Radio, Podcasts and Community

The internet is primarily a visual thing.  You pretty much need a screen or projection surface of some kind to engage it.  A mouse, trackpad, touchscreen, and/or keyboard is also a requirement.  There needs to be a site to engage and some method of navigating that site.  All of these things on some level or another are with the intent to engage or retain the activity of the eyes.

I’ve read lots of stuff on the internet, laughed at lots of pics, talked to lots of people, saw great art, but a thought struck me the other day as I was driving in my car while crying.  For me, the most moving and life-changing digital engagements I’ve ever had have been audial, not visual.  The audio of the internet has effected me most profoundly.  On that particular day, I was listening to a podcast telling me a story about a boy who was blind who learned how to “see” (even learned to ride a bike!) by developing his own sense of sonar.  Was very moving.  

The marriage of audio and video — film and television, primarily — is admittedly very, very powerful…I get that.  But if I have to choose one and  go with visual digital engagement or audial digital engagement, I’m going audio every time.

And yes, I do understand the irony that I’m asking you to read this on a screen.


Decades ago, radio was a life-changing medium.   Families would save to purchase for their living rooms gigantic, monolithic art pieces with columns, lights, and fancy knobs.  At particular points in the rhythms of their day, they would gather in front of the radio to engage a world which to that point had been inaccessible.  Roy Rogers, Howdy-Doody, The Lone Ranger, Elvis Presley, baseball games, boxing matches, preachers, advertisements, The Mickey Mouse Club…all of these things from worlds away were now being channeled to people, opening a doorway for art and beauty that was previously inaccessible.

Through the invention of television, the expansion of the kingdom of Hollywood and Mr. Gore’s internet, radio has taken a backseat.  Turn on the radio these days and you’ll get tons of advertising no matter what station you’re on, a few talk radio stations (news, NPR, sports, preaching, etc), and truckloads of pop music.  The radio became primarily used in the car, but most of us these days get in our vehicle, bluetooth or direct-connect to our audio system and use our phone or iPod to listen to something.

What I’d suggest is that “something” to which we now connect is a fuller, bigger form of radio, and the podcast and/or app is king of the new radio.  Merriam-Webster offers as a definition of radio: the activity or industry of broadcasting sound programs to the public.  Podcasts and apps fit that to a T.

Radio requires trust and is strangely relational.  If you connect your phone or iPod to your own playlists in My Music or whatever, that’s not radio.  Radio is curated for you, not self-curated.  You give radio a general direction you’d like to head — like choosing an FM or AM station in your car — and radio takes it from there.  Apps and podcasts build on this concept.  I love Pandora; it is radio.  I tell it I like Radiohead and it offers me commentary and expansion of engagement based on the basic musical direction of Radiohead.  Spotify on the other hand is not radio.  The listener curates it by choosing the artist and album or track they want to hear and they’ll hear a bunch of stuff from that album or artist directly.  Spotify is great — I love it — but it’s not radio.

Radio is an adventure, a jump down a rabbit hole to see where this might go.  It’s a shame that so much FM radio is terrible.  Repetitive, ad-driven, poorly educated DJs, watered-down content.  Seems to me the lower you go on the dial the better FM radio gets.

Radio is stimulating, engaging, and can be very helpful.  Just this morning, I got on the treadmill and plugged my headphones into the audio for the TV in front of me, putting the channel on SportsCenter.  I love sports and am a faithful SportsCenter fan but one mile into the run, I was not feeling it.  Legs felt heavy, was thinking about how much I had to do that day, and I hate running anyway, especially on a treadmill.  So I turned off the TV, plugged my headphones into my phone and tuned into my Fit Radio app.  The playlist they chose for me in the “5k/10k” designation was motivationally perfect, and suddenly I was feeling stronger and enjoyed the next four miles as they flew by.

The person I most trust and get most excited to go on a radio adventure with is Ira Glass.  The man can do no wrong.  His NPR radio show “This American Life” (TAL henceforth),  first aired on the radio in 1995 (I was a senior in high school) as Your Radio Playhouse.  Taking basic concepts, ideas and experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary situations or ordinary people in ordinary situations with extraordinary commentary, TAL turned radio on its head.  To that point, to get on the radio, you had to have something to say or offer, had to be someone with a story worth telling as judged by ad-driven executives.  But here was Ira Glass saying everyone was someone with a story worth telling, you just might have to think about it differently.  Ira Glass gives value and worth to humans by giving value and worth to their stories, and it’s made a mark on the world.  (A Prairie Home Companion is another radio show gem in this regard.  It’s live and pre-dates TAL by twenty years.)

Without TAL, I don’t think some other great storytelling radio shows or podcasts having a strong effect on culture like Radiolab or The Moth, would have had the traction they needed to be created.

Radiolab’s another one.  Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich focus their radio show and podcast on scientific, philosophical and often theological concepts, engaging these discussions with profundity, dignity and grace.  It takes science and philosophy and gives them to “ordinary” people without dumbing the content down, teaching and explaining it in very skillful ways.

Furthermore, I think these radio creators and journalists understand community.  The most downloaded podcast of all-time is Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig.  Serial was a 12-episode investigative journalistic dive into one criminal murder case in the Baltimore area.  People couldn’t get enough; I know I felt that way.  Koenig is/was a producer on TAL.  Ira Glass served as editorial consultant on the Serial podcast.  Ira Glass helped his friend create a podcast that blew his podcast out of the water, even airing the first episode of Serial as an episode of TAL.

Invisibilia is a new podcast created by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel.  I find their podcast to be equal parts fascinating and infuriating as it examines invisible things that we as humans take for granted such as the power of categories, our digital imprint, entanglement in relationships or the power of human sight.  Lulu Miller was a producer/contributor to Radiolab.  Spiegel was a producer/contributor to TAL.  When Invisibilia was about to launch its first episode, TAL and Radiolab both dedicated pieces of their shows/podcasts to the promotion and expansion of Invisibilia.

I love that…prospering the “competition” because at their core, I don’t think they view themselves or one another as competitors.  They are friends in the radio/podcast/app community who have been working at this medium together for years and who desire their friends to succeed and expand the ideas, concepts and thought in which they all strongly believe.  That’s a virtue we church leaders could be transformed by.

So long live radio.
Long live the podcast.
Long live the app.
Long live the trust, curation, adventure and power of these mediums, and may they be stewarded in ways that create better culture.

One thought on “Radio, Podcasts and Community

  1. While movies are my go to, one of the great things about Radio is that it forces you to exercise your imagination. Video can become a lazy medium where you just accept the imagination of another (which could be awesome or awful).

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