Ira Glass speaks to me

How the comfort of a familiar voice opens the door to uncomfortable ideas

Yesterday, had the driver in the car next to mine glanced to his left, he would have seen me talking. He might have assumed I was talking to myself or, if he was in a generous mood, maybe he figured I was on a hands-free call. Wrong on both counts, pal. I was talking to Slate's Julia Turner.

Of course, Julia didn't know that. Julia might as well be my imaginary friend. So might Julia's cohosts, Dana Stevens and Stephen Turner. So might Sarah Koenig, and Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson, and Phoebe Judge, and Ira Glass, and Dave Cole, Tara Ariano, and Sarah D. Bunting, and Linda Holmes, and Karina Longworth...You get the point. There are a lot of voices in my head.

That statement becomes a lot less crazy-sounding when I clarify that those voices all come from podcasts. I listen to a handful (read: an unmanageable number that grows daily), and I often find myself talking back to them, despite the fact that the hosts obviously can't hear me. I do this not because I love to hear the sound of my own voice, but because I actually feel like I'm talking to a friend.

How beautiful is Geena Davis in this role, even when she's depressed about her horror of a boyfriend?

Plenty has been written about the intimacy of podcasts, the trust it creates in listeners, and the way a podcast, more than any other medium, can make you feel like if you ever see randomly see Kevin T. Porter walking down the street, it totally won't be weird if you run up to him like you're old friends and ask him if Kelly Bishop smells like autumn, the way you imagine. It's not just that podcast hosts -- their voices, their quirks, their tastes -- become familiar to you over thousands of hours of listening. It's that you really are engaging in a collaborative effort.

Nowhere have I seen this better explained than in Jonah Weiner's piece in Slate, written last December, where he quotes Jad Abumrad:

Abumrad, the Radiolab host, has himself observed that, in the absence of visual information, when he describes something to listeners on the radio, “In a sense, I’m painting something but I’m not holding the paintbrush. You are. So it’s this deep act of co-authorship, and in that is some potential for empathy.”

No wonder I feel compelled to talk back at Julia Turner when I listen to the Culture Gabfest. We're in this together, man.

What compelled me to yap at Julia this time was a segment of the Gabfest's December 30th episode. The hosts were talking about podcasting as a form and referring to Weiner's piece, where he gets into that idea of comfort as one of the defining features of podcasts' popularity. Here's Julia's summary:

Julia Turner: You get these kind of little cadences and rhythms and this repeat relationship that is fundamentally comforting. And [Weiner] raised the question at the end of his essay about what it means for a form, a critical form or an artistic form or a media form to be fundamentally -- have that comfort laced within it, and does that mean that it would be more difficult within the form to raise challenging ideas or to kind of confront or surprise the listener in interesting ways.

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I had to pause the episode then to think through my response. Because my immediate reaction was, "No way, man." In fact, I think it's the comfort that podcasts offer that makes them exactly the right medium through which to confront challenging or uncomfortable ideas.

(This is about when I started talking out loud, as if Julia -- and, by extension, Jonah -- were in the car with me.)

It's like this: If I'm about to head down a dark alley in a strange city at night, I'm not going to take the hand offered by some stranger. I'm going to take the hand of a trusted friend and let her lead the way. Podcasting is the same: The fact that I trust the hosts makes me more willing to explore ideas I might normally shy away from.

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I am a solidly middle class white woman from the Midwest who lives in Anchorage -- which is another way of saying that I'm not forced to confront racial inequality on a daily basis. That shit is uncomfortable as hell to get into; I'm afraid I'll say something stupid or realize I hold a terrible preconception or have an ignorant reaction. But I have been listening to Another Round's Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton long enough to know that their rapid-fire questions round is called "Pew, Pew, Pew" (just make a space-gun sound when you read it) and that I'd better not profess a love of squirrels if I ever meet one of these women. Suddenly, because I feel like I know Heben and Tracy, and because I like and trust them, it gets a whole lot easier to confront and think about race.

It's true across the board. When I listen to Reply All and hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt say they're going to talk about how computers work -- a subject about which I could normally give exactly zero craps -- I don't hit "skip." I stick around and listen because I know ("know") these guys well enough to trust that they're going to take me on an incredible audio adventure. (They did.)

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In the movies, it's always some strange wizard or time traveler or Hagrid who says, "Come with me on a great adventure!" But for real: If that happened IRL, you'd be like, "A) Are you a rapist or serial killer? and b) Homeland is on in like five minute and also I DO NOT KNOW YOU." In real life, it's the people you trust that you're willing to follow some place unfamiliar or scary.

I think this is why it's so hard for me to get into a new podcast. I'm uncomfortable with people I don't already know and trust. Or, as Weiner puts it in his essay, "In a podcast, the moment we lose faith in our guide, it becomes increasingly excruciating to keep listening — intimacy curdles into invasiveness." If that faith's not even there in the first place? It's super hard to get on board with the automatic intimacy podcasts offer.

My friend and fellow podcastophile (there's got to be a better word for that, right?) Mara raved to me about Gilmore Guys, but when I tried to listen to the first couple episodes, my reaction was, "I can't with this." Part of that was the shaggy nature of a brand-new podcast; GG hadn't quite figured out its own rhythms early on. But the real problem was I didn't know these dudes. We didn't share any jokes, I didn't know what they found funny or sad, I wasn't familiar with the rhythm of the show or the rapport between Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe.

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When I told Mara this, she encouraged me to skip a few early episodes and give the show a second chance. Now, 522 episodes in, I recite the intro to "Pop Goes the Cul-ture" with the hosts every time; I, too, believe Bishop is Queen; and I've developed a slightly inappropriate crush on Demi. It took a little time, but eventually the trust grew because I found the comfort a familiar podcast can offer.

In the Slate Plus version of his article, Weiner includes an addendum in which he remarks:

Still, I don’t know of any truly experimental or avant-garde podcast — the kind of off-kilter gem you might have once stumbled upon at 2 a.m. on a local free-form station, or, indeed, on public-access television — where part of the experience of listening is to be knocked askew, assaulted, and otherwise disturbed, even as you’re enthralled. This connects to the earlier point about the role of empathic connection in the medium: Podcasts, by and large, establish a relationship marked by comfort.

Weiner might not know of any avent-garde podcasts, but the comfortable relationship and capacity for empathy are exactly the qualities that would make podcasting the perfect medium in which to try a show like that -- because those very qualities are what would turn listeners into willing participants in the experiment.