The Three Predicaments of Podcasts

Podcasts are good. Books are better. Here’s why.

“Podcast” (photo: Macb3t / Pixabay / CC0)

In the past four years, the number of Americans tuning in to podcasts has increased by 120%. Today, 90 million Americans listen to a podcast every month. While blogs and YouTube channels continue to outnumber podcasts, increasingly people across the world are finding what they want in this particular medium.

There are many reasons that podcasts have become so popular. They are easily accessible through a smartphone or computer, they can be listened to at any time and they are perfect for multi-tasking (e.g., while driving or working out). In addition, they deliver stories and ideas in an intimate, personal way and provide for instant community for those that listen to them. It’s almost like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a great friend, or an inspiring individual, or a humorous chap, and being entertained and edified without having to do any of the work. In the busy, often-confusing world in which we reside, no doubt many podcasters provide the kind of comfort, intrigue and relief people desire.

And yet, as podcasts only grow in their appeal, another form of entertainment appears to be gradually declining. It is the leisure of reading. Although fraught with various compositional questions, the percentage of Americans who read at all declined from 26.3 percent in 2003 to 19.5 percent in 2016; it appears the United States is composed of fewer readers (relatedly, there are also fewer people socializing, too). Evidence suggests that in addition to the continued rise in television watching, would-be readers are ceding to other forms of game-playing or online entertainment, including podcasts.

Some of you may wonder why it really matters where people are getting their information, whether it is TV, online or in book form. Let me first be clear. I think podcasts and related mediums can be a great way to deliver content that is positive, impactful and thought-provoking, and by no means do I think that engaging in this form of entertainment or edification is an intrinsic problem.

But I am concerned that those who only, or even largely, seek out information in this way may be unknowingly falling prey to particular biases and tendencies that might make it difficult to truly cultivate a spirit of curiosity and truth-seeking.

For starters, beyond all the conveniences, particular podcasts grow in popularity because those who create them are dynamic, engaging individuals who know how to captivate and cultivate an audience (and may do so for great reasons). They engage with their listeners in an intimate, raw, humanistic way, one that can quickly engender a deep level of trust and comfortability. So much so, I would argue, that podcasters can be so convincing, so engaging, that it is likely difficult for listeners to find information received in less engaging, intimate ways (like books) as having the opportunity to influence someone with the same veracity.

Said another way, I believe that people who rely primarily on podcasts will be less open and receptive to other forms of information-sharing, even if arguments in these latter formats are equally or even more founded in truth and logic. If I am right about this, then the concern becomes that a 15-minute podcast per week might hold greater influence with a particular population than a well-researched idea delivered in a less-entertaining way. Relatedly, those who get their information in the easy-to-consume podcast form might be much less likely to take the time and effort to read, especially about more complicated, emotional issues.

Two, podcasters who attract the largest audiences almost all have a similar trait, and it has nothing to do with the content of their message. It has been known for some time that many of the highest-paid speakers have some of the most distinct, powerful voices. The same argument could easily be made for podcasts and related media. Just as human beings love to hear a great singer, so we are soothed and entertained by a great-sounding voice. The more we listen, the more we want to listen more. And yet, as we listen, we are unconsciously influenced and validated not just by the ideas put forth, but also simply by the way a podcaster makes us feel, given the sound of their voice. While there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the sound of another’s voice, this is not available in print form, which means that this potential bias is removed when we read.

Speaking of our voice, therein lies a third predicament of podcasts. All of us have listened to speakers deliver speeches in ways that make us marvel at their oratorical skills. Not only do they seem to say things so clearly, but they also have a way of making a point that seems difficult to refute. The same can be said for many a talented podcaster. When you listen to one, things often make so much sense; yet if you have ever tried to deliver the same message to a friend or family member at a later juncture, we all regularly find ourselves stumbling over the words needed to even convey the basic message.

It’s not that the same thing can’t occur after reading a book, but I would argue that one of the biggest dangers of podcast immersion is that the most important voice — yours and mine — is going to be usurped by one that sounds so much better. More than a world full of powerful podcasters, what is needed most is for you and me to always feel free and engaged in thinking and speaking critically and empathetically about the world in which we reside.

In the end, I am not suggesting (or naïve enough to believe) that we should be ditching our podcasts, or any other related form of media. Put in their proper place, they certainly have a reasonable place in our busy week. But I am suggesting that before you throw out your print sources of information, we would be better served to create a balance between all of these in our lives; otherwise, I am concerned that a podcaster’s voice might replace your own. It’s nice to have all sorts of ways to be informed and entertained, but at the end of the day, what matters most is just how much it is helping us grow, and our communities grow in health, harmony and happiness.