Podcasting and the Resurgence of the Oral Tradition

by Diana Koehm

“My Podcast Set I” taken by Patrick Breitenbach on August 8, 2008. (Creative Commons/Flickr)
“My Podcast Set I” taken by Patrick Breitenbach on August 8, 2008. (Creative Commons/Flickr)

A hush falls over the clearing. The hunter’s voice rings with a metallic clang. The bodies huddled around the fireplace feel the blade pierce the beast’s hide as if it were their own. Before writing, there was word of mouth. Our humble literary blog, and the larger literature scene as we understand it today, would not exist without our great ancestor, the oral tradition of storytelling. There is something uniquely tangible in the hearing of a story that affects us in an intimate way.

Most people watch TV. Most people listen to music. Most people don’t listen to podcasts. No one has risen to international fame and wealth by podcasting in the way the YouTube stars have. Today, claiming you have a podcast carries only slightly more prestige than saying you have a blog, despite the enormous difference in monetary investment and required skill. Only recently have podcasts started to share the niche filled by music since the invention of the Walkman.

Unlike music, many podcasts are free. Most podcasters don’t make money off their craft, and those who do rely on advertising, donations, merchandizing, and live shows. For me, podcasts are the perfect fusion of art and convince in a modern age so cynically and accurately characterized by hyper-efficiency. I can “read” my stories while I walk my dog, do the dishes, or wait for the bus.

As a student of the arts, I could not be more fascinated by our reversion as a culture to radio shows. As a college kid who’s busier than I’ve ever been, I couldn’t be more pleased that I have access to high-quality (and free) content that’s boundless in its possibilities (and free).

For the podcast novice and the lover of literature, I’ve prepared a starter kit to get your feet wet:

Welcome to Night Vale

A classic in the world of podcasts, Welcome to Night Vale is perhaps the quintessential example of storytelling that is only made possible through an auditory medium. Each episode is narrated by Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin) who hosts a radio show in the fictional town of Night Vale. As Cecil delivers town news and updates, we glimpse a window into a charming world full of characters like the Faceless Old Lady Who Lives in Your Home, the Hooded Figures down at the Dog Park, and of course, Carols the Scientist, a newcomer with whom Cecil is quite smitten. Welcome to Night Vale is so wildly creative that I would be hard-pressed to pin it down, but suffice it to say it’s a mixture of comedy and horror. Episodes are between twenty and thirty minutes. Must start from the beginning.

The Tobolowsky Files

Stephen Tobolowsky has 244 acting credits on IMDb. You’ve seen him and you know him, even if his face isn’t coming to you right now. The Tobolowsky Files is a beautiful collection of stories told by the man himself that, like any great personal essay, start from a moment in his life that was personally significant and spiral out into something enormous and deeply poignant that escapes pinning down. If ever there were a natural storyteller, it’s “Tobo,” with his deep, Southern twang and his charming and witty observations that so beautifully offset the sometimes crushing, sometimes beautiful, conclusions that his stories reach. The Tobolowsky Files updates without any consistency whatsoever. Sometimes a week will pass between each episode, sometimes six months. So don’t hold your breath. Episodes are roughly an hour in length and listeners can start listening from any episode they so choose. (Warning: Episode 3 is extremely biphobic. I still haven’t forgiven him, and I do plan to write him a strongly worded email, thank you very much.)

My Brother, My Brother And Me

Hosted by the three brothers McElroy, MBMBaM (pronounced ma-bim-bam by fans) is “an advice show for the modren era” (you read that correctly). Most would not find much of anything about the show to be ‘literary,’ but this girl will go to her grave claiming that comedy is the soul of wit, and nothing is more stimulating to the mind than listening to three thirty-year old men argue about April Fools etiquette, how to invite someone to a hot tub, or how to marry your Sonic characters. The McElroy brothers are prepared to tackle each and every topic, and they do it well. Episodes are roughly an hour long. I recommend starting from the most recent and working your way back (they’ve honed their craft over time).

So grab some friends, sit yourselves around a fire pit, and listen to some stories (on speakers) like times of olde. You won’t regret it. Happy podcasting!

Diana Koehm is a junior majoring in Human Rights and English with a Creative Writing concentration. She is on the creative non-fiction panel for the Long River Review.

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