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Podcasts and the Authoritarian Voice


Open Space is San Francisco MoMA’s online magazine and “commissioning platform.” In a unique gesture, it regularly allows artists and writers to use the platform without editorial oversight, giving them freedom to post whatever they please. Oakland-based writer Ismail Muhammad has posted a nuanced reflection on the rapid growth and impact of podcasts. An admitted podcast addict himself, Muhammad speculates on why podcasts—especially news podcasts—have become so popular of late. He also examines the dynamics of distribution and listening associated podcasts, and compares these to traditional radio. He suggests that whereas radio constructs a community of listeners, podcasts tend towards individual consumption and authoritative—even authoritarian—voices. Here’s an excerpt:

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?

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