There’s perhaps no modern movement more synonymous with storytelling than The Moth. Beginning in 1997, the organization evolved from a living-room slam hosted by novelist George Dawes into a tale-spinning juggernaut, hosting hundreds of live events and workshops across the world every year. But there’s another version of The Moth that exists only virtually, and that has attracted an audience almost entirely distinct from those at its live events: The Moth Podcast, which turns 10 years old this spring, was perhaps the very first podcast to capitalize on the medium’s unique capacity to conjure intimacy.
From the earliest, pre-podcast days of The Moth, the nonprofit dutifully collected audio recordings from live events, at one point releasing a CD with a selection of stories—but it was nearly 11 years before anyone thought to do anything more ambitious with the massive archive of audio. In the mid-aughts, however, podcasting began picking up steam, and Dan Kennedy, a longtime Moth host and performer, immediately saw its potential. “We need to get into this space in a big way," he recalls telling the staff. "Storytelling is just so prime for it.”
- >Miranda Katz
Podcast Listeners Really Are the Holy Grail Advertisers Hoped They'd Be
- attributed sky-high engagement rates to the particular, one-way bond that exists between podcast hosts and listeners. “There’s a level of dedication that comes from podcast listeners that you otherwise don’t find,” said Panoply CTO Jason Cox at the time.
Fostering that dedication and sense of community is paramount to The Moth’s mission—and on the podcast, those qualities have the added benefit of building a fiercely loyal fanbase. After listening to just one five-minute story, Burns says, listeners “know this thing about [the storyteller] that it might have taken you 10 years to hear if you became friends with them. You start to realize how much you have in common with people.”
The Moth Podcast was one of the first to tap into the community-building potential of disclosure, with storytellers sharing tales that one might ordinarily only tell a close friend or therapist. But today, that ethos is rampant in the podcasting world, from Moth-like storytelling shows like Risk! to programming like Beautiful Anonymous, which leverages anonymity to give a whole new meaning to vulnerability.
Even shows from legacy media brands, like the New York Times’ The Daily, haven’t shied away from breaking down barriers between speakers and listeners: When host Michael Barbaro interviewed a coal miner last spring, for example, and began crying in the middle of the conversation, the show opted to keep the teary exchange, creating a moving moment that contributed to a spate of Barbaro-mania in the months following.
As The Moth Podcast ages, it’s evolving and expanding. In honor of its tenth anniversary, the show put out a call for a guest host, inviting fans to nominate themselves to take the mic for a special episode that will air in June. Burns dreams of one day starting a podcast under The Moth umbrella featuring stories from their high-school slams; another might focus on stories from The Moth’s global program. And Kennedy half-jokes that he’s considered asking Burns if he could start a sub-brand of The Moth podcast called “The Light,” featuring only funny stories. (“It’s a running joke that I have a narrow emotional spectrum and capacity,” he explains.)
But when The Moth Podcast’s team speaks about the show’s influence and reach, it’s not in terms of future franchises or download numbers. It’s in stories: The research station in Antarctica that hosted its own Moth-inspired story slam after listening to the podcast, or the individual storytellers who have returned, slam after slam, to share their stories. Community and connection, more than anything else, are what define the show—and its enduring appeal.
“The thing I love so dearly about The Moth Podcast is just watching this idea bloom of everyone coming together to share stories, and knowing that’s going all over the world,” Kennedy says. As difficult as life may get, or as unbearable as the headlines might become, on-demand storytelling offers a sense of instant companionship: “As long as we can get a pair of earbuds,” Kennedy says, “we can be together.”
More WIRED Culture