Caragh Medlicott reflects on our love of podcasts, pondering how they both encapsulate and problematise our addiction to bite-sized entertainment in an increasingly interconnected world.
I don’t have a very good relationship with silence. In many ways, I never have. I’ve always been a terrible sleeper – it’s something that’s been with me since childhood. Few kids like their bedtime, but for me it was a point of genuine dread. I feared the long, silent night which stretched ahead of me – the sense of isolation which descended. This was in spite of the fact that, from the ages of five to eighteen, I shared a room with my younger sister. What really bothered me was being awake while others were sleeping. The overactive mind in the silent room. It was something I tried to remedy with audiobooks and later, in my teens, with the omnipresence of a low-volume TV buzzing all night long.
Recently, I’ve noticed that more and more people now share my affliction. Friends report that they can’t fall asleep without the drone of a white noise machine or the background babble of a podcast. Perhaps it’s unsurprising given our dependency on devices. How our brains are prodded, hour on hour, day on day, with cortisol stings, dopamine slumps; like rabbits in a petting zoo, we fuss our brains until they can no longer stand to be left alone.
It’s hardly revelatory to be disparaging of the digital age. It’s not even necessarily fair, considering the incredible feats indebted to the world of tech. In our pockets we carry devices millions of times more powerful than the NASA computers used on the Apollo 11 mission. In the thick of a global pandemic, we were able to retain contact with loved ones who would have otherwise been remote and inaccessible. From #BLM to #MeToo, few could still claim that hashtag activism is purely frivolous. And yet, our tech obsession is unquestionable, and it generally translates into an entertainment addiction, too. One study found that over 90% of people have their phone within arm’s reach twenty-four hours a day. Some sensationalist headlines have purported that our attention spans are now shorter than a goldfish’s, which – while clearly untrue – reflects a general unease about how our minds may have been permanently altered.
In real terms, what drives our phone usage? Surely the key elements can be boiled down to the areas of connection and entertainment. The thin line between voyeurism and solipsism; both plugged into the world’s unfolding events and snapping pics of what we had for our dinner. Whether it’s scrolling social media feeds, firing messages over WhatsApp or perusing 24/7 news streams, the way we consume device-based content is generally fast-moving and fragmental.
So where do podcasts fit in? If you want the humdrum definition, podcasts are literally defined as “an episodic series of spoken word digital audio files” (and who doesn’t get pumped about episodic-spoken-word-digital-audio-files, am I right?). Yet, it’s true that podcasts offer something of a paradox in digital content consumption. In one way, they make perfect sense. Not only do they provide a new manifestation for the radio star – fractally reincarnated in every niche you could possibly imagine – they also allow us to stay plugged in, switched on. Driving, cooking, showering; all hands-free activities which can now be undertaken without a moment of respite for the ol’ frontal lobe. Yet amidst six-second TikTok videos and disappearing Insta stories, podcasts still feel somewhat anomalous. The popular podcast style skews towards unhewn authenticity, often long-winded in format – many even have an educational slant.
Take the contentious The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the biggest podcasts in the world. Its format is bloated, with conversations regularly spilling over the three-hour mark. Its host, comedian and martial arts aficionado, Joe Rogan, is as divisive as some of his guests. Yet the podcast itself is wildly successful, at times claiming over 190 million downloads per month, with a tone that frequently encapsulates the duality of a fissile western world. A magnet to celebrities, academics, politicians and MMA fighters alike, its scope is broad. And so is its audience. How does such a format fit neatly into our landscape of agape goldfish brains mindlessly seeking the next pop of app-based oxytocin?
My personal podcast obsession hit its peak in the first year of the pandemic. Like much of Instagram, I unearthed a previously undisturbed love of cooking, an affinity for long meandering walks; two things which wouldn’t have emerged had it not been for the podcasts that kept me company. I found podcasts in areas I already had interests – literature, history, politics – but also in the realms of physics and psychology (topics I’d previously considered myself too novice to ever touch upon).
Digestibility is, after all, one of the things which makes podcasts so appealing. By late 2020, I was binging both current affairs shows and audio long reads. At a certain point this interest bordered on the obsessive. I felt that staying abreast with global news necessitated hour-long deep dives. It felt good to fill my mind, fleetingly, with quirky statistics and little-known facts. The issue, of course, is that those tidbits of information slipped from my brain as quickly as they entered. Perhaps our phone addiction isn’t the only reason we’re switched on all the time. Instead, we might be suffering from a collective case of super-charged FOMO. Globalisation has short-circuited our pack animal brains. Tuning out means missing out. There’s a generalised pressure to keep a handle on international events, to know your stance on every point of political contention.
This element of podcast obsession is something Emma Cline skewers acerbically in her short story collection, Daddy: “When had life become so dull, an extended social studies class where you were supposed to summon interest in the working of corporations, the minutiae of historical events, spend your free time cramming for a test that didn’t exist?”
To me, it seems that podcasts are just another expression of a world that is not only hooked on entertainment, but also on itself. We long for connection and benefit from the melting pot of global cultural activity. Yet – by necessity – there is too much to know. Too much to comprehend. While I’ve personally cut down on the frenzied podcast consumption I worked up last year, my overall devotion to the format has far from wavered. Untempered curiosity, a longing to be entertained – fleeting, audio-based, digital, long-form or otherwise – these are things which are inescapably human.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.