Live from Sixth and I Synagogue, in Washington, D.C.!
It’s weird to develop relationships with radio personalities. You get to know their voices intimately—inflection, tone, laugh, cough. You decide what they look like. You become terrified that their real faces won’t measure up, or will somehow change everything.
I hate hearing recordings of my own voice. Fortunately, I avoid microphones and rarely call my own phone through to voicemail, so the audio is easy to avoid. When I do hear myself played back, I don’t like it. Is my voice always that deep, and vaguely androgynous? Why do I say some words with a British cadence, and why hasn’t anyone told me to stop? But most of all—my recorded voice doesn’t sound like me, as I imagine myself to be. It’s disconcerting.
A voice without a face is a strange thing. My favorite radio personalities and podcast hosts are in my head, but disembodied—not fully real. The voices of Ira Glass, John Hodgman and Audie Cornish are, in many ways, more the message they deliver than they are themselves. Depending on who’s speaking, I’m ready to listen quietly, or laugh along, or think very seriously about Syria.
I have spent hundreds of hours listening to NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon speak, and their pop culture podcast is much more to me than just a group of people, talking about stuff. They are an authoritative bunch that has introduced me to some of my favorite books, movies and TV shows. Their voices—full of warmth and character—command respect, and not a little bit of devotion from the likes of Alison and me.
I attended the most recent live taping of Pop Culture Happy Hour at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C. I wish Alison had been with me. I saw Linda, Stephen and Glen in action, and guess what? They have bodies, and very expressive faces, and are actually a little discomfited sitting before hundreds of plaid-and-glasses wearing NPR nerds. They are used to microphones and a studio. We are used to piping them into our brains through ear buds. It was strange for everyone.
Glen was my favorite panelist to observe. He played to us and with us, and made us promise to buy his book. He also spoke about this very phenomenon: the explosive popularity of podcasting in 2014, and the way that the relationship between “disembodied voice” and listener is evolving as a result.
Glen spoke about the intimacy of podcasting—it’s not straight-up news reporting, with all the journalistic rigor and formality that often requires. Podcasts showcase “the rough stuff,” very personal process stories, without time-stamps. Podcasts give the impression of being raw, immediate and unedited. In the moment.
PCHH is still an NPR program, so my feeling is that Linda’s podcast will never sound quite as informal or unfinished as, say, SERIAL. But being physically present with this group hammered home the fact that the voices in my head (the radio ones) aren’t godlike or all-knowing. They’re just people. Telling stories, or being goofy. Or being Sarah Koenig (whatever that means).
That’s what Alison and I are doing—we’ve got stuff to say, and we’re finding a way to share, whatever that means for us. We’re nothing special—not yet. We expect to be very famous, quite soon.