Podcasts – A Praise Song (from the Sunday Times July 30, 2017)

Podcasts – A Praise Song

Steven Boykey Sidley

This morning at about 7:30 I spent about an hour learning about the difference between dark matter and dark energy and why they are important. Then about 9:30 on the way to work I learned about the history of shoes. Then around lunchtime, caught in a traffic jam, I learned about Piltdown Man –  the greatest paleoanthroplogical fraud of all time. Finally, on a quick visit to the shops, I listened to a short story by the great Raymond Carver.  Tomorrow I will start the day with an intimate eavesdrop on the sad life of a crack-addicted young single mother.

My life is divided into two ages – pre-podcast and post-podcast. The first was a dark, silent intellectually-starved cave of threadbare opinions and general bewilderment. And now, well, I am an autodidact gaily romping through fields of enlightenment, bursting with facts and figures and insights and new knowledge and freshly unearthed emotions. (This, I have noticed, can be very annoying to other people).

But still. I can tell you about the first surgery under anaesthetic ever, and who did it and how. And I can tell you that Leonard Cohen spent 15 years writing and rewriting Hallelujah before it became a hit.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Podcasts started in earnest in 2001, brought to the world by Los Angeles programmer Dave Winer and media personality Adam Curry (although there are many other claimants). But it was an oddity, attended by geeks and a couple of visionaries and tinkerers and early adopters until the confluence iPhones and cars with Bluetooth, sometime in the late 2000s.  And suddenly you could climb into your car and listen to a radio broadcast on a topic of your choice, for free, no ads, no program schedule.

This may strike a reader as a small matter, a peripheral technological innovation amongst the tsunami of new stuff that has arrived to distract and amuse us. No, my dear friends, this not the case. The era of podcasts is here, and at least in my case, it is life-altering. So much so that my new novel Free Association chose as its hero a podcaster in Los Angeles, and uses his periodic podcasts off which to bounce the narrative. And even though I was already a podcast fanatic, I did a little research in preparation for the novel.

So consider the following. 64 million Americans listen to at least one podcast per month. 42 million Americans listen every week. 230 million people worldwide have downloaded Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast Serial  in the last 18 months (this beats the biggest music and film hits). Podcast downloads have grown by double digits every year for 15 years (the envy of other media). Listeners used to be young, but are now distributed across the age spectrum.  9 million Americans listen to six shows per week. I listen to over twenty.

Podcasts have become one of  the biggest media success stories in America this century and their acceleration has now started in Europe and other territories, including our corner of the world (with local titles like Lesser Known Somebodies, First Person, Alibi and Sound Africa, amongst others). Even celebrity columnists and writers like Marianne Thamm and Daryl Bristow-Bovey and Mandy Wiener are dipping their adventurous toes in these waters. 

The spread of of topics is pretty much endless. Whatever your interests, there are podcasts to suit. And more interestingly, there are brilliant podcasts utterly outside of your areas of interest. That is where some of the gold lies. Biology is a subject in which I had little knowledge or specific interest previously. And now? Go on, ask me anything about the wasp parasite (oh, that’s the wasp larvae, whose egg is laid in the bark of tree, later to be consumed by its host, another species of wasp. It then lives in its host’s brain, turning it into a zombie, feeding off it, and eventually bursting out of its forehead). There are over 300,000 podcasts. And while there are many forgettable offerings in that long tail, the best of them define a new art form.

So why? What make them so compelling? Some readers may remember a simpler time before all of this electronic stuff, perhaps even before TV, where families would huddle around Springbok radio to listen to No Place to Hide (remember Sergei?) or Squad Cars (‘they prowl the empty streets at night’). Beautifully produced dramas which I would look forward to all day at school, discuss endlessly with my friends, dream about, nightmare about. That 15 minutes of inhabiting that exquisitely aural world, replete with music and sound effects and dramatic dialogue would leave me helpless with wonder and excitement.

The podcasts that I listen to now, both in the worlds of fiction and fact, have that same effect. I long for a traffic jam, the worse the better. I used to go to the gym to see to my health, but now I go to pedal and listen (I have been known to turn my car around and go home if I have forgotten my headphones). Airplane journeys zip by on a cloud of finely-dressed knowledge mainlined directly into my brain. The last car trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town turned me into a near world authority in genetic engineering.

The best of these podcasts are true works of art. Even the non-fiction offerings. Beautifully sculpted, edited, practiced and spooled out with the same interplay of tension and resolution that one expects of the best of theatre. It is a vastly different experience to reading – somehow more efficient, employing different parts of the brain, I suspect. A new way to commit experience to memory, to draw neural linkages that didn’t exist before, to find context and comfort in understanding. It is, more of often than not, an intensely pleasurable experience.

Which brings me to the the question some you would certainly want to know – what I listen to, and why? I have tinkered and re-sculpted my playlist extensively over the past five years, and will probably continue to do so, but here is the current line-up:

Sam Harris’s Waking Up (currently on top of my list – philosophy, politics, technology, science presented with new brainy guest every week – always wise, probing and profound). Radiolab (a narrative non-fiction podcast covering some science, some journalism, some stories at the edge of life, produced with great care and gentle humour). This American Life (one of the first great podcasts hits, having been around for well over a decade, personal stories of America, themes brought to life by the lives of real people). Skeptics Guide to the Universe, The Guardian Science podcasts, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time Science Series (a pleasurable way to keep up to date with science and its impact and, more pointedly, pseudo-science and its damage). The Moth (personal stories of tragedy or triumph or slipping on banana peels, told by amateurs without notes on a stage in front of an audience). 

Oh, and Invisibilia (psychology) and Note to Self (mainly technology) and a17z (technology) and The New York Times Book Review, and the New Yorker Fiction podcast and Selected Shorts (fiction) and the Foreign Policy Magazine podcast and Reveal (investigative journalism) and TED.

You get the picture. One can wallow in this stuff endlessly and never get bored. I said to my wife recently – here is my living will: no resuscitative medicines or hospitals. Just plug some earphones into my ears and line up an endless stream of great podcasts and I will happily slip away.

I suspect I may be more obsessed with podcasts than most (although I have an artist friend listens all day while he draws. Really. All day). I have tried to analyse why they have become so central in my life. Here is my best explanation. At least for me, as I get older, almost everything I do is directed towards trying to fend off bewilderment, to extract context from confusion, to find out the reason. Why? Why do politicians lie? Why is the universe on its way to a cold and lonely and endless grave? Why are sneakers so expensive? Do I know what I don’t know? Why is the world the way it is? Who am I in it?

Podcasts. The answers  are all in there, somewhere – accessible, fun and free.   

Oh, and did you know that lemmings do not follow each other to mass suicide when the population rises, as was shown in a famous documentary. It was all a cinematic hoax.

I heard it on a podcast.

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