What’s Wrong with the World

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La nouvelle radio

As readers are no doubt well aware, the last five or so years have seen an explosion in podcasting. Statistics on these matters (often self-reported), while lacking reliable precision, nonetheless supply valuable information as trends. So while less than a quarter of Americans in 2015 had listened to a podcast, today well over half have done so; approaching four in ten do so every month; and almost one quarter do so weekly.

An astonishing statistic, which this writer regards with particular skepticism, suggests that around 90% of listeners complete the entire episodes of the podcasts they listen to; given that many prominent ones exceed two hours in length, even adjusting for exaggeration by surveyed listeners, this suggests a remarkable follow-through rate.

Though some podcasters, like my friend Erick Erickson, structure theirs as an adjunct to a traditional radio show, most are standalone features, recorded, produced, and released for consumption some time later. So what we’re talking about here is the rise of what amounts to a new medium of communication. And the market for that medium consists of people who tend to be younger, wealthier, better-educated and more gainfully employed than Americans on average.

In fine, la nouvelle radio, while perhaps not killing the video star, is surely causing him some distress.

The chief merit of the podcast medium: multitasking. To listen to a sprawling conversation of three hours in length sure sounds daunting -- unless you’re a long-haul trucker or a man training for a half-marathon, alone with your higher mental processes while your lower ones are dominated by physically taxing activity. The demerits are real but minor: repetitiveness, reduced memory retention, the difficulty of moving around in the “text” for clarity, recollection, and cross-reference. A podcast cannot replace a book. On the other hand, I have yet to discover an effective method for reading a book while also washing dishes or mowing the lawn.

The fact that even the most fluid podcasters speak at a pace well below average reading pace seems like a wash compared to the emotional vitality of natural human conversation. The loss of rapidity in absorbing information is offset by the gain of dramatic power. After all, I can read the St. Crispin’s Day speech faster than Kenneth Branagh can deliver it.

All that by way of prolegomenon, here are some recommendations of recent excellence in podcasting.

Jordan Peterson speaking with Randall Wallace: “Brave Art”. The former man needs no introduction; slowly recovering from a debilitating bout with benzodiazepine withdrawal and Covid-19, Peterson has dropped a new book and a new season of the podcast. A recent number: an engrossing two and half hour conversation with the polymath Wallace, best known for writing Braveheart and writing and directing We Were Soldiers. That’s all I really knew about him myself before I listened to this riveting exchange of ideas; now I almost look on those details as mere footnotes in the life of a man in full.

Jocko Willink on The Making of a Soldier, by Col. Anthony Herbert. Willink may need an introduction. A retired Navy SEAL with twenty years of service, author, businessman, jiu-jitsu trainer, clothing designer, his singular podcast often consists of lengthy excerpts from the memoirs of combat veterans. His speaking style is instantly gripping, almost spellbinding. Sometimes the author joins him, but in this case the author, being deceased, cannot. Col. Herbert’s memoir of his combat tour in the Korean War is long out of print, and now Jocko listeners have snapped up all the used copies, driving the price on Amazon up to $300; so until a new addition appears (which has happened on the strength of the demand that this podcast generates), we’ll have to content ourselves with Jocko’s reading and commentary on this astounding soldier’s career. (I can almost hear some more mature reader saying, “what about a library, you young blister?” Well, first, I’m not young. And second, I tried that. No copies in Fulton or Cobb County, or even the excellent Emory University library.)

The First Things podcast: “Elegies for Friends”. Mark Bauerlein hosts the august Journal on Religion and Public Life’s regular podcast. It features a traditional host-interviews-guest format, and it’s shorter in length (I usually finish the podcast before I finish my run), often centered around a recently published book. In this number, Bauerlein interviews the celebrated Catholic historian George Weigel, best known for his two gigantic biographies of John Paul II. Weigel’s recent book consists of a collection of informal obituaries, ranging from the elevated precincts of world diplomacy to the relative depths of a Major League Baseball dugout.

Finally, the incomparable Dan Carlin, whose Hardcore History is a marvel of the medium. His “Blueprint for Armageddon” -- a six-episode, 25-hour audio treatment of the First World War -- has been rightly called a modern masterpiece. Now behind the paywall, “Blueprint” rewards your $13 in abundance. Meanwhile, Carlin’s latest series, “Supernova in the East,” remains available for free. Focused on the rise of Imperial Japan and the Pacific War, “Supernova” may in the end exceed “Blueprint” in length (the final episode has not yet dropped); and while it may not exceed in quality, it will probably come close.

Anyone who supposes that podcasts can replace reading is a fool; but the supplementary virtues, above all the capacity to superadd high-quality intellectual stimulation to the mundane tasks in life, affirm the enormous success of this medium. If you haven’t already, give it a shot.

Comments (3)

I'm really loving Parker Settecase's podcast too! In-depth interviews with Christian philosophers and others.

Since I no longer commute, I have been faced with no blocks of time large enough to consider working through longish podcasts. And with hearing loss, I usually miss just enough of the words, when I don't have facial expressions and lips to read, that podcasts without video are (to me) less than adequate.

Furthermore, I agree GENERALLY with Paul that there is a perfectly satisfactory sort of trade-off between the speed of reading, versus the depth of expressiveness from the spoken voice. But in one context the written word FAR outweighs the spoken word: in carefully parsed, in depth, complex argument. In such a situation, the ability to pause while one absorbs both the content of a sentence, and its logical connectors to premises and derivatives, and to reach back a sentence or two (or a paragraph or two) to make the logical connectors more directly present to the mind, is all-important in terms of, say, grasping whether the argument given is actually certain and dispositive, rather than merely highly probable. This is, in a sense, the critical difference between the sort of thing that persuades a mob and the sort of thing that persuades a reasoning group in cautious reflection. Both are persuaded, but the mob is persuaded on the basis of demagoguery that has only superficial "logic" on its side: the ephemeral nature of the spoken word (where the speaker continues on and on) forbids the hearer to stop and say "wait, did he just equivocate on 'freedom' in that sentence"?

I have, in the last few months, many times started in on videos of lengthy online debates between different philosophical or religious positions, or of writers laying out in verbal form some of the arguments they make and responses to objections that are made in scholarly debates. But in all but a very few of them, I have been too frustrated in the format to finish the videos. Perhaps at least partly my frustration comes from not having a sufficiently developed capacity to listen and learn from a lengthy spoken argument. I have read that that it was not uncommon, in the 1800's for (in person, verbal) political debates would sometimes last for 3 hours, with each debater speaking for maybe 1/2 hour at a time, making arguments and replying to the opponent's arguments, in order and sequentially, to a large audience, possibly standing in a field, without loudspeakers to enhance the speaker's reach. I guess that they had some pretty significant auditory-based mental/memory skills that we tend to lack.

Good post, Paul, and it is an interesting phenomenon. What podcasters also do is to have sometimes a video version of the long-form discussions and also a podcast version. I've done many of these as interviews and/or presentations followed by Q & A in promoting my books, dicussing apologetics, etc. Tim and I just did one the other day with Pat Flynn, who combines physical fitness and apologetics on his podcast and his Youtube channel. It was two hours long. We had to take a break in the middle for our own sakes. (If nothing else, my headphones start hurting my ears after about an hour of being interviewed.) I can scarcely believe that people listen to these. I myself barely have patience to watch one of my own 20-minute videos that I post on my own Youtube channel, so great is my preference for the written word. And when it comes to multitasking, I prefer to *think* when exercising, cooking, etc. And to listen to whatever the ambient sounds are--e.g., the birds singing while exercising outdoors. I don't like the feeling of being cut off from my surroundings. At most, I'll listen to music while driving, and even then I'm constantly turning the music off to think about something.

And in some ways I prefer radio-radio--that is, something with a DJ commenting in between songs, a variety of programing that alternates radio drama, short spots, and half-hour talking programs with news at the top of the hour. When it comes to reading, I can commit to concentrating. When I comes to listening, I'm pretty ADD.

So this whole podcasting phenomenon is something of a surprise to me, though I'm willing to cooperate with it when someone invites me to do something fairly long-form on his channel. It's been a boon to those of us promoting new material. Even then, from the perspective of the person presenting or being interviewed, I find 2 hours rather long, especially with the 10 minutes or so of set-up before hand. I more often try to stick to an hour and fifteen minutes max.

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