Tuning in to Soundwriting

The Bandwidth of Podcasting

by Eric Detweiler

3. A Taxonomy of Podcast Genres

The first genre in my tentative taxonomy of podcasts: educational podcasts (Bowie, 2012a). Such podcasts might range from unedited audio lectures uploaded to a course website to slickly produced shows like TED Talks Daily. Disparities in production value aside, this podcast genre typically revolves around one person, or occasionally more than one, offering information or instruction to listeners. Unsurprisingly, it was this genre that first drew many teachers to podcasting. Especially with the rise of platforms like iTunes U (which Apple has since discontinued), the possibilities and challenges of creating and distributing audio versions of lectures and other course content prompted a flurry of scholarship in the early 2000s (Krause, 2006; Zdenek, 2009). Organizations like the Quick and Dirty Tips network and the TED empire have kept this genre going (Bowie, 2012a), but it's become a smaller part of the podcasting landscape as other genres have grown in popularity.

Second, interview podcasts. This genre of podcasts stretches back to the politically focused interviews Christopher Lydon posted to Radio Open Source and builds on interview-based radio shows that were around long before RSS feeds. It's remained a staple of the medium, with hosts and producers mashing up and experimenting with a range of interview styles, tones, and sonic approaches. These podcasts typically feature a regular host who interviews a rotating slate of guests. The tone of interview podcasts is often comedic and intimate, mixing elements of drivetime and late-night radio with elements of more staid interview-based radio shows like WHYY's Fresh Air. Interview podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron and Why Won't You Date Me? with Nicole Byer, both hosted by comedians, bear the residue of comedians' early willingness to launch their own podcasts, sometimes with the explicit intention of competing with shows on traditional AM and FM radio stations (Farivar, 2014). However, there are plenty of interview podcasts that take a less comedic approach (e.g., Conversations with People Who Hate Me, Longform).

Third, discussion podcasts. Unlike interview podcasts, these shows typically feature a group of hosts—sometimes a pair, sometimes more. Like interview podcasts, the hosts' personalities may play a significant role in a given podcast's tone and draw, but the thematic focus of such shows is often more narrowly defined and less dependent on the background or interests of a featured guest. Discussion podcasts might focus on politics (e.g., In the Thick, Politically Re-Active), the intersections of race and popular culture (e.g., All My Relations, The Nod, Still Processing), video games (e.g., Not Your Mama's Gamer, Triple Click), or a slew of other topics. For those new to podcasting, particularly those interested in teaching or assigning podcasts, it's worth noting that the production quality of discussion podcasts varies dramatically, and their appeal depends on listeners appreciating both the podcast's topic and the sensibilities of its hosts, which can make for an extremely narrow target audience. Plenty of discussion podcasts are just groups of friends or colleagues with little background in audio production recording unedited conversations via platforms like Skype or Zoom. That means episodes often contain all the digital lag and audio glitches you would expect from a Zoom conversation.

That said, I don't want to be too quick to dismiss such podcasts. Recording issues and lack of editing aside, such shows can manifest podcasting's democratic potential. While artfully produced podcasts are propelling the medium to new sonic heights, they are often created by people with access to prohibitively expensive software and hardware, teams of seasoned audio professionals, and other forms of capital that fly in the face of the do-it-yourself ethos of podcasting's early days. Thus, even scholars and students capable of producing polished audio projects could justify going lo-fi as an ethical and political imperative. Moreover, lo-fi podcasts can serve as less daunting models for students without extensive audio-editing experience, making podcasting feel like a more accessible medium in which to work. Finally, we should not dismiss the possibility that the visible seams of amateur podcasts, the moments that strike most listeners as sloppy or crude, are where invention is happening. Early iterations of new media often feel most disjointed when they try to do something novel rather than following in the footsteps of established media and genres that audiences have learned to recognize and interpret. Perhaps what we hear as chaos is a new inventive order to which we aren't yet fully dialed in.

Last but not least, narrative podcasts. This category includes shows like This American Life and Radiolab as well as influential podcasts like Serial and S-Town. In Out on the Wire: Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, Jessica Abel (2015) boldly claimed that this subset of podcasts is "the most fertile ground for narrative non-fiction in English-language media" (p. 2). Abel's book focused primarily on a crop of NPR-affiliated podcasts and radio shows that grew out of This American Life and that are especially reliant on the sensibilities of that show's longtime host, Ira Glass. Both Serial and S-Town were directly supported and promoted by This American Life, and as Abel documented, many other NPR-adjacent podcasts owe a great deal to Glass's process and style. That's not a bad thing, but let me note that these shows, and Glass and NPR in particular, have had a disproportionate effect on public perception of what narrative podcasts do and should sound like. Because of their backing from established media entities, these shows also have better infrastructure—in terms of both financial support and production resources—than most podcasts (consider Kern, 2008, p. 324). And while Serial and S-Town were, with the exception of the former show's pilot, born as podcasts, This American Life and Radiolab are both broadcast on the radio before being released online, so calling them podcasts is a little like calling a broadcast television show like The Good Place (Schur et al., 2016–2020) a web series because you watched it using a streaming service like Netflix.

That said, the people involved with this set of shows have done significant work reimagining and pushing what podcasts can do when freed from the conceptual and scheduling constraints of broadcast radio.6 6 For a list that includes many of the most influential and innovative NPR-affiliated podcasts, a number of which are syndicated radio shows, see Abel, 2015, pp. 222–225. They incorporate some of the most compelling aspects of the three genres described above: interviews with experts and local stakeholders relevant to their stories, discussions between members of the production team about their investments in and approaches to those stories, and, in many cases, a sort of educational mission or bent. Glass described radio as "a peculiarly didactic medium. It's not enough to tell a little story. You also have to explain what it means" (quoted in Abel, 2015, p. 20, see also pp. 130–134). They have also developed inventive, envelope-pushing narrative strategies. For example, without giving away too much, S-Town opens with all the trappings of a true crime story, but twists and turns itself into a number of other genres before coming to a conclusion. Meanwhile, Radiolab walks the line between narrative-driven and more didactic lesson-driven approaches by presenting scientific ideas and abstract concepts as characters (Abel, 2015, p. 89).

But Glass and company are far from alone here, and their work should not drown out the chorus of other podcasters and networks doing innovative work with stories both fictional and non-. A noteworthy example is Roman Mars's 99% Invisible, one of the most well-known podcasts without NPR ties. The show, now affiliated with the Radiotopia network, is "about all the thought that goes into the things we don't think about—the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world" (The Show, n.d.). Mars's approach is fairly educational and didactic, but draws listeners' attention to unnoticed things through interviews and narrative components and has influenced many podcasters within and beyond the limits of public radio. 99% Invisible is far from the only standout here, though. The list of podcasts creatively pushing and shuffling narrative boundaries includes Gimlet Media's Reply All, which switches between discussion-oriented debriefs on internet culture and complex nonfiction storytelling (Vogt & Goldman, 2015, 2016a, 2016b); the fictional tales unfurled by various podcasts supported by Night Vale Presents (e.g., Alice Isn't Dead, Welcome to Night Vale, Within the Wires) and Maximum Fun (e.g., The Adventure Zone, Mission to Zyxx); Radiotopia podcasts like Ear Hustle, which presents stories from inside San Quentin State Prison, and Ways of Hearing, each episode of which explores "a different way that the switch from analog to digital audio is influencing our perceptions" (Ways of Hearing, 2017); and The Daily from the New York Times, which takes a sonically inventive approach to narrative news stories.7 7 As I was making final copyedits to this chapter, two key members of Reply All's team left the podcast after "former colleagues accused them of rallying against a union effort that many employees of color saw as necessary for increasing diversity and creating a more equal workplace" at Gimlet Media (Robertson & Gross, 2021). Reply All thus represents two additional pressing issues in the world of podcasting: racial equity and labor conditions. As with many forms of digital media, people of color have emerged as influential and innovative practitioners of the art of podcasting, yet the media profiles, professional opportunities, and academic publications generated by podcasting—this chapter included—have disproportionately amplified white voices. Moreover, the DIY and freelance nature of much podcasting work can marginalize those who don't have the personal financial resources to support themselves as they find their way into the medium. Labor conditions and racial equity are thus significant concerns worth considering in podcasting assignments and courses. For example, one of the first things students listen to in my podcasting course is Code Switch's "Talk American" (Demby & Meraji, 2018), which details the prejudices faced by broadcasters and podcasters of color who have accents that are not stereotypically "white" (consider also Kumanyika, 2015). After listening to the episode, students discuss how issues of linguistic justice might inform their approaches to class assignments and extracurricular work with soundwriting.

With all these examples on the table, I should note how easily narrative podcasts could be broken into a plethora of standalone genres. Those genres might include storytelling podcasts like The Moth and RISK!, which feature individuals telling intimate, mostly unedited and sonically unadorned personal stories, and true crime podcasts like Dirty John and Missing and Murdered, which are prevalent enough to merit a category all their own. However, the podcasting landscape shifts so quickly that pinpointing genres in this more granular fashion—while a challenging intellectual exercise and, for me at least, a pretty good time—is a great way to see how fast a taxonomy becomes obsolete. For that reason, rather than adding genres or categorical schemas, I will leave it at the four overlapping genres described above.

Of course, podcasts and podcast trends come and go so fast that my examples for all four genres are limited by my own tastes and digital ecosystem. Moreover, some of the most interesting podcasts are combining genres in ways that all but defy description. In addition to S-Town, consider Within the Wires, which sounds like a guided meditation cassette but uses that genre to indirectly tell the story of the narrator's and fictional listener's intertwined lives in a dystopian society. Nevertheless, some awareness of these genres is helpful for teachers and scholars who want to create podcasts with a sense of what established and emerging conventions are shaping the medium or who want to be able to provide some degree of context when teaching podcasts and assigning podcast-related projects. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me reiterate that these genres, though predominant due to antecedent media and genres, the people and organizations who popularized podcasts, and the array of technologies involved in the medium's lo-fi and hi-fi manifestations, are in no way essential to the definition or limits of podcasting.

This is not just a theoretical point I am making in this chapter, but something I have tried to perform in my own podcasting work. In 2015, while I was still a PhD candidate and before I'd published any scholarship about podcasting, I launched a podcast called Rhetoricity. Most episodes of the podcast consist of interviews with rhetoric and writing scholars. However, as I explained in more detail elsewhere (Detweiler, 2018), I grew unsatisfied with straightforward interviews that could just as easily have been published and circulated in written form. For that reason, I began incorporating sonic excurses, musical themes, and soundscapes into interviews (Detweiler, 2016a, 2016c). More recently, I've produced episodes that attempt to blend the educational with the comic and the weird, including an episode in which the show is taken over by two bots (Detweiler, 2016b), a live performance of an unaired radio play written by Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 2014; Detweiler, 2018), and an explicit, performative defense of podcasting's propensity for weirdness (Detweiler, 2019). While these attempts sprung from my familiarity with established podcast genres and were influenced by everything from eighteenth-century German philosophy to jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington to the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, they are a part of my ongoing attempt to bend and blend extant genres and emerging media in novel ways. Given the field of rhetoric's longstanding ties to invention (Crowley, 2003), I see this kind of effort as just as relevant to rhetoric and writing studies as the work of analyzing others' podcasts or teaching students to work within recognizable genres.

In short, as soon as we start defining podcasts primarily in terms of this or that genre, we begin limiting the possibilities of a medium that is interesting and novel precisely because it is relatively free from the constraints that obligated broadcast radio to adopt certain styles and formats—even if the medium, like any medium, will inescapably follow in some of its predecessors' footsteps. It's with that in mind that I called attention to the disproportionate dominance of Glass's approach (Thorn, 2017), the limitations of my own examples, and caveats regarding my misgivings about discussion podcasts. And it's with that in mind that I now turn from genre to distribution.