Do you listen to podcasts? If so, have you noticed that pretty much every advertisement-supported podcast is funded by the same set of sponsors? These, in no particular order, are Blue Apron, Squarespace, Audible, Casper Sleep, Stamps.com, and Dollar Shave Club.
The podcast is that rare example of a new medium, although of course that means only that it’s an elaboration of an old one: in this case, radio—liberated from top-down corporate control and geographical restriction by the democratic internet. Since anyone can make a podcast, there are now far more podcasts in production than TV shows.
Can you imagine if the entirety of television programming was supported by six or seven companies? What if the purpose of TV was not to sell you stuff in general but to sell you some specific handful of products, again and again, forever? And what if these products were, in some important sense, not real products?
The obvious thing that Blue Apron, Squarespace, Audible, Casper Sleep, Stamps.com, and Dollar Shave Club all have in common is that they don’t exist as tangible entities in the real world. Indeed, the guiding supposition of all seven services is that the place that we commonly recognize as “the real world” is a relic of centuries past, intolerably inefficient and basically nonsensical.
Blue Apron is a subscription-based meal service that mails ice-packed boxes of pre-portioned ingredients, along with corresponding recipes, to home cooks who don’t have time to shop for groceries themselves. Casper Sleep is a mattress industry disruptor that circumvented brick-and-mortar showrooms by creating the “perfect,” one-size-fits-all mattress that, owing to a “unique compression machine,” just so happens to fit inside a shippable box. Stamps.com renders trips to the post office unnecessary by allowing customers to print stamps at home. Dollar Shave Club is a subscription-based service that delivers razors and other personal grooming products.
Meanwhile, Audible is hawking more audio content to supplement your podcast regimen, this time in the form of recorded books and a convenient downloading app that has made CD sets all but extinct. Squarespace is a website builder and hosting platform that allows non-programmers to launch their own e-commerce dreams. And, finally, a new player in the podcast advertising game, MeUndies—a subscription-based undergarment company—will deliver a new pair of underwear to your doorstep every 30 days for a $16 monthly fee.
What kind of person not only wants to spend $200 a year on boxer-briefs, but also can’t be bothered to go to an actual store and pick them out himself? What is the target audience for all this advertising? The prevailing assumption must be that the podcast listenership is dominated by fast-paced, tech-savvy professionals whose busy lifestyles and persistent belief that there always “must be a better way” have created an addiction to the “life-hack,” which is to say the elimination of any convention-enforced inefficiency. The podcast listener imagines a world in which all of his needs—for nutrition, hygiene, information, and entertainment—are fed by direct personal links, obviating the need to visit a supermarket, a clothing store, a movie theater, or a public library. As a consumer, he wants the best of all worlds—the cleanest shave, and so on—without having to expend any additional effort to find it, since, as an ambitious person, he’s already maxed out his energy reserves: he doesn’t have the extra hours on hand to read a novel or to learn HTML, for instance, yet there must be some way nevertheless for him to receive the cultural riches of contemporary American literature or to build an elegant website. He spends most of his time breaking down the cardboard boxes that appear outside his front door several times a day and plugging in his various electronic devices, but he feels efficient while performing these tasks because he’s listening to a podcast while he does them.
The podcast listener himself seeks to become a pod. Instead of engaging in potentially stupid, dead-end conversations with the people around him, he downloads crisply edited dialogues on subjects that interest him, featuring established media personalities. And it doesn’t strike him that having a team of culinary consultants at a tech startup determine which meals he’s going to prepare in his own home is kind of odd. Sure, he may have some residual affection for the time-consuming and culturally specific recipes of his mother and grandmother, but the award-winning food technicians at Blue Apron have synthesized the past two decades of New American cuisine trends to create an indisputably tasty, universal standard for 21st-century eating, restricting cooking times to about 30 minutes without sacrificing a world-spanning diversity of flavor.
The podcast itself, for its listenership, represents a type of life-hack: why waste an hour every morning pouring over the newspaper when you could get all the news and commentary you need via audio during your workout or your commute, or while preparing your Blue Apron dinner?
Try to imagine an afternoon in the distant future when, listening to your favorite podcast, you encounter a commercial break, and instead of hearing about some new home-delivery service for antisocial yuppie weirdos, you’re asked to consider the Memorial Day savings available at your local Home Depot or Walmart. It seems like this ought to become possible, as podcasts expand beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream, yet I can’t picture it.
Has the supposedly broad-ranging medium become, in form and content, irretrievably wedded to the vision of human life promulgated by Dollar Shave Club? Is it possible that a truly diverse assortment of shows receives financial backing from the same six companies, or has the nature of programming warped not only to accommodate the preexisting inclinations of the consumer demographic of its sponsors but even to participate in the Silicon Valley-based effort to nudge us further toward self-containment? Who is using whom?