Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Podcasts and the Advent of Narrative Arc

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Podcast is such a weird word, isn't it?

I've listened to podcasts for years. My husband and I love NPR podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab (oh, and a new one they've just launched called Invisibilia; I've only listened to the first episode so far but it was fantastic).

My husband also really enjoys Planet Money and Stuff You Should Know, which I'm always willing to listen to with him. Podcasts are our preferred audio media on shorter car trips or doing Saturday morning chores together (we save audio books for the longer car rides).

I also follow a few bookish podcasts, like Books on the Nightstand, and a new-to-me one called Read-Aloud-Revival (it's fantastic, all about creating a really strong family culture of reading).

I tend to be only an occasional listener to all of these podcasts. When I have time to listen, I usually skim through recent titles and pick out the most interesting sounding one. I have never felt the need to listen to every episode of every podcast I follow.

Until recently.

In the past few months, I've started following a few new podcasts that I feel represent a subtle yet significant and exciting shift in the podcasting world. I noticed the shift first when I discovered StartUp, and felt it again when I binged listened to the entire season of Serial in two days.

If you haven't heard of either of those podcasts (and really, if you haven't heard of Serial, do you even use the internet?), here's the background. Both of those podcasts are produced by folks associated with This American Life, both premeired their first episodes on This American Life, and both contain highly produced content that follows a narrative arc.

And therein lies the shift that I've found so exciting. Most podcasts have a general theme (books, politics, economics, etc.) but each episode is separate and self-contained. You can pick any episode you want and jump in, listen out of order, skip the boring ones, it doesn't really matter. But both StartUp and Serial follow a narrative arc. You really need to start with episode one and listen to them in order to  "get" the flow of the story they're telling.

This is exciting for me because, as a literature nerd, I love narrative. I love story. And I love that these podcasts are telling a wider, bigger story that flows through each episode. Now, they don't necessarily have a strict traditional plot curve, with a rising tension and a climatic high point and a neat and tidy resolution (especially not Serial), but they are talking about these podcasts in terms of "Seasons," where one story carries through to an end point, and they will begin again with a new story for a new season.

This is bold new ground, and I love the innovation (although I don't always love the language; unfortunately podcasts don't have the same regulations as public radio, so there tends to be a bit more swearing).

Beyond the narrative arc, both these new podcasts are thought provoking on an ethical basis too, and for very different reasons. I don't want to reveal any spoilers for those of you who haven't tried them out yet, but both of these podcasts do some very different kind of reporting on real people, real life situations, and the response they have gotten from early podcasts actually influenced and changed content in later podcasts. It's such an interesting phenomenon, and I'm fascinated by it.

So, do you listen to podcasts? Have you listened to any of these, and what do you think of them? Any recommendations of your favorites for me? I'm always interested in finding new listening material for my hour-long commute to school.

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