Maeve Higgins: We're all in thrall to the one-way intimacy of podcasts

I make them and listen to them — and yet, I feel a strange ambivalence about podcasts and their proliferation in our private lives
Maeve Higgins: We're all in thrall to the one-way intimacy of podcasts

Podcasts have become the soundtrack to our private lives, with Apple’s platform alone hosting some 47m episodes as of March 2021. Stock picture

I turned the light on in my kitchen last night and heard dozens of podcasts skittering away underfoot. I wasn’t surprised. As I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, I caught the faint sound of a podcast from next door. When I went to bed, there were at least three podcasts flitting and circling the lampshade. This morning on my way to work via the subterranean world of the subway, I knew that running along the tracks and through the commuters’ earphones, there were entire families of podcasts shuttling alongside me throughout the city.

Podcasts are invisible, and podcasts are everywhere, almost like a particular virus we’ve all come to know these past two years. But unlike Covid-19, there is no known technology, no mask or booster shot, to guard against a podcast getting into one’s system. We are all vulnerable to podcasts and their ever-evolving network of transition; they pass from person to person via word of mouth or from one podcast host showing up on a different podcast and sharing the microphone with that podcast host.

People “host” podcasts — do you see what I mean? I have hosted several podcasts, becoming just another step on their inexorable march toward total world domination. Instead of fighting back, I generally let podcasts do their thing. I am just one person, after all, so I think a peaceful co-existence is the wisest course of action to take with a phenomenon so powerful. I watch as they multiply at the speed of sound and marvel with a ghoulish fascination at how cleverly they adapt to every new landscape they encounter. While I am not on the attack, I am on the defensive. I try to protect any small space in my life that remains free from podcasts.

Arguably, the most interesting thing about podcasts isn't the content, but the way we consume them — via headphones, and straight into the space between our ears. Stock picture: PictureNet/Corbis
Arguably, the most interesting thing about podcasts isn't the content, but the way we consume them — via headphones, and straight into the space between our ears. Stock picture: PictureNet/Corbis

The beautiful thing about a live show, particularly a stand-up comedy show, is that it vanishes after it happens. It’s dead, and that is good. It happened, and it is over now; a firefly glowing on an autumn evening, then fading into the morning, never to be seen again. You caught it, or you didn’t, and it will never happen again in that same way. A lesson in impermanence and a good time all rolled into one. Sadly, you can’t kill a podcast. The bulletproof, cockroach-like afterlife of a podcast is built in.

It’s a product that can sit on a shelf in a dusty old office and not change much at all, like one of those experiments with McDonald’s Happy Meals that never entirely break down.

And there are so many of them! As of March of this year, Apple Podcasts hosts 47m episodes on their platform from a total of 1.96m podcasts. Almost two million podcasts! Up from around half a million podcasts just three years ago. According to a 2020 Infinite Dial survey, the longest-running survey of digital media consumption in the US, 37% of American teenagers and adults listen to at least one podcast each month, up from 32% in 2019.

DURING the pandemic, this grew and will keep growing. Today, an estimated 100m people listen to a podcast each month, and that figure is predicted to reach 125m in 2022. Consumption leads to more consumption until we all keel over, or at least until we move on to the next new media product.

I sometimes describe podcasts as the radio on the internet, available wherever and whenever you’re online, and downloadable too. But that’s not quite it. Podcasts started in 2003 as, basically, voice blogging. In 2017, wired.com published an oral history of how podcasts came to be, interviewing the originators of the early form, the host and producers of Christopher Lydon’s Open Source, an RSS feed of audio files released in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003. Mary McGrath, a producer on Open Source, explained her perspective: 

Podcasting was where people could use four-letter words and speak a kind of raw, angry opinion that a great mass of the population believes and wants to hear.  To be yourself, to be political, to talk the way that we talked at home, in the kitchen, even in a bar: It was a huge gift from the internet. We knew we were at a turning point. 

A turning point indeed. It’s a gold rush and just as chaotic.

Perhaps my ambivalence about the proliferation of podcasts is confusing, considering I make them myself. I also consume them myself, lots of them. I listen to absolutely loads of podcasts, hours of them each week, supposedly of my own volition. Although what I think is my own consumer choice is probably the result of many unseen hands guiding me, with an impeccably designed strategy honed in any number of other industries towards products that will trigger my endorphins and ultimately see me part ways with my money.

'Much is made of the themes that run through the most popular podcasts; true crime, breaking news, foul-tempered men offering poorly-informed opinions...' Stock picture
'Much is made of the themes that run through the most popular podcasts; true crime, breaking news, foul-tempered men offering poorly-informed opinions...' Stock picture

The industry has long puzzled over just how to monetise podcasts for many years now, almost since the first one appeared. Many podcasts rely on advertisements and sponsorship deals, and listeners are bombarded with brands and products in ever more innovative ways.

As podcasts grow — in number, in length, and power — so does the money invested in them and the money they make. A minority of podcasters make a fortune; most podcasters get paid little or nothing, literally. Podcasts make money in various ways; some have Patreon accounts where listeners send money directly to the podcast creators each month. Some pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually this way. Others are behind a paywall of one sort or another, like the subscription podcast network Luminary backed by venture capitalists to the tune of $100m in the past couple of years.

Big tech has muscled in, as it always does during a gold rush. Amazon’s Audible and Google’s Spotify use their billions to pay millions to famous people eager to become little more than walking, talking brands.

Much is made of the themes that run through the most popular podcasts; true crime, breaking news, foul-tempered men offering poorly-informed opinions. We fret, and we ask what all of this says about us, that we choose to pump such content directly into our heads. The way we receive all of this content is probably the more interesting question. We listen to podcasts alone, on headphones, usually while doing other things. Podcasts block out the world by accompanying us as we live; we listen as we do other things, and they provide a remove from those other things. That remove is so seductive, as is any way to check out of life.

How can I feel so lonely when I’ve just spent so much time with my podcast friends and learned a ton and laughed a lot and... oh dear. Podcasts have mastered an addictive kind of one-sided intimacy where other people talking has become the soundtrack of our private lives. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, wait. Podcasts are everywhere, and they’re coming for you.

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