In the last month I have become part of a new political podcast as one of the presenters of The Three Muckrakers. This has been a hugely enjoyable experience and got me thinking about the philosophical ethos of a medium that is firmly a part of the cultural lexicon but perhaps still has a niche or outsider understanding. Before I became part of an actual show podcasts had already become central to my media engagement, I listen to them more than I watch television or films, more than I read books or play sports. For me it is the most relevant and vital contemporary cultural form particularly in the context of a politically atomised society and an inadequate mainstream media. The significance of podcasting for me derives from the wealth of content that takes the best elements mass digital participation. In this sense the mechanics of the form itself most closely realises the internet's promise of democratic engagement.
It is clear that podcasting sit in a nexus between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. The closest link is obviously with radio but I would argue that the paradox of podcasting, and the reason for its value in the current historical moment, is that it fuses familiar, traditional and still relevant foundations of broadcasting quality with the chaotic, transgressive and limitless scope that characterises the media in the internet age. Podcasts are not bound by spatial and temporal shackles and thus can escape from conventional broadcast flow. The relative cheapness and ease of use of audio production technology breaks down the producer/consumer binary and the Internet provides a ready-made distribution platform. Podcasting flattens the vertical power structure created by corporate media gatekeepers existing in a kind of communal zone of influence in which the production and dissemination of ideas is largely unrestrained. But good podcasts require time, preparation, thought and commitment, which in-turn engenders a level of depth belying the often cited ephemerality of the digital age.
The huge array of content covers almost every subject matter that you could think of, using every conceivable format for audio programming. Many podcasts are of course produced through the mainstream media organisations, often recordings of radio (or TV) shows that recycle traditional programming, while allowing the flexibility of listening that is intrinsic to the form. But it is the incredible explosion of independent podcasts that really encapsulates what I would describe as a political agency that underpins podcasting culture. There is almost a symbolic seizing back of media control that comes for an active participation in the dissemination ideas; a dissent against the apathy of top-down one-way media messaging. This also comes through listening practices too. Navigating through the availability and defining ones own listening spectrum has become intrinsic part of my integration into contemporary mediated world. Flanuering through the podcasting world is offers an opportunity to reflect on how and why one thinks in a particular way, the mobility of the form enhances the sense of accompaniment even companionship through day-to-day life.
But, so what, you might say. Blogging, tweeting, posting youtube videos all offer an active and interactive experience that has redefined our relationship to written, visual and aural mediation. Very true. However, I think there are certain outcomes of podcasting that I have noticed through my own listening (and now producing), which I think speaks directly the social importance of the medium. The fact that podcasts are free to download is obviously a huge part of their appeal. It means that they are and will continue to be at the forefront of new models of economic organisation. But it also suggests that podcasts do not start from material drive and (at the moment) are far less susceptible to market formalisation. Many celebrities have their own podcasts and while it maybe true to characterise some as vanity projects or a way of drawing attention to paid gigs, many are genuine reactions against the limitations of the mainstream. There is somewhat of a spirit of the amateur, perhaps reminiscent of the earliest days of radio, almost a DIY ethos that re-imagines popular culture as a more meaningful expression of populous, rather than the mass culture superficiality. At their best and most essential podcasts are about ideas and even the very process of debate.
The form of podcasting thus lends itself to dialectic and its importance as forum for political debate, particularly in terms of the status progressive left, that I find most appealing. However, in this regard I feel that the US is far in advance of the UK with a huge range of podcasts that seem to share a highly critical, often satirical, even revolutionary intent. Perhaps it could even be seen as analogous to the emergence ‘public sphere’ in the 18th century - defined by Habermas as a forum distinct from governmental oversight where discussion and debate about society and politics fosters an informed citizenry capable of genuine democratic participation. Key to the public sphere for Habermas was the rational form of the debate and this is where the podcast rises above other forms of internet interactivity which often can become mired in superficiality and anonymous abuse. The best political podcasts hold to account not only the politicians themselves but a media that seems both unable and unwilling to act as a 21st century Fourth Estate that is so badly needed. For me podcasting is a new art form, and like all great art it is infused with political energy.
10 of my regular podcasts:
The Smartest Man in the World & The Gregg Proops Film Club – Perhaps most well known as a regular on the improvisation show Whose Line is it Anyway, Greg Proops podcasts are recorded live in the venues all over the world. Acerbic wit, erudite observations, sweary takedowns frame rapid-fire political satire, historical and philosophical pronouncements and the odd poem. Gregg’s Film Club podcast is recorded before and after a screening of one of his personal movie highlights.
Best of the Left - This podcast focuses of issues for the progressive left primarily in the United States and is an example of a show that is essentially an amalgamation of the best excerpts for other shows. Each week has a specific theme and also features activism updates and information which gives the audience a way to do something about the issues being raised in the 'real world'. The accompanying website (www.bestoftheleft.com) gives listeners the ability to disseminate their favourite clips on their own social media networks.
The Blues Kitchen Podcast - An old school radio show featuring great selections of blues, jazz, funk and soul. Hosts Gareth and Liam are down to earth aficionados giving real context to old favourites and unknown gems.
Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews - Film reviews from the BBC’s flagship film programme. Wittertainment as it is known by its followers is as much about the irreverent chemistry between the two hosts as it is the films they review. The box office top ten and star interviews are featured segments in what is one of the most downloaded podcasts in the UK.
The David Pakman Show - Another political podcast cover issues in American and international politics from a progressive left perspective. This is good example of synergy between a podcasting and an online YouTube channel. Host David Pakman often interviews people with extreme views and does a great job of deconstructing the many contradictory and outright ridiculous viewpoints being espoused. The show has a membership system that opens up bonus content for listeners.
Real Time with Bill Maher - The West Coast’s answer to John Stewart, Bill Maher is at the forefront of political satire in the US with this podcast a direct recording of his HBO show Real Time. Another example of how comedy and satire is one of the central avenues for political debate in the podcast world. Maher’s no holds barred approach has garnered criticism from both left and right but there is no doubting the show’s capacity for lively debate between guests from politics and popular culture. I often wish there was something equivalent in the UK.
Harmontown - Another podcast recorded live featuring Dan Harmon writer of NBC sitcom Community and comedian Jeff Davis. Harmontown is a chaotic, largely unscripted interaction between hosts and audience utilising an inbuilt unpredictability. The subjects of identity, how to exist in the modern world, and the culture of celebrity are perhaps underlying themes and a regular cast of friends play a never ending game of Dungeons and Dragons in every episode. A haven for geeks everywhere.
This American Life - Presented by Ira Glass This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners making it one of the most popular in America. It is produced by Chicago Public Media, and has won major broadcasting awards. Each episode has a specific theme linked by often touching and poignant stories of everyday people and experiences.
The Bugle - Quick witted political satire from comedians Andy Salzman and John Oliver. John of course is hugely well known as the host of Last Week Tonight and Andy is a regular on the UK stand-up circuit.
Longform - Great example of how podcasts can go into real depth and into areas rarely covered by mainstream broadcasting. This show features a detailed interview with a non-fiction writer on both their own career and the process of writing.
(Thanks to Neil Fox for ideas and insights on this blog)