Prestige Podcasts and Preaching

‘Podcast The Oxford Dictionary A digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new instalments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly commonplace for preachers to podcast their sermons: but this has been a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because we now have access to thousands of recordings from some of the most gifted preachers in recent times. Also, if you don’t make it on a particular Sunday, you can stream your pastor into your headphones. And if your pastor is appalling in the pulpit, then at least you can find compensation in somebody else. Of course the downside to all this is that we now have access to thousands of sermon recordings from some of the most gifted preachers in history – which puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us. And if you can’t be bothered going to church on Sunday, don’t worry because you can stay in bed and listen. I think you get my drift. 

But there is another intersection between preaching and podcasts that is worth considering. In the past year, with the surge in popularity of podcasts such as Serial, Pop Culture Happy Hour and StartUp, we have seen the rise of the first golden age of podcasting. As prestige television has competed in production values with the best of cinema, so too the Prestige Podcast (PP) competes with the best of radio, but perhaps actualising something new. Indeed, James Atlas of the New York Times labels the podcast as “A new literary form.”. 

I am interested in discovering what the medium of the PP might reveal about postmodern audiences so as to discover ways of making preaching more effective. These are questions about method and manner and perhaps even about content. Why are Postmoderns devouring PPs? What techniques do the PPs use to reach their audience? What lessons could the preacher learn about speaking into the hearts and minds of their congregation?

What makes a podcast prestige?

A podcast moves into the level of prestige when it does the following:

  • It has a minimum production standard with clear audio and is tightly edited
  • It is carefully researched
  • There is a strong story arc
  • There are presenters with specialist knowledge
  • It offers access to unique information or A-list guests

If you’ve got some of those elements in place, you can position yourself to draw a large audience. For a leading example of PP check out Pop Culture Happy Hour. Here you will find insightful and entertaining discussion about the latest in pop culture from some of America’s best professorial culture writers. Or Josh Horowitz’s Happy Sad Confused, where each week he offers 40 minutes of candid ‘Hollywood insider’ discussion with actors such as Al Pacino, Woody Allen, or Gillian Anderson. Similarly Alec Baldwin’s WNYC show Heres the Thing involves long chats with the like of Julie Andrews, Jerry Seinfeld or Thom Yorke. It’s almost as if you’re listening in to them have a private conversation over coffee.  

The 2014 standout example of PP was Serial, the true crime series investigating a 15-year-old murder case from Baltimore County, Maryland. The show received huge attention from culture watchers because of its popularity – 5 million world-wide downloads per week. The New Yorker described Serial:

Combining the drama of prestige-television-style episodic storytelling, the portability of podcasts, and the reliability of ‘This American Life,’ the show [Serial] has been, perhaps not surprisingly, ranked at No. 1 on iTunes for much of the past couple of weeks.

Linda Holmes from Pop Culture Happy Hour points out that what was strange about Serial is that people were listening to, and publicly discussing it like they have done with television series such as House of Cards, Breaking Bad or Fargo. The difference is: “it’s not fiction!” There is a new obsessiveness: a hunger for quality journalism. Reditt has hundreds of Serial threads where people have pursued their own independent investigations. In a fictional show people might ponder about the characters, but deep down they know that their theories will end nowhere because the writers haven’t got answers. But in true crime journalism, loose threads that seem intriguing end somewhere even if it ends as surprising consequence: this is the allure. We also know Serial is special because it has attracted its own podcasts – podcasts about the podcast; the most prominent being Slates Serial Spoiler Special. So the commentary is becoming a secondary form of entertainment. On 19 November 2014, Pop Culture Happy Hour even did a podcast episode about the Slate podcast that is about the podcast Serial a podcast about a podcast which is about a podcast. Perhaps this is a rediscovery of the aural text? Atlas writes,

The aural/oral revolution won’t mean the end of the book any more than the e-book did. Besides, the “non-text-based” work of literature has a long tradition. “In the history of mankind, words were heard before they were seen,” wrote Albert B. Lord, the author of “The Singer of Tales,” a classic work of scholarship that traced oral literature from Homer through “Beowulf” and the tales, still recited today, of Balkan poets capable of reciting thousands of lines of verse by heart. Progress doesnt always mean going forward.

Meeting a Desire for Intimacy

PPs seem literary because of their power to build intimacy between the listener and the broadcaster. In the case of Serial, for example, the host Sarah Koenig talks through her thought processes as if she is pondering her findings out loud with you personally. One commentator called this ‘show your work journalism.’ This is an impressive illusion because it sounds improvised and slow, whereas, in reality each episode has been strategically crafted and edited. The New Yorker Journalist Sarah Larson wrote: “it sounds like your smart friend is investigating a murder and telling you about it”. This can sometimes venture into voyeurism – a criticism pointed at Serial. A positive spin on this would be to say that podcasts offer a close up view of an ecosystem. In one episode of This American Life, or Death, Sex and Money you can be helicopter-dropped into the world of junior high teenagers, or a family going through a divorce, or a factory worker and his work mates. Australian ABC journalists Leigh Sales and Annabelle Crab recently launched their podcast Chat 10 Looks 3, where they just ramble about whatever is on their mind. What makes it so interesting is that they are some of Australia’s best political commentators talking off-script. You get a sense that you really know them. In the first episode Sales admits to an obsession with musical theatre and then proceeds to sing and play a song on the piano. They make giggly in-jokes with each other, which is ok, because you feel included. Recently they went to see Fifty Shades of Grey just for laughs. As they give you their candid ‘elite college girl’ review over a cup of tea, the whole time you think: ‘these are the same women who ask the hard questions to the politicians on prime time.’ This chemistry is working.

Twelve Reasons We Love PP

I think there are about 12 reasons why PP are finding their audience:

  1. Intimate and personal (see above)
  1. The feeling of authenticity Even when episodes are researched and scripted, like This American Life the presenters are careful to speak in their natural voices. It rarely feels forced or contrived.
  1. Literary style detail As James Atlas commented in the NYT about Startup Listening to Mr Blumberg describe his meeting with the venture capitalist at a sushi restaurant on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles(I love all these details; they remind me of … books), I think: Dude, give him the money.
  1. Niche You can finally find a bunch of nerds who are into Dr. Who as much as you are.
  1. Self-curated You can create your own radio station, where your favourite shows play at the time that is most convenient to you.
  1. Slow but easy You can listen to people talk for hours about one movie. There are no limitations on length.
  1. A high turnover Podcasts don’t require much in the way of complex production work, so it’s easy to produce fast content. 
  1. Reactive The Slates Serial Spoiler Special were ‘dropped’ within a few hours of the latest Serial 
  1. Subversive A reaction to the managed content of the network television and print media. Journalists use podcasts to speak candidly, off script.
  1. Egalitarian An easy access medium where unknowns can compete with elites.
  1. Imaginative A reaction to the over-stimulation of film and television.
  1. Psychological A fascination with learning about, and pondering on, the human condition. See Invisibilia, The Ted Radio Hour, and Death, Sex and Money.

Implications for Preaching

I have drawn out nine implications for preaching:

  1. Authenticity The best PPs have a strong tone of authenticity. In the same way, it goes without saying that if you want to reach postmoderns you need to be authentic, real, honest and transparent. Young urban Australians have a permanent authenticity detector on at all times. Don’t try and be something that you are not. Admit your limitations and struggles. Find your genuine passion.

The paradox for preachers is that on the one hand preaching is a performance — in that you have to project or amplify the emotion and narrative of the Bible — but on the other hand you must be genuinely feeling those emotions and not-performative. The first twenty years is the hardest

  1. Intimacy Closely linked to the previous point about authenticity, it is important to try and cultivate a style of preaching that builds intimacy with the congregation. Authenticity that leads to intimacy comes about from being candid – not ‘over-sharing’ your darkest secrets – but letting people into your thought processes. Intimacy also comes from having a genuine affection for the congregation: relating to them as brothers and sisters rather than in a ‘father knows best’ classroom mode.

 Also, (this is not new but it is worth reminding), in the same way that Serial reveled in their ‘show-your-work-journalism’, so too can preachers develop intimacy with their congregation by walking them through their thought processes and interpretive steps. And in the process, teach the congregation how to read the Bible for themselves. Part of the magic, however, is to do what Sarah Koenig from Serial also did, which was to ponder a few paths with the listener, not just the path: “perhaps this is what it means? Or it could mean this?”

  1. Close Proximity to the source It’s not enough to regurgitate the Bible commentaries or ‘borrow’ heavily from other preachers. You need to do your homework, dig deep, and then refine it to be your material. While you are not required to be an expert on everything, you can’t get away with waffle or being sloppy (misquoting statistics, googling quotes without knowing the context, poor exegesis).

I love the illustrations and concepts that come from Tim Keller, but I learned a while ago that there is something sloppy about regurgitating Keller. If I want to borrow from Keller, far better to go back to his sources (which he usually references). What you soon learn is that Keller is borrowing from the likes of Kuyper, Calvin, Luther or Augustine. Likewise, reading Charles Taylor’s Secular Age or C.S. Lewis’ complete works and drawing my own conclusions is far better than simply echoing Keller’s quotes.

  1. Imaginative content Preaching should be accessible and engaging: it should have application that is clear and achievable. The points should be memorable: convicting the comfortable and soothing the discouraged. Sometimes, through poor preparation, or a boring delivery, preachers send an unnecessarily angry tone or judgmental message. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “So many people come to church with a genuine desire to hear what we have to say, yet they are always going back home with the uncomfortable feeling that we are making it too difficult for them to come to Jesus.”

In the 2000s many preachers went through a phase of connecting with the visual based culture of their younger congregations by tarting up their message with glossy projections and video content (hello Rob Bell). But now that we are over-saturated with visual content (sitting on the couch of an evening with three or four screens) nobody in your church is turned on by your big screen and your six-thousand ansi lumens HD projector anymore.

The rise of the PP suggests that congregations might be hungry for a simpler, but more imaginative sermon without visual special effects. Simple rule: spend less time on your Powerpoint and cheesy videos and more time on making your text and delivery more vivid.

  1. The contracted spring principal Most preachers and teachers know that when you suggest to congregations to read something, that there will only be one or two who will. The saying “too long, didn’t read” is symptomatic of a culture that is reading less but this doesn’t mean they don’t want the knowledge. If they could plug their brain in and download War and Peace they would. TED talks are popular because you can surf around niche themes and in ten minutes quickly download a condensed and refined parcel of content. Now at your dinner parties you can converse knowingly on diverse topics such as nanotechnology, jazz improvisation or advocating for the virtues of democracy in Islamic youth culture.

Preachers need to work out ways of delivering content as a ‘contracted spring.’ Perhaps this involves providing links to other easy and slow teaching content? There are some great free Bible and Theology lecture series from the Reformed Theological Seminary on iTunesU. As well as a growing garden of delights on youtube, you just need to know where to look. Here are some ‘discipleship gold’ examples on youtube:

  1. Drama Ira Glass and his team at This American Life have become expert story tellers. See my post on Ira Glass and Homiletics. Preachers should not only grow as storytellers, but also develop as scriptwriters. The whole sermon is a narrative — not just the illustrations. It is crucial that you learn how to use tension and release, surprise, contrast, pace, varying intensity, emotion, humour and pathos.

Don’t mistake depth of content with seriousness of tone. Humour doesn’t necessarily equal shallowness. PPs have shown us that we have an appetite for exploring the depths of human condition. Preachers must use dramatic devices such as narrative arc and character development to achieve this dramatic effect.

  1. Leverage off your peculiarities Staff at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National were surprised when they released the suite of their shows as podcasts, seriously underestimating how popular they would be around the world. These shows covered themes such as philosophy, literature, spirituality, and politics and they soon discovered that there was a demand for high quality niche audio content.

Not enough preachers discover their niche personality and material. I have a particular set of interests which include: 1960s and 70s music, art, the films of Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, and New York… For a long time I hid my hobbies from the congregation because I assumed they weren’t interested. But as soon as I did let them in, they engaged more with my preaching, even if they weren’t particularly interested in the niche cultural idea itself. (Disclaimer: this all has to be managed with a fair amount of self-awareness. There’s nothing worse than a preacher who can’t stop talking about his favourite football team every week, or who references the Matrix in every sermon. Know your audience.) Perhaps the power of niche is that it is another way of thinking about authenticity?

John August and Craig Mazin, the experienced Hollywood scriptwriters who host the Scriptnotes podcast, argue that while scriptwriting consultants will push scriptwriters to conform to their so-called ‘special rules’ of scriptwriting, it is the outlier scripts, those that are ‘out-of-the-box’ and break the rules, that get noticed.

The same goes for preaching. It is safe to say, if harnessed well, your peculiarities should help build your unique voice as a preacher.

  1. Speaking to Needs One reason podcasts are popular is because they are a form of self curated and convenient content. In the same way, preachers would do well to allow the congregation to shape the content of the preaching series. This ensures that you are connecting the story of the Bible to the story of your congregation. Do a survey for preaching topics or Bible books to cover. You could also have question time. Don’t monopolise the pulpit, bring in other voices in an attempt to speak to reach people.
  1. Group think Flowing on from the previous point, PPs also make good use of engaging with their audience through social media. If you can promote ‘group think’ by including other voices from within the congregation in your preaching, then this will increase engagement. If you need a powerful real life example of something, then getting someone up from the congregation to share their story is a powerful This American Life style approach.

I also like to ring up congregation members to get their thoughts on a passage. Remember Jesus said to his disciples: “But you are not to be called Rabbi for you have one teacher” (Matthew 23:8). This is a good way of humbly submitting yourself to Jesus and the community while still holding the responsibility of pastor and teacher.

Thanks to Peter Corney, Erica Hammence, Kim Beales, John Cavanough and Elizabeth Culhane at the Melbourne Faith and Culture club for their thoughts for this article.