After college, I moved to Berlin to study German, and do some research about the Vietnamese guest workers. In the first month, I stayed with a German family in a lovely neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city. (One can still read my first post about Berlin, and my experience with my host family here. )A year later, I moved back to live with them for another four months as I was taking an intensive German course which prepared me for more difficult archival research later on. My favorite time with my host family was over breakfast, when my host dad would turn on the radio. Sometimes classical music was on while we were arranging slices of cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, and been sprouts on a piece of freshly baked dark bread. Other times we would listen to local news, and weather forecasts. I would pick up new vocabulary here and there while listening, and ask my host dad later. The radio was an integral part in this family’s daily ritual. I was seamlessly integrated into their daily routine.
I never found listening to the radios old-schooled. I always thought that it was the coolest activity. As a kid growing up in Vietnam, I owned a cassette player, which was also a radio. Every Sunday I would wake up before 9AM, prepared my cassette, and waited for my favorite music program, Qùa Tặng Âm Nhạc (A Music Gift). I would also record the entire show with my only cassette, and listen to the program during the week until next Sunday. Then the weekend came again, and I would use that same cassette, and overwrote it with a new program. The cycle repeated. Watching TV shows was never my favorite activity. I thought watching TV was too social. Family members, friends, sisters, neighbors would be present when I watched TV. But when I listened to my radio, it was my time. I felt as if I owned the music, and the entire space, which is filled with interesting stories and sweet sounds.
Fast forward to Berlin, my then boyfriend, having discovered that I loved listening to music on the radio, gave me a little black, square radio, whose antenna is just an 8 inch piece of metal string. I was intrigued by the device, and thought that it was a German wonder. It sat very modestly on a shelf in my corner room, yet the sounds came out of that little device would fill my entire apartment. Sadly when we broke up, he took it back, as I would pack my belongings and move to New York. I wished I had asked him if I could take it with me.
Life in New York is hectic. Everyone spends a significant amount of time on the subway. Walking alongside with strangers, one is overwhelmed with sounds of people, and machines. One’s senses are constantly attacked with stimuli. The City consumed me, and overwhelmed me at first. Eventually I figured out how to keep my mind focused, and how to enjoy my commute. I now listen to podcasts on my phone. I also gradually figured out my favorite podcasts. For example, on my way to teach at City College, I would listen to a cute story on The Story Collider. Storytellers would narrate their own life experiences in a short story form. These stories are always full of humor, and give me some positive energy. Then I would channel this energy to my students by creating short stories out of abstract concepts hoping that they are now more legible to my college students. If my commute were longer, I would listen to a story on Feuilleton to pick up new vocabulary in French. Currently I am listening to Madame Bovary. The story always makes me wonder about whether a modern Madame Bovary would exist, or under what conditions would one become a modern Madame Bovary. How would she act, and behave?
Since I started listening to podcasts on my phone, I pay more attention to people who also listen to podcasts on the train. They seem to contemplate more than those who listen to music. They seem to think along with the podcasts. Maybe they feel sympathetic to a character, or a narrator. Maybe they are excited to learn about a new psychological experiment about the relationship between sound, and taste. Everybody is private about what they are listening to in a public space.
Podcasts are in! My friends in the U.S. constantly introduce me to new podcasts. My German friends would also give me some recommendations. Magazines and blog posts write about high quality podcasts. At the end of the day, my teenager’s obsession with privatizing my fantasy, and entertainment has come back in a different form. Instead of hiding myself in the attic listening to a weekend radio show, now I can privately enjoy my favorite podcasts in a public space.
What is it that makes podcasts become more popular? Is it because of democratization of the production process? Everyone can produce podcasts, and make their stories known to the world now. Does an excess of highly educated young people who are upset with their labor market outcomes also play a role? How can one explain this cultural trend?