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Podcasts and Journalism in an Age of Obsession

The bookcover art for "Narrative Podcasting in an Age of Obsession" by Neil Verma.

In case you missed the previous post on Neil Verma and his upcoming (now newly released book), here’s a quick recap. The first two chapters (out of four total) discuss podcasts as a whole, not just audio dramas. It’s deep dive into tentpole true crime podcasts like “Serial” are on the level of an audiologist or composer working with hearing and sound. A CSI working on a case is another apt metaphor for what Verma does in these opening chapters. The rest of the book follows what’s come before, but adds the always timely topic of journalism and podcasts as a point of contention among news podcasts and their critics.

Old Information Made New

In the second and final chapter of the book, titled chronologically as “Structures of Knowing” and “The Arts of Amnesia,” Verma goes not as deep as the previous two chapters. A place where he talked about the word choice and voice cracks used when speaking the words out loud. A lot of the concepts are still fresh in my head from Journalism school. They aren’t as quantitive, but qualitatively they’re still fascinating for podcast fans and critics.

The ideas from scholars Verma cites aren’t new. Some are over a decade old. His framing of them, however, in the podcast/radio landscape is something fresh and innovative. Alex Blumberg’s idea of the “Physics of Story” Verma says is so engrained in our culture. We “would be dissatisfied with if those acquired expectations are not met.” Those expectations probably aren’t new for writers. They share a lot in common with the cliche and unhelpful and often misunderstood adage of “show, don’t tell.” Scene/sequel format is another idea the chapter dances around, but doesn’t explicitly name.

The American Style: Podcasts as Journalism

Radio journalism shifted in the 1970s and was perfected in the 1990s, according to Verma’s research. This “American Style” of podcasting is still going on today, but not without its critics. Those in the audio drama space already know about podcasts like “This American Life” and “Serial” being problematic in the way they reinforce systemic issues like race and socio-economic class. Verma spends a good chunk of the second chapter on this idea.

One example of this comes from James T. Green a former freelance producer at Gimlet who wrote an essay on what the studio thought made a good story. He was told to create a story about X that’s interesting because Y. This overly simplistic view of audio storytelling in the “American style” chapter overlooks the nuances and other perspectives stories bring. A story about a displaced minority is only interesting when it ends with them achieving success is backward thinking. Why not focus on what caused the displacement in the first place?

Audio Drama Podcasts for Radio, Radio Drama Shows for Podcasts

Last but not least is the third chapter on audio dramas. Something I probably would’ve read first if I wasn’t reviewing the entire book. I’m glad I read the chapters before this one as they had a lot of interesting and important details on podcasts and audio journalism as a whole. Something that would’ve been nice supplementary text during my time at University of Illinois in Urbana, IL.

While this final chapter stands up on its own, there is a two-part article on RadioDoc Review sharing the title “The Arts of Amnesia.” I scanned the first couple of pages on both the advanced reader copy I received. They aren’t identical. He published the article in 2017. More than enough time passed for Verma to dig deeper into the concepts presented in the more up-to-date version. While not the same, It gives you an idea of what to expect out of the last third of the book. I still recommend picking up the book even if you’ve read the articles. There’s still a lot of knowledge to be gained from the earlier chapters

I’ll leave you all with this. Verma mentions not only the staples of modern audio drama, but also some lesser known works. At least unknown to me at the time. Like everything else about this book, you get more than you asked and then some. Take notes as you’re reading to get the most out of it. Those who even passively read will get several moments of “I understood that reference” when certain shows appear.