Pod Save Myself

by Summer Benowitz

art by Caroline Reedy

Writing, I’ve been told, is a muscle. One that atrophies easily — too much alcohol, too many movies, too long of walks — and suddenly the notion of artistry replaces the artistry itself. When I mentally flab out, I have to tell myself lies to motivate. To sit my ass in front of the computer and churn out what will be, most likely, dribble. Lies like I’m special or that my thoughts are urgent; their translation from flee floating to fixed mattering more than my “happiness” or “relaxation." Synonyms for a life unconscious.

I tell myself the same cons to coax myself out of the house as well. To go to parties, get coffees and wines and sodas with acquaintances in sticky bars and luxury lounges. The same little fabricated hyperboles -- of uniqueness, urgency, achievement.

In my imagination, me and this person sitting across from me are both really interesting people so whatever’s about to transpire is all possibility, all notion.

In a way, conversation is really just like writing your life out loud.

Or maybe that’s just what I’d like it to be.

“So. What’s new?”

Then we talk about work. The timing of their bumble messages (“do I wait to text back or do I just text back now and then wait to text back again later?”) and I offer advice I don’t mean. And they tell me about some project; some new apartment in Pasadena. They’re into hot yoga now. They’re into yogurt.

And I’m not listening.

I walk home drained. Get in my car. Turn on the engine. And blast an audio recording of someone else’s conversation.


I’m not the first nor will I be the last to admit that personality itself is a bit of a put-on. Or at least fashion is. “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” (RuPaul) or, as David Bowie put it in a 1972 interview in regards to whether or not he really was who he seemed to be -- “I’m a collector. I seem to collect personalities, ideas, I have a hodgepodge philosophy.”   In later interviews, post sobriety, he’d muse retrospectively on these various personas -- Ziggy, Halloween Jack, the skinny Nazi one -- as antidotes for his shyness. They allowed him to perform. Both onstage and off.

What’s the difference then, between trying on outfits and trying out inflections? Authenticity, after all, is as confusing a state as being nude.

As a person born with the common cocktail of emotional perceptiveness and skittish overthink, conversation can be a tense endeavor. A sport equal parts enthralling and noxious, to be able to read someone’s face for clues as to my social standing moment to moment. If they show a little annoyance. Boredom. Distraction. Don’t worry, I’m aware. It’s why introducing a new friend to an old one — and the successive responsibility of listening to the snide after-party remarks by both — is certain quicksand. But forgoing the third party’s ability to dilute eye contact? To not get to play jokes of them? Even worse.

It’s why I, like many, drink. Use drugs. To soften an understanding of the present. Blur the dart of an eye. The purse of a lip. The hollow laugh. To relax and remember we’ll all be dead soon

To me, the ideal conversation — with factors like connection, love, tenderness, mutual understanding, blah, blah, whatever, removed — is one of both urgency and consequence, completely untethered from the actual pressure of socializing. In other words: the perfect conversation is one I have in my head, alone, with other people.

Enter podcasts. Dialogues without participation. Chats, equal parts weighty and ephemeral, amongst people with whom I’m unable to access in my actual day-to-day: lauded theorists, pop psychologists, pulp gurus, famed musicians, celebrities at large. If you’ve ever taped pictures of Andy Warhol’s Factory to your manifestation board in the 9th grade, you understand the tenor wavering beneath. “Just being there was art.”

As I listen in on these scenes; friend bubbles of comedic layabouts and their simps, all stumbles and interruptions edited out (or placed back in purposefully to give the illusion of a balanced, equal relationship) it’s true: just being here is art. (At least until the McDonalds ad chirps in.)

Why am I — and others too — as the adult population in America aware of podcasts has risen 79% in the past ten years, with over 90 million people listening to at least one podcast a month, and a projected 100 million in 2024 — so keen on conversationally cutting to the chase?

Do I pull the ADHD card here? Or do I flatten my diagnosis to an overarching cultural observation: a prevalence of impatience amongst a generation who grew up on neon lights and whip pans? The Edison Research Facility has uncovered that people ages 12-34 make up 66% of podcast fans in America, and that the number of podcast listeners declines as age increases.

Seems obvious, because, well, technology. And older people being bad at it.

But there’s something else lurking in the shadows of these statistics. My hunch is that older people have less of a need to affix to a cult of personality, because “personalities,” at least the online, micro-celebrity kind, are new. Fame has always existed, sure, of course, rock stars and supermodels and

A-listers have always been gorgeous; always projected upon. But back then they were so very far away. A shadow in the margins of life. Not a staple. Not an ‘all the time and always around.’

Now we have microscopes like kaleidoscopes to watch the airbrushed up close. They cry, they laugh, they tell us how “hard it is” or admit to using ozempic from time to time. But can anyone really cry on camera the way we can cry alone?

Or maybe it really is an individuated failing on my part, to be addicted to these incessant pre-recorded hangouts, when others can find enjoyment in the present tense.

How was your weekend?” “What did he say?” “And then what happened?”

People are so goddamn boring.

I recently said to a friend at a party: We have to find a substitution for “how are you?” Cuz there’s really no response warranting any real expansion. You say, “good” which shuts it down quick and leaves both parties searching for a second question. Or you say, “alright,” which warrants a, “well why not good?” to which you’re forced to respond to whatever acquaintance that your grandfather just died. Or you say something real apathetic like, “terrible, and yourself?” then laugh so it’s more confusing than sad.

My friend laughed in that fake way where her eyes were dead but her mouth was giving a dentist-ready “ahh” and then she went to go find her spouse.

Podcasts don’t ask “how are you” — they create methodologies through which intimacy is forged without learning a single detail of a host’s actual life. Only who they’d fuck, their opinions on music, their advice to young couples, their skincare routine, their favorite restaurants, their astrological sign. The formats are different per show, but their goals remain aligned: to create a certain parasocial shtick. Accrue listeners. Make money. Entertain.

In my darkest moments I’ve listened to whichever show I’m stuck on before meeting with a friend or going on a date, in order to appropriate the hosts’ language. “To collect.” To make mine via a hodgepodge mentality.

In my pitcher blacker moments I’ve substituted human contact entirely for a long walk and a podcast. Because there’s no personal stake when you’re outside the ring looking in, allowing me to toy with opinions cringe or taboo or foreign sans reaction, sans exhaustion. And because, well… sometimes my fake friends are just better than my real ones. They’re more interesting. More artistic. Connected. Filled with stories. Always showing up on time.

This coming from a 29-year-old living in Los Angeles, pursuing the arts, with a friend circle (1-2 mentally healthy standouts excluded) also solely pursuing the arts. When I meet up with my friends and I ask “how are you,” they relay stories of casual dalliances with blue-checks; gossip from writers’ rooms; Billie Eilish showing up at a party “with some guy!”

These are interesting people too. Only they’re real and they’re looking at my face with all the sensitivity and judgment and longing and depression inherent to being alive. With their need to understand and to be understood.


Podcasts started for me back in college, my senior year specifically, when I got a side hustle babysitting two adult children who needed little more than for me to make them chicken and walk their dog. It was also the first time in my adult life I was confronted with long swaths of empty time. Knowing, at this point, I was going to move to LA, I used the hollow hours to “research,” downloading podcasts by and for comedians and writers about their complicated, interesting, far-far-away Hollywood lives. A life that would, I convinced myself, very soon be mine.

Then I moved to LA. And I got some jobs. And I shook some hands. And now I listen to dirtbags esoterically condemn other dirtbags in basements in New York City because they’ll never meet me and I’ll never really have to know them.

It’s all just fantasy.

Which brings me to the part of the essay where I feel like I should say something about how podcasts can’t hold you at night. How podcasts aren’t there when your grandfather really does die. But the problem is -- they kinda are. As long as there’s a new episode available, there’s always your fake friends. And they’re always better than the original models because — like porn — they’re not real. Like hookers, you don’t pay them to stay…  you patreon them to leave.

Like social porn, it’s on-demand-feel-good-ness-from-afar. A hypothetical problem with hypothetical symptoms. Existent to some, superfluous to many, questioned by all.

Delivering titillation at the expense of… what? I’m no incel. Just a girl terrified of silence, addicted to finding new ways to hide.

Ironically (or predictably) the best argument for podcast abstinence — or at least moderation — came to me from a podcast interview with a magazine editor, on the much- loathed art-bro-opinion machine, “How Long Gone.”

“A big change this year is that I’m trying to listen to a lot less. To not be walking around listening to podcasts or music all the time, even though it feels good, it’s a crutch. It just kinda fills your head… [and I think as a writer] you should always go to bed with a question. Some problem you need to solve while you’re sleeping. If I’m working I try to walk around without my phone to have that necessary dialogue with myself.”

As I write now in my home, in boring stagnant silence, the conversation in my mind forced out on this page — I see the point. I see and fear the platitudes to be made of such a softcore drug as entertainment.

In real life, most of the time, we are sitting in silence. Staring into each other’s eyes. Negotiating when to speak. When to listen. Trying to make this person across from us smile or frown.

I’d venture that there’s a happy medium. That overdosing on any entertainment — especially the type where you absorb someone else’s perspective, breeds what I fear most of all: a life unconscious. Robbed of your own senses, desire becomes mimetic. And that muscle — the one that writes, that talks, that creates portraits of experience for other people to consume and enjoy and relate to — whittles to nothing more than an automatronic limb lifting someone else’s world up.

Did I learn the word ‘mimetic’ on a podcast? 

Yes I did.