Just listening to stories seems to be a new trend today. More people are listening to podcasts – stories spoken online. Many people get them through their smart phones, often via a service called Audible.com.
This may sound revolutionary to young people, but to old-timers like me, it’s nothing new. We remember a time when almost everyone listened to stories broadcast every day – on something called “radio.”
Such stories covered a wide spectrum, including fiction, memoir, history, news, even sports – just about anything that can be narrated.
As a 70-something, I have fond memories of listening to these stories on the radio. I enjoyed 15-minute programs like “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “The Great Gildersleeve.” There were 30-minute programs like “The Jack Benny Show” and Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life,” and hour-long shows such as “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” And no one was asked to pay for them; you just had to listen to a few advertisements.
Once television arrived at the Spevak home, the days and evenings of the whole family gathering around a radio were over. But individuals – like me, even as a kid – could still listen to radio stories in solitude.
As television viewing increased radio shifted away from stories and more toward music, news and sports. The advent of books on tape increased the number of story-listening experiences, which continued through CDs and now streamed stories like those available on Kindle.
Recently, Audible began offering a collection of audio books, shows and original series. As Audible’s website notes, “Whether you’re relaxing at home, commuting to work, at the gym, or just doing chores, there’s a story for every activity.”
Sure sounds a lot like radio to me, or at least the second coming of radio.
I’ve been pondering why listening to stories seems to be making a comeback, and I have some possible explanations.
Most people enjoy hearing a pleasant human voice. That’s been true throughout human history, especially considering how much babies are comforted by hearing their mothers’ voices.
Today the enjoyment of hearing a pleasant human voice is especially appreciated, since so many people live isolated lives. Isolation occurs in many forms: young people disconnected from friends, commuters in long drives, senior citizens living alone. Most people hear a human talking less frequently than their parents or grandparents did.
Of course, there’s always video – where people seem to talk endlessly – and there are more series on traditional networks, cable and streaming sites than ever before. And yet a large number of people are bypassing video for audio only. I’ve been pondering the reasons for that, too.
Many people feel overloaded by “screen time” on their televisions, computers and smart phones. Some even feel that too much screen time adversely affects their physical and mental health.
Audio-only experiences enable people not only to rest their eyes, but do other activities – cooking, gardening, driving, walking – at the same time.
And audio-only experiences help the imagination. The capability of our minds to imagine is one of the most important human traits. Listening to a story allows us to create our own mental pictures, and it metaphorically exercises our brain.
Focusing on a story from beginning to end (even if interrupted by other activities) also helps improve our attention span, and Lord knows how much that’s needed now. So much of television and the internet attempts to grab our attention, but then lets it go to be grabbed by the next person telling us how jaw-dropping the next 20 seconds will be.
In pondering all this, I have a caveat: listening to a story is not as good as reading it. I take exception to a phrase on Audible’s web site: “Listening is the new reading.” No, no, no.
As I’ve said in other columns, especially the ones I wrote on the book “Language at the Speed of Sight,” reading is one of the most important skills and activities we humans have, beginning when we’re toddlers and continuing to old age. Listening is valuable, and it might be the next best thing to reading, but it’s not as important as reading.
That’s not to say listening isn’t important. Listening is a badly needed and diminishing skill in our world today. So many people desperately want to be heard and very few people are willing to listen or even capable of listening empathetically. Maybe listening to audio stories will encourage more people to listen to others who need a sympathetic ear.
John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.