I am listening to a man explain home mortgages to another man on a videogame podcast. I have known both men long enough, in the way that podcasts make strangers knowable, using mass disclosure of intimacies as a workaround for the insufficiencies of written language and a loss-leader for its continuing expansion. Like its written forerunner, the spoken Internet trains its audience to project onto commercial material a dim emotional dependence activated by tone of voice, emergence of patterns of thought over time, and the jigsaw details about family and non-working life that slip between the topical seriousness. For years, I’ve followed alongside the lives of a handful of people I’ve never met and who nevertheless feel like steady companions, a desacralized variation on the still, small voice turned into a market commodity, something to make all of the chillingly desocialized spaces of the Internet feel slightly more familiar.
Catering to the modern need for passive companionship has turned into a major industry. Palisades Media Group digital director Mike McLaughlin told AdAge podcast advertisements are five times as effective as web ads, largely because of the durational intimacy of the form. Research firm RawVoice told the Washington Post last year 75 million people listen to a podcast at least once a month. A 2014 study from Edison found that among daily podcast listeners, podcasts occupied 30% of their overall listening time, more than any other single audio source. Podcast subscriptions through iTunes passed one billion in 2013, and not soon after advertisers began scouring for ways to wring money from the it.
Where the written Internet always communicates a basic form of disempowerment through the immutability of its language, conversation conveys an instantaneous sense of fallibility and recognition of other viewpoints. Podcasts are incredibly rich sources of information compared to written stories, not just in terms of reported facts but imparting tone of voice and subconscious patterns of social interaction that frame an opinion or argument in a much more specific way. Where reading a printed story can sometimes feel like a version of reality being imposed on you, listening to podcasts delivers the frail and sometimes pathetic experience of hearing someone try and prove to themselves a theory of reality that grows more obviously self-limiting the further it goes.
This emphasis on pathos above rhetoric engenders a audience loyalty that advertisers prey on, a precious commodity that depends on transforming inessential excesses into objects of mass necessity. The Internet’s history and evolutionary form has been defined by advertising, which has produced a public increasingly cynical and self-aware of its own commodification. The value of reaching people through the Internet has always had less value than advertising through other media. In 2005, the MediaPost estimated the CPM for advertising in the print version of Newsweek at $74.52 while People’s CPM was estimated at $64.54, several times higher than any major website and produced with an order of magnitude less content. For comparison, in 2013 BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg told New York the company’s CPM for sponsored posts was around $10. In 2014 the Hollywood Reporter citedVice’s CPM for video ads at $16.