Post by Neil Verma, Northwestern University
In her 2013 book Listening Publics, Kate Lacey points out a contradiction in listening habits arising out of the proliferation of podcasts and other programs born in the digital space. On the one hand, listeners experience radio in perhaps more personalized ways than they did in the past, listening to what they want and when they want, often in the micro-airspace of a personal device. On the other hand, these same listeners represent their acts of listening to others through social media much more readily and broadly than did listeners in the past (p. 154).
Our listening acts are thus simultaneously both less “in public” and more so, while becoming far more available to monitoring by a variety of entities clamoring for every crumb of data on audience preferences and behaviors.
The good news is that this contradiction suggests that despite the insularity of their sonic lives, there remains a persistent desire within many people to listen together, if only virtually. Lacey points to the rise of curated listening events, which have expanded quite a bit in the years since her book was published. Note the upcoming Cast Party bringing podcast shows to film theaters, recent RadioLoveFest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and the ongoing events of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Although it’s not really new, listening together without visual stimulus still feels unusual, like an experiment in experience. By liberating publics and concentrating them, providing a paradoxical collectivity and anti-sociality at once, group podcast listening is full of possibilities, although it is unclear what they are and how to harness them.
In this post, I’d like to think about the classroom as a space in which to find out more about that. While we have opportunities to use public and virtual spaces to promote collective listening (this was the premise of my #WOTW75 project in 2013), and some of the most experimental thinking about podcasting is taking place online (see Sounding Out!’s Everything Sounds piece, Cynthia Meyers’s study of podcast business, and Jason Mittell’s coverage of Serial), it’s in classrooms where we can really “do” collective listening in a unique way. Unlike listeners in online groups, movie theaters, museums, and festivals, those in classrooms host critique without seeming to undermine community. Moreover, they benefit from a tremendous power that even educators themselves often undervalue: by meeting again and again, classroom listening enables conversations to grow, as the listening we do alone becomes the listening we do together.
According to this reasoning, teaching classes on podcasting isn’t just a new idea to attract students – although it does – but also a way of knowing the form of the podcast anew. In other words, podagogy (a word I didn’t make up, swear) is just as necessary to the current task of inventing podcast studies as it is to the task of applying it.
I recently had a chance to experiment with this in a course I taught on “Podcasting and New Audio,” which focused on narrative-driven podcasts in historical context. Broken into three sections – “What is a Podcast?,” “Possible Histories the Podcast,” and “Formal Problems / Critical Strategies” – the course gave opportunities for complicating student understanding of shows that many already knew well. By teaching Radiolab’s “Space” alongside a week on the history of sound art, for instance, we could rethink this show on discovery along lines suggested by conceptual art. Combining Serial with Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on the history of conjecture, we dug into the show’s hermeneutics, considering the way the narration approaches “evidence” with boundless suspicion while also providing listeners with sonic details that work as “clues,” offering seemingly privileged windows into meaning, like tracks in the snow.
I found the historical classes – highlighting the hidden legacy of radio drama, documentary, and the radio “feature” on podcast formulas – especially gratifying. Even the most ardent podcast fans know few masterpieces of the past. Want to blow the mind of a lifelong devotee of This American Life? Assign The Ballad of John Axon. Trust me.
I added two podagogical (there it is again) features to the architecture of the class, both of which involved listening to our materials as a collective, in the room.
In the first, I asked students to work in groups to produce recordings as responses to the reading, creating a quasi-podcast of their own. Prompts included: after reading Nancy Updike’s manifesto for radio, create a 1 minute “manifesto” using only sound (I got a great one based on Russolo); provide the shortest possible piece of audio that tells a “story” whose structure responds to how podcasters like Alex Blumberg and Ira Glass understand that term (the snap of a mousetrap, two seconds flat). Listening to these in class gave each group a chance to talk about their thinking, emphasizing sound as not just a vehicle of response but also as a way of knowing. Indeed, the very anticipation of being asked to create audio made them listen differently, tuning their receptors and making them as detail-oriented in the study of podcasts as many already are when it comes to TV and film.
That’s the same idea behind the second experiment in the course. In each meeting, one group would take the task of devising and leading a “Guided Exercise in Collective Listening.” To explain, I gave an example. On the first day, I broke the group into thirds and assigned them each one of Michel Chion’s “Three Listening Modes” (semantic listening for language, causal listening for sources of emanation, “pure listening” for sound objects) to shape how they listen to The Truth’s “The Extractor.” Then we listened to the whole piece and had a discussion about how it was different depending on our mode, and what points in the piece cued us to shift from one mode to another. In another case, I instructed them to make a four frame “storyboard” for Sean Borodale’s A Mighty Beast while we listened to it together, later asking what choices we have to make in “translating” from sound to a constrained number of visuals, as a way of troubling our lazy notions of the relationship between sounds and mental images.
Soon the students took over directing our listening activities. That became the richest part of the course, particularly for difficult episodes. Listening to Love + Radio’s brilliant but disturbing story “Jack and Ellen” encouraged us to look at how editing constructed the complex reliability – and the complex gender identity – of a blackmailer. A group that undertook Radiolab’s controversial “Yellow Rain” segment instructed us to listen for moments of shifting allegiance, an idea that sharpened our appreciation of the rhetorical use of silence in that piece, along with its bearing on questions of race and power.
Another value of listening together in class was more ineffable. Getting podagogy out of the pod, it became clear that these pieces simply hang in the air differently among other people than they do in the ear and alone, carrying discomfort, mortification and identity more heavily when they fill a room. By having both experiences, class listening introduces sequence to Lacey’s contradiction. Students begin with private listening on their own, have a second experience informed by peers as a group, and then explain their experiences and their discrepancies to one another. The rhythm moved from the public to the private and back again, something that a one-time collective listening event alone does not accomplish.
Curated listening in public is a laudable and exciting development, I hope we see more of it. I hope it gets even weirder. But in the classroom, collective listening can be a way of teaching the ear to be more critical, more aware of its own comportment and aesthetic responses, as well as of the habits of attention and social dynamics that underlie those responses, the very matters that podcast scholarship ought to be after.