Does Your Podcast “Flow” Or Is It A “Circuit”?
The way you define the role of your audience is a huge factor in setting proper expectations.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of The Audio Insurgent. Today I’ll focus on one big thing (understanding the difference in the “Flow” and “Circuit” paradigms for audio projects). One small thing (how to tweak Zoom to record better quality audio). And one thing I find interesting (actually two things, provocative articles--written by the same guy--that I think have resonance in the spoken audio world).
[ONE BIG THING] “FLOW” AND “CIRCUIT”: This could be subtitled “Lesson #761 in why defining the relationship with your audience matters as much as what your show is about.”
In our work with organizations and talent exploring audio, radio, and podcasting, we ask a lot of questions: Who, specifically, is your project for? What are you trying to tell them? Why is this project a good use of your time and treasure? What problem are you solving?
I have a new one to add, something that it has taken me a long time to understand the value and importance of: Is your project a “Flow” project or a “Circuit” project?
The brief definition of what “Flow” means: In a “Flow” project, the content “flows” from a creator to the audience. One to many. Listen to what the creator has to say. The role of the audience is to listen.
The brief definition of what “Circuit” means: In a “Circuit” project the audience not only listens, but deeply influences how the content is made. This isn’t just feedback or interaction, it is a material role. Think of an electric circuit, where electrons move from the source (the creator) to the return (the audience) and back again. Without that connection between source and return, nothing happens. The role of the audience is not only to listen, but also be active participants and contributors.
If you are a visual learner, here is something that might help:
I’ve spent a long time thinking about those terms. To be frank, I really like the word “Circuit”--because the term matches multiple definitions of the word “circuit” (and anyone who has worked with me to title a project knows I always favor titles with multiple potential meanings--all of which are true). I’m not as hot on “Flow,” but it works and it’s time to move on.
In short: most creators pitch “Flow” concepts, yet “Circuit” concepts are where the podcast industry is leaning. That isn’t to say that “Flow” is bad and “Circuit” is good--or that “Flow” is the past and “Circuit” is the future--far from it. But understanding what your project is designed to do--that IS important to setting expectations. The other day I was trying to explain this to someone, and ended up saying: to creators, “Flow” is an act of expression; “Circuit” is an act of inclusion.
More on the concept of “Flow”
I admit it: in my career, I’ve focused almost entirely on “Flow” projects. That has a lot to do with my broadcast roots. Audio gets made. Audio gets distributed. Audio is heard. It’s thrown over the transom on a daily or weekly basis (or whatever) and that’s basically it. The relationship to the audience, besides some social and email exchanges, is mostly understood through qualitative and quantitative data. It is formal.
That has been the basic model of broadcast radio since its origins. It’s been present in podcasting almost since the beginnings, too. All big narrative series are “Flow” podcasts as a matter of practicality (it is hard to engage your theoretical audience a year in advance of the thing existing), but so are many talk/chat/conversation programs too.
Some examples of well known “Flow” podcasts:
This American Life
Dolly Parton’s America
The Bill Simmons Podcast
Pod Save America
Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend
30 For 30 Podcast
You get the point, there are lots of them, and they touch just about every category of podcasting. They are the big, ubiquitous hit shows that dominate a lot of the mainstream conversation about podcasting.
Many “Flow” creators think they are “Circuit” creators, but they aren’t. They may respect and listen to the audience, interact with them on social media, and read/respond to email inquiries, compliments, and complaints, but for the most part, the audience is kept at arm’s length, especially from the creative process.
In fact, whenever I have brought up these ideas to others, someone will claim that broadcast radio has had elements of the “Circuit” paradigm for years: case in point, talk radio. I disagree. In talk radio, callers are props--they are there as a foil, someone for the host and guests to talk to. Talent and producers mistake this for real engagement, and it is far from it. By even the most generous definition using the most “engaged” talk shows, only a fraction of a single percent of the audience ever calls in, and only during the real-time conversation of the moment, rarely before or afterward. That’s the patina of engagement, but isn’t actual engagement.
More about Circuit
You might have noticed earlier that I said “Flow” has been a creative paradigm in podcasting almost since its inception. Emphasis on “almost.” While I am venturing into the fight over the origins of podcasting here--the first bona fide podcast production was the inaugural episode of Chris Lydon’s Open Source, recorded in 2003--and it definitely was a “Flow” podcast.
But then almost immediately after, all the major innovative podcasts, like IT Conversations, The Dawn and Drew Show, and Daily Source Code--they were all “Circuit” podcasts. In these, the audience asked questions, weighed in on topics, and provided material for the shows. Hell, sometimes the audience were also the guests on these shows. These podcasts were a voice for a community of interest--a community that expected to be part of the show’s editorial. However, even in a “Circuit” project, the creator is still in charge: they decide what to do, not do, determine the theme and direction, but the audience is deeply and critically involved.
While many “Circuit” podcasts, to this day, don’t always drive huge numbers, frankly, they are the heart and soul of podcasting. While I’m not sure there have been a lot of hook-ups among TED Radio Hour fans, I would put up money that there have been marriages and babies that have come about after Harmontown fans meet up. These podcasts are like badges: “I am part of this. If you are part of this, too, then chances are we should be friends.” Even shorter: “Fellow listener, you are my tribe.”
While they go back to the origins of podcasting, and kept podcasting viable in-between Apple’s 2005 embrace of podcasting and the debut of Serial in 2014, some great examples of today’s significant “Circuit” podcasts:
Chapo Trap House
Pardon My Take
My Favorite Murder
The Tim Ferriss Show
Some fans and creators of “Circuit” podcasts argue that “Flow” podcasts aren’t really podcasts at all--that they are ignoring a tenant of podcasting by not creating a material role for the audience in their shows. I wouldn’t go this far, but for any “Circuit” podcasters reading this, I’m sure their reaction is “No shit, I’m glad you finally woke up to this.”
That’s fair--why does this matter?
It matters because “Flow” podcasts are becoming increasingly hard to get made--and to make successful. They are expensive, risky, and operate in an incredibly crowded field. “Circuit” podcasts are less expensive, more agile, less risky, better targeted, and find more avenues for monetization and sustainability.
So which do you think is the future of podcasting?
For me, it is both. The confusion is that most creators don’t think about the audience, or, at best, think of them as a monolithic borg who just consume and are only recognized in mass as a download count. To them, everything is a “Flow,” even projects that would do better designed to be a “Circuit.” Whenever I speak to organizations and companies finding their way in podcasting, they never (as in no exceptions) think about how to truly engage with listeners that they’ll draw to their new podcast.
This “Flow” vs “Circuit” is a concept that I think blows right past a lot of people creating podcasts and audio projects. Increasingly, I see this as a source of a lot of frustration, misalignment, and misunderstanding for creators. Understanding which of these your project should be will help it find a place in the world.
As with many conversations I have with people, it boils down to this: In 2021, if you think your job as an audio creator is to produce some audio files that you distribute over the internet or a broadcast frequency, you are going to be deeply disappointed with what happens. If you don’t care about the role of your audience, you can’t expect them to care about you.
[ONE SMALL THING] USING ZOOM TO RECORD AUDIO: One thing the staff at Magnificent Noise has done so well during the pandemic is figure out crafty ways to record audio that sounds professional yet is recorded in the least professional circumstances you can imagine. We converted multiple closets, kitchen tables, and guest rooms into recording studios using pillows, foam packing material, and lots and lots of blankets. And they sound surprisingly good.
One of my favorites is this picture, taken by Mary Chapin Carpenter of the recording set-up at her kitchen table. When you listen to the project we did together, entitled One Story, you’d be surprised this is how we recorded it.
One thing that has advanced considerably during the pandemic is the ability to use Zoom as a viable multi-track recorder. It wasn’t an option earlier this spring, but it really is now. Since Zoom is pretty ubiquitous across platforms and devices, the updates make Zoom a low stress option, especially in situations where you are recording guests you’ll only work with once.
When using Zoom to record, do two things:
In Preferences > Recording: Select the check box “Record a separate audio file for each participant” This allows you to have everyone on a separate channel, which buys you so much latitude to make enhancements and edits later.
In Preferences > Audio: You should make a few changes:
Change “Suppress background noise” to “Low”
In “Music and Professional Audio,” select “Show in-meeting option to ‘Enable Original Sound’ from microphone”
Select “High fidelity music mode” and turn “Echo cancellation” off.
Be warned that the jury is still out on “High fidelity music mode”--it increases the bandwidth for the audio and reduces compression--but also becomes a resource hog and will likely be a problem if you have crappy wifi. You might want to test this first.
And remember, when recording, one bromide rules: garbage in, garbage out. You can’t make a crappy recording sound good later. Buy a good USB mic (here are a few that are ridiculously good and surprisingly cheap: Ex 1 and Ex 2) and make sure it is properly positioned and selected in Zoom. Throw some pillows and cushions in front AND BEHIND you, and make sure the kids don’t come in asking for snacks.
[ONE THING I’M READING]: There is no such thing as a dull conversation with economist Will Page. Since I first met him, I’ve always been fascinated by how he is often the smartest person in any room, yet also really interested in what almost everyone has to say and contribute. That’s a rare combination.
He has two recent articles, one on Billboard and the other at The Financial Times looking at podcasting in context of the economics of streaming. In both he makes the point that almost all the conversations about digital media are about the expanding choices, but what will ultimately determine the success (and failure) of digital media centers on the lack of elasticity around the attention we have to give. You can grow users all you like, but there is only so much room in our ears.
Okay, one down. See you next time.