WuToWu #80: Listening In

Hi Jessica,

Happy Halloween! Sorry for not writing the past week, but I’m back and ready to accept whatever challenge you have chosen for me.

The Harvard University Dining Service workers are getting a pay raise and subsidized healthcare, which means that I get my friendly dining hall workers and food variety back! I’m certainly glad that has been resolved. Now I can stop the streak of eating a muffin for breakfast every single morning.

As you probably know, I’m still working at Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, pulling requests, shelving, scanning, and generally cleaning up. This can get a little boring, so I’ve taken to listening to some of your podcasts while I work, in particular “Hello Internet” and “Still Buffering.” They are consistently interesting, humorous, and thoughtful, and sometimes even give me story ideas.

A few days ago, I was trying to figure out what makes these podcasts so appealing to me. I enjoy more programmed podcasts too, like “Radiolab” and “This American Life,” which are journalistic in genre and are funded by larger companies. But there’s something about the podcasts I mentioned above, with their spare format, that I enjoy. They don’t often have interviews or special guests, have simple sound designs, and give the appearance of being a personal project, rather than a corporate one.

On one level, the podcasts are enjoyable precisely because they simulate the spontaneity and unprofessional nature of conversation. I can imagine myself, sitting in a room with the people on the podcast, observing the conversation bounce back and forth, flow from idea to idea. I get so little of that in my everyday, because I am so busy and everyone around me is so busy that there are precious few points in the day when there is enough time to allow a conversation to develop. These podcasts restore some of that to my day, and I greatly appreciate them.

Yet I have to remind myself that these podcasts are not true, casual conversations, as good as they might be at pretending to be such things. There are topics that the podcasts want to hit, and ads that will appear in the middle or at the end of the podcast. As much as I would like to believe that the voices I hear through my earbuds are engaging in unvarnished conversation, they are still putting on a persona for this work that they’re creating. It would be dangerous to forget that podcasts are edited, created things, rather than emergent.

Halloween, a time when people celebrate make believe and being something besides themselves, demonstrates that it is possible to reveal something true about oneself even in the act of pretending, so I don’t mean to criticize these podcasts for presenting inauthentic versions of themselves. I think it is significant that they would choose to record a podcast and give it to the public. However, it is good to enjoy the podcasts with a mind towards the object they emulate: regular conversation. It’s something in short supply, but valuable when you get the chance to practice it.

I look forward to hearing back from you!

Ardrahan.

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