Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution - Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019
by Jeremy Wade Morris
Anyone who has written about podcasting in the past two decades, and any scholar writing about new media in general, can easily feel a sense of frustration when trying to establish frameworks, definitions, and concepts for analyzing technologies and media that are constantly changing. Academic publishing is a slow business, and while this slowness has both advantages and disadvantages, it can feel unresponsive to current changes in our mediascapes. Like most new media, podcasts have changed drastically since the early web radio experiments of the 1990s and the audio blogging efforts of the early 2000s, ever since a journalist inadvertently gave us the term that now defines a vast, vibrant, and increasingly industrialized format. Podcasting was born in an era when using an RSS feed reader software program wasn’t unusual, and free amateur chatcasts were a dime a dozen. Today, podcasters barely need to know what RSS is, and they can make (and make money from) podcasts that cover myriad genres, from scripted fictions to investigative journalism to audio art. So, it is easy to sympathize with Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann when they open the Afterword to Podcasting: The Audio Media Revolution with the observation that: “There is an audacity in writing a ‘book’ about ‘podcasting’ – freezing a medium so fluid, malleable, and evolving in the fixed and immutable medium of ink on paper” (p. 227).
Fortunately for readers, Spinelli and Dann have not let this challenging contradiction stop them from mapping out valuable frameworks and offering format features that will certainly help future scholars of audio media. They are also humble enough, at many points throughout the book, to acknowledge that the audacity of the project means that there will inevitably be parts of their book that are speculative or may become outdated sooner than the authors would like. The book offers a useful combination of definitional and conceptual work at the macro level combined with case studies and analyses of specific podcasts. Rather than worrying about defining the medium now and in perpetuity, they keep their goals a bit more modest: “What we have attempted to create in these pages is not a document of the medium but a document of a moment of change in that medium, of a revolution that began in 2014 and is still unfolding” (p. 227). This move allows them some analytical flexibility and works to create a model for making sense of podcasting that feels generative rather than prescriptive.
Spinelli and Dann make the case that podcasting itself and, in particular, the moment in podcasting that emerged following the launch of the extremely popular true-crime podcast Serial, should be of significant interest to scholars in the field of audio media. The authors make the case, more clearly than most who study this topic, for focusing on the features that they believe make podcasting unique and distinct from what came before it as well as from other current digital media. The introduction provides a list of eleven features of podcasting – such as its status as a primarily mobile medium, its ability to garner global audiences, its ability to offer listeners control over the listening experience, its lack of dependence on traditional gatekeepers or broadcast schedules – that certainly provide podcast researchers with a number of claims to test, question, and expand upon. None of these claims will be particularly new to researchers of this format, and they clearly emerge from previous works on podcasting and radio, but they serve to reinforce the book’s point that podcasting, while similar to earlier audio media, still deserves special attention and still offers unique audio experiences for listeners and producers alike. In other words, as they assert early on, “This book […] seeks to describe podcasting as a creative medium distinct from radio, with its own unique modes of not just dissemination, but also production, listening, and engagement” (p. 2).
Spinelli and Dann also lay out how the book’s approach differs from extant work on podcasting. In particular, they argue that previous research on the subject in radio studies and media studies has suffered from a lack of genuine engagement with the aesthetic and artistic elements of individual podcasts and that scholars might be missing out on what more detailed textual analyses of specific examples of the form could tell us about the format in general. To address this gap, they offer a book with case studies of individual podcasts using multiple critical listening exercises. Each of the book’s main chapters takes up a different podcast (or type of podcast) and uses it to explore essential features of the format (e.g., “digital speech” on Radiolab, intimacy and empathy on Radiotopia’s podcasts, diversity and underrepresented voices on podcast platform Podium.me, narrative storytelling in Serial, community and audiences with Welcome to Night Vale, etc.). They also, wisely, complement their textual analyses of the shows with a production culture perspective, providing detailed production contexts for many of the shows that describe the mundane and everyday circumstances that shape how podcasts are born, made, distributed, and experienced. To this end, they interviewed 30 professionals in the podcasting industry, ranging from show hosts and producers (e.g., Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Kaitlin Prest of The Heart, Jonathan Mitchell of The Truth, etc.) to key industry figures (e.g., Julie Shapiro of Radiotopia and PRX, Ellen Horner of Audible.com, etc.).
The two authors alternate chapters, bringing their individual voice to each, yet the overall tone and dynamic of the book never felt inconsistent. The chapters range from closer textual analyses to more general case studies, but the methods never seem disparate, and the interviews with industry representatives add weight to the arguments and conclusions Spinelli and Dann draw. It speaks to the authors’ varied interests that an aesthetics-focused chapter on the effective (and sometimes ethically troubling) use of vocal intimacy and empathy in podcasts co-exists with a separate industry-focused chapter regarding Apple’s ranking and ratings charts and the ways that podcasters can (and often need to) manipulate the discovery algorithms in order to gain visibility on major podcast platforms. Because of this welcome variety, the text is an exceptionally useful addition to undergraduate and graduate level courses about podcasts or the podcasting industry, and it is quite easy to imaging playing in class or giving students the assignment to listen to one or two of the podcasts under discussion in any given chapter and pairing these with the listening and reading activities. The book covers both very well-known and well-discussed podcasts as well as a few more independent and lesser-known shows and initiatives, which allows the authors to question the oft-repeated depiction of podcasting as a democratic medium where anyone with a microphone can have their say.
The book’s greatest strength – its focus on the aesthetics, production choices, context, and histories of individual shows as a means to make generalizations about the format in general – is also the book’s biggest challenge and limitation. Although the seven main chapters do an admirable job of covering key texts (Radiolab, Scroobius Pip, Welcome to Night Vale, The Heart, Love and Radio, Lore, Serial, Distraction Pieces, The Truth, Gimlet Media’s shows) and novel narratives (such as pushing for diversity on Podium.me or the strategic rise of Blood Culture), one cannot help but feel that the generalizations they are make are based on a specific kind, and particularly privileged selection, of podcast (and podcast listener). The authors acknowledge the impossibility of their task – “it was only physically possible for us to reference a tiny handful of efforts to try and describe larger phenomena and more complex patterns” (p. 2) – and they point out some of their omissions, like chatcasts (which seems remarkably odd in 2021, given that the most popular/profitable podcast at the moment is The Joe Rogan Show). But in the vast world of podcasting, there are so many other notable genres and shows that highlight particular communities or offer other kinds of storytelling, discourse, and aesthetics (see Sarah Florini’s work on This Week in Blackness, the historical Making Gay History, the Indian and Cowboy Network, the sonic audio art explorations of The World According to Sound, etc.) that it is hard not to feel like there is a lot more to learn from the format by moving away from some of the texts that have already been extensively analyzed. I didn’t find myself wondering whether or not Spinelli and Dann’s assessments of the format were wrong, because their frameworks and conceptual contributions are genuinely helpful. Rather, I was wondering what an examination of other types of shows might have added to their definitions, and how it might have further advanced their analyses. Thankfully, in academic circles, this is less of a drawback than an opportunity for future scholars to take up.
While I bristle at casual references to podcasting as a “revolution” – given the format’s deep roots in radio, sound art, and other sonic forms as well as its steady and consistent rise in popularity over the last 20-plus years, which seem to make it anything but a viral development or sudden shift in ideas and practices – I was pleased to see Spinelli and Dann nuance the subtitle of the book by addressing the problematic nature of the term in a subsection of the introduction. They also temper claims of “revolution” with a healthy dose of historical analysis and skepticism towards hype cycles of the popular press. For example, in their chapter about independent podcasters and the state of independent podcasts that addresses the incursions of professionals into what was originally hoped could be an equal playing field of podcast production, they astutely note that “The very freedom that is granted by independence from the structures and concerns of networked, mass-market media is simultaneously limited by that freedom. They find themselves caught in what Julie Shapiro terms ‘a very tangled kind of desire’ where they wish to ‘do more and be creative and innovate’ but they are tied by the pragmatic realities of keeping their show running” (pp. 214-215). As the promises of podcasting collide with the realities of a podcasting industry, Spinelli and Dann seem to recognize that revolutions do not always redefine the playing field (see, not coincidentally, Spinelli 2000).
For Spinelli and Dann, then, the revolution lies less in the overly-hyped claims of Web 2.0-esque democratic notions that anyone anywhere can create content for the masses and more in the aesthetic changes and the shifts in the relationship between speakers and listeners that the format allows. They recognize that a podcast is not just an object to be consumed, rather, “a podcast is more than mere audio text, it is a relationship invited through an audio text between people involved in making and listening to that text and beyond” (p. 13). Our analyses and methods as podcast and audio media scholars must adapt accordingly.
So when Spinelli and Dann conclude with a romantic assertion along the lines of some of the more optimistic claims that get attached to all kinds of digital media – “To date[,] the podcasting revolution has invited media change in human and empathetic directions, it has reinvigorated the field of speech radio, allowed beautiful, moving and innovative audio to be produced, and has provided a range of fresh, unusual, and previously unheard voices a platform from which they can be heard” (p. 229) – it is hard to argue that this has not been the case, even if the whole development doesn’t quite amount to a revolution.