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In the age of earbuds, the act of listening appears to be in the ascendant.

Audio programs – both musical and, increasingly, vocal – are being listened to on the move and in growing numbers. But podcasts in particular represent more than the latest iteration of portable radio. The ability to select when you listen sets podcast listening beyond the constraints of a broadcasting schedule. Podcasts represent an atomisation of experience, muffling the sounds of the immediate environment and removing the individual from a synchronous community of listeners.

The success of NPR’s true crime podcast Serial was very much the exception to this rule, and proved that water cooler-worthy audio was possible. Hotly discussed on social media and even spawning two weekly reaction podcasts of its own, Serial was trumpeted as the most successful podcast ever. Across its now completed first series, Serial averaged 1.5 million U.S. listeners each week. An unprecedented response, but one still far behind a nationally syndicated radio show like NPR’s Morning Edition, which attracts almost 13 million listeners for two hours every day. Morning Edition’s advantage, however, is that as NPR’s flagship news program it has been building its audience since the late 70s. The ubiquity and range of ways to listen to radio is also not yet mirrored by those available to podcast listeners.

Whatever doubts have been raised regarding its ethics or its success as a fully-resolved piece of storytelling, Serial certainly represented a breakthrough into public consciousness for podcasts. James Atlas even claimed in the New York Times that the growing success of Serial, and of other podcasts and audiobooks, represented a ‘new literary form’.

Atlas’ use of ‘literary’ as a descriptor suggests the enrapturement typically associated with the experience of reading a novel. A recent Canadian study suggested that listening poses challenges to our cognition and attention span in a way that reading does not. Study participants who were tasked with listening to an audiobook were more prone to distraction, and poorer at recalling its contents, than those who silently read the same book. Anyone who recalls a first year university lecture will be unsurprised to learn that listening to a static voice allows our eyes – and consequently, larger portions of our attention – to wander. This is even before we take into consideration the decrease in mindfulness caused by multitasking.

Despite its sometimes overly-easy consumption and increasing popularity, podcasting as a form is still under-analysed. As yet, there is no publication dedicated to academic considerations of audio interviews, documentaries and discussions, and committed to communicating these considerations in a sure, sharp way to a non-academic audience. There is no podcasting equivalent to Sight & Sound’s coverage of film, or The Wire’s coverage of music. A promising early academic response is the open digital journal RadioDoc Review. Produced out of the University of Wollongong by founding editor and former ABC documentarian Siobhan McHugh, the wealth of both production experience and analysis already on display across its first two issues is encouraging, and it seems likely these will inevitably feed into broader discussions.

Right now – fittingly for an audio format – the best way to discover new podcasts is through word of mouth recommendations, and increasingly via their digital conduit, Twitter. This informal sharing is at least partially necessary given the elusiveness of a decent systematic discovery engine. The primary podcast subscription service, iTunes, is bewilderingly cluttered beyond its front pages of featured collections and favoured providers. Podforum styles itself as ‘your guide to the audio revolution’, but is still in the early stages of development, and run on a shoe-string with a predominantly North American focus.

The relatively low barriers to entry mean that podcasting has the potential to include a more diverse range of voices than those traditionally heard in broadcast media. The voice employed is a guide to both a podcast’s aesthetic and its ethic, and the tone signals its seriousness to the listener. Its capacity for pause, or lack thereof, demonstrates whether we are witness to a genuine exchange or a series of duelling monologues. The care and clarity with which a point is put forward lays bare the thinking behind it, whether this is on the hoof or has been previously planned. In this way, the voice of a podcast can offer the same kind of intimacy as that of a novel told in first person. So allow me to be your bookish podcast discovery engine, and let’s consider three of the best to wrap your commuting ears around.

The Coode Street Podcast is a conversation between Gary K. Wolfe, critic and columnist for Locus magazine, and Jonathan Strahan, the publication’s reviews editor, with the record button left on. Focusing on science fiction and fantasy, the program is subject to the vicissitudes of Skype, and only evidences the lightest editing, but the quality of the minds engaged can rarely be questioned. Wolfe’s and Strahan’s relaxed consideration of their craft as critics and editors – specialising in a range of genres often airily dismissed – is a model of relaxed erudition. Guests include the novelist Kij Johnson, novelist and critic James Bradley, and author M. John Harrison – offering the opportunity to hear some of the best writers currently working in English.

KCRW’s Bookworm has been presented by Michael Silverblatt since 1989, a man with an approach – and a voice – that resembles a warm bath. And it gets slippery sometimes. Considering himself a reader first and then a conversationalist, Silverblatt never brings a list of questions into the studio for an interview, replying instead on a deep reservoir of sympathy for the writer and their work. Silverblatt’s engaged and sympathetic approach does mean that some of his formulations risk a floridness. Nonetheless, his discussions with novelist and poet Ben Lerner, author and cultural critic Lynne Tillman, and theatre critic and memoirist Hilton Als are among the best you are likely to hear.

Prior to its cancellation in the latest round of budget cuts, Radio National’s Poetica program served up a broad range of international and domestic poets and poetry for 17 years. In its place the ABC has offered us… nothing. Steered by poet and producer Mike Ladd, Poetica was never entirely exempt from criticism – most recently, poet Koraly Dimitriadis accused it of being exclusionary and conservative. Certainly, it focused less on performance poetry and primarily on its printed counterpart, but its range was always commendably large. Featured poets included Chinese-Australian Ouyang Yu, Polish visual artist and writer Tadeuesz Kantor, Cuban Mirta Yanez, Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, as well as Australians Francis Webb, Jordi Albiston, Omar Musa and Gig Ryan. Poetica’s sound engineers, including Miyuki Jokiranta and Catherine Connelly, ensured the program could rarely be bettered as a listening experience.

Contemporary western life can trick us into thinking that everything is recoverable within a few clicks of the keyboard. The vanishing voice of a podcast like Poetica reminds that things can disappear all too easily, and we’d do well to listen closely to those voices while we can.


Image credit: el patojo