It’s amazing how easy it is, as you wade into the waters of on-demand audio, to forget to be a listener.
What you once did for pleasure, without giving it a second thought, becomes another distraction. It feels like a busman’s holiday, too much like spending your free time recycling the same experiences you battle through at work. And audio takes this to an extreme that most media doesn’t, because audio is so frequently passively consumed, especially during work hours. Many of my friends, whatever their jobs, listen to podcasts and radio while bashing away at emails or sitting through interminable all-hands meetings. But we — by which I mean: audio creators — can’t do this. I can’t listen to The Joe Rogan Experience whilst editing one of my shows. It would be a nightmare.
Which is why the act of being a listener can start to feel like labour, as you embark on your audio production journey. Indeed, I spend so much time with my heaphones on, professionally, that when I’m walking the dog, commuting or driving my car, it can feel nice just to be free of that aural assault. To have a few blissful moments with my own thoughts, rather than Kara Swisher’s or Lex Fridman’s.
My first observation here is that it’s ok to think of podcast listening as labour. In fact, I think that’s a good thing. I think it shows that you are computing it as an important part of the process of creating good audio.
One of the things that comes up most frequently when you read interviews with writers, or dip into any books on writing tips, is to set aside a part of your writing day, simply to read. An hour or two spent with work that is not your own will nurture your understanding of the world, expose you to other experiences, open your eyes to new and exciting ideas. It will show you things you love, and want to emulate, and things you hate, and want to avoid. But, crucially, it will save you from living in a vacuum.
The same is undoubtedly true of audio. This is not to say that you should slip into the mistake of making a pale facsimile of your favourite show. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a shortcut to professional ridicule. But the reality is that no cultural output in 2023 is exempt from influence. Some influences might be deliberate, some might be unintentional, some might even be untrue (I remember being told that my podcast was “clearly influenced” by Heavyweight, when I’d never heard an episode of that show; all the same, because the influence was felt, at the listener end, it was somehow consequential). But influence is unavoidable, and can be a profound force for good.
Often I meet people who make podcasts who seem to have all but given up listening to other people’s work. And I’ve been there myself: at the height of my productivity as a maker of current affairs podcasting (when I was producing and editing about 7 or 8 episodes a week) I gave up, entirely, my habit of listening to political podcasts. Before then, I had inhaled the entirety of the competition, in a way that was hugely influential on how I approached my producing. I knew whose work I admired and whose I thought was over-rated; I knew which publications were punchy and which were banal. But at a certain point it became too much. Too much of the same stuff in my ears, all the time, and I went cold turkey. Since then, I’ve never consistently listened to a current affairs podcast — though I’ve continued to produce a number of them.
That’s a worst case scenario, in a way, but it’s also not the end of the world. Because I haven’t given up listening to podcasts; in point of fact, I listen to as many great shows now as I ever have. The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t need to be listening to your nearest competitors, looking for angles you can beat them on or ideas you can purloin. Far better, really, is to take a broad outlook, to find exciting and diverse listens from the huge range of available audio. If I’m making a politics podcast, I might be as influenced by a sports show that I listen to, say, or a documentary about a cold case in the Arctic tundra, as I am by another political show. Because what we’re talking about here is broadening your horizons, exposing you to new audio ideas. Keeping you engaged with the medium.
Since that time that someone told me I was influenced by Heavyweight, when I wasn’t, I’ve gone back and listened to all of Jonathan Goldstein’s shows. And now, anything that I make is going to be influenced by Heavyweight, because it’s a phenomenal piece of programming. The same was true of Jon Ronson’s Butterfly Effect (where someone told me my show sounded a bit like his, even though I’d never heard it) which is now one of the first texts I cite as a creative influence.
The truth is that if you give up on listening, and just focus on creating, you will be like a blinkered horse. Except, you’re not on the final furlong of the Kentucky derby, you’re trekking across the open plains of Montana, the sun beating down, streams trickling past, the ground undulating before you like the crinkles in a bedsheet. And that’s where you need your peripheral vision, where you don’t want to be smashing headlong towards the finish line. Because podcasting is not something that can be won — not even, often, something that can be finished — but something that needs to be agile and iterative. Bad listeners make for bad creators. They plug into their own thoughts, and focus on the act of thinking, rather than the act of communicating. Hearing other people articulate — or struggle to articulate — complex ideas, is the best way to learn how to communicate yourself.
Good writing, good podcasting, good broadcasting: it’s all about effective communication. So whether you’re considering starting your journey as a podcaster, have just begun, or are many years into the process, don’t forget to keep listening. If you need to rope off an hour in your workday, just to keep up with the latest big or acclaimed shows, then do that. You can treat it as a work because it will make you a better worker. Just don’t allow yourself to slip into the audio creator’s classic dilemma, where days spent tuned into waveforms of your own creation make you increasingly reluctant to go out audio surfing.