If the internet is burying print journalism alive, then surely, you’ll find the old wireless in the same grave, just a few feet farther down. “Video Killed the Radio Star” probably played while the eulogy was being read. But you’d be wrong to think that radio is gone. We probably won’t ever find ourselves listening to crackling audio of a worldfamous broadcaster who smoked as he read the news, that’s probably disappeared for good. But what that presenter had to say hasn’t. In fact, we are living in the golden age of radio right now. We just call them podcasts.
They don’t come out of behemoth pieces of furniture either, they come out of our phones and laptops, through our little headphones. And the headphone detail is important; I’ve never met another podcast addict who says that they listen over speakers. It’s our guilty pleasure. It’s our little secret. Not even those close to us may know that we’re listening, nor do they know what we are listening to. It came as quite a shock to me four years ago when I discovered that my dad was a podcast listener too. We even listened to a couple of the same shows: “Car Talk” and “Freakonomics”.
My dad and I had a complicated relationship in those days. We both would have moments where our tempers would flare, and neither of us seemed to be able to find it in ourselves to resolve the conflict. Around when I turned fifteen we gave up and just started emailing to duke it out. My dad would send me a long email about why he was pissed and I would respond. He usually won the arguments in those days though; I was a slow at typing, and he could write pages in the time it took me to write paragraphs. Somehow, even in text, my Dad could out-shout me.
But when I turned 18 and was off at college the first episodes of “Serial” came out. It was a gripping show that became the first hit podcast. In so many years of the medium no show had ever garnered so much excitement. I was hooked. My Dad was hooked. On Thursdays, I would drive to school at seven in the morning and listen. I would have to listen to the rest on the way back because my commute was too short, but when I arrived home the first thing I would do would be to call my Dad. He was still at work, but neither of us cared; we just wanted to talk about “Serial”. It was a turning point for me and him. We’d fought all of my life, but those sunny afternoons talking about our shared captivation with “Serial” changed something about the relationship. To this day I feel like I ought to thank the host, Sarah Koenig, for what she did for me.
Serial wouldn’t have been the same if it had been on TV. Neither would a lot of podcasts. The audio format lends itself well to the wandering mind, and to the bored one while it’s body is doing chores. But they are not just entertaining. Podcasts have a way of reaching into your psyche and unraveling the maze. They can consume you in the best ways you can imagine. Just this afternoon I was listening to the latest episode of “This American Life”. Ira Glass, the host, didn’t even introduce the story as he usually does. He just told me to listen. I did.
The first story was about a town in Japan which had been devastated by the same tsunami that caused the accident at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima. Many people in the town lost loved ones to the waves, and in the wake of the disaster one man put up an old phone booth in his back yard. He would pick up the receiver and talk to his dead family. The town started to make calls too. People would visit from all over to speak in the man’s telephone. A Japanese reporter from “This American Life” got permission to record some of the calls. She translates as the people tell their brothers, their sisters, their sons, their wives about their day.
I was crying. The story was crushing and captivating, so much so that I didn’t notice that my pasta was boiling over into my sauce, but who cares anyway, my heart was being smashed to bits on the floor. It’s not every day that a story, even a well told one, will do that. It’s not everyday that anything will do that.