Overloaded on Podcasts

March 28, 2022

I have grown a deeply personal appreciation for podcasts. They are the closest digital medium to companionship for me. There is something about the human voice in conversation that is comforting in a primal way—soul-soothing.

I can’t pretend to have ever been a radio fiend, but I’d like to argue that podcasts, while clearly a descendent of talk radio, are also something new. Just like Netflix streaming enabled the TV experience to be a private, individual, personal one, podcasts gave to talk radio an unprecedented level of intimacy. Even further than the streaming analogy — podcasts, being an audio format, can be mobile. My eyes are freed, and I can go about my entire day all while listening to podcasts. This special quality of podcasts — direct-to-ear intimacy with human voices — is what propelled them to slowly take over my unstructured audio time.

How is this different from listening to music all day? This “special” quality is not unlike what the walkman first introduced to music: a public experience turned private. Although music and podcasts share the same form, the two are distinct in their content: music is a sort of canvas onto which we project our emotional lives, while podcasts are in essence entertainment. The qualitative difference here is the space the medium creates for any kind of reflection, rumination, emoting. Has your mind ever wandered while listening to music? What about while listening to a podcast? How conducive for reflection was the experience?

As an increasingly insomniac, insecure, impatient generation, we already clearly have silence issues. What better medium to fill this gaping, frightening hole than podcasts? The times in which I’ve completely given myself over to the podcast tide have been weirdly calm and empty — like, devoid of any thoughts or worries. I’ve happily listened to countless On Being interviews and hundreds of hours of banter in more comedy-oriented shows. It’s the perfect companion to doing life and passing time: go on a long walk with a podcast; clean the entire apartment with a podcast; cook with a podcast; exercise with a podcast; brush my teeth with a podcast; sleep with a podcast. It also doesn’t leave one with the horrible feeling that comes after watching TV for hours—the feeling that I’ve wasted my time.

That must be the crux of it, right? I’ve tried to avoid saying it, but: the feeling of being productive. Educational podcasts are the Goldilocks “healthy” medium between watching explainer videos on YouTube (learn a lot, but still get attacked by the algorithm and are left with the TV feeling) and reading articles (a bit more work and involves the eyes, so it can’t be multi-tasked). I’ve certainly benefited from educational podcasts—I got into classical music via That Classical Podcast, I learned the history of philosophy via Philosophize This, and more that I’ll link at the bottom—but it’s helpful to remember that though it’s educational I’m still essentially consuming it as entertainment. Of course there are purely educational materials—in-depth lecture series on Hegel for instance—but the way most of us are consuming podcasts, i.e. in our free and floating time, is as vaguely-productive entertainment.

Categorically if we shift how we perceive podcasts, it becomes clearer what they are and how best to use them. I notice now that I cannot do any meaningful reflection while listening to a podcast. At the most, I’ll reflect on the content of the episode, but my selfhood and my life are put on pause. The tension between what the mind wants to do and what the mind is being fed can be really clear while listening but not really listening to a podcast: the limbo between wanting to reflect but being blocked by a constant influx of information and sound—none of the reflection happens and none of the information is received. It reminds me of why “Instrumental Study Music” playlists exist—voices are distracting because of how compelling they are. The times when it’s clearest that I can’t listen to a podcast (and need either music or silence) are when I have to really concentrate on something at work. Isn’t some unstructured time for processing and reflecting deserving of that kind of concentration as well?

There is a moment sometimes between wanting a podcast on in the background and putting it on that I hesitate: is my mind racing? or does my brain feel foggy? That means this is probably a time better suited for rest or reflection. Let the outside sounds in or put on some music and remember what life’s like in one’s own company.