Issue 229,  published October 8, 2019

First Draft

Vulture rolled out a fairly chunky week-long package on podcasts, and I had the pleasure of contributing a bunch of pieces and generally helping shape the feel of the whole thing. The anchor, I think, was an essay I wrote that sought to frame the brief history of podcasting so far, which broadly organizes the timeline around three discrete eras, or alternately, around two turning points. That piece was supplemented with a zippy guide to podcast apps, generally oriented towards casual consumers and newcomers who may have fewer opinions about things like speed-listening and more feelings about the core question of “how the hell do I actually use one of these things?”

The bulk of the package, however, took the form of an assortment of lists — what else? — that presents readers with “essential picks” from several genres. I assembled the collections for Narrative Nonfiction, Conversation, and Fiction, while Becca James took Comedy, Rebecca Lavoie took True Crime, Leon Neyfakh took News & Politics, and Wil Williams, rounding things out, took Pop Culture.

Between the essays and the lists, the underlying hope behind the package, at least for me, was to produce something that could be reasonably taken as a contextualizing historical snapshot, one that’s, well, accurate, first and foremostly, but also comprehensible and valuable to readers who don’t know much about the medium in the first place… which is to say, most other people. (Which is also to say, I hoped to produce something that could help my parents understand what it is, exactly, I do for a living.)

So, with the essay, the idea was to lay out the historical moment that the podcast ecosystem currently finds itself in and how it got here. Meanwhile, with the lists, our organizing principle was to mimic the Criterion Collection, the company that focuses on curating “important classic and contemporary films” for film aficionados, in that the goal was to identify for casual readers the podcasts we thought were important to or embodied something about how we currently understand the historical development of podcasting as a whole.

Now, as is customary in these content farmlands, these lists were limited to just ten entries, and as such, part of the challenge involves reckoning with noteworthy omissions in favor of making certain statements. My thinking here: the selections and omissions of any and all lists are absolutely debatable, but they are also all defensible. This is also my way of saying: I’ve received and read all your emails, DMs, and @-replies about shows I missed — and occasionally, about how much of an idiot I am — and I hear you. Indeed, I here for you.

I should also say: I’m keenly aware that any conscious attempt to “create historical snapshots” carries with it a certain quality of douchebag pretension. Which is, you know, totally true, but the challenge was attractive nonetheless. If anything, it was yet another opportunity to properly grapple with the three fundamental complications that have long haunted the work I’ve done in this newsletter. Namely:

  • Grappling with the difficulty of making a confident observation within the context of podcasting’s relative newness;
  • The persistent difficulty of saying something definitive within the context of podcasting’s actual knowability, given what continues to be the wanting state of its analytics (if you’re having a conversation about the “greatest pods of all time,” it would be nice to back that up with trustworthy download numbers as a default); and
  • Podcasting still-structural nature of being infinitely open, which leaves any historical interpretation open to critiques of omission (for example, what of the universe of wrestling podcasts, to which I have historically paid little-to-no attention?).

As with the package, there hasn’t been a week that goes by where I’m not constantly perturbed by the feeling that I’m either (a) taking podcasting too seriously; (b) that I don’t actually know what’s going on; or (c) that I’ve missed something I shouldn’t miss. Hot Pod turns five next month, and let me tell ya: the feeling has only gotten worse the more I know.

Anyway, now that the package is fully out, I think I can say: I’m more satisfied-than-not with how my end of the bargain turned out. That said, I’m the kind of person who wildly relates to David Fincher’s feeling that “movies aren’t finished, they’re abandoned” — here’s that douchebag pretension again — and, like most other people who have worked on projects of any sort, I wished I had more time to work on it. (Would that extra time have been helpful? Probably not, but still.) In any case, I’m proud of the package, I had a ton of fun working on it, and I hope you get some fun out of checking it out. Shout-out to my handlers Ray and Neil, over at the site.