An ode to the personal narrative podcast
Before the world came to a screeching halt, my favourite part of my weekday routine was the morning commute. It was a carefully choreographed dance: put my headphones on, walk to the metro, chip away at the daily New York Times crossword on the blue line, transfer from metro to bus, and so on, all the while listening to a carefully curated queue of podcasts.
The first course of my audio diet was always a daily news podcast, the New York Times’ “The Daily” being a longtime favourite, followed by some NPR show that taught me something new about economics or racial justice or psychology. If I found myself waiting at the bus stop for longer than usual, I’d slip in some media criticism or global politics, but most of the time I impatiently skipped straight to dessert: personal narrative audio stories.
On more than one embarrassing occasion, these podcasts have (literally) stopped me in my tracks, or have made me break into a goofy grin at the most inopportune times. Once, while listening to a podcast about the #MeToo movement on the metro, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window. Unknowingly pointed in the direction of a nice old lady, my face was creased into a somber glare as abuse after abuse was recounted by the victims themselves.
Writer James Tierney encapsulated the essence of my brief, yet frequent departures from earth: “Podcasts represent an atomization of experience, muffling the sounds of the immediate environment and removing the individual from a synchronous community of listeners.”
I first turned to narrative podcasts to get out of my own head in those quiet periods of transit limbo. Those moments of deep listening, of letting someone else do the talking for once, provided a convenient escape hatch from the confines of my cramped inner world, a way to alleviate the claustrophobia of mundane thoughts and profound worries alike. Despite the initial intention to distract and entertain, podcast listening has never felt like time wasted. On any given day I can be brought up to date on Canadian politics, hear a stranger’s deepest, darkest secret, and learn about the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act all before I land back on my doorstep at the end of the day.
But merely calling a podcast informative, entertaining, or distracting, though all these qualities may be applicable, misses the point of what podcasting brings to journalism in general and listeners in particular: the podcast, in the words of radio producer Jay Allison, is a medium through which the human voice can “sneak in, bypass the brain, and touch the heart.”
The tradition of oral storytelling has endured precisely for this reason; stories whispered across time and space can instantly wrench you from your surroundings and transport you to a different place entirely. It’s the strong sensory, emotional connection of audio storytelling that pulls on familiar heartstrings, the way catching a whiff of a certain perfume you can’t name brings you right back to your grandma’s house. A 2015 study by Lene Bech Sillesen, Chris Ip, and David Uberti on the empathetic connections between audiences and personal narrative storytelling showed that such “narratives spark feelings of empathy … we identify with others’ pain and in ways our brains intertwine our own and others experiences.” This is to say, in the stories of other people we are really just searching for ourselves.
In stark contrast to the thousand car pile up of social media feeds and crowded homepages of news websites, the empathetic connection is strengthened by the direct line of communication between the storyteller and listener. As Jonah Weiner observes in his essay, “Towards a critical theory of podcasting,” “In an antidotal and almost paradoxical way, podcasts are the internet free of pixels.” Somehow these anonymous, fleeting connections are startlingly intimate.
Personal subjective journalism is by no means new to journalism, and the practice of organizing a story around a human voice is perhaps the oldest trick in the book. “Journalists should embrace reporting stories of everyday life and people’s subjective experience of living,” wrote Walt Harrington, over two decades ago. “As people try to make sense of their lives these stories open windows on our universal human experience.” That much hasn’t changed, but the novel power of the podcast comes from the specific time and technological era we’re living through; perpetually plugged in and now sequestered in our houses, we long for the effortless human connections that once bound us to our communities.
Enter: personal narrative podcasts. A year ago, imagining our current reality would have seemed far-fetched by TV drama plot standards, yet just dystopian enough to write a best-selling YA novel about it. But here we all are, physically distanced yet deeply connected by the blessed, cursed internet and the fact we’re each living our own iteration of the same story. The news doesn’t offer much of a respite from our daily struggles, whatever they may be, but in narrative podcasts I know I will find connection and comfort in a supremely uncomfortable time. There is no cure for this modern loneliness, but podcasts are a pretty good remedy to manage the symptoms.
Sometimes it is difficult to remember, in a world devastated by natural disaster and disease and corruption and ignorance, that the small stories are meaningful. It’s easy to forget that the pain and triumph of others actually chips away at our big, seemingly impenetrable questions, because, as Walt Harrington wrote, “As people try to make sense of their own lives, these stories open up windows on our universal human struggle.”
I no longer commute to work or school, but I do maintain a steady intake of podcasts. Next up: A 99% Invisible episode about the design philosophy of the NoName brand, or perhaps I’ll listen to This American Life’s episode on isolation (again). I’ve vicariously lived thousands of lives through the stories of other people, and I think I know a little bit more about myself and the world because of it. After all, isn’t that the point of journalism anyways?
Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab