Mastering Effects: Podcasts and the Authoritarian Voice

Roy Lichtenstein, Portable Radio, 1962

Roy Lichtenstein, Portable Radio, 1962

When I was in middle school, whatever hours I hadn’t reserved for studying or friends were usually spent at home, often lying supine in my bed, next to which I kept a radio tuned to KCRW, one of Southern California’s NPR affiliates. The station broadcast from the wealthy, mostly white city of Santa Monica, about a ten-mile drive on the 405 from my South Los Angeles home. Within the scheme of Los Angeles’ distended geography, that ten miles rendered Santa Monica a foreign land; KCRW collapsed the distance and served as my introduction to a broad, cosmopolitan idea of culture. At night, DJs Garth Trinidad and Jason Bentley introduced me to an eclectic range of music, from Burning Spear to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Frankie Knuckles. In the day, Michael Silverblatt’s interviews on Bookworm taught me how to read in discerning, loving fashion; which is to say that Silverblatt taught me, in part, how to write. On weekend afternoons, This American Life emboldened me to begin scribbling my own stories in notebooks.

When I think about those days and nights spent lying next to my radio, what I recall most vividly is a powerful sense of intimacy. Listening to the radio wasn’t just about being audience to another. It was about being party to an aesthetic phenomenon. I can never shake the feeling that human beings rooted in a specific time and place were speaking to me in my specific time and place, shepherding me towards a broader cultural fabric whose textures I wanted to weave myself into.

As the critic Susan Douglas argues in her 1999 study, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, multiple and increasingly diverse generations of Americans have turned to radio as a source of cultural nourishment. From the radio dramas of the 1930s, to the progressive rock stations of the 1970s, to NPR’s early experiments with sound collage and the personal essay, to hip hop stations like Los Angeles’ original KDAY 1580, radio has been the hub of various imagined communities to which individuals can yoke their own experience. Radio’s intimacy derives in part from the unique demands audio broadcasting places upon our minds: the medium constructs an audience that it subsequently invites “to participate actively in the production of the show at hand.” At bottom, this production is always the imagining of a broader community wherein the border between audience and performer fluctuates incessantly. Insofar as radio asks listeners to be present, attentive, and marshal their imaginative resources to enter into this community, it demands collaboration rather than consumption.

I find myself thinking about this conception of radio-based intimacy in relation to my obsession with a medium of more recent vintage: the podcast. Over the last two years, my relationship to podcasts has become umbilical: I spend my days in a near-constant state of greedy attachment, my earbuds tethering me to my phone, which is my lifeline to the steady diet of news and analysis that rivals reading as my chief mental sustenance these days. It’s rare that my ear buds aren’t hanging precariously from my head or wrapped around my neck, and when I’m forced to set them aside — say, while writing — I find myself distracted. Too often, when a sentence evades articulation and I’m struggling to hear my own thoughts, I find myself grasping absent-mindedly after my phantom phone like a hungry newborn, vaguely disappointed when my fingers find air instead of the comfort of a glass screen or my earbuds’ plastic casing.

In other words, podcasts have fostered an affective experience drastically different from what radio inspired. They often leave me feeling atomized rather than connected, distracted rather than present; the act of listening to podcasts imbues me with a distinct sense of mental loneliness alien to my experience of the radio.

I suspect that this affective shift has much to do the kinds of shows I most often consume: the current affairs podcasts that purport to synthesize the news and serve it to you, often first thing in the morning. While I rarely turned to the radio for actual news, podcasts have become my chief source of political news. Today, there is no shortage of news to consume via podcast. To absorb all of this content, I spend up to four hours a day with plastic buds mashed into my ears, my brain saturated with the voices of journalists, politicos, and cultural commentators. I’m a walking receptacle for other people’s voices. This habit is not to be mistaken for a leisurely pleasure; it feels like a mental and emotional compulsion.

I’m curious, then, in teasing out the specific qualities of podcasting that has made it an ideal medium for consuming current affairs news at this political moment. What are the inherent qualities of these technologies that lead me to such drastically different affective and generic experiences? How do these technologies orient us in the world, and how do these orientations teach us to consume news in an era when information is information is abundant, but perspective is rare?

My attraction to podcasts began as a nostalgic attempt to recreate a version of my attachment to radio. I came rather late to the party, in 2014, when the popularity of Sarah Koenig’s true crime drama Serial drew my attention to the medium. Gradually, my repertoire expanded to shows like Here Be Monsters and The Organist; I even found old radio favorites like This American Life and Bookworm. I made up for my tardiness with great enthusiasm: nearly every evening, I’d lie down in my bed and luxuriate in the imaginative affordances of audio storytelling.

Things changed in the 2016 election’s aftermath. Shocked at Donald Trump’s victory, I wanted to effect a transformation. I determined to refashion myself — normally an aesthete largely uninterested in politics’ daily workings — as a citizen who kept constant tabs on the Trump administration’s machinations. While newspapers, magazines, Twitter, and newsletters all found purchase in my political life, podcasts became my favored news source. The medium was familiar and comfortable, and besides, the election’s tumult had generated a slew of current affairs podcasts dedicated to elucidating news cycles that had become as mercurial and erratic as the president who orchestrated them. NPR’s Up First, The New York TimesThe Daily, and Pod Save America all launched in the winter of 2017; meanwhile, public radio programs like KCRW’s Press Play and WNYC’s The Takeaway had adapted their daily broadcasts into podcasts.

But what made podcasts such a desirable delivery system for my current affairs habit?

Podcasts have the advantage of being a medium that constructs its audience as inherently passive. Though studies have shown that audio storytelling enlists our brains in ways that seem similar to radio’s capacity to demand collaboration from its audience, as Sirena Bergman has pointed out, podcasts are a technology we tend to consume when we are doing something else. I listen while commuting, cleaning, exercising, walking, or sometimes even grading my students’ essays. The podcast is an unobtrusive medium: it will inform you, or even better you, while you go on about your day, barely making a demand upon your attention. For my part, as my flurry of activism around Trump’s travel ban and immigration policies ceded ground to quotidian life’s pressures, this unobtrusive quality allowed me to live in a fantasy: being engaged could be as simple as becoming a consumer.

Podcasting’s status as a particularly Web 2.0 technological phenomenon contributes to this sense of unobtrusiveness. It conforms to the logic of interminable consumption on demand, allowing us to become our own DJs, choosing which shows to hear when and where we please. If you happen to be distracted while listening to something, it doesn’t matter — you can simply rewind, or listen to the show again at a later date. This is in contrast to the radio, which commands our attention rather than complying with quotidian demands. Listening to the radio requires you be in a particular place at a particular time, and to fully invest your attention. This investment enables feelings that I rarely associate with podcasting — a pervasive atmosphere of sublime surprise and anticipation, a sense of coming into contact with what Benjamin termed “aura,” the presence that an artwork accrues by being situated in a particular place and time.

This sense of radio as a platform for art that possesses its own aura is key to the technology’s history. Shortly after the radio became a widely available consumer technology in mid-twentieth century America, radio broadcasting matured into a hotbed of avant-garde aural experimentation. With remarkable speed, storytellers seized upon the medium as a vehicle for testing sound’s capacity to convey narrative. The medium found its champions in early theorists of audio storytelling who thought that decoupling sound from the voice — and therefore from meaning — had the capacity to be revolutionary. For example, the German art critic and film theorist Rudolf Arnheim asserted that the pure aurality that characterized radio could reshape the imagination. In his 1936 book Radio as Sound, Arnheim wrote rapturously of radio as a medium that “tends to become the auditory foil of daily occupations, attracting sporadic attention, but not really commanding its audience,” so that the introduction of sound into the tyranny of quotidian discourse could usher the mind into a state of wandering that resembles aesthetic reflection.

Radio broadcasters heeded Arnheim’s vision of radio as a foil to the quotidian. As Jeff Porter recounts in his literary history of American radio storytelling, Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling, radio producers, composers, and writers experimented with what Porter calls acoustic drift, or a purposeful straying from the idea of sound as merely a mode for conveying meaning. Early audio storytellers produced stories that not only practiced modernist fragmentation of perspective, but privileged sound over the voice so that they could investigate the qualities of sound that were irreducible to language. Paradigmatic modernist practitioners like Antonin Artaud and T.S. Eliot seized upon radio technology to introduce sound-centered storytelling that disrupted meaning by decentering the voice, making it yet another sound among many. In Derridean terms, the focus on aurality revealed the unity of thought and sound in the word as a fantasy; sound became something that existed exterior to and before the human voice whose speech brought sense the world.

Porter cites Orson Welles’ landmark radio production The War of the Worlds as an example. During the scene at Grover’s Mill, the New Jersey town that is the epicenter of an extraterrestrial invasion where onlookers discover a piece of alien technology, Welles introduced a disorienting sound effect: the sound of a lid being unscrewed from an empty jar stands in for the alien artifact. Reporter Carl Phillips — the closest thing to a narrator the radio drama presents — invites the audience to listen to the resulting humming sound, and wonders aloud what the sound might be. This state of wondering is a crucial moment when sound throws voice into disarray, and invites the audience to unmoor itself from quotidian sense. Listening along with Phillips, we drift into an aesthetic realm organized around sound.

This disruption of speech and sense was disorienting enough that it threw the audience’s perception of reality into disarray as well. In response to some mild panic caused by confusion over the broadcast’s status as fiction, police officers filed into the CBS studios in an attempt to stop the production. Pure sound’s capacity to summon the censure of state authority fascinates me because it speaks to sound’s capacity to unsettle what the French critic Michel Poizat termed the “mastering effect,” or the tendency for the voice to suture sound to the prerogatives of master narratives such that difference is always rendered peripheral. If master narratives would relegate difference to the margins, then the pure sound that radio storytelling introduced into American households could recover that difference and make it available for reflection.

Nam June Paik, Untitled [Bakelite Robot], 2002

Nam June Paik, Untitled [Bakelite Robot], 2002

Though few podcasts utilize the potential of pure sound the way that early broadcast radio storytelling did — I can’t think of a podcast that manages to collapse the distance between reality and fiction the way that The War of the Worlds sought to — this new medium for audio storytelling does gesture towards a nascent capacity for acoustic drift. Podcasts often feature prominent narrators playing the role of expert or curious learner, and in that sense represent a return of the voice to prominence; but podcasts also utilize these narrators’ voices in a way that frustrates the mastering effect.

After all, the craze over current affairs podcasts is a relatively recent development in the medium’s history, inextricably tied to angst over the Trump administration — a kind of liberal response to conservative talk radio. The wide availability of smart phones and podcast distribution platforms have helped catalyze a renaissance of audio broadcasting, but that revival has primarily bolstered non-news genres. The beneficiaries of the podcast boom have been popular episodic narratives such as Koenig’s Serial and the related S-Town, and experimental comedy podcasts like Bodega Boys and Comedy Bang! Bang! While these shows vary in format and aim, a series of formal commitments peculiar to podcasting unites them. As Jonah Weiner has written in Slate, they are often bereft of a single narrative voice that shepherds the reader through a story or organizes information into easily digestible narratives. Rather, series like Serial present a cacophony of voices through which the listener has to sort. While a narrator is present in some sense, their presence functions as a formal tool by which hosts and producers perform a modernist dramatization of the absence of an authoritative or authorized perspective.

Take the third season of Serial as an example: the second episode of Koenig’s podcast finds her in a narrative platoon with her co-producer Emmanuel Dzotsi, who gathers myriad stories illustrating the arbitrary nature of criminal justice in a Cleveland courthouse. Koenig does not do on-the-ground reporting for this episode; as a result, her voice is relegated to the role of outsider trying to understand Dzotsi’s kaleidoscopic reporting. She’s less a narrator than a proxy for the audience — every so often she will chime in to ask a question, request clarification, or express dismay at the fickle nature of judgment in the courthouse. Even Dzotsi himself shares his role as reporter with the voices of subjects like Judge Daniel Gaul, who wields his authority over criminal defendants like a capricious king, and Carlton Heard, a defendant who agrees to an illegal plea deal that Gaul offers just before a jury arrives to hear his case. These voices multiply throughout the episode, forcing us to confront what begins as a single story from dozens of perspectives.

The effect of encountering so many voices refusing to cohere around a narrative center is disorienting but effective. The story gestures towards a just climax — Judge Gaul’s superiors on the Ohio Supreme Court censure him for abusing his authority over Heard, and the defendant is released after appealing his case — but ultimately backs away from it. At the moment when the audience most expects a tidy conclusion, the narrative decomposes. The episode’s attempt to dramatize the arbitrary yet seemingly unlimited power of the American criminal justice system finds an effective delivery system — literary Modernist fragmentation. This fragmentation produces a dizzying number of perspectives that deny the audience the satisfaction of a stable position. There is no lesson to absorb by the episode’s end, no solution to the broken criminal justice system whose workings it unfolds. Koenig and Dzotsi leave us in an ethically ambiguous position, prompting us into critical reflection rather than instructing us on what action to undertake.

The comparison between podcasting and radio can only go so far, however. They are, after all, fundamentally different technologies. While the content they deliver might be similar — many podcasts are just digitally distributed versions of radio broadcasts — the way in which podcasts deliver and allow us to consume that content alters how we relate to audio storytelling. Radio audiences are fundamentally outward facing, with listeners taking part in a participatory, time and place specific experience someone else initiates. Despite its capacity to trigger aesthetic reflection by freeing audiences from quotidian concerns, the radio requires that its audiences be in the world. Podcasts provide an illusion of connection by loosening us from the demands of listening in at an appointed time, and allowing us to listen in ways and for lengths that were previously unimaginable. Like the appearance of push notifications that greet us with unceasing political news when we awake in the morning, podcasts seem bereft of aura, just another facet in a media landscape that demands nothing more than a claim on our mental bandwidth.

Given the unique ways in which audio storytelling impacts the brain, I’ve begun to wonder at the impact of podcasts — current affairs podcasts in particular — on our ability to process information in a way that allows us to reflect on our moment, rather than simply scurrying to remain “informed.” Does the incessant presence of news impact our ability to actually think critically about our political moment?

Nathalie du Pasquier, Room with Radio, 1984

Nathalie du Pasquier, Room with Radio, 1984

Writing in appreciation of The New York Times’ current affairs podcast The Daily, The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead confessed to a dependency on reporter Michael Barbaro’s “conversational and intimate voice.” Her appreciation hits upon the formal quality that might best explain the proliferation and popularity of current affairs podcasts. These shows take advantage of podcasting’s formal conventions: The Daily often unfolds like a segment of This American Life, pulling the curtain back on the process of running down and writing a story, so that news becomes a reporter’s individual narrative. In this way, it creates a sense of intimacy between host and audience. This is part of a broader fantasy that journalists and commentators can transform our political moment’s nauseating, nightmarish lurching from one news cycle to another into a series of comforting informal conversations between cordial, soft-spoken, intelligent friends. Eavesdropping on these conversations, we find the solace of explanation amid the onrush of news.

Podcasts curate this surge of stories into a larger Story in which our political chaos becomes digestible, or at least legible. In this sense, The Daily and similar shows back away from audio storytelling’s more modernist tendencies. If the problem is that our political moment has rendered our previously predictable national political narrative — characterized by the staid Beltway journalism of outlets like The Hill — suddenly illegible, these podcasts want to create an ameliorative semblance of order. They pare back the thicket of social and economic problems that Trump’s presidency has illuminated, exacerbated, and created.

At what cost does this paring happen, though? In trying to make our current moment legible, podcasts restore the single voice to an authoritarian position. As with so many media outlets that attempt to cover the Trump administration’s doings, podcasts often end up channeling only one perspective: that of Donald Trump, the ringmaster whose actions we are constantly scurrying to keep up with. Trump dominates the media’s imagination such that he is the referent toward which all of our thought bends. Our constant scurrying to report on, analyze, and critique every stray word with which he floods the media landscape ultimately delays any critical reflection on our political moment. What seems necessary is the kind of aesthetic distance — the time and space for reflection — that my childhood radio once provided.

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