Podcasting is the new personal essay

December 12, 2017

The personal essay isn’t dead. It’s just found new life.

Earlier this year, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino took a critical look at the once-popular personal essay in a widely read piece, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over”: “There’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.” The genre, which was once a hallmark of the internet, has essentially disappeared, she wrote, citing the demise of Gawker, xoJane, and BuzzFeed Ideas. Tolentino wasn’t the first person to declare the genre dead. Virginia Woolf beat her to it with her 1905 meditation, “The Decay of Essay Writing.” And so did Laura Bennett, who wrote a takedown of what she called “the first-person industrial complex” for Slate in 2015.

Personal essays are alive and well today, just in a different form. The most exciting personal essays today, arguably, are being delivered via microphone and recorder. “First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice,” Bennett wrote two years ago. Today, first-person narratives are literally becoming the internet’s voice.

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Podcasts are a natural home for these stories. Even journalistic storytelling, like what you might hear on This American Life or Radiolab, is usually rooted in a host’s anecdote from their own lives. With audio, you are not simply reading a person’s story, but hearing them tell it in their own voice, which adds a layer of intimacy and humanity that escapes the traditional personal essay. Some mimic the format of the medium (like Modern Love). Others tweak or adapt it. Some are confessional. Others, more restrained. Some are universal. Others, hyperpersonal.

As you prep for your upcoming holiday road trips, arm yourself with stories that are happy, sad, relatable, emotional, and exceedingly personal. Here are a few shows and episodes to get you started.

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Radio Diaries

You can’t get more personal than a podcast with the word “diary” in its title. Radio Diaries is the embodiment of the personal essay in audio form. It tells extraordinary stories about the ordinary people you may come across in your everyday life. Since 1996, Radio Diaries has been putting recorders in the hands of its subjects to help them tell their own stories. Each episode is a non-narrated, firsthand account that helps the listener see what it might be like to inhabit another’s life. One great example is its award-winning episode, “Majd’s Diary,” which chronicles two years in the life of a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia. In her audio diary, she uses the microphone to capture her thoughts about everything from late-night loneliness to arranged marriage to covering herself in front of men.

Recommended episode(s): “Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl,” “Strange Fruit: Voices of a Lynching,” “Walter Backerman, Seltzer Man

ICYMI: Is the podcast boom good for journalism?


The Heart

The Heart has always had my heart. Kaitlin Prest, its host and creative director, recently announced the show would be on hiatus starting in 2018, which means you’ll have plenty of time to catch up on past shows before digging into her team’s new project(s). This year, the show launched a special miniseries that epitomizes everything I love about The Heart. Called “No,” it’s about personal boundaries, sex, and consent told through the experiences of Prest herself. She relives and even reenacts situations from her past in an extremely intimate, visceral, sonically dynamic way. It’s like a memoir come to life. This four-episode miniseries is required listening now, as sexual misconduct, power dynamics, and consent are at the forefront of public conversation.

Recommended episode(s): “No,” “Mariya


Hope Chest

Hope Chest describes itself as a “personal essay audio series,” but it’s really about the relationship between Stacia Brown, a writer and podcaster, and her young daughter. Its five episodes tackle topics like the struggles of single parenting or raising a black daughter in America today, all told beautifully through the lens of Brown. It’s confessional, contemplative, and creative, and a must-listen for anyone interested in mother-daughter relationships. Her fourth episode (see below) is a self-reflection on how women define themselves, and it’s a great place to start.

Recommended episode(s): “Woman to Will-Be Woman


As Many Leaves

BBC Radio 4 is rife with audio documentaries—some reported features, others personal narratives. And it doesn’t get more personal than this 28-minute story from public radio reporter Sally Herships. In the fall of 2013, Hership’s now ex-husband emailed her saying he was never coming home again. Through audio diaries, conversations with family and friends, and even old recordings with her ex-husband, the documentary captures Hership’s grieving process in the aftermath of her ex’s disappearing act. It’s a raw and powerful glimpse into an experience usually hidden from the public—and one most people go through (in some form or another) in their lives.

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As the name implies, Millennial is a show about millennials, or, well, one millennial: Megan Tan. An aspiring public radio reporter, Tan used the podcast to document the intimate details of her post-college life. Millennial started, quite literally, in her closet and followed her as she tried to jumpstart a career in public radio while navigating everything else twentysomethings deal with: love, family, friendships, and so on. Eventually Tan’s podcast caught the attention of podcasting network Radiotopia, and it became her full-time job (which, as Millennial fans know, was a dream come true). In subsequent seasons, she merged her story with the stories of others. Tan discontinued the podcast this past August, after realizing there was a disconnect between what the podcast was and what it was trying to become. The final episode, “Saying Goodbye,” is a reflection on this tug-of-war. Listeners wanted more Megan, but for her, that was untenable.

Recommended episode(s): “Welcome to Millennial,” “Long Distance Love Story,” “Becoming More of a Somebody

Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.