For the past three years, I had a one-hour commute to get to school. Every day, I sat on a crowded, noisy train, staring mindlessly out the window and hoping that the seat next to me would stay empty for just one more stop. Trust me, when you take public transportation as often as I did, podcasts become your best friend.
As much as I loved listening to podcasts though, I never thought I would record one. I mean, I’m no pro: I didn’t follow the latest in Apple news or make YouTube videos. I still don’t. I definitely didn’t know how to edit audio. Don’t tell my podcast partners, but I still really don’t.
But really, I was podcasting already. At their core, podcasts are conversations between friends, and I had plenty of those, albeit unrecorded and unedited. On the train home, I spent almost every afternoon complaining about the awful and slightly inauthentic essays I had to write to apply to college. One ride home was particularly fraught with first world teenage angst. That morning, I had written two scholarship essays: one explaining my longstanding passion for traffic science and another arguing forcefully about the dire need for the metric system. I know, I don’t get it either.
My friends looked at each other. They were a year younger than me, about to go through the random and often contradictory college admissions process, so they asked me questions. I answered them. They asked me more. I answered more. When they asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer, I thought about it, maybe even Googled it. As I tired of my application’s “talking points”, I flipped the tables on them. I asked them what they were thinking — the essays they feared, the missed opportunities they regretted, and the schools they spent every second of every day dreaming about.
We podcasted without knowing anything about audio editing or the minute differences between podcast hosts. We had a conversation because there was a conversation to be had.
The episode numbered one wasn’t our first time talking about college admissions. It was just one more conversation to add to the dozens we already had. This time though, we turned on the mic.
The Perfect Imperfect Podcast
Conversations are little like Schrodinger’s Cat. They don’t die when they are recorded but they certainly are changed. At first, when we hit the red circle, I think we felt like we had to sound different — more official, more “pro”. When we said like and sounded like Valley Girls, we stumbled because it didn’t feel right. We all had listened to a bit too much of “This American Life”.
The true form of a podcast is a regular conversation. The best podcast is when the hosts don’t stumble when they use a filler word or when they feel comfortable speaking like they normally would. The podcast shouldn’t be polished to an inch of its life. The podcast should not be perfect because people and conversations are not perfect.
There is, however, a place for a well-drafted, carefully edited, and calmly spoken monologue. Millions tune in to cable news for it because, at times, we all just need the facts given to us. We wouldn’t want Google Maps to stumble before it told us to turn right at the next intersection.
Podcasts are a fundamentally different medium. As well produced as a podcast can be, the listener always is just an observer of a conversation between hosts. Podcasts don’t convey urgent, vital information. If you don’t hear a minute of the Hello Internet podcast, you won’t lose your job; at worst, you’ll miss a joke about the Maryland flag. Podcasts don’t need to be perfect.
In fact, podcasts are better when they are imperfect — the random “ums” and “uhs”, the inside jokes, the funny ways people pronounce words. These allow the listener to relate to the hosts in ways that are impossible in the hyper-sterilized medium of cable TV.
The Paradox of Podcasting
The best podcast is the one that is never recorded: the most real and unvarnished conversation. The first recording is the worst: trying to be scripted with an awful script. Then, as the podcast progresses, episodes try to imitate those initial conversations that happened before a microphone was ever even considered.
Lessons Learned — the Admissions Uncovered Podcast
We the hosts of the Admissions Uncovered podcast — I as a Columbia freshman and my co-hosts as incoming high school seniors — should have already known these lessons. We have been talked to by “pros” all our lives. We have been told to sit down and listen because the adults know better — to eat our vegetables, to get to school on time, to participate in extracurricular activities. These are all good ideas that the Admissions Uncovered podcast will suggest, but too often adults suggest them condescendingly and don’t provide justification. The stereotype of a teacher saying do it because I said so is not just a stereotype: it is a reality.
Our podcast will be different. Every episode, we will share our perspectives on one aspect of this unpredictable process. I’ll share some of the advice I’ve learned as someone who has done it. My co-hosts Dominic and Nhi will share their thoughts on the application process as they go through it. Together, we give each other advice not as condescending authority figures but as peers and friends.
Too often, information rests in the hand of the so-called “experts”. Podcasting democratizes knowledge. People do not need to wait for perfection to share their thoughts. They can jump in now. They can share their thoughts now. They can make mistakes and blunder now because that is what podcasting is all about.