Aural Intimacy

Audio is the most intimate medium there is. Why don't we get more of it from brands?

Jean-Honoré Fragonard 009.jpg
The Lock by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1777 (public domain - Wikipedia)

"I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any intimacy." — F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925


"Daddy, tell me a story."

It's a refrain repeated in many languages all over the world—a timeless routine that signals the winding down of the bedtime routine. It happens in our house, even after our kids have been old enough to read on their own.

What's the first story you remember?

Odds are it's a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme, or perhaps a Dr. Seuss book.

Whatever personal reminiscence springs to the forefront of your brain ("mileage will vary," as we used to say in the auto business), I'll guarantee you one thing: it's a story you heard. That is, it's a story that someone once told you or read to you.

And it may not have been relegated to bedtime, either. Perhaps it was around a campfire, over a Sunday dinner, or at a family gathering, where the same yarns are repeated year after year.

The stories we tell define who we are. We develop a culture based on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and our culture is formed via a certain collective memory.

The Thaayorre of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, Australia are a historically oral people, passing down their traditions via the spoken language. And they believe intellect and memory reside in the ear.

So it makes perfect sense that our strongest memories of early stories are from what we heard rather than what we read.

The ancient poet Homer is believed to have been blind and unable to write even something as simple as his own name. Yet he composed the Iliad and the Odyssey, the foundational books of the Western canon. These two epic poems were first shared orally, suggesting that considerable portions of the 27,803 lines were memorized by rhapsodists who performed them regularly.

The main liturgical rite of the Catholic mass for centuries was sung in Gregorian chant. Before congregants were able to read widely, the religion assured its survival by sharing the oral tradition that is so intertwined with the image of Benedictine monks. Even today, post-Vatican II,  there are still some vestiges left of those chants.


"Language is the armory of the human mind and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests." — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817


Beyond singing, though, how powerful the spoken word is. While the printing press gets credit for a revolution of religion, industry, and education, humans have thrived on language to carry our traditions along.

Historians might bristle at the notion of a historical record sustained solely viva voce, with something as loose and malleable as language, but the inescapable fact is we are an oral and  aural people.

This is bolstered by the latest trends and supporting technologies. When Steve Jobs debuted the iPod in 2001, he said you could have "1,000 songs in your pocket." This appealed to our love of music and all that is audio.

Fast forward to present day, when Edison Research's Infinite Dial 2020 tells us more than one out of three Americans listen to podcasts, 62 percent of us over the age of 12 use some sort of audio assistant, and podcasts reach over 100 million Americans every month.

Audio news such as Joe Rogan's podcast going exclusive with Spotify for $100 million, and Amazon pushing into the local podcast market (where we rely on local news, sports, weather and advertising) are additional signs that audio is booming.

Whether it's asking Siri a question, telling Alexa to add something to a shopping list, or dictating a voice-to-text reply, we're using our voices to speak to our digital companions, not just each other.

The oral (and aural) tradition is alive and well.


"The gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance and it may well some day become the foundation of a common citizenship." — Winston Churchill, 1943


This wide open medium stands before us, easily conquered with microphones and hosting services that are affordable and accessible. It's like a modern-day Gold Rush, with prospectors storming the general stores for supplies and heading into the wilderness to mine a vein.

Like the California Gold Rush that burst into national consciousness in 1849 and peaked by 1852, we may stand on the edge of a podcasting rush. How long before we become oversaturated with audio content?

With podcast familiarity at over 70 percent (again, according to Edison Research), it's the perfect opportunity for brands to create content for the medium. But how many brands are doing this well?

One group of brands that would be ideal candidates for podcast creation: automakers. They've got a captive audience, as their vehicles and their infotainment systems are literally audio systems on wheels. What's stopping them from producing great shows?

It's been six years since I left Ford, where there never seemed to be an appetite for creating a brand podcast. Which is ironic, since car radios have been around for 90 years, first introduced by Motorola (a portmanteau of "motor" and "Victrola"). Ford even owned Philco, an early radio manufacturer.

While I was there, the extent of podcast involvement by the company was sponsorship of some major tech podcasts. This was in the long tradition of branded sponsorships like Ford Television Theater, General Electric Theater, and such.

You would think that we could have turned the corner in 70 years, but it can be difficult for brand managers, who are tasked with marketing and sales of products. Eager to share everything their brand is doing, they typically suffer from a certain kind of myopia identified by Pacific Content:

"[I]f you make a show that is too directly about your brand, your business goals and your business strategy, very few people will listen to it. Why? Because it’s tough to build a loyal audience for an infomercial."

One exception is GE's co-produced effort with Panoply a few years ago. Together, they produced fictional podcasts "The Message" and "LifeAfter," in a nod to its origins in television entertainment, but updated as GE Podcast Theater.

Why did this approach work? Because it was crafted as a story, not as a brand narrative.

Stories work because they affect us at a deeply personal level. And yes, we can craft words on a printed page to tell a story, but we run the risk of a speed reader or hyper-scroller who breezes past an important point we're trying to make.

But audio? With audio, we have a chance to arrest their attention. To say the same thing to everyone and to have everyone hear it the same. To form a common bond through the same language.

What has always struck me is how personal podcasts are. Whether we're listening at our desks, on a walk, while we're gardening, or while we commute, it's a medium in which someone is speaking directly into our ears.

This is a level of intimacy that isn't afforded by other media.

Podcasting content speaks directly to us, just as we do to our children when we tell them bedtime stories.

It's entirely possible that our future oral tradition will include the phrase, "Alexa, tell me a story."


Timely: Present Tense

"A good talker or writer is only a pitcher. Unless his audience catches him with heart and mind he’s defeated." — Wilson Mizner

A great podcast from a brand is not a podcast about the brand. It’s about what a brand is passionate about, what stories it can uniquely tell, and what distinct point of view it can bring to a show: 9 Marketing Lessons for Podcasters. (Pacific Content)


My friend Tom Webster heads marketing for Edison Research. And I’ve been waiting for him to start an audio-themed newsletter. His inaugural entry is a look at the Joe Rogan deal: Enter… the Spoticast? (I Hear Things)


With a $100 million deal with Spotify, it would seem like a podcast deal to be envious of. But it means giving up ownership of the audience. Did Joe Rogan get ripped off? (Supercast)


Timeless: For the Curious Mind

"The true art of memory is the art of attention." — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1759

Humans love stories, and we love the patterns stories follow, as Kurt Vonnegut noted in a famous lecture. (Lapham’s Quarterly)


Guglielmo Marconi is recognized as the father of radio, but he never had a formal education in science. While not the inventor of radio, Marconi was actually the first person to use radio waves to communicate. And other facts about the birth of radio. (JSTOR)



If you've ever seen an episode of Law & Order, you know the iconic "DUN-DUN" sound used as an audio interstitial. Three decades on, here's a look at what went into creating that audio branding. (NY Daily News)


Recommended Listening/Reading

“Listen, my children and you shall hear…” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1861

LifeAfter/The Message - Arts Podcast | Podchaser

🎧 From GE Podcast Theater and Panoply, The Message and LifeAfter take listeners on journeys to the limits of technology. In The Message, an alien transmission from decades ago becomes an urgent puzzle with life or death consequences. In LifeAfter, Ross, a low level employee at the FBI, spends his days conversing online with his wife Charlie – who died eight months ago. But the technology behind this digital resurrection leads Ross down a dangerous path that threatens his job, his own life, and maybe even the world. Winner of the Cannes Gold Lion.

📘 The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe consists of thirty-five mysteries “for the curious mind with a short attention span.” Every one is a trueish tale about someone you know, filled with facts that you don’t. Movie stars, presidents, bloody do-gooders, and villains—they’re all here, waiting to shake your hand, hoping you’ll remember them. Mike is the natural successor to Paul Harvey, delivering each story with his signature blend of charm, wit, and ingenuity, their stories are part of a larger mosaic—a memoir full of surprising revelations, sharp observations, and intimate, behind-the-scenes moments drawn from Mike’s own remarkable life and career.


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