Raised On Radio

Back then, everything was wood-paneled.

I’m someone whose very existence has been shaped by audio. Where some are content to read and others watch, I’ve spent my life listening. Since you’re here, I have to imagine that you feel the same.

My obsession began some decades back, when my parents bestowed on me the present of a simple clock radio. This was a largely symbolic gesture, no doubt intended to telegraph that my marshmallow childhood had come to an end. The clear dictate was that I would no longer be reliant on them to wake me for school, I was to become regimented to the tone of the alarm. I quickly found, though, that it served a different purpose entirely. I was able to lay in bed at night and lazily roll my finger along the raised edge of its dial, finding stations like islands in a great and foggy sea of static.

Among those AM channels, I happened upon a local outfit that sought to fill their schedule by rebroadcasting classic radio serials and became immediately hooked. In that moment I was acutely aware that audio was held an immense power—of emotion, imagination, and inspiration—toward which film and television could only aspire. 

From there the memories become a bit more compressed, but no less formative. From falling in love with public radio on account of my mother’s affinity for A Prairie Home Companion, to the way that my father’s sports obsession led to a lifelong passion for avuncular, anachronistic joy of radio baseball. Most nights of my college years I would stream an episode of This American Life from their website in the pre-podcast wilderness. I vividly recall the night that NPR announced that they’d begin making podcasts of their programs available, mainly because I scoffed at the idea, thinking that the format didn’t make sense and probably wouldn’t catch on. As I’m writing this now the irony is clear to me: I surely cursed myself and will never be rid of podcasts. 

But I keep listening, because I am possessed of an insatiable curiosity; for people and their lives, for cultures and their customs, for stories above all else. It hardly feels like hyperbole to assert that, in my thirty-odd years, much of the world has passed through my ears because of the versatility and accessibility of the medium. I routinely find myself making a Phileas Fogg-worthy journey from one show to the next, spending one hour in Mumbai, followed by Lagos the next, stopping up in Stockholm, before swinging down to Mexico City. Of course, it pays to know where and how to find all of these shows first, and that’s where this site comes in. 

Over the past three years I have become something of an accidental expert in the world of podcasts. What began as an assignment to cover them weekly as a contributor to The A.V. Club, quickly spiraled out of control. Befitting the auspices of the publication, I sought not simply to review what I already enjoyed, but to study the landscape of the medium, consuming as many shows as my waking hours would allow. At time of writing I subscribe to some 500 programs and listen to around 30 every week. Although the numbers I have logged thus far fall short of the Gladwellian metric for expertise, they have honed my critical ear immensely. It may seem no great accomplishment that one might over-consume media, but it has led me to develop a much deeper understanding of what makes for great audio.

That answer is not so simple however, which is why I feel that Constant Listener is a necessary endeavor in the space. We will be exploring the nature of what makes a quality listen. This comes down to a number of factors which we will delve into in the weeks and months ahead. Of particular interest, I’ll be looking at the rise of prestige podcasting, the dearth of outlets for show discovery, and the taxonomy of the podcast world. I’ll also have exclusive interviews with podcast creators further adding analysis and depth to the conversation.

Finally, as a long-term project I will be working to establish a common understanding of the history of the world of audio, given that it has long been experienced as an impermanent medium. The daily turnover of content leads to the subduction of earlier works. These are important antecedents to acknowledge as they have shaped the medium that we presently enjoy, sometimes even greatly outstripping that which we currently regard as top-notch. 

In between I’ll also be writing about the shows that I find the be essential subscriptions, standout shows from the past week, and much, much more. I hope that this space will become a destination for listeners just like me once things really get going.