This is a non-exhaustive list of the podcasts in my library at present. The Rest Is History. Hardcore History. Sticky Notes, on classical music. The Prince, on Xi Jinping. No fewer than four about Arsenal. The Week in Art. Real Dictators, narrated sultrily by Paul McGann of Withnail and I fame. Les Enjeux Internationaux, a French angle on world news. I’ll Drink to That. Quickly Kevin: too niche to explain to a lay audience. Inside Burgundy. Composer of the Week. How to LA. The Artcast. StarTalk.All of which should establish that I don’t dislike the medium. I hailed the podcast in 2016, well before it displaced the TV series as the cultural staple of a certain age and class. I just hope early admiration entitles me to voice a belated misgiving.
It is this growing pretence that podcasts are educational. Perhaps some are. I mean, there was that acute observation in one of the historical ones about . . . now what was it? The breakdown of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a music pod was illuminating when it said . . . something or other. And don’t forget the droll comment that guest expert made about that other thing one time. How I chuckled on the Tube.You see the issue here. Pressed to define the function of podcasts, I offer this: companionable and even intimate background noise as one does something else. The hard content is, if not irrelevant, then secondary to the vicarious bonhomie a listener gets from well-matched presenters. That is still a fine service. I’d pay more for it than the Patreon pittance I am charged.
But people are starting to conflate it with the hard grind of learning. At worst, they substitute it for reading. The success of politico-historical pods in particular is said to reveal unguessed-at reserves of civic engagement and intellectual hunger in the public. That is a lot of weight to put on what is, for most listeners, if they are honest with themselves, a sort of conversational muzak.It should be obvious what is going on. People are willing to do almost anything other than read at length. It requires patience: an atrophied muscle in the smartphone age. At the same time, no one relishes being ignorant or incurious. The desire for self-improvement out there is real. One way of squaring these opposing impulses — the bibliophobic, the aspirational — is to give things that aren’t books the intellectual status of books.
And so we have told the polite lie for 20 years that TV drama is the “new novel”. It isn’t. It can’t do the microscopic human observation. It is too reliant on hooks and too hostile to digressive longueurs. It asks too little of the audience. In Britain, at least, the soap opera lost its central place in national life at more or less the same time as “serious” TV took off. That isn’t a coincidence. The second is much the same thing as the first, with better PR.The hype around the podcast is the latest stage in this face-saving for the non-reader. A pod has all the simulation of learning. The presenters are steeped in their subjects. The episodes are the length of academic lectures. Unlike the computer game, another pretender in recent times to the stature of literature, it carries no social stigma.In the end, though, the audience isn’t having to do anything. Even Carl Sagan and AJP Taylor — popularisers of hard subjects for the laity, but from another age — asked you to sit through high-protein monologues, with little relief in the form of banter and whimsy. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation is one man’s drawl and sensibility for 650 minutes. Next to a podcast, their work was a slog. But I can remember much of the content. Five hours of podcasts wash over me and leave no mental residue. I wonder about the “stickiness” of knowledge that you don’t have to fight for.
I also wonder if that is ever the point for podcast listeners. For some, to be blunt, just the sound of human voices is precious in a society of transient relationships and sole-occupancy households. The podcast boom shows that we want erudition without effort: the palm without the dust. More than that, we want each other.
Janan Ganesh is a biweekly columnist and associate editor for the Financial Times. He writes on American politics for the FT and culture for FT Weekend. He was previously a political correspondent for The Economist for five years.
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Podcasts aren’t as smart as you think