Episode 52 - Podcast Saga Part 5 - Why Podcasts (And Accessing them) Matter


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            The other side of everyone having a podcast is that a podcast can be about literally anything. Podcasting directories will step in only when they absolutely have to, but if you want to make an entire podcast about the colors of various curtains in Marvel movies… it’s a little specific, but you can technically do it. If you are passionate enough to make the content, power to you. I’m sure it will be great.

            But that makes discussing podcasts difficult. Because maybe I shouldn’t be treating a true crime podcast, an audio drama, and a Marvel-curtain podcast with the same paintbrush, but I think that in certain contexts it is possible. And I think it is here. In part because of my perspective.

            If you haven’t noticed, particularly after that last episode, it kid of clear that I was bending more towards audio fiction podcasts than podcasting as a general concept. At least in my terminology and word choice. And that might seem like a bias at worst or a preference at best, but I don’t think it is. It might just depend on perspective and at what layer you want to examine thing. Which, yes, is incredibly important to understand why podcasting and why transcripts for podcasts are so important. Because—ultimately—transcripts represent a way of participating in this aspect of podcasting and reaping the benefits therein. A representation, however, that is only relevant to certain people.

But look at it this way for now, for all the jokes that can be made about everyone having a podcast… it’s kind of significant that everyone can have a podcast.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 52.

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            To understand why podcasts (from both sides of the microphone) is so important—to me and maybe to you too, even if you haven’t thought about it in those terms, I need to explain why I lean towards the language that I do and why I sometimes treat podcasting as a storytelling venue despite the fact that there are so many non-narrative podcasts out there, and even the narrative-audio-fiction-type-podcasts run their own gamut. That isn’t to say I don’t understand why lumping them together like I do might be unwise or doing them a disservice but hear me on this. Because while the explanation may be long, we are going to get to the point eventually. Eventually.

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            If you’ve had the displeasure of sitting with me at a dinner party, you would probably know that I use the term storytelling a lot and in various contexts despite the fact that the general connotation anchors that term in formal narrative construction. This is especially true when I’m talking about podcasts, but while it doesn’t seem like it’s appropriate, from my perspective, the term “storytelling” is a lot more amorphous and all-encompassing than you might think. And that is, in part, the product of my own perspective. That, yes, I have to unpack.

            Regardless of whatever understanding of the world I had before, a lot of things changed for me when I went through a major political theory kick my junior year at university. The thing about political theory is that for simplicity’s sake, you can think of it as political philosophy, which then blends into actual philosophy as a whole and boy do things start to get a bit messy when that happens.

            Case in point. The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. If you listen or have listened to what I half-heartedly called the holiday special episode, you’d know that the mere fact that Hannah Arendt lost her father at a young age gave me encouragement that despite the trauma of the loss of my father, I could embrace my more-thoughtful and philosophical nature and craft the life I wanted to live rather than the one that was expected of me, that was—in some ways—pushed onto me.

            But that was On Revolution, though. Which is one of the more approachable books my Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition is somewhat on the other end of the spectrum. It’s Arendt’s account of how (quote) “human activities” should be understood throughout Western history with a particular focus on the vita activa or active life or and political action.

            That will be source 1 in the show notes. But given how dense and multi-faceted that book is, it might just be that—if you are interested in this subject—source 2 would be of getter interest to you. And that is, The Politics of Storytelling by Michael Jackson. Once again because—to be fair—I know my brain keeps going there every time I say it, not that Michael Jackson. An unfortunately named but absolutely brilliant Harvard Divinity Professor who is pretty much an expert in his field. The advantage of turning to this book instead of The Human Condition is that Jackson has a more narrow focus and he grounds it in real life examples.

            Ultimately, storytelling in this context isn’t just about constructing a narrative, including hitting particular technical points and passing through generally accepted gates. Rather, storytelling is the activity in which we translate our internal and subjective thoughts and experiences into the external realm, voicing these thoughts in the company of our peers where they can be reworked and acted upon. It isn’t necessary to have a narrative arch or any similar structural components. Instead, storytelling just refers to the ways we reveal our stories or the things—past or present—that we always carry with us.

            Now yes, this might seem most obvious with audio fiction and pop culture-based podcasts when we tell or engage with the stories that clearly speak to us or discuss the connections we have to it.

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            Either we are directly telling our stories, though with other pieces to limit ramifications, and/or we are projecting our experiences onto something that already exists. However, you can take a step back and apply this to really any subject. To illustrate this, let me take a genre that you might think I’m excluding. Let’s say the true crime genre. After all, in it, we’re telling and listening to the stories of tragedies that have nothing to do with us and that statistically speaking we will likely never have to experience.

            So how is it that we are expressing our internal world? Well… okay, also maybe we don’t want it to be an expression of our internal world because murder full stop. But look, it’s not either of those things. Probably.

            Source 3 in the show notes is an article by Stella Bruzzi, a British scholar of film and media studies and Dean of Arts and Humanities at University College London, entitled “Making a genre: the case of the contemporary true crime documentary.” In it, she tries to lay out what the genre is despite the various forms it takes across and within mediums. While not explicitly about podcasting, she makes certain points that I think are relevant when it comes to understand true crime as whole. On page 258, if you decide to follow along, she describes the relationship we have with reality and performed truths, somewhat like what we see in documentaries. Namely, that we have come to understand that “truth” is never completely closed off or settled. Rather, there’s always an element of it to open to or for interpretation (Bruzzi 258).

            As I see it, this interpretation, as it were, is where we can come to participate in the story. And given the context of this discussion, I’ll turn to Bruzzi’s example in her article: Serial, the hit podcast whose first season reinvestigated the disappearance of Hae Min Lee whose boyfriend Adnand Syed was convicted of her murder. Its fame drew from and helped it reach those who aren’t normally interested in podcasting or true crime. And what made it so interesting? The fact that—even though the case should be settled, either by the court or by Sarah Koenig’s investigation—the truth really isn’t.

            In the final episode of the first season, the episode that should bring the ultimate closure, Koenig and the rest of us don’t have it. And pretty much know that we can’t and that maybe we never could have expected to. Koenig started the series by asking a series of teenagers to recall where they were six weeks earlier, something that none of them could confidently do. I couldn’t do it either when I first listened to the series or now. And ultimately, is that something we fear? Maybe not explicitly, but we do know don’t have the best grip over our memories and that sometimes things fall apart as a result. We’re expected to remember everything, particularly about where we when, and in the case of criminal proceedings, sometimes our memory is the only thing that could hope to say us.

            Beneath the surface, Serial was always a way to exercise this specific but actually possible fear: fear that our cognitive failings could come to destroy us even in the absence of a neurodegenerative disorder.

            And look, it doesn’t just have to be Serial, you could this with any true crime podcast. I love recommending the Parcast Network to anyone who likes true crime because it has literally everything and every aspect you could hope for, so let’s take a couple examples from there. Serial Killers? What could break a person, either us or those around us? Can we understand, then avoid and/or fix pure evil? Cults. What about belief can drive us to the breaking point? Are we easily manipulated? Haunted Places. Those horrors that happened long before me could still shape my reality. Panic.

            I could go on. But here’s the point. But here’s the point. The darkness of human experience still reflects us and our fears. Having dark stories and podcasts specifically give us spaces to discuss these things that are safe and minimally invasive. Sure, we think the truth is settled, and sometimes it is, but those are just the facts of who did what when and where. There’s more to a story than that.

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            Now why is any of this important? Is a question I threw out there to force the discussion back where I need it to go. To answer that, we need to go back to aspects of Hannah Arendt’s political theory. Namely, what politics or action is and how it works.

            For Arendt, politics isn’t an isolated thing, either reserved for a few people or for a specific day. And you can thank the Greeks and Romans for so much of her thinking. In The Human Condition, she lays out labor, work, and action to draw distinction between them. The relevant one here is action. Action is the more profound one as it happens between people with no real intermediary force (Arendt 7). And it’s the ultimate challenge of humanity. Or at least, we’ve let it become that. We need to get along, we don’t really have a choice in so far as that part goes, but yeah, we aren’t that great at it. There’s two parts of it that I think need to be noted here. First, there’s human plurality, “the basic condition of both action and speech,” and it depends on having a great deal of distinct people existing in a state of equality (Arendt 175).

            Equality is necessary for people to be able and willing to understand each other and also plan for what comes after. We can’t give one thing or group of people preference over another or else we will make lackluster decisions. Think about the whole “presentism” discussions I’ve had in the past. Favor the present and the people in it and problems. And we need distinction because if everyone is the same, then literally nothing would matter (Arendt 175). We have no disputes to settle, so why are we even worried?

            Distinction is—relatively speaking—the easier part to achieve. At least from what I noticed. Arendt explains that (quote) “speech and action reveal this unique distinction” (end quote) (Arendt 176). I’ve always taken this to mean that if you just let people or give them a chance to be as they are. They’ll be as they are. They’ll be their own person. Now does she use the term storytelling? In that passage, no. She says we use word and deed to insert ourselves into the world (Arendt 176), and that’s as far as she needs to take it in that context. Remember, she had to hit a lot of points in that book.

            Whereas Jackson can take it a bit more leisurely. Jackson draws from psychology and anthropology to point out that storytelling can make us actors in the face of the challenges that tried to make us objects (Jackson 17). Storytelling gives us the ability to assume control over the forces that shaped or happened to us. Because we organize and manage these forces and experiences that threatened to consume within the schema of our own design (Jackson 16).

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            Now there’s various ways of illustrating this. The previous discussion of the true crime genre might be best. We have to face these real dangers and forces plaguing us, and by engaging with the stories of strangers, we reposition these dangers as being outside of our circle. As being distant oddities. Removed threats. Whether or not that is accurate.

            We could also discuss the plethora of marginalized characters in audio fiction. Like I did last week. Without a gatekeeper judging potential content, creators can make whoever and whatever they want, which they have been doing. Audio fiction in podcasting can be a way to cope with trauma, explore fantasies, or just exist without attack. And maybe to you those last things sound the same.

            Regardless, it’s a way for aspects of ourselves to enter into public spaces and still be under our control. It’s a way to create the necessary parameters for action Hannah Arendt describes. A distinct plurality of new people whose entry onto the public space is easy for them and vital for the whole.

            It’s almost like I think podcasting is an unintentional public service? Yeah, I kind of do think that. Though Spotify is potentially trying to reimagine their service and the whole Netflix of podcasting thing, so far no one—not even Apple——has created any artificial parameters that accidentally exult the voices of someone like a homeopathic quacks, for example. Not intentionally but simply because clicks are clicks even the ones that come from morbid curiosity that then forces this content onto vulnerable people. In my opinion, algorithms cause chaos, and so far, no one in podcasting has tried to make one. Hence why I remain cautiously optimistic. Though I reserve the right to revisit my opinion if that changes.

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            But you came here for a philosophical defense of transcripts in an auditory medium. And well, that’s what I think I trying to do without outright saying it. If podcasting is important for reasons outside of yourself, then it is worth it to increase availability through something like a transcript. Because it has ceased to be a transaction between you and the person who needs to a thing. It has come to take on a societal purpose.

            Here’s the thing. The trait that leads someone to needing a transcript for your show doesn’t negate the common connections and journeys the two of you share. Or at least, I have yet to hear a good reason for that. If anything, Hannah Arendt’s argument for plurality and the benefits to society therein that are more flushed out in The Human Condition than I could ever lay out here, would suggest that those differences intensify the need to include these other people in the space.

            It was from this perspective that I wanted to lay out this argument, only to then realize that I can’t make someone care about that if they’ve decided not to.


            Because, here’s the thing, yes there is a real cost to transcript, on top of the other costs you have when making a podcast. Now, with so many competing hosting services, there is potential cause for hope. I mean the other day, I got an email from the hosting service for The Oracle of Dusk about a transcription service they might offer and if the free market does what it’s supposed to, then that could keep happening. But for now, it’s something that you have to take on, for no obvious benefit to you if you don’t lock it in a Patreon tier or in a book, and maybe no one in your specific audience needs them. (Music restarts) Take my audio drama, for example if my Square Space stats are anything to go by—which they should be, I mean I only put transcripts on my website. Then I only get one or two people checking each one, and it might be that they are just clicking around and don’t actually want those transcripts. I can’t know for certain.

            There is a sense in which a call to make transcripts is a call asking you to go through the motions potentially to no benefit not for you or even for anyone. When I do that, I’m asking you to favor a hypothetical over the real cost you accrue if your podcast isn’t scripted or even if it is. I have for my reasons. I have my beliefs for doing, but you have your reasons and beliefs for your own choices. It’s hard to say if either of them is wrong when in reality, we’re likely just looking at two different sets of data, so it ends up being that we’re essentially having two different conversations. Hypothetical podcast producer knows they don’t have the need present in their audience base for transcripts, and then there’s someone else saying, “yeah but it could happen when you make transcripts available so you should just do it.”

            Each argument is right in their own ways. However, their conclusions cannot co-exist.

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            And full disclosure, I’m not happy with that conclusion. Genuinely. I think if more podcasts have transcripts, the demand from them will crystalize. I know it exists but to what extent is hard to say. But the thing about speculation is that I could easily be proven wrong just as I could be proven right. And to that, I take the loss.

            But I would say this. There is just sense, at least to me, in which the act of having a transcript available is a declaration of your values. Or of the value of your show. It’s not just a declaration of your dedication to accessibility but how much you think your podcast and the story underneath it matters. This isn’t just about other people who could or could not want your product. It’s about if you think there’s a real desire or reason to want your product. If your podcast has merit shouldn’t more people know about it? Or what is said, discussed, or the story that is told? Should it be spread to more people? And should it matter how it’s spread? Is podcasting about relating and connecting to people? Or what is it about?

            What is the point of this whole thing?


            Next week is the whole Netflix of podcasting discussion. And it’s a topic I’m really nervous about covering, but I’m going to try it anyway. So if you want to make me feel better about it. You could always check out my audio drama The Oracle of Dusk, wherever you are currently listening to my voice. Or buy me a coffee. The link is in the description.


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