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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

The Podcast – Relief for the Distracted

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By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, April 2022

THE RADIO WAS the key vehicle for the spread of popular music during my generation. In Penang, where would all those who were in their teens have listened to good and varied pop music if we had not easily tuned in to “The Voice of the RAAF” based in Butterworth, and run by the Australian Air Force?

The television was but a supplement channel of entertainment. Radio was still king.

The generation before mine, as far as I could gather, had relied on the Rediffusion radio station which began in Malaya a few years after the Second World War, for news and backdrop entertainment.

As information technologies developed, the screen began to overshadow speaker, turning young people towards a stronger reliance on the Visual for their source of information rather than the Audial.

Cable TV and 24-hour news channels, and then the internet strengthened further popular preference for the Visual. MTV was the rave for quite a while, and music videos became as important to a rock band’s popularity as their music, if not more so. YouTube has since diluted the appeal of music videos.

The Visual was now king. As social media became ubiquitous, short texts became a norm through SMSes and chat streams with the help of chat apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Messenger, Telegram and what not. Meanwhile visual information adopted contracted formats, as infographics and as Instagram items, and then as TikTok distractions.

“Distractions” is perhaps a good word to denote the overall effect over recent years of this increase in communication. Too much of a good thing indeed, if you ask me.

Disruptions, distortions, diversions, disturbances, dissonance, digressions… all in the name of dissemination of information. And I haven’t even mentioned the insidious smartphone as a phenomenon yet.

These hasty changes – this serial revolution – in info channels and formats have definitely been a challenge to the human mind over the last half century. It has definitely been to mine.

Our attention span has definitely been shortened, which is a technical way of saying that we are perpetually preoccupied. We appear more effective, but we have less and less time to ourselves. Interesting paradox, one worthy of Orwellian treatment, in a class with “doublethink”.

A Lo-tech Revolution

But then, surprise, surprise, surprise. Out of this 21st century incessant bombardment of sights, sounds and signals comes “The Podcast”.

Here is a format that is reminiscent of radio programmes, acting as if we do not need visuals to understand things, be entertained or be satisfied. A Hegelian synthesis of old radio stations and new media, allowing us to sidestep and transcend the otherwise ubiquitous flickering, bickering, pestering screen.

It assumes we have time on our hands; it serves us information in relaxed fashion, yes, in banter form. Often provided as a conversation into which we eavesdrop, and from which we can therefore dissociate ourselves and instead walk on into silence; the Podcast offers us a way out of information madness. It is lo-tech, and most importantly, it shifts the human mind back to the comfort of the Audial, away from the Visual.

For someone who grew up listening to the radio, the Podcast is a throwback, a nostalgia that lets me close my eyes, open my ears, and take my time.

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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