Monday, November 10, 2008

What is a Podcast?

What is a podcast? I don't mean in a technical sense. I mean "What makes it a podcast, as distinct from some other kind of audio that happens to be published via an RSS feed?" and especially "What makes a podcast worth listening to?"

Warning: this blog post contains expressions of my personal bias. If reading someone whose bias is different than your bias makes your head explode with indignation, please go and read someone else's blog.

Podcasts are not Commercial FM Radio, Thank God

You may feel differently, but when I hear a podcast that sounds just like commercial FM radio, I scrape it from my hard drive as quickly as possible. I'm through with commercial radio. Commercial radio died about the time that Clear Channel Communications came into existence. Stick a fork in it. If your podcast has raygun or motor or lightning sound effects, and an abrasive male announcer with a booming voice talking unnaturally quickly, ask yourself why you want to sound like an advertisement for a monster truck rally. Unless, in fact, you are doing it to parody this kind of thing deliberately, instead of allowing it to be its own self-parody. But even that would be a little tired; people who don't recognize that these tropes have run their course likely have no taste left anyway.

This brings up the issue of compression. Audio for consumption in cars needs to be quite heavily compressed, because road noise eats up most of the low end of the dynamic range, leaving you precious few decibels in which to express yourself. The same is true to a lesser extent for audio to be consumed via earbud or other low-end headphone at the gym or in another noisy environment. When I recorded my podcasts of classic novels or stories I tried to compress them to target this audience, without doing too much damage to the audio quality. This also helped make up for the poor quality of the microphone I was using back then. But I quickly realized that I was turning into a compression abuser. And the type of compression that works well on a solo voice sounds strange and awful on an ambient field recording, so I've had to try different approaches. I am still learning how to get the best possible results, and expect that to be an ongoing process.

Podcasts are not Advertisements

I realize this is also likely to be controversial, but personally I am not at all interested in your podcast if it was created to advertise anything other than... your podcast.

Note that this is different than offering sponsorships, shout-outs, or reviews. Escape Pod is sponsored by Audible and that is fine with me. Escape Pod also points listeners to other podcasts, writers, and fiction, and that is fine with me, too; in fact, it is one of my favorite things about listening to Escape Pod. And it hosts reviews, although not nearly often enough. All fine and dandy.

So how do you fund your podcast? That's your problem. Don't make it my problem; it hurts my ears. If I like what you are doing, I will pay you, just as I send Steve Eley a little money every month and I've given Jonathan Coulton a sizeable chunk of change in exchange for his fantastic songs. Even those of us don't earn very much money still probably have more money in our lives than we do quality, and would gladly trade a bit of the former for a bit of the latter.

Podcasts can be AM Radio

Although I am not fond of most AM Talk Radio, I think the talk format is perfectly legitimate. I might not enjoy your talk show -- or I might -- but if it is honestly a talk radio show, rabidly conservative and reactionary or rabidly left, I can respect and appreciate it. I'm talking to you, Air America folks.

Podcasts do not Have to be Polished and Professional

This one is non-negotiable. I was horrified and offended at Podcast Michigan by a presenter who spoke about how podcasts have "lowered the playing field." Among his talking points were many words to the effect of "be professional."

I couldn't disagree more. The podcast world is vast, and contains multitudes. "Polish" is code for "make it sound like everyone else does, or we will look down on you." "Professional" is code for "people without a lot of money need not apply." Oh, and also "people who want to record something important and true to them, but that won't fit into a recording studio, or sound just like NPR, need not apply." Really? I love some of what goes down on NPR, but it ought to be obvious that there is an NPR "style," and expecting everyone to conform to it is just as bad as expecting everyone to conform to the commercial FM radio style.

People come to podcasts at different stages of live, from child to adolescent to mature adult. Ideally, there would be podcasts that target folks where they live. The word "adult" in this context really means "adolescent" and "sexual" -- and I'm fine with that. Podcasting is a great way to completely sidestep the FCC. While I like and admire the people who make explicit podcasts -- and not in the sense that they are clear and obvious to the listener -- when I strap on the headphones to make my own, I tend find that my interests lie elsewhere.

Personally, I mostly like the NPR style and my work is heavily influenced by it -- at least, by some of it. But more on that later.

Now, personally, I love audio for the sake of audio: field recordings, live music, classic synthesizers, guitars, vacuum tubes, the sounds of water and wind and machinery, analog and digital effects, plug-ins, etc. I obsess about noise floors and hiss and hum and EQ. In fact, I spent more time trying to get good audio out of my latest field recordings than I did editing them.

But I also firmly believe that if you have something compelling to record, as long as you can get it reasonably loudly and clearly into an audio file, you should not be constrained by my tendency towards perfectionism. And perfectionism is illusory and often counter-productive anyway. I recognize that I spend far too much time on tweaking, and have to constantly cut myself off, saying "enough, let it go, publish it and move on to the next thing." I still do my best, but I have learned to stop beating myself up over the flaws that remain; there is a point of diminishing return.

What I Like

Personally, my podcast work has been influenced by three major kinds of audio material. At least, these are the ones that I'm most aware of.

First, I am a big fan of radio drama. I have a few personal touchstones: one of them is the Mercury Theater of the Air's production of War of the Worlds. It sounds cliched to say it, but it is a work of utter genius. I've listened to it dozens of times, and it still makes my spine tingle every time. If you have never heard it, go listen to the whole thing. Then listen to Radio Lab's piece about it. Another personal touchstone is the BBC's original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And the third is pretty much all of the output of ZBS productions, especially work like Moon Over Morocco and The Fourth Tower of Inverness. I also love classic "Golden Age" radio dramas, but since I did not grow up with The Shadow, these kinds of traditional serials do not stand out for me nearly as much as the spiritual, surreal, scary, or mind-bending work I mentioned.

Second, I am a big fan of audiobooks read in a relatively un-dramatized way, just with a voice, possibly over music. It is intereting to note that many podcasters who do this do not sound extremely polished. They are probably not trained actors. It doesn't necessarily require an extremely polished voice. I'm quite happy with what I was able to achieve with my own limited voice in just a couple of hours, in my latest William Hope Hodgson podcast, a reading of the short story The Voice in the Night. Take a listen and see if you agree.

Third, I am a big fan of certain NPR "story-based" shows. These include This American Life and The Story. Of these, I am particularly fond of the episodes that reach people who are not often heard from in the mainstream media, and episodes that involve field recording.

Podcasts and our National Attention Span

Dr. Donald Knuth, my hero and Code Monkey homeboy, does not answer e-mail frequently; in fact, perhaps only quarterly. He comments on this that it is not his job to "stay on top of things," but instead to get to the bottom of things. This is so true that many people won't even be able to understand why it is true. I don't want Dr. Knuth to join Twitter. That is for people like me with lesser brains.

I write this by way of clumsily saying that I personally strongly prefer radio and podcasts that get to the bottom of things, rather than stay on top of things. One of my favorite audio recordings is Martin Shaw's reading of Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Sometimes jokingly compared to the telephone book written in Elvish, this is a difficult book to get engaged with. I had read it, but never understood it until I listened to Shaw's reading. It turns the book into drama for me not because Shaw speeds it up and condenses it, but because the unabridged recording slows the book down, and explores every digression, and lets the story breathe.

What I'd Like to Do

In the near future I am hoping to continue working my way through William Hope Hodgson's works. Lovecraft's material is going out of copyright and some of it is already fair game. Besides just doing straightforward readings, I'd like to move closer to real radio drama. I'd like to record more music -- of mine and others. I'd like to do more with field recordings and interviews and be eclectic and long-winded and in-depth without worrying that I'm not living up to your notion of professionalism or fitting into your time slot.

I've gone on long enough. What do you think a podcast is, and ought to be?


finalrune said...


Great article! Not sure if you've already stumbled across it, but I run the Radio Drama Revival podcast which has tons of contemporary stories which variously carry on or break off from the tradition of classic radio drama.

I can't stress how much I agree with you. DIE DIE DIE Commercial Radio, DIE XM radio for following the broken model, and long live the internet for promoting diverse, unique, funky content. Not all of it is great, but in podcasts you find creativity, passion, and experimentation, the features that made radio what it -- was --


Writer, Director, Producer
Radio Drama Revival
FinalRune Productions

lightmintypfunks said...

Since you asked...

I think it's does podcasting a disservice to define it more narrowly than as a media enclosure on an RSS feed. You may not want FM radio rebroadcasts to be podcasts (just guessing at an example), but it is, along with your WHH readings and my formatless noisecore "music". If we chose to exclude them out of some indie podcasting ideal, my show and a lot of other weirdos who really are trying to push boundaries risk getting left out in the cold, and that's just fucked up. The podcast "format" standardized itself unbelievably quickly, and I refuse to let that be a winner somehow in a medium that is so fundamentally freeform that file format doesn't even matter that much. A podcast is a technical definition, and nothing more. Anything beyond that is just self-defeating.

And while I'm at it, no, podcasts don't have to be polished and professional, but for the love of god do give it a try, huh? By my observations, podcasting has three primary influences: the punk DIY ethic, indie rage against the mainstream, and blogging. Fine. Ideally, this comes together to create content that has independent production, content and technology and leads to a mind-blowing shadow media created by cheap cottage producers distributed across the world, built on the foundations of open source technology. That's the fantasy.

The reality is that the rough-and-ready DIY thing mashed with the anti-mainstream message to create an aesthetic that rejects anything too highly polished out of hand, creating what I call the lo-fi movement. It fetishizes low production values. Fine. Problem is, this hit online culture, which is tethered inexorably to the guidelines of SEO, where the rule of Quantity Before All Else reigns supreme, and the quality of the content is decidedly secondary.

Combine low production values, low content values and high production rates, and what do you get? An overwhelming tidal wave of crap that just won't stop (and the hipsters that were way ahead of the curve on this one and embraced this whole movement culturally). I'm always on the hunt for new podcasts to feed my need, all through the podcast directories, and let me tell you, that's exactly what I find.

(see me not mentioning the anti-critical streak of online culture, where it's taboo to judge content on it's own merits, but only if it's bad? Different rant.)

Like a lot of podcasters, I failed at selling my soul to mainstream media. I got close, though. Do you know what the first conceit of mainstream media is, that mostly accepted uncritically by the rest of us? That what they do to produce their product is 1) difficult and 2) expensive. Podcasters have an amazing opportunity to show that with no money, no resources and in many cases no talent to speak of, we can not only play the same game as mainstream media, but we can do it at the same high level. The only difference is time.

Look, one or two podcasters will be less efficient than the unholy hoard Ira Glass has working for him. One or two podcasters can ABSOLUTELY make audio just as compelling and high-quality as This American Life, but they probably won't be able to make 53 minutes of it a week, every week. I'm trying to say that this is ok.

Podcasters of the world, slow down! Spend more time on fewer minutes of audio! Stop spamming the internet with crap and take a minute to try to blow my mind!

so, yeah, what I'm saying is that most podcasters seem to take the permission to not be polished and professional and use it as an excuse to high-volume, low-gain suckitude. I'll go on record: most podcasts suck. And there's no reason for it beyond impatience.

(dot net)