This piece originally appeared in McSweeney’s 55, as a letter to the editor. Get 15% off with the promo code issue55.
Please for the love of God and/or Terry Gross, can we all agree to just stop making podcasts?
Ira Glass, this is mainly your fault. Damn you and your perfect male vocal fry. Well, it’s your fault, yes, but also the fault of the big money and/or venture capitalists that turned you from a Chicago wonk into a Chelsea “creative,” like actually, with the divorce and the condo board disputes and all.
Podcasts, we all know, are in. Your dead grandma (read: my dead grandma) listened to the radio. Now, we’re all streaming “on demand audio content” straight to our Apple or Android (lol) device. Yes, for my own hipster cred, I used to listen to This American Life (TAL for those in the know) back when it was on the radio.
When I’m on a road trip, I love to listen to the radio, and I love public radio shows like TAL and Selected Shorts, live readings of short stories. I have a vivid memory of taking a trip with my first girlfriend just after we broke up. We were trying to rebuild our relationship as a friendship. I was driving us back from Vermont, where we had camped and had absolutely not slept together, not even once. On Selected Shorts, we heard Aasif Mandvi read a story by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s a story of the silences that haunt a relationship, and the pain and joy of filling those silences together.
We started to get out of the range of the radio station just as the story was ramping up to its conclusion. I looked at her, my ex-girlfriend, and she looked at me. We knew each other better than any other people knew either of us. I pulled the car over to the side of the freeway so we could listen, together, to the story’s end, even as the radio hissed and popped static. We would lose the station only a minute or two further down the road. I held her hand as we sat, cars zooming past us, and listened. The wake of each car, moving at 70 miles an hour, gently pushed our car, a small force, but one I could feel. I cried. “They wept together, for the things they now knew,” the story ends. My ex and I sat in silence, other than the radio. She didn’t cry with me.
Hi, that’s my ‘radio voice’, and this has been an excerpt from my new narrative podcast, “Yes I am a Male Bisexual, Look at me Existing,” now available from WNYC on Apple podcasts or wherever podcasts can be found.
So you see, it’s not that I don’t love radio.
It’s just that I don’t really love podcasts enough, apparently, for the world we’re living in now. And look, I hate to say this, but I really don’t love bad podcasts, and omg, so many of them are really just pretty bad. Or they’re just like everything else. I can’t be the only one with True Crime overload.
All of this, like everything else in 2018, has everything to do with money and technology.
Money first. About those venture capitalists. There has been a huge shift in how we listen to things. Podcasts are basically radio-on-demand, and they’re Netflixing the audio world. Ads work well in this type of content, and there are entire podcasting companies that just fired their podcast-making staff to focus exclusively on making podcast software. The software they make lets you drop in different ads through the lifetime of a radio show so you don’t have to upload a new audio file and lose public record of the 500,000 suckers who’d listened to your Squarespace ads while trapped on the 405. The 405 is an LA thing, right? So anyway, you get money for the initial ads, and then more money for up-to-date ads later.
This letter-to-the-editor is brought to you by Squarespace. Today in our Midroll, a game! You have to guess which of these websites Joe has actually registered using Squarespace! Are you ready: messybottom.com OR cryinginyourworkbathroomstall.com. Trick question, tricks: He owns both of them. Use your special McSweeney’s promo code—lolsob—now for 15% off your first website or domain.
And, while there’s basically no data anywhere to back any of this up, it seems as though ads get better return on investment (ROI) when they’re read into your earbuds by someone you actually like. And podcasts feel intimate; listeners tend to actually like the hosts of their favorite shows. I made my website from Squarespace after hearing an ad on TAL, and I even got 10% off! Ira would never steer me wrong. So it doesn’t matter if venture capitalists like podcasts; they love podcasts ads. JK, venture capitalists aren’t capable of love, duh, but they make up for it with their yachts in their Saints Tropez.
This letter-to-the-editor is brought to you by Casper Mattresses omg they’re so soft I personally own like four of them.
I don’t care if you’ve embraced the word “pod” like the Pod Save America guys, or hate it with a passion, like everyone else. (Seriously, podcast world, get better beefs. Like maybe be mad that basically everyone is like straight and white and mostly boring.) What we know for sure is this: Podcasts are making a small amount of people very, very rich.
Just like everything else in 2018.
That’s the thing: Advertisers want to reach millions, not dozens. They aren’t paying anyone who makes a show without a huge audience. It’s hard to even sell ads for shows with tens of thousands of listeners, like the one I do. But it’s hard to make a show by and for queer people, just for example, that manages to reach millions.
Mail K… Ch… Chimp.
The rest of us are just trying to get into that little crowd. Which is where the technological barrier to entry comes in. Unlike, you know, a TV show, which requires cameras and boom microphones and big fancy computers for editing, podcasts just need a microphone. It’s hard to make a TV show look professional. Any idiot can turn on a mic and talk.
And oh lord have they ever.
It’s true that podcasts are pretty democratic. For not-a-lot of money, you can make one, and get it on iTunes and everything. Except, without the right connections, the fact that you’re on iTunes will be the most remarkable thing about your show. I read somewhere that there are an absolute metric fuck ton (I’m a scientist, that’s a scientific term) of podcasts and that the median number of listens to each is something like fifty per episode.
And then you had season one of Serial that broke the internet and made Sarah Koenig a household name. Even Kim Kardashian listened, and so what if that was four years later. Season one of Serial made MailChimp and Squarespace household names too.
But hey everyone, this doesn’t feel sustainable. This feels just like everything that’s wrong with everything else. People who have been doing this forever are making more podcasts, and they mostly sound the same, and everyone’s listening, and they’re getting rich. The rest of us are making podcasts that basically no one is listening to, not even our friends, not even our mothers.
So. Look. Can this be like a suicide pact, a Devil’s Triangle? I’ll stop making mine, you’ll stop making yours, and Ira Glass can finally go on vacation? Terry Gross can stay on the radio, but like just take a hiatus from Apple Podcasts (or wherever you download audio content)?
Can we all just like cool off for a little while, fuck over the venture capitalists, and then come back and decide to not fuck with Apple either, and just like not care who has a banner ad for Pride Month? Can we just all try to go a little more slowly, make shows actually worth listening to, made by, and for, an actually diverse community of people? Can we please, please do that? Can we all just please, for now, not make any more podcasts, not any at all, none. A radio silence that we can fill with our own stories, for now, sharing our own stories with our lovers, past and present, speaking into the silences we too often, now, try to fill with making, and listening to, static.
Sincerely yours, a scientist, writer, and podcast host,
New York, NY
P.S. Next week on “Yes I am a Male Bisexual, Look at me Existing” there will be three acts of stories about me totally existing, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us five stars on iTunes.