Probably the most famous story about the cultural impact of radio is the 1938 broadcast adaptation of War of the Worlds, a science fiction novel about alien invasion by H.G. Wells. Narrated by Orson Welles, the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a news bulletin and purportedly generated utter panic in a million listeners (this number is the subject of some dispute).
At that time, listening to the radio was often a shared experience. Along with newspapers and books, radio was a dominant form of media delivery and consumption. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats in 1933 to Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war with Germany in 1939, people gathered around radios, together, to hear news and stories.
The role of radio in our daily lives has changed substantially since then. On-demand audio has made many listening experiences solitary: just one person and their earbuds. But new forms of social listening are emerging even in an on-demand world, offering opportunities for human connection and discussion that call back to ways we used to listen to the radio — while also taking the experience in new directions.
“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, S-Town was the Himalayas,” Andrew Kuklewicz, PRX’s chief technology officer, wrote in a Medium post in April. The wild success of S-Town — which boasted 1.8 million subscribers to its feed and 16 million downloads in the timespan of about a week — spurred urgent, impassioned conversations between friends, family, and co-workers who were avidly following the lyrical, complicated, and emotional tale of John B.
The surge of interest and enthusiasm for the show gave Maya Goldberg-Safir, Artistic Associate at Third Coast International Audio Festival, an idea: host an in-person event to invite listeners in the Chicago area (where Third Coast is based) to come together and discuss, debate, and analyze this incredible work. “Third Coast has always put on public and community events that bring people together to listen to audio and talk about audio. A moment when so many people are talking a podcast is rare — these earthquake moments when everyone has the same podcast on their lips and are talking about it with their friends and on social media. It’s a really rich moment. Listening can be really solitary, and we saw it as an incredible opportunity to bring people together.”
Third Coast named the event ‘S-Town Hall’ and organized it in less than a week in order to capitalize on the wave of interest in the podcast, hosting it at a coffee shop and bar in Wicker Park a few miles from downtown. They used social media and their mailing list to notify and invite people to S-Town Hall, and the venue served themed drinks that celebrated the story and characters (American Julep, Peachy Day of Horology, pours of Whiskey that were called “For Church”).
About 50 people attended the event, which was structured into three sections: questions and answers, small group discussions, and “state your case” (a chance for people to share an observation, idea, or perspective about anything that the earlier discussions hadn’t touched on). The variety of formats meant that there were opportunities for participation for people with varied communication styles.
“Events don’t just have to be the producers on stage and the audience out there — listeners have a lot of feedback and insights and their own experiences to add. And people were so excited to talk about the show, I wanted it to be as interactive and as much about the experience of being in the room as possible,” said Maya. “S-Town, which was so sound-rich and getting so much public attention, was the perfect opportunity to explore a key goal of Third Coast: creating experiences that nurture deep conversations about the audio and criticisms of the form. What are these stories doing? What is their impact on the world? Why should we care?”
“Podluck” is not a word you’ll find in a dictionary, but it’s a portmanteau that just makes sense: an in-person gathering where people listen to audio together, anchored by food.
Emily Shaw, who recently left her day job at a startup to work full-time as an independent producer, got the idea (and the name) from an audio storytelling class she took. After the class was over, the students wanted to stay in touch and continue their creative partnership — and the podluck was born. She was particularly interested because she had some previous experience with social listening: “While taking classes at Duke one summer, my roommate and I would regularly listen to audio together. It was the first time I’d done that in an informal setting, and I found it really fun to listen and discuss the work.”
“The vibe is book club meets slumber party. But in the middle of the day, and without books ;)” read the first email I received about a podluck (Emily and I are both members of a mailing list for women in radio). The format is pretty simple: people bring food and lesser known pieces of audio art or podcasts that are 30 minutes or less, finished, and by someone other than them. The first hour or so is eating and introductions, then people move into the living room and get comfortable before each piece is played and discussed. “Part of what makes it fun for me is that we’re literally lying around, on the floor or on the couch, eyes closed, getting lost in the piece. After it’s over everyone reflects on it.”
Editorially, and as a creator, Emily really values being exposed to new styles and content she wouldn’t otherwise discover: the selection of audio that participants bring to share is rich and diverse. Podlucks have also served as a great way to build community. “I’ve taken a bunch of short-term classes and always wanted a way to stay in touch with people and have regular contact and community, especially as a freelancer,” Emily told me. “Podlucks have also led to new friendships. Some of us regulars have started texting and collaborating, we’ll all share feedback on our pieces and encourage each other.”
The format of the gathering suits the media. Emily told me, “The fact that podlucks happen in people’s apartments, around food, feels significant to me. I experience audio as very intimate; a lot of people do. So to have an intimate setting for enjoying something intimate just fits. It flows to build community around an art form that’s so personal.”
An audio piece listened to at a recent podluck. Another one is Out of the Blocks — 3300 Greenmount.
The New York Times Podcast Club
In April the gray lady started a podcast club on Facebook. This online community (currently at over 15,000 members, and growing) was an outgrowth of an in-person podcast club started by Times employees a year earlier. The club attracted a cross section of different Times employees — not just reporters, but also data analysts and biz dev folks across a range of ages. Members would get together for thirty minutes every Friday to discuss a single episode.
Samantha Henig, the Times’s editorial director for audio, and Lisa Tobin, executive producer of audio, started the IRL group as a way to focus the incredible interest and enthusiasm they sensed around podcasts. Henig explained to Nick Quah for his newsletter, Hot Pod, “My main goal was to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in the building around podcasts, and get a bunch of smart and engaged people in a room together,” she said. “And, selfishly, I thought it would help me and our growing audio team be smarter about our own programming if we’re in regular discussion about what’s working best or falling flat in other shows.” The format was so successful that they decided to adapt the format to Facebook and open up the conversation for anyone who wanted to join.
Each Monday, the admins of the group post an episode — selections vary in length, subject, and format (here are nine early selections). Members of the Facebook group are asked to listen and share their thoughts in long, nested discussions, and people who are part of the in real life podcast club post highlights from their discussion as well. They plan to leverage the open nature of the group by crowd-sourcing show and episode suggestions, and to have hosts and producers pop in for online discussions.
The podcast club also just serves as a community of and for serious podcast fans. While the curated discussions anchor the group, there are just as many conversations started by users regarding everything from finding recommendations of podcasts hosted by women, discussions about style choices for podcast intros, polls about podcatchers and ideal podcast length (the winner of that one: “If it’s good enough, I’ll listen forever”), and more.
These are just a few examples of how on-demand audio, while often still a solitary experience, also drives social interaction and shared listening. If you are a participant in any of the activities described here — or have a new one to share — we want to hear about it in the comments. And we’ll be watching closely for the new types of events, groups, and experiences that are yet to come.