ONLY HUMAN may well be one of the most important podcasts of all time. While this may seem like an incredibly bold claim, when faced with competition like This American Life and Welcome to Night Vale, both of which are so influential as to lead to entire genres of similar podcasts, I think it’s a claim worth making.
Only Human may not end up being as influential. It certainly doesn’t present a new style, its structure and interviews placing it firmly in the genre of non-fiction NPR-style podcasts inspired by This American Life. Only Human seems to share more with another NPR podcast, Radiolab, than it does with Ira Glass’ show. As such, its structure or style aren’t anything new or surprising.
Only Human is a half hour weekly podcast dealing with a new story every week. There are a number of similar podcasts with a similar formula, each catering to different interests; Lore, for those who want to know about history and folklore, 99% Invisible for those interested in design, NPR’s Planet Money for economics, and Hidden Brain for those interested in psychology. Given this, one might ask what could be so special about this podcast as to prompt me to make such a bold statement, and the answer is fairly simple; theme and content.
Only Human has, as far as I am aware, a unique theme; illness and human flaws, varying from mental health to cancer to a miniseries on deafness. This alone would make it fairly interesting, but what makes Only Human special is its treatment of these issues. Every episode doesn’t just address the issue at hand and explain it; instead it opts to take a more complex view of each issue through a human lens. An episode on bipolar disorder presents us with a specific person’s struggle with the condition, and a dilemma they faced when their treatment began to damage their kidneys. The very first episode talks about an issue the host faced when she discovered that she was pregnant shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. The episode on deafness deals with a composer, who despite losing his hearing opted not to get treatment that could have allowed him to regain it. All of these stories are incredibly important; they address illness not as a simple state of nonfunctionality, but as a very human issue, which raises difficult individual and personal questions. It is a profoundly interesting, nuanced look at disability and illness.
That is why I think Only Human is so important. While it may not be hugely influential from a creative perspective, I certainly hope that it is influential when it comes to how people view illness and disability. Fanmail read out during the episodes shows that these stories (despite being things I hadn’t even considered before) are not uncommon, they merely come from people who often don’t have a voice beyond the pre-constructed narratives about disability. No one is portrayed as a tragic victim of circumstance or an object of pity, they are addressed as a human, dealing with a problem which raises all kinds of personal, practical and even philosophical questions. Only Human is so important because it provides an incredibly interesting and much-needed view on issues that are not discussed enough.
I thoroughly recommend Only Human. It is available on iTunes, Podbay, Stitcher and at http://www.wnyc.org/shows/onlyhuman/