So, Like, Why Are We So Obsessed with Podcasts Right Now?

From the true crime of Serial to Marc Maron’s garage psychotherapies, James Wolcott surveys the iTunes charts to analyze the real-talk, conversational appeal of the new radio.

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n last month’s column, I squeezed America’s heart with a poignant account of how there’s just too much good TV to keep up with these days. No matter how hard one grips the arms of the speeding treadmill, the view queue just keeps growing and, oh, the futility. And now I have a similar lament to unbosom, if that image doesn’t make you shriek: the equal overwhelmingness of the podcast explosion, all those iTunes subscriptions extending unto death. It seemed only a few wispy years ago that in the future everybody of relative sentience would have their own blog, a personal soapbox or public diary dotting the information superhighway. (This was back in those optimistic days before the superhighway became a garbage run.) Blogs bubbled out of the tar pits of the Internet in the peeping dawn of the new millennium, a democratic upsurge that would enable every caliber and denomination of writer to live the dream of being his or her own pamphleteer, creating a global village of town criers, a cacophonous shout. Today the shouting is mostly a distant growl. Energies that formerly drove current-events blogging have been largely rerouted into Facebook posts, Twitter buckshot, or, on the pro level, “hot takes” that make an immediate splat and drive traffic. And for those who find writing an outmoded activity, like taking up the banjo, there’s Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and similar galleries for eye-grazers. But the screen devices that enslaved our gaze and bathed it in artificial moonlight also gave birth to an audio renaissance—the rise of the podcast.

Podcasts are essentially radio on the installment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind. 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. Instead of peddling itself to demographic markets, it appealed to interests, enthusiasms, and the oral tradition of storytelling, and for every interest there’s a flock of podcasts vying for attention. (And business has noticed. The podcast network Gimlet Media raised $6 million in its most recent fund-raising round, for a reported valuation of $50 million. Shannon Bond reported in the Financial Times, “The company expects to take in more than $2m in advertising sales this year from clients including Ford and Microsoft. It is also developing branded podcasts for advertisers, an area of increasing interest to marketers and to podcast producers.”)

My own pod diet is eclectic. I subscribe to: The Norman Mailer Society Podcast, which presents archival selections from his wooly-bully exploits; a podcast devoted to The Art of Manliness (because, well, you know how it is); Vanity Fair’s Oscar-themed Little Gold Men podcast (got to support the team); You Must Remember This, the podcast hosted by Karina Longworth that peels the history of Hollywood; podcasts devoted to the Alexander technique and radio astronomy; Marc Maron’s WTF, Bret Easton Ellis’s eponymous podcast, Bill Simmons’s sports podcast; and so many more, which I hope someday to have time to listen to, though who am I kidding? I am still several episodes tardy with Marc Maron’s podcast, and it is Maron who gave podcasting the authentic thumbprint it has today.

The story of Marc Maron’s climb from career doldrums and psycho-pharmacological burnout to buckskin pioneer of personal podcasting has been oft told, as befits a folk legend that inspired a nation. It is 2009. Maron’s stand-up-comedy career is on the luggage carousel to nowheresville. Air America, the liberal radio network not long for this world, has canceled his lunch-break program, having earlier canceled his morning show with Mark Riley. He’s going through a public, war-torn divorce, lacing his stand-up-comedy performances with psychodrama. Like a fanatic, he neglects to shave closely. But he refuses to throw in the gym towel. Using his Air America key card like a spy, he sneaks in and records the first episodes of a podcast called WTF (for “What the Fuck”). Not long after, he moves to California and hosts the ramshackle show from his ramshackle garage, beginning each installment with a status-update monologue about his cats, his storm-tossed love life, and the chafing irritations of daily existence before moving on to the main course with his fellow comics, sharing war stories and commiserating about cheesy club owners, hecklers they have left for dead, that time Marc was a dick to them in Boston, and life on the road in the Twilight Zone of groupies, pizza cartons, and unspeakable laundry. These mutual meditations weren’t like the canned segments on late-night talk shows; they were and remain confessionals, healing exercises, bonding experiences, one-on-one Gestalt therapy sessions, and WTF doesn’t so much find an audience as its audience finds something it didn’t know it was looking for. Maron’s garage—nicknamed “the Cat Ranch”—becomes the log cabin of podcast lore, and the show itself a modern American institution, tricked up into a sitcom now heading into its third horny season on IFC.

Justin Gilman

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