There was an uproar in the podcast world this week when famed comedian and podcaster Adam Carolla unceremoniously announced that Alison Rosen, his “newsgirl” of four years, would not be returning to the show in 2015. Cue Twitter umbrage and numerous Alison fans rage-quitting Adam’s show. Adding to fan fury was the revelation that Adam fired her via e-mail rather than in person. As a huge fan of Alison Rosen, I was upset, too--not just about her being fired, but by the dismissive way Adam announced it. At first I was taken aback by the strength of my own reaction. But then I realized that I listen to Alison almost every day, either on The Adam Carolla Show, or on her podcast, “Alison Rosen is Your New Best Friend”. And when someone’s voice and consciousness is in your ears on a daily basis, you develop an investment in them, and yes, a type of relationship with them. The incident and my reaction to it made me ponder on the nature of our relationship with digital media. I’ve never met Alison, and I don’t have any personal investment in her life or her career. But I’ve developed a fondness for her over years of listening to her in my headphones during my commute. She’s been a comforting voice to me in hard times, and she’s someone who I have come to admire and root for. I was hurt on her behalf.
Back when Mr. Typist and I played World of Warcraft, I witnessed more than one person get completely torn apart by online relationships they had developed in-game with friends or guild mates they had never met in real life. And I realized that those relationships were real. They had an emotional impact, they had weight and form, and the people involved were fully invested. Many of them were platonic friendships, not romances. To this day, I remember having both some hurtful, and some truly joyful interactions with people I only ever met through in-game chat. People who say that online relationships of are somehow not as real as face-to-face relationships are wrong. They are very real. And it’s the same with our relationship to media, especially with something as intimate as audio.
Presumably, creators develop content to cultivate an audience. They cultivate that audience by being compelling enough to draw that audience back over and over again. And whether it’s convenient or not, they have a measure of responsibility to that audience. Yes, they are the producers of their content and they have full rights to decide on the nature of it. But by asking for an audience’s attention, investment, and buy-in, they are also to some degree beholden to that audience’s reaction to it. You can’t have one without the other. Either you want people to pay attention and be engaged with what you produce, or you don’t. But if you want audience engagement, you should be prepared to be held accountable. That’s why I get so annoyed at comedians who pull the “It was just a joke” line when they get called out on saying something offensive, yet at the same time fancy themselves as having some sainted societal role as the arbiters of uncomfortable truth. If you want an audience to pay attention and react to what you have to say, you don’t get to dismiss accountability for your words when they do.
The Adam Carolla audience developed a relationship with Alison over her four years on the show, and as such, they reacted angrily on her behalf. It makes sense, but it seemed to take Adam by complete surprise. The day after the announcement, guest David Wild came on the Adam Carolla Show and quite masterfully pointed out to Adam the ways in which he botched the firing and the subsequent announcement of it. He was kind, but very clear. Adam owned up and admitted he didn’t handle it well, and the firing via e-mail was explained—apparently, Alison had stated from the beginning that if she was to be dismissed, she’d prefer to receive the news via e-mail. The dust has settled. Personally, I’m over it. But I’m left with the lesson that in this noisiest of eras where we have unlimited access to endless streams of “content”, words still have weight, impact, and meaning. The way we talk to each other matters. What we say and how we say it counts. And maybe, every now and then, we should all just shut up and enjoy a little silence.