Jen Grossman initially didn’t like Alex Blumberg’s podcast interview with his former boss, Ira Glass, the Baltimore-born host/producer of the popular radio show, “This American Life.”
But then Grossman attended a recent session of Podcasts Over Drinks, aka The P.O.D., presented by The Soul Center at Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation, and her perspective on the interview completely changed.
“What the discussion left me with was so much more meaningful,” she said.
Fellow P.O.D. attendee Courtney Gotlin agreed. “[The P.O.D. is] a chance to do something with my best friend, to get me out of the house,” she said. “Unless you schedule the time to do something for yourself, it just won’t happen.”
Now in its second summer, the P.O.D. series offers participants the opportunity to talk about a shared listening experience in a manner similar to that of book clubs. In this regard, The Soul Center is trending as podcast discussion groups are popping up around the country.
“Book clubs started because reading is such a solitary event,” said Adela Mizrachi, creator of the Chicago-based Podcast Brunch Club. “Radio and podcasts are the same. People usually listen to them alone and are often frustrated that they can’t share the experience and feelings they had while listening,”
At a P.O.D. session held earlier this month in the backyard of Pikesville resident Kathy Shapiro, Soul Center co-founder and Beth El Associate Rabbi Dana Saroken opened with a quote from the Mishnah: “One should make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person favorably.”
Participants then explored the concept and dimensions of mentorship, having listened on their own to the Glass interview conducted by Blumberg, host of the podcast “Without Fail.”
“I always thought about mentorship in terms of long-term relationships,” Grossman said after the group discussion. “But I left this discussion realizing that it can also be momentary, some brief interaction with a person that might change the trajectory of my life.”
That, she said, is the true value and meaning of a group dynamic like the P.O.D. “[It is] the range of people and opinion,” she said. “That’s what makes the discussion interesting and worthwhile.”
P.O.D. sessions average about 20 participants, said Rachel Siegal, managing director of The Soul Center. “People come when they can, based on their schedules or when they’re more interested in that week’s podcast or topic,” she said.
Each session is held at the home of a P.O.D. host and attracts a wide array of participants. “As with most of our programs, some are Beth El members, some aren’t,” Siegal said. “Some, but not all, are affiliated with other congregations. Most, but not all, are Jewish.”
This summer’s five-session P.O.D. series addresses subjects specifically related to personal growth, interpersonal relationships and community responsibility — topics that are not overtly Jewish or even religious.
That, Siegal said, is consistent with The Soul Center’s overall mission to “engage Jews who identify as spiritual but not religious … [and] offer opportunities to create a stronger, connected community that will be more present for each other and a greater force for good in the world.”
For example, an “Invisibilia” podcast, which the group discussed on July 17, wrestled with the issue of whether empathy is a good or bad human quality. This season’s final P.O.D. session will discuss one of “Oprah’s Supersoul Conversations,” in which philanthropist and former Microsoft general manager Melinda Gates said she regularly asks herself “whether I am using my voice in the world on behalf of [people who need help].”
Siegal said most podcast discussion groups around the country focus on specific subjects, and most of those are online.
An exception is Chicago’s Podcast Brunch Club. Mizrachi said she started it because “reading and radio or podcast listening is a solitary experience, and having people to talk about it with makes it a little less lonely.”
Four years later, the club is still going strong, with more than 60 chapters across the country, a few of which are in high schools and public libraries.
Mizrachi said she does not believe podcasts or podcast discussion groups will precipitate the demise of books and reading in general.
“People learn in different ways,” she said. “Offering students and adults multiple ways to get information and entertainment is a good thing. And speaking for myself, if I weren’t listening to podcasts, I still wouldn’t be reading more.”
Courtney Gotlin, who lives in Owings Mills, agreed. “So often, I start a book, but with four kids and other commitments, I just don’t have time to finish,” she said. “I’ve come to rely a lot more on Kindle and Audible and podcasts. It’s just easier to read and listen on the go.”
For information about the P.O.D. series or other Soul Center events, visit soulcenterbaltimore.org/thepod/.
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.