It’s Time To “Ask Eric Anything,” 2022 Edition
Video is not the future of podcasting, the ethics of Serial, Podcast Movement, and the importance of using every moment to give reasons to keep listening, among your other questions.
Welcome to Dispatch #30 of The Audio Insurgent.
In the later summer, I asked for “Ask Eric Anything” questions. I received bunches. Today’s dispatch is pretty much answering a few. Plus, a bit of forgotten NPR history that’s recently bubbled back up to the surface: alt.NPR. BTW, next dispatch will continue our dive into podcast cross-promotion.
If you don’t have enough of me, I’m the guest on this week’s Podland News, where we chat about podcasting, audiobooks, and the importance of framing strategy on the listener. However, they also ran the other half of the interview in their Sunday bonus episode. Frankly, I think that was the better part of our chat, so you should go listen to that, probably before you listen to the main episode (as it was the earlier part of our conversation).
And again, I recorded an audio version of this. If that’s valuable to you, you need to say so or I’ll assume only a handful of people care. Oddly, Substack doesn’t tell me how many people listen, so I’m running on anecdote!
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: ASK ERIC ANYTHING]
Most popular question: “What do you think about the push to video in podcasting?”
I received six different versions of this question. It’s apparently on a lot of people’s minds, sparked by (and captured in) a number of press commentaries. Plus, many of these questions came in around Podcast Movement, where this was a frequent topic of discussion. And while several were submitted anonymously, of those who included their email address, it was a range of people, from indie creators to those who work at big companies.
First, I would say two things:
If you want to release a video version of your podcast, or segue your podcast into being primarily a video offering–fantastic. Go for it and thrive. I have no problem with it.
I do, however, have a problem with the idea that “the future of podcasting is video.”
There are only two types of people saying this: those who wish they were in the video/TV industry to begin with, and those who work in podcast advertising.
I think it is important to remember that podcasting is predicated on the act of listening and the inherent value in that act. Listening is different than watching. Listening requires you to hand over your attention to something going into your head: a voice, a story, an idea, someone’s lived experience, or a way of thinking. Listening may be challenging to you, or validating to you, calming to you, comical to you, or maybe it’s moving to you. Often the benefits of listening are lost in the video-based version of a project. Even though video can be many of those things, it is such a passive and less intimate experience than can be achieved by simply listening.
I almost can’t underscore this enough: listening is a humbling, intimate, and emotional act that can’t simply be replicated, let alone improved or enhanced, in video form. There are many, many stories that are better told, or more impactfully told, in visual form. But just as every good story won’t make for a good podcast, every good podcast won’t necessarily make for a good video.
It isn’t all about emotion, it’s clear that listening is a different cognitive process than viewing. A number of organizations, including some I’ve worked for, have tried to argue that listening, like reading, is a healthier brain process than viewing. The bottom line: there are differences, but they aren’t super compellingly different.
To complicate this further, I think it’s great that so many creators record video of their podcast sessions and make it available to listeners who prefer to watch. But which activity is primary and which is secondary? Are you watching a video of an audio podcast recording…or are you listening to an audio version of a video recording? That may seem like a super small distinction–perhaps you think it is an insignificant distinction. But it's actually a HUGE distinction.
I’ve had other versions of this conversation dozens, if not hundreds of times, with people staging festivals, lecture series, literary events, or other spoken word live happenings. This stuff is great, they say, let’s make it into a podcast. I always reply that unless something was produced with the primary intention of being a podcast, it is hard, if not impossible, to retroactively make the recordings of the live event into a compelling audio experience. Do you enjoy the event sitting outside and listening in through a doorway just as much as if you were in the room? Of course not, the same applies to listening to a podcast made from a recording of a live event. Even successful live tapings of shows are just that–they aren’t focused on the people in the room. The audience is witnessing a recording (and most audiences enjoy that).
There are millions of people who like watching videos from a podcast recording session. For them, it works. And that’s fine. But I don’t think this will ever apply to everything (or almost everything) in podcasting, even all chat-based podcasts.
And even though almost all listeners would never be able to articulate what I’ve just said above, they get it. They understand it without even needing to speak it.
So why are those proclaiming that “video is the future” so willing to throw that away? My guess is because they’d rather be doing video in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with that, yet that doesn’t mean an entire industry needs to follow them just because they’d rather be doing something else.
At most, and this is highly unlikely…any potential mass defection from podcasting to video podcasting will be similar to the exodus of radio talent to television in the 1950s. It changed both mediums, but audio-first content didn’t go away, it just reinvented itself again and again…until we are right back here again with podcasting.
So, do I think that video is the future of podcasting–I think there is close to zero chance of that. If people chose to go that route, is there anything wrong with it? None. As an audio-first podcaster, is it something to fear or worry about? Nope.
That was a really long answer, let’s do some more…
Next question: Do you agree that the producers of Serial have a moral obligation to report updates in the show or new information that comes to light in the case?
Surprisingly, since this question was submitted, Adnan Syed has been released from prison and Serial released an additional episode about his release.
To answer your question, no, I don’t agree that Serial Productions has an obligation to report updates to the story. The only exception is when information comes to light that calls for a correction to what they reported earlier.
I’ve heard a number of criticisms of Serial over the years, which I think tend to be unfair. There have been criticisms that Serial did not include information about the case, like details of the autopsy or police activity. But any reporter worth their salt chooses not to include thousands of pieces of information. Their obligation is to present a factual, fair story, but there isn’t an obligation to discuss everything about a case. Another criticism, largely from Adnan’s supporters, is that Serial didn’t do enough to advocate for his release. But the producers are journalists. Their job is not to be advocates or build a case for anything. There are lots of people to do that, Serial doesn’t have to do it all. In my view, besides corrections, Serial’s obligation to the story ended when they fed their final episode.
Serial was a ground-breaking piece of work, but it wasn’t perfect. Innovative things rarely are perfect. Examinations of it after its run should be opportunities to learn and inform how to do future work better.
The great thing about a healthy journalism ecosystem is that journalists work off each other to forward stories. No one owns a story and no one is bound to it. If another reporter wants to pick up an aspect of the story, or dive deeper, or explore in a different direction–that’s the way it should work.
Next question: I know you wrote a book about censorship, do you have any reaction to the Podcast Movement/Daily Wire brouhaha?
I got three different versions of this question. I was originally intending to steer completely clear of this, but the solution seems pretty clear for me. And for those of you who have no idea what we are talking about, here is an overview.
First off, let’s cover what doesn’t work:
Suppression of ideas or people (including those that you find offensive)
Trying to please everyone.
Okay, so given this mess and where to go from here… Podcast Movement should step back and come up with a values statement for their conference. Points on such a values statement could include items like “We believe that everyone, regardless of ideology, should be part of our conference.” Another statement could be “We believe that no one associated with our conference should discriminate against others, nor produce content that supports or advocates for discrimination.” It really doesn’t matter what the statements are, but they should be up front with it. Then as part of the registration process, every attendee, exhibitor, sponsor, and vendor has to sign/agree to that statement. Anyone who can’t support that values statement should feel very comfortable and clear in the opinion that the conference isn’t for them. Anyone found to violate that value statement should be asked to not be a part of the conference.
The point of the values statement is to transition away from everyone’s individual idea of what the community rules should be and lean into a shared set of community rules. Otherwise, these situations are never resolved.
Next question: What’s the best way to get the convo going with guests? As a guest I HATE being asked upfront for a quick summary of who I am and what I do! I can’t imagine that listeners care.
There is a lot in this question!
First, I think it is really important for podcasters to remember that the running order of material in an episode doesn’t have to be the same as the order you record it. Also, you don’t need to use everything you record, because a lot of it (half? more than half?) won’t be worth using. Almost always, even with very experienced guests, people warm up during the recording. After 10-15 minutes, they loosen up, yet still have a lot of energy. Often, I find that the middle 50% of an interview is the best (25% warm up, 50% good stuff, 25% energy winds down). So if that is often the case, why not order the conversation so the important questions are answered when the guest is at their best?
Then once the interview is done, rearrange it so you have everything where you need it to make a fantastic episode.
I know a lot of podcasters who want to capture everything in order simply because they don’t want to take the time to edit. I kinda get that–but I also think it's a lazy excuse. Rarely does that work, even for the best interviewers–and everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, benefits from an edit. Even a little editing can vastly improve an episode and make it more valuable and interesting to more people. Everybody wins.
Second, while I commend your instinct to be concerned if a listener cares (regarding your intro and bio), I think that’s the wrong question and approach. As a guest, I would be asking myself “How do I frame my experience and perspective in a way that listeners will understand why what I’m saying is relevant and useful to them?” Then the answer you give will change from a bland LinkedIn resume summary (“I worked as an advisor for 15 years at Merrill Lynch”) and more benefit focused one listener relevance (“For 15 years, I’ve helped people grow their investments to save for retirement and I’m excited to share with listeners the best advice I frequently give to clients.”) Everything that’s said in an episode should be a reason to keep listening, even those said by the guests.
Next Question: Eric, do you think there will ever come a time when it will be simple to pay for and use commercial music in podcasts?
I expect this will happen eventually. Though, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure most podcasters need it. Would it be fun to use a Jimmy Hendrix song to score a scene or use a Daft Punk riff as intro music? Sure it would be. Are there an increasing number of production and custom music options that I can use to grab something with a similar feel? Yes.
I guess what I’m suggesting is that the alternatives to using commercial music are growing much faster than any progress on an easy/practical/reasonable licensing system for commercial music. By the time the commercial solution arises, it will feel even less necessary than it does today.
Next question: For those trying to run a podcast production business, what do you see as the biggest concerns in the coming years? And what are the biggest opportunities that you think people aren't quite honing in on?
In the summer of 2020, Stitcher was sold to SiriusXM, mostly because Stitcher–a podcast company with hundreds of staff and hundreds of shows, didn’t think it was big enough to compete in today’s podcasting industry. If that’s true, what about all the companies with a handful of staff, let alone dozens or hundreds?
Being small has its advantages, but comes with a lot of baggage. Nothing made me appreciate the struggles of running a small business like running one myself. Honestly, it has made me a kinder and more understanding person. Magnificent Noise is, thankfully, very successful, but that doesn't mean it is easy, like, ever.
Beyond those typical small business issues, I think small podcast companies have a big challenge in keeping up. When we started Mag Noise, we recognized–four years ago–that podcasting was becoming too big for one small company to be good at everything. And boy, has that truth become more compelling and evident in the years since. We decided to address that by specializing: only focus on development and production. Yet especially in the last year, we’ve felt this tremendous pull to offer more services in distribution and audience building.
So, for others, mostly producers putting out a shingle to start a production company, the demands of producing for most clients will feel overwhelming, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. In fact, it will most likely get worse and rockier before industry expectations and practices work themselves out.
I think the solve for this isn’t necessarily to make your company bigger. I think the solve, which is also an example of the opportunity you ask about, is to create a bit of a network with other small companies. A small production company can partner with a small marketing company and a small sales company to offer services across all.
And a related question: What are your suggestions for how to protect some real estate in the podcast universe for the small indie producers and their work?
I get why you are asking this question–and I included it because I received a few versions of it for this AMA and hear it a lot in the Q/A segments when I speak.
As someone who loves advocating for indies and their work, I don’t think the right answer is to create protected space for indies. I think it is critical for search and discovery to remain as fair and egalitarian as possible as the industry evolves, creating opportunities for the best ideas to get exposure and connection to audiences regardless of the size of the creator or organization. What I want, and I’ve said this before, is for podcasting search and discovery to resemble YouTube, which to me is the best content discovery experience available today. It doesn’t matter if a mega-million dollar organization produced a video or an amateur indie in their bedroom–the right stuff finds its way to me.
That said, I think one of the most important acts a successful podcaster or podcast platform can do is find ways to elevate new voices, indie voices, and creators from marginalized communities. It can be as simple as tweeting love towards a creator who impresses you. While it would be great for big podcasting to YouTube-ize search and discovery, I believe you can’t say you believe in the potential of podcasting without being a loud advocate for new voices and their work.
Next question: Why hasn't a company (like Google) built the equivalent of Google advertising for audio. Meaning, a mom-and-pop local business can create an audio ad and choose to target podcast listeners within 30 miles of their business, and do it in an economical way.
Because audio advertising is too small, even in the high growth podcasting market.
This year, the podcasting advertising market will generate about $1-1.2 billion in revenue (which is fantastic, by the way, hooray for big growth in podcasting). Compare that to the entire digital advertising market, where Google is a leading player, which will generate $602 billion in revenue this year.
Even if podcasting were ten times its current size, I wouldn’t expect digital audio ad tools to be on par with tools available to text, image, and video digital ad sector. But it would be cool to be wrong!
Final question: What do you predict will emerge in the podcast space 5 + 10 + 20 years from now, and how do you imagine the term “podcast” will evolve?
I don’t make predictions. When I’m asked, I take it as permission to tell the truth about what I see today and potential impact of those things in the future. There are only two things I feel certain about in the future. First, people will always want to have good things to listen to. There will always be a demand for good stories, provocative thinking, and the companionship of listening to other people. I can’t imagine that changing in 5, 10, 20 years–or forever. The second thing I’m certain about is even though listening to the spoken word will be very valuable, listeners will expect access to it to be easy. That doesn’t mean free (but that doesn’t hurt), it means it will be easy to find, easy to listen to, and easy to share. Every requirement/roadblock you put in between those three “easy to” statements, every mandatory button press, every intentional or unintentional obstacle you put in their way, reduces its utility and diminishes its chances for success.
So, that’s enough for today. I received several dozen other interesting questions. Perhaps I’ll do a “Part Two” in the future.
[TODAY’S SMALL THING: alt.NPR]
While NPR’s entry into podcasting is well documented, there is another chapter to that story that’s almost been forgotten: alt.NPR. Shortly after we started NPR’s podcasting efforts, we quickly got questions about developing original podcast content. Back then, 17 years ago, this was an incredible challenge. At the time, NPR had no ability to create audio in any fashion that would be considered “nimble.” There was one exception, Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton’s groundbreaking (and NPR’s first) online program, “All Songs Considered.” But even with that, it was recorded in a regular studio, using engineers and directors and other typical trappings of NPR program production.
If we wanted to make something agile and set up specifically for podcasting, we’d need to experiment with a lot of new ways to produce audio. The answer: alt.NPR (fyi: after being asked to give it a name, I made up “alt.NPR” on the fly and we never thought of other titles). A number of people who knew about alt.NPR commented on the odd assortment of shows under its banner. The content strategy was pretty simple: what friends or work colleagues trust me enough to do some experimenting and make a show. That was really it.
We did things that were considered radical at the time, like, hosts recording their own audio (pretty much verboten at NPR at the time) and, brace yourself, using Skype to record remote participants (it took many hours of work for NPR’s engineers to figure out how to connect a Skype-compatible computer to a broadcast console…remember, this was 2005). It was a fun time, a frustrating time, an innovative time, and something that proved incredibly important to NPR’s future. As ragtag as some of it was, it put a lot of pieces in place that we’d use a few years later to create a string of mega-hit franchises for NPR.
As part of efforts to expand their archive knowledge, a current NPR staffer reached out to me, asked me a bunch of questions about alt.NPR, and wrote up a great post about alt.NPR. It’s worth the read.
Okay, that’s it for today.
And, again, if you like the audio version…don’t be quiet about it. It’s a pain to record!
If you didn’t listen to the audio version of this, you missed the sound of my dog puking in the background, then audibly chewing on her toys under my desk, and then the trash truck driving by my house. I didn’t edit any of this out! The power of audio!! Remember that Substack doesn’t tell me how many people listen to the audio, so if you are quiet, I won’t know you like listening to it.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.