Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tech Podcasts

In October, Harry Marks lit a little fire:

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.

I responded:

I appreciate the craft that [Myke] Hurley and others bring to the space. But a time commitment of two hours per podcast per week is arguably a lot, and I often don’t get the sense that podcasters respect listeners’ time. I will sit through an album from start to finish, and it will take about an hour; a podcast can be twice that length, and if it’s unedited conversational rambling, I will struggle to finish the episode. It’s simply not worth that amount of time.

Riccardo Mori added:

Practically all the authors / writers / bloggers I follow either host a podcast or appear in other podcasts produced within their circle of friends, colleagues or acquaintances. I can’t even keep up with all the episodes of the few favourites I’ve subscribed to.

Today, Ben Brooks added another to the canon of complaints about podcasts, and it’s very smart:

The goal of a podcast should not be that the podcasters enjoy the show, but that the listeners enjoy the show. I think that’s lost on most podcast hosts.

Who is talking should be less important than what’s being said — just like writing a blog — and yet that’s not the case.

The who has become more important than the content.

I agree with it nearly in its entirety, with just one exception which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, I see a common thread of grievances here:

  • podcasts are way too long, especially for the content they cover;
  • they’re too scattered and unfocused;
  • there’s little in the way of week-to-week structure;
  • sponsor spots are a necessary evil, but they run way too long.

The first and second complaints can be mitigated by addressing the third: if a show has a more-or-less consistent structure, it becomes very listenable or watchable. Consider the Daily Show: the first segment is almost always about ten minutes long and usually a montage of clips showing hypocrisy, or covering a top story; the middle segment is almost always about five minutes long and is a field piece; and the third segment is an interview. It’s the same sort of story on your local news: top stories, weather, more news, sports, and so forth. Every show has a similar structure.

By having a structure in place, rambling is reduced. A good editor can remove most off-topic talk and lag time, but having some sort of format creates a framework around which to build the content. They also help keep the podcast to a time limit.

Sponsor spots are far too long as well. Every podcast is sponsored by Squarespace and, while I think Squarespace is great, there’s no need to talk about what they do for five minutes every week.

At the beginning of November, I started considering what kind of podcast I’d like to listen to:

  • 30 minutes per episode, period;
  • one focused tech topic per show, with hosts which have done research into the topic, come prepared, and can explore its depths;
  • sponsor spots of no more than one minute per sponsor;
  • optionally, one host with one or two different guests every week.

That sounds like an interesting show to me. It’s in-depth, it’s structured, it’s focused, and it’s of a listenable length. Call it the Nerdy Thirty, or preferably something less tepid. If you want to use this podcast idea, email me and let’s chat about it.

Here’s where I disagree with Brooks:

And, to bring this back around to a podcast here, there’s no way I am doing that amount of preparation for a medium that is positively futile trying to turn a profit in — so I won’t waste your time.

That’s what was said about blogging, and the internet as a whole before that. I think there’s a very real chance of making money in podcasting; the podcast simply needs to be interesting again.

This isn’t a complete condemnation of the podcasts that currently exist. There are several notable, excellent products of the medium. The problem is that most tech podcasts are more-or-less interchangeable. It’s many of the same people talking about the same stuff that you’ve already read on their blogs.

Maybe the existing podcasts don’t need to change; there are plenty which clearly have a lot of listeners. But perhaps a potential new breed of focused podcasts will jazz the scene up a little.

Update: I’ve been trying to work out why “my” podcast idea sounded so familiar, and I’ve figured it out: it’s quite similar to inThirty. I’d like to listen to something similar, but with higher production values and more depth.