Simple storytelling and the Radiolabification of podcasting.

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I hate to dump on “The Daily”.

Apart from editing and producing our own shows, this brilliant New York Times podcast takes up more of my listening time than any other.  For news junkies, “The Daily” is part of our weekday morning routine. The show’s genial and ever curious host, Michael Barbaro, is like a friend at breakfast time.

So I take it personally when something is not quite right.

Recently, on several “The Daily” documentary episodes, a bit too much production has been getting in the way of the narrative. The informal, often intimate approach that is unique to podcasting,  is occasionally replaced by a more careful and rehearsed construction.

One example came this week in an otherwise gripping episode about the chaotic Trump Administration zero-tolerance policy that led to 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.

At one point, the sound of  the computer keyboard can be heard as New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson discusses her emails seeking information on the children from the Department of Homeland Security. To my ears, this was distracting, adding neither information nor enhanced atmosphere. Several other soundbites and mood music tracks also got in the way of the compelling narration.

On “The Daily”, the Times reporters are the stars. Let them unpack their deep understanding of the beats they cover without too many interruptions.

Perhaps you disagree with me or think that this is a trivial quibble. But it’s part of a broader trend in podcasts made by companies, where teams of producers and editors often spend many hours crafting a single episode.

Perhaps they take their cues from “Radiolab“, the critically acclaimed, two-time Peabody Award-winning science and philosophy podcast and public radio show that began life on WNYC in 2002. Over the years, Radiolab’s inventive, playful use of sound has been a delight to listen to.

But maybe the show’s influence on fellow podcasters has become too great.

When podcast creators lack the deep skills of Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, rich, textured sound can be turned into a formula. Some well-written podcasts are burdened by the overuse of ambient sound and music.

This school of complex, layered production can sound precious, and be a barrier to understanding. A podcasting friend of mine from South Asia, who learned English as a second language, calls it confusing. Perhaps that’s because she didn’t grow up listening to the distinct sound of American public radio programs and documentaries.

Usually, spare is best. What makes podcasting and audiobooks so penetrating and memorable is the presence of a single human voice in your ears, telling you a story.

Often that’s enough. Intimacy requires nothing more.

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

 

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Podcasting Movement:  Kind of Like Woodstock Without the Sex, Mud and Rock n Roll

  
Actress and comedian Aisha Tyler on podcasting:  “I do it because I love it”

I’m just back from Podcast Movement, the annual pep rally, support group and two-day college course for podcasters in Fort Worth.  Chances are you’ve never been to an industry show quite like this one.

1100 attendees paid $500 each, plus hotel and airfare, for an earnest and at times joyous lovefest.  Think Woodstock minus the sex, mud and rock & roll.  What a way to network: I came with nearly 200 business cards for my How Do We Fix It?  podcast, and left with only a handful. 

“Podcasters enjoy being together. They want to learn from the best in the industry,” says Jared Easley, co-founder of Podcast Movement. 

 Most were either wannabe podcasters, or newbies like me, looking to learn all they can about their chosen passion. They’re their own program directors, show hosts, engineers and sales team. Most of us here haven’t made a dime from our shows … yet.  

But hope springs eternal. It’s been a heck of a year for this chaotic, young online industry since the first, and much smaller, Podcast Movement conference that was held last summer.

Weeks ago, in late June, President Obama appeared in-person for an episode of WTF With Marc Maron, recorded in the comedian’s garage at his house in Los Angeles.

Since rolling out last fall, the hit show “Serial” has been downloaded an astonishing 94 million times. Its runaway success sparked a wave of mainstream media coverage about podcasting in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Saturday Night Live and many other places.  A playful video segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last fall featured Ira Glass of “This American Life,” and a woman in her late-80’s, describing how easy it was to listen to a podcast.

Marketers and tech firms are taking note of podcasting’s recent growth. Some companies sponsored booths and took part in Q & A sessions. Many programmers, marketers, equipment vendors and automobile manufacturers have beefed up their investments. Audible (owned by Amazon) is jumping into podcasting, and Apple embedded a purple podcast into the iOS operating system on iPhones and iPads. 

 “I do it because I love it,” declared actress and comedian Aisha Tyler, well-known for hosting “Whose Line Is It Anyway” on ABC. In a speech that was frequently interrupted by laughter, cheers and applause, Tyler spoke of her own success and struggles in making “Girl on Guy,” the four-year old weekly podcast, where she interviews her favorite male celebrity friends. “It is the purest expression of what I do,” she said. 

Another keynoter was Lou Mongello, author, host and producer of the WDW Radio Show podcast. He urged podcasters “to be passionate, persistent and patient about what you are doing.” 
The audience can hear the passion in your voice, Mongello told me. “Worrying about your microphone, your plug-ins and your software is secondary to finding your voice and finding your audience.”
 There are said to be roughly 300,000 podcasts in production today in The United States. From self-help to sales shows, comedy to current affairs, they include an astonishing range of subjects, formats and production standards.  

“For someone who’s interested in learning, or having a laugh because life is challenging, I think podcasting is an amazing blessing,” says conference organizer Jared Easley. “There are so many good and talented people who are putting so much time and energy into content.”

But will they make money? That was the uneasy question hanging over this event. There are only a small number of podcasts that give their creators anything like a comfortable living. 
The only safe bet is that an industry shakeout is coming.  But while podcasting is still fairly young and cool, it’s great fun to be along for the ride.  Kind of reminds me of the early days of FM rock radio, before the slick program consultants crashed the party.