Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.
I don’t know when exactly it began, but I do remember where. Around four years ago, squeezed in between the counter and the refrigerator of my college dorm kitchen, I scrolled through the Podcasts app and saw six different episodes I wanted to listen to. They were all released that day, and I knew tomorrow there would be another six. Faced with this impossible task, I saw the “1x” button and thought, “How would this sound?”
The evolution then began, first at 1.5x speed, and eventually working up to twice the speed. At first, it made me laugh. Those distinct voices I had grown so accustomed to had turned into high-speed ramblings. Listening to Ira Glass and Terry Gross at 2x speed is like expecting a massage at a spa and getting a defibrillator instead. But you get used to it, and plus: 50-minute podcasts were taking me 25 minutes to get through. Those that were an hour or longer were flying by. I was no longer just getting through my queue; I now had time to discover even more podcasts.
In a given week, I’d listen to 10 different podcasts, including basketball talk, longform interviews, discussions and updates on politics, culture debates, and narrative storytelling. On a given day, I’d knock out at least five. The satisfaction of clearing up my list and moving on to the next podcast — and the one after that — felt good enough to gloss over the reality that was my oversight. I thought I’d figured out a way to hack my own productivity, but it turns out I was doing quite the opposite.
Inside the halls of Penn State’s Keller Building 10 years ago, Raymond Pastore decided to solve the same problem I had. As part of the Ph.D. program in instructional systems, he taught a technology class at State College. In it, students were not writing answers nor essays down on paper, assignments that would have been easily read. No, their homework was to create their own podcasts, and Pastore’s job was to listen. In an effort to make the process more efficient, he was fascinated by the idea of speeding up the audio.
A decade later, he’s published five studies on time-compressed speech and used his knowledge on the topic to help the government save money on HIPAA training by condensing it into less time, and discovered the downside of the apparent benefit: Speed listening comes at the expense of comprehension.
“There’s a huge, significant drop-off in comprehension at 50 percent compression, or 2x speed,” said Pastore, who’s now an assistant professor of instructional technology at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington. “I would say after 25 percent, around 1.5x, you’re starting to really hinder yourself. You can compress it a bunch of times, but when you get past 1.5x you’re starting to really sacrifice learning.”
According to Pastore’s research, subject matter also has an effect on retention levels. Denser topics don’t lend well to speeding up, while more conversational chatter can be ingested just fine at a reasonable uptick in speed. He also says that familiarity with a subject can overcome higher listening speeds. Just not those above 25 percent compression. In fact, during his research, Pastore also asked subjects what speeds they preferred for different types of podcasts, be it news, interviews, or entertainment. The average result shed light on the fact that people prefer a rate of 10 percent compression, or about 1.25x speed. At that clip, efficiency can be had without sacrificing retention. It’s the listening sweet spot.
Go above that and the underlying problem, as Pastore puts it, is clear: “We’re overloading the working memory too much, and losing out on stuff.”
In 2017, the estimated number of Americans who have listened to a podcast has risen 11 percent from 2016 to 112 million, according to Edison Research. Per the same Edison report, an estimated 42 million people listen to podcasts weekly. The total number of podcasts published throughout the internet remains unclear, but the growth in listenership points toward an expanding and open market that doesn’t just have a podcast for everyone, but allows everyone to have their own podcast. “I think podcasts have become the new blog,” said Sophia Boyd, a news assistant and weekend producer at NPR. “Right now, I am so behind on my podcasts.”
For people like Matthew Isles, a stay-at-home father of 4-month-old twins in Boston, podcast listening has become a lifestyle. He’s subscribed to 94 podcasts, which span news, commentary, philosophy, science, sports, culture, and more. The “workload” amounts to anywhere between five and 15 episodes a day in between taking care of his twins. To keep up, he listens at twice the speed. “I grew up in an NPR household in the ’80s and ’90s,” Isles said via email. “Essentially, I would rather be listening to a pod than not.”
Nick Quah’s job calls for him to be a power user for reasons beyond his own volition. He writes a weekly podcast newsletter called “Hot Pod,” freelances for other media outlets on the topic of podcasting, and has become a well-known authority on the emerging medium. For him, there are podcasts he wants to listen to, and then there are those he needs to listen to. The former are a select few, the latter are in the hundreds.
“We’re living through a media-saturated environment. We have just way too many podcasts now. I think it’s genuinely a problem,” said Quah, who listens at both normal speed and 1.5x speed, depending on the podcast. “So we have a sense that there’s just a lot to get through and a lot of stuff that’s really good, that we’re told is really good, and we want to get through them.”
Sharif Youssef subscribes to roughly 50 podcasts. Back during his college days at Yale, he listened at 2x speed. Now, Youssef is an assistant producer at 99% Invisible, the Oakland-based show about overlooked things that shape the world around us. “Once I got in the field, I started listening mostly at 1x, especially for shows where sound design plays a big role,” he said in an email. “I’m sure that has something to do with me learning how to do that sort of production and how much time goes into making something sound beautiful and well-paced.”
“We edit the shit out of our podcasts.” said Eric Eddings, cohost of The Nod, a recent addition to the Gimlet Media podcast lineup. The show is a conversation between Eddings and his cohost, Brittany Luse, and it focuses on, as they put it, “the beautiful, complicated dimensions of black life.” Eddings was also the producer on the hit show Mogul, a heavily produced storytelling podcast on the life of late music industry executive Chris Lighty.
“It would break my heart if people were listening to that show at 2x speed just because the amount of detailed work that went into how the music interplayed with the narrative. Weeks of stuff went into that,” he said. “And [if you speed it up], you’re going to miss it.”
Quah likens Eddings’s dilemma to cooking. Hours can be spent preparing a meal, but what if a person comes along and inhales it without taking a moment to even consider the taste? “You’re losing something when you stray from the course of how the producer intends you to learn or process something,” he said. “This produces a massive challenge for anybody who is trying to communicate a feeling, create an idea, or give information.”
With the ever-increasing number of podcasts and the varied interests of listeners, a universal solution is likely impossible. Even Eddings seems resigned to that fact. “It’s like peak TV,” he said. “You can only watch so many Mad Men–level shows before you also need like Love & Hip-Hop or The Bachelorette.”
A couple of weeks ago, Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune talked to seven hosts and producers of the most well-known podcasts around the country about the phenomenon of speed listening. Most of them approved of the practice, while only a few found it offensive. Ira Glass sided with the consumer, saying his radio show, This American Life, is “a product for people to enjoy however they wish.” Alix Spiegel of Invisibilia bemoaned that the practice would only “crush the dreams of idealistic radio producers twice as fast,” while Roman Mars, host and creator of the podcast 99% Invisible, said that he opted for faster speeds for conversations, but remained loyal to the intended speed of heavily produced shows.
Meanwhile, I personally haven’t decided what I’m going to do. I’ve been dropping my speed down to 1.5x lately, and even going back to normal speed for storytelling podcasts like S-Town and ESPN’s new 30 for 30 series. When going back, I feel like I’m listening to someone talk in slow motion, an effect that Isles, Youssef, and Pastore all say they are familiar with. Pastore’s research suggests that much like we can train our brains to read faster — up to 280 words per minute — we can train them to understand and become accustomed to faster audio speeds. However, even a trained brain can’t maintain its normal comprehension level beyond 1.5x speed.
As long as the publishing environments of Apple, Stitcher, and Spotify remain open, podcasts will continue to flood the market. Consumers craving efficiency will continue to fight diminishing returns on comprehension. Neither side will truly win out in the end; some will opt for quantity over quality, while others will value the producer’s work and their own personal retention by listening at normal speed.
To a certain extent, the freedom to do whatever you want with your headphones in is part of what makes podcasts alluring. Producers and publishers can do only so much before a consumer downloads and decides how to experience the program. The choice is ultimately ours, and as Quah put it: “The internet will do what the internet does.”