Can Jewish Pod­casts Be Saved?

Forward Magazine - - Shima Now - By David Zvi Kal­man

Pod­cast­ing, you may have heard, is boom­ing. Lis­ten­er­ship is up, so is aware­ness of the medium, and high-qual­ity pod­casts seem to be pop­ping up ev­ery­where. As with tele­vi­sion, the medium it­self has re­cently be­come more re­spectable, in­clud­ing among the Hol­ly­wood A-lis­ters; Os­car Isaac stars in “Home­com­ing,” while an episode of “Re­ply All” is be­ing adapted into a film star­ring Robert Downey Jr.

In com­par­i­son to more es­tab­lished me­dia, though, pod­cast­ing is still a kind of Wild West, with plenty of risk and plenty of room for growth. But as ad rev­enue grows and pro­duc­tion be­comes in­creas­ingly con­sol­i­dated, and as the medium be­comes in­creas­ingly in­te­grated into the ex­ist­ing ecosys­tem of tele­vi­sion, film and print me­dia, it is no longer dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the day when this fron­tier me­dia will be­come fully de­vel­oped.

De­spite th­ese ad­vances, Jewish-con­tent pod­cast­ing lags no­tice­ably be­hind. The charts are ut­terly de­void of Jewish shows, and emerg­ing pod­cast­ing plat­forms like Gim­let and Ra­diotopia have yet to ex­press any in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing them; only two shows, “Unortho­dox” and “Is­rael Story,” have achieved main­stream suc­cess. As the medium surges ahead, why is Jewish pod­cast­ing stuck in neu­tral?

One prob­lem is that many Jewish pod­casts are not ac­tu­ally pod­casts. While the to­tal num­ber of Jewish pod­casts con­tin­ues to grow, ev­ery lis­tener who has ex­plored be­yond the great­est hits of the genre knows that there are pod­casts and there are pod­casts. Yes, one can use the same app to down­load both “Se­rial” and a Tal­mud lec­ture taped on a $10 recorder, but the two dif­fer in al­most ev­ery other way.

Qual­ity con­trol re­mains an is­sue in the medium gen­er­ally, but Jewish pod­cast­ing is af­flicted with medi­ocrity not be­cause of a lack of tal­ent, but be­cause of an in­flux of the wrong kind of tal­ent. For this, you can blame the clergy, whose lec­tures and ser­mons — au­ral prod­ucts that were al­ready be­ing prop­a­gated on the ra­dio, on cas­sette tape and in dig­i­tal for­mats — could be brought into the pod­cast space for al­most zero cost.

Th­ese pod­casts — which were never re­ally de­signed to be pod­casts — should have been only the first, tran­si­tional stage of Jewish pod­cast­ing. Ten years in, how­ever, cler­i­cal pod­casts con­tinue to dom­i­nate the Jewish (and Chris­tian and Mus­lim) pod­cast charts. Jewish pod­cast­ing, in other words, con­tin­ues to be as­so­ci­ated with shows fea­tur­ing noth­ing fancier than one per­son speak­ing, with­out in­ter­rup­tion, for any­where be­tween 10 min­utes and two hours. Com­pet­ing against the likes of “S-Town” and “Re­vi­sion­ist His­tory,” it’s no won­der that not a sin­gle such pod­cast sits in iTunes’ top 100. The real ques­tion: Why hasn’t Jewish pod­cast­ing moved on from here?

Brick-and-mor­tar ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions that don’t want to be me­dia com­pa­nies are still driv­ing Jewish pod­cast­ing. The vast ma­jor­ity of Jewish pod­casts con­tinue to be pro­duced by ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions. As with in­di­vid­ual ed­u­ca­tors, th­ese in­sti­tu­tions want to share the wealth of their ed­u­ca­tors with any­one else who might want to lis­ten.

Th­ese are no­ble goals, but a pod­cast pro­duced un­der th­ese con­di­tions is un­likely to be­come wildly suc­cess­ful, just as video-recorded lec­tures are un­likely to be­come must-watch TV. More than record­ing on good mi­cro­phones in quiet spaces, good pod­cast­ing de­mands dras­tic changes to the con­tent it­self, the hir­ing of sound ed­i­tors, and meth­ods of speak­ing that even sea­soned Jewish ed­u­ca­tors may never have en­coun­tered. Great pod­casts are born into the medium, not repack­aged from some­where else.

Un­for­tu­nately, most in­sti­tu­tions balk at the prospect of cre­at­ing a non­deriva­tive pod­cast. Ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions don’t be­come me­dia com­pa­nies overnight; never hav­ing con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity that they might hold a mega­phone this large, most in­sti­tu­tions usu­ally stick to their ex­ist­ing mis­sion state­ments and pro­duce shows de­signed to reach alumni and other al­ready in­ter­ested par­ties. With­out a strong mo­ti­vat­ing ide­ol­ogy, the pod­cast­ing bud­get is al­most never large enough to cre­ate more than a series of edited con­ver­sa­tion (and since th­ese pod­casts can

never grow large enough to be taken se­ri­ously by ad­ver­tis­ers, they must al­ways rely on fund­ing). There are no two-for-one deals; in pod­cast­ing, as in all other broad­cast me­dia, you get what you pay for.

Right now, the best re­li­gious pod­casts are those that try to cre­ate con­ver­sa­tions that can’t/won’t hap­pen else­where. One of the first sig­nif­i­cant re­li­gious uses of pod­cast­ing was “Mor­mon Sto­ries,” now its 12th year. John Dehlin, the host, cre­ated the show out of a de­sire to have con­ver­sa­tions about Mor­monism, which could not take place within the con­fines of the church.

Jewish pod­casts are pick­ing up on the trend. Although the heavy bias to­ward ed­u­ca­tional-in­sti­tu­tion pod­casts still ex­ists, the past four years have wit­nessed the steady growth of a new set of pod­casts. While top­i­cally and ide­o­log­i­cally quite dif­fer­ent from one another, th­ese new pod­casts are less in­ter­ested in to­tal lis­ten­er­ship and more in­ter­ested in say­ing some­thing that wasn’t be­ing said else­where.

“Treyf Pod­cast” is one ex­am­ple. The 2-year-old series, pro­duced in Mon­treal, ap­proaches the North Amer­ica Jewish com­mu­nity from an ex­plic­itly left­ist per­spec­tive; episodes have dis­cussed Jewish re­ac­tions to po­lice bru­tal­ity, Jewish Voice for Peace and a Pales­tinian hunger strike.

David Zin­man, the co-host of “Treyf,” told me that the point was never huge lis­ten­er­ship: “If we were try­ing to have the most im­me­di­ate im­pact on po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion on a dayto-day ba­sis, we prob­a­bly shouldn’t be putting it on a pod­cast.” In­stead, the pod­cast was an at­tempt to cre­ate a Jewish con­ver­sa­tion that could not ex­ist in a place like Tablet mag­a­zine; Zin­man hopes the con­ver­sa­tion can help peo­ple see a dif­fer­ent point of view and crys­tal­lize a new com­mu­nity through the in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence of hear­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in one’s head­phones. “We’re hop­ing to cul­ti­vate re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple long term,” Zin­man said.

A sim­i­lar com­mu­nity started to form around “Ju­daism Un­bound,” which cur­rently sits at No. 4 in iTunes’ rank­ing of Jewish pod­casts, although co-host Daniel Liben­son says the com­mu­nity el­e­ment was a sur­prise to him. For Liben­son, there needed to be a head-on, pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about the fu­ture of Ju­daism it­self. In­spired by the pod­cast “The Crit­i­cal Path,” which dis­cusses Ap­ple prod­ucts and the fu­ture of mo­bile de­sign, Liben­son and co-host Lex Rofes set out to cre­ate an in­ter­view show with those who had a vi­sion for the de­sign of the Jewish fu­ture. Asked if “Ju­daism Un­bound” is a re­li­gious tech pod­cast, Liben­son said, “I’m com­fort­able with that de­scrip­tion.”

Jewish pod­casts are still mostly for Jews. Even the best new con­ver­sa­tions, how­ever, must as­sume some prior in­ter­est in Ju­daism on the part of the lis­tener; as a re­sult, even th­ese new pod­casts have lit­tle chance to achieve pop­u­lar­ity out­side the bub­ble of Amer­ica’s tiny Jewish mi­nor­ity.

The bub­ble ex­ists even for “Is­rael Story,” which has not only achieved an im­pres­sive lis­ten­er­ship but also has col­lab­o­rated suc­cess­fully with top-tier pod­casts like “99% In­vis­i­ble” and “Ra­di­o­lab.” Mishy Har­man, the show’s co-cre­ator and host, notes that lis­ten­er­ship for the English ver­sion of the show is large, but still clearly clus­tered in ci­ties like Chicago, Bos­ton, New York, and Los An­ge­les, where there are huge Jewish pop­u­la­tions. (Har­man de­murs when I call the pod­cast “Jewish” and not “Is­raeli,” but he ac­knowl­edges that it is likely seen this way in Amer­ica). Har­man would like to see the ab­so­lute num­ber of Jewish lis­ten­ers in­crease, but he wants it to de­crease as a per­cent­age of the to­tal. His ul­ti­mate goal: “We would like ‘Is­rael Story’ to be­come a house­hold name.”

The col­lab­o­ra­tions on “Is­rael Story” sug­gest that this is very much pos­si­ble, as does the fact that Jewish hu­man in­ter­est sto­ries have long been fea­tured on shows like “This Amer­i­can Life” and “Re­ply All.” To pick just a few ex­am­ples:

“Exit & Re­turn,” in which Shulem Deen re­counts his dis­en­gage­ment from his re­li­gious com­mu­nity, as de­tailed in his mem­oir.

“Home Movies,” in which Jonathan Gold­stein walks the lis­ten­ers through an old record­ing of his fam­ily’s Rosh Hashanah Seder.

“That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish,”

Great pod­casts are born into the medium, not repack­aged from some­where

else.

in which a Ha­sidic man from Brook­lyn’s Wil­liams­burg ex­per­i­ments with pop­u­lar cul­ture.

“A Not-So-Sim­ple Ma­jor­ity,” the gut-wrench­ing look by “This Amer­i­can Life” in­side a New York school dis­trict con­trolled by re­li­gious Jews.

Jewish con­tent is clearly of in­ter­est to Amer­i­can lis­ten­ers, but it has to be de­liv­ered with an eye to­ward themes of gen­eral in­ter­est, and — most crit­i­cally — it has to be told as a nar­ra­tive, as a story. In fact, I would sub­mit, the medium of pod­cast­ing is par­tic­u­larly well suited to the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of re­li­gious mes­sages.

The emo­tional medium of pod­cast­ing is ripe for re­li­gious sto­ries. Pod­cast­ing, like ra­dio, can be a ve­hi­cle for deeply in­tel­lec­tual con­tent; the early suc­cess of shows like “The His­tory of Rome” and “EconTalk” is tes­ta­ment to that. Pod­cast­ing’s real strength, how­ever, lies in its abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate emo­tion through the sub­tle nu­ances of mu­sic and the hu­man voice. Mal­colm Glad­well has cited pod­casts emo­tion­al­ity as the rea­son for his shift to the medium; whether sad, funny or an­gry, oral sto­ries have a unique power in this re­gard.

Un­for­tu­nately, the vast ma­jor­ity of Jewish pod­casts are any­thing but emo­tional; if any­thing, the trend has been to­ward greater in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism. This need not be the case: The most pow­er­ful re­li­gious mes­sages are full of emo­tion, and the sto­ries of re­li­gious lives are full of emo­tion, too. When Jewish sto­ries are told in Amer­i­can pod­casts, it is uni­formly the emo­tional el­e­ment that is given pri­or­ity.

The al­most com­plete ab­sence of emo­tive Jewish pod­cast­ing is a la­cuna worth fix­ing; if the medium presents Jewish con­tent with a unique op­por­tu­nity, it is here.

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