It would be an understatement to say that many of my friends listen to podcasts. They don’t just listen to podcasts — they talk about them, they love them, they support them, they wear T-shirts and socks promoting podcasts, and several of my friends (several, as in, four or five) produce their own podcasts — some of which have thousands of listeners.
And then there’s me. I try to listen to podcasts, but I just can’t.
I start with the best intentions, but even if I make it through an episode, I won’t have heard anything. I just hear talking — I don’t hear content at all. To enter my brain, words need to be written down, or I need to see the person who is speaking. I only absorb information through my eyes.
If you introduce yourself to me at a party, I will forget your name the very instant you tell me, unless you’re wearing a name tag.
If you give me directions, I need to see them on a map.
If I listen to a podcast, I will be looking around and I’ll absorb information from the world around me, not the world in my ears. I’ll see bus passengers or coffee shop menus or objects in my house. The words I read and the things I see will push aside the podcast until I completely lose track of anything that was said.
It’s not the content that’s the problem. I love Story Collider, the live show. It’s one of my favourite science-on-stage things. The podcast is exactly the same — it’s recordings from said live shows. Each episode of a podcast is about one sixth of the length of a live show, and selected to probably be the best story of a show, but it’s much harder for me to listen to. I’ve skipped many episodes. It’s a relief when I see an episode pop up with a story I’ve already heard, because I don’t have to listen to the episode. And this is a thing I love, in a format I love, about a topic I love! It really is that hard for me to listen to podcasts.
My greatest podcast achievement is that I managed to listen to all of Serial. I’m so proud! I didn’t start until after the last episode had aired, so I knew there was a finite amount of audio to get through, and it wasn’t too daunting. It had an end, and I had a goal. There were also a lot of recaps to remind you of what had happened before and who the voices were, so I could keep up with the story even if I didn’t remember everything I heard before.
It’s a bit easier when there’s music in the podcast. I register that I’m listening to music, whereas I can tune out spoken word completely at the first tiny distraction, so music in between talking will bring me back to the sound coming from my earphones, and I can listen again. I’m currently working my way through Welcome to Night Vale, which has music at about two thirds of the way into every episode. I still drift off, but when I get my “hey, you’re listening to a thing!” warning I know I can still make an effort to catch the last few minutes of talking. I love this show, by the way. It’s hilarious! I just have a hard time listening to it.
When I use words like “goal”, “relief”, “daunting”, “get through”, “make an effort”, “have to”, and “working my way through” it doesn’t sound like I’m particularly enjoying podcasts, does it? It’s true, I’m not. It really is a chore. I listen because the topic is interesting, or because I know the people on the podcast, or because everyone is talking about a podcast or people have recommended it to me. I think I might miss something by not listening, but I miss it all even if I do try to listen.
Hours of podcast listening attempts later, I still never got used to the medium.
Video, on the other hand, my greedy eyeballs absorb without any effort. If someone talks in a video, I hear it all. PBS Idea Channel is not that different from many podcasts in terms of content. Episodes are usually about a far-fetched comparison between a pop culture thing and a complex topic. There is nothing in the videos that is crucial to the words that are being spoken. You can close your eyes and get the exact same value of content, just without silly gifs and without seeing the host. But I can’t do that. I need to watch to listen.
I need to see people talk, see their mouths move and their hands gesture. I need to look at pictures and read words to learn.
As long as I use my eyes, I can listen.