Podcast fandom: The Secret Handshake

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As perhaps the most decadent part of my rock and roll lifestyle, every Fall I take advantage of Black Friday sales and purchase anywhere from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and sixty dollars in Phish attire and podcast merch, hoodies and tee shirts and pins mainly. That doubles as my yearly wardrobe expenditure although, to be fair, I do sometimes buy “fun” socks, the brightly colored kinds beloved by corny dads like myself everywhere. For me “Fashionista” isn’t just a label I wear proudly on my Earwolf hoodie and also metaphorically; it’s also a lifestyle and a way of mind. 

I buy Phish stuff because I’ve seen them something like 43 times, and quite enjoy their music, particularly their live performances and podcast tee shirts and hoodies and pins and stickers and posters because I am a podcast guy. It’s one of the things that defines me. It’s who I am. I love podcasts. 

I started buying podcast tee-shirts for shows like Sklarbro Country and Comedy Bang Bang ages ago because I liked the way they looked and it was a way to monetarily and directly support favorite performers who were pouring their hearts and souls and times into a tricky, niche medium that was extraordinarily difficult to monetize for a very long time for all but the most successful performers. 

That’s why Patreon has been a godsend to podcasters who previously had to subsist on Paypal donations, sporadic advertising and the awkwardly conceived and delivered ad spiels, generally for either Squarespace or Casper mattresses. It allows podcasters to monetize the intensity and loyalty of their fanbase, to make dough even if they’re not the Doughboys, the food-chain gobbling podcast sensations who cynically gave themselves that name in anticipation of making a show that would generate a whole lot of that good old dough, re mi, if you catch my drift. That is, moolah. Scratch. Greenbacks. 

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I’ve seen podcasts grow tremendously in popularity and influence over the past ten years, from scruffy underdogs in a medium many Americans did not understand on any level, let alone enjoy or immerse themselves in, to a thriving art form with its own set of superstars, titans and cult heroes. Then I saw podcasts plateau. It felt like the entire medium hit a ceiling and is now either hovering at the same level or has actually decreased in popularity. 

I should state up front that I am basing these observations not on any careful inspection of relevant data or download and revenue statistics but rather on my gut and a series of strong hunches. 

The big superstars of the medium, your Chris Hardwicks and Scotty Aukermans and Marc Marons got their own television vehicles with varying levels of critical and commercial success. Comedy Bang Bang is one of my favorite shows of the past twenty years, and enjoyed a terrific five season run as a cult and critical favorite and while Aukerman has a big fanbase the show failed to catapult him into the stratosphere popularity-wise. Marc Maron similarly had a good run on a show based very directly on his podcast (Maron) and his podcast persona but he’s now enjoying greater television success as a crusty character actor on G.L.O.W, a show with absolutely nothing to do with podcasts. 

As a podcast super-fan, I watched these developments with conflicting emotions. I want my favorite podcasters to do well and be successful and be able to make not just a living by their work but a good, stable consistent living. But I also don’t want them to become so successful that they lose interest in doing what it is that made me love them in the first place. Thankfully, that does not seem to be the case. As far as I know, the list of podcasters who became so successful off podcasting that they no longer have to podcast anymore is either very small or non-existent.

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That’s okay with me. I like that comedy podcasts are still a special thing. Comedy podcasts stubbornly refuse to break out into the mainstream the way something like Serial did.

That’s part of the reason I wear podcast tee-shirts: I’m sending out a message to other members of my tribe that I am one of them, an obsessive with earbuds in their soul who regards Paul F. Tompkins as nothing short of a minor deity. Can you love comedy podcasts and not love PFT? No, you can not. If you do not love the man and his mustache and sartorial flair then you do not love podcasts at all and are a sad and loathsome creature doomed to die alone. That might seem harsh. I don’t think it’s harsh enough. 

Podcasts are, and seemingly always will be, a cult thing. That’s reflected in many of my podcast tee-shirts paying tribute not just to podcasts but also to in-jokes, recurring characters and other arcane aspects of podcasts that aren’t exactly household names in the first place. Comedy Bang Bang and the Long Shot and The Flop House and We Hate Movies and Best Show With Tom Sharpling and Hollywood Handbook and Punch Up The Jam and all my other favorite podcasts have become a sacred part of me. I’m like something out of Videodrome: Part Man, Part iPod, All Neuroses and Low-Level Depression.

It’s a secret handshake we podcast obsessives share. We live for that nod of recognition from strangers that silently but vividly conveys, “Hey, I know that podcast! I’m a fan as well!”, knowing, damn well, that should that nod of recondition lead to an actual conversation about podcasts it’d probably be awkward as hell, seeing as podcast people tend to be weird loners who love the medium because it allows them to immerse themselves in pleasing , pleasant and funny conversations that they don’t have to contribute to at all. 

To that end, I started Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast almost exclusively to make money but also so that I could take my love of podcasts to that next level by participating in the medium as a podcaster as well as a fan. Over a year in, I still think of myself as much more of a fan than a podcaster. When we podcast with Dan McCoy of The Flop House recently, for example, I struggled to contain my fanboy instincts. I was lucky enough to podcast with him more than once but I would never be arrogant enough to think of myself as a colleague.

That’s the curious paradox of podcasters and podcast fans: they’re weird loners who started podcasts to be part of a community and express themselves, who live for validation and attention and approval, but who would probably be made very uncomfortable by fans gushing over them. 

It’s a powerful bond that podcasters and fans share but it’s a connection best experienced from a respectful distance. Podcasts may be a medium that attracts and rewards emotional exhibitionists but to be a decent citizen of the podcast world and a proper podcast person it’s essential to respect the privacy of the people who bring you so much joy and pleasure, even if the podcasters themselves don’t seem overly concerned with separating their personal and professional lives.

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