Image Description: A warmly lit room with a person sat concentrating and wearing earphones
Early 2020 saw the beginning of the UK’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and as a result, millions of people being ordered to stay at home. With seemingly endless restrictions on socializing, shared spaces, and attending events, it wasn’t long before production teams for television and films were brought to a halt, whilst, simultaneously, people around the world began to discover the finite nature of Netflix viewing. In a time where content consumption was skyrocketing, the creation of it was frozen in time. Amidst a global crisis, we encountered a second: what do we do once the well runs dry?
The answer is simple: podcasts. It seems that practically everybody has one, and why wouldn’t they? With minimal costs on staffing and the ease of transferring it into a context of social distancing and travel restrictions, the podcasting world offered itself up as the perfect solution. Podcasts, of course, have been rising in popularity since long before this year’s health crisis – as of 2019, the UK podcast audience was made up of over 1.7 million people, whilst, as of January 2021, there are over 43 million podcasts episodes available globally. It seems like an impossible-to-saturate market, with genres ranging from entertainment (comedy, interviews, or long-form conversations) to crime, to in-depth analysis of historical events.
In a year where welcoming strangers into our homes is undeniably ill-advised, podcasters invite us to observe and enjoy their lives, reminiscences, and relationships
Undeniably, this has been a long and lonely year – having spent the past twelve months living alone, podcasts have been a welcome companion. In a world abundant with genres and production values, there are some real favourites that stick out: Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP!), which has been a long-term adoration of mine, wherein Herring provides a ridiculous and revelationary conversation with comic guests, interspersing more serious questions with those from his Emergency Questions books; Adam Buxton’s podcast, which explores the lives and times of various guests, from Billy Connolly to Paul McCartney – and a personal favourite recurring guest, Louis Theroux – with varying degrees of digressions and giddy giggling; and, a more recent addition to my roster of favourites, the No More Jockeys podcast, with old friends Mark Watson, Tim Key, and Alex Horne, where the three play a categories-based game featuring inane chat and running jokes. The common theme in these three podcasts, to me, is the value of vicarious intimacy. In a year where welcoming strangers into our homes is undeniably ill-advised, podcasters invite us to observe and enjoy their lives, reminiscences, and relationships, in a way that provides a reasonable approximation of the social interactions that we so crave.
There’s something beautiful in the impact that can be had without visual aids; the lack of distractions or assumptions that we, often subconsciously, are drawn in by when watching something
That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed more linear podcasts: Jon Ronson’s The Last Days of August and Butterfly podcasts provide a clear narrative throughout each series, as Ronson explores the effects of public shaming, the porn world, and mental health, in two separate but thematically intertwined podcast series. Despite lacking the same unscripted and unedited hysteria, these investigative podcasts provide something similar to documentaries: emotional investment in characters and plotlines, high production value, and a narrative-driven structure. There’s something beautiful in the impact that can be had without visual aids; the lack of distractions or assumptions that we, often subconsciously, are drawn in by when watching something. The ability to entirely follow the story despite being in the shower, cooking dinner, or curling up under your bed-covers, and to be totally immersed and invested in it, is a credit to the craft of narrative podcasting, and a surprisingly liberating experience for the listener.
Regardless of the podcast’s theme, a constant throughout them is the lack of backdrop. No pristine Hollywood kitchens, no overtly dramatic horror-film editing, no flashy fashion: the backdrop is your kitchen, bed, or local park. You’re no longer intimidated or disconcerted by locations or wardrobes, and instead become free to imagine these disembodied voices however you wish, welcoming them into your life and home, at your most vulnerable, and without pressure to applaud, dress well, or react; free to snort with laughter, get emotional, or pick your nose, whilst still benefiting from this sense of presence. Whilst 2020 has been a sea of loss and crisis, I am glad to have had the little pleasure of podcasts to help keep me afloat.