Magazine article The Christian Century

Listening In

Magazine article The Christian Century

Listening In

Article excerpt

More than a billion people subscribe to podcasts. More than 39 million people have listened to a podcast in the last month, and one in five podcast listeners listen to six or more per week. Why is this format so popular? As a medium, it's slower and less interactive than reality television. It lacks television's visual stimulation, and it requires sustained attention, which experts tell us we are becoming less and less good at.

Many podcasts are interview-based, which hints at what attracts and holds the audience: intimacy. When I walk side by side with a friend, we tell each other stories and comment on one another's lives. We are in a dance of revealing ourselves and holding ourselves back. We are sharing an intimate experience.

I'm in a somewhat similar position when I'm listening to podcasts. I feel as if I'm being carried into an intimate space of attention and exchange between the voices on the podcast and my own thoughts.

In one of my favorite podcasts, poet Mary Oliver is interviewed by Krista Tippett, host of the radio show and podcast On Being. Although I have read and loved Oliver's poems and know her voice on the page, the podcast gave me access to the sound of her voice. I was surprised; I didn't expect a light voice with a huskiness around the edges.

This particular interview was more "exposed" than most On Being interviews. Usually the show is recorded in a studio through a phone line or in person, and any extra sounds are muffled before it's aired. This helps the listener enter into the conversation without distractions. But the Oliver interview was recorded in her home and included ambient noise. For example, I could hear Oliver shift in her seat. Hearing her move as she tried to get comfortable drew me into the conversation.

At the same time, this intimacy is an illusion--neither Tippett nor Oliver knew I was listening, and one particular listener didn't matter to them or change their conversation. …

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