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Getting an earful: Can podcasts be a lifeline for expats?

Whether true crime or a history of grime, podcasts are escapism in your pocket – but for new expats in Berlin they can be a lifeline.

Photo credit; Eran Menashri, from Unsplash

In the months after I moved to Berlin, I listened to so much This American Life that one of my dreams was narrated by Ira Glass. I would stride along yet another bewilderingly wide, grey street, listening to episode after episode. It was a guilty pleasure. Puritan Louise felt I should be listening to something educational in German. Pretentious Louise thought I should be soaking up Berlin and Turkish voices like some Martha Gellhorn-infused trifle.

I was homesick for the Heimat of language itself: a voice in my ear telling me something I understood.

But I didn’t know a soul, and the beautiful strangeness of this new city was clothed in a language so impenetrable I felt like a walking oven-glove, muffled and clumsy. As I meandered down Sonnenallee, headphones on, I wasn’t yearning for Ireland, my homeland, or London, the city I’d just left. I was homesick for the Heimat of language itself: a voice in my ear telling me something I understood.

I was an early convert to podcasts, first tuning in when it was necessary to manually download MP3s onto an iPod each day. I liked the daily ritual of deciding what aural holiday I’d pack for my commute: short fiction read aloud in an echoing New York auditorium or a documentary on poltergeists by Jad Abumrad. Looking back, I can see I was getting restless. Podcasts were portals allowing me to escape not just the stale air of the Tube, but the deadening effects of over-familiarity. Tell me something new, I thought, something I haven’t heard before.

Berlin was something new – a city loud with words I hadn’t heard before and unfamiliar voices. It was a long time before I could understand what they were saying. Podcasts in English – but about life in Deutschland – were a lifeline. I could take a warm bath in the cadences of home, but I could also tune into Radio Spätkauf for jokes nobody from home would understand, or spend five minutes with Berlin Briefing and finally understand the grievances behind the dizzying number of protests outside my window.

Hungry for recommendations, I developed the habit of asking other Wahlberliner I met what podcasts they listened to. Aside from being a great way to separate the people I might want to subscribe to from those I was happy to skip, this introduced me to local heroes such as Ropafadzo Murombo, whose Afro Comb airs interviews with people of African descent living in Europe, and Exberliner’s own Megan’s Megacan. A homesick Londoner urged me to listen to the comic surrealism of Three Bean Salad and a shrink from New York thought I could benefit from therapy deep-dive Where Should We Begin?

Podcasts are giving us what we actually want, rather than what someone thinks we should want.

My addiction has been helped along by the podcasting boom in the last decade. After a slow start, the number of individual podcasts has rocketed to well over 2.4 million. Two years of intermittent lockdowns were a full-frontal assault on many cultural forms, but podcasts had, by any reckoning, a good war.

According to Nielsen Media Research, over half of those who now listen to podcasts every day never listened to them at all in 2019 – an unsurprising surge given that podcasts are a fundamentally escapist medium, one well suited to physical activity. Rare is the unicorn who sits in a quiet room listening to a podcast. Instead, I plug in my Airpods when I’m running, folding laundry or waiting for the lonely U-Bahn of Pendelverkehr to trundle back down the track.

With podcasts, the time given up to boring, rote tasks becomes an opportunity to eavesdrop on our collective psyche. And what I love about podcasting is that its relatively low bar of entry means that the traditional gate-keepers – editors, commissioners, what one broadcasting insider in the UK once memorably described as “some Rupert” – can be side-stepped.

Podcasts are giving us what we actually want, rather than what someone thinks we should want.  There’s something gloriously democratic in that, even if it has resulted in a lot of right-wing ranting, log-rolling celebrities, irritating verbal tics and way too many dead women. Podcasts are Twitter for the ears; a university in your pocket and an antidote to expat homesickness. They enrage me, charm me and rarely bore me. Much the same can be said of Berlin. Join me as I take a regular tour through the best and worst of what podcasting has to offer, tuning in to the zeitgeist, one episode at a time.

Louise East examines our collective Berlin psyche through podcasts.

What I’m listening to…

The New Gurus (BBC Radio 4)

A dissection of our quest for enlightenment in the digital age and the snake-oil merchants who claim to provide it (drinking your own pee will do the trick, apparently). Host Helen Lewis is an engaging and intelligent tour guide.

The Last Bohemians (House of Hutch)

Celebrate Berlin’s newest public holiday, International Women’s Day, with a trawl through this atmospheric audio tour of  iconic women. Some you might know (performance artist Marina Abramovic or folk legend Judy Collins) and some you won’t; regardless, their stories of punk excess and rule-breaking resonate.

Everyone is Moving To Berlin (Manuel Salmann & Jae Staten)

If you’re new to the city (or your Berlinale weekend is tempting you to make the move), this recent addition to Berlin’s podcast scene provides plenty of information and insight. For longtime residents, the episodes in which host Jae Staten talks about his experiences in the city as a Black American make for sobering listening.

Bone Valley (Lava for Good Podcasts)

Less a true crime podcast than a campaign for exoneration, this better-than-average blizzard of prison interviews and real-time court developments kicks off when a judge contacts journalist Gilbert King with his suspicions that an innocent man is behind bars.

… and what I’m not

The Trojan Horse Affair (Serial Productions & The New York Times)

Anyone else mystified at the near-universal praise accorded to this pod? An enquiry into a supposed Islamist plot in Birmingham schools in 2014, TTHA offered a lot of fighting talk about uncovering corruption and breaking news but the results felt distinctly underwhelming, bloated and navel-gazing.