AS I walk briskly to my dance class on a Tuesday afternoon, Michelle Lyons tells me an incredible story. It’s about her old job. One she did for more than a decade. In some ways, banal and bureaucratic. The same procedures day in, day out. But totally extraordinary in the particulars. Lyons was Director of Public Information for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. And she witnessed more than 270 executions.
I jog to catch the lights, crossing to the other side of the street. Lyons starts talking. “Okay…number 25 on my execution log was in 2000, and it was a man named Juan Zuria…” I stop, take off my headphones and check the length of time still to go on this episode of Everything Is Stories: 45:35. Reluctantly I press ‘Pause’. This one will have to wait. I click on another icon in the Podcast Addict app, and smile as the women from Stuff You Missed in History Class introduce me to Joe Carstairs, “an early 20th century 'heiress' who bucked traditional gender roles”. I put my headphones back on and continue walking…
“EVERYTHING is stories, and stories are everything,” Mississippi-based podcaster Garrett Crowe drawls at the end of each episode of the aptly named podcast he co-produces. Everything Is Stories, or EIS as its growing group of subscribers know it, is a relatively recent addition to the medium, but a particularly good example of the powerful grip audio stories exert over listeners.
Each EIS episode is devoted to a single, extraordinary subject – people who have in some way, as the show’s website describes it, “experienced transcendence” or “power of the will”. Lyons’ story, edited into a single, seamless narrative – uninterrupted by station IDs or ads – is typical of the show. As is a slow build-up, with a series of narrative arcs, like waves building upon one another, peaking in an epic reveal, then retreating calmly – leaving the listener stunned.
Unlike more lightweight podcasts, this show demands your attention. I once weeded my entire (overgrown) backyard listening to Episode 15, ‘Vanishing Status’. I became so engrossed in the story of fugitive Howard Mechanic – who assumed a false identity after he was (falsely) accused of setting off a bomb at a Vietnam peace rally – that I accidentally pulled out two perfectly good tomato plants.
I emailed Crowe and asked if he’d mind chatting about the show he puts together with co-producers Mike Martinez and Tyler Wray. A few weeks later I heard his familiar drawl on the end of a phone line explaining how the podcast started.
“At the time I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, working in public radio and I was really vocal that I wanted to do edgy radio, dark radio, gritty radio,” Crowe said. “And the other producers [Martinez and Wray], who I didn’t know at the time, were in Brooklyn, and they were trying to get this documentary on biker culture off the ground. And I got whiff of it and I contacted ’em. We brought our resources together and created EIS.”
But why the podcast format? “I’m a big fan of the idea of oral histories, oral tradition. And, you know, this is kind of a cliche to say, but audio is a very intimate form and especially when you’ve got storytelling…audio is one of the best formats to get that across.”
LIKE many people, my podcast obsession really kicked off with the Chicago-based public radio show This American Life. It was one of the first to harness the podcast form to good effect. It now broadcasts to about two million people in the US, and each episode is downloaded by about another two million people from all around the world. Hosted by Ira Glass – whose endearingly nebbish voice and oddly jerky cadences have become as familiar to some as those of a family member – the show is divided into separate stories that are all based around a given theme. Each “act” (introduced by Glass’ insistent repetition: “Act two… Act two”) comprises a compelling, mostly non-fiction narrative, often of personal stories told by the show’s producers. Every episode ends with a friendly dig at show co-founder “Mr Torey Malatia” – playfully misappropriating a sound grab from one of the stories.
But if This American Life was the original pathogen, spin-off show Serial is the mutation that truly launched the podcast pandemic. In the now legendary first season, launched in October 2014, producer Sarah Koenig introduced listeners to the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and to Adnan Syed, the man possibly falsely charged with her murder. Or was he? The true crime podcast employs the suspense-building techniques so successfully used in HBO crime dramas. And all of a sudden, people around the world were downloading the podcast. It was the fastest to reach five million downloads and streams in iTunes history. For some, it was a revolutionary step.
But you always know something has really taken off when celebrities get on the bandwagon. One of the pleasant surprises for new podcast devotees, though, is when they inevitably stumble across Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing. Baldwin is very easy on the ear, and his conversational tone and ease with celebrity guests leads to an almost voyeuristic sense of listening in on a private chat. It’s worth subscribing just to hear the episode where he interviews Morgan Freeman. Now that’s a voice I could listen to all day…
Earlier this month, Vanity Fair published an article entitled ‘So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed with Podcasts Right Now?’ In it, writer James Walcott rhapsodises: “Podcasts are essentially radio on the instalment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind.” He goes on, “As commercial radio trashed itself with too many commercials, demographic narrowing (in many markets, pitching to the Aging Angry White Male), and the incessant pandering of the religious/right-wing tom-tom drums, podcasts redeemed the medium by restoring its lost creative promise.”
As Walcott notes, podcasts appeal to “interests” and “enthusiasms”, not demographics. They return to “the oral tradition of storytelling” and mark the re-emergence of a lost narrative form. It’s a democratisation of the old broadcast medium – harnessing the amazing reach of digital technology. And, unlike the one-size-fits-all approach of commercial broadcast, there is now – or soon will be – a podcast to suit all tastes and interests. A Tower of Babel full of voices and languages. It is, in short – as one friend put it – the new blogging.
Walcott’s thesis is a nicely phrased version of a sentiment many podcast devotees have echoed. But there’s more to it than that. In a supposed era of disconnection – trains-full of lowered faces, fingers tapping words to those who aren’t there – the act of listening to someone telling you a story is intimate and compelling. For those who live alone it can even be a panacea for loneliness. When I reached out to fellow podcast nerds on Facebook, asking what they listened to, and why, the responses resonated strongly with my own listening experience.
“It’s a convenient filler of ‘dead time’…housework and commuting,” writer and blogger Eleanor Hogan commented. “If you don’t have flatmates, it’s ‘talk’, [though] one-sided… Also – podcasts are good for insomnia, as long as there isn’t dramatic music or ads in the middle.”
Merrilee McCoy, producer of the Melbourne chapter of The Moth (an open-mic, live storytelling event made famous through the podcast of the same name), attempted to post the extensive list of podcasts on her device, but had difficulty capturing them all in a screen shot. “These podcasts make me feel curious about the world and people around me,” she explained. “I also learn a lot about topics I wouldn’t know about otherwise.”
Cyprus-based editor Katherine Toumbourou talked about how early online streaming services for traditional broadcasters (the gateway drug to the podcast medium), played a role in alleviating homesickness and culture shock. When she first moved from Melbourne to Cyprus in 2000 she listened – “obsessively”, she says – to ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing.
Now, though, she lists the popular, so-much-more-than-architect-focused, 99% Invisible as among her favourites. She also lists “fictional podcast” Limetown (a seven-part podcast following the mysterious happenings in the eponymous fictitious Tennessee town) as worthy of a mention – with its nod to the old-tradition of radio dramas, blended with Serial-esque suspense and HBO-worthy scriptwriting.
“Fun fact!” Another Facebook comment had bobbed up in my small but committed social media “focus group” of fellow podcast nerds. The commenter was Marian Blythe, co-host of Melbourne-based podcast Devotee – The Creativity Podcast (in which she and co-host Lucas Testro ask artistic “creators” about the things “THEY love”). The fun fact? “The Oxford Dictionary’s 2005 US Word of the Year was ‘podcast’.” Blythe continued. “2005! So everyone getting into them now is sooooo late to the party.”
Like Blythe – who, waaay back in 2006, co-hosted pioneering Australian podcast Boxcutters (“It’s Television, Dissected”) – I was also an early entry to the podcasting scene with a bike show called Along for the Ride, co-hosted with a couple of friends on Melbourne community radio station Triple R. At the time, it just felt like a step down from, or a warm-up to, an on-air radio slot.
Now, though, radio announcers spend time spruiking their podcast channels, and more news outlets are starting to examine ways in which they can build in a podcast. And unlike many new forms of media, podcasts also seem to have a built-in advertising platform. Some advertisers in the US have embraced the medium. Often read out by announcers in a friendly, congruous style, they seem to be more readily accepted by listeners. But…for all this talk about how great podcasts are and how they’re revolutionising what we listen to, one thing hasn’t changed much. Just like the media that saturates our local market, the bulk of the podcasts on my device stream from the US.
The one area that seems to really hold back the podcast medium in Australia is music. With copyright laws requiring pay per play, most podcasters avoid the potentially onerous cost by avoiding music altogether. This will have to be addressed if the local product is ever going to compete with international shows.
As I write this, three friends have contacted me to see if I’ve heard Koenig’s revisit to the Adnan Syed case made famous by her podcast. I immediately messaged back: “Yep. Listened last night. Asia McLain testified!” By the time this goes to press, the hearing – a last ditch effort to overturn Sayed’s conviction – will probably be well underway. If you need me, I’ll be in my garden, headphones on. Probably pulling out some hapless tomatoes.
» Melissa Cranenburgh is The Big Issue’s associate editor.