The New York Times recently ran a devastatingly bad article about podcasts. The meta reading, as is so often the case, is that the article is about the New York Times itself and its view of culture, a view it shares with other elite media outlets.
The article profiles an abortive and unintentionally funny attempt at a podcast by two freelance writers who expected their mediocre efforts would be met with instant success. They were not, of course, but I suppose they were networked with the author of this piece and somehow consented to be interviewed. I don’t fault them for rolling the dice. Hell, failing and then being profiled in the NYT probably raises their profile, so it seems like a win-win.
But this is not just a story about a failed podcast. It’s a story about a failed podcast in the New York Times. The article focuses on only the largest podcasts (by audience), consigning everybody else to forgettability. It’s true that most podcasts don’t strike gold, and even more “fail” in the sense that they don’t catch on and eventually get abandoned by their producers. But this is true in many walks of life. Most new businesses fail. Most new products flop. Most new books are ignored by almost everybody. Would there be any point to writing an article about Peak Book?
Why am I giving the New York Times grief? Well, it’s only a small part of the podcasting world that is produced by large outlets you can see from 8th Avenue. There are many great podcasts out there with decent-sized audiences, a comfortable enough return for their producers, and probably no hope of ever getting on the radar of the elite media. I listen to as many as I have time for. (Sadly, there’s never enough time, especially during football season.) For example, The History of Byzantium is an excellent history podcast that is essentially one man’s passion project, with donations and some ads making it worth his time to keep it going. I couldn’t count the number of episodes of The Bible Geek podcast. Antiwar.com puts out a regular podcast I’m sure will never make the Times. These all have devoted listener bases but just aren’t big enough or official enough to attract notice in an elite media take on their field. A reader with no exposure to podcasts would have no idea of the richness of the field from reading the article, and in fact would get the opposite impression. NYT’s blinders with respect to organic, bottom-up cultural phenomena simply don’t allow them to tell the right story.
I’d love to continue and list more worthwhile podcasts, but I have to keep reading the multi-part Washington Post series about why summer is bad.