The Podcastiness of Podcasts
Season 1, Episode 2
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This episode continues my exploration of why it is that the video podcast has generally failed to take off in popularity. Even as technology has improved, podcasts remain a distinctly audio phenomenon. Perhaps this is because of some fundamental characteristic of podcast that makes them better suited for audio. I call this characteristic the “podcast-iness” of podcasts.
A better way to think of this podcast-iness is in terms of intimacy. Podcasts are unique because they create a close connection between the podcast producer and the podcast audience. Because they are often in the audio format, this relationship often feels personal and deeply intimate. We listen to podcasts in ways that are deeply integrated in our day-to-day lives: in the shower, while commuting, and so on.
But if you were to add video in to the mix, it becomes a lot more difficult for the podcast to create that intimate relationship. By adding video, we get a clear signal that the podcaster is not there alongside us as we listen. Video actually makes a podcast feel less intimate, which is a large reason why video podcasts are not as popular as audio ones.
This episode also includes short clips from the following podcasts:
- Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me
- Up First
- 99% Invisible
Additional Works Cited:
Lindgren, Mia. “Intimacy and Emotions in Podcast Journalism: A Study of Award-Winning Australian and British Podcasts.” Journalism Practice (June 25, 2021): 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2021.1943497.
Rae, Maria. “Earwitnessing Detention: Carceral Secrecy, Affecting Voices, and Political Listening in The Messenger Podcast,” 2019, 20.
Spinelli, Martin, and Lance Dann. Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Hello and welcome back to another episode of Beside the Rabbit Hole.
I’m your host, Ben Pettis. And in this season, we’re looking at – or should I say listening to? – podcasts. And, more specifically, thinking about the promises and failure of the video podcast.
[Music Begins in Background]
In the last episode, I talked a little bit about how podcasts have been defined, and how in many of these broad definitions, there is room for podcasts to be more than just audio. But by the end of the last episode, I was left wondering – if it was just the fact that mid-2000s mobile video technology just wasn’t good enough yet, we might think that after years and years of innovation and improved technology, we might see some changes. So why hasn’t the video podcast become a thing yet?
[Background Music Ends]
Hey there, this is Ben from the future just jumping in with a quick editor’s note. Sorry to interrupt, past-Ben. Toward the end of 2021, there have been a handful of announcements about video podcasts. Specifically, I’m thinking of Spotify gradually rolling out a video hosting feature for some of its producers. At the time that I was writing and recording this, I hadn’t yet seen those announcements – but don’t worry, even though I don’t get to them in this episode, I’m planning to look at those specifically in a future episode! Okay, that’s it for my editor’s note for now, back to your regularly scheduled intro monologue.
[Background Music Resumes]
So maybe it’s not the specifics of the technology and format that make a podcast feel like a podcast. And perhaps there’s something else – the “podcast-iness of a podcast” that makes them special and unique. And that’s what I’m going to dig into in this episode of Beside the Rabbit Hole.
[Background Music Ends]
[Sounds of Alarm Clock]
Google Assistant Voice:
Hello, it’s 7:16 AM. Right now in Madison it’s 37 degrees and clear. Here’s the latest news from Up First at 7:00 am. Have a nice day.
[Up First Theme Music]
Before I even begin my day, podcasts are a part of my life. I have one of those Google Assistant enabled smart alarm clocks things, and while it definitely puts some fears in the back of my mind about whether I’m being secretly recorded while I’m sleeping, I do have to say it is kind of nice to have a little weather report—albeit in a sketchy robot voice—to a sense of what the day will look like when I first get up, and then to try and keep a handle on everything that’s going on in the world with that daily news podcast first thing in the morning.
[Shower Curtain Opening and Shower Starting]
And that’s not the only place where listening to a podcast becomes part of a really personal component of my day-to-day life. From time to time I’ll put on a podcast in the background while I’m taking a shower too.
[Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! Theme Music]
And there are plenty of other examples—think about your own podcast listening practices. Where are you listening to this episode right now? How does it fit within everything else that’s going on in your life?
It’s not uncommon for someone to put a podcast on while they’re taking their dog on a walk, while they’re commuting to work, or maybe while working out at the gym. In all of these cases, the podcast experience is deeply personal. And intimate.
And this intimacy, I think, is what is central to the so-called podcast-iness of podcasts. It’s this close connection to the audience’s personal lives that makes podcasts stand out both as a medium and as a format.
Ben (Reading Quote):
“Although produced to be consumed by many, podcasting is commonly listened to alone, with a human voice speaking to one listener at a time. Hearing a voice in proximity, recorded close to the microphone, is an intimate experience.”
That’s from Mia Lindgren, who was writing about intimacy and emotions in podcast journalism. So even though podcasts can be thought of as a mass medium, they are typically experienced individually.
Intimacy is also related to the specific modes of listening! The way that we listen to a podcast influences the relationship that gets built between the podcast producer and the podcast listener. Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann point out that even the listener’s audio hardware contributes to this intimacy:
Ben (Reading Quote):
“Earbuds in particular, placed as they are within the opening of the ear canal, collapse the physical space between a person speaking and the listener; the person speaking is literally inside the head, inside the body, of a listener.”
But this is all still based on the assumption that a podcast is always audio only. Adding video completely negates this. Even if their voice is still in your head, when you can see someone also it is a clear indicator that they are not present with you in that current situation. Adding video destroys the illusion that you (the listener) and them (the podcaster) are sharing space and sharing an intimate moment together. Spinelli and Dann further point out how this intimacy of podcasting permeates the medium as a whole.
Ben (Reading Quote):
“When we talk about podcast intimacy we refer to efforts to create and reveal emotional experiences and personal connections in a comfortable space between interviewers and interview subjects, between the producers themselves, and between listeners, producers, and subjects.”
Okay, podcast intimacy is admittedly a much better term to use than the “podcast-iness” of podcasts, but I’m sticking with it anyways. In any case, it seems that there is something specific about the audio format that enables this intimacy to be established and strengthened between the podcast producer and the podcast listener.
Maria Rae, Emma Russell, and Amy Nethery explain that:
Ben (Reading Quote):
"Podcasts are an increasingly popular media form that engages audiences in new ways: They are mobile, intimate, highly selective, and participatory"
But if you were to add video into the equation, the first two of those become significantly limited.
[Background Music Begins]
First, in terms of mobility, video can be a lot more difficult to integrate into your day-to-day life. For example, if you listen to a podcast during your commute, I’m willing to bet that it’s a lot easier to listen to a podcast while driving and it’s probably not a good idea to try and watch a video on your phone while also operating a multi-ton combustion engine on wheels. And even if you do take public transit, you’re still likely limited to watching on a fairly small device. Where the smoothest of bus rides you’re still going to have a pretty high likelihood of getting motion sickness. So video limits the overall mobility of podcasts.
And like I’ve been mentioning, adding video to a podcast will also limit its intimacy—that is video will restrict this relationship that gets built between producer and audience. In many ways, this stems directly from video’s lack of mobility. If I can’t take a video podcast with me when I’m walking my dog, then the podcast just can’t become associated with that part of my life.
And sure, the latest iPhones are supposedly water resistant but I’m still not bringing podcasts into the shower with me just so I can watch and listen at the same time. Because video is less mobile than audio, it already limits the possibility of podcast intimacy.
But even when I do have access to a more optimal viewing setup, the podcast-iness of podcasts – that intimate producer-audience relationship – is still significantly limited when I can see in addition to hear the podcast.
[Background Music Ends]
As an example, let’s think about the podcast 99% Invisible. I know that Roman Mars isn’t in the same room as me. In fact, I know exactly where he is and that’s he’s actually located…
In the Pandora Building. In beautiful. Uptown. Oakland, California.
But if I were to watch a video recording of the TED Talk that Roman Mars did on vexillology in 2015, I can clearly see that he is somewhere else, and sometime else than me.
[TED Intro Music]
I know what you’re thinking. Why does that guy get to sit down? That’s because this is radio.
He’s very clearly sitting in a different room, in a different place, and a different time, and most importantly—speaking to different people. This doesn’t mean that what he has to say isn’t any less insightful or significant, but it feels different to perceive it. It’s not that same intimate connection. Simply put it’s just not… podcast-y.
So even though from a technical standpoint, there’s not really much of anything stopping podcasts from being produced as videos—and there certainly are some podcasts that do this—the video format of the podcast still hasn’t really taken off in popularity. And if you ask me, my guess is that this hasn’t happened because video simply isn’t compatible with the podcast-iness of podcasts. If a podcast is characterized by an intimate relationship between producer and audience, adding video just limits that intimacy too much.
But up until this point, my discussion the video podcast has been pretty speculative. What was it actually like to experience a video podcast in the mid-2000s? What’s it like to experience one today? Is there a possible future for video podcasts?
I’ll take up these questions in the next episodes of Beside the Rabbit Hole. See you in the next one!
Beside the Rabbit Hole is written and produced by Ben Pettis – that’s me!
Thank you to Kevin MacLeod for the music which is used as the theme and throughout the episode. The episode also includes clips from the podcasts Up First, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, 99% Invisible, as well as a short clip from a 2015 TED Talk. For information about this, along with citations for the quotes I read throughout the episode, check out the episode description below.
Beside the Rabbit Hole is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and supposedly on Spotify as well. Can you do me a favor let me know if you actually found it on one of those platforms? And while you’re there, feel free to leave a rating and review. Thanks for listening!
Between the producers them––phe-. blah. Okay, we'll try that again.