As a podcast producer and an academic interested in podcasting from a research perspective watching episode 10, season 2 of the Netflix comedy Maron entitled ‘Radio Cowboy', I was struck by how the show riffed on many of the conceptual debates around the definition and status of the medium. The episode cleverly explores the hierarchical animosity between purveyors of 'old' and 'new' platforms in an uncertain media landscape. Maron is based on an exaggerated version of Marc Maron's own life as a comedian and host of the highly successful podcast WFT with scenes being shot in Marc's famed garage, showing his trademark confessional monologues and conversational interviews. This episode, however, directly comments upon the technological, social and cultural distinctions between podcasting and radio which are tied to Maron's insecurities as a central figure in podcasting's expansion as a influential medium.
The episode begins with Maron being ‘interviewed' on a stereotypically low-brow morning talk show with the obnoxious hosts wasting no time in disparaging the podcast as a form:
Presenter 1: In addition to Marc being a comic, he is also the host of a popular podcast.
Presenter 2: Hold on, there's no such thing as a popular podcast
Maron: ohhh, zing, sorry but I actually got a pretty good listener base and you know I used to do radio but I prefer podcasting. A lot more freedom.
Presenter 1: So you prefer not to make money?
This opening exchange rehearses familiar criticisms concerning low levels of distribution and the lack of a viable economic infrastructure. Maron's defensive repost regarding the freedom that podcasting offers is illustrated immediately as the second presenter awkwardly segues into incongruous and awkward advertising bit. In an allusion to the amateur, DIY sensibility of podcasting the radio presenters then joke about Marc producing his show from his garage. This first scene ends with, Maron launching into a rant about radio's obsolescence:
Maron: You guys can goof all you want but you are making fart noises on the Titanic. You think anybody is entertained by this? Maybe before there were choices, but you are losing listeners every day. This isn't interesting, it's not engaging. This is a hostage situation for people who don't have a smartphone. And your format restrictions are ridiculous. Why do you feel compelled to give out the time every 5 minutes? All cars have the time. All computer screens have the time on them. There are clocks everywhere. Yet with OCD precision you are always compelled to give out the time. It's horrendous.
Presenter 2: It's 8:25.
Clearly, this encounter seeks to highlight, as a basis for the comedy, many of the sideswipes that Maron has obviously heard time and again regarding podcasting's status compared to its established rival. As a podcast producer and researcher, such criticisms are very familiar particularly the difficulties concerning economic self-sufficiency. Indeed, economic viability is the great unanswered question at heart of debates around the digital revolution. However, the counter-arguments around creative and intellectual freedom for both producers and listeners define its appeal along with the sense that podcasting still possesses an aura of dissenting, edginess.
Maron's disdain for radio is tempered however when, while channel surfing in his car, he comes across an inventively funny late-night mock talk show. Marc is so impressed that goes down to the station and befriends the host Bill Shepard (Phil Hendrie). The two immediately hit it off as Maron recognises the host as a virtuoso of the live broadcast, someone who can create an entertaining, multi-layered conversation using only his voice. Shepard introduces Maron to some of his ‘Radio Cowboy' friends who all lament the way that corporate radio has treated them, yet they still torment Maron about his defection to podcasting. Interestingly, the central objection is the lack of liveness, which Shepard and his colleagues see as the fundamental ingredient that gives radio its identity and its relevance. The sense of connection and interactivity with the audience underpins radio's immediacy and what in academic parlance is called co-presence: the intimacy that the listener experiences knowing that what they are hearing is happening in real time.
The response is from Maron is that podcasting’s interactivity with its audience has to be integrated with the creative use of social media. Undoubtedly, in the internet era broadcast radio also utilises the likes of Facebook and Twitter to reach its audience but it is not integral to the building of, and relationship to, the audience in the way that podcasting is. This epitomises the liminal nature of the podcast in that it operates in an "in-between" space, reliant on the cross-platform, networked infrastructure of the internet while also drawing upon many of the traditional, formal aspects of radio. Indeed, it is interesting how this serialised television comedy, available through an online streaming service, and drawing upon the podcast in a visual and narrative sense, exemplifies visual/audio/networked trans-mediation.
After his encounter with Shepard and the other 'radio cowboys' Maron records a monologue in which he reconsiders the merits of radio broadcasting and how it taught him to "talk solo" and "riff out", skills that allowed to become perhaps the first podcast star. Also, Shepard grudging compliments Maron as a pioneer and states he is envious of his independence from the corporate machinery that compromised his own career and the art of radio. Maron is, at the end of the day, a comedy, but its writing draws astutely on hierarchical enmities between those invested in competing notions media success and status and pointedly foregrounds how ‘liveness' is at the root of the conceptual distinction between podcasting and radio. But is also rightly asserts that the two forms are deeply interconnected by the same fundamental DNA.