The Six Stages of Podcast Super-Fandom
There are few things in this world that I love more than podcasts, and, as this site has illustrated, I’m a dude who loves loving things. Podcasts tend to devote pathologically obsessive fans. You’re either a podcast person or you’re not.
I’ve been a podcast person for about seven years, since I first discovered the holy trinity of WTF, Comedy Bang Bang and Never Not Funny in my never-ending hunt for things to entertain myself with and momentarily quiet the angry, violent voices inside my mind. My wife is not a podcast person, but over the last year or so she’s dipped a toe in these deep, dark, complicated waters and watching as she fell into love, and then gradually out of love, with a favorite podcast made me realize that there are consistent, predictable stages in podcast super-fandom. In fact, there are six stages. Here they are.
Every podcast super-fandom begins with curiosity. The super-fan keeps hearing about a show they'd probably adore if they give it a chance. My path to Hollywood Handbook super-fandom began when my coworkers kept raving about what an amazing show it was. Then Tom Scharpling devoted a lot of Best Show airtime to evangelizing on behalf of Hollywood Handbook, and plugs for Hollywood Handbook began appearing all the time on Comedy Bang Bang.
I figured this was the universe’s way of telling me to check out Hollywood Handbook and you know what? Everyone was right. That show is some of the funniest shit, ever, and my life is better for Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements being a part of it. Alternately, I first learned about Mental Illness Happy Hour when Paul Gilmartin mentioned it on a long-ago episode of Never Not Funny and I figured a podcast with that title, and that host, had to be something I would dig, and, more importantly, something that might help me in my own strange spiritual and psychological journey. It totally fucking did. I haven’t listened to Never Not Funny in years, but Mental Illness Happy Hour isn’t just a podcast I still listen to religiously, it’s an important part of my spiritual life.
The curiosity stage is an itch desperately waiting to be scratched, and if they find the podcast to their liking it inevitably leads to stage 2.
2. Infatuation/the Honeymoon phase
At this point the super-fan has begun the process of listening to a new show that’s intrigued them. They’re overjoyed to discover that their hunch that they’d love the podcast was correct. This is when the binging begins. It’s not enough to listen to the most recent episode. No, they need to embark on a quest to know as much about this podcast as humanly possible. They listen to multiple episodes at a time in their feverish bid to go from outsider to completist.
As with romantic infatuation, this goes beyond mere enjoyment. This new podcast’s mere existence makes life better, more interesting, more exciting. They experience a surge of excitement when they see a new episode of a favorite podcast show up in their feed. The infatuation/honeymoon stage is fixated on the thrill of the new, and in this state of the relationship, the podcast fan experiences an almost romantic, sexual thrill from spending time with their imaginary podcast friends. They want the experience to never end, so they live in anticipation of that giddy moment when the next episode drops.
3. Full on obsession
In the obsession stage the super-fan doesn’t just join the podcast’s Facebook group, or start a Facebook group specifically to pay homage to the funky podcast rocking their world, although that’s inevitable. If they’re like me and, say, The Flop House, they join multiple Facebook groups covering a wide variety of issues tangentially related to the podcast, or not really related at all, including cooking, politics, memes and parenting.
If there is merchandise to be procured, the super-fan will procure it. They’re unashamed to look like a dork in their Comedy Bang Bang tee shirt and Earwolf hoodie festooned with PFT Tompkins and Lauren Lapkus pins. They secretly crave that moment when someone notices their clothes and nods approvingly, giving the secret handshake that they know and like a podcast as well.
In this stage, the podcast super-fandom, the obsessive finds themselves thinking, on a disconcertingly regular basis, about how they and the podcaster, or podcasters they’re obsessed with, would totally be friends in real life. Think about it: the super-fan loves listening to their favorite podcasters goof around with their friends. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the podcaster in turn would love to hear the fan goof around with their friends?
Alternately, they develop crushes on their favorite podcaster. They imagine the good times they would have together if only podcast super-fandom could somehow lead to true, lasting, sustainable love. The super-fan might make an attempt to contact their favorite podcaster in real life, or attend a live podcast taping as a sort of holy podcast pilgrimage. At the very least, they attempt to add them as a friend on Facebook, as a way of getting one step closer while remaining at a safe cyber-distance.
This doesn’t necessarily fade when you’ve been listening to a podcast for a very long time. I’ve semi-seriously contemplated going on whole involved, airplane-and-hotel-and-babysitting-for-Dex trips for various live events involving The Flop House, The Best Show and The Long Shot.
The Long Shot one wasn’t even a public event: I just really think it would have been cool to have been at the 300th episode in Sean Conroy’s kitchen.
Granted, I haven’t seen my disabled, elderly father in months but I’ve contemplated spending money I don’t have because the 20th anniversary Rock, Rot & Rule celebration is something I desperately want to experience firsthand, even when there’s absolutely no way I can swing it.
At this point, it’s not enough to listen to every last episode. You’re so obsessed you go and listen to earlier podcasts with the same people. Hollywood Handbook inevitable led to Hayes & Sean’s previous podcast, The Reality Show Show and then to Hayes and Sean’s guest appearances on other people’s podcasts, and currently, Sean’s solo showcase Hollywood Masterclass.
Fans in the grips of full-on obsession often assume a level of intimacy with their favorite podcasters that does not actually exist in real life. Because podcasting is an unusually intimate medium, one that allows lonely people to feel like a podcaster is talking directly to them, super-fans sometimes act as if their favorite podcasters are their friends, and can be treated with the intimacy, casualness and even irreverence with which we treat our real-life friends, as opposed to strangers whose work they enjoy.
The ferocity and intensity of podcast fandom has to be both flattering and terrifying to podcasters, particularly popular, long-running veterans. It’s great to have fans who really, really dig you, but a disconcerting fixture of podcast super-fandom seems to be an inability to draw healthy boundaries and an entirely excessive level of devotion and obsession. Podcast superfans love. That defines them. But sometimes they love too much. And oftentimes that loves starts to dissipate, leading to the next stage.
4. The Long, Slow Fade
They’ve been listening to a once-favorite podcast for a long time and the honeymoon is most assuredly over. The old gags don’t thrill the way they once did. The running jokes aren’t funny anymore. They begin to understand why other people don’t listen to the podcast at all or stopped after a certain point. They begin to feel like they’re listening to episodes out of a weary sense of obligation rather than genuine excitement. They begin missing episodes.
Once rabid, unconditional fandom becomes conditional. If the podcast has on a guest they really like, then they’ll listen. Otherwise the podcast goes from something that gives them the energy to get up in the morning to something profoundly skippable. The ear starts to stray, and they start wondering if maybe there are other, similar podcasts that might be worth their time, maybe something a little newer and sexier.
Familiarity begins to breed contempt, rather than affection. During the long, slow fade, things that have bugged others about the podcast, but that they’ve ignored, or found ingratiating, begin to piss them off. During the long, slow fade from You Made It Weird, for example, I went from finding Pete Holmes’ distinctive cackle and penchant for hijacking his guest’s stories and anecdotes with self-indulgent personal digressions charming to finding it annoying.
The podcast’s two hour-plus length and frequency similarly went from seeming like an embarrassment of riches I couldn’t wait to explore to an endless ocean of time I couldn’t possibly spare. I went from “Four hours a week! What a treat!” to “Who on earth could possibly spare four hours to listen to this podcast?”
The super-fan is so bored and disappointed that they do the once unthinkable, namely:
The formerly obsessed is officially over a podcast they once adored. On a physical level, it’s just the push of a button. On a psychological level, however, it’s a big deal. They are officially ending a one-sided relationship that began with such hope, such excitement, such promise. But it’s all over. Or is it?
6. Curiosity, Again!
As the Rat King and 30 Rock so indelibly established, technology is cyclical, and so is podcast super-fandom. In this final stage, the super-fan, having worked through all the other stages, and arrived, finally, at that tough but crucial decision to unsubscribe and leave a podcast, finds themselves once again overcome with curiosity.
The super-fan finds themselves wondering if they’d made a mistake in losing interest and opting out of a podcast they previously loved. They start to remember the good times, that early infatuation and obsession, and are moved to check out the podcast for the first time in months, even years.
It’s tempting to say that the process starts over again, but the reality is that it’s tough, if not impossible, to recapture the thrill of infatuation and obsession once it has dissipated, and the best that can really be hoped for at this point is a consistent re-engagement. The no-longer-disillusioned super-fan might subscribe all over again, but with a considerably lower level of excitement and anticipation. The super-fan has been burned, after all, and while they may come to like, or even love a podcast they’ve previously abandoned, it won’t be with the whole-soul intensity that once characterized that devotion.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and collect patron-only rewards like a patron-only Control Nathan Rabin every month at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace
I promise to use some of it to support your favorite podcasters, honest! (and if you’re reading this site, I have a pretty good sense of who you dig)