Jarrett Fuller

On Podcasts

Last week on Twitter, on a whim, I observed a shift in my podcast listening habits:

A thought: are podcasts a seasonal medium? For me, I basically stop listening to podcasts in the summer (only keep The Daily and a few interview podcasts I jump in and out of) and go to music but In the winter, I listen to more podcasts and less music.

I’ve been listening to podcasts for ten years — I started listening to This American Life in 2009, during my last year of college. This led me to The Sound of Young America with Jesse Thorn (now Bullseye), then John Gruber’s The Talk Show and then and then and then…

My podcast listening only increased when I started working in an open-office floor plan, often with headphones on. Over the years, particular shows came and went, but my subscriptions always seemed to grow. Podcasts became the primary way for me to learn, when I suddenly didn’t have as much time to sit and read. The height of my podcast listening was probably 2016 — not coincidentally perhaps when I was just starting my own podcast — but in the last few years it’s begun to drop where I’m now listening to about a third of the podcasts I used to.

There are a few reasons for this: Producing my own podcast has usurped some of my attention for the medium. I spend so much time listening to conversations that when I’m not working on the podcast, I’d rather be with music. The nature of my work has changed. I don’t work in an open office with headphones anymore — I’m in the classroom, I’m doing interviews, I’m in meetings — and then when I am at my desk, that work is writing, thinking, reading. In the last two years, I’ve rediscovered my love for music as a soundtrack to my day.

Perhaps because I make a podcast, I get asked often about my favorite shows. This question always makes me feel like a bad advocate for the podcast community because I don’t listen to many anymore, certainly not the ones everyone listens to. I rarely listen to This American Life and 99% Invisible anymore. I don’t listen to Design Matters or most other design podcasts. I never listened to Serial beyond the first season. I only listen to WTF if it’s a guest I’m interested in.

In fact, there are only a handful of podcasts I listen to regularly:

  • The Daily - The New York Times’s excellent daily news podcast is the first thing I listen to every morning. I’ve been listening since the first episode and I don’t think I’ve ever missed an episode. This easily my favorite podcast and has replaced a myriad of other news/political/current event shows for me.

  • Still Processing - Another New York Times podcast, Still Processing features writers and critics Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham dissecting, questioning, and interrogating popular culture. They challenge my own thinking and help me understand the larger trends shaping so much of culture. My other all-time favorite podcast.

  • Slate Culture and Political Gabfest - These are classics but I still love listening to smart people discuss, argue, and make sense of news and culture.

  • The Longform Podcast - I binge-listened to this as I was starting Scratching the Surface and I think some of its DNA has seeped into how I think about my show. Each week features long-form interviews with writers, critics, documentarians, and journalists about their careers and how they do their work.

My listening habits aren’t the only thing that has changed, the type of podcasts I’m drawn too has always evolved. I’m less interested in highly-edited, elaborating structured shows like This American Life or Radiolab these days and really just want to listen to two smart people talking for an hour or two. In addition to the above, I’m constantly popping in and out of Marc Maron, Terry Gross, Bill Simmons, Conan O’Brien, Kara Swisher, or Ezra Klein’s shows to see who they are talking to and what they are interested in. Put a microphone between two smart people and I could listen all day.1

On the other end, I do enjoy limited-run narrative shows. Give me a set number of episodes and a specific topic and I’ll binge-listen to your show in a weekend. The first two seasons of Slow Burn still makes for my favorite new show of the last five years. Remember S-Town? Masterful storytelling. James Bridle’s four-part BBC Show New Ways of Seeing is the best thing I’ve listened to this year.2

This is a long winded way of saying I still love podcasts. As the medium grows, there’s always more to listen to and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I’m still learning about what I like and making my own podcast has changed my own habits. Just think about what Michael Pollan would say: Listen to podcasts, not too much, mostly interviews.

  1. This format is obviously the model influence for Scratching the Surface. 

  2. Same for television. I don’t want to start another show that’ll end up running for seven seasons. I’m much more excited to spend time with a one or two season limited series (Maniac! Fleabag!) or an anthology show (Fargo!) than start Game of Thrones.