July 2021Spectacle

Print versus speech in the info trade

As an old-fashioned (and old!) socialist fan of the printed word, I have been skeptical about podcasts.

I resist listening to spoken-word delivery of information, fiction or non-, perhaps because I have been steeped as both a practitioner and teacher in journalism’s wire-service tradition of the “pyramid style” — in which info is organized and arrayed according to degrees of importance or relevance, top to bottom.

There is nothing sacred or new about the classic pyramid style: it’s a way of enabling the reader to cycle through a report at increasingly dense levels of detail – and to stop anytime the reader has had all she or he cares to absorb. It’s trickier to do than it sounds. It is quite the opposite of the chronological “story,” which was characteristic of news writing before the advent of the telegraph, which brought competing “wire services” to hustle their news blurbs as brief reads on a telegraph system that charged by the word and was very expensive.

The other advantage of printed information – whether stacked in pyramid style or rolled out chronologically as storytellers prefer, in fact or fiction – is that it can be dipped into at any point. My bias toward print reflects my irritation at the rigidity of broadcast journalism/storytelling. Whether only audio or audio and video, the listener has to start at the beginning and accommodate the pace of the speaker to get all the info. With print, the reader can skim for matters of interest and read just what information is sought.

All this is to explain my impatience with podcasts, which are otherwise immensely popular and, I suppose, should be among my favorite ways of soaking up information. I am certainly in the minority where podcasts are concerned. Active podcasts are in the range of 850,000 with about 40 million episodes on the books. More than half of “consumers” (urk!) over age 12 listen to them, two-thirds of those on mobile phones. (Curiously, over 90 percent of podcast consumers say they listen to podcasts at home. On their mobile phones. Not behind the wheel. Go figure.). But clearly, as a relatively new genre of web product, they are popular.

Nevertheless, I am not among those giving my time to podcasts. When something — topic, participants, general lefty leanings – does suck me into a touted podcast, I find that very few provide transcripts of conversations already in the can, and I often veer away at that point, unable to indulge my pagan habit of print-skimming.

I get the feeling here that I am missing the point, that the printed word on which I have relied throughout my life is fading from use. This is certainly a paranoid geezer preoccupation, a Fahrenheit 451 nightmare fantasy. Literacy is gaining worldwide, not losing. But is it losing its monopoly? And is that bad?

The precursors of the podcast in earlier historical epochs may provide a clue here, particularly in a short, clever book by the French novelist Eric Vuillard called The War of the Poor (2019). Though it Includes speculative, fictional outbursts, it amounts more to a meditation on history — specifically the Peasant Revolt spurred by the preacher Thomas Muntzer in 1520s Germany.

Vuillard creates a clever parallel between Biblical translations into the vernacular — Wycliffe in England a century earlier, then Luther’s German rendition in Muntzer’s time — and the two vernacular preachers (John Ball, in England, and Muntzer). Converting the Latin scripture to a language that would be read by the common folk is rightly counted a big deal in our history books. But it was the podcasters of the day, Ball and Muntzer, who brought the peasantry (not great readers, by and large) to revolt against their feudal masters. As Vuillard points out, Muntzer actually said the Mass in German, not Latin, a giant step toward the peasants compared with Luther, and it was Muntzer who “spoke of a world without privilege or property” and brought the peasants along with him in a bloody rebellion that (because wealth and privilege) got thousands of them killed. Engels, who wrote admiringly of the peasant uprising, nevertheless opined that social conditions were way underdeveloped for a successful overthrow of the bosses, who had little in the way of means of production but plenty of the means of destruction. The whole debacle put Engels in mind of 1848, as most things did.

Yet, it was the preachers, John Ball and Thomas Muntzer, not Wycliffe and Luther (Luther hated the peasants and cheered on their demolition by the feudal lords) who had immediate impact on peasants and their grievances. A translated vernacular Bible was still one-way mass communication; preaching was a conversation.

It would be a stretch to suggest that podcasts, jammed as many are with self-help and personal-care advice, are engaging the revolutionary subjects today. But there may be more to podcast culture than your cranky old print-centric correspondent sees right now.

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