Actually, hell is other fans — specifically, fans of podcasts we don’t listen to. People give each other recommendations, barely better than the algorithm’s, and describe it as “discovery.” “You have to check out Pod Save America,” we hear a journalism student say to a barista. A rookie error, to admit to not listening; once you do, you’ve brought the proselytizing upon yourself. By now we have learned to lie, just like we learned to lie about watching Six Feet Under. Of course we love 99% Invisible! That episode about the artists squatting in a room accidentally built into the mall? So good. Back when we were honest, we suffered more.
Talk radio can still control the listener’s emotional response, but no one feels threatened by the infinitely banal podcast. Instead of emotion or camaraderie, what podcasts produce is chumminess — reminiscent of the bourgeois club atmosphere, reconfigured as the desperate friendliness of burned-out knowledge workers.