Alan Jacobs has not been shy about his dislike of podcasts—but recently posted an apology, along with a comment and a request. The comment:
I like podcasts that are professionally edited, scripted, festooned with appropriate music, crafted into some kind of coherent presentation. Podcasts like that seem respectful to the listener, wanting to engage my attention and reward it.
And the request:
Does anyone know of similarly well-crafted, artful podcasts made by conservatives or Christians? I have not yet found a single one. Podcasts by conservatives and Christians tend to be either bare-bones — two dudes talking, or one dude talking with maybe a brief musical intro and outro — or schmaltzily over-produced. (Just Christians in that second category.) Anyone know of any exceptions to this judgment? I suspect that there’s an unbridgeable gulf of style here, but I’d like to be proved wrong.
As a Christian in the world of podcasting—I have both a “two dudes talking” show (Winning Slowly) and also a “one dude talking with maybe a brief musical intro and outro” show (New Rustacean)—I found much to agree with, but also much to clarify and a few things to disagree with.
To be clear, this isn’t a plea for you to listen to either of those shows. Rather, it is an explanation of what podcasting entails and why the kinds of things Jacobs is looking for are rare. (That being said: we did time this piece to coincide with the start of Winning Slowly Season 5, which kicked off today with an introduction to our take on the ever-challenging problem of systemic pressures and individual agency, and I think it would be right up the alley of many Mere O readers.)
1. Theses on Podcasting
First, a set of theses on podcasting as a medium. Some of these are obvious; none are intended to be tendentious. Some of them warrant further explanation—for which, see below.
“Podcasting” is a medium, not a form. Shows like This American Life or Mars Hill Audio Journal embody particular genres and forms within the medium.
As in other media, there is no accounting for taste, and peoples’ interests in different forms and genres will vary accordingly.
Even so, there is such a thing as excellence in both medium and form.
Medium and form are not trivially separable.
Excellence therefore demands understanding the medium technically, discerning the specific form employed within it, and grasping the constraints and rewards of that specific form-in-the-medium.
The constraints and benefits of the medium mean it may be best suitable to something different than other, even apparently-similar, media.
Blogging, for example, includes everything from link-blogging to long-form essays, and from tumblr-style photo-sharing to writing poetry. None of these look much like traditional magazines, much less television.
Each of those is a distinct genre, but still recognizably blogging.
Within the medium of podcasting, there are at least: interview shows, n people talking about q subject shows (with or without recurring guests), n people talking about anything-that-comes-to-mind shows, fiction storytelling shows, non-fiction storytelling shows, teaching or educational shows, syndicated sermon “shows”, and syndicated conference talk shows.
Within the medium of podcasting, there are at least: radio shows syndicated via RSS, sermons syndicated via RSS, shows advertised as podcasts and available via RSS, shows advertised as podcasts and available only within specific apps, shows advertised as podcasts and distributed without RSS feeds via e.g. SoundCloud,1 and shows advertised as podcasts and hosted as nothing more than a collection of files on a web-host somewhere.
As a set of constraints goes, the items on Jacobs’ list—“professionally edited, scripted, festooned with appropriate music, crafted into some kind of coherent presentation”—vary sharply in their applicability from show to show. Only the first and last are universal markers of quality, and even the last varies dramatically in how it should be applied.
Genre informs form. Musical backgrounds and transitions may suit storytelling more than conversation. Technical instruction requires a different structure than free-flowing interviews. Thoughtful conversation between friends has a different appeal (and ought to be edited quite differently) than journalistic commentary on current events.
The medium of podcasting—as distinguished from, say, blogging—lends itself particularly to conversation. Especially, but not only, for amateur shows. (By “amateur” I do not mean “badly done,” only “done as a side project without people paid to do production work.”)
This is a function, first of all, of human voices. Listening to one person for any length of time without interruption is difficult, unless the person has a good voice and is very well prepared.
Thus, even radio tends toward conversational and interview-style content. In even the most thoroughly-prepared and -produced radio content (e.g. This American Life), the interplay between the narrator and the figures in the story is nearly continuous.
It is therefore unsurprising that the default podcast format is n people talking about q subject.
Monologuing is easy.
Monologuing well is extremely difficult. It essentially requires a script.
One might be able to skip the script for a microcast—but even those require more planning than they might seem to.
Monologuing may be worthwhile nonetheless.
Podcasting at a given quality requires temporal and financial investment far beyond what blogging at the same level requires.
As a corollary, what is possible on a limited budget (fiscal, temporal, or both) as a podcaster is radically narrower than what is possible on an equally limited budget as a blogger.
For example: NPR-style interviews or storytelling require large amounts of time, money, or both, even at relatively low production standards—far more of each than an interview conducted via email and published on a blog.
A simple, conversational podcast requires substantial time, but very little money.
This does not excuse the poor quality of many such podcasts.
Even so, not all “two guys talking” shows are created equal. (Nor all interview shows, etc.)2
While some genres may lend themselves more readily to excellence, excellence is attainable in most other genres.3
Excellence is worth pursuing in each genre within podcasting. Even on a shoestring budget.
But for all of these reasons, high-quality podcasts in any given context will require financial investment from supporters interested in listening: for equipment, for training, and for the time required to produce the materials.
Few such shows exist today because the financial backing simply has not existed to support their creation.
The advent of alternative revenue streams (independent subscriptions, Patreon, etc.) may enable such projects to flourish more broadly. If, and only if, listeners opt to fund them, spread word about them, and so on.
Just as excellence is attainable and worth pursuing, so also funding a broader array of more excellent podcasts in a wider array of forms from the specifically Christian worldview is both attainable and worth pursuing.
Perhaps the most surprising points in those theses, to many readers, have to do with the temporal and financial costs around creating and producing a podcast. These were not obvious to me before I began podcasting, and so they probably aren’t obvious to others. My experience, making two very different podcasts, should help explain why those temporal and financial costs are so high.
Winning Slowly is two men in our late twenties, both in graduate school of some variety or another. (Stephen plans to finish a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University next year; I plan to finish my M. Div. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at the same time.) I also work nearly full-time as a software developer. My wife and I have two little girls, along with ongoing family health challenges. Stephen and his wife are expecting their first child. My work on New Rustacean has all the same constraints pressing on it.
We’re busy. And though the details vary, this is true of most podcasters. As is the case for most bloggers, podcasting is necessarily a side project for us.
The Production Process
Producing a podcast is involved: it requires at least four distinct steps: preparation, recording, production, and publishing. Of these, preparation and publishing are relatively similar to the same steps in writing, but recording and production are much more involved.
Winning Slowly is a 25–30-minute show, with focused discussions of topics in the intersection of technology, religion, ethics, and art. Stephen and I prepare for this in two ways. The first is semi-passively, by having an active an ongoing chat where we share articles and ideas, discuss ongoing topics of interest, and think in general terms about episodes we’d like to do.4 The second is active planning, both of season-long arcs and the topics we’d like to cover in the season, and in the specific details of each episode. Planning for a season takes us a few hours of dedicated time, usually spent over good coffee. Planning each specific episode takes at least half an hour, sometimes as much as an hour, as we hammer down the contours of our topic, the angle we’d like to take, and what we want the thesis of the episode to be. Stephen coordinates finding indie music to use at the beginning. All that takes place before we even record, and it takes a good hour or two of person-work.
Recording usually takes us about 40–45 minutes at this point, to get 25–30 minutes of usable content. Excluding equipment setup, call issues,5 and so on, we usually end up with between 30–35 minutes of audio content to trim to its final form. We record both ends, with backups of the whole Skype call and each end of the Skype call just to be safe. Losing audio from one participant or the other is not a hypothetical risk; it is something that happens probably once a season. We had problems with Stephen's audio for the episode we published today.
After we record, we share the audio with each other via Dropbox, and one or the other of us imports it into a digital audio workstation to do the editing.6 We trim long pauses, annoying clicks, distractingly sharp inhalations, and as many instances of “um,” “you know,” and other verbal pauses and ticks as we can. We cut tangents, remove fumbles over the way we say things (which sometimes make it in as bloopers at the end, and which require us to be aware of those fumbles and to re-state things regularly while recording), excise material that we think might confuse or mislead our listeners, and so on. We add intro music and outro music. This process generally takes at least one and a half hours and often between two and three hours. That’s assuming everything goes well. (Sometimes, it does not—even for experienced podcasters.)
The result is a 25–30 minute show that is still “two guys talking” but includes none of the random chit-chat that generally characterizes the format. We have theses.7 We are focused. We aren’t long or rambling. We spend a minimum of 4–5 person-hours on every single episode.
But even with all of that, we’re still nowhere near the kind of production values Jacobs cites in some of his favorite podcasts.8 The few episodes we’ve done in which we do come nearer that level, all of them focused on and deeply integrating music (1.05, 2.07, 3.09), take far longer—easily in the 7–10-hour range. The same is true of our interview episodes (3.09, 4.08); integrating 3 speakers is exponentially harder and more work than integrating just two, especially if (as is usually the case) the interviewee cannot supply his own audio.
(As an aside, those are also the episodes of which I’m proudest by far. I share Jacobs’ aesthetic sensibilities in this area to a large degree—but I also don’t have ten extra hours every week, and neither do most other amateur podcasters. Unfortunately, that’s what it takes to get to that level. There’s a reason most top-notch podcasts of the sort Jacobs particularly likes all have dedicated producers—who need to be paid.)
New Rustacean is a 15–20 minute show about learning the Rust programming language, for which I do every last bit of work myself. I script the episodes top-to-bottom before recording, which usually takes me anywhere between two and four hours (depending on the difficulty of the topic). I write detailed code examples illustrating the concepts in use, which takes another two to four hours. Then I record myself, which—with missteps, flubs, and pausing to take a drink of water from time to time—usually takes 25–30 minutes. Editing takes roughly double that, doing similar work to what I described for Winning Slowly and making sure everything sounds good. As with Winning Slowly, interview episodes require substantially higher time on the editing process, and although the preparation process is different, it is not meaningfully shorter. Total preparation time for a short, tight, well-organized, informative, one-person show usually comes out, again, to roughly 4–5 hours at a minimum. (The latest episode took me about 8 hours when all was said and done.)
In short, preparation, recording, and production are extremely time-intensive compared to writing a blog post—even one that gets thoroughly edited. And still, neither of my shows usually has music anywhere but in the intro and outro. Both fit in the buckets Jacobs finds a bit frustrating in many ways (“two dudes talking, or one dude talking with maybe a brief musical intro and outro”—though we’re definitely not “schmaltzily over-produced”).
I’m confident nonetheless that both are among the better podcasts in their categories. We’ve invested the time to learn the medium, and the time to produce the shows at a substantially higher quality than most offer. Still, neither show is anywhere near the production values Jacobs wants to see, and short of hiring a producer (which we can’t afford) or treating it like a part-time job (which we can’t afford), they never will be.
There are at least two things worth saying about Jacobs’ mix of complaint and request, then. The first is that some of this is just taste. We regularly hear from listeners that Winning Slowly is a good podcast, and I get an email or a comment roughly every week to the effect that New Rustacean is among the very best in its category. They may not be produced in the style of Mars Hill Audio Journal or This American Life, but that might not be a bad thing. I have listened to a fair bit of both, and frankly neither does much for me. More: adding the kind of production Jacobs wants would make New Rustacean substantively worse for the kind of content it is. (Of course, I don’t particularly expect it to be interesting to him, or indeed to the vast majority of the population. Programming languages are a relatively niche interest.) The same might be true of any number of other kinds of good shows which are nonetheless not much like Mars Hill Audio Journal.
In other words, Christians should have a goal of producing good podcasts, while recognizing that there is a great deal of variety in what that might mean. The Lord of the Rings and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Road are all examples of truly great fiction, and have little in common save the English language and a certain common moral orientation. The same is likely to be true of other media: exemplars of the forms may have little in common, while each being good in its own way. To wit: many friends of mine appreciate The Reformed Pubcast, which is the “two guys talking” form done to a ‘T’, and which frankly bores me just as thoroughly as This American Life. But Les and Tanner do that form pretty well, and I can appreciate that even while not wanting to listen to it at all—rather like my relationship with big band or contemporary jazz. So taste is one significant factor.
Beyond taste, the specific form or genre of podcasting in question makes an enormous difference in what is appropriate in its production. A number of my theses touched on this, and I think it is worth elaborating on. Jacobs, understandably given that he teaches English, is looking for stylistic tics which work well in storytelling podcasts. (By this, I do not simply mean narrative non-fiction; I mean that the podcasts he has in mind have a particular kind of arc to them, whether as interviews, journalism, or analyses of issues.) But the kinds of production approaches which befit storytelling do not especially fit a podcast describing concepts in a programming language; musical interludes would be a most unwelcome interruption in a New Rustacean episode.
This kind of variation exists even within broad genre boundaries. There are interview podcasts and interview podcasts. Some shows provide careful introductions to a particular subject, and interleave interview material into a discussion of a given topic. (Within the Christian community, perhaps the best known such is the aforementioned Mars Hill Audio Journal.) That form is unquestionably good—but then, I also deeply enjoy a number of programming interview shows which are very well-produced but have none of that introduction or interleaved commentary. Instead, they are simply interesting conversations with interesting people, hearing about specific technologies they build, their own formative experiences in software development, and so on.
Excellence in podcasting, in other words, is not one specific style or even a particular genre (though of course it is fair for Jacobs or anyone else to have a specific style or genre he prefers). Rather, excellence is a matter of knowing, and executing on, the specific constraints of the form chosen for a given show—from topics selected, to the degree of editorial invasiveness, to the very structure and length of the show. An NPR interview likely leaves 90% of the recorded material on the cutting room floor—because it is 15 minutes long. If CodeNewbie did the same, it would not be worth listening to—and not for any lack of quality. Those variations on the interview format demand different production styles, different approaches to writing and preparing, and different degrees of editorial discretion.
4. Affording a Podcast
So far we’ve talked about time, but that’s only half the equation. The other half is money, and unlike writing online, podcasting can become very expensive very quickly—and doing it for free or cheap has serious quality costs in a way that writing for free or cheap does not. Even if you buy your own domain to host a blog, you might be out at most $15/year. For a podcast, hosting and bandwidth costs for the downloads alone can quickly dwarf that if you have any success at all.9
Note that I haven’t even mentioned sound quality until now! We took a whole season of Winning Slowly to become sufficiently competent with our microphones and our editing software to be satisfied saying we were “out of beta.” (We still had plenty of hiccups after that because audio is hard, but it was pretty good most of the time.) Even with all that work, we’ve still had a major limitation: both of our microphones have been just okay, not good. Sounding good requires investing in good hardware.10 If you’re interviewing someone, you’re going to have mediocre audio from their end unless they have a dedicated recording setup of their own. The large, well-produced interview podcasts you hear usually have the budget to provide audio setup—sometimes, in the case of e.g. NPR shows, including personnel to support it—so that the recording of both sides is flawless.
Licensing of music (to make for the kinds of interesting audio transitions which characterize a lot of the best narrative podcasts out there) generally requires both lots of legwork and some amount of money. We manage unique intro music for Winning Slowly every episode only because Stephen has spent almost fifteen years writing on indie music, and has the connections that come with that. Including unique music is even more of a burden—either you hire a willing composer (which is probably even more expensive than licensing music), or you use canned samples (which are likely to be difficult to fit to the episode, and of quality in proportion to their cost), or you write the music yourself (which further increases the time of production for each episode).
Funding these efforts is difficult, to say the least. In something of a Catch-22, unless you have tens of thousands of listeners, it is very difficult to come by meaningful amounts of funding. Advertising is largely a no-go for small shows. Crowd-funding via Patreon or similar is great (we use it for Winning Slowly and I use it for New Rustacean), but unless you have those same tens of thousands of listeners, it’s unlikely to bring in a meaningful amount of money. Thus, most podcasters struggle to have the funds necessary for producing a more sophisticated show, limiting the kinds of shows they can justify producing! For most people, podcasts stay side projects, because few podcasters can afford for them to be more.
5. Conclusion: Enable More and Better
There is indeed a void of the specific style of shows Jacobs is interested in. I trust this discussion will have shown more clearly why. But it is also worth saying that there is a great deal of room for greater excellence across forms and genres within the medium of podcasting, especially from thoughtful, conservative Christian voices. We can and should embrace the medium as one capable of communicating truth powerfully and effectively. That goes for conversational shows, interviews, narrative non-fiction, journalism, teaching—anything you can come up with.
If we want to see excellence in Christian podcasts, especially in those forms which require greater resources of time and money, we need two things to change. First, some people are going to have to take a pretty large risk to go full-time as podcasters. It’s not a part-time kind of job to make quality at that level; I can say from experience that it’s very difficult to do on a weekly or even biweekly basis while having other normal responsibilities.11 But the risk of doing that is very high, because sufficient funding is so hard to come by. And that goes double in this specific context: evangelical Christians have been notoriously unwilling to pay for quality. (Just ask a bookstore you respect—or a pastor.)
Second, then, people have to step up to fund these kinds of shows. Make an investment in time to learn the medium itself, and to learn the way advertising and listener support can make it viable. Then sink the money in to fund the development of really excellent podcasts. Treat it as an investment in the Christian community specifically, and in bringing more good things into the world generally. That can be as simple as giving $5 to a podcast you love every month, or as significant as investing a half million dollars to help bootstrap a new podcasting network. But make no mistake: that kind of investment is absolutely a necessity for excellent podcasts to flourish.
SoundCloud supports distribution via RSS feeds—but not everyone takes advantage of that.↩
Two shows in the “people talking about tech” category, both long, illustrate this well: I find John Gruber’s “The Talk Show” nearly unlistenable most of the time, but “Accidental Tech Podcast” quite enjoyable most of the time. Different hosts with different styles (including of editing) can make a significant differences.↩
One can conceive of genres in which even a kind of “excellence” of craft would produce the opposite of an excellent show, e.g. if the genre were racist propaganda. I leave this aside as a broader question about the relationship between excellence in the mechanics of creative activity and the ethical excellence of what one creates.↩
This chatting happens in Slack for us; you could do it just about anywhere if you had good search and the ability to separate out different lines of discussion.↩
Skype is awful, but it’s basically the least worst option out there. Still.↩
I use Logic Pro X; Stephen uses ProTools. We started with Garage Band and Audacity, and while you absolutely can use those tools, suffice it to say there’s a reason we upgraded. If you’re only interested in podcasting, not other (e.g. musical) audio editing, I recommend Hindenburg Journalist if you’re on a traditional computer or Ferrite if you have an iOS device.↩
Once, we actually read a series of theses aloud on the show because we thought they were interesting. Dr. Jacobs, if you happen to read this, your original “79 Theses” got one of the more vigorous responses of any episode we’ve done.↩
On some of those specific production values and Winning Slowly specifically, however, see below.↩
For a sense of scale: New Rustacean had about 11,000 downloads in June (which is very small, probably still too small even to have any advertisers). With a hosting setup that took a decent bit of digital acumen to manage, that runs me about $5–6/month. That’s the least you’d pay for hosting on LibSyn; putting it on SoundCloud would take you to $15/month. And costs tend to go up as you have higher download numbers.↩
I saved months and months of listener support from New Rustacean to finally upgrade my own microphone and associated hardware to something actually good. If you’re interested in recording equipment, see Marco Arment’s podcasting microphone review and Jason Snell’s audio interfaces review.↩
Everything I say here goes double or more for video content. Video is at least as much harder again than audio as audio is than pure text.↩