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Podcasts are creating dangerous echo chambers. Here’s why

In recent years, podcasting has skyrocketed in popularity. It seems that every influencer, music enthusiast, and lifestyle guru has created a podcast part and parcel of the rest of their digital brand. Forbes estimated that in 2020, “100 million people listened to a podcast each month [in the US] and it’s expected to reach 125 million in 2022.” Along with this high listener count came swathes of ad revenue. In its 2020 Digital Advertising Revenue Report, IAB PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that the “estimated podcast ad spend was $800 million in 2020,” a number that “will more than double to $1.7 billion by 2024, with an annual growth of nearly 20%.”

Podcasting now could be equated to what Youtube was in the early 2010s; it’s moving into the mainstream, allowing those who have put the time and effort into the medium from the get-go to soak up the profits. However, this trajectory into the mainstream has also led to podcasts with huge budgets, big names, and watered-down content compared to what they were just a few years ago.

Contrasting the medium is its predecessor, the radio, which has experienced a consequential decrease. Statista Research Department—a German company that specialises in market and consumer data—reported that in 2019, North Americans cited a number of reasons for their reduced radio consumption. These included their car having more audio options than just the radio, there being too many commercials, not to mention a lack of musical variety, with the same songs on repeat over and over. With this in mind, why have talk shows increased via podcasting, rather than its traditional format?

One possibility could lie in podcasts’ ability to be more attuned to their listeners. Much like the growth of music online has given rise to myriad genres, podcasts are niche broadcasts that hone in on the interests of their listeners in depth, to a larger extent than radio can. This is especially true for independent podcasts as they can discuss whatever they’d like to, with whatever nuances, political leanings, or other topics they choose to include without interference from advertisers. This contrast between podcasts and radio can be seen on YouTube and television as well. Content made in bedrooms and makeshift studios isn’t as diluted by studio rewrites and other industry authorities, allowing the work to come almost directly from the person creating it in a relatively unfiltered way.

Another reason for podcasts’ rise in popularity could be attributed to the medium’s intimate nature. Not only are podcasters discussing topics directly aligned to the listeners’ interests, but they often are also doing so in a conversational voice. As opposed to the heightened, emotive tone used by radio broadcasters when announcing the traffic or weather updates, podcasts sound more like a conversation between friends; a telephone call you’re listening in on that you don’t have to speak on. 

Even ads featured within podcasts follow this casual cadence. This results in a more effortless listening experience, and a heightened connection between the listener and the podcaster. Irish artist and podcaster, Blindboy Boatclub, often describes this sense of comfort evoked by the medium—or, in particular, his soft tone and piano backtrack—as a “podcast hug.” This conversational aspect of podcasting creates a soothing, relatable bubble for listeners to escape into and forget their day-to-day life for a moment.

Due to podcasting’s skyrocket in popularity, new apps have been made in response to this cultural movement, one of these being Clubhouse. This invite-only social media app reflects the casual nature of podcast formatting, but allows users to participate in conference-call conversations of their choosing. They’re much like live podcasts, only with an extra layer of exclusivity. But with the medium ever-evolving, where does it go from here?

New York University (NYU) professor and contributing editor to The Baffler, Liz Pelly, has become well-known for her criticism of content streaming services and the economic models behind them, particularly Spotify. In her article Big Mood Machine, Pelly points out how Spotify is largely based on moods. Looking at my ‘Browse’ page now under the category ‘Mood’, playlists include ‘Mood Booster’, ‘Morning Coffee’, ‘Feelin’ Myself’, ‘Good Vibes’, and ‘Confidence Boost’; genre is loosely hinted at, but emotion is paramount for definition here. Pelly notes that streaming services have pushed mood-based listening over the years as “a way to help users navigate infinite choice, to find their way through a vast library of forty million songs.” At the time of her writing the piece in June 2019, Spotify’s Twitter tagline was “Music for every mood.”

Just as we have witnessed the explosion of emotive reaction—many may say all thanks to social media—in recent years, which has resulted in the polarised society we find ourselves in today, our streaming services have begun to churn out more content underpinned by emotion. Podcasts, and other digital mediums, have become mood-based, allowing us to listen to content directly aligned to our particular feelings and thoughts, but shielding us from anything that may slightly oppose our viewpoint.

Writer, artist, and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell pinpoints this in her best-selling book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In the chapter ‘Ecology of Strangers’, Odell juxtaposes her algorithmically generated listening experience of Spotify to that of listening to the radio. Compared to the archetypal ‘Jenny mix’ the app has compiled for her, she notes that none of the stations she listens to ever play anything like what Spotify would put up next for her. Rather than expose us to what we don’t like, she explains that streaming services and niche listening experiences based on algorithms, SEO, and ad revenue “seem to incrementally entomb [us] as an ever-more stable image of what [we individually] like and why.”

From a business perspective, this makes sense, as it’s easy for corporations to promote being yourself when “‘yourself’ is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised and appropriated, like unites of capital.” Here, Odell outlines just how our interests and selfhoods have become commodified by streaming, which, in turn, results in more individualised listening experiences.

As podcasts become more mainstream through ad revenue yet primarily mood-based, we will continue down this accelerated path of ultra-niche content. It’s a dangerous and slippery slope. We’ll carry on existing in a rose-tinted filter bubble, missing out on the serendipity of content that doesn’t directly align with our personal brand, until, someday, it pops.

8 of the best comedy podcasts we’ll still be listening to in 2021

If the world is feeling like an endlessly cold place, there’s nothing like a good laugh to warm you up. We’ll be back to our daily commutes to work this year, it’s still too soon to tell exactly when, but when we do—the honeymoon phase of getting back to our old routines is bound to wear off. Our bosses might snap back to pissing us off again, our flatmates might still have not washed their dishes from last week or you’ll be made late for a meeting because the train was held at a red signal.

Either way, a funny podcast goes a long way when it comes to making those routines easier to go back to. Here are a few of the best comedy podcasts to get you started.

Best comedy podcasts to listen to

1. The Infinite Monkey Cage

The Infinite Monkey Cage is a BBC Radio 4 comedy and popular science series. It’s hosted by physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, and it’s probably one of my favourites. They answer questions that you didn’t know you wanted an answer to on topics that vary from fire to quantum worlds or coral reefs, and offer guides to astronauts on isolation or suggestions to how the universe might end.

2. Sex, lies and DM slides

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New episode out NOW with the one and only @lilyallen – link in bio. What age were you when you first started having good sex? Let us know below ⬇️ or In our DMS 🧐Pls listen and share

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Some of us may have had a fair share of each of the topics in the title, especially with the rise of dating apps. The hosts Gizzi Erskine (cook and TV personality) and (writer and model) Sydney Lima talk about everything sex, dating and the social media landscape of today.

3. Off Menu

Comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble talk to guests about food, particularly their dream menu in their dream restaurant. From their favourite starter, main and dessert. The podcast was nominated for the Best Comedy Podcast 2020 competition, and it’s really well worth a listen.

4. Stone Clearing With Richard Herring

If you enjoy excruciating levels of completely justified detail about the ancient art of stone clearing (which is the moving of stones from a field and using them for a better purpose) then try this podcast out. Either you’re somewhat interested in the task at hand or you find poor quality audios of an unfit man (who happens to be the comedian Richard Herring) moving stones and talking absolute waffle to himself while pretending not to be mildly entertaining. You might learn something.

5. My dad wrote a porno

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It’s just like being there – love this by @cartunaradio

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You’ve probably heard of this one already, there’s not much to tell you here other than what the title says. Hosted by author Jamie Morton, actor James Cooper, and presenter Alice Levine. Each episode features Morton reading a new chapter of the erotic novel that his father wrote (under the pen name of Rocky Flintstone) titled Belinda Blinked.

6. The Receipts

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40 mins that…is….all 😭

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The Receipts podcast is fun and very honest, there is no topic that is off-limits. The PA Audrey Indome, writer Tolani Shoneye and singer and songwriter Milena Sanchez will answer every and any questions that surround relationships, situationships, breakups and the ups and downs of everyday life. It’s brutal, and I love it.

7. Everything is Alive

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New episode is up! Go get it and spend some time with Martin, a paper towel dispenser contemplating existence. Featuring the amazing @martinmmorrow

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Hosted, or more like narrated, by producer and writer Ian Chillag, Everything is Alive is a weird one and it takes a pretty weird person to get laughing, but it cracks me up every time. It’s nothing like anything out there already. If you ever thought how a tattoo felt about life, or what your mirror thinks when it sees you staring back at it, then this is the podcast for you.

8. Terrible, thanks for asking

2020 was a tough year, and sometimes when terrible things happen the only effective balm is humour. Host and American author Nora McInerny isn’t interested in small talk. She lost her father, husband, and unborn child within a month, and her podcast invites guests into candid and often darkly funny conversations about their lives after grief and loss.

There are many, many more fantastic podcasts out there, including comedies. There are also a couple of funny podcasts that aren’t on this list—but I wanted to give you podcasts that I consistently turn back to. Whatever my sense of humour is to you, you’ll be glad to know that I held back on some even nerdier ones. Enjoy, sweet thangs!