Several months ago, I decided to invite the comedian Marc Maron, host of the popular podcast WTF and the star of the television show Maron, to speak at Princeton University. The popular stand-up comedian might not be the most predictable choice to deliver a lecture in our public event series. When I tweeted out that he will be speaking in McCosh 50, the same room where Albert Einstein delivered lectures about the Theory of Relativity, Maron himself seemed a little surprised, tweeting back: "Cool. No Pressure Man." "Thanks for telling me that guy whose running the lecture, oh man, not a lot of pressure," he said on the October 5 podcast.
The truth is that, in my mind Maron, is a terrific and important figure who students and faculty should hear. The idea of inviting him to the university occurred to me before he announced that he was going to interview the President of the United States, a show that greatly bolstered his standing.
Besides the fact that stand-up comedy often provides some of the most insightful commentary about American culture, Maron is living proof of the great potential in modern communications technology. We have all heard the standard litany of complaints about what has resulted from the modern media world: the voices in broadcasting are increasingly shrill, quality control seems to have virtually disappeared along with tight production and editorial standards, and the hyper-fragmentation of broadcasting has made it difficult for any single voice to gain a sizable audience.
Yet since first airing in 2009, WTF has demonstrated that new technology has created important space for innovation.
Through his podcast, Maron has shown how the medium offers a type of environment for conversation that was not always possible in the formal setting of traditional television and radio broadcasting. By literally conducting the interviews in his garage, Maron has convinced a huge number of guests--ranging from comedians like Robin Williams to public figures such as President Obama--to open up about their personal lives and their professional experiences in ways that have been absolutely riveting to listeners. The ease of contemporary technology helped him to create a "studio" space in which Maron nurtures a style of informal and intimate conversation that shatters the walls usually separating the listener from the show. As he told The New Yorker, "Guests sit within a history of me, artifacts from different times of my life." Maron likens his interviews to the "ongoing conversations" that his grandfather (Grandpa Jack) hand with the locals at a hardware store where he worked.
Without the large infrastructure of a network around him, podcasting also gives Maron the flexibility to interview a wide variety of guests, many of whom have proven to be extraordinarily interesting (such as a series of conversations with comedians about "borrowing" or stealing material from each other) that might otherwise not have found support in traditional broadcasting outlets. Indeed, he was able to follow his show with President Obama by interviewing comedians like Rich Vos.
Podcasts are also attracting younger listeners who are tuned out of the traditional networks. Studies have shown that podcast audiences lean toward younger listeners, which creates an opportunity to provide quality shows to generations of Americans who are otherwise not listening. One can imagine how hosts interested in politics might take the Maron model to cover political news in ways that attract disenchanted youth to this subject matter.
Part of the reason that they can do this is because podcasts embody the trend of narrowcasting that began back in the 1970s when the networks started to lose their monopoly. When shows can thrive within a certain niche and only have to appeal to certain audiences, they have the ability to refine their stylistic approach and substantive foci rather than feeling the need to do a little of everything but nothing in much depth.
Podcasts open up the constraints of time in a way that facilitates more open ended conversations. Podcasts can vary greatly in length. The host does not have to feel the pressure of finishing within a certain time frame imposed by commercials, radio, or television air space. The extra time, as well as the ability to go shorter, can liberate conversations to move in all sorts of directions when the host and producer don't have to keep their eye on the clock.
So inviting Marc Maron was actually a no-brainer. Maron has done something truly spectacular with this new technological form. For those who constantly lament what each new innovation brings, they should download his app and listen to some of the exciting directions the media might take.
Today, I'll be enjoying what he has to say the old fashioned way, sitting in my seat for his lecture right here at Princeton.
Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press).