Few podcasts make listeners blush quite like PRX’s “The Heart.”
A few weeks ago on the subway, I listened to an episode that reenacted oral sex between two partners. With a child sitting next to me, my headphones whispered sounds of a swishing tongue.
“The Heart’s” host, Kaitlin Prest, and senior producer, Mitra Kaboli, painstakingly craft audio reenactments like this to sound authentic. The podcast explores things like radical sex workshops and discovering masturbation for the first time — or as one listener called it, the “real squishy.”
Audio is the best medium to talk about intimate moments like these.
“It somehow gets to the heart of who we really are,” Prest tells Tech Insider. “With audio, you know when someone is putting on a voice. When they’re faking the energy of an orgasm, you can totally tell.”
“The Heart,” which has an impressive 65,000 listeners for each episode, is one of many sex-positive podcasts, including New York Magazine’s “Sex Lives,” and “Sex Nerd Sandra” on Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Network, and Dan Savage’s long-running “The Savage Lovecast.“
Research suggests listeners connect with these podcasts because our brains work harder to imagine audio stories than visual ones. In turn, listeners form an intimate connection with the voices they hear.
A recent study from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that dramatized audio stimulates listeners’ imagination more than a typical monotone narration. Stories told through dialogue help listeners conjure mental images more quickly and easily that straight narratives.
“Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind, and you’re creating your own production,” Emma Rodero, a lead researcher from the study, told The Atlantic.
Rodero’s team also found that stories with complex sound effects give listeners a sense of space. Basically, when podcast listeners hear bedroom doors close or bed sheets rustle, they feel like they’re there. Or they can at least remember a similar experience.
Listening can be more active than seeing, because the brain fills in the sensory gaps, Rodero told The Atlantic. Participants in the study also reported being more emotionally aroused and interested in stories that include dialogue, rather than narration.
In “The Heart,” Prest and Kaboli replicate internal thoughts by recording echoed voices. The unfiltered emotion of the stories resonate through the actors’ voices.
Podcasts that have this sense of authenticity tend to do well, says Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX, the public radio company that owns Radiotopia, which distributes distributes “The Heart.” Last fall, 21,000 listeners donated $US620,000 to Radiotopia in the largest journalism Kickstarter ever.
“Storytelling in audio form is an ancient, human instinct,” Shapiro said. “It started with our desire to tell stories around the campfire.”
With podcasts, this connection between the audio and listener extends beyond ear buds.
Researchers from Queensland University of Technology reported that audiences engage more with podcast shows that host meet-ups or performances. Live shows also strengthen audiences’ connection with podcast stories.
“The Heart” held its eighth live show at the Bell House, a bar in Brooklyn two weeks ago. For this episode, Prest and Kaboli celebrated their five-year friendship and commitment as business partners.
300 people, many in white lace dresses and glittery handmade veils, came out for the wedding-themed show.
“It’s different when you get to hang out with people in a space,” Kaboli said. “Friendships get made when you share that kind of intimate experience together.”
After Prest and Kaboli said their vows at the end of the show, their officiant and the show’s editorial director, Sharon Mashihi, handed them each an earring. Prest and Kaboli placed the earrings on each other.
“May these earrings hang from the appendages from which we listen,” Mashihi said. The audience cheered.
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