Curious Rat

A Podcast Intervention

There is a problem facing many popular tech podcasts and it should be addressed. My partner-in-podcasting, Haim Cohen wrote a good piece on “podcast creep”, but I’d like to expand on the topic.

I agree with Haim to a point, but I don’t think a long podcast is always a bad thing. My issue is with nonsense. If your show is over an hour long and you cram a lot of valuable, worthwhile content into those 60+ minutes, I will gladly listen and enjoy. Mac Power Users is a great example of this - their shows are rarely under an hour, but David and Katie never divert off-topic and their discussions are thorough.

Then there are the TWiT podcasts from Leo Laporte. His shows can also get to be quite long and oftentimes, the hosts jump into what’s called a “rathole”, or a discussion of something greatly off-topic from the main point. It’s not that the hosts don’t have an agenda - they do - but when you get a bunch of personalities on a Skype call, things can quickly devolve and it’s hard to get back on track.

On the low end of the spectrum are the Vergecasts from the folks at The Verge - and it’s a shame, because Josh Topolsky, Nilay Patel and Paul Miller are three smart guys with interesting perspectives. Unfortunately, they’re not very good listeners.

Even on a good day, “The Vergecast” is still a 1.5+ hour overlapathon, where much of the time is taken up by Topolsky laughing at his own inside jokes as he talks over the rest of the group (based on my listening experiences, he always has to get the last word in and he always has to be right). Every time someone starts to make a salient point, another host butts-in and the thought is lost. It’s unprofessional and causes the show to drag on for much longer than necessary.

But The Verge isn’t the only culprit and there are many other ways in which shows drag on.

Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network is a cavalcade of well-produced shows featuring great co-hosts, such as John Gruber and Merlin Mann. In fact, most of my Instacast subscriptions come from 5by5.

But listen to any of the Dan Benjamin-hosted 5by5 shows and at least once an episode, Dan will complain about a guest’s audio, resulting in the person restarting Skype or unplugging-and-plugging-back-in his microphone.

Obviously, since it’s a live show, the listeners at the time have no choice but to endure this, but why should people downloading the show have to listen to it? Why isn’t someone at 5by5 editing these superfluous moments out for the people listening after the fact? These digressions offer nothing to the listener and often times pull him or her out completely, rendering the experience jarring and disjointed.

Like I said, I don’t care if a show is long, as long as that length is justified. Just because I cohost a half-hour podcast doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. However, I’ve grown very tired of tech podcasts that drone on with more in-jokes and talking over each other than substance (Don’t misunderstand me - banter can be funny and useful, but not when it takes up 45 minutes of a one-and-a-half hour podcast). How can we rectify this?

One idea is to take a page from the radio broadcasting handbook and set specific lengths for each show. I doubt NPR would look favorably on any particular program if the host went 20 minutes past the designated end time, cutting into another show and shortening its length. If a podcaster runs a “network” with several shows recording back-to-back, then a schedule should be strictly adhered to in order to avoid incoveniencing both guests and listeners.

I just popped on for the TUAW Talkcast last night and we stuck to an hour of discussion. Of course, if given the chance, we could have gone on for another hour, but with a set deadline everyone has to adhere to, we made sure to tackle the designated topics as thoroughly as possible with little room for “shenanigans”. The result was a better-paced show with a more lively discussion.

Another idea is to limit the length of ads. Going back to TWiT, Laporte can go on for five minutes on a product like GoToMeeting, or Netflix. Why so long? We need 30 seconds to know why we should use the product and then back to the show. I understand why ads are necessary and more often than not I’ll check out a product advertised on any given podcast, but I know many people (myself included) who fast forward through most podcast ads because they’re so long-winded.

Regardless of how it gets done, my hope is to see the more unwieldy podcasts tighten things up, edit out the junk and give the listener as clean and enjoyable an experience as possible. For the ones who aren’t as “all over the place”, there’s always room for improvement - even when your podcast is only 30 minutes long.