Jan 23, 2023Liked by Clark Boyd

I'm a little baffled at this idea of podcasts as a substitute for reading. It's a different medium. You might as well talk about the TV as a substitute for reading - no doubt people have, but to me that completely misses the point. It's a different method of information delivery with different goals and appeals.

I'm a huge book lover, but not everyone is. If books turn them off, why can't they listen to podcasts? Or, shock horror, do both xD I find it hard to make the time for podcasts because I'm rarely in a position where I'm doing something that's rote or mindless enough that I can concentrate on what I'm listening. I prefer reading because I can control the speed of it, but I have huge affection for a couple of podcasts I listen to, including 'We're Not So Different' (a mediaeval history podcast) and 'Lingthusiasm' (a linguistics podcast). And I have learned a ton from both, especially WNSD. Maybe that FT writer is just listening to bad podcasts?

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Indeed. I guess that's what I would add to the author's point, as he seems more strident than I am on the "books good, pods bad" argument.

No medium is worse or better than any other but as you say, they are different. The difficulty arises here when podcasts do promise to be an "all juice, no pulp" substitute for a book. These aren't the majority of podcasts at all, but the data (empirical as well as anecdotal) would suggest that they are a popular minority.

It's a broader trend that goes beyond podcasts and predates them, too. We are seduced by the idea of bullet-point everything. That's ok, but we have to accept that we lose something in the trade-off.

Anyway, plenty of books are also guilty of making these same promises. Some of them successfully summarise odeas and other don't, so there is no sense that anything written is inherently superior.

I have read books about philosophers that claim to "explain" the main theories from the original texts in simple terms, because I dreaded reading them for myself. These have their place.

I remember the BBC made a series of two-minute cartoons about philosophical ideas and they were fantastic. No-one thought they replaced the books, but they made complex ideas approachable for a wider audience. That has a lot of value and podcasts can achieve the same.

I also listen to some podcasts that I love and I think I learn from them in a way I wouldn't if they were books instead. I pause them sometimes to think about a point that has just been made, in the way I would if I were reading a book.

That awareness is important, I feel. People can choose their entertainment and their learning wherever they prefer, of course. One point the article makes (albeit rather forcefully, surely to attract a reaction!) is that some people look, mistakenly, for a direct substitute for books in their podcasts. A growing industry is all too ready to meet that demand, when podcasts can instead offer a complementary source of information! :-)

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"It's a broader trend that goes beyond podcasts and predates them, too. We are seduced by the idea of bullet-point everything."

This is true (hello, listicles!) but I don't see this as unique to podcasts at all (as you point out, it's not) and so to zero in on podcasts because they're relatively popular seems bizarre. It also gives a tone of intellectual snobbery - what is becoming of our society???

Couldn't you say the same of magazines (and I'm sure many people have)? If people don't want to read books, they won't read them - regardless of whether or not podcasts are available as an alternative. I don't think anyone goes "oh, well I would have waded through this weighty tome on the exact same subject but there was a seductively short podcast available so I opted for that instead".

Anyway. I saw some interesting news just now that my journalistic Alma Mater is launching a podcasting MA: https://twitter.com/meljbunce/status/1618246302718132227 So make of that what you will. Some more journalistically rigorous podcasts incoming, perhaps?

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Yeah, I'd detect a little snobbery in it too. And as you say, it's not like podcasts are going away any time soon! That course looks really good and it's certainly timely. There is still plenty of room to explore the format.

I've been looking into the numbers and the market for new podcasts is cooling. So perhaps the next phase will be about quality over quantity :-)

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