Listening to a plethora of monologue/conversation based podcasts, you can’t help but notice the tendency of podcasters to engage in self-reflexive commentary on the very nature of the medium itself. These musings are often grounded in the personal experience of adopting podcasting as a new form of creative practice, which in-turn can provoke the rhetoric of epiphany: that somehow podcasting reveals something profound about the very nature of communication. Writers, for example, in their transition from the textual to the aural metier, seem to enjoy exploring how the materiality of sounding words expands the emotional dimensions of storytelling. (see Malcolm Gladwell’s interview with Michael Lewis on Against the Rules for an archetypal example of this). Podcasts featuring comedians often have more than a whiff of the confessional about them, with the podcast space indulging the self-examination which feeds so many comedians’ performative psyche (WFT with Marc Maron is an all too obvious example). A recent episode of Remainiacs Podcast discusses the popularity of political podcasts, suggesting their informality, long-form structure and distributive egalitarianism provide a counter to the archaic formality of tradition political reporting, while also constituting a space within but distinct from the anarchic adversarialism of internet discourse. Podcasting, in this sense, is viewed as a throwback to the ideal of the salon, a forum for informed political debate. There are also, of course, a surfeit of podcasts specifically about podcasting which tend to amalgamate a “how-to” sensibility from within a technical/industrial context.
However much grounded in the subjective, podcasters often extrapolate their experience into more universalist claims regarding what the medium is and does as a unique form. If one listens to enough of a range of shows, one can hear reverberating patterns of thought that shape podcasting’s discourse: an authentic medium, breaking of traditional media boundaries, democratises communication, an intimate listening experience, indicative of mobile nature of contemporary mediation etc etc. This requirement (or desire) to examine the processes and effects of a personal podcasting “praxis”, is also indicative of the medium still developing through the early stages of identity formation. Or, to put it another way, at 15 years old or so, podcasting is perhaps hitting that angst-ridden period of doubt; searching for self-identity and maturity, while grappling with incongruous and unwelcome spurts of growth and change. There is also the issue of podcasters’ anxiety about the status of the medium in a wider context, and a fundamental problem of discoverability. It is still (perhaps naively) jolting to me when, at public recording or just talking my podcasting research, I still have to regularly explain to the uninitiated what a podcast is and how to listen to one. Radio, TV and Film, even through the turmoil of digital transformation and the flattening effects of everything becoming content, don’t suffer from such cultural ambiguity. Underlying podcasting’s self-reflexive trope is the notion, not particularly new but still transformational, that form defines content. This is perhaps a concept that has been lost, due to the hegemony of written text as modernity’s guarantor of knowledge, but one that podcasting has to some degree revitalised. Podcasting reminds us that speaking and listening shapes information through a different form of material register to writing and reading.
One of the mainstays of my PlayerFM rotation is a show that undoubtedly draws upon podcasting’s trope of self-reflexivity. The Blindboy Podcast hosted by the eponymous Irish musician, rapper, writer, broadcaster and frontman of comedy hip-hop duo the Rubberbandits, brings together various modes of creative expression as a kind of digital punk bricolage underpinned by a knowing performativity. “Gas-cuntism” is Blindboy’s own self-declared artistic approach. The majority of The Blindboy Podcast episodes are based on monologues (with some live interview shows) which cover an eclectic range of themes amalgamating irreverent oratory that sweeps between satire and seriousness, a highly researched approach to social, political and cultural themes, logically developed arguments that are underpinned by creative association, a self-depreciative honesty about personal issues such as mental health, and an awareness of the paradox that the subjective is fallible but also the basis of any truth we want to cling to. Blindboy brings the diverse strands that inform a given argument together under a simple but effective appropriation of the phrase, the hot-take.
One of Blindboy’s recurrent hot-takes is grounded in his self-reflexive analysis of podcasting as a form, particularly what he defines as “The Podcast Hug”. On Episode 3 (Scaphism, Nov 8, 2017) he introduces “The Podcast Hug” in relation to an aesthetic decision to underlay his monologue with a simple Jazz chord progression which continually loops throughout his show:
Speaking of doing something new, if you will direct your ears you will notice that there is. Some very gentle tinkling piano playing in the background of this week's podcast. And the reason for that is you'll know that I'm all about trying to create that nice warm podcast hug and what I mean by that is, I believe that podcasts exist as little artefacts in this current moment in time. They serve a psychological purpose I believe. Because sometimes I can't understand why podcasts are even popular you know. Why do we want to listen to somebody rant about shit when if it was the radio we turn it off and call them a prick. But I believe that in our online world of social media where there is a nonstop emotional cacophony, of angry tweets and anxious Facebook posts and looking at too many six packs on Instagram, or the existential anxiety of having to watch Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un awkwardly career nuclear warheads down the collective political urethra like some oily corner of the Deep Web.
It's not pretty. You know there's only two things that provided an element of calm within that extreme attention seeking environment and those things are videos of cats and podcasts. And what podcasts can do I believe is they give you a little warm mindful hug. They allow us to have a little space in the day where we can kind of switch our brains off and, not really switch our brains off, but engage a different part of our brain, a more non-judgmental and compassionate, creative and curious part of our brains to just sit back and listen.
This musical underscoring of the podcast has remained since this episode and for me as a listener, it does seem to create a kind sonic cushioning that switches the brain into relaxed, receptive mode. The looping piano chords also compliment Blindboy’s lilting, soothing delivery, no matter how acerbic the actual content is. The notion that podcasting provides a space for calm outside (inside) the usual internet cacophony, is predicated on another element which is implied here rather than explicit: the assumption that most podcast listeners are using earphones. Judging by the wealth of podcasters I have talked and listened to (and the small amount of research into this specific area) there is a broad assumption that earbud listening is the prevailing mode of engagement. This, in-turn, asserts the idea that podcast audiences enjoy a deep cognitive intimacy with the audio they listen. Blindboy clearly attempts to use the sonic qualities of his podcast to elicit such as intimate experience.
Through these specific aural aesthetic (music, voice, content) and techno-experiential (earphone listening) conditions, “The Podcast Hug” is figurative of a cognitive space that Blindboy speculates acts as a respite from the overt bombardment of stimuli. It’s a paradox that podcasting, though it is absolutely dependent on the internet in terms on technical structure and distributive mechanism, can be an oasis of calm outside the always plugged-in ennui of the digital experience. Blindboy’s assertions do fit in with the increased cultural concerns with self-care, mental health, and the potential negative effects of the internet, and use of techniques such as mindfulness. Furthermore, and what I find the the most interesting claim here, is that podcasting doesn’t operate as another mode of passive escapism, but as specific engagement with a different form of cognitive utility. One that we have somewhat forgotten.
These insights are expanded further in The Tanners Enamel (Jan 10, 2018). Here Blindboy suggests appeal of aural mediation is a counter to the hegemony screen-based digital media experiences:
I have spoken about the podcast hug which is what I attempt to achieve with this podcast. I don't think podcasts produce apathy in the listener. I know from the responses that I get. I know myself from listening to podcasts because I think podcasts require that they engage your ears only and they require you to visualize with your mind. Reading does the same thing. To consume a podcast is quite participatory. Scrolling through social media isn't really that participatory, or watching television.
It's being fed to you and you can sit back and, you know, you're like a goose that's having its liver fattened for foie gras. Dunno how to pronounce it, I've never eaten it, but podcasts don't do that...you know I'd love to see someone's brain under a scanner listening to a broadcast versus scrolling through Instagram. I think the podcast does ask more of you the listener and it's a more intense participatory experience where, I won't say you experience 'flow' while listening to a podcast but it's not far off it. It's meditative and calming and it's most certainly focused and it's rejuvenating and that's why people love podcasts…
….That's why I love podcasts when I listen to them. You feel good you feel like you've done something good. You don't come away. You never come away sluggish from a podcast. You will come away sluggish from an hour of Facebook. Or an hour of video games unfortunately. Maybe it's because of what it does to your eyes it can be tiring on the eyes. But with a podcast you can just lash in the earphones go out for a nice walk. It'll reduce your breathing and there is a slight, a little element of "flow" to a podcast to appreciate. Maybe that's a hot hot take. But you know what lads. This is the place for hot takes.
This notion of “The Podcast Hug” as somehow participatory rather than passive is an element of podcasting that, again, is both aesthetic and technological. The Blindboy Podcast is monologue-based so there is the implicit sense of a direct address to the audience. However, rather than just delivering information, the texture, tone and mode of address is inclusive and negotiated, rather than didactic. This again derives from the self-reflexive rhetorical approach: Blindboy often questions himself with phrases such “don’t believe me, go do your own research” or “I could be talking out of my hoop”. I’ve also heard the claim, related to interview-based shows, that podcasts are like dropping into a fascinating conversation that actually doesn’t have an outside listener in mind. This relates back to the notion of authenticity. Podcasts have somewhat revitalised the tired status of the interview genre, which, if you look at press junket culture as an example, have largely become a formulaic and superficial subset of PR.
The technological element of the participation perhaps stems from the labour of listening that differentiates podcasting from radio (and broadcast media generally). Podcasts have to be curated by the listener, in a process that is more involved and personal. There every episode has to be its own reason for listening (rather than just simply being part of a pre-chosen schedule).
Blindboy goes onto contextualise these claims about “The Podcast Hug” by linking podcast listening to the concept of “flow”. This is the state of intense concentration where creative production is so seamless it almost takes on it’s own life, outside that of deliberate human intention. Athletes and artists talk about the experience of “flow” (or “being in the zone”) like moving into a mode of automatic action, where one loses a sense of time, and actions arrive and are executed almost automatically. Obviously, defining podcast listening in the context of “flow” is somewhat of a leap (one that would require much further investigation; the idea of a comparative brain scan where podcasting is measured against other media would be a fascinating research project). But, to me, there is something in the notion that podcasting’s non-visual engagement is so at odds with our screen-based bombardment, it fires a different neurological state, one that we experience less and less. Whatever the specific scientific, cognitive effects of podcasting, non-scripted, speech based shows invoke podcasting’s wide-range virtues through discourses that negotiate the subjective and objective of mediatory practice. Those of us studying podcasting will be pulling at these strands of understanding for some time to come. In the meantime I, for one, will continue to enjoy sinking into Blindboy’s particularly warm aural embrace.
For more on podcasting listen to New Aural Cultures.