Ears, intimacy and helping make the climate Inactive Active through the medium of podcasting
This article explains podcasts to the uninitiated, categorises them for the initiated, and explains the See Through News strategy for exploiting this new medium to measurably reduce carbon
How technology conquered space
We’re so used to technology shrinking space and time, it’s worth a reminder of just how recent this miracle is.
- In 1858, the year Jean Lenoir invented the internal combustion engine and Britain formally took over the rule of India, Cyrus West Field laid the first trans-Atlantic cable.
- In 1897, the year a frowning 78-year-old Queen Victoria learned Milicent Fawcett founded the Suffragettes, Gugliemo Marconi sent and received a Morse code signal across a 10-mile stretch of the Bristol Channel via radio waves.
- By 1910, Dr. Crippen, escaping murder on a ship to Quebec, was arrested after a sharp-eyed radio operator contacted Scotland Yard in mid-ocean. The same year, Lee de Forest broadcast Pagliacci and Rusticana’s Met opera performance to a few people huddled around remote public radio receivers in New Jersey.
- By 1920, Pittsburgh’s KDKA broadcast the Harding/Cox presidential election results live, and we started taking the magic of radio waves for granted.
For the previous 300,000 years or so of human history, the notion of remote communication with invisible entities was the exclusive realm of priests, shamans and prophets.
It’s only been around a century since we ceded it to technology.
How technology defeated time
In his 1897 Bristol Channel demonstration, Marconi used Morse code and radio waves to conquer the tyranny of space.
It took another century or so for Doug Kaye to slay the tyranny of time, with his pioneering 2003 podcast IT Conversations.
Podcasts are the latest chapter in the remote communication story, already embedded in the daily lives of half a billion people around the world.
At one level, podcasts are ‘just’ time-shifted radio. Instead of ‘linear appointment listening’, where you had to tune in when your favoured radio show was on, digital technology allows us to listen whenever we chose.
Goodbye families huddling around the radio set to tune into Hancock’s Half Hour or the Sid Caesar Show, hello ear-time-rich and eye-time-poor people with earphones and thousand-yard-stares as they exercise, commute, and dog-walk.
Podcasts are still evolving, but it’s already clear they’re a distinct creative form of their own.
They’re much more than a conveniently archived radio show you listen to in the open air, mixed with all the other noises of everyday life.
Podcasts command your aural space absolutely. They don’t compete for your undivided attention with radio interference, boiling kettles, squabbling kids or clanking machinery.
They speak to you directly, inside your head.
The seductive power of podcasts
The word usually used to describe what distinguishes podcasts from radio is ‘intimate’.
In 1910, those New Jersey residents listening to Pagliacci belting out arias felt like they were part of the Metropolitan Opera audience. For them, the miracle was that Pagliacci was physically at the Met, while they were huddled around de Forest’s remote receivers on the other side of the Hudson River.
That’s now taken for granted. What’s new about a podcast is that it feels like a friendly chat between two friends. Intimate.
This is, of course, an illusion. Digital marketing has permitted more specific ‘narrowcasting’ of particular topics of interest to specialist tribes, but podcasts are still ‘broadcasting’ in the sense that the person recording them is guessing who’s going to end up listening.
Still, the distinction is important. The sense of intimacy is partly due to the greater choice of content, bespoke to your individual needs, but it’s also more visceral than that. Most people either listen to podcasts via headphones, or on their own in an enclosed space.
Turn the radio on, and anyone walking into the room hears the same thing. Walk into a crowded gym, observe a procession of dog walkers, or take snapshots of single occupancy cars in a rush-hour traffic jam, and it’s almost voyeuristic. You see everyone experiencing their own, unique podcast intimacy.
- The skinny teenager on the free weights having his mind blown by a new band, while the portly middle-aged treadmill plodder catches up on football transfer news.
- The girl walking the cockapoo puppy frowning as she tries to follow an age-inappropriate influencer she overheard big girls talking about at school, while 20m behind, the pensioner, stiff-legged like the grey-muzzled labrador waddling in his wake, is lost in a radio drama.
- The frowning sales executive in the Audi taking in the latest celebrity conspiracy theory, while the young Mum in the Volvo alongside keeps it together on the school run with a meditation sound bath of gongs and whalesong.
We pay more attention to intimate conversations than to generic background noise. It’s the difference between looking up from your mobile phone on a railway platform, realising just too late that you’ve just caught the end of a critical announcement about your train, and the station master singling you out among the crowd, and delivering the same information about a 15-minute delay due to leaves on the tracks in a low murmur, while gently grasping your elbows, and gazing deep into your eyes…
This is the power of the podcast.
Podcasts and climate activism
So how have climate activists used this new medium so far?
There are 3 main categories of climate podcast, which we explain here using the See Through News audience taxonomy, which divides the world into the following four categories:
- Effective Climate Activists, whose activities can measurably reduce carbon, or not
- Ineffective Climate Activists, whose activities have no mechanism to measure how much carbon they do or don’t reduce
- Unwilling Climate Inactivists, who accept the science and reality of human-induced climate change, but feel powerless to do anything about it
- Willing Climate Inactivists, Deniers and Denialists who actively oppose carbon reduction
This is the communications equivalent of business-to-business, or B2B, commerce. Both podcaster and listener are in the same game. The former presents, as compellingly as possible, new evidence, nuance and expressions of something the latter already knows to be true. Preaching to the choir. There are, broadly, two types:
- Category 1s talking to each other. Drilled is an outstanding example, often cited by See Through News. Outcomes are always linked to specific actions, or changes in government regulation, with specified carbon reduction price tags.
- Category 2s talking to each other. Too many examples to mention, but identified by the absence of any outcomes measured by carbon reduction, and the presence of outcomes measured by nonspecific metrics like ‘raising awareness’, ‘educating’ or ‘informing’.
These podcasts can be seen as B2B, or C2C (customer-to-customer). What they have in common is a shared starting point, and shared ending point. Either through misguided notions of journalistic ‘balance’, or crude demagoguery, these inactivist-to-inactivist podcasts leave listeners in the same category as they started.
- Category 3s talking to each other: This is the vast majority of any ‘general news’ reporting. It includes public broadcasters like the BBC, NPR, NHK or ARD talking about climate change to their usual audiences. As human-induced climate change has become a present reality rather than a future theory, most of these broadcasters no longer invite Category 4s to provide ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ in the ‘climate debate’, though some still do.
- Category 4s talking to each other: no need to namecheck these either, and give them more SEO rewards for their clickbait-based business models. The Internet is awash with these kind of echo chamber podcasts, with climate-denier, or their more refined ‘climate-sceptic’ colleagues, providing killer put downs for an audience ‘doing their own research’ to find justifications for their climate inaction.
For any podcasters seeking to convert people from climate inaction to action, or vice versa, or prevent their conversion, this is what matters. How can you exploit this new medium’s intimacy, and the trust that implies, to move people from one state to another? Here are some examples:
- Category 4s talking to Category 1 or 2s: here’s a recent example of climate-denying GB News presenters interviewing a Just Stop Oil activist. Not strictly speaking a podcast, but it’s quicker than having to sit through an entire podcast episode, and makes the same point – much heat, no light, and highly unlikely any audience member has their position changed. The mocking presenters ventriloquise the views of the tiny numbers of Category 4 GB News viewers, and successfully troll the much larger numbers of outraged Category 2 people consuming the clip online, in various forms. Note it really doesn’t make any difference whether the interviewee is Category 1 or 2, as they’re only invited as meat puppets to trigger online clickbait outrage.
- Category 3s talking to Category 1s: This is much more intriguing, and important. A a Category 3 audience is more receptive to conversion to Category 1, so this is a chance for Effective Activists to talk outside their echo chamber and reach a much larger audience. Here’s one of Extinction Rebellion’s founders Roger Hallam being interviewed by BBC presenter Nick Robinson for his podcast Political Thinking. We do recommend listening to at least part of it. It’s the aural equivalent to witnessing an irresistible force meet an immovable object, as presenter and interviewee battle for control of the steering wheel. If you classify yourself at Category 3 when you start listening, you’ll be able to judge for yourself how effective it was by re-evaluating yourself by the time you stop listening.
- Category 2s talking to Category 3s: These are not as common as you might think. Part of what defines Ineffective Activists as being ineffective, is that they waste so much time either preaching to the converted, or in performative slanging matches with entrenched opponents, i.e. agreeing with other Category 2s, or shouting at Category 4s. Mainstream climate activist organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Rainforest Alliance have started to adopt podcasts, but they’re mainly aimed at imparting information to, or raising the spirits of, their membership, rather than ‘outreach to the broader community’ (i.e. Category 3). This is made much harder by the fact that they advertise their activist status in their very brand names. Most Category 3s are put off by words like ‘green’, ‘earth’ and ‘rainforest’. Only the zealous like to be preached to.
What’s missing from this list is Category 1s talking to Category 3s.
Time to tell you about See Through News podcasts…
The Fictionalised Approach: Bedtime Stories
We’ve written elsewhere in more detail about the thinking behind The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, but you can catch the drift from the titles of the first seven series
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar – the only qualified deep-sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed – A Tale of Christmas Spiritual Pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge – Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 4: The Quiet Revolutionary – the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
- Series 6: Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance
- Series 7: Marcus & Jemima – how I deal with people at parties who assume I have children
Apart from the fact that they’re advertised as ‘fictionalised true stories that are entirely true, largely’, what do they all have in common? Absolutely nothing, and that’s the point.
The Truth Lies is trying to give as many Category 3s as many reasons as possible to stumble across it, and be reeled in by high-quality, original storytelling. The Truth Lies combines traditional yarn-spinning, familiar to our forebears cross-legged around fires in caves, with 21st century technology, and narrative risk-taking.
Listen to more than one Truth Lies series, and you’ll start to detect there is, in fact, a format behind the apparently randomly diverse stories of Mongolian sailors, Chinese brothers, 18th-century regicides, NASA tour guides, sumo fans, and wrap-party bullshitters.
It’s a storytelling high-wire act, an unconventional and innovative twist to traditional storytelling resolutions. It risks taking that painstakingly-acquired intimate relationship of trust, diligently earned over the first 95% of the story, and gambling it all on the final 5%.
Risky, but it’s the sting in the tail that makes these podcasts qualify as Category 1, and differentiates The Truth Lies from other storytelling podcasts. Success or failure is defined not just by how many people listen, but by what they do next.
To find out exactly what this unique secret format is you’ll have to listen to find out, naturally.
The Fact-based Approach: See Through News
See Through News is about to launch another podcast, simply called See Through News.
Below is a sneak peek at the draft of Episode 1.The introduction explains what’s different about the new podcast, the excerpt from the first Episode gives a flavour of what it will be like.
If you’re already a podcast fan, why not have a listen to whichever The Truth Lies series catches your fancy and sign up for the See Through News podcast. The llink will appear here as soon as it’s available.
If you’re not yet a podcast convert, why not give one a go?
See Through News Podcast Taster
AI’s Dirty Secret, or How To Spend Half A Million Dollars of Supercomputing
Welcome to The See Through News Podcast. I’m See Through News Gift Horse Distributor Robert Stern, also known as SternWriter.
Unlike our sibling podcast, The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories from See Through News, which fictionalises true stories and is entirely true, largely, this podcast is entirely true, full stop.
Beyond cleaving to fact, and eschewing fiction, we have no fixed format.
- Sometimes it will be a journalist doing an audio version of an article they’ve written.
- Sometimes it may be a conversation between journalists, or experts.
- Sometimes experts talking to journalists.
- And sometimes, like today, it will be a true-life story narrated in the style of a novel, radio drama or movie script.
Here’s George Hinchliffe reading AI’s Dirty Secret, or How To Spend Half A Million Dollars of Supercomputing.
Chapter 1: Monkeys Climbing Trees To Reach The Moon
Imagine a student flat, in Scotland, in the mid 1980s.
Now picture an odd couple of flatmates, studying odd things.
Canadian Mark Drummond, is doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, partly because his parents are Scottish, but mainly because Edinburgh has the only AI Department outside North America. He’s fascinated by using technology to change how we live.
British/Australian Robert Stern started studying Politics & Philosophy, but when he discovered Edinburgh is the only Scottish university with a Chinese Department, switched courses. He’s fascinated by how humans change the environment through their actions.
Robert reckons AI is voodoo magic. He loves hearing Mark try to explain it.
Mark finds Chinese voodoo magic. He loves hearing Robert try to explain it.
Over the kitchen table, Mark explains how computer science is divided. Some believe robots can, in principle, one day emulate human intelligence. Others reckon it’s like monkeys climbing trees to reach the moon – they may make progress, but can never get there.
In the living room, Robert grabs a pen and paper to tell Mark a classical Chinese dirty joke he’s just stumbled across. It’s just as vulgar as you’d expect a joke about a lusty monk and a winsome nun to be, but requires writing Chinese and dates back to the Tang dynasty.
Mark and Robert graduate. Their paths diverge, but they stay in touch as, gradually, events make their obscure study choices look increasingly smart.
As computing power grows, monkeys climb trees and AI dreams become reality. Mark’s AI doctorate becomes a hot property.
As China grows, the ‘sleeping giant’ awakes. Robert’s Chinese skills become more employable.
Mark works on the Mars Rover at NASA. He joins the team that made SIRI and sells it to Apple. He becomes a serial dotcom entrepreneur at the cutting edge of real-world AI applications. He thrives on both sides of the Silicon Valley venture capital pitching table.
Robert quits a corporate career trading textiles at a Japanese multinational to be an environmental consultant to major Japanese corporations in Tokyo. He fails, falls into TV news, producing and reporting for American network news in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. He moves home to Britain to make documentaries, teach filmmaking and journalism, broadcast and consult for international co-productions, sports events and TV entertainment formats.
Throughout, Robert & Mark stay in touch, still fascinated by each other’s field of study. Throughout, China and AI continue their ascent from obscurity to dominance.
Throughout, Robert’s 80s concern about the human impact on the environment grows from eccentric hobby to existential crisis.
[…to be continued…]