The wider story of this podcasting moment is often recorded as a story of business.
Think about every breathless article written about Gimlet and StartUp, or This American Life and Serial, and how they’re offering some glimmer of hope to some people in an age where most media outlets are struggling to make ends meet. Or it’s a story about technology, and solving problems of finding listeners. Or it’s about how podcasts are a great and exciting form of enjoying audio.
Which is all well and good, but how about the cultural impact of podcast? Is the diffuse and tailored nature of listening ultimately its strength, or should this be a little more about podcasts as, well, texts?
Consider: podcasts like Sampler and Podcast Playlist aren’t about evaluating form — rather, they’re about generating fandom and excitement, and in some cases trying to solve the discovery problem. That’s generally good for audiences, and useful for producers. Listeners, as an untapped and unknown quantity, still need to be trained.
You may find that in some cases, these kinds of recommendation podcasts may sound louder, brighter or commercial compared to what you’re used to in your more pensive listening favourites. This wouldn’t be an accident, especially considering the research commercial networks (like Gimlet) would use to back their editorial strategies.
For many reasons, that’s worth remembering.
Notice the pervasiveness of the metanarrative around podcasting: it’s a kind of niche fandom that, like music in some ways, compels people to try to listen to everything or at least, to have an opinion.
Now, with the number of podcasts proliferating rapidly, this might change. Perhaps not. Maybe the ‘uberlistener’ archetype may yet survive and thrive.
Questions podcast needs to answer
What could a critical culture around podcasting look like, and why is it important?
In addition to traditional written criticism, what other form could podcast reviewing take?
Could critical discourse around podcast episodes negatively influence or clash with some podcasts' aim of making money — either by undermining their craft or by discouraging audiences? Has criticism ever been that influential to the bulk of an audience?
Are awards and prizes sufficient as mechanisms of evaluation?
Who writes criticism for sites like RadioDoc Review, Kill Your Darlings and The Hot Pod Review (to name a few); what are they reviewing, and who is the audience for it? Is audio’s history set to remain an academic or invisible one?
The point of critique
It’s a maturation, formalisation and legitimisation of (sometimes ephemeral) creative work; also, an historical line in the sand, if you like.
Criticism gives producers (and listeners) common terms and language, points of reference, ways to discuss and share and further ideas. Those are all tools that could raise standards, and fast-track formal innovation.
Criticism is also a way of refocusing the discussions around the form, which are increasingly crowded and distracting.
External evaluation can bring producers out of the myopic, too-close-to-the-work view that can arise from being the one who made it — giving them perspective on their work.