THE PODCASTING ISSUE
The week of September 13, 2015

I’m addicted to nearly 50 podcasts

By Stephen Mack

When I wake up in the morning, before I even make coffee, I put on a podcast. I listen to podcasts when I’m on the subway to work, when I walk out for lunch, when I run errands, when I clean the house and do dishes, and sometimes even as I fall asleep at night. I’m subscribed to 48 shows, and I listen to almost everything within one or two days of its release. Certainly, on an average weekday, I listen to anywhere from two to six hours of podcasts, depending on the work I’m doing and how long I’m commuting.

I know this is extreme.

Frankly, it’s crazy. But I can’t help myself. Somehow I always say I’ll cut down—I’ll only subscribe to the podcasts I’m really excited about. I’m not going to find any more. And then, all of a sudden, it’s time to commute home and I don’t have any podcasts to listen to. I hardly realized I had been listening all day. I find a new one, and then I’m hooked. The list keeps growing.

In my first draft of this piece, I wrote, “I’m subscribed to 44 shows.” Then I found out about Sports Illustrated podcasts coming to the Panoply network. I subscribed to two. 46. The next day, I realized I hadn’t counted In Our Time, a BBC podcast on summer hiatus (one of my favorite podcasts, actually). Up to 47. Then I discovered that MLB.com’s The Vault, a collection of radio broadcasts from classic games, had returned after a three-and-a-half year absence. Subscribed. 48.

On an average weekday, I listen to anywhere from two to six hours of podcasts.

Podcasts completely dominate my media consumption. I’d rather listen to a podcast than watch a television show or a movie, turn on the radio, read a blog, or anything else. I go to podcasts for news (PBS NewsHour), for news commentary (the Slate Political Gabfest, among others), for sports talk (sports podcasts have completely replaced ESPN for me), for literature (the Poetry Foundation produces a handful of great podcasts, in addition to the New Yorker’s popular fiction and poetry podcasts), for cultural commentary (the Slate Culture Gabfest), for economic news (Planet Money and Slate Money)—not to mention the many, many, story-driven podcasts (we’re all listening to Mystery Show, right?). I’m a graduate student in art history, and podcasts have even been helpful to my studies: The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and several other museums publish their lectures as podcasts, which I’ve found useful and even cited in seminar papers.

I got hooked on podcasts in the summer of 2010. It was my first time living in New York, and I had an internship entering data into an Excel spreadsheet. The job was fine, though I realized within two weeks that it wasn’t in a field I wanted to pursue. Half the days I was bored to tears, and music simply couldn’t hold my attention enough to distract me from the monotony. I posted on Facebook asking for podcast recommendations. I still don’t know why I did that—I’ve never asked for recommendations on Facebook before or since. Nor do I know why I asked about podcasts rather than just listen to the NPR stream.

But I was taken by Planet Money, the show meant to be like a conversation in a bar about the economy. The hosts spoke to their audience directly—almost a character in the story —which I had never experienced before. They were clear and direct, unassuming and relatable. And I really was learning a ton. I’d never taken an economics class, and it felt like a new world was opening up to me.

I want smart people to talk to me. And I’ll listen to them for as long as I possibly can.

The long days in front of masses of numbers were perfect to catch up to the podcasts I was learning to love. I listened to the backlogs of Planet Money, WNYC’s Radiolab, This American Life, and when not at work, Savage Lovecast.

I’m an auditory learner. In high school, I would listen to lectures from the Lannan Foundation on Windows Media Player as I fell asleep. I realized I could recite, almost word for word, what I had heard the night before. In college, I loved all the lecture classes I took, especially art history. I never retained things I read in a book the same way as when I heard them.

Hearing a podcast, on headphones, is the most intense listening experience I’ve ever had—and I’m addicted to it. I am putting someone else’s voice, their thoughts, directly into my head. My inner monologue ceases; their thoughts replace my thoughts. I know that sounds like a sci-fi dystopia. In fact, I find it an incredible way to interact with the world.

Podcasts gave me the one and only thing I want from media: I want smart people to talk to me. And I will listen to them for as long as I possibly can. Whether it’s a well-produced story, or just telling me their thoughts on a recent event (whether news, sports, or even a movie), or conducting an interview with someone interesting, I want to be listening.

When I put my earbuds into my phone, it’s because I want to be plugged into the world.

My favorite podcasts come from Slate. There’s nothing particularly extravagant about them: A couple of writers come in to talk about politics, sports, culture or economic news. They’re insightful people talking about the developments in fields that interest them. There are few frills. They talk as journalists: level-headed, interested, and above all, relatable. To me, this is in stark contrast to the type of Rush Limbaugh/Howard Stern/Mike Francesa-type talk radio in which the host must fill hours and hours of time and can’t possibly speak informatively, or meaningfully, for such an extended period.

Media types sometimes adoringly refer to a “driveway moment.” It’s when the listener is so engrossed in a radio story that he or she almost physically can’t turn it off—not even realizing the drive home is over and the car has been parked in the driveway for 20 minutes. The concept is influential, but I think we need a new paradigm for podcasting. Like many podcast listeners, I don’t listen while driving. But more importantly, I find that the driveway moment often is trafficking in escapism: The podcast tries to transport you away from your everyday life, or making you unaware of your surroundings. When I put my earbuds into my phone, it is because I want to be plugged into the world. I think podcasts should explain the world, whether through stories, interviews, explanations of the news, or commentary.

When I’m listening to a podcast, I’m thinking as someone else. I’m transported not into another world but into another person’s brain. Then, the world feels richer. A smart person, who knows part of the world better than I, is willing to share their perspective with me. That’s why I listen to so many podcasts: to keep expanding my own view of the world. And after five years of listening, the world still feels like it is getting brighter, clearer, and bigger.

Illustration by J. Longo