A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published an article titled “Podcasts Are the New Xanax.” Hyperbolic titles aside, the author of the piece, Pamela Druckerman, describes how she used podcasts to feel more connected to American culture and colloquialisms as an expatriate living in Paris. Eventually, the familiar feeling of connection gives way to media dependence, as she found herself more disconnected from her husband and getting anxious when not being able to find her favorite headphones.
I admit that my initial reaction upon reading the article (alright, mostly just reading that headline) amounted roughly to “give me a fucking break.” Overly harsh, yes, but I couldn’t immediately fill in the gap of dependency with something like listening to stories. It just didn’t register with me.
I’ve never really been bitten by the podcast bug. Every once in a while, I’d throw on some NPR show like “This American Life” or “Radiolab,” but never anything with a narrative extending beyond the one 60-minute episode and nothing that compelled me to become a devoted acolyte. A couple years ago, I did have a stint of playing “Super Smash Bros.” while listening to “Clerks” director Kevin Smith’s “Smodcast” rantings in the background, but that stopped pretty abruptly after I shelled out $10 to see “Tusk” in theaters. Every time I hear his laugh now, I can’t escape the feeling that the source of the guffaw is my tenner in his pocket.
I’m glad I read Druckerman’s article when I did though, because like millions of other folks over the last week, I spent roughly seven hours fully enveloped in the story of “S-Town,” a new podcast from the creators of “This American Life” and “Serial.” “S-Town” is short for Shit Town, the name given to the town of Woodstock, Ala., by local clockmaker, horticulturalist, wizard of profanity and general genius John B. McLemore, who invites New York journalist Brian Reed down south to investigate a potential murder and rumors of police corruption in the place he despairingly calls home.
From the initial emails back and forth between John and Brian through their repeated meetings in Woodstock, the story of “S-Town” spirals into territory that is heartbreaking, hilarious and at times uncomfortably voyeuristic. To say any more would take away from the discovery of first listening, but I was thoroughly hooked on every word.
And in the frenzied intake, I thought back to something Druckerman had mentioned in her article, a line about how “podcasts gave me the illusion of having a vibrant social life.” It’s a sentiment I can relate to with some of my own addictive habits from the past, during a few years when a large (and at the time, vital) part of my social life was tied up with the online game personas of people I’d never met and was mostly tied to by a raid schedule.
It’s a helpful sentiment for managing the descent into a rabbithole at the onset, and one I kept in mind while browsing through other podcasts to download before I too started alienating friends and jonesing for my favorite pair of headphones.
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