Podcasts Against Loneliness

I didn’t always listen to podcasts. I had to start at some point.

If you’re reading a blog, you probably already know what a podcast is. In case you don’t, the easiest explanation is that a podcast is like a radio show you’ve Tivo’ed. There are podcasts that cover just about any topic you can imagine, but the most popular ones are generally NPR shows, I think. I don’t know; I don’t listen to any of the most popular ones.

I believe the first podcast I ever downloaded and listened to was Yo, Is This Racist?, hosted by Andrew Ti and Tawny Newsome. I haven’t listened to it in a long time but the format when I did was the hosts reading a letter/email from a listener about a situation and then trying to parse whether or not it was racist. The episodes were short and to the point, the hosts were engaging and friendly, and I learned a lot from it.

That, however, was just the vanguard. Soon after that I began subscribing and listening to a lot of them. But why, though? Why did I switch from listening to music, to listening to people talking about various things? Wha hoppen?

I knew what podcasts were long before I listened to them. I participated as a behind-the-scenes volunteer for 30-Hour Day, a video podcast live-streaming charity benefit featuring hosts Cami Kaos and Rick Turoczy, back in—ohmygod—2009, ten years ago. That live stream stemmed from a podcast: Strange Love Live. I knew what it was, I participated in a small way, but I didn’t actually listen to it or follow it. It was just part of the tech underground.

I knew Dan Harmon, writer and creator of Community, did weekly shows in front of a live audience that were recorded and released as podcasts, called Harmontown. I knew that from reading about the scandalous things he would often say about making the show and working with Sony, NBC, and Chevy Chase. I read these things on the AV Club back in—ohmygod—2012. But I didn’t listen to the podcasts and I didn’t subscribe.

I could come up with more examples prior to me taking that final step of downloading and playing that first podcast. And if you’ve read the title, you might have a good guess as to what it was.

In February 2013 I left my job at Multnomah County for the vague sense that I should be writing. I spent most of my time at home, alone, staring at a computer screen, and some of that time writing. The times I wasn’t writing, I was procrastinating by surfing, doing minor housecleaning, exercising, or otherwise dicking around not writing. And, quite honestly, I was a bit lonely.

Sure it was my choice. Sure, I still had family and friends to talk to and hang out with. Sure, I made new friends online when I took up scraping nickels off the internet by being a worker for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and joining some forums to learn how to do it better. But there was still the vast stretches of time when I was home, alone, with only the voices in my head to keep me company… unless I downloaded some podcasts and played them and listened to these people talk about smart things and funny things and serious things.

It didn’t take very long before silence felt weird, and I was putting on podcasts to go about my daily chores as a habit. If I ran out of podcasts to listen to, I’d get agitated until I found a new one, or dug back into the archives to re-listen to an older one that I particularly liked. I’d binge the whole run of a podcast and marvel at how it changed over time—a huge undertaking for something that has been going on forever, like The Incomparable (a podcast for which I am a paying member, because of how much entertainment Jason Snell and his friends have given me over the years).

I now understand why some older folks would leave the teevee on in the background while they were home. Some friendly voices to fill the empty spaces in the house.

Now that I’m working on a regular day job again, I don’t feel that need to have podcasts going 24/7, though I do still listen to them when I’m at home. I also a bit of a commute—30-40 minutes one way—and that is prime podcast-listenin’ time. But I also mix it up with music sometimes.

And sometimes… even silence. I think I’m slightly less lonely these days. That’s a good thing.