What It Means When One Person Puts Another Person In Their Ears

Thoughts on what it means to podcast

This article is for podcasters and podcast listeners.

In both my work and my free time, I talk to a lot of podcasters. Being one of those myself, I am also always pestering friends and strangers to pick their brains about podcasts — what they love, what they hate.

The one thing that always seems to come up in these conversations with both the creators and the audience is the idea that podcasting creates a direct line between the two.

There is no middleman TV exec, no newspaper editor, no mass production, just a person speaking and a person listening. In my mind, that is what makes podcasting new. We’ve had radio for a long while (and it can be great) but podcasts let people put other people straight into their ears on a regular basis.

…And? What does that mean?

1. There is no need to yell

It means listeners are actively deciding to give ‘broadcasters’ their ears. Podcast listeners are hungry, hungrier than any other audience in any other medium that I have ever engaged with. If someone finds a show they like, they usually decide very quickly that they love it and want more shows like it.

For podcasters that means we can all leave the annoying zany morning show radio host persona in the past. If that’s your thing, by all means, some people will love you for it. However, not everybody has to be the loudest to compete anymore. We aren’t winning over people who are stuck in traffic scanning radio stations for the easiest thing they can ignore. People are actively seeking out stuff that they actually like.

Having an audience that is on the hunt means that we need as many different voices as we can get. Be quiet and weird, be loud and opinionated, just don’t be lowest-common-denominator bullshit. We don’t need to play that game here because the way that we engage with our audience is unique. We are lucky to have an active audience and we don’t need to win them over with cheap tricks.

For listeners it means you are actually in complete control over how this ‘industry’ takes shape. This is like calling-in-to-vote-for-your-favourite-American-Idol-contestant on steroids. If you dig a show, if you want it to succeed, you have that power. You are the marketing team for that show. Share it with some people who might also like it, engage with the people that create it, support it financially if you can.

2. Let people be smart

It means podcasting is more akin to reading a book than watching a movie. It is a more participatory activity. My friends who love podcasts are constantly listening, formulating an opinion on what is being said, saving tidbits of interesting information to whip out at the water cooler (and very often laughing at the fact that someone else has thoughts that are as fucked up as their own). You don’t usually get all that from a movie.

When you read a book, you get to imagine the faces & the places. You fill in all the blanks. That encourages creativity, reflection on your own experiences, empathy — it just makes you think. Thinking is good. There are those same opportunities to fill in the blanks in a podcast. It can actively engage your brain rather than pacifying it.

As podcasters, we should always be taking advantage of that. An intelligent being has put us directly in their ears, their brain is right there, how can we stimulate it in unusual ways? How can we make them creatively engage with what we are saying? They are as smart as we are, we just happen to have the microphone right now — how can we better communicate with our audience as intelligent people?

3. We don’t need makeup

It means we can all be a bit unpresentable. I like the phrase, ‘You have a face for radio’. I actually think it is a point of pride that you don’t have to be pretty to be on the radio. (In my experience, pretty people make boring things anyway.)

For me, podcasting takes the face-for-radio thing to a whole new level. Podcast listeners engage with shows in a very intimate way (e.g. listening directly in their earbuds while in their own little world on the subway). That means podcasters get to be people. They don’t need to dress up their faces and they don’t need to dress up their personalities either. Listeners are listening in on a personal level, they’ve made that leap, give them personality, flaws and all.

The best feedback I ever received about my show was when a friend said, “It’s good, but I can tell that you are still acting. Stop acting. I also do some editing work with a guy named Scooter on one of the weirdest shows I have ever heard. He intentionally tries to bore people to sleep — and he has thousands of incredibly diehard fans. He is a nut. He lays it all out there. We all love him for it. It’s good to be a nut in the podcast world.

I’m not saying all podcasts should be introspective and brooding. I’m saying that, because of the fact that podcasting allows for a very direct line between producer and listener, we can bypass some social barriers that TV shows like Good Morning America will never be able to bypass. We can all be as weird (and “human”) as we like and there’s nobody between the podcaster and their audience to say otherwise. That’s very liberating.

To wrap up…

I originally wrote this as a reminder to myself. I all too often get caught up with how many downloads my show has or (as a listener) why the shows I like aren’t ‘bigger’ than they are. This article is meant to be a reminder about what makes podcasting different from other mediums. I really think the medium itself is less about who has the most numbers and more about who engages their audience (whatever the size) in the best ways. If your goal is to ‘shout’ the loudest at the biggest group of people possible, go start a Bieber cover band, not a podcast. Podcasting is a medium that is inherently very personal, still unstructured and still being built from the ground up.

  • As podcasters we should protect that. We should focus on making audio that is honest, weird and encourages creative engagement. We should work hard to master those things because we engage with our listeners in a way that no other broadcaster has ever had the luxury of.
  • As listeners, we should participate as much as possible before advertisers usurp our power. Podcasts are like indie bands for people who can’t stay out until 1am anymore. Recommend them, buy some merch, talk to the people that produce them. Dig a little deeper than Radiolab & This American Life – those are amazing shows but I promise there are lots more incredible shows out there.

Podcasts have actually helped me make sense of life. I’ve learned as much from them as I did getting my $50k diploma. If I want to learn about the history of some ancient culture, I can probably find a podcast about that out there and learn about it. TV doesn’t offer me that, TV tells me what I want. Podcasting is one-on-one, as-weird-as-you-like broadcasting. That’s a relatively new idea and it’s great.

Cheers pals.