Hannah McGregor: Listening is not the same as reading. That seems obvious, I know, but we can't really start to understand the unique possibilities of sound-based scholarship until we recognize that. They can certainly be comparable experiences: listening to an audiobook is very much like reading the print book or the ebook, and arguments that it doesn't count as reading are pretty ableist. But sound-based media have their own sets of affordances, or use possibilities, from the way we can listen while doing other things to the affective experience of sound.
[THEME plays: "Dirty Wallpaper," a vibey 85 bpm instrumental electronic track with synth and electric guitar]
Stacey Copeland: Welcome to episode two of "Why Podcast?: Sound-Based Scholarship." I'm Stacey Copeland.
HM: And I'm Hannah McGregor.
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Episode 1 we focused on the publishing affordances of podcasting: its scrappy, noncorporate, and maker-based ethos. But podcasting also distinguishes itself from other activities like scholarly blogging through an obvious but critical difference: Podcasting is a sound-based medium. ["sound-based medium" is accented with an echo delay and a cheeky electronic flourish]
It is crucial, then, to consider not just how podcasting extends the promises of "the web we lost" into scholarly communication, but also how it challenges the hegemony of the written word and opens new possibilities for how scholars might communicate our research. In this discussion of sound-based affordances of podcasting, we'll focus on three key dimensions of sound-based scholarship: intimacy, affect, and the politics of voice.
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HM: My go-to citation on the intimacy of podcasting as a medium comes from Glen Weldon (2018), co-host of the popular NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, as he discusses what characteristics his favourite podcasts have in common. He explains that, listening to a favourite podcast over multiple hours and years, generates a sense of intimacy, as podcasters slowly reveal small details about their lives. Eventually, we start to feel like they're our friends!
Now, Weldon argues that this intimacy is one-sided: You feel very intensely as though you know the podcasters, while they have absolutely no idea who you are. In media studies we tend to call that a parasocial relationship, one where an audience feels like they have a relationship with people they've only encountered via mass media. Podcasting scholars have complicated that idea of the parasocial. On the one hand, the tendency for podcasters (alongside lots of other media personalities) to interact with their audiences on social media really undermines that whole idea of one-sidedness. Not to mention, audiences can decide to make their own podcasts too, even a podcast in response to their favorite podcast. [SFX: small feminine voices says "I love that episode"]
The particular podcasts Weldon is discussing are warm and conversational roundtable podcasts like Stop Podcasting Yourself [Stop Podcasting Yourself Theme Music fades in (upbeat keyboard, acoustic guitar and vibraslap) then fades out] or Another Round [Another Round theme music: vibey beat and synth loop]. In these kinds of shows, the sense of intimacy is intensified by both the proximity of the hosts' voices (they're in our homes and in our heads) and by the podcasts' style. The rapport between hosts, their conversational tone, their tendency to disclose small pieces of personal information, gradually across multiple episodes, all contribute to a heightened sense of connection between host and listener.
SC: But intimacy as an affordance of podcasting isn't limited to the kind of chatty roundtable shows Weldon is discussing. As Dario Llinares, Neil Fox, and Richard Berry (2018) explain in their introduction to the edited volume, Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media, intimacy is a characteristic of the medium in general:
Dario Llinares: To be a private, silent participant in other people's interests, conversations, lives and experiences, relating to a subject you are passionate about, generates a deep sense of connection. (p. 2)
SC: Intimacy is manifested through both listener recognition and deliberate podcast production of physical and emotional closeness through the sound and narrative styles of the podcast. Podcast researcher Alyn Euritt (2020) makes this connection between recognition, repetition, and intimacy quite explicit through their research on popular fiction podcast Within the Wires:
[Within the Wires theme music: pensive ambient synth loop fades up and monotone deep voice says "Within the Wires, a new serial podcast from the creators of Nightvale". Music fades out]
Alyn Euritt: Within the Wires creates recognition by repeating lines and moments within its narrative. These repetitions are an important part of the show's storytelling and make it possible for listeners to experience what Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida calls the "prick" of recognition (47).... By experiencing recognition within the show, listeners can imagine others listening to the same podcast, feeling recognition as they do. They can also imagine themselves as recognizable as listeners… By making recognition such a central part of their narrative structure, Within the Wires invites this kind of participation with its show. (p. 36)
[SFX: ghostly musical "oooooo" from Within the Wires intro]
SC: For listeners, awareness of this recognition may not happen at the exact moment you listen to a podcast episode. Instead, recognition is first experienced as a feeling—a feeling of affective closeness and attentiveness. Often understood and recognized by us as intimacy, this response is a key factor in why listeners find themselves drawn to particular voices, sounds, stories or styles when choosing what we listen to.
But intimacy isn't merely a function of how we listen; it is also an intentionally produced aesthetic, one that has developed gradually as the medium has matured, and as a result it can be deliberately cultivated. This is certainly the case in podcasts like The Heart, [The Heart theme music: a drum beats like a heart] which I've described as a soundwork exploring intimacy and humanity that takes advantage of podcasting's ability to "challenge visual-philic heternormative and gendered expectations by engaging with the listener through the affective use of sound" (Copeland, 2018, p. 210). A podcast that continues to influence my own audio practice, The Heart grew out of the sex positive community radio show Audio Smut at CKUT Montreal, here in Canada, where a group of fellow queer radio makers including Kaitlin Prest (creator & host of The Heart) began experimenting with the intimate audio style that now defines much of the work coming out of The Heart's contemporary sound art collective—Mermaid Palace. This intimacy found in podcasting (whether intentional or not) isn't necessarily new or unique to podcasting per se, but harkens back to a long tradition of audio craft from film, sound art, new media, and, of course, radio. As Andrew Bottomely (2020) writes in Sound Streams: A Cultural History of Radio-Internet Convergence:
Andrew Bottomley: Seasoned [audio] makers and newcomers alike are all turning to old, preexisting radio forms, techniques, and styles to create their "new" programs. While they owe a debt to historical radio, these contemporary podcast series are hardly retrograde or unoriginal. Remediation always involves a refashioning or reworking: today's audio storytellers are all bringing something fresh to the older forms and practices, often through a hybridization of styles and/or the addition of a contemporary sensibility that reflects the present-day structure of feeling. (p. 224)
SC: In podcasts such as The Heart we can hear the creative influences and echoes of radio drama, film, public talk radio, theatre, and sound art—a hybridization of audio storytelling techniques used together to create the show's award-winning sound. Take, for instance, the final episode in The Heart's "Ghost" series from 2016, premised on the feeling of being haunted by the ghosts that you love. This theme is taken to its highest point in the final episode, aptly titled "You," by weaving together the narrator's soft sombre voice with the haunting iconic piano of "Clair de Lune," low whispers and echoed cries, ultimately to evoke feelings of love, of tragedy and loss, carefully weaved throughout the entire work.
Narrator: A woman is trying to solve a dispute with her children in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. A familiar song crackles through the crappy radio above. [a ghostly mix of "Clair de Lune" plays] This song was supposed to remind her of something that happened ten years ago now. But she puts Cheerios in the shopping cart and pushes on towards the dairy section without recognizing that it's on. [SFX evoking an out of control spinning carousel quick and quicker comes up and fades out] (Prest & Kaboli, 2016)
SC: The recorded voice, be it that of a piano or the human voice, evokes an equally uncanny yet familiar listening experience. I write about this production of intimacy in The Heart as an intimacy that builds up with every "strike of a chord or the uniquely you sound of a soft word spoken" (Copeland, 2018, p. 212). Prest never gives a name to the "you" within her work. "You" becomes an open symbol for your own inscription. What results is an economy of intimacy between the work and the listener. The cultivated intimacy of The Heart, here, points to the next critical feature of sound-based scholarship: its affective power [SFX thunder 'boom' with echo effect].
Affect, which Erin Wunker (2016) defines as:
Erin Wunker: [t]he complex ways in which our personal feelings are mediated by our experiences in the world and by the social structures and expectations of the world in which we live… (p. 41)
SC: is often theorized in terms of its capacity to move, to stick, to be relayed between people and texts and even things. In relation to scholarly podcasting, the affective power of sound and voice can help us better process and comprehend what is being conveyed in our academic research. Podcasting in this sense becomes a mode of affect transmission, a way of amplifying our individual and collective affective signal when bodies cannot be close enough to touch, to feel, and to sense one another. Take this simple sonic example of a newborn's cry.
[Sound of newborn baby crying with echo effect]
It just doesn't have the same effect or affect on paper. The paralanguage—that is, the expressive emotional character of the voice, such as pitch and timbre, sometimes lost in the written form—can be brought in closer through the amplification of the voice through sound media. [Echo of baby cry] Still, the written word continues to be more highly valued in the academy than the spoken one. Scholars such as Lee Maracle (1990) and Daniel Heath Justice (2018) have connected this privileging of text as the more "credible" (this is air quotes) form of knowledge sharing with the settler-colonial ideologies of elitism and capital T-truth. There is no single truth or history, so why should there be only one, singular, idealized way of communicating our research? As Justice (2018) explains:
Daniel Heath Justice: [F]or all the excellent scholarship that has been produced over the last century on oral traditions and their complex, multi-layered, sophisticated, and richly textured qualities—every bit the equal of any written tradition, if not even more remarkable due to years of training and memory skill required for their continuity—we still live in a world that demeans the oral as a primitive, cruder, less evolved body of knowledge. (p. 20)
SC: Once we begin to problematize the hierarchy of textuality over orality and where this ideology comes from, the affective power of sound can activate compelling possibilities for new forms of knowledge sharing and research practices within the academy. The capacity for sound-based work to evoke an affective response is well-documented, and what particularly interests us here is the way the affective registers of podcasting are connected to a feminist intervention into scholarly communication, one that calls for the return of the body into our scholarly work.
HM: The podcasts that inspired me to get involved in the medium were not necessarily scholarly themselves, but were podcasts that I experienced as simultaneously political and pedagogical, using the embedded and embodied insights and knowledges of the hosts as an entry point into greater understanding of a wide range of topics. This embodied experience of podcasting on the part of the producer and the listener is entangled in a politics of voice, of what voices are heard and who holds the power in how their stories and experiences are shared through sound. Feminist radio scholars (such as Jennifer Lynn Stoever, Christine Ehrick and Kate Lacey) have shown that, historically, the standard to which all voices on the mic were held is the white anglophone male voice. Some would argue that's still the case. Stoever's (2016) work on the "Sonic Color Line," for instance, notes how marginalized voices that don't fit this mold are characterized as noise in the white patriarchal system. The listening ear is deeply embedded in the same race politics and power inequities that structure our everyday. Listening and speaking are and have always been embodied experiences, and political ones. And the same goes for podcasting.
As an example, let's listen to BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, created by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu. Clayton and Nigatu offered humour and cultural criticism embedded in a Black feminist perspective, with an explicitly named audience of Black women and women of colour; [Another Round theme music plays under speech: vibey beat and synth loop] while they acknowledged the likelihood of white listeners, they decentred the presumed whiteness of the medium by refusing to cater to these listeners, insisting instead that we [as non-Black or WOC listeners] were welcome to listen along but could google things we didn't understand.
Stacey Marie Ishmael: So last week Misty Copeland was, you know, recognized for her considerable balletic talents, and she became the first Black female principal soloist ballet dancer—
Heben Nigatu: Yes!
SMI: Did I get all the adjectives?
Tracey Clayton: Oh my god!
SMI: … of the American Ballet Theatre, and she was quoted by the New York Times as saying, one of the things that she, you know, was worried about was that, if she didn't get that promotion, people—there wouldn't be another ballerina like her for like two generations. And nobody would be there to inspire young Black girls who wanted to be ballet dancers. They would never see somebody who looked like them on the stage. What she struck at was really interesting, which is that sometimes you feel like you have to do things that you don't even want to just so other people feel, like, motivated to.
HN: Ugh! Absolutely! [laughter] You go to like a lot of conferences and panels and shit, I don't—
SMI: Yeah, you know it's like that emotional labour of representing all the time.
HN: Yeah… [laughter] this is the number one reason I do panels.
TC: This is something that Kaya was talking about when she was on the show, right? Like never being able to just be like, Kaya—and the Kaya that I'm talking about is…
SMI: Kaya Thomas
TC: … I think 19, 20, I don't know.
HN: You learn this young.
SMI: The coder! Yeah yeah yeah, she was fantastic! When you are the only one, or you're the first one, or you're one of very few, you sort of feel like, alright, gotta do this thing, better bring my A Game every damn day because you like, you know, a standard is being set. And so like, maybe the next time somebody who sees somebody who looks like you, they'd be like, Oh yeah, we should give them a chance. Cause that other one, you know, was also really good. And so, knowing what your motivations are, is super important. And then there is almost always a community that you can find and join that will support you. And that I think is something super important. Like even if you feel like it's only you? You know, like when I was the Brown person in my philosophy class, I was like, there must be other people! [laughter] And you go out and you find them. And like, sometimes it's in the library and they're reading the same book and you just like happen to sit near to them. [laughter] You're like, are you in that other tutorial? Can we talk about Plato? You have to be willing to be vulnerable, which is sometimes at odds with having to like, appear to be badass all the time.
SMI: So those, those things are really in contradiction. And then remembering that this is hard, right? This is hard. Like being the underrepresented person, being the, being the minority, being from the person from a background, that's not like anybody else's, you run into things… The microaggressions like the, like the invisible, the code of conduct that nobody told you about, the rules that everybody else is playing by, that you're not privy to. This is hard and it is exhausting and it will stress you out. And that is a totally legitimate response. And you have to not be so hard on yourself when you're like, am I doing everything wrong? Like, I don't understand why is this so hard? It is hard because it is hard and not because you are like, not good.
HN and TC: I'm about to cry! [laughter]
HN: It's too much guys!
TC: It's so real, it's so real.
HN: Um, I feel like every single woman I know at BuzzFeed looks to you as a mentor, informal or not.
SMI: Whoa! Pressure!
HN: I hope you know that!
TC: I absolutely do.
HN: I absolutely do! [laughter] (Nigatu & Clayton, 2015)
HM: Following the growth in research on and production of podcasts made for and by Black communities over the past decade, Kim Fox, David O. Dowling and Kyle Miller (2020) have similarly situated Black podcasting as a "potent articulation of [B]lack identity and experience" that can also be used as educational tools. In Kim Fox's words:
Kim Fox: With progressive and inclusive content featuring forthright and illuminating commentary, Black podcasts recreate through digital audio space a nuanced sense of African-American trends, cultures, and lifestyles, which are now accessible to non-Black audiences. The effect has opened Black discourse on the meaning of blackness in U.S. culture to an audience of unprecedented scope and diversity. (p. 300)
HM: Through analysis of entertainment and pop culture, they argue that Black podcasts such as The Nod, The Read, and Still Processing generate a metaphorical curriculum for Blackness, a set of discursive cultural guides to Black education and literacy. Here we add Another Round to the list. In this clip, guest Stacey-Marie Ishmael speaks with the hosts about advice for other women of colour navigating their careers. We can hear how Another Round celebrated Black feminist knowledges and expertise not only through content but through the voices of the hosts and their guests.
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Ironically, when BuzzFeed made the decision to discontinue their podcasting initiatives, the company retained ownership of the episode archives—a reminder that the radical potential of podcasting is continuously stymied by the reality of who owns the networks and media corporations that might actually allow podcasters to get paid for their work (namely, white men).
HM: For all these reasons, podcasting is a medium that encourages intensely engaged listening, often within niche communities. Plus, due to its low cost of production and minimal barriers to access, it's a medium that allows creators to sustainably make a show for a few hundred or thousand people rather than needing to achieve massive scales of listenership. At the same time, the scales of listenership for even moderately successful podcasts significantly outweigh those of most traditional scholarly venues. There are publics out there of people with intensely niche interests and a willingness to engage with complex ideas over multiple hours of audio. What we need to do is figure out how to talk with them.
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