This Is What Happens When You Become Addicted To Podcasts
If you want to know how bad my podcast addiction has become – how weird, how dependent, how frankly unhealthy – then you need to look no further than my daily routine. Every morning when I set off to cycle to work, I will ﬁrst put in my earphones (set to “pass-through” so I can hear the trafﬁc, Mum), play the latest episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily, hosted by Michael Barbaro, and catch up on the intricacies of US college bribery scandals or the story of a Navy Seal who went rogue as I ride.
I listen to it every day and take great pleasure from a host who has as many ways of saying “Huh?” as Eskimos have words for snow. This is not the issue. You’re supposed to listen to news dailies daily. No, the problem is the cycle home, when I’ll listen to the Washington Post version, Post Reports, which will often focus on the exact story I listened to that morning.
If only it ended there. Currently, I subscribe to approximately 50 podcasts. Even typing that out feels odd. Fifty’s not that many, I want to say, but then I imagine how horriﬁed I’d be if someone admitted to simultaneously following 50 TV shows. Get a life, I’d want to say to that person. How do you find the time? But the thing is, I do have a life. I just stuff podcasts in all the bits between it.
You’d be amazed how many podcasts you can listen to if you really put forth the effort. Travelling to my parents on the train, for instance, I’m listening to Melvyn Bragg talk to cephalopod experts on In Our Time. Chopping vegetables, I’m listening to Tim Harford take me through the origins of the qwerty keyboard in 50 Things That Make The Modern Economy. Even a short walk to the shops will be an earphones-in 20 minute round trip.
If I wake up at ﬁrst light, knowing I’m tired and need a couple more hours’ sleep, I am ashamed to admit that after ten minutes or so I’ll end up popping an earphone in, in the vain hope that the story of how the latest Japanese bullet trains are modelled on the long, pointed bill of the kingﬁsher (and they are, it’s amazing, check out the BBC’s excellent 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter) will lull me softly to sleep rather than simply keep me awake. Reader, it always keeps me awake.
And technology is only making my addiction worse. The small size of my new wire-free Bluetooth earbuds, for instance, means I nearly always have them on me, forever just a pocket-search away. I can’t remember the last time I had a bowel movement that wasn’t accompanied by the voice of Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s former chief speechwriter, who hosts Pod Save America.
My pod addiction, you’ll be glad to know, is equal opportunity. Give me your true crime, your trivia chat, your news and sports shows, your huddled pods about architecture and design, yearning to be downloaded. Some are like vast volumes of short stories, to be dipped in and out of (I’m currently on the Ming banknote in A History Of The World In 100 Objects by the British Museum’s Neil MacGregor. Don’t tell me what happens). Some are one-timers, ships that pod in the night.
And so, as the list of podcasts I subscribe to has steadily increased, I’ve never thought of it as a problem. It’s not erasing anything: I still read, watch ﬁlms and TV, see friends, travel and go out to dinner just as much as I ever did. I’m not rotting my brain on the sofa. I’m learning while doing things. As Larry David once said in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm after it was revealed he sits down to urinate and reads the paper while doing so, “If I pee 20 times a day, I can get through a whole New York Times, for heck’s sake!”
”Twenty times?” queries his friend Jeff.
”Hey, buddy,” says Larry, indignant, “when you’re peeing all over your shoe, I’m learning something.”
Which is basically the way I’ve always felt about podcasts. Hey, buddy, while you’re staring into space on this train or scanning the vegetable aisle in that shop, I’m learning something.
And then, one day, I listened to Pod Save America when I wasn’t on the 100 and I swear I felt that I needed to go. Fair to say that right there was when I worried I was listening to too many podcasts. Podcasts are funny, aren’t they? They’re not radio shows or books, but a curious mixture of the two, at once startlingly intimate and oddly invasive. I know no other medium, for instance, that will talk me through the grisly details of a coroner’s report while I’m picking out ingredients for a lunchtime salad.
It’s hard to say when we, collectively, started to experience podcast fever, but two events are widely thought of as key. The ﬁrst was Apple baking in a dedicated podcasts app in the iPhone OS in 2012, the second was Serial, the 2014 true-crime podcast that reminded people such things as podcasts exist.
Currently, we’re in a podcast gold rush. Malcolm Gladwell has co-founded Pushkin Industries, which will feature podcasts from himself and Michael Lewis, while the likes of Luminary now aims to sell a subscription service for podcasts in the style of Spotify. Spotify itself, meanwhile, has spent millions this year alone hoovering up podcast companies such as Gimlet Media (I’d recommend Heavyweight, which I also subscribe to). Currently, almost a billion people listen to at least one podcast per month.
But something else has happened: the rise of the podcast ‘super-listener’, who consumes twice as many podcasts as the average listener and prefers in-depth content rather than chat. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to realise I am one. You also don’t need to just listen to podcasts to come across them. Get this: a recent episode of Reply All – a show that investigates curious internet and tech phenomena, which, yes, I subscribe to – saw the hosts investigate the case of a person who had bought a new car speciﬁcally because the stereo was ideal to play podcasts, yet refused to play his favourite one, 99% Invisible, about the impact of design on our world.
Two things struck me. One: that’s my favourite podcast. And two: the guy in question listened to so many podcasts his app told him he had spent, in total, 133 days listening to them. 133 days! Michael Cohen’s going to do less time for lying to Congress.
But the worst part about this – apart from the fact the podcast should have been about the existence of someone who spends that much time listening to podcasts, instead of helping provide the junkie with another hit – is that he also hosts a podcast. I don’t know what counts as ”peak podcast”, but I’ll take a wild swing that podcasts about podcast addicts who also run podcasts that try to help them listen to one more podcast must be up there.
Can any of this be good for my brain? The answer, as it often does for me, comes via a podcast. A 2016 episode of Freakonomics, which I subscribe to, was titled “This Is Your Brain On Podcasts” and looked at what effect a podcast has on you. And it turned out...way more than anyone suspected. They studied people listening to The Moth (let me shock you: I’m a subscriber) in an MRI machine and found every part of the brain lit up: not just the parts that process sound and language, but numbers and maths too. As Jack Gallant, a computational and cognitive neuroscientist from UC Berkeley, put it, “It makes your brain hum.”
And yet this wasn’t altogether seen as a good thing. Your brain needs time to process all that information, the podcast found – to process it and form new ideas based on it and that only comes by letting it do nothing at all. In short: all the beneﬁts that come with mindfulness.
Happily, though, there is a podcast for that.