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Sunday, 23 March 2014

Toward a Unified Theory of Podcasts

I was on the phone to a friend from work recently, talking about the job I was doing now that I've moved to California. I was telling him that I kind of missed having afternoons to do data entry, and without missing a beat, he said, "Oh, because you miss listening to your podcasts!"

I hate being so transparent, sometimes. But he was right - for the past two years, whenever I had some easy, repetitive work, my coworkers were treated to the sight of me, more or less surreptitiously, slipping some earphones in and occasionally laughing quietly as I clicked away at the multitudinous spreadsheets that make up the work of a data consultancy. This friend, in particular, was prevailed upon to go see Chris Hardwick when he did a show in London, last May, so he became my official Nerdist sounding board, much to his bemusement.

But sometimes, when God closes a door, He opens a window.

Not that I really believe in God. But the point is, even though I don't have to do data entry as frequently as I used to, I do actually have another opportunity to listen to the Nerdist or any other podcast that takes my fancy: whenever I'm driving.

I realize this puts me one step closer to having NPR as my default station, and therefore to middle age and obsolescence. However, listening to the Nerdist or Marc Maron's WTF on my commute or whenever I'm driving around running errands, is actually kind of nice, especially because my CD player doesn't work anymore and the radio pretty much blows.

Of course, an interesting thing that I've noticed since I started listening more regularly to Maron or to Pete Holmes' You Made it Weird, is how well the form seems to work for comedians. Sure, there are podcasts of all kinds - I've listened to and enjoyed podcasts about travel, history and SF writing. Also, James Richardson's Football Daily podcasts for the Guardian during World Cups or European Championships are epic.

But somehow, if you look at it in evolutionary terms, comedians appear to have become the most successful animals on the digital landscape, occupying more niches than pretty much anybody else. I think it's telling that the AV Club's weekly roundup of the latest podcasts sits in the comedy section of the site, and that most are run by comedians (with the exceptions of Freakonomics and Stuff You Missed in History Class).

Maybe that's selection bias, or maybe comedy's just what rises to the top. It wouldn't be the first time a single genre comes to dominate a particular medium - superheroes are pretty much synonymous with comic books these days, but it wasn't so at the very start of the medium.

The other thing that's struck me since I started branching out from listening only to the Nerdist is how Hardwick, Maron and Holmes (btw, off topic, but doesn't that sound like an amazing legal firm?) seem to approach interacting with their guests, and navigating their own lives, in very similar ways.

It may not be that surprising, on reflection. I got into Chris Hardwick's stuff because of his book, and only started listening to his podcast after devouring the Nerdist Way and a couple of the other self-help books he referenced in it. In the book - and on the podcast - he talks about eating better, using time more productively, relating to people and dealing with addiction. These topics all crop up pretty frequently in the other podcasts I listen to - Maron, for example, is also a recovering alcoholic, while Pete Holmes spent a lot of time in his early podcasts asking his guests about their relationships and their beliefs.

I feel like it's a good bet that they've all read the same self-help books - and in any case, as I've mentioned before, a lot of self-help/productivity literature passes on the same ideas, in more or less similar forms. But because most of my podcast-listening is of the Nerdist, it feels like a strange parallel world to hear Marc Maron, who's not on the Nerdist Podcast Network, talk about similar topics and ask his guests similar questions.

And of course, they all know each other - Pete Holmes and Chris Hardwick have both appeared on Maron's TV show - so I'm sure they circulate their ideas quite easily among one another.

But it's still interesting to me, and even if they overlap quite a bit in terms of guests and subject matter, it's also interesting to see how different one person sounds on different podcasts. My favorite example is Tim Ferriss, who sounds a bit more douchey on Joe Rogan's podcast but comes off funnier when he appeared on the Nerdist, and revealed more of himself on Maron's podcast.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see how the form develops, now that these guys are seeing their profiles raised - after all, as every good biologist knows, evolution is a constant process. If this current generation looks a certain way, I'm looking forward to seeing what the smaller and nimbler ones who come up in their wake will look like.