How should podcasts respond to the age of fake news? While audio might not be at the forefront of distributing false information, it’s certainly not the case that everything you hear presented as a “fact” is definitely true. As I’ve written before, there is now an accepted grammar in audio production for signalling seriousness or sincerity — you just have to listen to a few minutes of the Onion’s parody true crime podcast A Very Fatal Murder to be reminded of what it is, and hear it applied with great satirical effect.
Benjamen Walker, the creator and producer behind Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, has been blending fact and fiction in his work for years, long before “fake news” was a buzzword or an accusation. When I spoke to him recently over Skype, though, he said that the current climate had changed the way some people are responding to his podcast. “I discovered after Brexit, after Trump, that people just started to get a little less happy with the work I've done,” he said. “Some of my friends even told me that they had to stop listening because they don’t want a podcast anymore that mixes fact and fiction.”
In response to this, Walker felt like he had a “personal mission” to delve deeper into this blurred boundary at what he calls “this crazy moment”. The result is a new series of his show, titled “False Alarm”. The first episode, “This is not a drill” is already out, and new instalments will be released every other Tuesday. He thinks there will be fifteen episodes in all, divided into three arcs: the first laying out the problem of belief in false information, the second looking its history, and the third a “traditional ‘what do we do’, which is going to get really wild,” Walker said.
He stresses that this is not a new problem. “I mean, the world has lost its mind about pseudoscience and reality before, but there's something really unique, maybe even different about what's going on in the world right at this moment,” he said.
There are parallels with the nineteenth century craze for spiritualism, he explained, and the way that people continued to believe in it even after some of its proponents had revealed how they had faked the whole thing. “There’s just something about the full-on confessional truth, which will still keep them believing the lie. With that I feel the similarity of where we are at today. But it seems to be at a level that we’ve never seen before as a society.”
The media has always had the power before to “shame the liar”, Walker said, and banish them, vanquished. But now that Donald Trump can disseminate false information directly around the world, the media is mostly at a loss as to how to respond. How do you shut down the lies of the sitting US President? This is where podcasts can help, Walker explained. Independent shows like his, which is a member of the Radiotopia collective, stand outside “what you might call the established media”, and as such are free to respond and correct as they see fit.
Walker points to the rapid growth of shows like Pod Save America as an example of how podcasts are attempting to check the spread of false information in public discourse. “They’re doing truth-based radio,” he said. “I refuse to let them say right-left. I think it’s truth. It’s like Kellyanne Conway saying ‘we do alternative facts’. I feel like, yes, I don’t want to call you right wing, I want to call you that. . . You can have alternative facts, and we’ll do facts.”
As for his own duty to be truthful? “I feel my obligations are to try to really get the listener to feel and understand and emotionally go to a place that I think we need to go to to really understand this severity of this moment,” Walker said. Elsewhere in the first episode of the series, he talks to Jody Avirgan from the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast about the idea that a podcast can be “live-ish” or “real-ish” — that is, give the listener the sense that they are hearing something fresh and immediate and authentically true, even if it has been recorded and edited weeks in advance.
Podcasts excel at this, Walker said, because they aren’t bound by the schedules or benchmarks of radio. When he worked in traditional broadcasting, he said, the pressure was always to make something “evergreen”, so that a listener finding it two years later would still be able to connect with it. With Theory of Everything, he has resisted this. “I love being of the moment. I guess for me being of the moment is not so much time based but it’s sort of what we’re all feeling. Right now this real-fake moment is something that we all wake up to. You and I both understand this is really serious and something that needs to be addressed.”