When I was a child, I complained every time my grandfather listened to NPR in the car. I didn’t want to listen to adults talk about adult things like news and politics — I wanted to listen to the Backstreet Boys.
Now, I still listen to the Backstreet Boys — they’ve got a reunion gig in Las Vegas, if you can believe it — but I’m also now addicted to talk radio and, by extension, podcasts.
Podcasts are having a bit of a moment. Pew Research Center said in 2016 that 21 percent of Americans 12 years old or older have listened to a podcast within the last month. In our household, my husband and I listen to podcasts daily. We’ve got our weekly usuals — comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me chief among them — but I even listen to regular radio via podcast. The weekly episodes of This American Life entertain me early on Monday mornings, after my phone has automatically downloaded it from the native iPhone app. I just don’t have time for them on Sunday afternoons. If you don’t know what podcasts are, just think of them as radio-on-demand. You don’t have to tune in at a set time, and you can pause, rewind or fast-forward at your convenience.
It’s a format that lends itself to fantastic storytelling. Just look at the true crime journalistic endeavor Serial, which captivated the world with its first season did-he-or-didn’t-he story about Adnan Syed, convicted in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Or Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, a weekly podcast that brings out the heebie-jeebies by telling stories listened to in the dark. Or The Adventure Zone, from the creators of My Brother, My Brother and Me, where three brothers play Dungeons and Dragons with their dad. The story, originally on a whim of “Hey, let’s try this,” has led to a huge fan following, more than 60 hours of content and a forthcoming graphic novel.
I love good stories. The format they arrive in is incidental.
Which leads me to my latest obsession: S-Town, from the creators of This American Life and Serial. Yes, S-Town is short for Shit-Town. If you don’t like curse words, podcasts might not be for you. While some podcasts do self-censor, they aren’t required to and many don’t. I don’t mind it, but, as folks on the Internet say, your mileage may vary.
We’re about to get into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t powered through all seven episodes of S-Town, go do that now and come back. I’ll wait.
Done? If you’re like me, you listened to that first episode and decided to try episode two. At the end of episode two, I realized I wouldn’t sleep until I had marathoned all seven episodes. I cried when Brian heard the news of John’s death. I gasped at the prospect of a hidden treasure in John’s woods. I was filled with melancholy at the end, mourning the life of a man I’d never met.
See, most podcasts like this don’t release all of their episodes at once. Serial’s first season was weekly installments on Thursday mornings, a fact stuck in my mind like it was yesterday. I remember sitting up in bed at 6 a.m., waiting for my podcast feed to refresh and lacing up my shoes for my morning Riverwalk trip to hear the latest in Adnan’s case.
The producers tried something new with S-Town, and I’m conflicted. As a consumer, I loved and hated it. It’s the same way with most new television series on streaming services, putting up all of the episodes at once. You experience fatigue. At the back of your mind you know that, if you don’t binge, you risk getting spoiled online or left out of conversations with friends.
So you stay up until 2 a.m. listening to a podcast, holding your cat and pondering the meaning of life. Just me? Maybe. But there’s this intimacy with podcasts that you don’t get from written stories. Those voices in my ears are my friends. They tell me incredible stories that truly — truly — change my viewpoints on life. Podcasts make me laugh, cry and experience a piece of the world I never would have without them.
And yes, I do listen to them in the car, switching between them, NPR and pop radio. Thank you, grandpa.
If you want to listen to podcasts, but don’t know how:
If you have an iPhone, iPod or iPad, Apple has a native Podcasts app available via the App Store that’s free and widely used by podcast producers for distribution.
If you have an Android phone, Stitcher is a popular free app, while Pocket Casts is a popular paid ($3.99) app. I have friends and family who use both.
Use your computer! Most podcasts have websites with episodes hosted for easy listening. Just find the one you like, press play and listen. Some shows have extensive online archives. For example, This American Life has its entire show catalog on its website, but only the most recent four episodes available in the Apple Podcasts app.
For more detail on how to listen to podcasts in general, check out this great guide created by Serial.
Amanda Gray is the web content editor at Notre Dame Law School. Previously she worked for the South Bend Tribune, The Goshen News and DestroyTheCyb.org, an online nerd news outlet. Find her on Twitter at TheAmandaGray or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.