Podcasts and Mass-mediated Fellowship

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

When I needed to rest after delivering our daughter recently, my husband knew a familiar routine that would help: he put one of our favorite podcasts in the delivery room. The reaction of the nurse who came in to check on me led me to believe this isn’t a typical choice, but it made sense for us. We had been listening to familiar weekly podcasts at bedtime for years.

This style of podcast isn’t for everyone, as they mostly consist of a few friends and (often) a guest hanging out and joking around, with silly, repeated jokes and segments. Writing recently for Splitsider, Noah Jacobs described one of my favorites, Stop Podcasting Yourself, as comfortably reliable. Over time, the listener comes to feel like they are in the extended circle of friends and acquaintances—part of the conversation and in on the jokes.

Of course, because podcasts are mass media, the relationship is more one-way than two. I know a fair bit about my favorite hosts, but they don’t know me from other members of their audience. However, fandom in the Internet age has a funny way of connecting fans to each other and building community. Another one of my favorites, My Brother, My Brother and Me, has a fan community that creates ways to connect. The last several Christmases, fans have had an inside joke secret Santa organization, and have teamed up to fulfill every need in Huntington, W. Va.’s “empty stockings” list of Christmas wishes. In a November interview, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda described the podcast’s fan community as a place where he can “be the same dork I was before all this fame hit me.”

I wonder if these fan communities might be a peculiarly modern way of practicing hospitality to strangers.

Thinking about why I like this sense of reliability and community, I realized that there was another place in my life where I find a similar feeling: church on Sunday morning. In and around worship, I find myself connecting with familiar voices, following continuing stories, and being part of a community. A good chunk of this has to do with the individual people and relationships in my congregation and my life, but much of it is also related to the way we connect with God together—like a God fan community, held together by our love for and worship of our creator. Our call and response—“The Lord be with you” … “and also with you”—is more meaningful to me than the inside jokes of podcast fans, yet at the same time those inside jokes remind me of the familiar movements of fellowship.

Of course, mass-mediated friendship isn’t enough. I need in-person community to thrive. Yet I wonder if these fan communities might be a peculiarly modern way of practicing hospitality to strangers, as the Bible encourages. In Hebrews, the church is told not only to love one another, but also to be hospitable to strangers and to remember those in prison. It seems to me the way communities form around pieces of media like podcasts is a version of hospitality. The hosts let audiences into their lives and relationships (often at some cost to their privacy and little monetary reward), while the community benefits from a fellow-feeling that has real consequences. Among these might be a feeling of companionship when our usual forms of community are unavailable—in the middle of the night, during a solitary commute, or when talking on the phone would be unwise.

Part of me is suspicious of this comparison—that mass-mediated fellowship actually might be more like simulated friendship that helps us avoid the real thing. But honestly, that hasn’t been my experience for the most part. These unusual fellow-feelings are more like the feelings I share with fictional characters in my favorite books or with figures in the Bible. It’s not the same as in-person community, but it’s a good human connection nonetheless.

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