We approach the end of 2018 and I’ve yet to see a big pop culture site (that isn’t Polygon) post an article pertaining to podcasting that hasn’t brought down the fury of podcast fans. Like packs of ravenous wolves, tweets from TIME and the New Yorker alike are ratioed to death within hours. The harsh truth is these articles getting bombed isn’t the fault of the author. The real blame lies squarely on the editorial staff of said website. In this one rare instance, the fans are doing the good work. I’m here to point out what is going wrong in a lot of mainstream coverage of podcasting, why perfectly good writers are getting beef from Twitter, and how editors could not only fix these problems but generate a LOT more traffic.
Today, the New York Times posted a preview of Night Vale Presents’ upcoming series Adventures in New America, written by internet culture contributor Amanda Hess. As a critic myself (including some resume-fluffing state level awards for film and theatre review in college), I acknowledge that coming down on an opinion-based piece for saying something “wrong” is wandering into a minefield of problematic potential outcomes. That said, Hess starts their piece with incredibly poor taste.
Fiction podcasts have always felt one step behind the culture. The audio drama’s great and unexpected resurgence in this decade, thanks to the rise of podcasting’s listen-whenever-and-wherever-you-like technology, has produced a cutting-edge genre that seems somehow suspended in time.
Maybe it’s because so many scripted podcasts have borrowed from old radio plays. Or maybe it’s because they’ve so often leaned into genre storytelling, leaving social reality behind to build fantasy worlds and unravel mysteries. The experimental sandbox of the new form has produced sharp plots and intriguing aural soundscapes but few stories that seem to access something bigger than themselves.
Amanda Hess – The Best New Social Thriller is a Podcast.
These two paragraphs typify a series of bad habits I and fellow indie podcast reporters have seen recur in more mainstream media. Let’s break those down into three items, who doesn’t love a list?
Bad Habit #1: Podcasting isn’t a quirky new field.
While there isn’t much meat on the bone to analyze here, we’ve reached a point where this needs to be said aloud: Podcasting is not a burgeoning new format. We’ve reached a point where there are shows that have been running for well over a decade. “Podcasting is a new media frontier” is an advertising line used to talk investors/advertisers into taking the plunge and running ads on podcasts. HelloFresh might be running TV ads now, but they got to where they are now in part thanks to a sizable investment in podcast advertising (and still do to this day).
True, I’m coming from a biased perspective as someone who reviews/produces in the podcasting field but even long before that I was aware of the concept of what a podcast was and how vast the field could be. I attended a live performance of Welcome to Night Vale before I’d even attended my first concert, and I live in a cultural wasteland in the US Midwest. Cultural hubs like NYC, LA, Seattle, and dozens more are seeing popular podcasts having to add extra shows to their tour dates because they sell out within days of ticket announcement. Hank Green raised $300,000 for PodCon with relatively little effort compared to how hard he and his company pushed the early years of VidCon.
Seek to be better than this. I promise if you do, you’ll see a hell of a lot better like/retweet ratios on Twitter and next to no angry comments/subtweets.
Bad Habit #2: Just looking at Apple Podcasts’ trending feed is not enough.
Yes, celebrities talking to other celebrities for an hour with 15 minutes of ads is garbage podcasting. Yes, it’s a large genre of podcasting. Yes, there are a lot of dudebros who blather about “bad movies” or discuss “gaming news” every week with horrible audio quality, no real opinions to offer, and of course tons of advertisements. There are some absolutely painful podcasts out there, but as Amanda perfectly points out: Podcasting is a medium.
I don’t presume to know how many podcasts Hess has listened to before listening to Adventures in New America but from the phrasing of those first two paragraphs of their preview . . . it doesn’t feel like Hess has made much headway.
I am quite excited for Adventures in New America. Night Vale Presents has been doing some good work in diversifying their producers and content in recent months, but I can also immediately list off some podcasts that have covered the themes that, according to Hess, audio fiction hasn’t had the maturity to tackle yet.
My Twitter DMs are open, Hess. I’ll gladly shoot you some fantastic recommendations, or (see the Update below). I could even send a few Discord invites to places absolutely jam-packed with creators and reviewers flinging shows around like they’re engaged in an aural food fight.
Branching off from the NYT preview for a moment, this bad habit is at its worst in listicles. I love a good listicle – we all do – but whenever it comes to podcasts certain pop culture sites love to toss the burden of research on a contributor who, well, does what TIME Culture did with their embarrassing Best Podcasts of 2018 So Far.
Eight recommendations, none of which weren’t trending already, and the only fiction recommendation was the much-maligned Gimlet production Sandra, which at least in the circles I run in has become the symbol of fiction designed more for profit than quality (though Maximum Fun’s failed TV pilot-turned-podcast Bubble comes close). There’s nothing wrong with recommending a popular piece of culture, but lists like TIME Culture‘s are the podcasting equivalent of assigning someone who doesn’t actively explore YouTube the job of writing “Ten YouTube Channels you need to follow” and it’s just a random selection of the top 50 largest channels on YouTube. Nobody clicks on that article to be recommended Shane Dawson; they already have an opinion on someone like Shane Dawson before they’ve even clicked.
Bad Habit #3: Comparative insults hurt both the writer and the thing they’re attempting to compliment.
There’s not much else to say about Hess’ two paragraphs that isn’t already obvious from what I’ve been saying about #1 and #2: opening the preview by essentially insulting the entire audio fiction community is not a good move. Just ask Maximum Fun’s founder Jesse Thorn how that went when he posted this fun tweet a few weeks ago as an attempt to drum up interest in MF’s new audio fiction series Bubble:
That tweet is brought to you in glorious PixelVision because it broke so bad Thorn deleted it. Turns out bigging up your own podcast by being a dick isn’t the best marketing strategy. Now the only surviving evidence is the wonderful quirk of Discord caching previews of Twitter links and never updating them. Thanks, Discord!
When covering podcasts it’s important to remember the medium is far bigger and far deeper than something like terrestrial television. Algorithms act as gatekeepers – it’s up to the consumer to seek out content they want (and trust me, podcasters are losing sleep over making sure their SEO game is up to snuff in hopes the right keywords will grab that consumer). If one is making broad claims about fiction podcasting, they’re guilty of either 1: Trying to burn the podcasting community as a whole to make this show seem cooler (which has the added side effect of making that show seem snobbish by association) or 2: that person has little to no experience with podcasting and assumes the two episodes of The Thrilling Adventure Hour they listened to in 2014 are indicative of the medium as a whole.
If you find your writers positively frothing at the mouth to show the world they haven’t listened to many podcasts while still acting as a critic who is knowledgeable enough of the medium to have an opinion worth publishing, couch it at the end of the article like iO9 did in with this cringe-worthy final paragraph of their Mission to Zyxx review.
Even though podcasts have been around for a while and we’re now living in an age where pretty much everyone has one, Mission to Zyxx is proof that the medium still so much untapped potential, particularly for fictional work. There’s no telling whether podcasts are fated to become the next big thing in scifi and fantasy dramas but, if Mission to Zyxx any indication, shows like it very well could be.
Charles Pulliam-Moore – Mission to Zyxx is the best podcast you’re probably not listening to… yet.
For those who haven’t heard of the show: Mission to Zyxx is an improv comedy podcast dressed up in an audio drama costume. Several improvisers are given a vague end goal for the episode, they improvise for a while, an editor slices it down to 20 minutes of content and adds in sound effects and music to give the impression it was one cohesive story all along.
This is a thing that many other podcasts have done for quite some time, some I’d argue as successfully as if not better than Zyxx (and to perfectly clear, I like Zyxx) and they have equally large listener bases. Tabletop Roleplay podcasts like The Adventure Zone or, for a more recent example, the excellent 20 Sided Stories have basically transformed the idea of recording some people playing Pathfinder or D&D into a way to generate an amazing longform audio fiction piece.
See, I just expressed a negative opinion of a thing with evidence to back up what I’m talking about. That’s how you can do it without being a dick to hundreds of producers in one fell swoop.
How to fix this.
The above is an absolutely wonderful thread by Klaudia Amenábar addresses some points I’ve not touched on here and is well worth a read, but this first tweet really sends home the message I want to hit on here: Adventures in New America deserves better than this. I know people who hate the article but have signal boosted it because poorly written coverage is still coverage for this new show.
We should be at a point where the community gets excited when a bigger website posts an article covering podcasts or discussing podcasting, yet we’re at a point where we cringe. How can you, someone working at a pop culture site change this? Hire freelancers, get writers who cover podcasts for the sheer joy of covering podcasts, hire people who produce podcasts. There are lots of us, so many we have contact spreadsheets.
And I must be crystal clear on this: Not a single article I have mentioned in the bad habits thing was poorly written outside of those comments that inspired rancor in the podcast community. I actually love Pulliam-Moore’s review of Mission to Zyxx save for the final paragraph. Amanda Hess’ preview isn’t a bad preview save for those two offending paragraphs that betray a deeper problem.
Update: In fact, since I pressed Publish on this piece and emerged from my writing cave I was presented with this lovely tweet posted by Hess mere moments ago!
This further cements my earlier comments: Podcasts require a bit more digging than other mediums (yes, book critics, I heard that laugh, work with me here) and we’re all learning. People need more variety in their podcast diet, and that variety can only take hold if editors onboard people who have not only listened to a lot of podcasts but have solid networking ties to find more.
Dockterman’s rundown of 2018 podcasts has some damn fine synopsis and suggestions of the podcasts covered, the problem lies in the fact that they didn’t recommend anything that hasn’t already been recommended to the average podcast enthusiast a dozen times by Apple, Google, or the Trending tab of their chosen podcatcher app. That’s the podcast equivalent of going exclusively flavorless Soylent. It technically works but… who would want to?
Come over to the podcaster side of Twitter, find some freelancers. My door’s open, e-mail me, or perhaps you could hire Wil Williams, Elena Fernandez Collins, perhaps the lovely Alex over at AudioDramaRama?
Not a one of us would pull the crap these sloppy writers have (and we’ll be absolutely knocking down your door with suggestions for further articles Podcast Twitter would love).