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The Joys and Opportunities of “Passive Podcasts”

Generally speaking, it’s usually assumed that podcasts require us to give them our attention. But what about the ones that don’t?

Even a cursory glance at the podcast charts would reveal that the bulk of popular shows tend to center around storytelling, informational, or educational experiences. And so, when we see something like WALKING — a podcast created by Jon Mooallem, the author and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large, which features him walking around Bainbridge Island with a voice recorder inside of a repurposed sock — rising to critical acclaim (however defined), it feels sort of eccentric in a pleasantly unfamiliar kind of way.

I’d argue that the concept of WALKING is broadly antithetical to what we usually think about when we think about podcasts: an audio show containing various blocks of information, narrative, advertisements, segue music, banter, and personality, sequenced and chopped up in some sort of aesthetically pleasing order. Instead of engaging the listener with news, story, or information, Mooallem’s podcast gives us crunching leaves, the sounds of footsteps in the snow, and the murmur of Pacific Northwest breeze. Hardly anything ever happens.

“I started it for my own amusement,” Jon Mooallem tells me when asked about the creation of WALKING. “So, it was extra enjoyable when people actually listened to it, and [I] found it to be worthwhile in situations I couldn’t have imagined, like while commuting, or in an office, doing physical therapy, or playing it to calm down their dog.”

The act of “passive listening” is nothing new, but its rising popularity is noteworthy. Today, you can find thousands tuning in daily to voiceless lo-fi hip-hop stations on YouTube to set a “chill” mood as a backdrop while they work or study, while millions rack up views of ASMR videos or hours-long footage of YouTubers simply walking through the streets in locales like Tokyo and Venice. Just last week, Lego dropped a “White Noise” playlist for fans who find comfort in the sounds of people building, dumping, or searching through Lego bricks. A few months ago, Netflix revealed an audio-only component to their platform, perhaps leaning harder into the notion of television as background noise.

All of these developments in other media suggest the question: Why hasn’t podcasting embraced this minimal, audio-forward content yet?

Last year, when the global market research firm Nielsen conducted a survey study on the pandemic’s recent wave of newly remote workers, they found that most remote workers tuned into podcasts, talk radio, and news radio on a weekly basis. They also reported that, of those surveyed, four out of ten people listened to “spoken word” audio –– that’s current-event podcasts and news/talk radio stations –– on a daily basis. As Nielsen saw it, these listeners seem to relate to such audio content as a reliable form of companionship. “Brands may want to tailor their messages to better capture the attention of multi-tasking listeners,” advised Peter Katsingris, Nielsen’s SVP of Audience Insights.

But should the emphasis be on “capturing attention”? Sleep With Me, a twice-weekly podcast that debuted in 2013 in which host Drew Ackerman bores his listeners to sleep, embraces the fact that most people multitask while listening to podcasts… or might not even be paying attention at all.

“More and more people are listening in 2020 and 2021,” Drew Ackerman tells me of Sleep With Me’s experience over the pandemic period. “I’ve had people who are coders or crafts people listen to the show as background noise or distraction while they’re working. And more people during 2020 were telling me, ‘I need something as a mental break from the day.’ Audio really excels at that.”

He continued: “I know people repurpose television, and there’s various platforms looking to kind of repurpose their content, but when I think audio-first content –– especially headphone-first content –– the intimacy is a huge strength.”

It only takes a quick glance at Sleep With Me’s podcast reviews to see how thankful the show’s fans are for Ackerman’s intentional boringness. ”My cat has learned that it’s not really bed time until he can hear Scooter’s voice,” says one reviewer. “I have been listening for the past year, and have never heard the end,” says another.

A bonus of creating a podcast intended to be background noise is that it’s often timeless, which is to say, there’s a very long tail to its value. Some shows are able to provide passive entertainment for years after publishing, despite a lack of updates. Dormant shows like PERSPECULUM, a short-lived podcast that, according to creator John Bauer, was a “reflection and a collection of real-life sounds,” and David Weinberg’s assortment of audio curiosities turned podcast, Random Tape, still stand the test of time in terms of conceptually interesting background audio. They’ve left behind dozens of episodes ready to be discovered by a new wave of listeners looking for passive audio.

Meanwhile, Field Recordings, a project helmed by Eleanor McDowall that showcases lengthy and uncut sounds sent in by various audio makers around the world, features a dense collection of timestamped moments from cities some of us will never visit. The episodes play out as a sort of audio travelogue, scratching an itch much like YouTube’s phenomenon of walking tour videos as well as Hulu’s open take on the genre, Vacation In Place. These beautiful, lush soundscapes are comparable to how ambient musician Brian Eno saw his first album Ambient 1: Music for Airports: “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

“Maybe I’m just very vulnerable to anything that [the poet] Mary Oliver says, but I like her reminder that, ‘To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,’” McDowall tells me on the creation of Field Recordings. “I love that image of her starting each day, waking up and standing outside with her notebook, listening to the world. So, I think there’s a personal reward just in taking that time to listen, I guess? And then a joy if it means something to anyone else –– however they hear it.”

The passive listening space seems to be overwhelmingly white. (No pun intended.) When looking for any BIPOCs who create soundscapes or raw field recordings on a platform like, say, Bandcamp, I’m struck by how options are limited. There’s the inventive Manchester duo Space Afrika, who creates music by directly sampling and responding to their surroundings, ambient artist Imka who crafts dreamscapes fitting for the cinema, and, according to a crowd-sourced list of Black artists on Bandcamp, BlackBandcamp.info, not much else can be found under the tags “field recordings,” “ambient,” or “found sounds.” Even within lo-fi hip-hop, an aesthetic-based genre of music whose artistic grandfathers are considered to be Japanese producer Nujabes and Black Detroit beatsmith J Dilla, there appears to be a clear lack of creators of color. Lo-fi hip-hop generally seems to take a surface approach to its aesthetic roots — whether it’s J Dilla flipping soulful samples of Black artists of yesteryear or Nujabes paying homage to the warmest palettes that jazz has to offer — watering them down to some faceless form of YouTube Muzak. In other words, lo-fi hip-hop is boneless jazz rap instrumentals by way of weeaboos.

It may be in ethnomusicology, the study of music from cultural and social aspects, where we can distinctly hear diversity within the field recording sphere. In the case of the album To Catch a Ghost: Field Recordings from Madagascar, producer Charles Brooks traveled to East Africa and lived among some of the nation’s most talented musicians. His work presents audio documentation of the musicians he encountered, who improvised their sounds in both formal and informal settings for Brooks to capture recordings of in their natural element. These aren’t passive listening experiences per se, and they were captured by a white man with expensive equipment, but they suggest a sort of cultural aspect as to why there may be a lack of non-white people within the field recording space in general: Both music and art aren’t typically passive in other nations.

Mara Tatevosian, an Iranian-Armenian radio host who presents Persian Rug: Sounds of a Different SWANA, which explores the regional music of Southwest Asia and North Africa, posits a similar theory. “My initial instinct –– entirely based on my own listening experiences; I’m sure others might disagree –– is that BIPOC from the SWANA region don’t indulge in passive listening, or even passive musical creation,” she told me. “Particularly because music is so ritualistic in these regions and often tied to ancient tradition, it seems unfitting to translate them for a passive setting.”

“With that being said, to a Western audience, I think there are many pieces of music that can be considered passive,” she continued. “Like the Armenian duduk is a deeply ritualistic instrument, but to many in the West, it’s a great instrument for ambient listening.”

There are shades of that idea in McDowall’s assessment of passive audio’s appeal. “I think a lot of the things we make –– regardless of whether or not they are ambient –– might be listened to quite passively,” she told me, while on the topic of her podcast. “As noise to fill an empty room, to help someone sleep, to offer a feeling of companionship… I love the multitude of ways audio can hold meaning to people.”

However those meanings may be defined is entirely up to the listener.