When Podcasts Bridged the Social Distance

This spring, when so many of us became involuntary shut-ins, haunting our own homes like premature phantoms, routine mail delivery could feel oddly thrilling. We cheered the arrival of new packages not only for their contents but simply because they were new — tantalizing evidence of a wider world within reach.

Early in the pandemic, I noticed my podcast feed performing a similar function. My social life had been decimated; my meaningful exposure to other humans, especially the kind that ordinarily accrued through chance encounters on the subway or in cafes, summarily canceled. But every day my feed refreshed with new dispatches from other rooms and other lives, snapshots in what felt like a vast and fluid mosaic.

I am a heavy podcast consumer in normal times; I have more rewarding relationships with “Heavyweight” and “Love + Radio,” long-running nonfiction series that are consistently original and frequently moving, than I do with most TV shows. But in a year when movie screens went black, concert venues fell silent and Broadway came to a standstill, podcasts played a larger and more essential role in my life. Once a diversion for idle hours or commutes, now they were a balm and an escape hatch. They offered precious few occasions to feel surprised or inspired, to be reassured by the company of a trusted voice in a darkening world.

Those voices integrated seamlessly into my new normal. Without an office to commute to, I savored new episodes of “Culture Gabfest” and “The Watch” on daily walks during my lunch break. I listened to “Home Cooking” while making an unprecedented number of weeknight dinners with my wife. I spent weekends sheltering in place with the intoxicating plot twists of “Nice White Parents” and “Deep Cover.” And, with the help of “Lovett or Leave It,” laughed regularly while following a grim presidential campaign and its aftermath.

According to Podtrac, an analytics firm, I’m not the only one who leaned into podcasts this year. After a dip in the spring, when statewide shutdowns first killed commuting, downloads in the U.S. have been climbing steadily. At the end of October, they were up 47 percent from the same period last year, continuing a skyward trajectory that has sharpened over the past decade. In a year when so much in our society and culture was bent or broken, we had faith that the feed would provide.

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