Listening Richard Simmons

I’m exploring 100 podcasts and writing what I learn. This is No. 43

I finished Missing Richard Simmons today and it has me thinking all the things.

There’s so many themes to unpack: Celebrity culture worship, reality TV, public vs private persona, the power of narratives, the meaning of friendship. You could dissect the ethics and questions in a media studies class for a long time.

One clear takeaway: It’s a good story. (So much so that it can feel exploitive. What’s the line between personal and personal storytelling? This reminds me of early Dave Eggers.)

Missing Richard Simmons continues a micro trend of film and TV-trained storytellers (host Dan Taberski is a former Daily Show producer) pushing the storytelling boundaries of the podcast format. Gimlet Media is doing this too with Surprisingly Awesome, Homecoming and Crimetown).

Chewing on big themes is one of my favorite things about podcasts. I can finish a Radiolab episode and feel like my mind is blown. I want to discuss what I just heard with everyone, but good luck finding someone else who has finished the same episode in our endless podcasts queues at the same time.

But Missing Richard Simmons was different. It was a shared piece of culture in an asynchronous world. You could tweet about it and actually get a response from someone who had heard the same episode. The New York Times called it a “cult audio obsession.”

This hasn’t happened since… Serial. Maybe Serial gave us podcast nerds a false sense that podcasts were about to break through and become part of mainstream culture. We thought we could actually have a conversation with others about podcast and be on the same wavelength.

But that post-Serial podcast phenomenon never seemed to coalesce. It could be just me, but if I wanted to talk about Neal Pollack’s new podcast, I ended up pretty much just talking to myself and Neal Pollack. (Which is totally fine. No offense, Neal Pollack.)

But with Missing Richard Simmons, it felt like podcasts were once again inching toward the mainstream. We may not have found Richard Simmons, but we found the Missing Richard Simmons fans.