I get emotional watching movies on airplanes. It doesn’t matter what the story line is or how many times I’ve viewed it stoically on terra firma. At 40,000 feet, I submit to tears.
It turns out this is a thing. The phenomenon of crying during in-flight movies has been explored by several outlets, including “This American Life,” which devoted 11 minutes to the topic in a 2004 segment titled “Contrails of My Tears.” A few unscientific surveys blame low oxygen levels and the existential intensity of hurtling through the stratosphere in a man-made tube.
But I have my own theory: It’s not the movie or the altitude, but rather the intimate audio experience in a moment of solitude. Your headphones — a buffer from the world injecting dialogue into your ear — become a conduit to your soul.
When I fly now, I skip the movie, put in my AirPods and take my catharsis in podcast form.
Given their portability, podcasts also affect me while I’m shopping, commuting to work or feeding a baby in the middle of the night. I may not cry, but I might well up with delight, melancholy or outrage. Or I laugh out loud. Or I’m stopped in my tracks, astonished.
When it came out four years ago, the investigative crime series “Serial” propelled podcasts from a slow-growing niche to a media breakthrough. With its episodic pacing and the unexpectedly human tone of its reporter-host, the series was engrossing. Its three seasons have now been downloaded 420 million times. To put this in perspective, consider that more than 328 million people live in this country, and that CNN.com, the most popular online news site, gets around 121 million unique visitors a month.
As podcasts have surged in popularity, so have the range of offerings. According to one estimate, there are now more than 600,000 shows in circulation in 100 different languages. About 2,000 more spring up each week. A Nielsen survey conducted last year found that half of all American homes contain podcast listeners.
The boom has been helped along by technology, too. Just as web-enabled TV viewing took off when the technology became reliable, podcasts gained traction with the rise of on-demand audio; smart speakers like Alexa; car stereos that connect seamlessly to our feeds; Apple’s pre-installed podcast app and sleek wireless AirPods, the opposable thumbs of podcast listening. (These have had the fastest rise in popularity of any product in the brand’s history.)
Of course, “Serial” and tech cannot alone account for Podcast Nation. They don’t explain the addictiveness of talk shows like “Call Your Girlfriend,” “Armchair Expert” and “Pod Save America”; documentary deep dives like “Dirty John,” “Slow Burn” and “Caliphate”; or quirky meditations like “Heavyweight” and “Family Ghosts.”
Here, in my view, we have to return to the airplane theory. Media experiences can become profoundly therapeutic and habit-forming by showing up at exactly the moment when we need them most. Because they are right there in your ear wherever you go, podcasts are intertwined with our personal routines. They are unusually capable of compelling us to pay attention and feel deeply.
The power of podcasts today is perhaps most tangible in the context of a traditionally impersonal form of information delivery: news. Recently, news organizations, including the Washington Post, ABC News, the Guardian and Vox, have been venturing into the podcast space with impressive results.
Take “The Daily,” the New York Times show hosted by my former colleague Michael Barbaro. It was created in early 2017, after the last presidential election revealed a disconnect between the news media and civilians, and quickly became the most popular new show on Apple Podcasts. In five 20-minute episodes each week, “The Daily” offers a toehold within the news blizzard that’s as personal as it is informative.
“We’ve pierced whatever membrane there was that kept people from having a deep emotional connection to the news,” Barbaro recently told me. “Something about audio just ripped that open, and I think it has forever changed how people relate to The Times.”
The rip went both ways. For first-season listeners, the membrane was pierced most powerfully when, in an interview with a coal miner, Barbaro himself choked back tears and admitted the limitations of his own reporting.
While some journalists might quibble over the collapse of objectivity in a conventional sense, there is no debating the growth in audience engagement podcasts bring for news organizations. Where readers spend an average of two to three minutes scanning an article online, data show that podcast listeners tend to stay to the end of episodes. They also subscribe, donate, proselytize on social media and attract lucrative advertisers.
Indeed, the producers of the most popular podcasts are achieving a trifecta that has long eluded publishers of digital media: deep audience engagement, financial profit and crucial brand-building with young listeners, the next generation of loyal subscribers.
“There is a certain kind of whimsy and emotionality that can only be captured on audio,” Gladwell told me. Both he and Weisberg believe podcasts are spurring another massive transformation in journalism. “The moment reminds me of the early days of the Internet because of the scale of both the creative and commercial opportunity,” Weisberg said.
Other podcasts personalize complex topics by exploring them entirely through the lenses of nonprofessionals. The runaway hit “Ear Hustle” is made by two inmates at San Quentin, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, and a prison volunteer, Nigel Poor. The show, which ended its third season this month, never takes a broad look at criminal justice policy or employs Voice of God narration. It instead offers the even more illuminating dialogue of individual prisoners. As Julie Shapiro, the executive producer of Radiotopia, a network of podcasts that includes “Ear Hustle,” told me: “When real humans tell and share their stories, the emotional investment is immensely powerful.”
In a recent essay, the Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig argues that podcasts offer more than a helping hand when it comes to journalism’s Internet-era challenges. “The architecture of the podcast,” he says, is also “the precise antidote for the flaws of the present.”
“It is deep where now is shallow,” Lessig writes. “It is a chance for thinking and reflection; it has an attention span an order of magnitude greater than the tweet. It is an opportunity for serious (and playful) engagement. It is healthy eating for a brain-scape that now gorges on fast food.”
As a journalist, I am encouraged to see podcasts winning. As an American living through the most bitterly divided era in modern history, it feels good to believe that podcasts are making us better listeners. If nothing else endures from the golden age of podcasts, that is still a victory.