Zach Braff’s newest TV show, Alex Inc., chronicles the rise of a fictional podcasting/media mogul. By risking life, love and family (as it always goes), he attempts to subvert the iron fist of traditional media by creating a legitimate platform for creative, subversive and opinionated voices to flourish. Whilst not nearly as dramatic, Alex Inc. is based off the real life experiences of podcaster Alex Goldblum and the establishment of his podcasting juggernaut, Gimlet Media. His story was outlined in the first season of Startup, where he openly spoke about the experience of starting a business and acting as a tentative entrepreneur in a brave new world of spoken media. Where radio fails, podcasts bloom; they are candid in ways that traditional media is not, and often can’t be. To quote one of my favourite podcasters, ‘it’s like radio, but… more punk rock.’
In the US alone, 73 million people regularly listened to podcasts in 2017, with the average listener following around 7 shows a week. Australia is slowly following suit, with around 4.5 million listeners tuning into podcasts at least monthly as of last year. I am one such listener. I have a schedule of shows which I make time for; My Brother, My Brother and Me every Tuesday, The Adventure Zone every other Thursday, Reply All whenever co-hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman get around it. Vox’s The Weeds when I feel like facing up to the nightmarish reality of US Politics, Wonderful! when I don’t. Regardless of the activity (usually driving), there’s always someone’s voice to provide me with company throughout my day to day.
The very point of podcasts is to be candid. You’re listening to the voices of people discussing their life experiences, giving lukewarm advice, reading stories, investigating mysteries. This type of candidness wasn’t easily accessible previously, with the closest historical comparison being familiarity with a radio show host. People gathered, listening to nightly installations of War of the Worlds, read by a familiar voice that was at once relatable and gripping. Podcasts carry on this tradition, yet in a more individualised format. You become so close with people who you’ve never met, becoming used to the routine of hearing their voices, their humour, their intonation. Unlike musicians or actors, the straightforward nature of podcasts makes it feel like you’re catching up with a friend every Wednesday for coffee. This, both intentionally and unintentionally, creates a unique space where listeners and creators can intimately relate and symbiotically co-exist with each other.
Whilst this candid dynamic is pretty universal across the podcast genre, it is most important in the context of diversity and representation. Considering that 36% and 44% of the US podcasting market consists of listeners of colour and women respectively, the relationship between listeners and creators helps to carve out niches where minorities can hear, and be heard. Statistics regarding listeners who identify as LGBTQ+ are harder to obtain; but, given the inundation of successful queer-themed podcasts available, listeners don’t seem to be in short supply. Fantastic shows such as The Nod, Friends Like Us, Two Dope Queens and The Read are hosted, created and performed by people who are able to directly and truthfully discuss their unique and intersectional perspectives. This isn’t to say that the podcasting genre doesn’t have a huge diversity problem on its hands- Steve Friess discusses this in a fantastic article here. However, it’s undoubtable that podcasts are boldly going where TV, cinema and ultimately radio have still not fully dared to tread- providing candid, sincere and diverse spaces where a much wider range of listeners can feel validated, represented and entertained.
But this relationship can have a price. In creating close, intimate spaces with their listeners, creators are at risk of becoming too candid to the detriment of their own physical and emotional health. By treating their listeners as family, an expectation of continual routine and structure is established. Any gaps in this routine come across as abandonment; as if your best friend has ghosted you right before your semi-regular brunch date. This fosters a culture of gross entitlement from a vocal minority of listeners, where content creators can be held to often unattainable expectations and standards. Of course, podcasts and their creators are not exempt from being critiqued or condemned for problematic content, nor should they ever be. But by being open and candid, lines begin to blur between creators’ public and private lives, with listeners becoming more and more entitled to belong within both. This is a dangerous, and often inappropriate, precedent to establish. Additionally, podcasts are a free source of entertainment. Creators bleed their heart and soul into an hour or two of content, then edit it, mix it and unleash it on the world with little to no direct payment for their labour. Shows often only rely on word-of-mouth promotion and sponsorship, with the same sponsors often appearing across multiple shows. Other than this, creators’ emotional and physical labour is not repaid in the same way as other entertainers’. This context makes the entitlement of some listeners even worse; despite not owning the world anything, creators are often pushed way too far.
The world of podcasting is a delicate balance of letting listeners get familiar, but not too familiar as to tip over the mental and physical well-being of their creators. Some podcast franchises do this better than others- remaining direct and truthful, yet distant enough to protect themselves from their own Frankenstein’s monster of a too-eager listenership. For the longevity of the genre, creators and listeners have to learn to exist in a happy, candid yet respectful medium.
Bridget Rumball | @youwillbefoldingstars
Bridget is not a 30-under-30 media luminary or sweet baby brother, but does have a podcast of her own (listen here!)