Bite-sized bits of babble: The podcast as a modern storytelling device

So I have a question. You listen to podcasts? Correction: it wasn’t a question; it was a statement. You do. You listen to podcasts. All of the podcasts. And you like them. A lot. And you should, because podcasts are great. 

In many ways, podcasting has been a rising tide. A tide that creeps up on you until the only thing you can hear in your head is Joe Rogan trying to sell you weird mushroom coffee. The first suggestions of what we might consider a podcast popped onscreen with forums around 2000 when they began to accompany text with disembodied bits of audio or video. However, the modern structure of podcasting was solidified amongst the mid-2000s grassroots culture of daily blogging. Instead of blocks of text on Gizmondo and Weblogs, expressive 20-somethings could sit with a microphone and condense their thoughts into a low-quality MP3 file. 

Step into the slightly kerosene-dipped slippers of 2020, and you can see (or hear) that podcasts are more widespread, accepted and prolific than ever before. Dads fall asleep to discussions on World War II. Babysitters put on an episode of “Pod Save America” between changing diapers. Staff writers for The Anchor listen as they type articles… So what I’m getting at is most everyone is listening to the addictive audio. In fact, according to research posted by Ross Winn of, over 155 million members of the U.S. population alone have listened to their choice of over a million unique, active shows. 

Arguably, the most valuable part of a podcast is the accessibility. With their typically free barrier of entry, manageable episodic format and extreme breadth of available topics, podcasts enable anyone with ears to access a myriad of loud news feeds and relaxing meditations (I apologize to those lacking ears, I didn’t mean to call you out like that). 

That being said, the subtle deception of popularity can undermine the actual art of a subject. While I won’t go as far as to say archaeologists will dust off a hard drive full of episodes years later like an undiscovered Rembrandt, podcasts can explore the same space as a capital “A” artist like Marina Abramović or Donald Judd. I wouldn’t touch the controversial “what is art” conversation with a ten-foot pole, but the open nature of the question leaves room for discussion. And so enters the humble podcast into the 2020 zeitgeist. Similar to other art forms, the notion of each day, date and year informs the work. Podcasts can be news sources as well as progressive tales. Even the format of a podcast has radically changed since its inception. Interviews? “Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard.” Fiction storytelling? “Over my Dead Body.” Strange cacophony of stand-up, music and erratic sound? “Gelmania.” If a person can put paint to canvas and provoke thought, words spoken into a microphone can certainly do the same. 

What emerges from the pile of shiny features and artistic flair is one simple thing: narrative. Every culture leaves behind stories, be it in books, mythical writings or aural traditions. Today we have a plethora of storytelling devices, amongst which lies our little friend the podcast. The tenor of each show can be as casual or as staunch as one desires, but the progression is the same by nature. You might be listening to the genre front-runner “Serial,” with Sarah Koenig’s tension-filled delivery engaging you from the mystery’s onset. Conversely, the goblins, wizards and idiotic NPCs brought to life by Matt Mercer in the highly successful “Critical Role” may melt away hours of your day. Be it a news cycle or science fiction, every scenario takes the listener through a story, bit by bit. In a world dominated by visual language, the podcast takes the classical narrator and streams it to your cracked, hand-me-down iPhone 6. The human voice of someone you will never meet describes events and tales you will never know. Everyone can be a bard in the 21st century. 

I will finish with this: “this” being a handful of recommendations to entertain, learn and overall cope with the intensity of a life already filled flush. “No Such Thing as a Fish” for British Laughs. “Magnus Archives” for spooky stories. “The Jordan B. Peterson podcast” for philosophical intensity. And Finally “Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast” for…well, you can guess. If you already listen, try something new. If you don’t listen, then please try something. 

Tim Embertson ('21) is a Staff Writer at the Anchor.

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