Curious Rat



The State of Podcasting: 2013

I love podcasts. I listen to them in my car and on the train into New York every day. For those who may be curious, here’s what I’m listening to currently:

Technology

Books and Writing

Miscellaneous

I used to listen to a lot more technology podcasts, like those from TWiT and 5by5, but I got bored and burned out. And it looks like my reasons for giving them up haven’t changed in the year or so since I stopped listening.

The realm of podcasting is still “Wild West” territory. Or is it Balkanized? Whatever it is, it’s unwieldy to me and could use some tidying up. Below are some suggestions I think would help in making podcasting a more enjoyable experience for listeners and give podcasters, especially those who do it professionally, a way to make their weekly shows stand above the rest.

Most of my comments apply to the tech podcasting space, since that’s what I primarily know, but I hope those who host non-tech podcasts will also find some nuggets of wisdom in here.

60 Minutes or Less

One of the main reasons I stopped listening to TWiT was due to the length of its episodes. The last three episodes of MacBreak Weekly clocked in at:

This Week in Tech’s most recent three episodes:

What I’ve noticed with a lot of podcasts is the hosts’ inability (or perhaps lack of effort) to either edit shows down or keep their co-hosts/guests on track so as to keep episodes to a manageable length.

I know there are people who throw podcasts on in the background and half-listen to them while they work or clean the dishes, but I’m someone - and I’m sure I’m not the only one - who actually wants to hear what the hosts are discussing in every episode. I pay attention to each one, but that doesn’t mean I need to hear the latest iPhone discussed in the time it took the Titanic to sink.

An hour seems like the ideal length for most podcasts. It’s long enough to discuss a topic thoroughly without feeling rushed, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. This works for TV dramas, talk shows, and most radio shows on NPR - why not podcasts? If one of the greatest television shows ever written can wrap up its five seasons in 60 minutes, so too can a couple of people with Blue Yetis discussing the latest Google keynote.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Editing a podcast can be a pain in the arse. I know. I’ve been there. I personally stitched together almost every episode of inThirty and even when I wasn’t editing for content it was still a hassle. It doesn’t help that there is no dedicated software for this purpose.

For our interview with Woz, I split over an hour of audio into two episodes and that meant cutting some stuff out. I made a decision to leave out bits of the interview in order to keep the length down to our normal 30 minutes per episode, so that means somewhere out there exists a director’s cut of the interview with all the audio intact. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it had to be made for the benefit of both the show and the listeners. It made for a more concise and engaging two episodes.

But I don’t see those decisions being made on some of the other podcasts I listen to. I’m astounded at the number of so-called “professional” podcasts that leave the audio issues and “Are you there?”-s in the final recordings. Do we need to hear 15 seconds of dead air because Skype crapped out? Is every last word on a particular topic valuable, or can some of it be trimmed to tighten up a show?

I get that a lot of podcasts are hobbies or side projects for people, so putting a show together might be tough or time-constrained. If that’s the case, perhaps it’s time to figure out what’s affecting a show’s length and pace, and address those issues before letting them go on any longer.

Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little

A listener should never hear, “So, anything else we should talk about?” It’s insulting and shows a lack of forethought from the host(s). Topics for a show should be set in advance and, more importantly, should be discussed for an appropriate length of time before moving on to the next.

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.

Obviously this isn’t an exact science and every show is different, but if you find yourself or your co-hosts rambling on about something for too long, cut them off or edit them out. The goal isn’t to bore listeners into a coma - it’s to make them want to listen on and if they find themselves wanting a little more out of a particular discussion, that’s okay. It’s better than them skipping forward or tuning out completely.

‘Tis the Season

Is it just me, or does seeing “Episode 537” in a podcast’s title bother anyone else? Why not give up the numbering convention entirely or adopt a “season” naming structure for episodes?

Since new episodes typically come out every week, one could split seasons by year, or by half-years. If the hosts take a break around Christmastime, one season could be July to December and the next could be January to June. Archives could then be organized by season, along with the general themes and topics discussed over those months.

If a ‘caster was feeling particularly adventurous, he or she could put season packages together for download from the show’s website for those who might want to catch up. One might even assemble collections from various seasons around specific topics, like “Our Analyses of Every iPhone Announcement since the Beginning”.

Commercial Appeal

Ads are a necessary evil of most professional podcasts. After all, podcasters couldn’t be doing this full-time if they weren’t being compensated in some way. Unfortunately, most ads are way too long (and if you listen to either of the two networks I listed above, you know exactly what I’m talking about).

A 30-second ad spot seems appropriate for most podcasts, maybe 60-seconds if the sponsor warrants it. For example, when I used to listen to Back to Work, Merlin Mann would always give a neat tip for how to better utilize a sponsor’s product. The ad wasn’t just Dan Benjamin reading copy into the microphone about how great Squarespace or TextExpander was - it was about how this product or service could make your life easier with real-world examples from an actual user.

Angry Mac Bastards also handles ads really well. The hosts announce all the show’s sponsors at the beginning and the end of each episode with a short blurb about each one. The whole thing takes about four minutes total for 4-5 sponsors.

I’m not going to lie - I skip through most two-minute ads the same way I do the commercials on my TiVo. When nearly every podcast you listen to is sponsored by the same product, you get it: Squarespace is for people who want to make beautiful websites. Yeesh.

Show Notes

Funnily enough, this is one thing most shows get right. Show notes are a valuable tool for listeners, especially when the topics being discussed relate to recent articles or news items. I often head over to a show’s website to investigate the links so I can further research a guest or an article.

If you’re not implementing show notes for your podcast, you should be. Give listeners one location to look up a guest’s Twitter account or that app you talked about. And if you’re building your list of subjects before you even record the episode, then this shouldn’t be a problem.

One suggestion I have for show note lists: split them up by category. Many show notes are just long lists of Twitter handles, App Store links, news articles, and other miscellany. Instead, try breaking them into subheads, like “Apps”, “Guests”, “News”, “Books”, etc…

The Future

Podcasting is still finding its footing among the masses, but it’s telling that the top episodes and podcasts in iTunes almost exclusively come from professional “Old Media” outlets. NPR/American Public Media, ESPN, and NBC occupy the majority of the slots at the time of this article’s publication. They adhere to set schedules, time constraints, and they properly edit their shows down to the essentials.

It’s also possible (and probable) that regular listeners download what they know and recognize. It doesn’t help that iTunes seems to only advertise shows from big-name brands and hosts, like The New York Times and Kevin Smith. I’d like to see iTunes display some of the better indies out there to get the word out that great podcasts aren’t just coming from old world entities. There are many hidden gems just waiting to be uncovered.

Several of the people I follow on Twitter have wondered why anyone listens to radio anymore since we have Rdio/Spotify, iTunes, and podcasts. I listen because I know what to expect and when I was doing a weekly show, I knew that “Old Media” still had a lot to teach New Media.

My hope is that podcasters figure this out sooner rather than later. There are some fantastic indie podcasts and podcast networks out there right now bogged down by, among other things, a lack of understanding what makes terrestrial talk radio so listenable.

This is just some listener insight on how to possibly make things a little better. The saddest part of all this is I made several of these points almost two years ago and it doesn’t look like anything has changed.

My suggestions are just that - suggestions. They are opinions on how I believe podcasts could be improved. I’m not saying all podcasts suck if they don’t listen to me. I’m not saying podcasts that tick off all the boxes I’ve drawn will be perfect, but I cannot be the only one who thinks most independent and semi-pro podcasts could use some polish, can I?