There has been a growth in the popularity of podcasts in recent years—both in the number being produced, and in those listening to them. I think part of the reason for this can be explained by the same psychologies that make sitcoms popular. Recurring characters in shows like Cheers, Friends or Big Bang Theory are your smart, funny friends that visit you every week. It’s a pseudo-social interaction, and I think ‘panel’ podcasts tickle similar synapses.
Even with political podcasts like FiveThirtyEight, regular contact with the same team means that listeners get to know a version of the panellists quite well. The long running Overthinking It podcast has even adopted ‘Your Smart Funny Friends From The Internet’ as its new strap-line. That show has developed so many in-jokes and short-hands that reward repeat listeners.
Of course, podcasting is an asymmetrical relationship: hosts may communicate with listeners via email or social media, but this reciprocal relationship is necessarily broader and shallower than the what the listeners get from the panellists. The people running a podcast may have a strong relationship with The Audience in aggregate but each individual listener is a stranger. Much as I would love to share a beer with (say) Jody Avirgan or Matthew Wrather, I would worry that would be a rather creepy experience for them, because I, as a listener, would speak as if I knew them already, whereas they have no idea who I am. In a very real way I have only been eavesdropping on their conversation, not participating in it.
How odd, then, to find myself as a guest on a podcast that I listen to, when gentlemen of Kraken invited me onto their weekly show. I usually experience their discussions as disembodied chat between my ears, but on this occasion I was able to step into that space myself, like Alice falling down a rabbit hole, or a character in a Michel Gondry film sucked into his own dreams. A physical world imposed upon an ephemeral space. Familiar voices coming out of the mouths of strangers. At one point during the recording, I closed my eyes. The weird, highly-specific physical world of the studio disappeared, leaving only the banter in my head. More real, somehow, than the actual sight of the studio.
Kraken is a four-handed podcast featuring Ian, Craig, Mazin and Joel. It’s now into its third year of weekly episodes. Each week, the co-hosts explore the depths of culture, politics, technology, and that; each week taking a Thing then diving into a related Question. My ‘special guest’ experience was for their Free Speech episode, which somehow began with me being confused with the acclaimed novelist Paul Auster. We discussed the morality of punching Nazis, the importance of power when discussing free speech, and whether you go Half Voltaire or Full Voltaire in your political debates. I will try to post more thoughts on those issues at a later date, but for now you can listen to the entire recording via the player above or on MixCloud.