03/12/2014 11:27 am ET Updated May 12, 2014

The New Fireside Chats

We have all heard the argument that the advent of the Internet has shortened our attention spans, devalued experiential learning, and eroded traditional journalism. Though it is the foundation of one of America's few remaining vital industries, the tech sector, the products it creates are intangible; consumer engagement and retention often take precedence in what can seem like an endless series of acquisitions and rebrands.

Yes, social media abstracts and collates human voices where other media forms can humanize and deepen them. It can also spread those voices across the globe in ways no other medium can. As print journalism scrambles to reformulate itself, another unlikely form of information gathering and storytelling has made an unexpected comeback. Radio, in the form of online podcasting, is on the rise again.

At Matter's Demo Day a few weeks back, I spoke to John Boland, CEO of KQED. I commented on the energy in the room, which was considerable. In response, he told me that before the online community made streaming services possible, the outlook of radio didn't look good. Those fortunes have changed. In the last year alone, KQED's online listenership went up by more than 60 percent.

It's not just KQED's programming that the accessibility of the Internet has fortified. Hosting services like Soundcloud make it easy for any aspiring voice to become a show creator. Existing radio networks like KCRW, KEXP, WYNC, WGBH and WBEZ have established vibrant web presences, and they encourage their audiences to participate. Media companies like the Public Radio Exchange and ventures like the KCRW Independent Producer Project give opportunities to creative producers, and the Internet acts as their mouthpiece.

Together, they constitute an exciting alternative to the empty, cyclical jousting of networks like FOX and MSNBC. They are cheaply produced and engage listeners easily, and the nature of the medium means they are free of the sensational visual ballast that the conventions of the mainstream media demand.

The following programs are a few of the radio shows changing the face of media today. They cut through political bull-hockey and chin-gravy. They offer fresh perspectives and narratives and analyses that the big networks dismiss as uninteresting to their undervalued viewers. These programs move us with the raw, confused, beautiful experiences of others. They challenge us.

  • KCRW's Strangers - One of KCRW's Independent Producers, this podcast showcases stories about the unexpected joy, danger and opportunity that strangers can bring into our lives. The show has a knack for bringing a new sort of stranger to the microphone each episode, and for resetting our preconceptions about them. Producer Lea Thau's buttery voice brings us tales of an American Mormon who wins the title International Mr. Leather; a 30-something virgin who waxes genitals for a living; an Indian man who survives self-immolation; and of a guy she met on an online dating site who demanded samples of her son's poop. And Moby! Remember Moby? He does an interview. The best of all is probably the most delightful, giddy Internet love story I've ever heard.
  • On Being - I grew up willfully ignoring this radio hour (originally named Speaking of Faith, it started in 2001) while I rode in the back of the minivan on the way to weekend lacrosse games. Had I been less obtuse, I may have heard some of the best debate, critical observation and meaningful spiritual sharing that 21st century media has to offer. For the most part, mainstream media reduces religion to palatable sound bites, pays undue homage to polarizing religious figures, and obscures the ingrained cultural connotations of spirituality. On Being, though, treats spirituality as the evolving, deeply personal and contextual human discipline that it is; in a way, the program functions the way medieval philosopher monks did, finding God in every realm of study. It asks questions such as: Where in the abstracted world of physics can God find a place? Is there divinity in silence? What can a tattooed subculture-comedian-turned-Lutheran-pastor teach us about tradition? Is Host Krista Tippett's voice like having warm mulled wine poured into your ear on a crisp autumn eve? Yes, reader. It surely is.
  • 99% Invisible - Maybe it's this show's knack for revealing the causal wonder of human design; maybe it's that time the show turned an analysis of the movie Trading Places into all you will ever need to know about the financial crisis; or maybe it's because producer Roman Mars speaks like what I imagine a young Merlin would sound like, but this program is suddenly getting very popular. Its recent Kickstarter campaign surpassed its fundraising goal by $200,000, and Mars established an ambitious seed fund for aspiring radio producers called Radiotopia. He may be a made man now, but Mars still sounds no less like he's only just holding back a good-natured belly laugh whenever he opens his mouth.
  • On the Media - Shortly before joining the then-flagging program, Gladstone published a manifesto in the Transom Review (itself a great way to discover new narrative journalism) that foreshadowed the values OTM came to embody: wide scope, collaborative spirit, and no punches pulled. Gladstone and Garfield sling around a lot of fire, perhaps the only radio hosts to do so with real abandon on NPR. Listen to this segment, at the end of which Garfield eviscerates revenge porn connoisseur Hunter Moore. Or this OTM blog post, which blames the activism aggregate site Upworthy for encouraging the kind of cozy pandering that keeps The Newsroom on the air. Perhaps most importantly, OTM is self-critical, often reviewing its commitment to protect First Amendment rights. Too rarely do media outlets examine their mandate or their own effectiveness on the air. To do so would cast their legitimacy as conditional, which, of course, it really is.
  • The Memory Palace - Like a poem, each episode is a brief elevation, as concise and expressive as it is fleeting. The program is composed of short, vivid, often bittersweet windows into the past. Creator Nate DiMeo pulls into focus obscure figures who, by virtue of their commonness, were left out of the historical narrative. And by humanizing them, he forges a momentary connection with the past. My favorite is this extremely short, very hopeful episode entitled "Fifty Words Written After Learning the Arctic Bowhead Whale Can Live up to Two Hundred Years."
  • Love + Radio - I found out about this podcast on How Sound, a Public Radio Exchange show which features a new storyteller every two weeks. Love + Radio is hard to explain, something even its founder Nick van der Kolk finds himself up against. It is certainly unlike the other podcasts listed here. Edits are obvious; interviews can be awkward; and the people being interviewed almost always exist in a ethically grey space. It's messy, often uncomfortable, and totally fascinating. Check out this episode, in which van der Kolk talks with journalist Jason Leopold about high-octane journalism and its dark side.
  • State of the Re:Union - Three years after Al Letson won a 10,000 grant from the Public Radio Exchange to start a radio show, his State of the Re:Union program is still going strong (the other winners, Snap Judgment and Curiosity Aroused, are also worthy listens). SRU is grand in scope and ambition; each episode tells a series of stories from a different U.S. city. It travels to cities we do not glamorize, too. We hear from Baltimore, from Tucson, from Appalachian Ohio and from the Gulf Coast, from Oakland, from Utica. The goal of SRU is to knit us together again. Each place from which the program broadcasts highlights the unique vitality of its citizens, their struggles, and the ways in which they embody a part of the American spirit. What SRU does so well is to evoke the character of a place, and in that character, we see a common cause in Americans we might otherwise dismiss. The episode on Southeastern Washington is particularly interesting.

This is an exciting time of which entrepreneurs, storytellers, journalists, critics and artists should take advantage. Given its open-source nature, with enough influx of creativity and engagement podcasting could be a new impetus for unity in an era when we clearly lack for it. Our country is currently bound by a baroque media system that polarizes where it should stimulate discussion, anesthetizes when it should energize, and squanders our trust when that trust should act as its sanction. But by choosing to listen to different narratives, by assuming the best intentions of those "enemies" which are our countrymen, we just could craft a more compassionate identity.