The Problem with Podcasts
Los Angeles and Riverside are separated by a minimum of 90 minutes of suburbs and shopping centers. Taking the CA-60, suburbia is interrupted by hills peppered in weed-like plants. I’m reluctant to call the flora “weeds”, because half are tree-sized and the other half are dead.
My pilgrimages to Riverside usually allot 240 minutes for phone-calls, listening, and aimless thought. The human mouth is comfortable producing 150 English words-per-minute (WPM), but our ears can comprehend upwards of 500 WPM. I usually listen to podcasts 2.0-2.5 times faster than they’re recorded, which gives me 500 minutes (75,000 words) of podcasts on each round-trip. That’s about eight podcast episodes or one whole book!
Today my podcast backlog seemed particularly unappealing. I didn’t want to hear about ice-baths, or identity politics, or nootropics trends, or cryptocurrency, or crime drama, or whether a “Devil’s Triangle” could conceivably refer to anything but a MMF threesome. Luckly, I have audiobooks on standby for emergencies like this.
I’m a huge fan of the gritty cyberpunk universes crafted by authors like Phillip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson. Books like Snowcrash consistently warp my views of capitalism, society, technology, drugs, and The Self. So I guess it was finally time for “Distrust That Particular Flavor” by William Gibson, which is apparently not a novel – it’s an essay collection. I love essay collections! It was a surprise, but a welcome one.
Anyway, Gibson is a genius. And I don’t use that word lightly. These essays induced frission. These essays demanded quiet reflection. These essays will forever change the way I see Japan, writing, futurology, dystopias, and the internet. But this rant is not about how amazing Gibson is – it’s about what we’re losing in this golden-age of podcasts.
Some podcasts are just unprinted audiobooks with advertising. Stories like S-Town and The RFK Tapes take advantage of phone-interviews and historical audio, which doesn’t translate to text or video very well. And series like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History have carved out a niche where books are too long and articles are too short. Carlin creates 4-hour masterpieces, recounting the past with fresh perspectives and a voice carrying conviction and emotion. In these audiobook-esque experiences, the creators use audio to forge artistic information experiences in a deeply satisfying way. It is a careful craft, like film and literature.
But most podcasts aren’t audiobooks. They’re weekly radio shows. Tim Ferris and Joe Rogan and Preet Bharara and Sam Harris have taught me a lot about the world – I’m very grateful for that. But I’m starting to think that interviews are not optimal for communicating truly deep ideas.
Conversation is good for certain things. It’s good for covering current events from a singular perspective. It’s good for debates (which usually devolve into mutual confirmation-bias masturbation). It’s good for exploring cursory ideas, which the listener can later use The Internet for dissecting in greater detail.
But it’s hard to go deep in a few hours. It’s not enough time to open up to thousands of strangers about your trauma (unless it’s rehearsed). It’s not enough time to catalog complexity. And it’s not enough time to find mutual ground on contentious issues. It’s just not enough time for our inefficient mouths and minds.
Books are focused. Authors spend years crafting a singular narrative, to communicate a very specific idea. Podcast interviews are diffuse. Conversations ramble and reclarify and misstep and interrput and drift. They demand low-resolution regurgitations of their guests’ ideas. And they’re incentivized to blast through as many low-resolution sound-bites as possible, because listeners often want the “greatest hits”. Conversations are unexplored territory. You have to phrase things for an interviewer and an audience in real-time. Text is forgiving until it becomes permanent – you can write draft, after draft, after draft, until your paragraphs approximate that uncomfortable idea deep down in your soul. It’s difficult to write about difficult things. But it’s often impossible to talk about them.
Podcast guests must be careful about what “facts” they use. During interviews, hosts and guests use stats from their faulty memories. And even if they remember their “facts” correctly, there is no easy way to find a reference to the exact thing they mentioned. And if the “fact” was wrong, then most shows don’t bother even to “fact”-check.
Podcasts need to be more entertaining than books in order to survive. A book just needs to supply the information it promised on its cover – the entire text is purchased up-front. And if you purchased the book, you’re probably already interested in its contents, and gave the author permission to go as deep as possible. Podcasts, on the other hand, need to keep users engaged for advertisers. They need you to come back every week. They need novelty. They need excitement. Because they need to gain and retain as many listeners as possible, which stifles depth. Podcasts will always devolve into pulp and click-bait given enough time, because that what advertisers want.
Anyway, I’m not saying that all books are better than all podcasts. I’m saying that podcasts aren’t a viable replacement for audiobooks and other long-form content. Podcasts shouldn’t be the main source of nutrition in your information diet.