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Podcasts: The Last Refuge of the C-List Celebrity (and Bret Easton Ellis)

Evan Agostini/Getty Images

"Today we’re going to talk about goddamn camera phones, and everybody wanting to take a picture of every goddamn thing,” the rapper-turned “Law and Order: SVU” star Ice T said recently. “This is not gangster. This is not fly. This is not street.… Don’t say selfie! Don’t take pictures every day. Everyone’s broadcasting everything.” His screed came in the form of a different kind of self-broadcast, a podcast called “Final Level.” Launched in January, the bimonthly show is broken down into rapid-fire segments that allow Ice and longtime friend Mick Benzo to riff, often heatedly, on the topics of the week: news, sports, music, philosophy. Objects of their hatred (old men walking around nude in the gym locker room). Flight 370. Putin. Selfies.

It’s the type of free-form punditry and confessional chatter that has become a default mode in the age of social media—but while it’s been thriving in text for a while, it’s now found a home in audio. Apple announced that podcast subscribers hit the one-billion mark last July, and Edison Research found that 29 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast in 2012, versus 11 percent in 2006. The podcast might seem a natural extension of a social-media-saturated world, in which everyone has a microphone at all times, but it’s a throwback at heart: a do-it-yourself descendant of talk radio that is fundamentally unsexy. One set of people sit and talk at length about specialized topics—video games, horticulture, personal finance, mental health—so that other people can listen later, probably quietly and in private. Podcasts require a long attention span to consume and a longer attention span to record. They’re often simple and clunky-sounding. The podcast is inherently un-hip—there’s no visual component, no viral potential, nothing to facilitate snappy tidbits. So why has it become such a fashionable platform for celebrities?

On the surface, there’s little rhyme or reason to the influx of celebrity (or semi-celebrity) podcasters, and it’s produced a delightfully odd group: Cool-kid author and provocateur Bret Easton Ellis kicked off his podcast last fall by talking to Kanye West about films; he followed it up with a conversation with Marilyn Manson about the Bible and Hollywood parties. (“I’m having a little tequila, which I’m prone to do at this hour, and Marilyn is having a little absinthe,” Ellis warns listeners.) Health and fitness mogul Jillian Michaels—known best for her take-no-prisoners attitude on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser”—shows a gentler side on her show, offering earnest callers advice on love and life. Mixed Martial Arts fighter Joe Rogan’s longform interviews on his podcast have somehow struck a nerve among Reddit users, who’ve created an entire subreddit for his show. Ron Paul, Aisha Tyler, Steve Austin, and Alec Baldwin podcast—yes, podcast is a verb. Last year, there were an estimated quarter-million podcasts in existence. The Library of Congress cannot keep up with its podcast archive. It’s probably too busy working on its own show.

The rise of the famous-person podcast orbits loosely around Marc Maron, whose wildly popular longform interviews on “WTF With Marc Maron” revitalized his career and morphed into its own sort of career in the process. The surly comedian can draw unexpected insight and personal revelations from his guests—Iggy Pop, Lena Dunham, Carrot Top, Will Ferrell, Fiona Apple, Russell Brand, and Robin Williams, to name a few—despite, or as a result of, his often clueless approach. He has a habit of advertising the fact that he doesn’t research his guests in advance and often seems as though he is asking them to justify (or at least explain) their fame. Podcasts have since become a requisite tool for comedians, who jibe well with the format—it’s a logical place for anyone who wants to practice telling jokes without the pressure of a live audience. Comedians from Paul F. Tompkins to Michael Ian Black and Pete Holmes have found success with the form. (TV and radio talk-show personalities have also naturally gravitated toward podcasts.)

To some degree, the surge is a matter of groupthink and ease. Ice T has the proud distinction of being the first big rapper with his own podcast, but he thinks he’ll be one of many: “When somebody like me does it, it makes it cool,” he told me. “I think a lot of people might think it’s kind of nerdy—but then, ‘Oh, Ice did it? Oh, I’m doing it.’” And it doesn’t require much in the way of resources to launch—Ice had the microphones set up in his home. “You can be in your garage or bedroom and put it online for people to listen to,” Ellis says. “It’s just where we’re at.”

But there’s another possible explanation: the podcast as refuge—a place where celebrities can explain themselves without the instant combat that Twitter and the Internet usually entails. Last May, after publishing a piece in Out magazine about the representation of gay men in the media, Ellis was both scrutinized (and celebrated) for slamming GLAAD and its commandeering of gay men’s public image. “There were a lot of complaints,” he says, “But I noticed that people hadn’t read the whole thing. They had read some of the pull quotes, or read other people’s opinions of the piece and formed their own from that.” From this frustration emerged the podcast.

Ellis, known of late mostly for his firestorm-starting tweets (“Alice Munro is so completely overrated,” he wrote in October) and his ideas about what constitutes “Empire” and “post-Empire” in contemporary pop culture, morphs into a soft-spoken, long-winded movie critic on his podcast. In a self-governed conversational space, his hard edges are softened. When he first started recording, he told me, “Really being authentic and sincere for an hour was kind of a struggle. There was an initial desire to be distant, cool. I saw myself grappling with: How do I present myself?” Eventually, he realized: “You don’t [present yourself]. You just do it. And to me that’s very post-Empire.” Authenticity, for Ellis, means expressing strong opinions, even if they’re unpopular. A recurring theme is Ellis’s distaste for both Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave, a film he says has been “overly rewarded for its slavery narrative.” Such an opinion might spark a mini whirlwind if floated on Twitter or elsewhere online, but the podcast insulates. “I’m just not interested in tweeting that kind of stuff anymore—the contrarian opinion,” he explains. A controversial topic can languish, or achieve more nuance, when spoken out loud with someone else without the possibility of an instant reaction from those who disagree. The podcast is a safe bet for anyone who feels they’ve been burned by the media—a quiet stronghold for unmediated conversation. 

Others share this opinion. “We’ve gotten zero percent negativity,” Ice T told me. (Of course, podcasts draw a self-selecting pool of committed listeners.) “The problem with Twitter is that you have to keep explaining yourself. ... If you make a joke, some people won’t get it. ... So what I’ve done on my Twitter feed is say, ‘You’ve gotta listen to the podcast!’ I’m not answering the same questions.” On her show, Jillian Michaels often takes the time to clear up snafus—like the time she was criticized for giving “Biggest Loser” contestants caffeine supplements—or to lament the constrictions of her myriad contractual obligations. Ellis repeatedly disputes the institution of film criticism on his podcast, seemingly in reaction to the uniformly terrible reviews he received for The Canyons.

Ellis’s show, like many others, can feel like a hall of mirrors reflecting the chatty state of pop-culture today: It’s often two people in one medium (a podcast) talking about other people’s reactions in another medium (on Twitter or blogs) in response to some piece of culture that spread in a third medium (film or television). Part of its appeal is that it’s dizzyingly insular. Ellis says he’s planning a segment with Carrie Brownstein, but he doesn’t want to discuss “Portlandia.” He’d rather talk about the fact that she’ll be the first female to appear on the podcast, and to discuss the accusations of misogyny he’s fielded as a result. “What does this mean?” he asks me. “Am I a misogynist? I don’t know.” He won’t necessarily find enlightenment on the podcast, but it’s a start.

This piece has been updated to correct a quotation. The original piece combined two statements without an ellipsis. The ellipsis has been added to the following: “The problem with Twitter is that you have to keep explaining yourself. ... If you make a joke, some people won’t get it. ... So what I’ve done on my Twitter feed is say, ‘You’ve gotta listen to the podcast!’ I’m not answering the same questions.”