Ode to Audio: Why You Should Give Podcasts and Audiobooks a Chance
August 25th, 2016
I love doing chores. The more time-consuming they are, the better. I jump at opportunities to empty the dishwasher, and grocery shopping is a highlight of my week. I don’t even mind sorting the trash, as long as I have my phone and some earbuds handy.
I used to dread housework as much as the next person. But that all changed when John introduced me to podcasts and audiobooks two years ago. Mundane tasks have become opportunities to learn, to relax, and to listen to stories I might never hear otherwise.
Digital audio is one of the best additions I’ve made to my life recently — a newfound love of chores is far from the only benefit of podcasts and audiobooks. Naturally, I want to share it with other people. In an effort to pay it forward, I’ve compiled a list of reasons for why on-demand audio is great. If you’re already convinced, check out my starter kit to see a list of recommendations.
1. Audio improves the routine parts of life
Digital audio enables me to enjoy books and news that I may never have the opportunity to read otherwise.
- Some portion of everyone’s day is devoted to bland but necessary activities. We all have to shower, commute, and run errands. These repetitive tasks consume lots of our time, to the exclusion of other things we care about. Podcasts and audiobooks help you make the most of your time.
- I am now able to read or listen to several books each month with this new habit. Before, I only managed to fit in a handful each year, maybe a dozen if I was lucky.
- Of course listening is not the same as reading. I get about 80% of the comprehension from substituting an audiobook for its printed text equivalent. However, this is well worth it. Since audio helps me fill gaps of intellectual stimulation, it acts more as a supplement to my existing reading habits rather than as a substitute.
2. Audio is intellectually humble
Audio is inherently conversational, even with the most polished and edited shows. As a result, podcasts tend to be more of an exploration of ideas rather than a presentation of an argument. It is easier to discuss complex ideas without feeling the need to oversimplify or to stake your identity to a specific argument. This is something Ezra Klein mentions frequently in Vox’s The Weeds and his own show:
“There is a subtle but very powerful incentive towards coherence imposed by most of the formats in which we write. With [podcasts], you can be a little rambling. You don’t have to have just one point, people are open to you just making a bunch of points and then at the end just moving on and not wrapping things up in a bow." ~ Ezra Klein (from “Malcolm Gladwell on the danger of joining consensus opinions")
And Gladwell’s response in that same episode:
“The minute something is on paper, it has a kind of permanence, an authority that maybe it doesn’t deserve." ~ Malcolm Gladwell
It’s interesting to compare this to blogs. Podcasts and blogs have a lot in common: they are both created by an individual or small group whose personality drives the content, they both have a defined topic scope, and they both have a malleable style rather than following strict conventions. But they feel totally different — podcasts are conversational and exploratory, while blogs have a distinct perspective that they intend to communicate.
Either format can achieve both goals, but the implicit intention when not otherwise stated varies greatly between the two media. If a blog post begins with a disclaimer that its purpose is to test out a few ideas or play Devil’s Advocate, then the author can continue with the understanding that that’s what the (s)he is doing. Similarly, if a podcaster explicitly states a strong argument at the beginning and continues to hammer down point after point, it is clear that they are trying to communicate a certain view of the world. However, the audience has come to expect blogs and podcasts to be more persuasive and exploratory, respectively, because that is what each medium subtly encourages.
3. Low exploration cost
One of the best features of podcasts is that they are free. I’m not just being cheap — this is an important feature of the medium, because it means that it is low cost to try something new. Many of my favorite shows were ones I originally subscribed to on a whim, just because the description caught my eye or because I had a random impulse to learn about a particular subject. Because they’re free, I am far more willing to try out a show whose topic is outside of my usual range of interests, and that range has expanded as a result.
A few examples:
- A few months ago, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with Singapore. Towards the beginning of that phase, I subscribed to a handful of podcasts about the country (e.g. The History of Singapore, Singapore Uncensored, Inconvenient Questions, Singapore). They weren’t all great, but a few of them played a large role in fueling my month-long obsession with the city-state. If they hadn’t been free, I would have been far less likely to dive into the subject, because at that point I didn’t even know enough about why Singapore was interesting to justify buying a $20 book.
- Gastropod is another good example of this. I’ve historically found cooking shows and blogs to be fairly boring, useful for one-off recipes but not my idea of solid entertainment or a place to learn. As a result, I would have been extremely unlikely to pay for a subscription to Gastropod in the beginning. However, I gave one episode a chance because it had potential, and giving it a try had no cost besides a few minutes of my time. Now Gastropod is one of my favorite shows, and I even made a donation to the show because they do such great work.
4. Certain stories are best communicated through audio
Audio is an extremely intimate medium. It feels like the speaker is talking right to you as an individual.
This is especially true of podcasts, which usually take on a conversational tone. It feels like the driving force behind the show is the personality of the individual podcaster rather than some publishing behemoth. Even the most heavily edited and well-polished shows feel like they’re handmade just for you by a close friend.
- Audio is a whole new way to learn about the world. First-hand accounts, interviews with experts, and the host’s own excitement bring seemingly boring topics to life. The conversational tone of most podcasts makes it feel like you’re there with the host, seeing what they’re seeing and discovering new things along with them.
- Planet Money does a particularly good job of this. They use this intimate, conversational tone to communicate abstract concepts about the world economy in a fun, accessible way. For example, in 2013 they made a T-shirt and documented each step of the process in 5 chapters, from a cotton field in Mississippi to a factory in Bangladesh and finally to a used clothes bin in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some journalists started podcasting as a way to allow readers to enjoy articles on-the-go. This was a valuable service, but the medium has since developed its own way of telling stories, distinct from the written word. Podcasts blend the capabilities of the serialized, RSS format with old school radio techniques.
- Serial is the classic example of this. (I have to admit I’ve never actually listened to the show, but I’ve heard it’s gripping.) The general idea is that it narrates a nonfiction story in weekly installments, borrowing techniques from radio, investigative journalism, and serialized television as well as blending in elements enabled to the form of podcasts. The Serial website explains, “Sarah [the host] and her team follow the plot and characters wherever they take them wherever they take them, and they won’t know what happens at the end of the story until they get there."
- The first season of StartUp Podcast was a sort of audio diary from Alex Blumberg while he was in the process of starting a podcasting company called Gimlet Media. When he released the first episode, he hadn’t raised any money, he had no cofounder, and the company didn’t have a name. Over the course of the show, listeners got to follow his growth from being a public radio producer into the role of startup founder. I felt lucky that I discovered the show while he was still creating it, because it was so much fun to follow his company’s growth in real time. I now feel bought into Gimlet’s success as if it were one of my friend’s companies, and I’ve subscribed to every single one of the podcasts they’ve produced since the company was founded two years ago.
Audiobooks have seen a similar transition, away from simply readings of text and towards performances designed specifically for the recorded medium. Audio adaptation can bring a whole new dimension to literature.
- The audiobook for Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a stunning work of art in its own right. It is narrated by the author, and each character in the story is voiced by a different actor from a London Shakespeare troupe. I adored the printed book, re-reading it at least half a dozen times when I was younger, but the audiobook might be even better.
- One of the best parts of family road trips was our tradition of listening to The Green Hand ghost tales when I was a kid. The storyteller’s performance was at least as important as the stories themselves, and he made the most of his medium rather than reciting them from his book.
Audio of course has its weaknesses. It is not as good as text or video for diving into the details. In fact, I seek out transcripts, paper, or Kindle editions as a companion to many audiobooks, because it’s hard to digest the minutia of an intricate argument or resurface details later.
5. Audio allows you to explore both depth & breadth
Audio is a great way to explore disciplines, places, and ideas you might never otherwise learn about.
The breadth of podcasts is astonishing. Here is a small sampling from my subscriptions, which doesn’t even begin to do justice to the immense diversity in podcasting:
- The Inquiry — the BBC World Service interviews four expert witnesses about a pressing question from the news
- Gastropod — a show about “food with a side of science & history"
- Rationally Speaking — New York City Skeptics hosts guests as they “explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense, likely from unlikely"
- Tumble Science Podcast — a kid-friendly (and adult-friendly!) science podcast emphasizing discovery
- Imaginary Worlds — a podcast about science fiction and other fantasy genres, “how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief"
- EconTalk — the Hoover Institute’s talk show about economics in daily life
- News in Slow Spanish — a show to help you practice your Spanish comprehension skills
- The History of Singapore — a show that traces the history of the city-state from its colonial past up to the modern day
- Direct Current — a podcast form the U.S. Department of Energy that explores how energy shapes our world
- … I’m tempted to go on, but you can just look at the OPML file (or the more readable JSON) in the starter kit.
This is where podcasts blow public radio out of the water. I love NPR and its member stations, but that model could simply never support this range or depth with its geographically-limited model. For a particular community or region, only the most general topics have enough local interest to build a base of listeners of any reasonable size, and the talent pool for creating that content is limited. In contrast, podcasts can be created by and for anybody, anywhere, which increases the size of the market and raises quality of the best shows. Public radio still has a role to play — in fact NPR shows like Planet Money and Invisibilia are some of my favorite shows — but the world of audio is even better now that they aren’t the only players in the game.
Individual shows go into incredible depth within their specific domain. Shows are usually hosted by experts rather than journalists, and they’re friends with the other people doing interesting things within that domain. As a result, podcasts feel a lot more like you’re shadowing someone in their daily work than just a small, mediated window into their world.
- For example, The Psychology of Attractiveness is hosted by Robert Burriss, a professor of psychology at Basel University in Switzerland. In the show, he presents the cutting edge in his field as well as his own original research every once in a while. He’s extremely knowledgeable about the domain, and he manages to make a potentially dry topic fun and accessible to non-scientists without losing its rigor or depth.
Podcasts have helped me appreciate how seemingly small niches are a fractal of undiscovered wisdom. As a software engineer, it’s easy for me to be consumed by programming and computer science concepts, to think that those ideas are the most important thing in the world. I’m not wrong in placing a lot of importance on these concepts, but podcasts have made me realize that other people are just as consumed by their work, which I may know nothing about.
- Gastropod’s episode called “The Mushroom Underground" is a great example of this. I previously thought of mushrooms as something I cook sometimes, and sure it’s probably some farmer’s livelihood, but it’s just like any other produce when it comes down to it. Then I listened to this episode, which dove into the weird world of fungi. It turns out that the science and history of mushrooms is fascinating. The hosts visited the U.S. National Fungus Collection, home to a million unique specimens, and the toured a boutique mushroom farm. Then, they uncovered the long history of mushroom consumption and cultivation, and they learned about how personalized mushroom therapeutics might be ale to combat antibiotic-resistant infectious diseases. I still don’t want to become a mushroom farmer or scientist, but I have a whole new appreciation for fungi and the people that work with them.
Audiobooks don’t have the breadth of printed books, since recorded adaptations make up just a slice of the total number of published books, but that’s more a function of how many books there are in the world. Many of the books I want to read have audio formats, and new editions are coming out all of the time. Audible’s recommendation system is similar to that of Amazon’s book recommendations, which I’ve always found to be extremely useful. (Audible is an Amazon subsidiary, so it probably is the same system.)
6. Podcasts and audiobooks can be a virtuous reward
It can be hard to motivate yourself to make healthy choices. After a long day of work, it’s tempting to convince yourself that just one hour of TV will help you unwind, and then after that you’ll definitely go for a run. Now that I have podcasts and audiobooks, the run itself is my reward. It’s an opportunity to get back to find out what happens next in the story or to hear your favorite podcast host serve up some knowledge about how the world works.
7. We’re in an audio renaissance
Podcasting is in an exciting experimental stage. It broke out of the niche corners of the internet in the last few years, and it’s fun to watch the medium change, mature, and grow. Most forms of publishing have been around for generations, so this is a unique opportunity to experience an emerging media industry.
- Because digital audio is in an experimental stage, its content tends to be meta and self-referential. There is a thriving genre of podcasts about the podcasting industry, and they’re fun to follow as an industry outsider. Gimlet’s StartUp podcast explored the angle of starting a podcast company, while other shows like The Pub analyze industry trends and On the Media claims to be “your guide to how the media sausage is made".
The podcasting industry is in the process of ironing out ethical guidelines, and it’s fascinating to watch as different groups come up with their own solutions in real time.
- One of my favorite episodes of any show was StartUp’s “We Made A Mistake", where Gimlet Media’s team discusses and owns a huge screw up and establishes advertising guidelines.
- I also recommend Hot Pod, a weekly newsletter about the podcasting industry. This one isn’t a podcast or audiobook, but it offers a fascinating pulse on the state of digital audio.
If you’ve made it this far, then you’re probably interested in giving podcasts and audiobooks a try, or you’re looking for recommendations for more shows and books to listen to. If so, check out my digital audio starter kit. And please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think or send me your own suggestions!
Keep in touch!