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  • Ken Ilgunas

How podcasts reconstructed my face (and did other things, too)


I listened to my first podcast in 2009, when a friend and I, on a long drive from Alaska to Denver, connected his iPod to his car stereo.

 

As my friend and I drove across the Yukon Territory we laughed hysterically to the “Fiasco” episode on “This American Life.” I was mesmerized by the innovative sounds and mind-blowing science of Radiolab. We went through his archives of the Ricky Gervais Show (mainly Gervais and Stephen Merchant relentlessly teasing their producer, Karl Pilkington, who may quietly be one of the funniest humans on earth).

 

At the time, I thought this new medium would provide me with convenient edification and a few laughs. Little did I know that it would compel me to reconstruct my face (I’ll get to that in a minute) and reconfigure my worldview.

 

There is no clear answer as to who made the first podcast. People have been recording and sharing audio files since the early days of the Internet. But 2004, three years after the release of the iPod, is as good a year as any to use as the medium’s origins. It was then when the term “podcast” was coined by a Guardian writer, who combined the “pod” from “iPod” and “cast” from “broadcast.” The year 2009 — the year of my road trip — seems like a pivotal year for the medium, too. That’s when the public was catching on and when some of today’s podcasting giants — Marc Maron and Joe Rogan — created their shows.

 

I didn’t buy a smartphone until 2017, so, in these early years, I listened to podcasts by downloading hundreds of hours of content onto my laptop, which would help me stay informed from the remotest of places.

 

It’s been said that Alaskan homesteaders, living in the wilderness during their time-rich winters and with their volumes of periodicals, were more informed as citizens than the city-dwellers in the lower-48. For me, it wasn’t periodicals, but podcasts, that connected me to the realm of ideas.

 

The summer of 2011 was my “summer of podcasts.” I was writing Walden on Wheels as the writer-in-residence in Coldfoot, Alaska. I had no Internet, but, every night, I’d lay in bed, in my shack, surrounded by the Boreal forest, listening to the speakers of my laptop emit the unworldly noises and mind-blowing science of Radiolab. Partly because of this nighttime routine, I think of that summer as one of my happiest. [The Jad Abumrad/Robert Krulwich era of Radiolab (2005-2017), I’d say, is the high water mark of podcasting excellence.]

 

I have no “theme songs” to my formative road trips and romances. I have, rather, the episodes of “Stuff You Missed in History Class” on my drive through South Dakota; the first Serial season in my spacious Nebraska rental home; my binge-listen to S-Town (the greatest podcast of all-time) from the comfort of my old home in the Appalachian foothills. On my first road trip with my now-wife across Quebec, I can’t tell you what music we listened to, but I can list a handful of podcast titles.

 

The first three years of being a parent were sort of like living in the Alaskan wilderness. I went from being well-informed to intellectually starved. I had less time for books and edifying movies, but at least I had my podcasts—my on-the-go food-for-thought. I couldn’t sit down with a book, but I could — when pushing a buggy to the park, washing dishes, or cooking — consume a few hours of “Fresh Air,” “WTF,” and “Where Should We Begin?”

 

Podcasts were a comfort and my only way to stay connected to the world of ideas. They were a way of communing with friends — the friends that you know but who don’t know you. Podcasts also can alter your worldview.

 

In 2017-2018, the figures of the “intellectual dark web (IDW)” emerged. Suddenly a handful of previously unknown academics — Heather Heying, the Weinstein brothers, Jordan Peterson, etc. — were given huge platforms on podcasts like “Making Sense” with Sam Harris and “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

 

These IDW figures pricked my liberal bubble. I listened in as they bull-fought some of the left’s sacred cows. It helped that most of these figures were “left adjacent,” and a lot of their pushback — against the alleged pervasiveness of the patriarchy, against the idea that all gender differences are socially constructed, against the excesses of critical race theory, and against the intellectual feebleness of “grievance studies” — gave voice to the creeping skepticisms that I'd kept quiet in the back of my mind.

 

According to Meghan Daum in her wonderful essay, “Nuance: A Love Story,” we lived in a time when “[q]uestions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries requiring scrutiny and nuance were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, especially as far as liberal types were concerned.” For her, the figures of IDW made her feel “invigorated, even electrified, by their willingness to ask (if not ever totally answer) questions that had lately been deemed too messy somehow to deal with in mainstream public discourse.”

 

Listening to the IDW was not a retreat from my liberalness, but an embrace of it. “Openness to experience,” on the Five-Factor Personality model correlates with politically liberal views, and I felt as open to experience as ever. (I found it bizarre how some avowed liberals on my Facebook page would repeatedly denigrate these figures while steadfastly refusing to sample any of their content.)

 

I wanted to try a little bit of everything, and listening to podcasts was the easiest way to sample a lot of politically diverse content. I tried Ben Shapiro, Tucker Carlson, and Dave Rubin—people politically situated somewhere in between liberals and right-wing monsters, none of whom, I decided after a trial, were careful thinkers or good-faith actors. But open to them, for a moment, I was.

 

Sadly, a lot of the IDW figures, who’d made useful contributions, flew too close to the sun. Jordan Peterson had something along the lines of a near-death nervous breakdown. Bret Weinstein, in each subsequent podcast appearance, began to sound more conspiratorial and more untethered from reality. The IDW bubble prickers created their own bubble, creating their own shows, inviting each other on, and radicalizing themselves with the magic of an echo chamber.

 

Their claims became more and more outrageous (anti-vac conspiracies, delusions of cabals sabotaging their careers, needless scrutiny over the George Floyd murder). But they were merely human, clinging too tightly to their newfound fame, unwilling to let their “moment” pass, and unable to imagine slinking back into irrelevance at their parochial universities.

 

Some of them just kept repeating the same thing over and over (“I hate cancel culture because we’re not allowed to say anything anymore!”) while saying whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.

 

“I got the memo!” I’d think, angrily poking at my phone’s smooth screen to switch to something worthwhile. “Talk about something new for god sake!”

 

The IDW had served its purpose and a lot of their contributions got absorbed into the broader library of podcasts. It’s perhaps due to the IDW that our culture has descended from “peak woke” (maybe 2020?) to the point where we’re at today, when questionable cancellations are less frequent, casual misandry more frowned upon, and dubious claims of racial micro-aggressions less common.

 

I now find myself listening to a lot of podcasts hosted by Gen-X or Millennial women, who I find charmingly level-headed, capable of talking about serious issues with humor, and temperamentally akin to me, such as Meghan Daum’s “The Unspeakable,” Sarah Hepola and Nancy Rommelmann’s “Smoke Em if You Got Em,” or Louise Perry’s “Mother, Maiden, Matriarch” podcast.

 

Ezra Klein’s podcast is something close to a “can’t miss” for me, if largely for the fact that he avoids all the cancel culture chatter, focusing instead on the stuff that truly matters: A.I., clean energy infrastructure, party politics, loneliness, housing, etc…

 

It’s hard to go wrong with an open-minded, free-thinking, expertise-driven, and diverse “general interest” show like Klein’s or the "Art of Manliness" podcast (on which I’ll soon be making an appearance).

 

On a couple of these general interest podcasts, I listened to James Nestor speak about his book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, which woke me up to the importance of good breathing. I’d been suffering from throat soreness due to post-nasal drip problems, so I saw an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor, who put me on an eighteen-month waiting list for a septoplasty (a surgery that involves straightening your septum, which is the bit of cartilage that divides your nostrils).

 

Similarly, after listening to a Huberman Lab podcast on the importance of oral health, I decided it was time to see a dentist after a (yikes) ten-year hiatus.

 

Huberman talked about how there are correlations between gum disease and brain disease, and one of the first things my dentist said was that I have unhealthy gums. I took Huberman’s advice and made improving my oral health a priority. I bought a Waterpik to pressure-wash my mouth, became cautious about allowing residue from acidic foods (oranges, coffee, etc.) to dwell in my mouth for too long, chewed xylitol gum to generate saliva (that has healing properties), and brushed and flossed with more regularity. I signed up for two very rigorous and unpleasant cleanings.

 

Meanwhile, my wife is listening to How Not to Age, which has her sprinkling a lot of mysterious wonder foods into our morning porridges.

 

It’s a testament to the power of podcasting (and audiobooks) that these programs can improve your body as well as your mind.

 

In a period of two weeks, I found myself with a new nose and mouth. (My gums took as little as two weeks to substantially improve, and my nasal breathing is, maybe, 10 percent better, which doesn’t meet my expectations of a full respiratory reset, but, nevertheless, marks an improvement.)

 

I wish I had all the time in the world to keep up with all the worthwhile podcasts out there. I want to be continually exposed to new ideas and I want to stay abreast of what’s going on in politics, culture, and science. I wish I could listen to the eight-part “Fall of the Aztecs” podcast on “The Rest is History” or keep up to date on Democratic politics by regularly listening to “Pod Save America.” But we only have so much time, choices need to be made, and Sophie has to leave a few of her kids behind.

 

Some podcasts have come and gone from my life, like good friends. I seldom listen to “This American Life” anymore, as I find their content very hit (such as “La Donna”) and miss (like most of their read-out-loud personal essays). It was a sad day when I finally “unfollowed” Radiolab, which, about six years ago, strayed from its science roots, promoted overly cheery hosts, and became gratingly woke. (Listen to the three-part “In the No” series to see how far they’d fallen.) “Fresh-Air,” too, once a stalwart in my rotation, is probably next on the chopping block, as their content seems out of date by desperately trying to keep up to date.

 

What is the future of the medium? There may come a day when all this free content won’t be free anymore. (I subscribed to my first podcast last year for like $60.) Will some podcasts get packaged and sold together, kind of like a TV cable app (Disney+)? Will we see podcasts produced as meticulously as the early Radiolabs and S-Town again? Or is the medium meant for long, loosey-goosey, discursive and barely-edited chats? Will technology change the form: will AI create interesting podcasts of its own; will V.R. goggles allow us to better immerse ourselves in the medium; will ear implants make the awkwardness of Bluetooth earbuds moot?


I can’t predict anything with confidence, except that podcasts won’t lose their greatest attribute: convenience—the convenience of listening to something from the Alaskan wilderness or while pushing a pram to your town’s park. And… They’ll probably remain a mainstay of my life for a good long while.

 

Some recent favorites

 

Smoke 'em if you got 'em — The ladies let Dan Savage cook.

 

MMM podcast — A debate between Louise Perry and academic Bryan Caplan, who would advise his daughter not to be a feminist

 

Rewatchables — The guys review, at long last, a Kenneth Lonergan movie—Manchester by the Sea 

 

Keen On — Interview with Jacob Heilbrunn on conservative America’s 100-year love affair with foreign dictators

 

Art of Manliness - How to be more charismatic

 

Ezra Klein — On how AI can be used today

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