The “Walking” podcast is exactly what it sounds like — no more, no less.
Hosted by Jon Mooallem, author and writer at large for The New York Times Magazine, each episode is an ambient recording of a romp through the woods near the author’s home on Bainbridge Island, where he has lived for the last five years.
“I try to stress that I’m really not putting a lot of work into it, and that’s the whole point,” said Mooallem, who admits he is amusedly baffled by the popularity of his podcast, which is available to stream on Mooallem’s website, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. Listed as one of the best podcasts of 2019 by Vulture and The A.V. Club, “Walking” is notable precisely because it is voiceless.
The show couldn’t be more appropriate for this time.
Aching for company while in coronavirus lockdown, many have turned to certain podcasts for companionship — Bill Simmons, Longform Podcast and Still Processing are my go-to picks — seeking the familiar warmth of their voices more so than the content. Even though I don’t know Bill Simmons, I feel like I do. It is a common phenomenon, one illustrated by Mooallem’s New York Times Magazine co-contributor Jamie Lauren Keiles, who described these “imagined relationships” blossoming in our earbuds as “something like a one-way friendship.”
Despite the success of the podcast, Mooallem planned to quit after the first season and again after the second season. “It always seemed pointless to me,” said Mooallem, “but it definitely started to seem really pointless once the quarantine started because now everyone was walking.” But the morning we spoke this spring, he had just recorded the first episode of the third season, this time with his daughters, aged 7 and 11, as co-hosts.
Whereas the first two seasons were a species of outdoor autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) — the scrape of gravel underfoot, bursts of birdsong — the third season, which started in May, will be less “monastic” and more unpredictable. “Up until we walked out the door this morning, I wasn’t really sure it was going to happen,” Mooallem said. “And I don’t know if it’s going to happen next week either.”
The show’s uncertain future, like most media, hinges on ad revenue. “They’re only doing this because they can make money,” Mooallem said of his business-savvy daughters. Admittedly, my first question was whether or not he made any revenue off his ambling enterprise. In the past, ad prices have ranged between $12 to upward of $100, but this season he’s limiting it to “$1 classified ads.”
Although his daughters are “familiar with the conceit of the show, there was a lot of stage-whispering,” Mooallem said. At one point, one of his daughters asked, “Dad, what does ‘trespassing’ mean?”
Mooallem’s pace, once brisk, now moves at half the clip. Still, when many have been living sedentary lives amid the coronavirus pandemic, a sense of forward movement, however illusory it might be, is welcome.
No stranger to audio, the multitalented Mooallem has contributed to “This American Life” and collaborated with Portland, Oregon-based Black Prairie, a bluegrass band with several members from The Decemberists, to produce a “score” for his first book, “Wild Ones.” And his most recent work, consumed in context with “Walking,” couldn’t be more timely.
“This is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held it Together” features Genie Chance, a part-time radio reporter whose familiar voice steadied Anchorage, Alaska, a town literally shaken to its core in 1964 after being struck by the “Great Alaskan Earthquake.”
Spanning three days, “This is Chance!” chronicles Anchorage’s ad hoc community efforts to overcome this natural disaster — and at the center of it all is Genie, who stayed on duty for 59 hours straight. The information Genie broadcast, relaying instructions from authorities and messages from families looking for loved ones, gave shape to a catastrophic event that, minutes before, was unimaginable.
As soon as the public overcame the initial shock, there was a mad scramble for information. The magnitude of destruction, and the death toll, was unknown. Clocking in at 9.2 on the Richter scale — still the most powerful earthquake in recorded American history — it nearly leveled a frontier town just getting its legs out from underneath it. In this atmosphere, thick with dust and despair, any information, whether positive or grim, was, in Genie’s words, “a form of comfort.” “Every fact that Genie relayed had a stabilizing effect,” Mooallem writes in the book, “each was a point around which reality could re-gather.”
Though Mooallem goes to great lengths to show just how precious information was for a deeply uncertain community, readers will not need to strain their imaginations under current circumstances. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, many were most unsettled by the fact that we knew so little. Though we have a better picture of the pandemic today, it’s parameters remain largely unknown.
“[Genie] wasn’t just reporting on what was happening,” Mooallem said, “she was making a lot happen.”
Broadcasting from the Anchorage Public Safety Building, where authorities and volunteers had congregated, Genie could not distance herself from the relief efforts. In fact, the police chief dubbed her a “public information officer,” and she quickly became central to these efforts, serving as a kind of communication liaison in addition to her reporting. Requests for help were voiced through her and, when that help arrived, only Genie knew where to direct them.
Contrary to “conventional wisdom about disasters,” which presumes lawless behavior, in Anchorage, volunteers poured in and took decisive action. They set up rescue squads and cots for the newly homeless and “reclaim[ed] their roles, collectively, as protagonists in the disaster,” writes Mooallem.
One of our roles in this pandemic is to practice social distancing. “It doesn’t feel heroic,” Mooallem said of coronavirus-prevention techniques, “[but] we have to see it as meaningful and productive, otherwise we’re not going to be able to keep doing it.”
It is sometimes an unsatisfactory role — the results are abstract and the sacrifice is real — but it is our role. Meanwhile, Mooallem will continue in his roles as dad, writer and silent host. While “Walking” is no emergency broadcast, people keep tuning in for some peace and quiet on a walk through the woods.