Musings on the struggles and benefits of podcast criticism

Thinking critically about podcasts is sometimes a maddening affair.

You know as well as I that, despite being an audio-first experience, podcasts are not music. They’re also not film, or television, or books. They’re kind of their own thing, a wondrous melange of all of those other forms. Yet thus far every approach to covering podcasts has sought to shoehorn them into one of those other models of evaluation. The lack of an extant model makes for a challenging scenario. There is no Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael in the podcast world for critics to emulate and aspire towards. This is down to the relative youth of the medium and the contraction of media outlets for such writing. Perhaps more significantly though it is impacted by the ease with which one can review films and albums since they are usually self-contained and exist within a densely woven tapestry of historical antecedents. Radio and podcasting, it would seem, haven’t been a part of the broader shared cultural lexicon in any meaningful way since the advent of television.

This is because the audio form doesn’t have as many easily accessible outlets as other recorded works. Considering the artistry of audio and podcasts, one has a regrettably shallow well of touchstones readily on tap. There is no Netflix for classic audio. Even tracking down podcasts from 10 years ago yields spotty success. I feel particularly lucky to have come into adulthood with Chicago’s WBEZ, where I could tune into many solid hours of wonderful audio that wasn’t simply news talk. This could range from audio documentaries like Soundprint, news magazines like The Next Big Thing, and the many different oddities like Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz, Re:sound with Gwen Macsai, and my personal favorite, Joe Frank’s monologues and their demented take on hardboiled pulp. Those programs were likely not heard in every market however, making the entire pre-podcast era a fragmented one. The shared experiences usually involve a handful of tentpole programs, whose sonic qualities become something of a de facto social dogma.

What proves challenging with regard to this is the inherent mutability of the podcast form. Shows can range from the extemporaneous to the laboriously considered, and around those two extremes a sense of inequivalence forms, based on the perceived amount of time and effort expended in their creation. One is left questioning to what extent the perceived or understood difficulty in creating a work must be taken into consideration. Crafting lush and immersive soundscapes is indeed an art, but so too is humor, storytelling, editing, interviewing, improvisation, and so on. Each of these factors deserves to be weighed independently.

That there isn’t a general agreement is understandable, given what I have said about our notions on “good podcasts” being a social construct. Since a show like This American Life set the gold standard for the power and possibility of audio for so many listeners, it is only natural that this form became the platonic ideal. I say this as someone who was, for a great many years, completely in love with TAL as well. It is just that in this undertaking I feel that shows of such singular magnitude are almost categorically exempted from coverage. Perhaps that is myopic, but the hope is that in highlighting different programs of quality, our general shared idea of what makes a good show can grow and change as well.

The very factors of openness and flexibility which make the medium so attractive are also that which help to muddy its waters though. As of this writing I am subscribed to 870 shows—six of which I just added this week—and neither the market nor my curiosity show signs of slowing. I fear I will crack the thousand mark before the year is out. On an average week there are around 450 possible new episodes for me to choose from, while in practice I am only capable of listening to around 30 or 40 of them. It sometimes feels like a bit of a fool’s errand, and yet each week I press on.

It is not that I am daunted by the numbers. There is no obligation to listen to every episode of every podcast. It is just that, since I have been writing my aim has instead been to keep a critical eye on the entire medium itself. By that measure, subscribing to as many shows as I do has many advantages. Particularly it gives me the opportunity to pluck episodes at random, allowing me to catch up with as diverse a collection of voices and interests as is possible. This does mean sacrificing regular listenership to favorite shows, save a few for which I miraculously manage to find time. The benefits—particularly gaining a much greater understanding of the medium—far outweigh any drawbacks. But it is this approach which also has me thinking about how criticism’s role in podcasting should function.

This is in part because one of the biggest hurdles for podcasting remains that of discovery, in terms of general visibility as well as differentiation within the marketplace. I believe, perhaps somewhat self-servingly, that an increase in writing about the medium offers listeners the best option to find new shows and has the added benefit of helping to sharpen readers’ faculties for advanced critical listening. This goes beyond simple curation, it’s an active attempt to help in both directions. It feels akin to the early days of the music website Pitchfork in that it is a scene working with a dearth of press coverage and one where passionate writing about a show can help it to break wide. There is definitely an audience for this type of critical appraisal and discussion, as well as those simply looking to broaden their podcast library.

But as I have been writing about the subject for the last few years at The A.V. Club, my thoughts have circled around one big question. What should the aim of podcast criticism be? Does it exist more to help readers discover new worthwhile programs, or is it a means to help validate and/or challenge the work of those involved in their production? I believe that it can be both things when properly applied. It is the how that has got me hung up. As a critic it is only reasonable to have more than a passing familiarity with the material in order to render judgment. It is just that with the number of shows currently available it can be seem like an untenable prospect at times.

So what are writers interested in the medium to do? Streamline their approach, intently following only a handful of programs, or continue to broaden their scope, perhaps at the expense of deeper insights? I’m still working it out for now, but in the coming week I’ll begin to tackle these issues in a more concrete manner. If you have some thoughts on the matter please let’s talk about it in the comments below.