A Voice in the Dark

photoPodcasts are having quite a moment. With the This American Life spin-off, Serial, suddenly capturing everyone’s attention, not to mention the launch of not just a podcast (Startup) but potentially an entire podcasting empire from TAL and Planet Money alum Alex Blumberg, who’s bringing audiences “the origin story you never get to hear,” I can’t get two headlines into the blogs and websites I regularly read without discovering another post contemplating whether Serial will end in a satisfying way, or reflecting upon the nature of storytelling. Slate, which produces its own impressive array of podcasts, is so Serial-obsessed, it now drops a podcast about the podcast the day after every new episode of Serial becomes available. Not to brag, but I feel like the world has finally caught up with me. I downloaded my first podcast back when my friend Sara gave me my first iPod, one of those now adorably retro Nanos with the teeny digital screen, 8 gigs, and the menu wheel. These were the olden days, before touchscreens. My Nano was teal and came engraved with the words, “For Jamey – from your good pal, Gary Oldman.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with this thing. I’ve never been a big music listener, and my old-timey iPod couldn’t play movies. But then I realized that a good chunk of the NPR shows I enjoyed listening to on the radio were available as podcasts—and thus I discovered not only on-demand listening, but an entire array of shows produced by professionals and amateurs, covering every subject imaginable.

I started listening all the time. I was living in North Carolina, going to grad school, and I never walked to class without a pair of earbuds nestled in my ears. I strategically positioned my iPod in rooms so I could listen as I cleaned my apartment. I went on epic walks around town just so I could finish listening to the latest episode of Radiolab. Whereas before, nearly every sentence I spoke started with the words, “I heard on NPR,” now each conversation I launched began, “Oh, I was just listening to this podcast…”

After grad school, I moved to Vermont for work. I had landed my dream job, but it required me to live in a very small, somewhat remote town where, I had been warned, the people who had held my position before me often had trouble making friends or finding things to do. I’ve always been good at living alone, but the two years I spent in Vermont were sometimes a challenge even for me.

Luckily, I had podcasts.

If I had listened regularly before, I listened constantly now. My old Nano couldn’t handle the number of episodes I downloaded (some of which I saved, knowing I’d want to re-listen), so I bought a new 16 gig iPod. I listened in the morning, while I showered, and in the evening, as I cooked elaborate one-person dinners. I listened as I became a runner, circling the two-mile track around the little park on the north side of town. I acquired the accoutrements necessary for round-the-clock, on-the-go listening: a second pair of earbuds, a set of speakers, an adapter for my car.

I was utterly solitary during my time in Vermont. I could go literally an entire week without speaking to a single other human being (and I’m using “literally” in its original sense, not for effect). I’ve always had a habit of talking to myself, but it got out of hand those two years; I would have whole discussions in the aisle of a grocery store about which peanut butter to buy and not even realize how insane I looked until strangers started shooting terrified glances my way. While all the alone time was excellent for getting lots of writing done and reading staggering stacks of books, there were times when I longed to hear a human voice that wasn’t my own.

That’s how podcasts became more than something for me to listen to. They’re an intimate form of entertainment, more inclusive than television, more personal than radio. Even shows that are on their face about something other than the people hosting them, details about the lives of most podcast hosts inevitably seep their way into shows, so that over time you come to feel you know these people—people whose faces you may never have seen, people with whom you’ve never actually exchanged words. (Yelling at Slate’s Culture Gabfest host Stephen Metcalf that he’s being far too cynical and possibly a teensy bit misogynistic about Taylor Swift’s new album does not count.) People who are, essentially, just voices inside your head.

Before Tig Notaro became a household name among comedy aficionados, I’d gotten first-hand updates on the series of awful circumstances that befell her via Professor Blastoff. I’ve rooted for Glen Weldon every time he mentioned how the writing of his new book was going on Pop Culture Happy Hour. Babies have been born, dogs adopted, careers ended and begun as I’ve listened to some podcasts for longer than I’ve known some of my closest friends. If, by some crazy random happenstance, I ever happen to meet the hosts of my favorite podcast, Extra Hot Great, which I have been listening to since episode four, mark one—before Tara (it’s pronounced TAR-ah!) and Dave moved to the west coast to launch and re-launch the podcast—I know that I will become an instantaneous mess, one of those embarrassingly fawning fans who borders on creepy given the amount of personal information I’ve discerned about them over my years of listening.

Not long ago, Steve, Julia, and Daaaaay-na (as Steve is wont to introduce her) spent a segment of Culture Gabfest contemplating why podcasts seem more intimate than other forms of entertainment. (At least I think they did; I cannot for the life of me find the episode I’m thinking of, and you try doing a search for a podcast in which the hosts talk about podcasts.) Anyway, I believe I remember Dana suggesting that, in part, podcasts feel so intimate not just because you come to know—or think you know—so much about the people who host them, but because those people are essentially voices nestled inside your ears, disembodied and speaking in a way that seems to involve you. Even when hosts interview a guest or speak amongst themselves, you feel included.

I’ve often wondered why I love podcasts so much—above and beyond movies, television, and even books—and I think this is why.

When I was a little kid, I regularly spent nights at my grandma’s house. She and my grandpa had separate rooms; hers was outfitted with an extra bed where I remember putting off sleep for as long as possible, begging instead for a bedtime story. Grandma had dozens in her repertoire. She rarely cracked open an actual book to read to me. Instead, her voice, reedy with age, rose out of the darkness of the room, hushed in the way all nighttime voices are hushed, to tell me the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, of Goldielocks, of Little Black Sambo.* She told and retold these stories, embellishing them with non-canonical details, lengthening them in the hopes that eventually I’d tire and finally fall asleep. After awhile, I began to memorize even the parts of the stories she’d made up herself.

“So Little Red Riding Hood walked through the forest,” Grandma would whisper, “swinging her basket, while all around her the woods grew darker and darker. Then, from behind a tree, she heard a voice—”

“Grandma,” I’d pipe up. “You forgot the part where she stops to look at herself in the pond.”

“Oh, right. She stopped at the edge of a clear pond to admire her reflection and her little red cape. Then, she heard a voice—”

“But Grandma, what about the part where she skips rocks across the creek?”

A sigh in the dark. “There was a creek that flowed from the pond, and Red found some smooth stones, and even though she knew she needed to hurry to Grandma’s house, she stopped to skip the rocks across the creek…”

Grandma, clearly, had the patience of Job himself.

Long before the internet gave me podcasts, I had Grandma. Long before I could read, there were stories in the dark, a voice in my ears, a narrative I interacted with. Maybe not everyone who listens to podcasts had the same experience, but I think all humans have a basic, reflexive reaction to being told a story in the dark. Someone turns off the lights and starts to speak, and it’s almost impossible not to listen.

*Yes, I know Little Black Sambo is a horribly racist story. But Grandma was from a different era, I didn't understand the racial implications at the time, and this tale regularly made the nighttime story rotation.