Comedians Joe Rogan and Tony Hinchcliffe (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

The last conversation

The problem with podcasts

Artillery Row

If we want the dead to speak to us, then let them do it through the podcast. As shown by this AI generated conversation between Steve Jobs and Joe Rogan, this is the medium in which they really come into their own. There’s humour (people who listen to your show are weird!) self-awareness (your audience is so different from normal Apple users) and occasional profundity (Western civilisation is based on the art of storytelling) That was “quite interesting”, (the ultimate podcast compliment) says a work colleague I play a segment to on our lunch break, blissfully unaware that this is a computer generated butcher’s sausage of cool back story, bad jokes and half digested Eastern philosophy. In other words, the real podcasting deal. is a very clever concept with a big ambition. Using available recordings and written biography, it wants to recreate podcast conversations between the living and the dead, aiming for a “future where all content creation will be generated by AI but guided by humans”. Judging by its first effort with Jobs and Rogan, I’m sure it will go far. Users have already offered suggestions for future episodes. The most popular guests so far appear to be Hitler and Jesus. Rogan is the most requested host. 

The podcast is the audio leviathan under which we huddle

This is no surprise. Rogan, more than any of his contemporaries, has crystallised the medium into one of the most definitive media products of our age — the podcast based on the interesting conversation. The premise is very simple. Find an interesting person, sit down with them and talk about anything. If you want a very interesting conversation, find two interesting people. Sometimes they might even disagree in an interesting way. No editorial board interference. No censorship (mostly). Just good old fashioned, honest conversation in which the ebb and flow of human intellect, reason, curiosity and intrigue can be played out in real time. The intellectual energy of the enlightenment salon for the digital age. 

There is just one problem. The medium isn’t very good. At least it has attained, largely due to the failings of our contemporary discourse, a reputation it doesn’t deserve. The interesting conversation is more often than not, neither one thing nor the other. It’s someone’s worldview brought to you via everything from dieting and workout tips to a distillation of whatever’s been left open on their wikipedia tabs. Sincerity and charisma through the podcasted word are effective mediators of new ideas and experiences, especially in the dead end spaces of our lives. We often find ourselves listening — on a commute, at the office desk — so much that we’ll tolerate those tangents that take us anywhere from tedium to outlandish conspiracy theory. This is the precise appeal of the interesting conversation podcast. Its subject knows no bounds. It is all encompassing. It is the audio leviathan under which we huddle.

In the late noughties, a failing comedian called Marc Maron stumbled on a demand for rambling (or naturalistic) conversations with people about more or less anything. It’s hard to pin down Obama as president in one moment or event, but there is always his appearance on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Since then, there’s been no looking back for the podcast’s ability to satisfy that curious space where current affairs, culture and even religious belief intertwine. In an age in which attention spans have apparently dwindled, there is a huge appetite for the medium (a whopping 65 per cent of people finish the episode, compared to less than half that number who usually finish an online article) Then there’s the influence they levy in the wider political and cultural battles of our time. The Joe Rogan Experience has become an unexpected Stalingrad of the culture wars. Jordan Peterson himself, the podcast philosopher (and I mean that well), who tellingly in a recent appearance appears to have been driven into postmodern madness by the limitless bounds of the interesting conversation.

It is an authoritative and seducing voice in a storm of nonsense

There has been criticism of the podcast, from choice of guests (Rogan) to unaccountable influence (Serial) to self promotion (Diary of the CEO, Archetypes with Meghan). What is missing, however, is a criticism of the user’s relationship to the medium itself, of the way in which it comes at us, the listener, in a curiously flawed position. It is an authoritative and seducing voice from that storm of nonsense and content that marks the digital age. Just as the printing press found its catalyst in the religious tension of reformation, so too has the podcast come of age in a time when people find themselves atomised, confused, suspicious and bored. What’s intriguing is the number of podcasts with a relatively small listenership and an active base who donate to and direct their host. The good specialist podcast can also empower;  this idea isn’t harmful in itself. When that space becomes the audience’s sole diet for understanding the world, however, then we should really start to question the medium. The interesting conversation as worldview is a problem. 

The apparent virtues of the medium, most notably the freedom to think out loud, have exceeded themselves into becoming its precise failings. The most acclaimed podcasts too often perceive themselves as a means in which the popular fringes of the internet can come together to muddle through the problems of our sclerotic and meaningless discourse (the millennial left is particularly enchanted by this idea.) More often than not, rather than becoming spaces in which people work through ideas, they become escapist twilight zones (think the Lynchian reds of Rogan’s studio) — a halfway space between ideas and reality where the internet polymath can explore the increasingly absurd amount of things they read, see or hear. There’s nothing wrong with discussing ideas, but not let’s also forget this used to be the reserve of the pub, not recorded and streamed en masse and venerated as the peak of what we consume. It’s no surprise that what is often discussed on a podcast is only half remembered.

In hindsight, the ascendancy of the podcast in the last decades should largely be viewed through the lens of a failed media landscape. It failed to grasp the nuance and complexity of our times through myopic and cowardly editorials, and online media marketing models sowed inattention and division across the political spectrum. The tide of artificial intelligence into the apparent realm of human genius is usually a cause for existential sadness, but it can also prompt us to reassess the things we’ve embraced into that canon. I hope, pray, that the Hitler, Jesus, Rogan three-way podcast does get made, that it’s the most plausibly interesting thing we’ve ever heard, and therefore, finally brings an end to the age of the interesting conversation. 

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