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Voices of America

Can podcasts tell us more than stories of individual obsession?

Illustration by André da Loba

Twenty-nine-year-old Payne Lindsey is a filmmaker from the middle of nowhere, Georgia. Like millions of Americans, he became obsessed with the podcast Serial two years ago. Then he lost himself in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. “I thought to myself,” he said recently on his own podcast, Up and Vanished, “What if I made one of those?” He fished around on the internet until he found a suitable cold case—the 2005 disappearance of a high-school history teacher named Tara Grinstead—and off he went, on his merry way to becoming a podcast king.

Though you probably haven’t heard of Up and Vanished, it has repeatedly graced the iTunes podcast Top 100, the closest thing the industry has to a hit parade. The show has solid, if weird, production values: There’s a lot of ominous music, doors creaking, and long phone conversations with people tenuously connected to the case. Like many shows in this genre, its appeal lies in inviting its listeners along on its slightly crazed amateur detective journey, and it knows that to keep them going it has to muster some dramatic tension. Yet the highlight so far has been episode four, in which our host goes to dig up a small mound of dirt, prompted by a random tip. He doesn’t find much. Two days later, the cops dig around the same small mound of dirt and find some bones and a pair of panties. “How in the world did we miss that?” the hapless Lindsey puzzles. Moments of futility like that comprise at least half of this strange little show.

We are living through a great flowering of the podcast industry, whose province of iTunes is something like a frontier boomtown right now, teeming with hastily erected new storefronts. The podcast form has been around since about 2004—it is kissing cousins with the iPod, in that way—but it was only in 2014 that the idea struck gold. That would be the Serial moment, when Sarah Koenig’s twelve-episode exploration of a long-forgotten murder in Baltimore morphed into an amateur crime-solving hobby for millions of bored listeners. Before that, podcasts were a thing audio nerds did and talked about. Now, in the comfortable, educated, middle-class households of America, podcasts slot pleasantly into the routine of daily life. They help pass the time commuting on a crowded train or cleaning the bathroom. The experience lies somewhere between binge-listening and background noise.

Even though podcasts share no particular style and very few conventions, a sense of high purpose lingers around them. Podcast listening carries with it a faint aura of cultural snobbery, a notion that to cue up an episode is to do something highbrow and personally enriching, whether it’s a history lecture broadcast from a university, or an amateur talk show recorded in someone’s garage. Both types of show are somewhat educational, in the sense that they expose listeners to unfamiliar subjects and subcultures. But the essence of a podcast is to be esoteric, specialized. And sometimes it’s hard to draw a line between the specific and the trivial.

Americans, of course, have been listening to the radio for more than a hundred years. But radio is different: Beamed out to a broad audience whose choices in programming are limited by their physical location and the time of day they tune in, radio aimed from the start to reach anyone and everyone who happened to be listening. It couldn’t be too weird or off-kilter; it couldn’t be about individual obsession. It had to be about the shared stuff of public life.

No longer. If you care about a subject, there’s a podcast for it. There’s a podcast called Silage Talk, which is produced by Dairy Herd Management magazine. (“We’re kicking off a great new conversation about silage,” the first episode promises its listeners.) There’s a podcast where writers and actors from the 1990s hit series The West Wing discuss each episode in detail, even though those episodes aired some 20 years ago and now seem rather devastatingly naïve about American political culture. There’s a podcast about mobile home park investing called, appropriately, The Mobile Home Park Investing Podcast. And inevitably, the industry reflects its own internal brand of professional celebrity: There’s a podcast called Tape about people who make podcasts. There are podcasts for Buddhists and podcasts for Satanists. There is also a podcast called Hobo for Christ, about a young woman who is traveling around the country being frugal and worshipful—the title really says it all.

Many of those podcasts are destined to sail out into the ocean and never be heard from again. They are often too detailed, too niche, too chatty. A lot of people produce podcasts in which they simply ramble on for hours about themselves and their lives. There is something very poignant about the volume of human desire to be heard out there in the Wild West of podcasts. One gets the impression that for many podcasters, audience size is almost irrelevant. The point is to put your voice on record (which is now easy and cheap to do), and leave it there for someone to find, ponder, and perhaps even enjoy.

A podcast, after all, only truly flourishes when it has one of two things. The first is a genuinely engaging obsessive who can’t let go of a subject, and the second is prestige. The former is the basis of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, whose dizzyingly detailed episodes about everything from the Black Death to the rise of Genghis Khan are clearly the work of the very best kind of madman. Carlin reads piles of books to prepare for his episodes, and presents his extensive research in the engaging persona of an erudite and rambling man who will, eventually, make a point, but likes to take a leisurely trip in order to get there. In the same vein is Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, a Hollywood history podcast that made its name with a sprawling, epic season on the Charles Manson murders and the various Hollywood lives they touched.

These podcasts live and die by the extent of detail their hosts can assemble. Narrative structure is often immaterial to the appreciation of the form. There doesn’t need to be a story, per se, that one can follow. What there needs to be is an accretion of minutiae that satisfies the listener in his or her own obsession. The host and listener are like children counting marbles, things that have little or no value to others but that seem priceless to those engaged in the counting.

The other type of podcast—the kind founded on prestige—thrives on being a mini-institution, building itself atop a sturdy, already-existing brand. One of the most popular podcasts in the current crop is Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat ominously titled Revisionist History—“my podcast about things forgotten, or misunderstood,” he says at the top of an episode. It’s a slickly produced item, not unlike most of Gladwell’s books. (A rare disastrous moment erupts in episode seven, when Gladwell bursts into song.) For many podcasts in this mold, the mother brand is NPR. Some are little more than chat shows, like the NPR Politics Podcast. Others are meticulously produced audio spectaculars striving to imitate This American Life. Still others, like Serial, marry the obsessive model with public radio prestige.

Prestige podcasts, like prestige television shows, tend to have an audience that believes itself literate, well-informed, and reasonable. Listening to podcasts, in this model, is a form of virtue. While the subjects covered may sometimes be as esoteric as any that you might find on a more rough-and-ready, lower-end podcast—the murder long forgotten, the case long unsolved—their pedigree makes them appear more high-minded. Sometimes they are: American Public Media’s In the Dark excels at taking apart complicated cases and social issues, and laying them out in profound and carefully reported ways. The NPR Politics Podcast is a voice of relative calm in an era when the dominant mode of political engagement is screaming.

But the curious thing about such successes is how heavily they depend on the NPR reputation for public-mindedness. The obsessives are all well and good, but an appetite for authoritativeness still exists. At this point, few among us are surprised or disappointed when someone gets it wrong on the internet; but when NPR screws up, we feel like it matters. That’s why public radio has managed to keep its foothold in American life in an era of growing media fragmentation. But its continued presence in public life is far from assured: Trump’s team reportedly wants to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a move that would effectively silence many of the most talented makers of public radio. Without them, we would lose one of the country’s few remaining trusted sources of information.

Even the best prestige podcasts can’t exist on their own; they rely on the reputation and resources of established cultural institutions to find an audience. The people who make podcasts seem well aware that they need the veneer of journalism to be deemed respectable. Serial’s Sarah Koenig, interviewed by David Remnick on the New Yorker Radio Hour, resisted the label “true crime” being applied to what was clearly that rose by any other name. “I don’t think I did that,” she said—“that” being some distasteful, popular thing that didn’t align with her own view of herself as a serious journalist.

Podcasts have devised new and entertaining ways to keep us informed. But they can’t quite fill the role of public broadcasting, on their own. Podcasting is idiosyncratic by nature, and if we have learned anything in the last year, it is that the idiosyncrasies of America do not add up to a coherent American life. The Payne Lindseys of the world chase mysteries in their own haphazard fashion, while the Sarah Koenigs know how to apply a polished, professional gloss to the most chaotic investigations. But the big picture has, so far at least, eluded them.