You won’t find a more avid podcast listener than me. Commuting, mowing the yard, washing up, cooking, they’re all soundtracked by podcasts. Over the last decade I’ve subscribed to hundreds, ditching most after an exploratory listen but occasionally finding one that sticks and becomes part of my weekly fabric. I go on hiatus from some for a year or so and then become re-enthused when I rediscover them. So, in short, I love podcasts.
Recently, however, some trends have emerged that look to upset the podcart. Like a fungus, the trends have both spoiled some existing favourites as well as set up their own foul seed across podcast land. Let’s take a peek.
First off, L.A stand-up comics. Now, I don’t want to let my opinion of stand-up comics (i.e they’re not funny) cloud any facts about stand-up comics (i.e. they’re not funny), but at some point in the last year this seemingly vast population of droll, detached and deeply insecure people suddenly noticed podcasts, like a shopping mall full of zombies getting a whiff of brains. A trickle of of guest spots led to a torrent, then the inevitable proliferation of ‘quirky’, ironic podcasts that they could each guest on. Strangely, for a world where everyone seems to be “brilliant” and “a genius”, none of them have anything remotely interesting or funny to say, and all of them have that tell-tale mix of desperation and ennui that seems to be the mark of the observational comic. I blame ‘My Favourite Murder’, which has exploded in popularity in its first year, with successful tours etc. MFM is a great podcast because of the wit and charm of the hosts (the secret to all great podcasts) but seems to have offered a glimpse to the comedy community of an easy path to stardom that doesn’t involve endless gigs in shitty comedy clubs to audiences composed almost entirely of other comics ( I’m sure I’ve posted here before about my theory that stand-up = group therapy, improv = a cry for help).
Next, The Vignette. We all love Serial, the superstar of podcasts, but what made it so popular was that for it’s three-month duration, no-one knew how it would end. Would they uncover definitive proof that Adnan was innocent/guilty? [spoilers] Nope. After 12 episodes it just sort of ended with no resolution. Which means that every earnest journalism major has now been given permission to leave things hanging, and in the flood of Serial-like podcasts that has followed, that’s exactly what has happened. Like the world’s most depressing speed dating service, fresh-faced budding journos and lawyers have been matched up with an endless supply of wronged inmates, all keen for a bit of the Serial podcast magic to shine some light on their cases. Even the other big investigative hits, such as S-Town and Finding Richard Simmons have [spoiler] limped to an end, with no conclusion to the narrative. In most of these cases, I applaud the use of new media such as podcasts to right wrongs and seek new info on old cases, but this is a one-and-done prospect. It worked for Serial because it was the only one on the block.
Lastly, we have Boring People Reading Spooky Stuff From Wikipedia. This has many sub-forms, ranging from two dumb guys reading about crime/mysteries/UFOs etc through to one dumb guy reading about crime/mysteries/UFOs etc. In some cases, they literally read from a prepared script verbatim. In all cases, they offer zero insight or commentary beyond what you could find on Wikipedia and read in a tenth of the time. This stuff is the junk DNA of the podcast world, endless in form and opaque in purpose.
So why does all this bother me? Well, I’m not quite sure. There are certainly more podcasts than before, and I suppose there are more good podcasts than before, but the haystack is getting bigger so the needles are harder to find. I’m also fully aware that in almost all cases the people do these for free, or for very modest contributions from listeners. It’s more that podcasts are becoming indistinguishable from other types of media, and seem to be losing a little of the identity that made them special. In the early days (I know I sound like a hipster wanker!) podcasts were often hosted by people passionate about a topic whereas now they are seen as an obligatory part of a social profile for up and comers. More people with less to say.
Btw, my comments are aimed at podcasts created as such, not radio segments repackaged as podcasts.