NYT Photos / Sasha Maslov

September 14, 2020

YANG | Don’t Sleep on Podcasts

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“And the author of this book has his own podcast, too. He just interviewed [researcher], the author of the book we read last month.”

“I was just listening to his show the other day. I think their conversation really echoes our points for discussion today.”

“Yeah, I think I’ve listened to that episode too. I really like it when people further elaborate on what they wrote on podcasts.”

The conversation took place during my book club meeting over Zoom. COVID has stopped us from gathering, but it hasn’t stopped us from moving forward with new ideas.

As the newest member of the study group (Digital Due Process Clinic), I’m acutely aware that everyone else is a lot more well-read than I am. Yet my naive mind thought I could at least keep up with the conversation if I have read what the big-name academics have written in the past few years.

I was so wrong. I only did my readings, but I didn’t do my listening. I had no idea what these people have said since their books were published and what the most up-to-date conversations are about. I do get a glimpse into the casual talks by following these academics on Twitter. Yet the 280-character limit (yes, I know it has already been doubled) condenses too much into too little.

Meanwhile, podcast as a medium serves a crucial niche in the contemporary new media landscape.  These days, the names of certain shows become the signifiers for particular trains of thought, and even a popular episode can become a cultural reference point. Compared to social media, podcasts provide a platform for people to elaborate on free-flowing ideas in a less-fragmented fashion. For many mediums, this often poses additional obstacles to its accessibility, as in the case of the overflow of jargon in journal articles, and also in the case of the astronomical production cost of film and television.

By contrast, podcasts afford a low barrier of entry. One only needs the simplest recording equipment to start having a voice. It resembles a digital reinvention of the emancipatory potential of the grassroots activism on FM radios, bridging the gap between low tech and high tech and the divide between the haves and have-nots.

Don’t overlook the chitchats happening on podcasts. It is precisely the casual nature of the conversation that keeps the discussion going and invites more people to get involved. From the standpoint of knowledge production, it is the assemblage of these dialogues new ideas for our collective consciousness. Podcast is the new frontier of cultural discourse.

And it need not always be something as grandiose a metatheoretical debate happening on the agora among ancient Greek philosophers. (Though I have to admit such free-flowing abstract discussions can be fun at times.) The very design of podcasts makes the experience fundamentally entertaining. It echoes how contemporary culture evolves in the digital age – entertaining, quietly, steadily, and swiftly. Cultural discourse is quietly progressing with the circulation of the memes, tweets and TikTok videos. Podcast particularly strikes a newfound balance between gamified and enriching experience.

When it comes to following cutting-edge ideas, our choice of medium changes throughout history. Back then, participation in public discourses was rather exclusive. Not only were the majority of the people rendered voiceless, but they were even ostracized from staying in the loop. Only the privileged few had the luxury to read books to get a taste of the  “serious” conversations. Nowadays, people still read books when they want to challenge themselves with rigorous reasoning. But the difference lies in the abundance of options we currently have that were previously unavailable to most. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the new media age is how different mediums can serve our different needs for the exchange of thoughts.

Advancement in information technology constantly reframes how people exchange their ideas. After Gutenberg reinvented printing, after telegraphs hit the cities, after telephones hit the suburbs and the countryside, after the Internet brought us outside of our social circles, and after our smartphones render us mobile and connected, we have entered a new era of the flood of ideas.

This is the best we have ever gotten, yet the fragmentation of ideas across many dialogues makes it challenging to keep track of anything. Nowadays, it requires technical literacies to navigate the plethora of information available.

I just made the future sound rather bleak — apologies for that. The fortunate thing about our society is that we always find ways to adapt to a new era. Humanity operates like a seamless web made of humans, artifacts, institutions, environments and ideas. When the non-human elements are reconstructing themselves, we always endeavor to reinvent the meanings and uses of technologies to remain in a dynamic state of symmetry. More than 50 years later, media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s saying “The medium is the message” still aptly pinpoints our relationship with media technologies. How we leverage different mediums sheds light on the new constraints and possibilities of our society.

The rapid emergence of podcasts is neither magic nor an accident. It is our reaction to the changes.


Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.