the problem with podcasts is there’s no conflict

Alan Jacobs has, in the past, tried to put his finger on why some of us find podcasts so unsatisfying, even as they’ve become wildly popular. (I remain convinced that there are more people making podcasts than listening to them, but still.) Alan hits on a couple plausible problems here, but I don’t think that’s my own issue. I’m someone who often will get the urge to listen to a podcast — who likes them in theory — but ends up unhappy about the ones I actual listen to. I think the real problem is that there is just about zero conflict in the average podcast; the tendency is for people to be friendly with each other and say friendly things and arrive at friendly conclusions. Which is fine in bits and pieces but frustrating for an entire medium. Note that I’m not even really talking about out-and-out mutual admiration, here, although there’s plenty of that in the podcast form, but just the cult of congeniality that dominates these things. Congeniality is nice for small talk but not very useful when you’re trying to get to the truth or to drama. I don’t think people have to be strangling each other from across their microphones, but more disagreement and more conflict would go a long way.

So this New Yorker podcast about how podcasts are great, with all of the guests just sort of saying “you know what’s great? Podcasts” over and over again ironically demonstrates to me exactly why the medium is so limited. Or, similarly, here’s this new with Karina Longworth, where the host is like “your podcast is great” and the guest is like “well thank you, I appreciate that.” And, hey, that’s fine, I’m not that big of a hater to undermine the praise. I just don’t see what it provides to me, as a listener, either in terms of education or entertainment.

Sometimes I just want to hear pleasant people pleasantly conversing. But my appetite for that is small, and usually if I want to experience it, I’ll just get together with friends over beer. And if people really want podcasts to be something other than an excuse for listening to themselves talk, they have to get past the ingrained blank politeness and agreement that dominate the form now.