on Mar 24, 2008
FtB is generally considered a rousing success by most podcast standards, even though FtB ignores a lot of the conventional wisdom about how you’re supposed to run a podcast. This is not surprising to me at all, because I think the conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong. The rules state that you should keep your podcasts short, because people like to absorb something quickly and move on. Like blog-surfing. Like YouTubing. Like Flickr-browsing. Visitors are supposedly capricious creatures, prone to hit the back button at the slightest provocation and leave your site if there is a lapse in the entertainment. Surfers are nomadic hunter-gatherers, who seek out and subsist on entertaining media.
Most podcasts seem to stick to the suggested length of 10 minutes or so. FtB usually weighs in at about 60 minutes. Hosts and subject matter aside, I think this is a big part of the appeal of the show. The podcasting guides out there will tell you this is madness – no prospective listener is going to want to sink a whole hour into a new show! No matter how good it is, you’ll never get any listeners. (I wonder how people ever start watching new TV shows, then?)
Some people save the show and listen during their morning commute. I listen while
running staggering haltingly on my treadmill, using the friendly voices and hilarious banter to stave off observations on my own mortality and the grim fact fact that, as far as my body goes, it’s all downhill from here. I’m sure more well-adjusted gamers do stuff like painting miniatures and drawing maps while they listen. The important thing this that a ten-minute show would be almost useless for this sort of thing. If I listened to normal-length podcasts, I’d have to stop what I was doing every ten minutes to find another show to listen to.
Another thing that sets FtB apart is the editing. FtB host Luke said once that you can add 20 IQ points onto the hosts, just through editing. It’s true. Editing is tedious and time consuming to do, but the jump in quality is astounding. You cut out the “ums”, the awkward pauses, boring tangents, lame jokes, distracting background noises, belches, and anything else that makes you sound unprofessional or unorganized. This is particularly true for new hosts who are still learning the craft. I’ve heard new podcasts where the host will thrash around, digress, lose their train of thought, waste thirty seconds trying to remember the name of something only tangentially related to the conversation at hand, and then get interrupted by a co-host with an unexplained in-joke once they finally recover. It’s cringe-inducing, and makes it very likely that people will tune out before you settle down and get on-topic. The magic of editing can fix that.
If you read any of the various “how to get started in podcasting” guides – and they are legion – the guides will invariably encourage you to “Have Something to Say.” This sounds like something which should have the word “duh” appended to the end, but you’d be surprised how many podcasts I’ve heard fail at this. The issue here is that opinions are not content, discussion is content. Anyone can rattle off a list of stuff that sucks / rocks, and that can generate discussions with your readers if you’re controversial enough, but if you stop there then your podcast is going to be a dull litany of pointless bashing and empty cheerleading. If your opinion begins and ends with “this thing sucks and I can’t believe that anyone watches / listens / cares about it”, then you don’t have anything to say. Saying it sucks twenty different ways does not transform an opinion into commentary. The guys at FtB manage to say some pretty controversial stuff in an entertaining way. The controversy is an emergent part of the conversation, not the goal.
My goal is to work out on the treadmill six nights a week. FtB podcasts can only cover an hour of that. I’d be willing to give the other five hours to other podcasts. I keep hoping some will show up that try to approach the medium more like a radio program and less like someone reading a blog post or rambling around a subject, rudderless and lost. Podcasting is several years old now, but it still feels like the medium is trying to find its feet.
(Just for the sake of my curiosity, I’d love to hear what podcasts other people listen to. Even if they aren’t anything like FtB. Drop a link in the comments below if you don’t mind sharing.)
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.