…And a Critical Outward Ear: Podcasts: We Can Do Better

About a month ago I heard about a relatively new podcast, only 7 episodes in, that stayed within the software/technology subject sphere but wasn't just ruminating about what Apple did or should do. Intrigued, I checked out the website and found descriptions that made me quite excited to listen in. I downloaded all 7 episodes, cued them up and—wait, how long is that first episode?!

Okay, maybe it's justified. Let's give it a listen and see. I consume podcasts in fits, 15 minutes here, 20 there, mostly as I drive around running errands, virtually all short trips. It could take me a couple days to get through a 2-hour episode. After 1 hour, 27 minutes and 39 seconds, though, I'd had enough. Annoyed, I took to App.net and posted a series of rant posts, reproduced here:

Do you create a podcast? Perhaps a weekly show, loosely structured, in which you and a couple of your buddies discuss, off the cuff, the week’s happenings in your sphere of interest, throwing a couple of resources into the ubiquitous show notes?


Seriously. Just fucking stop. Rambling for over an hour, sometimes for over TWO HOURS, in an unstructured free-association stream-of-consciousness verbal hemorrhage about the whiniest of things…


Craft your shit. Research your shit. Put your fucking shit together and edit it the fuck down and give it to me in 30 minutes, because you don’t have enough to say to legitimately take up a full hour. No, you don’t. Sit down.

Stop indulging yourself. Produce your show, and instead of throwing random links and snarky comments into your show notes, accompany each episode with a substantiating blog post.


Your show does not have to be LIVE. Record yourselves, then edit it down to the best 30 minutes. The rest is annoying, unpalatable filler of you trying to find your asshole starting at your navel. Organize your fucking thoughts.

Predictably, I touched a nerve. A measure of the initial reaction was driven by the imprecision of my first two posts, which seemed to suggest I was asking such podcasters to stop making podcasts. My follow-ups made it clearer I was asking them to stop sucking at podcasting.

My beefs with podcasting are quite straightforward and are not restricted to the technology genres, though nearly every podcast I actually listen to falls into that category.

  1. They are too long. I have a huge amount of competition for my time, like everyone else, and more content to consume than there remains time until the heat death of the universe. I like my content to be information/entertainment dense as a result, and too many podcasts contain far too much rambling and buddy-buddy chit chat of zero value to me.

  2. They are far too casual. I don't mean that in the sense of the rapport between hosts and guests, but in the sense that there is inadequate preparation and little to no editing/post-production. I'm not asking every podcast to be This American Life, but a little more rigor than recording a couple hours of Skype chat with your buddies and uploading it to Soundcloud would be nice.

I am writing this because these habits seem to have become pervasive, and that needs challenging. Most podcasts could distill their episodes down to no more than 30 minutes, and in the process greatly improve their audience numbers. Even those that like to record live with an attendant chatroom can still do so for the dedicated fans, and then publish the edited mix. Hell, go ahead and make a "Director's Cut" available for those sorry they missed the live recording; just start to think about your larger (potential?) audiences.

At root, many in the tech fields seem to have mistaken podcasts for personality vehicles rather than a communication medium; it's more about keeping up with this industry celeb or that indie darling. The problem is that this is actively harming the medium, as podcasts remain niche enough (yes, despite their iTunes placement) that non-tech producers have tended to discover them through the lens of tech, and these habits are now pervasive.

We live in a time of amazing technology access, where recording, editing and publishing a personalized "radio show" is within reach of many. Surely we can put all that technology to more elegant use? In much the same way that blogging branched out into forms as diverse as LiveJournal, Twitter and Tumblr—and podcasting itself, created as it was from specifying a media file in an attachment enclosure in syndication feeds—the podcast seems in need of diversification. Length, structure, schedule…

I would like to see a half-hour weekly show supplemented by 5-minute weekday episodes explored. I would like to see far richer websites for podcasts, organizing resources, themes discussed and ideas presented/arguments made in a way that encourages audiences to truly dive in. (Transcripts would be nice, too, if only for the hearing impaired.) Individuals are building amazing interactive and presentational storytelling experiences on the web. Let's do a better job with podcasts, too. Let's get serious about the podcast.

Good Night, and Good Luck.


There has actually been some recent talk on this topic in the software/tech enthusiast circles, most pointedly Ben Brooks' Why Tech Podcasts Bother Me. Some of the reactions to his piece were mirrored in the discussion around my rants above:

  • "If you don't like it, don't listen." This is the "fuck you" of critical response, the "if you haven't done it then you can't understand," "those who can't do, teach" and every other insulting retort. It's a ridiculous thing to say.
  • "The act of creating is for the benefit of the creator(s)." Perhaps, but the act of publishing is for the benefit of the audience, in return for which the creator receives financial or attention remuneration. Personal art should remain personal, but once published the artist relinquishes a measure of control.

I don't listen to that many podcasts. Despite having been aware of them since the term "podcatcher" was still somewhat in vogue and the specific enclosure in the RSS feed was still being debated, it's taken nearly a decade for me to come around to them. My periodic check-ins kept revealing underproduced and unrefined shows that, bluntly, bored me. It actually took NPR and PRI (Sound of Young America, now called Bullseye) to create the habit, and now I'm jonesing for a fix I just can't find.

Separately, App.net's proper support for threads/conversations is a feature I really enjoy. Alpha, the web-based implementation of the microblogging feature, displays all public posts in a thread when given a link to any member, highlighting the linked post in context, as do well-behaved third-party clients. It's fantastic.

No, I'm not on Twitter.