The case for 3x

The only thing I love more than listening to podcasts is writing about them. During the last curfuffle I wrote Podcasting State of the Union where I did my best to provide counterpoints for the flaws Harry Marks pointed out in the podcasting industry. To my delight, many agreed with me. After a few days the heat died down though, and I did not expect to have another opportunity to discuss this topic for a while. Then Ben Brooks decided to stir the pot once more with Why Tech Podcasts Bother Me, and many responded with wildly different opinions. Perhaps most notably, Andrew Clark and Zac Cichy of The Menu Bar surprised me in episode thirty-four by agreeing with the majority of Ben’s points.

Like his predecessor Harry Marks, Ben’s critiques focused on many of the same aspects: a lack of preparation beforehand and focus throughout leading to a rambling program, the pervasive “good ol‘ boy” mentality driving shows less about specific topics and more about the hosts themselves, and little to no polish. In fact, during the first eleven minutes of the The Menu Bar’s thirty-fifth episode Harry Marks, in reference to Ben’s piece, said that both articles “hit many of the same points, except his was a lot more colorful”, which I found amusing. To not waste your time by reiterating my refutations of those points once again, let me translate: Ben’s complaints equate to Harry’s “60 Minutes or Less”, “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”, “’Tis the Season”, and “Edit, Edit, Edit”, respectively, which I tackle here, here, here, and here. Since I have already discussed these topics at length, I will not do so again here as I feel my opinions still stand. I will, however, focus on another subject Andrew and Zac brought up on How the Andrew Stole Christmas: podcast playback speeds.

Back in October Marco posted an article titled Podcast App Playback Speed where he explained that when most podcast apps advertise playback speeds other than 1x, they actual play audio at another. From his article:

“In the early days of iOS podcast playback, when Apple first implemented multiple speed settings, they used inaccurate labels. Apple’s ‘2x’ setting, for instance, was really 1.5x. Their ‘1.5x’ setting was really 1.25x. And their ‘1/2x’ setting was really 0.8x.”

You will note that under this system playback tops out at 1.5x, labeled at 2x, yet apps like Instacast still sport a “3x” mode. Unlike Pocket Casts, which plays audio back at three times the default rate, Instacast uses a “3x” moniker to play episodes back at double speed. This is all important to keep in mind when I finally drop the bombshell that I often listen to my favorite podcasts at up to “3x” speed, i.e. twice as fast as the producers intended. For those of you incapable of doing math, that means it can take me thirty minutes to get through an hour-long show. Even more so than a daily hour-long commute and a job that often allows me to plug a pair of headphones in for a couple hours each day, this habit enables me to continue expanding my podcast queue.1 Apparently in the world of podcast producers, everyone hates this practice: both Andrew and Zac came down hard on it, and Marco would rather “unsubscribe to a third of my shows or skip a third of the episodes”. But here’s the thing — here’s the thing, Dan: you can’t replace a gorilla with a watermelon.

No, on a more serious note: I cannot listen to podcasts at 1x: it makes me want to tear my headphones out and disavow podcasts altogether; it feels as if the hosts speak maddeningly slow just to infuriate me as I sit there waiting what feels like an eternity just for him to finish a single thought. If I could not increase my playback speed, I would seriously have to consider the number of podcasts I subscribe to not necessarily because I could no longer cut down on the time required to finish any given episode, but simply because I could not bear sitting through anywhere near as many shows only to fidget irritatedly as the hosts plod along in their speech. But I can toggle that speed, which both enables and allows me to follow so many more great shows than I would otherwise.

To me, vilifying this feature makes as little sense as prosecuting Instapaper would: I save every article I come across to Instapaper so that I can easily find it later, yes, but mostly because I hate the vast majority of mobile websites. I still want to read and have a great deal of respect for the words within those pages though, so I use this service to remove the one barrier to a pleasurable ordeal reading another’s prose. In more abstract terms, I find valuable ideas and change the way in which they get presented to me pursuant of a superior experience. Similarly with podcasts, I realize the difficulty of speaking. Furthermore, doing it well proves even more challenging — I know because a few weeks ago I tried recording my voice for an audition to Brett Terpstra’s Systematic, and it sounded terrible. Just because someone makes a podcast does not mean they have the voice, vocabulary, or diction to do so well, yet many — thankfully — overcome those inhibitions and hit the record button anyway. While few possess all three imperfections, many have one, and bumping my playback speed up to 1.5x — true 1.25x, the lowest I can listen to any podcast these days — helps smooth over the verbal flaws that otherwise lend themselves to an overall less pleasurable encounter. Just as my decision to take nearly every author’s content out of its intended setting does not reflect a lack of regard for their work, neither does this choice. In fact, it is out of respect that I do it in the first place: I hold these people and their ideas in such high regard that I just have to listen to their shows, objections be damned. Very few podcast hosts claim to be great at what they do, and by slightly increasing my playback speed I can get through their vocal quirks much more easily. What’s wrong with that?

Playback speeds are not evil incarnate; it’s about time we stopped pretending they were.

Obviously, by my own words at this point I have only justified playback up to 1.25x. However, once you let go of the ridiculous notion that playing another’s voice back at integer-greater-than-one-x equates to a lack of respect for their work, anything greater than 1x becomes merely a matter of preference. Do you enjoy fast talkers? Go ahead and bump that up to 2x. Do you enjoy larger fonts? Go ahead and resize Instapaper’s font.

 Since October when I posted Podcasting State of the Union, I have subscribed to nine more podcasts: Just the Tip, Technical Difficulties US, The Best of 5by5, Debug, Mac Power Users, Unprofessional, The Vergecast, Systematic, and Homework. Of those nine I have listened to the entirety of The Best of 5by5, Systematic, and Homework, and have already started on Just the Tip and Debug. Until I finish those two, the others are much more hit and miss: unless an episode features someone I know and like a great deal, they will have to wait their turn.