Podcast Asides: Dragged back home

Podcast Asides chronicles the unusual relationships we have with podcasts and their hosts. Each piece explores a different way we integrate podcasts into our lives — for good or for ill — and reflects upon the power podcasts have in building community, changing how we relate to each other and warping our perspectives on the world.

How much do you care about your friends? Perhaps you care about their wellbeing, keeping up with the facts of their lives or just what they’re working on recently. Whatever it may be, you probably care a great deal. Our friends lift us up, make us laugh and teach us lessons. Your bond is only strengthened the more time you spend together, especially in conversation.

Now, how much would you care about someone who lifts you up, makes you laugh, teaches you lessons and doesn’t know you exist? Do you care to know how they’re doing this week, or where they’re vacationing next summer, or what movie they saw recently? Well, you might say, that person is hardly a friend, and you probably wouldn’t care a whole lot.

But many people report strong, even emotional ties to an odd kind of relationship only possible in our modern age of media oversaturation: one with the hosts of their favorite podcasts. Never mind that the person behind the mic could never pick you out of a crowd; the two of you may spend dozens, hundreds of hours in conversations spanning years. As podcasts became more personalized, we also developed peculiar relationships with the people behind the mic.

Since the advent of the podcast in the mid-aughts, the podcast industry has become much more personalized. Much like the way the internet has eclipsed traditional media in how information is disseminated, the low overhead in creating and sharing podcasts has allowed anyone and everyone to share their thoughts and create conversations. Spotify claims to have over four million podcasts available for streaming: from reality show superfans to observers of obscure health and lifestyle trends, every niche interest seems to have a podcast covering it. 

Consider “Serial,” one of the most celebrated podcasts ever and the first in the medium to take off. Produced by the creators of “This American Life,” “Serial” is an investigative journalism and true crime podcast that has run since 2014. The narrator, Sarah Koenig, has a thoughtful, monotone voice. Across three award-winning seasons, listeners aren’t allowed so much of a glimpse into Koenig’s personal life — after all, she isn’t the subject of the podcast. 

Now, thousands of creators have flocked to the medium for a different purpose: to create extremely popular shows that feature hosts reacting to reality television shows concurrently with their releases — think “Survivor” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” These podcasts become essential listening for those of us wanting to distinguish ourselves as stans, or superfans, of the respective franchises. 

Alternatively, many popular podcasts feature a unique blend of information, opinion and entertainment that mimics the reality of natural conversation. Podcasts with eccentric hosts captivate audiences and gain cult-like followings. “The Joe Rogan Experience” averages 11 million listeners per episode, and, leaving the conspiracy theories and pseudoscience aside, many fans say they listen to him because he’s the kind of person they’d get a beer with. He’s blunt, he’s provocative and his listeners get the sense that they really know the man behind the show.

The relationships we build with our podcasts — and their hosts — are important to us. They provide community, relief from long days or a sense that we’re in a group of people who know something. I want to explore the different niches the podcasts fill in our lives, how strongly we can attach ourselves to them and how our media consumption changes us. Even I’ll admit, I had something of a parasocial relationship with a podcast, and I’m grateful for having had it.

When I returned home this past summer, most of my friends were, for one reason or another, not in town. I went from living with my best friends down the hall to living with my parents again. It was especially difficult losing the queer friendships that I valued so much at school and which were few and far between in my hometown. I felt isolated as a queer person living in Mississippi, and there was no one for me to talk to about how I felt. I texted my friends and called when I could, but I missed the connection that regular conversation brings. 

So while going to the gym, doing chores around the house and making my hour-long commute to my internship, I turned to podcasts as a way to at least feel like I was talking to people. I began listening to “The Bald and the Beautiful,” hosted by Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova, two drag queens who rose to fame during their stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” I’ve watched more than a few seasons of “Drag Race” without ever having the urge to glut myself with more derivative content — seriously, the show itself has at least three official subsidiary shows for behind-the-scenes drama and in-depth reaction, and there are at least as many podcasts about watching “Drag Race” as there have been contestants, but I digress.

I listened to Trixie and Katya talk about their crazy nights out and their recent medical history every Tuesday for three months. When I didn’t want to wait for a new episode, I’d listen to an old one. In total, I listened to them talk for something like 30 hours.

Sometimes I thought, Why on earth do I care that about a 41-year-old drag queen in Los Angeles getting hip surgery? Why do I enjoy listening to them talk about their favorite horror movies? I hate horror movies.

At any rate, I did care. Deeply. They spoke the language of my friends, and hearing them talk about their lives as queer people made me feel like I was still a part of that community. They were inviting me into their lives, filling me in on their weeks and what they’ve been thinking about. I would laugh at their bits as if they were my friends and regard the facts of their lives as the lore of my friend group. I even started talking like them.

Since returning to campus and reuniting with my college friends, I haven’t listened to a single episode of “The Bald and the Beautiful.” It feels like I just don’t have enough time to keep up with my school friends and Trixie and Katya, and, of course, I care far more about my friends. 

But the relationship I had with them was important to me — I was genuinely disappointed when, one week, they were unable to record an episode. It felt like I made plans with a friend and they flaked on me. Furthermore, I don’t think it was a bad thing that I developed this parasocial relationship with Trixie and Katya. They helped me keep in touch with an important part of my identity at a time when I felt alone. 

Of all media, podcasts have the unique ability to feel this personal, like a call with your friend on your way to work. I never added my piece to the conversation, but I felt privy to the important part of the conversation — I connected with them. Whether this connection was artificial or not, I’m grateful for having it.

Originally posted 2023-11-10 08:48:26.