It’s become a bit trite to talk about the ills of social media. Hypocritical too, as such debates are often conducted within the very same arena of social media, which reminds me of the early eighties and adults telling me to steer well clear of smoking whilst lighting another superking off the one just going out.
A less remarked upon social ill is the danger of ‘listening to stuff’. Hear me out.
The last few years have been a golden age for audio entertainment: the explosion of podcasts, the popularity of audiobooks and those high production value documentaries that now ‘drop’ on BBC Sounds with all the pomp of the latest episode of Succession.
The technology to produce this sort of output has been around a while. It’s not like audiobooks had to wait for voice de-ageing software. Why only now am I inventing reasons to give the dog a fifth walk of the day so I can listen to Jon Ronson?
I put it down to one thing: The proliferation of ear-buds. I – like almost middle-aged people – was initially suspicious of this sinister development. I’d grown up with wires. Wires were tangible. Wires were for real men, like DIY and getting hernias. However, the sales girl at Three Mobile sold them to me with such an ideological zeal that I decided to give this sorcery a try. Not having to faff around with wires caused a fundamental change in my media habits. The occasional accidental yank my earphones out of the socket was a deeper trauma than I realised.
The sheer freedom of being able to pop this talkative little friend into my ear has opened up a new frontier of smart, entertaining people to distract me from the fact that I’m 45 and routinely wake up tired. And, despite everything I know about physics, somehow they don’t fall out of my ear. They want to be there. My ear-buds have show the kind of staying power you look for in a wife.
Without them my 2021 wouldn’t have been half as entertaining. Katherine Ryan’s brilliant and entertainingly performed audio-book The Audacity. Greg James funny but compelling documentary on Allen Stanford. Iain Dale’s Cross Question, which remains the least boring and most enjoyable way to keep up with the news. I went on so many strategic dog walks that my cockapoo now looks like a whippet.
Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart was a real highlight (even as I type it I want to mimic the unique emphasis he puts on the letter ‘p’). The show explored delicate cultural issues objectively and without the giddy rush to judgement often found in legacy media. All this ‘content’ (I’ve finally got around to calling it that without feeling like some Shoreditcher wearing a bow-tie, eating Weetabix ironically) performs the thing I want most: to be entertained, laugh and have clever things to say to my wife (essential since after 17 years she’s heard all my decent anecdotes).
But – and this is a a big but – I’m starting to wonder if, like all media phenomenon, the combination of ear-bud and great audio content is starting to dominate my life. Like a smoker who increasingly finds that cigarettes become habitual with activities, I find the ear-bud going in more than it should. Do I really need to be listening to a podcast about 9/11 while getting bread and milk from the co-op?
Does putting out the bins really create a window for some true crime?
Should I really be listening to Adam Buxton during sex?
There’s another issue. The best podcasts are smart people saying interesting things. If you listen to too many, real conversation starts to suffer by comparison. If I listen to the excellent Wolf and the Owl I might start to wonder why my mates riffing isn’t as epic as Romesh & Tom Davis.
As I work in showbiz and have friends more famous than me, there’s also an issue with listening to podcasts produced by acquaintances. It can make you feel like you’re keeping up when you’re not. In the same way family Whatsapp groups can make you feel like you’re connected with siblings in Australia you haven’t seen in person for 20 years. And given current Australian hyper-sensitivity may never do so again.
Luckily, in the crowded audio market some old favourites do occasionally make way. As much as I love hearing Mark Kermode’s views on films, it is strange that a movie podcast has become a vehicle for two middle aged men to make frequent coded references to their own hardline centrism.
Mission creep – it happens. In my own podcast I recently had to pension off a genius format point called the ‘cuss count’. Ok, I say genius, it was me tracking the amount I swear in the style of Public health stats. Just like constantly being told how ill we are, all things have a shelf life with the general public.
Ear-buds have been a revelation, but I’m reminded of Louis CK’s point (are we allowed to quote him yet?) that sometimes it’s good for human beings to be bored. I don’t need to have a panic attack because I have nothing to listen to on the 20-minute walk into town. Train journeys are possible without an audio book (I’m told you can even try written versions of books, but I don’t see that taking off).
Sometimes you can just look at the sky and stare at a herd of cows. And if the cows don’t drop half an hour of solid cow banter, you can just subscribe to another herd.
Geoff Norcott is back out on Tour with 'I Blame the Parents' from 4 February