For the past two months I’ve been listening to podcasts. Almost every day. Lots of them, about all kinds of topics from many viewpoints. Everything from highly polished professional productions to simple low-tech recordings with plenty of uhms and ahs, crackles and hisses, and the occasional burp or barking dog.
Having ventured this deep into the world of the pod people, I’m surfacing to tell you this: They’re human. In fact, they’re us…
One of the categories I use in CONTENTIOUS is Voices: Blogs, etc. I’ve been lumping all my podcast-related writing in there, but I continually wrestle with that editorial choice. Often I think I should create a separate category called podcasting, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. You see, what fascinates me about the podcasts I listen to is the human voice. This is exactly what attracts me to weblogs. I don’t ever want to lose sight of that. Both blogs and podcasts can be intensely personal media.
WHY I LISTEN
I grew up in the golden age of mass media, when broadcasting was the main source of audio/video programming, and it was almost entirely controlled by major networks which spent millions of dollars to create programing for the whole country (or the world, as the case may be). The end result was slick and generally bland the antithesis of personal and human.
About the closest I ever got to human-scale audio or video media via traditional broadcast are occasional public or community radio shows that focus on interviews or storytelling.
Until I started listening to podcasts, I didn’t realize how desperately I’ve been missing the sound of the human voice in my media landscape.
While some podcasters produce professional-quality audio programming modeled on commercial broadcast formats, most of them just talk. (Well, a lot of them play music, but I tend to prefer spoken-word shows, so that’s what I’ll discuss here.) They talk about all sorts of things ice fishing, technology, marathons, the mind-altering potential of drinking too much cough syrup, moving to another country, you name it. I find myself drawn in and intrigued by topics which normally would not interest me, simply because some people I don’t know are taking the time to talk to me about their experiences, ideas, and views.
There is something magical about the sound of the human voice. I would probably never bother to read a stranger’s personal text-based blog about where she ate lunch or how he manages to get his toddler to sleep at night. Yet when I hear such banal everyday moments related by voice, I usually listen with interest. Why is that? Have I just been working at home alone too much? Maybe. But for some reason, when I listen to podcasts I care about those strangers.
WHY SOUNDING HUMAN MATTERS
Part of the attraction is context. The human voice conveys an incredible amount of information not just the speaker’s message, but his or her emotional, mental, and physical state; personal opinions or reactions; humor and gravitas; and much more. This context can put the listener in a more connected, empathetic state of mind. It’s a less “removed” experience than reading most text.
Even more importantly, the human voice is closer to telepathy than text can ever be. That is, the spoken word connects the listener more closely with what’s going on inside the speaker’s head at least when the speaker isn’t simply reading text out loud or reciting from memory.
Listening to unscripted speech provides a more direct experience of how the speaker is thinking. It’s about the act of thinking, rather than the product of thought. There’s less opportunity to edit. Well, you can edit the audio, but that’s generally less surgical than editing text. (NOTE Dec. 15: I didn’t really make that last point too clearly. See this update for a better stab at making that point.)
Listening to unscripted speech can viscerally pull you into another person’s mind, or at least another person’s world. We often call informal speech “thinking out loud” because that’s exactly what we’re doing.
The desire to connect with other people’s worlds, to overcome the isolation of our own skulls, to get inside other people’s heads and share their experiences, to draw others into our experiences and thoughts, to share ourselves beyond mere physical proximity, is fundamentally human. It may be why humans developed language in the first place. (Read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct for more on that.)
We communicate, and we listen, because we need to connect. With the possible exception of the profoundly autistic, people desperately desire to not be alone inside their skulls. Even the most egotistical, self-involved rant is a human attempt to connect with other people.
MY FAVORITE HUMAN-SOUNDING PODCASTS
Obviously, I can’t fully convey why I’ve grown to love listening to podcasts through text alone. It’s something that must be experienced.
Here are some of my favorite podcasts, and why I’m drawn to them. To make it clearer, I’m linking to specific episodes in this list as well as to the main web site where you can subscribe to each podcast’s feed. The “recommended listening” links are to MP3-format audio files which you’ll have to download and listen to on your MP3 player (not necessarily an iPod) or computer. To download, right-click the link and save the file to your computer.
- Something That Happened, a show by Harold J. Johnson, who tells very personal stories about things that happen in his life. This “narrative experiment” started as a blog and then evolved into a podcast. Harold is one of the most compelling storytellers I’ve ever heard very quiet and unassuming, yet incredibly evocative and creative. His stories often are bleak, but very real. Recommended listening: Walking Man and Percentages,
- The Bitterest Pill, by Dan Klass, an actor and stay-at-home Dad who lives under the flight path of the Los Angeles Intl. Airport. To his audio-producing credit, I never hear a jumbo jet in the background but having grown up under the landing route for the Philadelphia Intl. Airport, I can sympathize with the situation. Dan makes me laugh, makes me think, and really lets me get to know his world through his show. Recommended listening: #7: Disney Death and Thanksgiving Drinks
- The Nature of Systems, a chapter-by-chapter self-published audiobook by Dief Minusky (I’m probably misspelling his last name since it doesn’t appear anywhere on his site. I’ve only heard it pronounced. So apologies there.) Dief has written a surprisingly philosophical, personal, and humorous treatise on system design. I’m not a computer system designer, but I listen to this anyway because the points he makes about how computer systems work (and don’t work) often can be extrapolated to apply to many other kinds of systems. Even more importantly, I can totally relate to his personality and ultra-dry sense of humor. Recommended listening: Chapter 8: Security
- Brainwagon, a show by Mark VandeWettering. I like how he thinks. Mark works for Pixar, so he’s very techically accomplished and often talks about technology, but he makes it human. I especially like how he notices the little things. He cares very much about people and free expression, he’s got a wide range of interests, and he’s willing to unmask hype and demystify the technocratic priesthood. When he explains how to accomplish a task, it’s understandable and approachable. Bravo! Recommended listening: The Dec. 12 show, which Mark begins by explaining his strong feelings about the importance of free expression in podcasting, and not making it all about money. This is basically a recap and expansion on themes in his text blog postings Scripting News, Trade Secrets, and Ego (Dec. 9) and Why Is Podcasting Important? (Dec. 10).
- The Daily Source Code, by Adam Curry, longtime DJ/VJ (of MTV fame) and one of the main podcasting pioneers Adam’s got a lot of experience producing audio content, so this show is fairly polished – but very personal nonetheless. He’ll walk around his UK house with a lapel microphone, talking to his wife and daughter, letting his dog in or out… Or he’ll be chatting as he drives… As well as sitting behind the desk in his home studio. He provides a sense of the real person behind the persona and his Big Radio Voice, and he’s not afraid to appear less than perfect. I appreciate that. Recommended listening: Ironically, one of the first Daily Source Code episodes I heard was one of Adam’s most personal and emotional: Oct. 20.
- Why Fish Radio, by two guys named Brad (one from Minnesota, the other from North Dakota) who love to fish. The show’s intent is to introduce non-fishers to the joys of fishing kind of “fishing for dummies.” I don’t fish, but I want to learn. But the main reason I like this show is the storytelling they shift easily from explaining some aspect of fishing to recounting their own experiences and viewpoints. Recommended listening: Well, they’ve only produced two episode so far, i’m looking forward to more. Here they are: Episode 1 and Episode 2.
- Tokyo Calling, by Scott Lockman, an American who lives and works in Tokyo. Simply fascinating. I especially love the stories about daily life and his family. Recommended listening: Episode 4
- IT Conversations, by Doug Kaye. This podcast is a bit different from the others in this list. It features recordings of fascinating talks given at various conferences, as well as several sessions from November’s now-famous Bloggercon III and miscellaneous interviews. So it’s a bit more formal, but still very personal and engaging and impeccably produced. Recommended listening: Michael Hawley on Bhutan, security and terrorism expert Bruce Schneier, Janine Benyus on biomimicry, and the Bloggercon III session on Emotional Life..
OK, that’s more than enough for now. It’s 6 am and I’ve been typing for three hours. Time for more sleep. More on this stuff later. Much more.