Last December, I took the subway to the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle and strolled into an elaborate prank. At least, it felt like a prank.
I had intended to visit the first PodCon, a conference for fans and makers of podcasts, but it seemed I had blundered into a casting call of extras for an upcoming film about the space program or crime-fighting mathematicians. So many of my fellow bespectacled white men, ages 25-40, surrounded me that I felt like the penguin in this classic Far Side comic.
It turned out I was in the right place.
I should have known. Some of the earliest podcasts were simply replays of public radio programs, and a career in public radio has taught me that it tends to attract a rather, um, bookish audience.
But podcasting has been around for nearly 15 years and is reaching critical mass. Athletes have podcasts. So do companies and museums. Almost everyone you know hosts or works on a podcast. Even me! No one can say for sure how many podcasts exist, but Apple, the biggest distributor, counts them in the hundreds of thousands. Likewise, the podcast audience is trending ever upward.
Once I got over the disorientation of seeing my own face everywhere I looked, I returned to my mission. I wanted to learn about facts. I wanted to hear hosts like Roman Mars, Lauren Spohrer and Ashley Ahearn talk about the capital-T truth and how to reveal it in a way that keeps listeners tuned in. The programs I've worked for, and the podcasts I listen to, are entirely non-fiction.
It turns out that my fact-based bias is what set me apart from my PodCon doppelgangers.
The first panel discussion I attended featured one of the creators of the fictional podcast Welcome to Night Vale. When he was introduced, the sound that erupted from the standing-room only crowd was similar to what the Beatles heard on Ed Sullivan. OK, maybe there wasn't as much squealing and crying, but still, hundreds of people were cheering for a guy I'd never heard of. What was I missing?
A lot. Welcome to Night Vale launched in 2012 and now has more than 150 episodes. The program has spawned spinoffs, the creators have published novels and a TV version is in the works. Most surprisingly to me, Welcome to Night Vale has performed more than 250 live shows. They're touring internationally right now.
To recap: A few years ago, a couple of guys started making up stories about a little town in the desert where conspiracy theories come to life. Now a global audience is snapping up tickets to see them live on stage.
When my father was a boy in the 1940s and 50s, he listened to "The Shadow," "Gunsmoke," "The Lone Ranger," "Our Miss Brooks" and plenty of other classics. Even now, he talks with reverence about those shows and how they whisked him out of his home and into a cinematic theater of the mind. His hands might have been folding church bulletins, but his soul was riding Silver into the sunset.
The radio plays of old were ephemeral. If my dad missed a broadcast, he had to wait for the next show. Their wireless signal bounced around the ionosphere, hoping for antennas, finding an audience that could only be estimated. Podcasters know exactly how many people listen to each episode. They can tell when downloads spike in Sweden or Schenectady. And latecomer listeners can start from the beginning, binging episodes to catch up with the rest of the fan base.
And there's one more significant difference, which allows the supply of podcasts to increase alongside demand, ever upward. Radio programs have always been limited by the number of hours in a day. Station managers operate with finite audio real estate and are reluctant to cede it to new shows that lack a dedicated audience. A podcast may only have 10,000 listeners, but each of them may be devoted enough to pledge money to the production, or buy a T-shirt or travel to see a live performance. The pie isn't sliced into smaller pieces — it just gets bigger and bigger.
The creators of the best fictional podcasts are reminding listeners that we need more than facts and conversation. We need to have our imaginations piqued — to escape the confines of reality and soar across the infinite unknown.
Most moving pictures were dreadfully dull, until Georges Méliès took us to the moon. And most podcasts were two dudes, both wearing glasses, chatting about the news, until the storytellers led us into the future, guided by the lessons of the past.