We’re living through a golden age in podcasting — that perfect sweet spot where the general public has started to recognize the form, creators are expanding its possibilities, and there isn’t so much money in play that the speculators and non-enthusiasts have swept in to ruin it like… well, like most other things on the internet.
For now, podcasts are almost exclusively created by and for the people who love them, supported sometimes by ads, but even more often by people paying specifically for that content. It’s a refreshingly simple model. So enjoy this brief period of podcasting’s adolescence while it lasts, and be glad that for now we only have the occasional Zip Recruiter live reads to fast forward through.
True crime writing, long-form reporting, documentaries, and radio documentaries have all existed for a long time. But the serialized podcast format is creating all sorts of new opportunities for this brand of reporting and allowing it to be more in-depth than ever before. New stories are being told in unique ways, and — best of all — they’re being heard.
Audio is a more passive medium, in that it doesn’t require your full attention, and you can experience it while you do something else, like drive a car or clean your doll collection. This ability to be experienced on less than full engagement paradoxically makes podcasts more intimate. It’s content you can take with you wherever you go, keeping you company on your commute or in your desperate attempt to tune out coworkers. This quality also allows for more in-depth, more detailed reporting. Storytellers can tell longer-form narratives, some of these lasting up to 10 hours, without worrying that they’re boring people.*
*Though it’s worth mentioning: just because you can make a 10-hour podcast doesn’t always mean you should.
At the close of 2018, we’re seeing incredible advocacy journalism being done in podcasts. Many of these series offer top-notch entertainment, but they’re also Important. I don’t expect it will always be this way. Here are some of my hopes for the medium going forward:
1. Let audio be audio.
One of the most obnoxious trends in podcasts right now is the push to turn podcasts into “soundscapes.” Some shows do it better than others, and there are certainly some soundscape-y pods on this list, but the reason the medium is popular in the first place is that there is a simple power and pleasure in listening to a single human voice. It’s fine for a podcast to be just that. So many podcasts are starting to add unnecessary sound effects, pointless music, and conspicuous edits that I’m reminded of that Simpsons episode where Homer learns to edit video. “You know there are other transitions besides a star wipe, right?”
It’s crass enough that we have to listen to your live reads about mattresses in the middle of the story of someone’s wife’s murder, don’t double down by adding some god awful slowed-down cover to “set the mood.” If the story alone isn’t sufficient to set the mood, fix the story.
2. Understand the responsibility
A good investigative podcast can help solve a murder or get someone wrongly convicted out of prison. A bad one can get an innocent person fired, run out of town, etc., and solely because he seemed like he might be the killer for half an episode. Maybe finish running down a lead before you post it, just in case. As Jon Ronson put it, “don’t use narrative dead ends for dramatic tension.”
3. Don’t rush it
Closely related to number two. Sometimes a story takes a few years to report. That’s a long time! Not every reporter or outlet can afford to pursue a story for that long, and not every story has closure. We’re blessed to have so many reporters willing to spend years working the same story. But as the medium becomes more lucrative, it’s easy to imagine people throwing bigger money at shows and demanding faster results. That could be disastrous.
4. Use your damned voice
Maybe it’s because so many of the best podcasts are coming from public radio right now and these criticisms have probably all been made before in that context, but… what is it with hosts who talk like they’re trying not to wake a baby in the next room? It’s an epidemic in podcasting. There’s nothing more infuriating than listening to a host try to mimic broad, newscaster-y inflections while speaking in a quavery half-whisper. You don’t have to be the morning zoo guys, but maybe find a happy medium?
Now then, to the “Best Of” list!