For your ears only: Podcasts as personal, effective art

Headphones surrounded by flowers connected to a phone playing a podcast
Olivia Staser/Staff

Related Posts

Upon hearing the word “art,” one may think of paintings or sculptures fit for museum walls. Or perhaps one may think about their favorite piece of literature or music, a recent film they watched or the weekly television show they never miss. Yet, among the plethora of content we consume that is dubbed “art,” it’s unlikely that one would think of podcasts as a medium that would equally fit the label.

Podcasts are increasingly becoming a major part of our everyday lives, sometimes in a similar vein to TV shows — many podcasts are weekly, leading listeners to wait for the arrival of a new episode each week, just as a viewer may wait for the next episode of their favorite TV show. Yet, unlike TV shows, podcasts rarely receive the same level of media coverage. TV shows are prominent on most publications’ arts pages, eliciting weekly recaps, episode analyses and season reviews. One episode of a TV show could have dozens of different articles reviewing it. Besides a few exceptions, podcasts have not yet reached the same degree of attention or prestige that several TV programs receive from the media or the general public. This, however, does not mean that podcasts do not qualify as art. In fact, they succeed immensely in doing what effective “art” is supposed to do: Evoke emotions.

The rise of the podcast may seem sudden, but it has actually been steadily rising over the last few years. In 2015, The Atlantic published an article that dives into the emotional appeal of podcasts, focusing on the neurological research behind our appreciation of them. The article points toward the unique nature of podcasts, in that they allow listeners to conjure images of stories or situations themselves, molding visuals to their own distinct minds. This quality further emphasizes successful podcasts’ ability to lead listeners to connect with themselves while simultaneously connecting with the outside world.

This unique quality can also be seen through the mass appreciation for The New York Times’ “The Daily.” This podcast is wildly popular, with about 5 million listeners per month. Every weekday, “The Daily,” guided by host Michael Barbaro, focuses on one recent news story and turns it into a narrative arc. The podcast often interviews subjects connected to a story, such as an Evangelical woman voting on the Democratic ticket for the first time in relation to a story about the white Evangelical voting base in the United States. With this format, “The Daily” brings a certain human element to major news stories. The listener, as a result, has a deeper understanding of the actual impact of a news story through an intimate experience akin to being told a story personally.

A recent podcast by NPR, “Believed,” achieves a similar effect. “Believed,” which wrapped in December 2018, centered on the sexual assault scandal involving former U.S. Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Each episode focuses on the story of one of the victims, told directly by the victims themselves. In this incredibly striking series, these women were given the platform to tell their own stories, and once again, a widespread news story was broken down to display the humans behind it. Ultimately, the listener has the opportunity to enjoy a storytelling experience that feels profoundly personal.

In all successful podcasts, intimacy seems to truly be the key to their special quality. This is most easily seen through news-to-narrative podcasts, such as “The Daily” or “Believed.” But, another advantage of podcasts is their flexibility — intimacy can be transmitted through the many formats that the abundance of existing podcasts present.

There seems to be a podcast about every topic one could think of — from pop culture to trivia to lifestyle. Most of these are founded on a conversational aspect — two or more hosts merely discuss the topic at hand. Conversations are a different form of intimacy, especially about a niche topic in which a general audience might not be able to follow otherwise.

For example, in “Ink to Film,” the hosts read a book, then watch the movie adaptation of the book. They dedicate one or more episodes to the book, depending on the length, then a separate episode for the film. The result is an extensive, in-depth conversation about both formats and the adaptation process, one that will simply hold more impact if the listener has knowledge of whatever specific work is being discussed. While someone who has not read Stephen King’s “It” will have no interest in a five-part episode series on the novel (which nears seven hours in its run time), this is an opportunity for fans of the book to completely immerse themselves in that world, right alongside the hosts. The listener becomes absorbed in the conversation, their own opinions running through their head with those of the individuals discussing the work in their headphones. This is simply not an experience that can be replicated.

No matter what comes to mind when you think of it, the concept of “art” comes down to creativity, expression and emotions. There may be a podcast about everything for anyone, but what all of the successful ones have in common is the ability to connect with the listener on an individual basis. A conjuring of intimacy is not an easy feat but is driven by talent and creativity — podcasts have shown themselves to be incredibly personal, encompassing talent, creativity and so much more.

Nikki Munoz covers podcasts. Contact her at [email protected].