Issue 295,  published March 2, 2021

What’s in a name?

Chelsea Ursin started to consider a career in audio once she’d already started one, mostly by accident. She’d found herself volunteering for the scripted-and-performed children’s podcast Wow in the World, which broke open her assumption of what the medium could be. That assumption, in her words, was “blogger-type dudes chatting about things.”

Originally intending to publish a written memoir, Ursin fell in love with the possibilities of a story told verbally, changing course to create a narrated audio series instead of a book. The resulting show, Dear Young Rocker, combines letters from Ursin to her younger self and dramatized present-tense scenes. Original music, which she’s taken hours to record, crops up to transition between elements.

She quickly found herself getting frustrated when trying to explain the show — to anyone, really: family, friends, folks familiar with audio. With the general descriptor of a “podcast,” the people she spoke to couldn’t imagine all the elements it contained, she says, let alone that — or why — it had taken her years to pull together.

The label of “audio memoir” above comes from Ursin herself, who in due time committed to describing Dear Young Rocker in a way that said more about its style and format — its genre, if you will. She remembered what it felt like to not know all the ways a podcast could sound, and she worried that people wouldn’t listen to her show if they weren’t necessarily — or ever — in the mood for what they might assume they’d hear (i.e. “blogger-type dudes chatting about things”). “Audio memoir” proved to be only negligibly more helpful, since it still needed some explaining; those she spoke to had at least some reference point for “podcast,” however narrow. As green as Ursin was to the audio industry, or perhaps because of this, she realized that the problem wasn’t that she’d originally chosen the wrong words, or even that the words didn’t exist; it was that the broader public didn’t use them.

In terms of tools that could clear this up, not much has changed. Spotify, for example, continues to roll out new podcast plans and features (check out Nick’s coverage last week, last month, etc.) yet still stands by a classification system that largely sorts by topic: Business & Technology, Lifestyle & Health, Sports. To the uninitiated eye — or ear — the message this could very well send is, “pick a subject, since that’s all that matters; all these podcasts are identical in sound and structure.”

The specifics of said “sound and structure” depend on how long ago someone became familiar with podcasts, as well as how updated they’ve stayed since then. According to WIRED, one of the first podcasts was Open Source, a series of news-informed interviews that, in 2003, Christopher Lydon and Dave Winer captured in MP3s, syndicated, and made available to download and save on individual devices.

The word that came to describe syndicated audio was “podcast,” and the shows that first came to be associated with “podcast” were the ones that emerged around this time: public-radio-inspired interview shows, like Open Source, or their less sophisticated, chattier counterparts, both of which, one could argue, enjoyed the privileges that Lydon credited for his success — “no publisher to appease, no editor to report to, and an abundance of cheap tools.” If that wasn’t when the concept of podcasts entered one’s mind — and proceeded to sit largely unchanged — perhaps it was 10 years later, with the debut of Serial, which notably borrowed from radio styles as well, just different ones than did Lydon and Winer.

Now, it’s virtually impossible to account for all the podcast genres that exist: Mermaid Palace’s not-quite-true-not-quite-false “audio mind trip”; readings of pre-written work; art entirely without voices, in contrast to podcasts’ prominent predecessors; meditations guided by voices alone. Yet, the medium’s descriptor, “podcast,” has ossified in the minds of many non-creators and non-listeners, and even those who do listen aren’t necessarily spared, with Serial — and, thus, the singular genre of serialized crime investigations — dominating perceptions of what the medium can be.

Take Ursin. Or take the middle-aged biographer I recently interviewed for an episode of a narrative historical podcast but narrowly missed booking, precisely because he considered himself poorly suited for a podcast (read: a chatcast). Their particular associations with podcasting have been yoked to a product that initially emerged from egalitarianism: If you could talk, record, and at least briefly access the internet, you could sidestep the kinds of obstacles that have defined trades like book publishing (e.g., literacy) and showrunning (e.g., connections to production houses). While the chatcast genre is still going strong, there are countless others, yet they have no names — or, at least, they have no names in the places that could help podcasting look diversified from the outside. These names could be pillars, holding up an infrastructure that’s easier to navigate, to understand, than the one that currently stands.

When the magazine journalist Adam Sternbergh wrote about these names, he accurately used the term “genre,” meaning different podcast formats: “talk-show,” “fully fictional.” Genre, reasonably, is a factor that one considers when deciding what to listen to. (As a point of reference, it makes a hell of a lot of difference to sit down with a tabloid rather than a textbook, even if both are technically about “society and culture.”) Why, then, do podcasts tend to get handled like a monolith?

To explain why this persists, I think it’s prudent to look at the gatekeepers in what is otherwise a largely un-gate-kept world: the platforms. Apple consolidated the work of Lydon-like creators by folding podcasts into iTunes in 2005, then again in 2012 by launching a standalone app. Podcasts, hungrily embraced by creators because of their low entry barrier, progressively became comparably accessible to listeners, as more and more content could be accessed from one place.

There are now nearly 1.8 million podcasts. How, though, can one process their complexity when the categories that Apple has designated for thousands of individual creations say nothing about how they’re created? (This is all exacerbated, of course, by the inability to skim audio easily.)

Apple adopted the podcasting medium, and we adopted the language the company provided, as did Spotify (to some extent), as well as market analysts like Edison Research — all of which, but particularly the latter, is then cited in continuing coverage of the field. Tom Webster, Edison’s senior vice president, told me that when the group codes and ranks consumer listening behavior for podcasts, it pulls “genre” (an inaccurate use here, meaning topic) right from Apple, thus categorizing a show like Servant of Pod simply as (covering the topic of) “news.”

The word “news” is not only excessively general, particularly when assigned to a show so specifically about one industry — it also doesn’t communicate in the slightest the “genre” (an accurate use here, meaning format): a series of standalone interviews. Identifying by genre is something I did for you, just now, in the event that you hadn’t had the time, means, or chance to stumble upon the show yourself, whether by Nick plugging it on Twitter, a friend telling you about it, or any number of ways that have nothing to do with the platforms that house it.

Even with a show as popular as This American Life, it still takes a writer like Sternbergh three sentences and six separate examples of editorial elements to describe its genre. At the end of the day, a podcast is still called a podcast, a term creatives can only attempt to complicate, whether by tacking adjectives onto the front or spending a paragraph extrapolating at the end. Having an up-and-down-agreed-upon term to describe this type of show, or any show, would theoretically save time, as well as open doors.

Ursin entered a door by chance. On the other side remain folks who, say, don’t currently listen to chatcasts and might enjoy audio dramas but who, all the same, avoid podcasts as a whole.

“I think this taxonomy issue is dividing so many potential listeners from podcasts they would love,” Ursin says.

During its streaming event last month, Spotify announced a few new intended discovery mechanisms, including a “topic search” function for podcasts. Alas, another iteration; same concept. When (if ever) will platforms, who heavily influence discourse in and about this field, opt to organize by genre, a measure that speaks more meaningfully to the ethos of the work? Well, says Ursin, “they can’t do it very effectively until we have better words.”

The words for Dear Young Rocker, she’s decided, are “audio memoir,” which she believes communicates its serialized nature, the literary flourishes, and her central role as narrator of the story. She might add descriptors like “sound-designed” or “linear,” were Spotify or Apple to implement the infrastructure to support them. For now, the most she can do is urge other audio makers to engage in the same exercise — as practice, if nothing else.

“Many books were written before the card catalog got invented,” she says. “We need to do this. Let’s find the words.”

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.