Podcasts Are The New “New Yorker Profile”
In years past, we thought podcasts were here to disrupt broadcast radio. We missed the mark.
In “Podcasting, Welcome to Night Vale, and the Revival of Radio Drama”, media scholar Andrew Bottomley argues that there’s actually very little that is new about the “new” medium of podcasting. His argument is that many of the core elements of traditional radio — the one-way, one-to-many form, the experience, the intimacy — are all present in podcasting. Podcasts, to Bottomley, then, are just a “remediation”, or remix, of traditional radio.
It’s a good argument, but a little less so when you substitute WNV, the podcast Bottomley uses as an example, with almost any other podcast. Whereas WNV is Twin Peaks for your ears, podcasts like The Nerdist or WTF with Marc Maron, are interview-based. More podcasts look like the latter two than WNV.
Swap WNV out with The Nerdist and Bottomley’s comparison loses footing. Intimacy is present, but not the narrator-to-listener kind that Bottomley highlights. Instead, it’s an intimacy that forms between listener and interviewee. The experience also changes. Rather than being immersed in the story, the experience is more like that of a fly on the wall, listening in on somebody else’s conversation. Through this lens, podcasts suddenly appear quite different than radio. No, podcasting is not the new radio; podcasting is the new journalistic profile.
What is a journalistic profile? At its core, it’s an interview with a subject that serves the purpose of revealing something, whether it be about the interviewee or their work. The New Yorker is famous for them. With a profile, the focus is completely on the subject. The interviewer’s main purpose is to set the scene, ask the right questions, and listen, making sure to divert focus away from themself. For the reader, then, the reward comes from learning something about somebody you’ll probably never meet, whether that be their life story or what they ordered for lunch when the interview was conducted.
All of that applies to The Nerdist and WTF with Marc Maron. Podcasts like this are not just similar to written journalistic profiles, sometimes they’re actually better at doing what profiles set out to do, taking advantage of the added dimension of audio to further the level of intimacy and shorten the distance between the listener and the interviewee. It feels like you’re there. You hear their reaction to a question, the cadence of their voice, their dorky, but endearing laugh. It feels like you’re meeting them.
Podcasting lends itself to journalistic profiling. For interviewers, there’s less work. For interviewees, there’s more control over your message and you’re less likely to be taken out of context. In days past, if you were a celebrity who felt misrepresented by the media and wanted to remediate your image, you went on The Late Show with David Letterman or partook in a written interview. Now, you go on WTF with Marc Maron. Or, in the case of Lance Armstrong, you can even start your own.
Whenever some new technology arrives on the scene, pundits opine about their implications. As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic sees it, “When a new company, app, or platform emerges, it’s common for analysts to divide into camps — Disrupt vs. Dud — with some yelping that the new thing will change everything and others yawning with the expectation that traditionalism will win out.” Bottomley discussing David Carr’s labeling of podcasts as “jailbreak media” is evidence of this.
But as is often the case when faced with a dichotomy, neither side is completely right, or wrong, because the truth is somewhere in the middle. Podcasting has not been a dud, nor has it been as disruptive as some speculated it would be. Furthermore, the what part of those speculations may not have even been accurate. Pundits thought AirBnB was in competition with hotels for travelers, but we’re now learning that its disruptiveness is being felt in competitions with locals for space.
Similarly, maybe reports of podcasts disrupting radio have been greatly exaggerated and radio is as relevant to this conversation as the price of tea in China. Perhaps we’ve been looking at it all wrong. Maybe podcasts aren’t here to remediate or disrupt radio, but the traditional journalistic profile. Maybe in a few years written profiles will be like what fax machines are today and we’ll realize podcasting was the culprit. But until then, at least we’ll still have the invaluable knowledge of what our favorite celebrities ordered for lunch.