. An experiment to study why audio seldom goes viral.
It’s almost impossible to listen to this and not (a) feel close to the event (b) wonder how someone managed to record this near-death experience.
I had been fascinated about the Mike Daisey story that broke some months back here in the US.
It opened up a can of worms about how truth (or ‘truthiness’ as Stephen Colbert put it) and how we twist and maim words and facts. Politicians do it, as do talk-show hosts, reporters, advertisers, scientists, corporate leaders etc.
As someone who writes for the media, I thought this brouhaha was way too important to dismiss as one man’s folly. Daisey was the everyman in a culture of compromised truths and spin; a culture that sometimes believes the means justifies the end in getting a message across. (Anyone remembers Message Force Multipliers?) The infamous scientist who lied about climate studies admitted he had has a “serious lapse” of “professional judgment and ethics.”
The classic statement by Daisey for me was this:
“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind my work… It’s not journalism. It’s theatre,”
Is marketing also ‘theater’ then? It could be argued that some aspects of it –product display, packaging etc– is staged, right? Could some forms of PR (stunts, at least) be also considered theater? Are we sometimes taking Daisey-esque ‘shortcuts’? This is the uncomfortable space many of us operate in.
That’s the background to my recent piece in LMD Magazine, titled “Truth, Lies and iPhones.” Read it here.
Or download a PDF of the article here.
(Incidentally ‘truthiness‘ despite its quirkiness, became the Number 1 Word of the Year in 2006.)