Anthrocasts: When communities speak, listen and learn

Podcasts hold special possibilities as ethnographic material, because they are intimate, community-based, publicly performed, and privately consumed.

In my last podcast roundup, I talked about anthropology podcasts and the audiences they could serve, naming three types of show:

  • Explainers, for beginners and newcomers to anthropology. The example here was A Story of Us.
  • Story-based, leading the listener through a thought process, and including narration and field recording. The example here was certain episodes of Camthropod.
  • Exploratory, unpacking a high-level concept for an academic audience. The example I gave was Cultures of Energy.

Today, I’d like to talk about a different way that anthropologists can use and enjoy podcasts: as a kind of ethnographic practice.

Podcasting is intimate

Most often, the podcaster’s voice is delivered directly into the listener’s ear, via headphones. When a podcast has a consistent host – and the most popular and compelling ones do – tuning in means allowing a familiar voice to speak from literally inside your own head.

I haven’t done a study of podcast listening, but here’s a little auto-ethnography: I listen to podcasts everywhere. I listen while eating. I listen while working, even writing. I listen in the shower, on a Bluetooth speaker. I listen before falling asleep. (I used to listen WHILE falling asleep, but now that I have a partner I’ve let that go).

The voices of my favorite podcasters are a constant backdrop to so many activities of my life. I hear them when my emotions are up and down; where the hosts put some of their private selves on air, I hear them when their emotions are up and down. In many cases, hosts and their guests are intimate friends, and their banter is a window into the nature and conditions of their relationship. I spend a lot of time with podcasts like that, because I enjoy their company. These performers start to feel like my friends, too.

They also start to feel like participants in an ethnographic research project. Over time, hosts offer up large amounts of information about themselves and the communities with which they’re in conversation, through the dialects and terms they use, their choice and framing of topics, and the use of music and other cultural referents.

A podcast can be the voice of a community

Podcasting is social media. Most popular podcasts have a strong presence on Twitter and Facebook. These platforms are marketing and promotional tools, but they also give listeners a direct pathway back to podcast creators, and the ability to extend beyond the one-way speaker/listener relationship, into something more complex and dynamic. Many podcasters routinely shout out to supporters on the air, answer questions, acknowledge criticism, and accept suggestions from listeners about the show’s content and style.

Podcasting is a space where a community can talk to itself, without having to define its terms, cater for outsiders, or account for opposing viewpoints. Because they are so cheap to produce – and so many podcast producers are working for free – podcasts can also refrain from seeking large audiences, and concentrate on building a small, hard core of support. Platforms like Patreon, which allow listeners to make monthly donations to a project, mean that even a small listener base can provide enough financial support to keep a podcast running. (And that’s to say nothing of the message of encouragement that monetary donations send to a podcast makers. Listeners’ money is deeply meaningful).

At the same time, it’s perfectly possible to listen without responding. Podcasts don’t require an audience to assemble physically in a theater or public space. Listeners don’t have to declare their presence, or provide their names. They don’t have to interact in any way with the performer, or with other members of the podcast audience. In fact, for listeners like myself who belong to a dominant group (cisgender heterosexual white American male here), listening without responding might be the best thing.

For communities that have grown accustomed to being talked at or talked over, and who are too often excluded from traditional media, podcasting must feel liberating. It’s a space where they can talk, for as long as they like, without being interrupted by the likes of me. And I get to listen and learn, without feeling like I’m demanding a free education from people who’ve already been oppressed enough.

Listening in: podcast listening as ethnographic practice

As ethnographers, we’re all used to the disruptions caused by our presence in places and situations we want to document. Here’s one example from my own fieldwork, in Bajawa, Indonesia, where I was living with a Catholic family in an overwhelmingly Catholic community. I was not Catholic, and had told the community that I was Protestant, a difference that most people considered minor, and no cause for conflict.

One day, a close member of the family passed away, and I went to the traditional house to mourn. Inside, the children of the deceased invited me to sit with them. But when a neighbor, the oldest member of the community, entered the house and saw me there, he turned to my hosts and started berating them. He spoke in the local language, and didn’t look at me directly, but I made out the word “Protestant! Protestant!” His voice was angry, raised above the keening of the gathered mourners. I got the message. I was not welcome. I offered last condolences to the family, got up, and left the house.

I was unable to witness this important moment, because my presence was too disruptive for the moment to continue unaffected. It wasn’t my behavior that was disruptive. It was what the direct presence of my religious identity represented.

What does this have to do with podcasts? A podcast offers the ability to listen without intruding. Of course, listening in on a private family ceremony without their knowledge would be completely unethical. But a podcast is a public performance, freely distributed, and available to anyone around the world (who’s rich enough to own the necessary devices). Like a newspaper or a parade, it’s in the public domain.

Podcasts are performances, not moments of pure spontaneity, and their editing processes can render staged moments to make them feel like natural ones. That said, because of a podcast’s serial nature, the low budgets on which they are often made, and the intimacy between hosts and their listeners, podcasts often have an improvisational feel. This is predicated in part on the idea that any individual episode is disposable, to be heard only once by a given listener, then quickly replaced by the episode that follows.

I would argue that some podcasts fall in an intriguing area between deliberate, artful performance and spontaneous, “authentic” self-expression. Podcasts belong to a category of exclusively online performances that share these qualities of disposability and low production value, along with a deep entanglement with social media. Think of the short movies on the (sadly discontinued) Vine video service, or even the lowly Tweet, as other examples of this category. Online ethnography, where researchers may never share a physical space with the participants in their research, is finding its methodological feet. Combine that with an analysis of these sorts of online media, combining intimacy, community, public speaking, and private listening, and you’ll see what makes podcasts so fascinating and potentially fruitful for anthropologists.

Some recommendations: non-anthro podcasts for anthropologists

Here’s a couple of podcasts that have illuminated the possibilities of podcasting as ethnographic practice for me. These are not podcasts about anthropology; they are not made by anthropologists; they are not intended for an anthropology audience. These are examples of marginalized communities speaking with themselves, through a medium that allows people on the outside of those communities to listen and learn from them, like an ethnographer would. I don’t belong to any of the communities around which these podcasts are built. But I’m grateful that they’ve made it possible for me to listen in.

Media Indigena: a weekly news roundtable serving the Indigenous community in the US and Canada, with guests from academia, the arts, and activism. For an American of settler descent such as myself, this is a transformational viewpoint. Host Rick Harp is a pro, and the high quality of the podcast reflects his years of work in the Canadian media.

Hella Black: hosted by two activists in Oakland, California, Hella Black aims to bring radical political education to Black Americans. It’s inclusive, intellectual, and deeply felt; besides talking about community organizing tactics and anti-capitalist philosophy, hosts Delency Parham and Blake Simons devote time to expressing Black rage and supporting Black joy.

Keeping it Queer: all about Queer communities in India, presented by comedian Navin Noronha. Queer activists in India are engaging with a global Queer movement, and also carving out the space to be truly themselves in the rapidly shifting social territory of India’s cities and villages. Their stories aren’t always pretty, but Noronha always draws out the joy in them.

The podcast universe is vast, and we still have so much exploring to do. For now, don’t forget to check out The Familiar Strange podcast on the web, Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Soundcloud, or your favorite podcatcher. Until next time, keep talking strange!

[Image: ‘Club holds radio dance wearing earphones 1920’ by Wikimedia

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