What Joni Mitchell, Brandi Carlile, and Barack Obama Taught Me About Podcasting
Like millions of other people, I recently watched a video of Joni Mitchell’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival–and it made me think about the difference between good and great podcasts.
Welcome to Dispatch #27 of The Audio Insurgent.
Perhaps I can streamline things a bit by saying this here, instead of in every email and text I’ll exchange with audio people in the coming few weeks:
Yes, I will be at Podcast Movement in Dallas later this month.
And yes, I will attend the PRPD Conference in New Orleans the following week.
Dallas and New Orleans…in late August. I plan to spend most of my time sweating, obviously, but if you are planning to go, please say “hi.”
At Podcast Movement, I literally have nothing planned. I’m just showing up and following what interests me. At PRPD, I’m participating in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate with Kmele Foster asking “Is public radio still relevant?” When it was announced, I was disappointed in a number of people who assumed that I was taking the “No” side. But I’m not, I’ll be the one making the case that public radio is still relevant. It will be a wild conversation and I’m very excited about it.
In the last dispatch I made a quip about long dispatches, and a few folks wrote back encouraging me to let things out as I think about them, rather than saving them up over a longer period of time. I hear that. So here goes my first attempt at more regular, shorter dispatches…
One main thing for today…
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND GREAT: A LESSON TAKEN FROM JONI, BRANDI, AND BARACK]
So two things happened over the past few weeks that spent a lot of time in my head.
The first is this video:
Different iterations of it have been viewed millions of times since, taken from Joni Mitchell’s surprise appearance and performance at the Newport Folk Festival last month, organized by fellow singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile.
But, let’s actually start with the last link in this chain for me, which really made me connect the power of Joni’s performance with podcasting: Barack and his suspiciously-voluminous summer reading and music lists. (They are suspicious to me because I’ve always been flummoxed by how it’s possible for Barack to read ANY book, or listen to ANY piece of music, let alone enough to assemble this list. Does he sleep?) Anyhow, the music list included the following comment, “Every year, I get excited to share my summer playlist…it’s an example of how music really can bring us all together.” That last bit stuck with me for days.
I kept asking myself if I agreed that “music really can bring us all together.”
For most of my pre-NPR life, I wrote a TON of music journalism. While attending and reviewing hundreds of concerts, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, I often asked myself, “Is this a mass collective experience or is this thousands of singular individual experiences all happening at the same time?” In other words, does music really bring us together…or does it bring us together to each have an individual experience? Though I waffle around, I usually land somewhere close to hearing music in a public space is an individual experience that’s affected by the energy and presence of others (in a club, performance, or even as you drive by with the windows down). Sometimes positively affected, sometimes not. But everyone is having their own reaction–even if they are all, for the most part, pretty similar.
Now hold that thought and let’s return to Joni Mitchell’s surprise return to Newport. First off, it was an amazing thing to make happen. You could sense the love, brilliance, and deep admiration and respect that seemed to go into every logistic and consideration. Brandi Carlile could have given a long speech about her admiration of Joni Mitchell (which she’s actually done before), but the depth of her respect and love was demonstrated in making sure that every aspect of that performance was tailored around Joni.
I’ve watched that video probably a dozen times–and I’ve felt emotional every time. Every. Time.
And then I listened back to the original version of “Both Sides Now”...and didn’t feel anything. I mean, it is a brilliant song, but what was it about that moment on the stage at Newport?
It was many things. It definitely was that combination of tenderness and celebration and collective show of appreciation that we simply can never have too much of in this world. But there is more. I grew up in a house soundtracked by folk singers of the 60s and 70s, and to see one of them have such a simultaneously vulnerable and triumphant moment means a lot to us children of Baby Boomers, as we watch our own parents age. I don’t think I’d feel quite as emotional about Bob Dylan–or even Paul Simon, who also performed at Newport the day before, with not even a fraction of the reaction.
I think that performance contains something magical. Something rare. Something so powerful that millions of other people could feel it while watching crappy cell phone video taken from the crowd.
The performance of “Both Sides Now,” for three minutes, put the world on pause. Everything around you stops and the performance creates a new space, a tear in the universe that only lets in the emotion evoked in the moment. No matter what is happening that day, a great performance of a great song brushes all the external distraction away. The wheels of life have stopped, just for those precious few stolen minutes. It is a brief moment filled with joy. It is a literally transcendent experience. You don’t even need to recognize what is happening, as 99.9% of people in those moments are too caught up in the feelings of the moment to give thought to how it happened or why.
I think that is the true power of great music.
Some music is pleasant, perhaps even catchy, but doesn’t hit that mental-state-altering level required of “greatness.”
That’s the difference between “good” music and “great” music.
So when the song concludes and the audience goes ape shit, they aren’t just cheering for Joni, or Brandi, or a song they love, or a return to Newport. They all each felt that world-stopping moment, even if they couldn’t articulate it. Their cheers were for how it all made them feel–their appreciation of that moment. Their appreciation of all that went into “great.”
And podcasting can create that experience too.
It is so critical to remember that when you create a podcast episode, what you are doing is evoking emotion in your listener, even if you are discussing something deeply intellectual, telling jokes, goofing with your best friend, or giving a history lesson. If you do it well, you are creating an emotional space for the listener. It is generous and wonderful and probably no one involved fully comprehends what’s happening. But it is real and the listener will feel the gratitude for that moment, just like a cheering crowd in a concert hall.
The thing that separates “good” podcasts from “great” podcasts is to really hit that mark squarely–that ability to make the external melt away, stop the world from spinning for a few minutes, and give you some escape and some peace.
And, in podcasting, often it lasts more than three minutes.
I think a lot of those rushing into podcasting over the last few years miss this critical idea. It isn’t about you. It isn’t about your subject. It isn’t about just talking to fill space. It is about the feeling your work can evoke in its listeners. It is about the audience.
But there are many people content to just create podcasts that are pleasant, perhaps even catchy, but don’t push themselves to the level of enabling transcendence.
It isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a lofty pursuit. That space you create can be filled with joy, sadness, wonder, surprise, delight–or the emotional equivalent of sinking into a buttery leather chair to read a favorite book on a rainy afternoon.
Ask yourself? When was the last time you created something that stopped the world from spinning, even if for a moment? Think about the project you are working on now. Is the point of that project just to be catchy or simply fill space–or is it to throw a lifeline to the listener in the swirl of their day? Making them laugh, or think, or see or feel something differently?
That distinction is what separates a “good” podcast from a “great” podcast.
And if you are honest that you are just filling space, what small thing can you do, today, to move it closer towards “great”? There is always something: some twist, detail, moment of surprise. If you decide to work just a bit harder to make it lean towards “great”--it will be your favorite part of your work day.
[ONE MORE THING: FROM THE GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE DEPARTMENT: SUBSCRIBE TO THE SQUEEZE]
If you like this newsletter, then you’ll love Skye Pillsbury’s new podcast newsletter The Squeeze. She's just a few posts in and yet she has already hit on such an impressive mark: deeply-reported and considered writing on podcasting. In a world where most online opinion is a reaction to a headline–forget about reading the article, let alone reading multiple sources on a subject, let alone doing any original work yourself–Skye demonstrates the power of having a POV and matching (exceeding, actually) that with original and deep reporting. And to be clear, the POV opinion part of her work are radical notions like “Things should make sense and be fair.” And the mild dose of opinion is secondary to the amount of work she’s putting into unpacking her subject. She’s also super generous to the experience and perspectives of others.
It is just great and you should make it part of your reading. Full stop.
Okay, that’s it for today.
And again, if you see me standing around Podcast Movement or PRPD staring into my phone and looking bored, it is only because you haven’t come up and introduced yourself.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
And while this is free, you are also always welcome to buy my book or (even better) buy me a beer.
Make great things. I’ll be listening.