Podcasting State of the Union

As a huge fan of the medium myself, over the last two weeks I have followed a burgeoning discussion on the podcasting industry with great interest. Across the board, the discourse has remained almost universally positive: Stephen Hacket, Chris Gonzales, Federico Viticci, and Myke Hurley have all expressed considerable enthusiasm for the changes iOS 7 in particular signals for this space, and great hope for its future. Unsurprisingly, not all share these positive sentiments.

A few days ago Myke Hurley, formerly of 70 Decibels and now a host at 5by5, made a guest post on 512 Pixels broadly titled What is Podcasting?. Throughout the article Myke talked about his growth as a podcaster, the medium itself, and his thoughts on the direction this industry is headed. Although never explicitly stated, Myke also seemed to write in response to Harry Marks’ The State of Podcasting: 2013. Unlike Myke and many others of late, Harry Marks spoke much more critically of the podcasting industry and offered a number of suggestions I — and Myke, I wager — strongly disagree with. Before I get to those differences though I would like to — in Harry Marks-fashion — briefly list the podcasts I currently listen to, for those who may be curious:

Technology #

Business #

Other #

Granted, some of those shows do not broadcast weekly: Horace Dediu and Jim Zellmer only record one episode of AsymCAR each month, and The Crossover has not seen a new episode since March of 2012. I nevertheless currently subscribe and actively listen to each and every one of those podcasts though; moreover, that list does not include any retired shows like Hypercritical or You Look Nice Today, which no longer air regularly or at all.

Like Harry Marks, once upon a time I listened to many more podcasts than I do even today: not too long ago I subscribed to every show on 5by5, along with a few other “indie” productions. Unlike Harry, however, who became bored and burned out with (tech) podcasts, I simply ran out of hours in the day and thus had no choice but to take a number of them out to the chopping block. In stark contrast to Harry’s reasons for cutting down on his audio consumption, many of those very reasons drew me to the medium.

"60 Minutes or Less" #

In his first suggestion for improving podcasts at large, Harry proposes adhering to a strict runtime of sixty minutes. Positing that any longer reflects poorly not only on the host but their guest and co-hosts as well, Harry pushes this time limit at the cost of both content and quality in his next section. Of the seven sections in his article, my disagreement with this philosophy is second to but one.

Back in the days of Hypercritical, nothing made me happier than downloading a new episode, hitting play, hearing John declare the beginning of a short show, and looking down at the scrubber to see two hours left. I understand the appeal of short episodes, but the format has its place and should not, in any way, pervade the podcasting industry as a whole. To use a more recent example, I could listen to Myke Hurley and Matt Alexander make innuendos and veiled sexual references for hours. A forty-eight or fifty-two minute episode just doesn’t cut it.

Some shows do overstay their welcome, I will not deny that; many, however, and especially the great works of this day and age — think Roderic on the Line, QUIT!, and Accidental Tech Podcast — understay that welcome, if anything. Never have I downloaded any of these podcasts’s latest episodes and dreaded a ninety minute runtime; usually, it makes my day.

"Edit, Edit, Edit" #

Perhaps the most controversial section in his article and easily the one I find most ridiculous, Harry Marks advocates editing for content in pursuit of that golden sixty minute runtime in “Edit, Edit, Edit”. I believe Myke put his issue with this philosophy best in a footnote to his aforementioned article, What is Podcasting:

“Whilst we’re talking about editing, let me tell you my philosophy. I personally believe that heavy content editing is a bad thing. ‘We don’t edit for content,’ Dan Benjamin says, and I’m a believer. It disrupts the natural flow of conversation and I shy away from it as much as possible. Let your podcast be a living and breathing thing. If it lasts 90 minutes, then so be it. There was a reason you recorded for that long, you just need to decide if that’s the show you want to do. If you want it to be thirty minutes, find a way to make your conversations that length. Don’t arbitrarily construct a 30 minute podcast from a 90 minute conversation. Don’t make your editing application a slaughterhouse.”

Indeed, don’t make your editing application a slaughterhouse. Cutting out part of an interview in pursuit of an artificial time limit is absolutely ludicrous; who benefited from those subtractions? Surely not the listener, who had to settle for a portion rather than the full interview. How, then, could the producer have derived any benefit from removing even a small amount of content, justified with some asinine responsibility to stick with a self-imposed time restriction?

"Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" #

From Harry’s article:

“A listener should never hear, ‘So, anything else we should talk about?’ It’s insulting and shows a lack of forethought from the host(s). Topics for a show should be set in advance and, more importantly, should be discussed for an appropriate length of time before moving on to the next.

“So many shows ramble on with nary a care to the clock and the result is a podcast that comes off as sloppy and unprofessional. Having a casual conversation about a topic or idea is great and hosts/guests with great rapport are necessary for a show to thrive, but a good host knows when to move on and nudge everyone onto the next topic. A 45-minute rathole before you approach the first talking point is not a sign of quality.”

Standing opposite the picture Harry Marks holds up as the ideal broadcast, John Roderick and Merlin Mann’s Roderick on the Line defies nearly every criteria Harry lies out for a “good” or “professional” podcast. If you think John — or Merlin, for that matter — ever prepared a list of topics ahead of time or discussed said topics “for an appropriate length of time before moving on to the next”, if you think this lack of stringent and traditional preparation makes Roderick on the Line sloppy or unprofessional, you have obviously never listened to an episode of this excellent program. Similarly, in Back to Work — although to a slightly lesser degree — we find another great example of a show antithetical to Harry’s idealisms, yet wildly popular and inarguably excellent despite the invariable forty-five minutes of shucking and jiving Dan and Merlin famously engage in before approaching their first talking point.

"'Tis the Season" #

Unlike the preceding sections, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Harry Marks in this one. Merlin and Dan have often, albeit jokingly, referred to various episodes of Back to Work as “S1E7”, for example, and Daniel Jalkut has put his interview podcast Bitsplitting on hiatus with the intent of bringing it back for a second season sometime in the near future. With those minor exceptions, however, the podcasting industry has almost universally rejected the idea of splitting shows into seasons. Quite unfortunately, I might add: dividing a show into seasons would have a great number of benefits not only to the listener, but to the show’s producer as well.

In the past an inability to find and download a podcast’s first episodes has ultimately prevented me from listening to that show at all. To quote Myke once again, “I believe that podcasts are conversations; they have a natural flow to them. They have a start, a middle and an end. Any point that is made has been influenced and guided by everything said before it.” I feel that Myke did not only say this in reference to single episodes, but the entire run of a show as well: just as individual episodes have a start, middle, and end, so too do entire shows; and just as tampering with that natural flow disrupts and takes away from the listening experience, so too does jumping into a show halfway.

If I had skipped the first fifty episodes of Roderick on the Line, for example, I would not understand “ping-pong” and why it has spread outside of Merlin’s podcasts; had I not listened to every episode of Hypercritical I would not get the joke when, two years later, someone teases John Siracusa about a toaster; if I had come late to the party and never listened to You Look Nice Today, I would have missed out on a huge part of internet culture; in an alternate universe where I did not go back and listen to Bionic from the beginning, I wouldn’t understand Myke’s feigned dismay at what the show has turned in to.

I would have missed out on all these things had I deigned not to invest extra time into listening to the back catalog before picking the show up on its most recent episodes; unfortunately, as time passes and more episodes come out, the likelihood of anyone following the same course of action decreases significantly mainly because most podcast producers arbitrarily cap their RSS feeds to the most recent thirty to fifty episodes and thus lock out anyone wishing to download and listen to the first installments of a promising, just-discovered podcast. While making every episode in existence available via RSS would help alleviate this problem, putting four hundred and twenty-five episodes of This Week in Tech in Instacast is neither an elegant solution, nor the best by any measure. Instead, one possible solution could see podcast producers release their shows in seasons of twelve, twenty-five, or fifty episodes, with each season distributed as its own, standalone podcast. In addition to solving the problem of timeframe availability, wherein certain episodes are only available for a narrow window of time before newer episodes push them out of the feed, this model would also allow hosts to shift gears into other topics much more easily than is possible today.

Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and Casey Liss’s casual car podcast Neutral got so much attention not only because it had so many big names in the tech community attached to it, but also because all throughout Hypercritical and Build & Analyze listeners fantasized about John and Marco discussing other topics outside of technology. With the advent of Neutral, those masses suddenly found a venue where not only John and Marco talked about a topic traditionally of great interest to the same audience Hypercritical and Build & Analyze appealed to, but a podcast on which they discussed this subject together. In other words, perhaps just as important as the topic Marco, John, and Casey chose, the roster played an almost equal role in the show’s success. Whereas this shift in topic required the creation of an entirely new podcast, a seasonal model could conceivably obviate that need by allowing hosts to choose entirely different topics for each season.

Horace Dediu’s podcast AsymCAR is a prime example of a situation in which this seasonal model could have been implemented to great success: with the automobile industry a recurring topic on his podcast The Critical Path, Horace started AsymCAR as a means to pursue the subject in greater depth. At four episodes as of this writing AsymCAR could have easily functioned as a spinoff series rather than its own entity and benefited from The Critical Path’s existing listenership, and gained greater exposure because of it.

Of course, this approach does present a number of problems: frequently changing topics does not lend itself to a stable and loyal listenership. Just as the importance of maintaining a consistent release schedule cannot be understated in fostering a loyal and engaged following, so too is maintaining a consistent thread throughout the life of the show. There are, as in any field, exceptions: take Bionic, for example: a show that once focused on the “analysis of competing technological and media ecosystems”, is has evolved into a hilarious dialogue with a dash of tech thrown in for flavor. By and large though, a topic of interest to one person could hold none for another and vice-versa, and a seasonal podcasting model in which the topic of focus changed each season would greatly complicate the challenge of identifying and occupying a specific market segment.

As with any rule, there are exceptions: if tomorrow Marco decided to start a home improvement podcast, I would give it a try; if John started an art podcast, despite having no interest in art whatsoever, I would listen. And if they created some amalgamation of those two shows together, I would love the result. The condition for liking a podcast has nearly ceased to be a question of topic in my mind, having gradually shifted to instead become a question of hosts, production values, personality, and intelligence of discourse. I recognize that I am the outlier though, and that for the most part people choose podcasts based on topic. As such, a model where hosts change topics abruptly every twenty-five episodes could find great difficulty gaining traction, and for that reason the model, while an interesting exercise, will likely remain only that for the foreseeable future.

Much less polarizing than shifting topics, the seasonal model could more easily facilitate various podcasting models instead, to much less controversy. Today, podcasts generally fall in to one of three different formats: talk shows, interviews, and panels. Hypercritical where Dan and John discussed topics as co-hosts conformed to the first; CMD+SPACE, as an interview show, fits the second; and Accidental Tech Podcast approximates the third form. Although other podcasts like The Menu Bar and The Distraction blur those lines as they go between a talk show, interview, and panel discussion depending on the episode, sticking to a single form is by far the most common practice for a number of valid reasons. For instance, after going through all the trouble to build a compelling roster of future guests, it makes little sense to also plan on discussing topics with a regular co-host on the same show. In the same vein, putting three or four competing personalities, each with something unique and interesting to say, on a discussion panel simply for the sake of hosting such a dialogue has time and time again proved far from the best way to hold an engaging and informative conversation.1 I do not mean to say panel discussions cannot be done well, merely that a show intended to conform to the interview style should not bootstrap itself into something it is not.

Apparently, Horace Dediu feels the same way: since June of 2011, Horace has conducted The Critical Path as a talk show bordering on the interview style. While recently the show has gradually returned to its roots, for quite some time it fit much more closely into the interview format where Dan and, later, Moiss would occasionally interject in an otherwise informative monologue by Horace characteristic of long form interviews. Still framed as a talk show though, Horace started another podcast, High Density, to serve the purpose of an interview show where he could invite guests to discuss various topics not covered on The Critical Path. The seasonal model could, perhaps, have solved Horace’s problem without the need to create an entirely new podcast.

Finally, the seasonal model could also help producers capture additional revenue from existing, loyal fans in the form of post-show monetization. Similar to the manner many television networks perpetuate revenue from shows like Sons of Anarchy and House by releasing box sets after each season, in the event that podcasters adopt the seasonal model they, too, could release “box sets” after each season featuring high-quality audio versions bundled with additional extras like extra footage should any have been cut out in editing and transcripts. This would not only be a great way to attain additional revenue from a property that would have otherwise existed only to sap bandwidth each month, but also a great way to give listeners a way to archive and preserve their favorite programs in high-fidelity.

Obviously it would take a very popular show to fully realize the advantages of a seasonal model, and — like the linkblog — poor and inappropriate implementations of it would cheapen its existence at some point in time. Its many advantages, however, likely outweigh some of the inconveniences this hastily thought-out implementation presents, inconveniences that would undoubtedly fade or altogether vanish with time and experience.

"Commercial Appeal" #

Unlike its predecessors, and especially “’Tis the Season”, I have little to say regarding this section: if Dan and Merlin decide to spend five minutes describing Squarespace, I have no problem with that; they obviously use the service and enjoy it immensely, and I take great pleasure in listening to the pair go back and forth about something so inspiring. If, conversely, they feel ambivalent towards the sponsor, that invariably comes through in a noticeably less-enthusiastic ad read and often leads to a shorter spot. And in the rare case that they do go on to talk about a product obviously of little interest to them in great detail, I can at least rest assured in the knowledge that they received a handsome compensation for their time.

"Show Notes" #

Again, I have little to say about this section as well given that, for the most part, I agree with Harry in this regard: most shows do get this aspect, at the very least, right. Even his suggestion that producers break the notes into categories, while slightly pedantic, would not necessarily be a bad one did I not expect show notes to appear in the order they were discussed, as I am sure many others do as well. Any other presentation, however logical in the abstract, would ultimately prove much more cumbersome to the vast majority of listeners who look for that one calendar app next to the ad spot because that is where it occurred in the discussion.

"The Future" #

I cannot condemn Harry’s advice as categorically bad for the vast majority of podcasts recorded and released from a bedroom on nights and weekends, nor can I promote it as superb advice that will make such shows “stand above the rest.” In fact, Harry’s suggestions would go a long way in improving really bad podcasts, and at that level perhaps his advice would serve to differentiate such podcasts from the rest. I can, however, almost universally condemn Harry’s suggestions in regards to the really great podcasts.

Applying a “one size fits all” approach to such a diverse industry would simultaneously crush its best aspects and commoditize the market in one fell swoop. A vast diversity in runtime, production models, and topics gives this space a unique aspect absent in nearly all mainstream media outlets. If we crush that uniqueness here and now, before podcasts become mainstream, what then would we find ourselves left with but terrestrial radio?

The coming months hold both great change and growth for this industry, of this I am sure. In the end, the sixty-minute, heavily-edited shows that traditional media outlets eek out as an afterthought will not have been the shows we look back upon as instigators of a revolution, but the stogy vestiges of a bygone era. Rather, those that transcend this growth will be the shows known for continually pushing the traditional boundaries of what it means to call something a podcast, and drawing flak for it in the process. Not unlike a certain technology company we all like to write about, in fact, but I will leave those parallels for you to draw on your own.

 The various 5by5 Specials episodes recorded after Apple’s iPhone events are prime examples of the shortcomings this format suffers from. In particular, throughout episode twenty-two I felt none of the show’s impressive list of hosts — including Horace Dediu, Benedict Evans, and Christina Warren — had ample room to talk around each other and share their intriguing insights. The Changelog, in my brief encounters with the show, suffers from a similar problem of hosts tripping over each other while attempting to speak, compounded with what I can only characterize as a confounding lack of desire to speak. During the few episodes I listened to before abandoning The Changelog, both the guest and co-hosts had to prompt each other to pick up the conversation after an awkward period of silence.