Podcast Perusal: Journal #3
Alongside the topical research on play, I’ve also begun diving into my chosen mode to share this knowledge with the world: podcasts!
Before this directed study began, my exposure to podcasts has been pretty embarrassingly low. I’ve been a big fan of the political Pod Save America recently, and I’ve listened to a good number of amazing longform interviews on The Tim Ferriss Show this past year, but other than that…Basically nothing. No Serial, no This American Life, no Adventure Zone…These are some of the big name podcasts that I know are increasingly popular in mainstream culture now. I’ve somehow never been hit by the podcast bug, though.
I have been convinced that podcasts can be an exceptional platform in today’s world: the barrier to entry is close to nonexistent, and the demand for engaging audio content has never been larger thanks to long commutes and easy consumer access. I may be a late mover at this point, but heck – it sounds like an amazing opportunity! Now I just have to learn how to make them…
There are two main parts to my plan: learn how to make a podcast at all, and how to make a podcast that’s actually good. On the technical side, I’ve found a great in-depth tutorial series thanks to my student access to Lynda.com (which something I should really take more advantage of in life…). I’ll be completing that series this week, and then I’ll be ready to actually start designing my own! To prepare myself for that task, though, I’ve also been exploring an assortment of other podcasts that are either spectacularly highly acclaimed or are very closely related to my topic of Play.
Below is a list of the podcasts I’ve checked out over the past three weeks, along with a quick summary of what I found.
Radiolab: This must have been the most frequently suggested starting points when I was asking friends for podcast suggestions. These episodes take on a wide range of topics, doing a deep dive into understanding some scientific or philosophic issue. Its most interesting trait to study is its sound design. I’m really impressed with their editing, weaving in and out between the narrator’s descriptions of an account and their guest/expert’s voice. It seems strange, but they manage to do a great job of seamlessly switching between these first- and third-person descriptions. The other very distinct aspect of its design is what I’d call its ‘soundscape’: there’s almost always some topical background noises that seeks to really immerse the listener. They also often take small breaks – usually right after a particularly strange revelation or question – that lead to prolonged soundscapes. To me it can get a bit distracting, but I can see the value in breaking segments up and giving the listener a chance to digest.
This American Life: This is another of the podcast Greats; I couldn’t not listen to it! Each episode is centered around a theme, usually broken down into two or more real world stories. I can tell that the host, Ira Glass, is highly practiced at his role. He does a great job of pacing the story and keeping engagement up. This one tends to give more focus to the real storyteller themselves, with Ira stepping in from time to time to help the story move along or give some further information. This is a genius tactic to keep the world within the story always moving to the interesting bits – they may take 10 minutes talking about a specific day or encounter, and then within 20 seconds of air-time they’ll have smoothly ushered the listener to a day a decade later.
The Tim Ferriss Show: So this one I already know and love. This show was my main inspiration, as Tim himself openly explains that he started this podcast purely for his own self-interest: to give him a chance to meet incredible people and to learn from them. He unapologetically throws in a lot of personal questions and stories, so these interviews often play out like extended (and very detailed!) conversations between great minds. By now, these interviews are known as one of the best longform interview platforms and has attracted a whole host of talents from Sir Richard Branson, David Blaine, Maria Sharapova, Amanda Palmer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Marie Kondo…the list goes on and on. The main takeaways I’ve learned from this style is that Tim painstakingly prepares for each interview and is comes ready (and explicitly aims, he says) to cut past all of his guests usual talking points and canned responses, quickly and respectfully, and try to get at the real essence of their art or trade.
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know: This one was a bit of a gamble, but it came as highly reviewed and is itself very playful – this is a trivia gameshow-style podcast, filmed in front of a live audience. I’ll admit I was not very impressed by this one, but I can’t tell if I’d like it more if I thought the jokes were better. I’m also not personally a fan of live comedy, so I have to take that judgment with a grain of salt. It was interesting to see a very different genre of podcast, which definitely came with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. I think this has made me more wary of trying to mix comedy and live recordings (or at least within linear, non-edited conversation!) I might try to avoid overt humor in my show…but we’ll see!
Ludology and The Dice Tower (two podcasts): I chose these as examples of the massive amount of gaming podcasts out there, which are presumably very closely related to my own topic. It was shocking to me that amidst the hundreds of podcasts about specific games, game culture, board games, video games, you name it…that none I could find were about Play more generally outside of games. I thought for sure with a name Ludology that would be it…but no. Both of these pods are just pals talking about board games: reviews, funny stories, and upcoming gaming news. I am myself a huge gaming nerd, so I did find myself entertained and engaged. At first I was skeptical about whether board game podcasts could be sustainable, but Ludology‘s 170 hour-long episodes and The Dice Tower‘s *545* episodes have proven me very wrong!
I was much more a fan of The Dice Tower‘s structure than Ludology, which perhaps should be no surprise due to their size and budget (TDT is a widely regarded gaming culture website/hub). Ludology looks to be purely a sit-down discussion. They have topics to cover in each episode, but the hosts seem happy to meander and sidetrack. In both cases the conversations feel natural and unhurried, and I think they do a good job of making the listener feel like they’re hanging out with them on a couch. What makes The Dice Tower much more engaging to me, though, is that every so often you’ll hear someone say, “oh look it’s almost time to hear from [so and so] about [such and such]!” It soon transitions to some short prerecorded ‘special feature’, sharing an in-depth analysis of a certain game or mechanic, and then returns to the hosts who then discuss their reactions to the segment themselves – neat! Overall, I thought this was a refreshing take on the seemingly popular conversational style.
Revisionist History: This one I picked up on a whim. It wasn’t part of my original list, but when I saw that Malcolm Gladwell had a podcast I needed to check it out. Unfortunately I was unimpressed with what I found. To me, Gladwell’s narration falls flat and fails to bring a sense of good pacing and engagement with the listener. It often feels like he’s just reading from a long script – maybe bored himself – without really considering how the listener will be affected. The content itself is interesting enough, but I take this as a good warning about what not to do. Keep your audience in mind! Thankfully, I think I’ll be good at this aspect…there’s one way to find out.
Nerf This! – Esports News: I was excited for this one, because I had no idea what to expect. Esports culture has become such a strange amalgamation of gaming and nerd culture, traditional sports culture, the business/corporate world, and tech-startup-bro culture. If you can’t tell, I’m excited to investigate Esports myself! This ended up being an fast-paced two-person discussion format in which the hosts go rapidly through…what I think must have been all the news in Esports from the week. They cover Counterstrike to Hearthstone and everything in between, going into staggering detail about certain games, players, strategies, stories, etc. It was clear to me that this was a very in-the-know podcast, not created for anyone who isn’t already deeply immersed in the culture. The lesson from this to me is to keep accessibility in mind – even if certain technical terms or concepts might make sense to me and a guest, I can’t assume the same of my listeners.
Pod Save America: This is the other podcast I already know and listen to fanatically. It’s interesting to compare this with the Nerf This! pod above: both center around a conversation between hosts who are clearly experts in their field. In PSA‘s case, this field is politics and US affairs. But while Nerf This comes off as very uninviting and cryptic to outsiders, PSA is exciting and impressive to listen to. They may throw inside jokes or references to their past work now and then, but to me those moments end up enriching the experience, helping to show their clear expertise and background. The key difference, I think, is that they seek out primarily to explain all the ridiculous things going on in Washington, inviting the newcomer to join the club – and, at the same time, perhaps tantalize them with the fact that there’s much more to learn and understand. My main criticism of this podcast is that it has the most ads of anything I’ve listened to, by far. They have three to four lengthy ad breaks throughout the episode. Thankfully, I’m not expecting to ever have any ads so I won’t even worry about that for the time being!
That’s it for now! I’ve got two more Podcasts on my list to review, both of which I’m genuinely interested in (maybe that’s why I’ve saved them ’til last – I’m afraid I’ll get sucked in!) One is a new, rave-reviewed podcast on design, called 99% Invisible. The other is Back to Work! which explores the topic of productivity and procrastination. I’m hoping that the productivity one may be great inspiration for my own, since it seems like a similarly precise but generalized topic area.