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  • Writer's pictureT Lines

Podcasts and audio bubbles

"Through audio, we're privatizing our public spaces." This quote, from episode 2 of Damon Krukowski's 2017 podcast series Ways of Hearing, titled 'Space,' touches on how technology has accentuated the individualist, atomised tendency of a post-modern, neo-liberal era. Krukowski is specifically talking about earpods, and how the portable, sound cancelling bubble that they provide allows the individual to bring the interior, acoustically padded, sonic space outside with them into the noisy, public, urban environment. Not only does everyone have their own, bounded, auditory space, but the content they listen to is personalised, asynchronous.

I listen to podcasts throughout the day, sometimes for the better part of a day. I reach instinctively for my airpods when I am in bed, cooking, travelling or shopping. I often find it easier to listen than to read. Sometimes I listen to a podcast while playing video games. Apparently I need that much sensory stimulation.

Last Spring a learning difficulties assessment suggested that I have some form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I don't know whether it is just a symptom of only being friends with artists and musicians, but many of my friends have similar symptoms and diagnoses. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher noted that many of the teenagers he worked with at his Further Education college suffered from learning difficulties or depression. To Fisher, these difficulties were the symptom of existing in a culture of constant communication and stimulation, rather than a purely innate quality of the individual. He notes that the "post-literate 'New Flesh' that is too 'wired to concentrate'" (Capitalist Realism, pg 24) conflicts with the outmoded disciplinary institutions that young people are expected to navigate.

The logic of this constant communication and the atomisation/'democratisation' of content creation/consumption is temporal and spatial breakdown. Running out of episodes of my favourite podcasts, I scour the older episodes, listening to voices speaking out from their disjointed present-tense - about the last general election, Roe v Wade, the initial Covid lockdown, etc. Because my ears are occupied with detemporalised voices, I can't concentrate on reading the news, I don't stop to listen to my environment, I'm not left to reflect on my own thoughts. I become numb to my present.

In the chapter about his teaching experiences, Fisher draws on a quote Fredric Jameson to describe the socially numbing effect of our always live, disjointed media culture - "the breakdown of temporality releases [the] present time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis"(Capitalist Realism, pg 26). Podcasts, like much of the rest of digital media, have a defocusing and passifying effect on the listener, regardl of the producer's intent. By breaking down our relationship to time, our relationship to space and place is also make murky. I am go into my audio bubble, my connection to the people and architecture around me is reduced by one sense, becoming more visual. I can colour this environmental relationship with the sounds I listen to and I can expel the noises, opinions and perspectives that I choose to avoid - both in my immediate environment and in my choice of niche content to consume.

Granted, there is a power to the decentralised nature of the podcast. There is no significant barrier to access when it comes to sharing audio. Microphones, DAWs and access to the internet are ubiquitous. Consumers can easily find podcasts on very niche topics or fringe viewpoints that would be rejected or toned down on institutional broadcasts. Conversations can be more casual and organic, the episodes can extend to a long or non-standard runtimes (one can be 10 minutes and the next an hour and 37).

The minimally structured or totally unstructured format of many other podcasts allows for content creators with limited or no budget to release episodes on a very frequent basis (once or twice a week). The informal nature of these recordings lends an affect to the podcasts of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy, allowing the listener to identify with the podcasters they listen to as if they are friends. Molly Robson writes (in her essay Intimacy in Isolation: Podcasting, Affect, and the Pandemic) about the affective response listeners have to their podcasts, noting that they often develop parasocial relationships with the hosts who, in reality, are total strangers. From an optimistic perspective, this can allow the listener to process their anxieties and interests in a virtualised interaction (Robson focuses her study on how people used podcasts to cope with the effects of the Covid pandemic). However, the paradox of parasociality is that it is both social and isolating - the listener is only left with the affect of a meaningful connection.

I think it is also worth noting that the affect of podcasts has shifted in more recent years, as the likes of Spotify, the New York Times, NPR and Global pour money into expensive productions, donning the airs of radio professionalism. This influx of corporate money has also led to many more celebrity features as guests and hosts of podcasts, shifting the focus away from the wider community of amateurs and outsiders who originally defined the scene.

I think there is a lot of interesting and paradoxical elements to cover with how podcasts relate to concepts of signal and noise, the potential of digital audio for emancipatory purposes, and how it forms part of our everyday soundscape. So I will be back to look at some of that at some point.

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