What Substacks Don’t Do
Though great for niche info, wonkery, and giving voice to apostates, Substacks fail at something specific.
Substacks don’t prompt joy.
Maybe Substacks aren’t built for that. Different mediums are delivery systems for different types of experiences. Pop songs evoke feelings, network sitcoms provide comfort, tweets punch; sometimes in the form of punchlines, and sometimes in the form of fist-balling rage. But there’s something about this new-ish medium of Substack, and even the older medium of digital newsletters, that is antithetical to rapture. As a veteran of radio - sometimes referred to as the most intimate medium, and podcasting - which can inspire cult-like devotion, I look to the really well-done Substacks ofand with admiration, but never with love.
Now that I have a bona fide Substack, I have to ask if I should buck this trend. Should Mike Pesca be to this instrument what Levon Helm was to his: “the only drummer who could make you cry”?
I want to know what you think. Are there Substacks you simply love? Love in the way Podcast fans create names for themselves, like “Friends of the Pod” or “Adventurekateers”? Love in the way Murderinos fill theaters to hear tales of their favorite murder? Or love in the way crowds that attend live tapings of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! gleefully line up for autographs, practically squealing at the chance to interact with Paula Poundstone or Mo Rocca? Mo is a multi talented guy - I can see him doing a Substack one day. If he did, however, he’d have to trade elation for appreciation.
I don’t even really know, as people, most of the Substackers I read. Sure, I know Bari Weiss left the Times and just had a baby. And yes, I knowis a genius with a particular expertise in jazz. But most of what I know about their personalities is from listening to them on podcasts. Ted Goia’s Substack gives me information and great opinions, but it’s his appearances on Coleman Hughes’ and Tyler Cowen’s podcasts that introduced me to the person Ted Gioia. On the page, I think of Matt Yglesias as the super smarty-pants answer to the question “What would happen if Richard Thaler and the Brookings Institution had a baby?” By listening to his old podcast The Weeds, and his new one, Bad Takes, I learned Matt is actually the Quentin Tarantino of the regulatory state.
The Passion Of Podcasting; The Studiousness Of Substack
I know readers find intellectual stimulation in the Substacks they subscribe to. I turn tofor the best coverage of the sharing economy. is indispensable for quirky data presented with wit. There are two dozen podcasts I listen to, far less frequently than Substacks I read, and I could tell you far more about those podcasters' lives than Ali's or Walt's. But Why? Why are Substacks a relationship of the head and podcasts one of the heart?
I have three theories:
Substack Lives Within A Noisy Ecosystem
Substacks are read on a phone or screen, and as such, are competing with the onslaught of begrudgingly managed life tasks. Podcasts aren’t thrust upon the listener; the listener opts into a podcast. When the Substack pings in your inbox, there’s a choice between it and the surrounding doctor’s bills, work emails, newspaper breaking-news alerts, notice from Uber that you paid via PayPal, and notice from PayPal that you rode with Uber. Sure, you should shut those alerts off, but it’s a settings thing, not just an unsubscribe button, and maybe you’ll navigate over to that… but PING!-is upset about the FISA court again... and PING! is raising more hard-to-ignore points about the perilous state of democracy. The best you can do is play defense. It is simply not an environment commensurate with enjoyment.
The Casualness Of Conversation
The parts of a podcast that give a hint of personality are the asides and informalities. And while writing can certainly be revealing and discursive, there are more roadblocks. The first thing to be cut from an essay is a personal tangent, but on a podcast, the tangential and the personal are often the point. Podcasts convey conversations between groups or duos, and the personal asides are often what the other participants and listeners are most interested in. On the other hand, the solitary writer will always have doubts about revealing too much, or indulging too wantonly, and without the immediate guffaw or excited follow-up of a co-host, a revealing statement is more likely to be suppressed.
The Human Voice
To get a little ethereal, when we hear another human speak, we are drawn in and naturally curious. We are a social species with a need to connect, which is why we inherently eavesdrop if we pick up the whisper of a conversation. It’s different when you come across a stray bit of text. When we see words on a page, or a screen, curiosity isn’t as instantly aroused. There is the phenomenon of overseeing a person’s texts, which is thrilling, whereas overhearing a phone conversation can be torturous if you can’t escape it. That last part about lack of escape makes the comparison unfair - simply look away from the guy in front of you at the Duane Reade’s screen, you creep. If you allow for that, an overheard conversation is still more compelling than having visual access to an email or text exchange. Talking is more fleshed out and fully human.
That’s Great, Piaget, But What’s His Bedtime?
With all this in mind, I’ve strategized where to take Pesca Profundities and how to get it there. I’m going to emphasize service journalism, visuals, reviews, and the occasional stab at a think-piece. As far as that last consideration, a drawback of podcasts is that original ideas rarely go viral. Even today, there’s a readerly primacy when it comes to the marketplace of ideas, plus, the written word does have a lot more portability than the spoken word.
I am interested in your thoughts and feedback. What types of Substacks do you like? Are there any you love? My friendsand Ben Wittes seem to intuit much of what I’m saying. We haven’t talked about these issues, but their Substacks mix the kind of humor and community building that instills this medium with more passion. If you or any of the writers mentioned can cite their nominees for Substacks of joy, I’m all ears. Or eyes, as the situation dictates.
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What’s amazing to me is how much of Substack is opinion pieces. Some of which and good and enjoyable - put I do prefer to listen to opinion with my ears. When I read an op-ed in the NYT or WSJ I almost get distracted by the empty holes by suspect facts or leaps in logic. Podcasts fill that void do well - it is a conversation that isn’t supposed to be comprehensive.
Now, written articles are great for conveying facts. Most newspaper articles worth their subscription are well done and give you a fairly decent comprehensive view of the topic. On Substack I mostly read fact pieces. Numlock News is also a good fact aggregator. Popular Information is a great investigative news stack I almost always read.
I do disagree, sort of, with the personality coming through podcasts vs Substacks. They are both a choice. Mike is fairly open about himself on The Gist -we think. Consider how little we hear of his sports interests vs what percentage he cares about it IRL. Same about his family or his previous employment. He makes rational choices about what he wants to share.
And, as to the known personality of the written mediums, I point you Xandra Ellin when she was writing the newsletter for On The Media. That was essentially a Substack post. We got know her pretty well - I think.
I am looking forward to see where Mike takes this.
I definitely agree with the sentiment of your post. I do feel I kinda ‘know’ people on podcasts better than, those who’s newsletter or blog I read. That said …
To spend time listening to a podcast is a big time commitment. Example - listening to The Gist each week day requires me to devote around 2% of all my available time on that day, which translates to (maybe) 25% of my ‘disposable time’ (8hrs of sleep, 8hrs of work, (say) 6hrs of ‘life’ leaves 2 of disposable time).
Yes I can do other things while I listen, but it is still time intensive. PLUS, there is a commitment to that time to even get to know whether I want to listen. I know I can speed up the podcast - but really?
Meanwhile, I can grok newsletters, blogs et al pretty quickly and make a decision if I really want to commit time to reading it. So to get to information - the written word every time. To get to ‘know’ someone … audio.
But there won’t therefore be a large number of people in that category that I really ‘know’ - if in fact any. Example: despite listening to the Gist for many years - because I like the show and more often than not enjoy what you are talking about - I still don’t really ‘know’ you.