The Problems with Podcasting

And how we are squandering sound

Leo Cookman

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Podcasts are one of the most innovative and compelling mediums of the digital revolution. They are older than streaming video, they have lead or changed conversation and thought on vital topics, and the majority of them are free. They are even based on radio, a technology older than television or cinema. George Ayittey once said, in his book Defeating Dictators, that radio was as important to revolution as control of civil infrastructure and power. The reason for this is that, as a format, radio is very easy to enact. The technology is simple to obtain, easy to distribute and difficult to disrupt. Though to far lesser degrees in all categories, Podcasting is very similar. Ever heard some boring guy with a podcast complain about how there are too many podcasts today? That’s because the barrier for entry is so low. If you have a smartphone, you can record and release a podcast. For something to be so freely accessible and available to the entire globe is truly radical. The only barrier is a linguistic one.

More than any other part of the proliferation of the internet and its massive societal change in the last 20 years, the Podcast has the potential to be at the vanguard of it all.

So why do so many podcasts suck?

Well, a big part of it is precisely this proliferation, i.e. “everyone has a podcast now”. And it’s true. What do you call four white men in a room? A podcast. It works as a joke because it’s true. The demographic for podcast creators, like almost all creators in all industries at the moment, is still majority white, middle class and male. Consequently we tend to hear discussion of the same topics over and over again (a point perfectly skewered by Bo Burnham in his Netflix special Inside). But even when it isn’t this specific demographic whining about cancel culture, there are trends in the format of the most popular podcasts.

A quick glance at the ‘top shows’ on Apple Podcasts in the UK shows that the most popular fall into a few standard categories: celebrities talking about politics, celebrities talking about science/history, celebrities talking about sport and celebrities (or wealthy CEOs) interviewing other celebrities. Obviously this example is weighted because a celebrity is already…

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Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.