What makes a podcast feel intimate?
Podcasts are an intimate medium. Unlike radio, say, where people might listen communally in a workplace or a car or a kitchen, the majority of people are alone when they switch on a podcast, probably hearing it via headphones plugged into a smartphone or computer. The one-on-one relationship between podcaster and listener is something that gets discussed a fair bit in industry circles, and I think that’s a good thing: even with the advent of smart speakers and better podcast integration for car stereos, it’s that connection which underpins what all podcast creators are trying to do.
Given that it is Galentine’s/Valentine’s Day this week, I want to use the fact that people are perhaps thinking slightly more about relationships of all kinds at the moment to delve a little into this idea of audio intimacy. This is a quality more usually associated with gently produced narrative storytelling such as you’ll find on the excellent series The Heart, but it’s also available on shows with other formats too: one such that springs to mind is the episode of Answer Me This where host Olly Mann talks about the birth of his son and the death of his father within the same week.
What both these pieces of audio have in common is that they make you feel close to the story, like you aren’t hearing it via a recording of the disembodied voice of a stranger, but as if you are being told it by a friend who is sitting beside you. They make you feel personally involved and emotionally affected. There are a whole variety of techniques that can produce this feeling, from the use of appropriate music, to the raw quality of an interviewee’s voice. I cry literally every time I listen to the “Long Distance Love Story” episode of Millennial, even though I don’t know any of the people involved personally, just because of the way Katie describes how much she loves Andrea. The way the story unfolds makes me feel invested in them. I’ve heard others tell similar anecdotes, of having to pull over in a car to sob at an episode of Radiolab, or not being about to get past a specific point in a particular episode of This American Life because the whirl of emotions it conjures is just too much to bear.
Another podcast that I find regularly produces this kind of intimacy is Criminal. This might seem an odd one, because it’s a show about true crime (albeit not a “true crime podcast” in the cliched way, more on this another week). Yet the focus on interviews and voices draws me in, and I find myself rooting for someone who I know has done some terrible things. For this reason, I was interested to learn a couple of weeks ago that the producers behind Criminal, Phoebe Judge, Lauren Spohrer and Nadia Wilson, were launching a romance-themed spin off series on 14 February. It’s called This is Love, subtitled “an investigation into life’s most persistent mystery”. It’s a big topic, and I was keen to find out how the techniques that the team use to create a sense of intimacy on Criminal would work with the more obviously suited topic of romance and relationships.
The team kindly shared the first two episodes with me in advance of their launch, and while I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, I will say that This is Love has a similar interview-focused approach to Criminal, and also reserves a single episode for each story. But there are also substantial differences, and I spoke to Phoebe Judge over Skype to find out a bit more about how the series came together.
“We just wanted to try to take a really broad view of these different stories,” she told me. “Stories of love, and of types of love. That means that there's a lot of different types of people who are telling these stories. The wonderful thing, though, is in everything there is a common thread. There is something in each one of these stories that every one of us can relate to, and that was really important to us.”
But these aren’t necessarily conventional “boy-girl” love stories — Judge and her team are defining “love” quite broadly. There’s an incredible episode about the relationship between a woman swimming in the sea, and the baby whale that she gradually realises is swimming alongside her. I found it to be a brilliantly tense, heart-in-mouth experience to listen to, even though I’ve never had an experience like that, and wouldn’t necessarily have thought it was about “love” if you had told me the premise beforehand.
A big difference between working on This is Love and Criminal, Judge said, is her own role in the interviews. “When I'm doing these interviews, I’m finding myself talking to people for so much longer than I usually do when I'm doing a Criminal interview, you know? I'm talking an hour and a half or two hours, and I'm just fascinated by hearing their stories. I'm not talking that much. You know, a lot of these interviews that we were doing, I just keep my mouth shut and allow the person to tell the story, because it’s what they have to say that I'm so intrigued by.”
I really noticed how little Judge was speaking in the aforementioned whale episode. I think you get to five or six minutes before she even says anything. She rather just allows the interviewee to talk directly to the listener, unmediated and uninterrupted (a similar technique is employed by Hrishikesh Hirway in his interviews with musicians for Song Exploder — he edits himself out of the conversation almost entirely, only leaving interjections that clarify factual points). This is a really powerful way in which This is Love creates a sense of intimacy.
Related to this is the show’s use of silence. Judge told me that her favourite moment in the whole series is actually a moment of total quiet, when she asked an interviewee an apparently straightforward question: to describe his wife. “There’s this incredible pause,” she said. “You can hear he tries, he tries twice. I asked him lots of other questions, like ‘what did you love about your wife’ and ‘are you still in love with your wife’, but something about me asking that question. . . There is a pause, which to me, is the most important piece of audio in this whole series. You can hear all you need to hear in that pause and that breath he takes to steel himself to describe this woman that he loved so much.”
“That’s why I love audio, because he says nothing, and you can hear it. . . To me, that is why I like audio stories. It’s the simplicity of audio that intrigues me so much.”
I think Judge has hit on something important there. With a well reported and well edited audio story, you can hear where the spaces are, where the evasions and hestitations come in. With a visual medium, it’s rare that such gaps are left in for the viewer to see, but on podcasts like This is Love, it’s what brings the piece to life. Judge’s interviewees sound human and unfiltered, with their failings and enthusiasms and strengths audible, and so we find them easy to relate to. In this case, we’re listening and they are talking, but it feels like the roles could be switched at any moment.
The first episode of This is Love is released on 14 February — there will be six in total and a second series later this year (Criminal continues on the same weekly schedule). Find out more and subscribe at thisislovepodcast.com
PS Emily Barocas at NPR has put together a great playlist of love-themed podcast episodes if you need a bit of romance in your ears this week.
I’ll finish up with five links to podcast-related things around the web I’ve come across and which you might find interesting.
Talking About Talking — Kill Your Darlings (this one says something nice about me, but don’t let that put you off)
Why is HBO making shows from podcasts? — Engadget
Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy — The Ringer