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Say No To Speed

The "speed-listening" trend has been facing some backlash recently.

I feel like there was a moment last summer when the practice of speed-listening to podcasts was the trend story every up-to-the-minute publication wanted to write. These so-called “podfasters” cited a few different motivations for wanting to listen to their favourite shows at high velocity, but it mostly came down to the desire to churn through ever more content, ever more efficiently. An effect borne of a passionate completism, perhaps. “We’re now in peak podcast — there are a lot of good shows, and not enough time to listen to them,” this “meet the podfasters” piece from BuzzFeed pointed out. Podcatchers like Overcast, Downcast, Google Podcasts and many others offer a variable playback speed option. Some work by literally increasing the speed of all the audio, while others identify and close up silences around the words. Judging by all the coverage, plenty of people were following Lifehacker’s advice and speeding up their shows for more efficient listening.

Fast forward twelve months, and I beginning to sense the seeds of a backlash to this speed listening movement. Lauren Murrow, senior editor at Wired, has penned a pithy paragraph under the evocative headline “Speed Listening and the Trouble with ‘Podfasters’” setting out her opposition to the practice and explaining why she thinks it’s a bad idea. The key section:

Listen to me, chipmunks—listen. Podcasting is an art, every choice subtle and intentional. You think Roman Mars exhales wistfully, just so, on a whim?! When you blow through an episode, you’re gutting the experience of its hard-won nuance and cadence.

This echoes conversations I’ve had with people who still like to speed listen, who assure me that they don’t do it for shows where the sound design is integral to the piece — admitting, therefore, that something of the creator’s work is lost when it whizzes past so fast. Of course it is.

Bello Collective‘s Calen Cross wrote recently of how he had fallen out of love with podcast listening, succumbing to negativity and the pressure to keep up with all of his subscriptions at a time when the state of the world meant that factors like health, work and politics needed more of his attention. He needed a “hard reset” and to give himself permission not to try and keep up with everything, even if he wasn’t enjoying it. It’s the same completist attitude that many podfasters cite that was needling away at him.

Speaking at the provocations session on the first night of Third Coast, NPR’s Sam Sanders said something that resonated with this, too. “We are not meant to live in a constant state of chaos. If all the news is always breaking all the time, we are broken too,” he declared. For me, this linked back to Murrow’s point about why the continual effort to “inhale” content is no lifehack but rather a destructive habit: if we feel uneasy and worried, we should “blame the relentless babble that’s blasting your brain to mush”, she wrote. The fear of missing important news can do this just as easily as a sped up podcast.

Podcasts can absolutely be part of this constant media churn, as smart speaker briefings and daily news shows become more widespread. But since the form can also be free of schedule and broadcast constraints, it can offer an alternative to the noise. I wrote a few weeks ago about the BBC’s fresh foray into “slow radio,” via the sounds of a cathedral interior and a zoo at nighttime, intended as a haven for listener strung out on too much current affairs. As podcasting grows, it has to acquire the same kind of spaces and attitude — it’s not a clever “hack” to try and keep up with them all, but rather a terrifying, unending sort of mental torture. A perverted audio FOMO.

Essentially, it’s more than OK to say ‘I haven’t listened to that, and I probably won’t,’ is what I’m trying to say.

Nick Quah — Just butting in here to bring up something: this podfasting story makes me think of a weird, rambling, but absolutely thought-provoking keynote address that the filmmaker Steven Soderbergh gave in 2013, where one of the (many, many) things he talks about is his consternation over the sight of a man pulling out an iPad loaded with action movies only to watch nothing but the fight sequences. Completely different things, of course: podcast and film, efficiency and action sequences, bla bla bla. But there’s something about the way the two “problems,” such as they are, are linked by a selectivity on the part of the audience, a deep divergence from the creator’s intent and audience proclivity, and what feels like a commodification or reduction of the intended experience. Or to sum it up another way: it’s a manifestation of the tension between the creator’s vision and audience needs, and it is also one of the more prominent effects of media-technological change over the past decade which seems to increasingly stack towards audience control. (Consider that Netflix is reportedly producing an interactive “choose-your-own-adventure” episode of Black Mirror, which I think is a sharp representation of this.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve always been ambivalent about the whole “podfasting” thing — whether it’s good or bad, in so far as questions like these can be broken down as good or bad, and so on. I generally think audiences should feel free to consume however feels best to them. I also think that the conversation skips over the different ways in which a podcast can exist: genres, formats, purposes, and so on. You could argue that a great many podcasts aren’t effectively edited for on-demand attention, and so speed-listening is a signal of that inefficiency. (When asked about this question, I often say that very few podcasts are built to hold your attention the whole way. Not as a critique, mind you, just an observation.) You could also argue that it’s a sign that consumer brains are fitfully fried, rewired, or just plain broken in the late capitalism of the year of our lord 2018. (I am one such broken person.) Both are probably true at the exact same time.

Anyway, I’m not doing that Soderbergh speech any justice — it’s about so many other things as well, and in a lot of ways, it speaks very lightly to this moment in our community — so I recommend checking a reprint of it on Deadline. It’s a little high-and-mighty in places, but it’s something I think about every once in a while. You know, like right now.