"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Why I Listen to Podcasts

If you know me at all you know that I’m always talking about this podcast or that podcast, and usually doing a poor job of trying to retell whatever story it was that I listened to. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of one of my favorite podcasts, Nocturne. The review was inspired by another podcast review website, The Timbre, that created something I didn’t know I needed: a place for people discuss podcasts in a meaningful, thoughtful way. The writers of that website recently moved on to other things, and the absence they created has been weighing heavily on my mind for a while.

So, what’s the deal with podcasts anyway? Why do I spend time on them when there are so many other forms of entertainment out there? I suppose we should start from the beginning.

I’ve always had a soft spot for public radio. NPR was usually on in my parent’s bedroom when I was little, and on Saturday mornings we would sometimes listen to Car Talk or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Sometimes we would listen to the news in the car. I could be wrong, but I’ve always gotten the impression that people who work in public radio are happier than other people. Of course, you can’t paint an entire profession in a single stroke, but my overall impression was one of a thoughtful, kind, and endlessly curious bunch.

While I had a casual relationship to radio from a young age, I didn’t start listening to podcasts until I was in high school. My mom tried to get me to listen to an architecture and design podcast called 99% Invisible, but I was skeptical. Architecture and design? How could you make an audio show about something so visual? And who’s to say it would even be interesting?

I still remember the episode that got me hooked. It was about secret staircases tucked into Los Angeles neighborhoods. The episode opens with the reporter following directions to a set of partially hidden public stairs. You can hear the surprise in his voice when finally stumbles across them, and the exclamation, "Holy Moly I totally missed this! I almost walked right past these steps." With those words, I felt like I’d been lifted out of my dull life and shown something miraculous. If there were secret staircases in Los Angeles, why couldn’t there be other secrets hidden just below the surface in other cities, in my city?

My favorite books have the power to make me see the world a little bit differently when I'm finished. My favorite podcasts, I've found, share this ability. What's more, I simply enjoy the act of listening to audio. Podcasts fall into the sweet spot between television and books. Like television, you can be doing something else while a podcast is on: making dinner, or doing laundry, or driving (don't drive and watch TV at the same time, kids). Like books, podcasts let you do the imaginative work of putting images to the sounds you're hearing.  I'm fascinated not only by the people who populate the podcasts I listen to, but the sounds, too. How is it that a familiar sound immediately sparks an image in your brain? When you think about it, it's truly amazing that you know exactly what the sound of a car door slamming or boiling water in a kettle looks like. Besides, there's something so very human about listening to another person's voice. Who wouldn't want to feel that kind of connection every day on their drive to work?

Podcasts fuel my curiosity about the world. They introduce me to people I never would have met, and allow me to be privy to conversations I never would have had. I've laughed and cried while listening to podcasts. They are source of knowledge, of comfort, a window into the vastly interesting world we live in. I want to do more podcast reviews on this blog. I want to talk about the things I listen to. Because curiosity is important. Because using your imagination in a world full of screens and handed-to-you ultimatums is so, so important.

If you're new to your own podcasting journey, here are some of my favorite episodes of all time. Pick one. Listen. When it's over, you might just see things a little differently.

"Heyoon" - 99% Invisible
"Things" - Radiolab
"Today's the Day!" - Reply All
"The Living Room" - Love + Radio
"Mary Oliver - Listening to the World" - On Being
"Nothing to Lose" - Millennial
"Some Summer Stories" - Home of the Brave
"Champion of Nothing" - 30 Minutes West
"9 Things We Learned About Phones from a Teenager" - Note to Self
"Wild Ones Live" - 99% Invisible

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