Podcasts and Participatory Storytelling

In the Information Age, people are rediscovering an ancient form of entertainment.

Like so many others, my imagination was captured when I first encountered compelling podcasts. I first listened to NPR’s Invisibilia on the recommendation of my girlfriend. Next, a friend suggested I listen to Welcome to Night Vale, a long-form Lovecraftian tale of a fictional desert city told in the style of community radio. Finally, late to the party as always, I got hooked on the famous Serial podcast. Since then, as I continue to listen to podcasts off and on, I have often wondered what has inspired their recent surge in popularity and nigh-universal appeal.

Industry specialists have offered answers ranging from the improvement of recording technology to the existence of Internet-enabled cars But such explanations are not really answers at all. New technologies, smartphones, smart cars, etc. simply make podcasts accessible, but they do not make them inherently appealing. When given the choice between traditional radio, audiobooks, music, or simply carpool conversation, what makes podcasts such a common choice? Technology is an explanation for how people are able to listen to podcasts, but not why they listen to them.

Maybe the answer is something less mundane, and thus more humane. Perhaps podcasts tap into an older form of storytelling that has been mostly lost in the Information Age. In a world of sensory-overload films and unlimited streaming television, podcasts have reached their golden age because audiences still enjoy listening and imagining the way that humans have for millennia.

There are obvious surface contrasts between visual storytelling and oral storytelling. When an audience watches a film or a show on Netflix, the pictures are presented to them fully formed. Certain imaginative work is required to fill in details off-screen, but the majority of the world-shaping has been accomplished in the filming itself. When one listens to a story, most of the details must be filled in, forcing the audience to actively engage with the material presented in order to comprehend and appreciate what is given.

It is this tendency of television to bypass the imagination and feed stories directly to an uncritical audience that has led social critics to decry the television as an imagination-killing machine. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, suggested that imaginations have to be developed in young children through stories told by parents and teachers. However, he believed that television short-circuits the imagination-building process by taking the work out of receiving a story.

Whether or not this is an inherent quality of television, Vonnegut’s criticism of the television offers one way of understanding the surge in podcast popularity. In a world of mindless Netflix binges, maybe people crave stories that require participatory work and imaginative engagement.

Rather than being a turn-off, audience engagement appears to be part of the fun of listening to a story. I enjoy podcasts the same way I enjoy fireside storytelling. There is something thrilling about the time-honored tradition of being part of an audience receiving a verbal story. The storyteller bears the responsibility of communicating something beyond himself faithfully and engagingly to his audience; the audience bears the responsibility of listening attentively and respecting both the teller and the tale.

Additionally, oral storytelling has a directness and an intimacy that film and television cannot capture. In film, the audience is viewing a story play out before them. In the fireside tale, the audience is the recipient of a story being passed on to them. In a sense, the audience becomes a steward of a story by hearing it, capturing it in the imagination, and then passing it on. This process of passing down tales by word of mouth preserved the oldest tales we know, from Homer’s tales to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The audience receiving a verbal story has a close relationship both with the story and the storyteller. A film is a product of an artistic vision that was first written, then revised, then filmed, then edited, then projected onscreen. The storyteller is far removed from the audience when the story is presented. While podcasts are still a step removed of face-to-face storytelling, they preserve a kind of closeness in a way television and film do not. For example, the podcast Serial follows typical podcast format with a host who acts as storyteller. The host of Serial, Sarah Koenig, has said that she regularly gets mail from listeners who say they feel as if they personally know her and Adnan Syed, the man at the center of Serial. This kind of intimacy, or at least the illusion of intimacy, is a powerful part of the appeal to Serial and other podcasts.

As a culture, we have moved well beyond fireside storytelling and wandering bards. Writing provided a way to preserve a story for generations to come. Film provided a way to dramatize and visualize a written tale and record that imaginative world for anyone’s viewing pleasure. While written and visual storytelling have their place, there is perhaps still a felt need to participate in this older tradition. Maybe the tendency of listeners to feel an intimate connection to the subjects of podcasts like This American Life is more a testament to the ancient power of listening to stories than it is a byproduct of technological innovation.

According to The International Storytelling Center, anecdotal and scientific evidence supports the claim that “[verbal] storytelling is our most powerful tool for effective communication.” Podcasts fall squarely within this type of storytelling. In the scope of history, our contemporary storytelling technologies are shockingly recent. Even the book as we know it is in its infancy when weighed against the tradition of oral storytelling that stretches back many thousands of years. It’s no surprise, then, that contemporary technologies that connect us to that older tradition are remarkably appealing when given a place in our cluttered industrial lives.

Attempts to rationalize the advent of the golden age of the podcast frequently miss the mark. Mechanistic explanations that attribute the popularity of podcasts to the availability of listening technologies simply do not capture the appeal in a meaningful way. At least one plausible explanation is that humans inherently desire to hear, engage with, and receive stories, and that podcasts, because of their auditory nature, fulfill this desire in a way that alternative modes of storytelling do not. When we listen to podcasts, then, we are participants in a tradition that stretches back for millennia and just happens to reach audiences through the innovative means of Internet radio.

Philip Bunn

Philip studied political philosophy at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia and is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When he’s not studying, Philip is typically reading, writing, or playing the ukulele.

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