People have good ideas. Then, for the most part, companies come along and fuck it all up. Yes, that is me being needlessly mean. I am actually not a person who mindlessly nay-says everything that a large corporation has its hands on. I think that there are many parts of modern society that would never be possible without large corporations and economies of scale. I like those things, and I don’t want to not have them. But I think there are things that come across very poorly when you try to make it via a corporation and committee.
Podcasts are not one of them. Plenty of podcasts are made by large media corporations and are fine. They get the right people to do things in the right way, and you can tell there is a good amount of thought behind it. I am fine with Slate Media’s linguistics podcast Lexicon Valley. I might be biased, as I am a huge fan of John McWhorter. But there are some that are just bad.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. My life has allowed for it, and I am glad I do. But as you do so, you learn to pick up on a few things. There is one Podcast I listen to, and every time I listen to it I cannot help but shaking the feeling that I am listening to something inauthentic. But that last word is vague, and so I started to ask myself if I could begin to isolate what it was. I think I have come to a bit of a conclusion. Let’s see if I can’t argue it out.
I won’t be naming the podcast (because I am not that much of an asshole), but some others will get nominated for comparison purposes. I will only say that it is a tech podcast, and that will not help anyone narrow it down, as those are dime-a-dozen.
Tech podcasts are hard to do. You have a couple of options, and both of them have undesirable consequences. On the one hand, you could something niche for people working in tech, and alienate 99% of your potential audience. The other option is that you make it for a perceived understanding of what the average person knows. Now, here is the tricky bit – it is actually a lot easier to make a satisfying podcast for the former than the latter – regardless of how informed or otherwise you are about the specific topic. It’s because ‘Average Person’ is a construct, and not a very useful one at that. If I am listening to a podcast about my niche interests and I come across a topic I am uninformed of, I probably have a lot more incentive to listen so that I may inform myself. A niche podcast can also get a little more down in the weeds, and so if you are going into a topic that a potential listener already knows about, you can easily contextualize the discussion in a way that might give the listener a new perspective.
If you think back to all your 101 classes back in university, you realize that they probably gave you a lot of misinformation not malevolently, but because you do need a certain amount of stepping stone oversimplifications to understand more complex topics. That’s what one risks when making a podcast for average Jane. If Jane is informed on the topics, they will catch you out on your oversimplifications or be bored by the generalities. Neither of this is good.
I am reminded of something the creator of the Podcast Darknet Diaries, who once posted to twitter a screen-grab of a negative review he received, which said something to the effect of “A podcast for boomer clear-web normies.” That reaction, perhaps phrased more kindly, is the potential negative reaction from anyone who is more informed than the information you are giving out.
Keep that fact in mind for a minute. The other day the podcast that got me to write this post did an episode on video games. It reeked of the inauthenticity and provoked my writing this. The hosts, both professed video game lovers, spoke with this ‘video games 101’ language. I have no idea who these hosts are, and I have no desire to insult their credentials regarding this. I am more than happy to take their word for it. What was bizarre was their inability to walk the line between talking about video games with the kind of sophistication a more nuanced fan would desire, and talking about it with the kind of language that would make my parents understand it. They went too hard on the latter category. And here is the issue – I am not all that much of a video game fan. Using a language that outpaces me is not all that hard.
I have a suspicion that the hosts really are not all that much to blame here. Again, we are talking about a podcast that is made by a media company. This means that, while I only ever hear the hosts speaking, there is probably a producer or two somewhere involved in all this. Anyone in the creation chain may have told these people “go ahead and dumb it down for the boomers”, and they likely had to oblige. “Made by committee” has been an insult longer than I have been alive.
But it didn’t seem to me that it was solely the content that was bothering. There was something else involved. The podcast in question is relatively new, and I have been listening to it since the first episode. The tone this particular podcast is going for is jovial and conversational, wherein the two hosts appear to be delivering information to each other, and not the audience (which I suspect is an illusion that aggravates the point above). The problem with that style is that it can be hard to pull off organically, and you can easily end up with a product that sounds like two people who hardly know each other pretending to be friends. There are a thousand things that can account for this, only one of which is the fact that the people making this podcast are never doing so from the same room (something I know to be the case with this podcast, as the hosts say so). We also have no idea how much editing the final product has gone through. If there is something most humans are pretty damn good at, it is at picking up on social clues. Its part of the species arms race that we all engage in. We have an idea of what it sounds like when someone is only really laughing out of social politeness. This podcast has that in droves. If nothing else, this opinion comes from comparison to other podcasts where the hosts either are friends, close relatives, or a lot better at faking it.
I am writing this largely as constructive criticism. I don’t, however, trust the internet to take it that way, which is why I have opted not to name the podcast in question. But ultimately, I am reminded of what all my high school teachers used to tell me “I know you could do better, but I don’t really think you are applying yourself.” That felt like a cop-out when I was a kid, but I get it now and I think the same goes here. You guys have some good things going on here. Just, you know, work at it a little.