Media consumption is now a niche-based activity. Whether it’s television, online or print, if we don’t like the way something is presented or the lens through which it’s packaged, we find a different website, change the channel or put away the newspaper.
Sometimes this is for our benefit. Why listen to film a critic with different tastes and waste $12 on a film that we know we won’t enjoy? Other times, this method of consumption is detrimental to our own understanding of any issue that might have real-world importance like U.S. relations with Russia or something relatively innocuous such as whether or not Don Draper actually told us “to buy the world a Coke.”
Podcasts are an example of the best and worst aspects of this. If someone wants to spend 45 minutes listening to someone discuss anything from fantasy football to Game of Thrones to the 2016 presidential election, there is a show out there for them. Unfortunately, they also make it easy for the listener to become trapped in a discussion bubble where their own views and opinions bounce back to them, only from a different sounding voice. There are very few instances where podcasts become part of an actual discussion with the listener, which is the main allure of the medium.
When ESPN shuttered Grantland more than a week ago, online media widely lamented the site’s passing. From that view, Grantland was one of the last bastions of the longform essay as a form of viable journalism, something we all love to champion. However, it was surprising to see so little devoted to the site’s other primary form of content: its podcasts.
Grantland co-founder Bill Simmons is partially responsible for bringing the medium to the mainstream with “The B.S. Report,” in which he discussed topics spanning sports and pop culture. A two-part episode released on Sept. 2, 2010 was dedicated to Beverly Hills, 90210. Once Grantland went live, it was only a matter of time before podcasts became part of its output. Many of the sports and non-sports topics Simmons talked about on his show became territory for the site’s other writers to cover.
While this allowed Simmons to make his own show more personal, it also allowed the writers of Grantland to better discuss topics of which Simmons was less knowledgeable. The site’s podcasts included shows in which Simmons would have easily fit like “Hollywood Prospectus,” “Jalen & Jacoby,” or “NBA After Dark,” but Grantland also released shows which allowed hosts to delve deeply into topics from different perspectives than their audience.
The reality TV-centric “The Right Reasons” and the all-female “Girls in Hoodies” podcasts weren’t shows you might expect for the typical Grantland audience. Assuming that the stereotypical Grantland reader was someone similar to Simmons often stood in the way of getting my female friends to read the site. But those podcasts with wider interests helped me successfully spread the word. I wouldn’t have even listened to those shows if they weren’t automatically downloaded to my phone as part of the “Grantland Pop Culture” feed. While I initially subscribed for Mad men discussions on “Hollywood Prospectus” and film reviews on “Do You Like Prince Movies?” those other podcasts, including “Rembert Explains,” rounded out a much richer, more diverse family of podcasts.
With a wide variety of podcasts and hosts came an equally diverse set of opinions that dared to challenge its listeners. There were times I found myself borderline angry, scoffing in disagreement with Molly Lambert, Tess Lynch and Emily Yoshida of “Girls in Hoodies,” including one episode where they brushed off the long shot as a form of phallic measurement between directors. In another, they told “Do You Like Prince Movies?” hosts Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris to look past the flaws of the latest blockbuster.
I kept coming back, though, because the challenge of facing an opinion different from mine was more rewarding, as it enriched my own views and understanding. The allure of the podcast medium is being able to listen to a conversation with those of similar interests. But discussions are boring when everyone agrees.
The Internet is great because there’s infinite space available for every voice on every topic. Some voices are louder than others and that can make for a gang mentality based on certain unfortunate opinions. But it’s rare when the less-heard gain a greater audience thanks to a high-volume (though not by ESPN standards) platform like Grantland. Whether intentional or not, the podcasts created a unique outlet offering unique personalities to those who might not have otherwise heard them.
It likely wasn’t the founders’ intention, but the podcasts created a unique outlet offering unique personalities to those who might not have otherwise heard them.
Andy Greenwald recently announced via Instagram that he and Chris Ryan of “Hollywood Prospectus” will reunite for a new podcast as part of Simmons’ latest venture. We’ll have to wait to see which other podcasts might follow, but those shows will be hard-pressed to find the same, diverse outlet that Grantland provided.