When Podcasts Bridged the Social Distance


This spring, with so many of us involuntarily haunted like premature phantoms in our own homes, routine mail delivery could feel oddly exciting. We welcomed the arrival of new packages not just for their content, but simply because they were new tantalizing evidence of a bigger world within reach.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I noticed my podcast feed was doing a similar thing. My social life had been decimated; My meaningful contact with other people, especially those who usually came about through chance encounters on the subway or in cafes, was suddenly broken off. But every day my food was refreshed with new broadcasts from other rooms and other lives, snapshots in a huge and flowing mosaic.

I’m a heavy podcast consumer during normal times. I have more rewarding relationships with Heavyweight and Love + Radio, longstanding non-fiction books that are consistently original and often moving, than with most television shows. But in a year when movie screens went black, concert venues fell silent, and Broadway stalled, podcasts played a bigger and bigger role in my life. Once a distraction for idle hours or commuters, now they were a balm and escape hatch. They offered few opportunities to feel surprised or inspired, and to be soothed by the company of a trustworthy voice in a darkening world.

These voices fitted seamlessly into my new normal. Without an office to commute to, I enjoyed new episodes of “Culture Gabfest” and “The Watch” every day during my lunch break. I listened to “home cooking” while making an unprecedented number of weekday dinners with my wife. I spent the weekends protecting myself with the heady twists of “Nice White Parents” and “Deep Cover”. And with the help of “Lovett or Leave It,” he laughed regularly as he followed a dire presidential campaign and its aftermath.

According to Podtrac, an analytics company, I’m not the only one who has relied on podcasts this year. After a slump in the spring when nationwide shutdowns first killed the commute, downloads in the US have steadily increased. At the end of October they rose by 47 percent compared to the same period last year, continuing a sky curve that has tightened over the past decade. In a year with so much bent or broken in our society and culture, we had a belief that the fodder would deliver.


Robert Dunfee