Luke Burbank and the Tens of Listeners; Podcasting and Community Building

By: Michael C Jordan

Podcasts may be the ultimate example of narrowcast media.  Briefly, a podcast is an audio recording that is released online in a regular or semi-regular episodic series.  The recordings are held on a central server, then downloaded to the listener’s computer using podcast client software (usually iTunes).  Basically, it’s like a radio show that you can listen to at your leisure on a computer or mp3 player.  As free internet downloads they are accessible to just about everyone, but one must actively seek out and obtain a podcast in order to hear it.  This dynamic creates a system in which the only barrier to entry (other than internet access) is interest.  The lack of geographical impediment and ease of distribution mean that a show that could never have survived on broadcast radio can become immensely popular in podcast form.  Too Beautiful to Live with Luke Burbank is a show that illustrates this perfectly, as it started as a broadcast radio show in Seattle, Washington, bombed spectacularly, and has gone on to great success as a daily podcast.  It may also point to some of the positive uses to which the medium can be put in the socio-political sphere.

The format of Burbank’s show is a little nebulous, and it generally appeals to a rather particular sensibility.  It’s ostensibly a talk show, but it covers such a broad array of subjects that it can be hard to pin down.  In any single show the listener might hear about: the personal lives of the people on the show, such as the prodigious drinking habits of the host and his producer, Jen “Flash” Evans; current events like the Chilean coal miners who were stuck in their coal mine; the deeper implications of Pop Culture phenomena, like Charlie Sheen’s ongoing love affair with drugs and porn stars; the positive and negative aspects of pet adoption; etc., etc.  The show is heavily self-referential, and is often dismissed as overly solipsistic.  That’s basically why it seems to appeal to a relatively narrow sector of society.  But that small percentage can add up to big numbers when the show is available to the entire English speaking world.

In both the reading on mass media and the public sphere and the reading on globalization, Sturken and Cartwright mention the use of narrowcast media as a tool for connecting diasporic communities.  They focus mostly on Spanish and Persian language cable channels, but Podcasting has an amazing ability for community building across vast geographic distances.  Too Beautiful to Live has a dedicated following: the self-identified “Tens” (as in “tens of listeners”).  Avid listeners tend to have similar interests in music, books, television shows and politics.  They even have their own jargon.  When a Ten hears someone say “I was so T and E last night that I slept in my bathtub using a shower curtain as a blanket,” they know that whoever it is not only drank too much, but that they are a TBTL listener as well.  Hundreds of people have attend live recorded shows and special events in New York, L.A. and Seattle.  The show is highly interactive, addressing emails and phone calls from listeners regularly.  In short, it’s a real community that has grown up around the podcast.

The consensus opinion of podcasts is pretty dismissive.  But what is now mostly an online oddity has potential for much greater social importance.  What can podcasting accomplish when it moves past it’s nascent stage of niche fads and mostly banal talk radio?  Perhaps it could perform the same functions that filmmaking and IBC television do for the indigenous communities mentioned in Sturken and Cartwright.  It could provide a way of seeing through the eyes of others, and help bind communities spread out over vast geographic areas.  So, while for now I listen to Luke Burbank talking about his difficulties with his neurotic dog Momo’s urinary foibles, I may one day be able to pretend I was a trailblazer.

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