Podcasts Can Help Us Feel Connected in a Cut Off World

Podcasts may provide a welcome sense of belonging.

Posted Sep 07, 2020

 Photo by Jeremy Enns on Unsplash
Podcaster in action
Source: Photo by Jeremy Enns on Unsplash

In my practice, I see a great many of the harmful effects of isolation. As Brene Brown is fond of saying, “We are hardwired to connect with others; it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” Many of the ordinary and traditional ways in which humans find connection (particularly those involved with going out somewhere and being among people) remain largely suspended and with no obvious end in sight. Early in the present crisis, the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute advised that “staying connected with friends and family through technology” could prove a key factor in limiting such suffering.

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Podcaster
Source: Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

The concept of being stuck at home alone “together” is less of an oxymoron if we can in some way connect digitally to others through video chat and other available means. For some, however, as the current situation drags on, the resources of actual friends and family are depleted. For others, the ranks of available friends and family were too thin to begin with. Adding to them is rather a steep uphill climb at this point. (In the view of many, we were dealing with an “epidemic of loneliness” long before the pandemic.)

Looking for ways to help my patients alleviate feelings of loneliness and disconnection, one very simple suggestion I make is finding a podcast or two or ten to follow. In most cases, podcasts are the epitome of niche broadcasting. Some are as well-produced as an NPR feature (perhaps because they are), but others are less polished and can wander off quite deep into the weeds on one offbeat topic or another, and that can be a very satisfying thing.  

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Essence of many a podcast
Source: Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

In my book, the best podcasts are reminiscent of two mid-1970s 12-year olds talking into their tape recorder about last night’s episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. (Yes, the 12-year-old sensibility lends itself best to such an enterprise; two 10-year olds, say, would just produce a cassette tape full of fart noises.)  In short, they needn’t offer spellbinding journalistic examinations of a true crime, or feature the great Dolly Parton and her homespun wisdom. Instead, they can relatively lo-tech affairs that benefit most from hosts being steeped in arcane lore. They may just be a couple of guys (or a couple of gals) talking about their favorite old television show. Or they may be about music, food, movies, authors or the universality of embarrassing moments. 

In a 2019 issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, authors Lisa Perks, Ph.D., Jacob Turner, Ph.D., and Andrew Tollison, Ph.D. introduced their efforts at developing a Podcast Uses and Gratification Scale to better understand why people are drawn to podcasts and what they take away from them. After study, the authors determined that their findings “demonstrate that podcasts enable listeners to connect to the world and the people around them—on the listener’s own terms.” The right podcast can make the hearer feel as though they’re sitting around with a few friends that are similarly nerdy about the same esoteric topic, and available at a moment’s notice, day or night.

The following are a few I have been known to recommend:

The Mortified Podcast. For those seeking schadenfreude this might be the place. Or, for anyone who has ever experienced adolescence, this might also be the place. From the site: “The Mortified Podcast features adults sharing the embarrassing things they wrote as kids, surprise celebrity guests, and interviews that pick up where the stage show ends.” Takeaway: Everyone has done futile and embarrassing things at some point in their past and most live to laugh about them, proving Bruce Springsteen’s immortal musical assertion, “someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

The Sporkful warns, “it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters.” In my view, it’s for both. The Sporkful crew states, “we use humor and humanity to approach food from many angles, including science, history, identity, culture, economics, and lengthy debates on the best way to layer peanut butter and jelly in a sandwich.” Takeaway: There might be a little too much Guy Fieri involvement for some, but who doesn’t want to know more about things like the origins of ketchup? (It’s really pretty interesting.)

Punch Up the Jam. While many listeners born before the turn of the century might describe the podcast as “this kind of mean millennial who makes fun of good songs." Those less sensitive about the soundtrack of their lives might enjoy listening to host Miel Bredouw as she and her guests reassess and critique popular songs of the past and present seeking to answer the question, “what if the greatest hits could be…greater?” Takeaway: Some of our favorite songs turn out to be a little… pretentious.

The Hilarious World of Depression. At present, there are tons of podcasts featuring therapists talking about therapeutic matters and the patients they have encountered. But rare is the podcast featuring a patient talking about therapy. This one does, favoring musicians and comedians sharing their experience in “a series of frank, moving, and, yes, funny conversations with top entertainers who have dealt with depression.” Takeaway: Mental health conditions such as depression do not discriminate and talking about it helps. Or in this case, sometimes talking about talking about it helps.

Alison Arngrim. Technically, this is not a podcast. (She does have a podcast, which I’m sure is mighty fine, but that’s something else.) Ms. Arngrim is best known from her most celebrated role as “Nellie Olsen” on Little House on the Prairie. Once the pandemic lockdown began this past spring, she began doing a 7-day-a-week Facebook live reading of the original Little House novels and related works. Takeaway: The experience is like storytime on some old-fashioned pre-PBS children’s show, except the tiny tots at home are mostly younger Boomers and older Gen Xers.

References

Lisa Glebatis Perks, Jacob S. Turner & Andrew C. Tollison (2019) Podcast Uses and Gratifications Scale Development, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 63:4, 617-634, DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2019.1688817