Surveying the Podcasting Landscape

I just hit publish on the latest episode of my podcast, which marks the end of my show’s first season. The second season of the show is in the works (along with some exciting developments), but for now, I just want to sit back and survey this renaissance of podcasting.

In 2008, I was working for the public radio show that would become On Being, but I wasn’t happy. My job was primarily technical, not creative. I booked guests, did research, wrote promos, fact-checked, proofread scripts, and occasionally cut tape. What I really wanted was to make radio stories of my own, and I started to, on a freelance basis, for a show called Weekend America.

But then the economy crashed. Weekend America got canceled just before Christmas, so I no longer had a show I wanted to work for. I wound up quitting my job that spring and taking a new job teaching writing. I hoped I’d be able to do some freelance radio on the side, but the freelance market had largely dried up. So I sold all my radio equipment and gave up on the medium.

I knew about podcasting at the time. But aside from podcast versions of radio shows, most podcasts were just guys sitting around talking. At best, podcasting consisted of long form interviews. At worst, it consisted of meandering panel discussions. That wasn’t the kind of radio I wanted to make. I wanted to tell stories.

But then I heard 99% Invisible, Love + Radio, The Longest Shortest Time, and Criminal. These were the shows that started me thinking about getting back into radio. I realized that in order to create a great show, you just needed to find your singular vision, and then use that vision to tell one beautifully-crafted story after another.

We’re now living in a golden age of such shows. Of course, there’s the recent favorites like Serial, Startup, Reply All, Death, Sex, and Money, Strangers, and The Heart, but there’s also independent shows like How Sound, Pitch, Song Exploder, The Memory Palace, Home of the Brave, and newer shows like Neighbors, Arrvls, Nocturne, and First Day Back. Each of these shows has their own unique vision, and each is bringing new voices and new perspectives to light.

All of this is why a recent essay in The Timbre (a publication I read avidly and have even written for), gave me pause. The overall argument of the essay is that more podcasts should try to follow the model of shows like Serial, telling a single story week to week, rather than a new standalone episode each week. That makes sense. But the part that hit close to home for me was the following passage:

The problem is that every other podcast imitates This American Life in creating a character-driven, sometimes newsworthy, sometimes human-interest segment or two of nonfiction radio. They often don’t do it as well, but the influence is stark. What seems to work for inspiration for new shows is pretty obvious: lay claim to some small, unoccupied piece of turf and do it exactly how TAL would do it, only shorter in length….The problem with copying TAL is that they are usually going to be better than you at their brand of radio.

My first thought upon reading that was, “Shit, that’s me. I’m trying to create the TAL of technology podcasts. I’m just a knockoff.”

But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s just fine. This American Life didn’t narrow the definition of non-fiction radio, they broadened it. There isn’t one type of TAL story, there are dozens. And while they’ve done their best to find a diverse set of voices to tell their stories, there’s a world of content out there they won’t have time to explore in their one hour of radio a week.

What podcasting offers, not unlike blogging before it, is the ability for every radio reporter, every audio storyteller, to decide that they don’t have to sell their stories before they make them. If their stories are good enough, and especially of they have a singular vision, those stories can stand on their own. Of course, this has been true since the dawn of podcasting. What's new is that there's now a sizable chunk of people willing to listen.

When I left radio in 2008, it was because no one would pay me to make the kinds of stories I wanted to make. Now I’m just making them, and it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my life.

And people are listening. And that’s amazing.

The World as It Might Be

Ben Thompson writing for Stratechery on why the implications of the Apple Watch might be bigger than we realize:

For all of the changes that have been wrought by technology, a huge amount of our daily existence really hasn’t changed in a very long time. Consider keys: in my bag I have several pieces of metal, hopefully unique, that unlock doors or start up machines that run on controlled explosions. It’s positively barbaric! Money has improved a bit – cash is certainly a very old concept, although credit cards are more modern – but the idea that we physically hand someone access to a huge amount of money (i.e. our credit cards) without even thinking about it is odd. We operate lights with switches, print disposable tickets for everything from airplanes to concerts, and pack identification from a whole host of authorities, including the government and workplace.

It’s increasingly plausible to envision a future where all of these examples and a whole host of others in our physical environment are fundamentally transformed by software: locks that only unlock for me, payment systems that keep my money under my control, and in general an adaptation to my presence whether that be at home, at the concert hall, or at work.

Altering Perception with Wearable Devices

Great thoughts from Ryan Budish on how hearing aids can give a sense of what future wearable devices might be able to offer:

In order to justify being part of our bodies, wearables need to offer something beyond an additional screen or input device. This means that sensory-enhancing wearables will need to mediate between reality and our experiences, altering our perception of the world around us.

For hearing aids, that role is enhancing sound, replacing the too-soft sounds of the real world with louder, more comprehensible ones. But modern hearing aids don’t simply make everything louder; instead, they provide a substitute soundscape tailored to my needs and my environment. When I go into a loud restaurant, the devices can identify the clatter of glasses and the din of conversation, and tune out those sounds, while tuning into the sound of a nearby voice. The result is an audio experience that is substantially different from the objective reality; the device replaces a reality that would be challenging with a substitute that is easier to understand and utilize.

Oliver Sacks on Mortality

In a heartbreaking and beautiful essay for the New York Times, Oliver Sacks writes about learning that he has terminal cancer:

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Technological Vulnerability

Colin Dickey writing for Aeon on why it's dangerous for modern civilization to be so dependent on technology:

On 1 September 1859, the British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), a burst of solar winds and magnetic energy that had escaped the corona of the Sun. The Carrington Event, as it came to be known, was not only the first recorded CME, it was also one of the largest ever on record, and it unleashed a foreboding and wondrous display of light and magnetic effects. Auroras were seen as far south in the northern hemisphere as San Salvador and Honolulu. As the Baltimore Sun reported at the time: ‘From twilight until 10 o’clock last night the whole heavens were lighted by the aurora borealis, more brilliant and beautiful than had been witnessed for years before.’

At the time, the event caused some minor magnetic disruption to telegraph wires, but for the most part there was little damage caused by such a spectacular event, its main legacy being the fantastic displays of light across the sky in early September. But should a solar flare happen on the scale of the Carrington Event now (and there’s a 12 per cent chance of one hitting the Earth before 2022), the effects might have a radically different impact on our advanced civilisation. If a CME with the same intensity were to hit the Earth head-on, it could cause catastrophic damage.

A National Research Council report in 2008 estimated that another Carrington Event could lead to a disruption of US infrastructure that could take between four and 10 years – and trillions of dollars – to recover from. Particularly vulnerable are the massive transformers on which our entire power system relies. Massive fluxes in magnetic energy can easily overload a transformer’s magnetic core, leading to overheating and melting of their copper cores. In the worst-case scenario, a repeat of the Carrington Event would cripple our infrastructure so severely it could lead to an apocalyptic breakdown of society, a threat utterly unknown to our ‘less civilised’ ancestors.

Rat Cages

Fascinating critique of the idea that drugs cause drug addiction (I'm quoting at length because this section sets up the whole rest of the piece):

The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.” But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

The whole piece is well worth a read, especially for the results of a similar experiment on the heroin addicts in Portugal. The author also has a book.

When the Body Attacks Itself

Meghan O'Rourke on the bewildering, self-alienating experience of an auto-immune disease:

To be sick in this way is to have the unpleasant feeling that you are impersonating yourself. When you’re sick, the act of living is more act than living. Healthy people, as you’re painfully aware, have the luxury of forgetting that our existence depends on a cascade of precise cellular interactions. Not you.

Reading Minds to Serve Ads

Raffi Khatchadourian writing for The New Yorker about how an effort to teach computers to read emotions got hijacked by the marketing industry.

The free economy is, in fact, an economy of the bartered self. But attention can never be limitless. Kaliouby put me in touch with Thales Teixeira, the business professor who collaborated with her, and we met at the Harvard Club in New York. “There are three major fungible resources that we as individuals have,” he said. “The first is money, the second is time, and the third is attention. Attention is the least explored.” Teixeira had recently tried to calculate the value of attention, and found that, like the dollar, its price fluctuated. Using Super Bowl ads as a rough indicator of the high end of the market, he determined that in 2010 the price of an American’s attention was six cents per minute. By 2014, the rate had increased by twenty per cent—more than double inflation. The jump had obvious implications: attention—at least, the kind worth selling—is becoming increasingly scarce, as people spend their free time distracted by a growing array of devices. And, just as the increasing scarcity of oil has led to more exotic methods of recovery, the scarcity of attention, combined with a growing economy built around its exchange, has prompted R. & D. in the mining of consumer cognition.

Video Review of Due

One of the most indispensable apps on my phone is Due, a reminders app that’s simply better at reminding me to do stuff than anything else I’ve ever tried. It got a lot better with its update to Due 2 this week. Its $5 for new customers, and the developer has finagled a $3 price for old customers through in-app purchase.

If you want to read a detailed review of the updated version, I highly recommend the review over at MacStories and the review at Beautiful Pixels. What I’ve created below is just a simple video demonstrating my favorite details of the app.

Time Is Money but Money Is Not Time

The Economist on why we all feel so busy:

The relationship between time, money and anxiety is something Gary S. Becker noticed in America’s post-war boom years. Though economic progress and higher wages had raised everyone’s standard of living, the hours of “free” time Americans had been promised had come to nought. “If anything, time is used more carefully today than a century ago,” he noted in 1965. He found that when people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time. So the rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.

That economic prosperity would create feelings of time poverty looked a little odd in the 1960s, given all those new time-saving blenders and lawnmowers. But there is a distinct correlation between privilege and pressure. In part, this is a conundrum of wealth: though people may be earning more money to spend, they are not simultaneously earning more time to spend it in. This makes time—that frustratingly finite, unrenewable resource—feel more precious.

Humans Speaking for Themselves

This episode of the poscast Love + Radio is a perfect exampe of the power of great tape. The story begins when a guy named Jerome catcalls a radio producer.

When Jerome called out to her in the street, she pulled out her microphone and asked if he could repeat what he said to her. This is the conversation that followed.

Love + Radio made a name for itself early on with its amazing sound design and musical scoring. But what I love about the way the show has evolved is its focus on people. Most episodes are sound portraits of unlikely characters, many of them disreputable characters: bank robbers, extortionists, strip club managers. But it never feels like the show is exploiting its subjects, judging them, or sensationalizing them. The interviewer might challenge them, but they always get to speak for themselves.

This, to me, is the real potential value of podcasts. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote of radio:

Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.

Most episodes of Love + Radio could never appear on the actual radio. Podcasting made this show possible. We should all strive to take advantage of that opportunity. If you're making a podcast, don't just sit in front of your computer talking to people you already know. Try to turn your microphone outwards at the world, to increase the number of human voices (both reputable and disreputable) speaking for themselves.

Before and After a Tweet

Andrew Goldman has written a harrowing essay For Slate on how a tweet can ruin your life. He doesn't come off as especially sympathetic in the piece, but I do think he perfectly captures the way the internet can amplify our basest impulses if we make the mistake, in moments of weakness, of casting those base impulses into public language.

In light of what happened after, this is the moment I’ve thought about every day since, the thing that my mind always goes to when I can’t sleep and I need to take inventory of the great mistakes and regrets of my life. How, as a father of two, could I have been so selfish and shortsighted to risk a steady paycheck? It’s been 801 days now and, whenever I see 3 a.m., it’s still there, hanging on to the No. 1 blackest spot in my soul.


Emily Nussbaum, one of the characters in Goldman's story, has weighed in with a series of tweets arguing that Goldman's offending tweet wasn't as important to his downfall as he thinks.

Serial and the Triumph of Tape

Much has been written about Serial (no spoilers ahead) over the course of its first season, with a lot of folks arguing that it’s ushered in a new era for podcasting. (Never mind that this new era has been ushered in several times before.) The success of Serial has been pinned primarily on the compelling mystery of its true-crime story. But just as frequently, people talk about how “well-edited” and “well-produced” it is, compared to most podcasts, which makes sense, because Serial’s parent program, This American Life, is certainly among the most carefully edited and produced programs on public radio.

But I wonder if people outside the world of radio journalism realize exactly what they mean by “well-edited” and “well-produced,” why Serial sounds so different from most other podcasts. In all the discussion about podcasting this fall, I’ve haven’t heard much talk about the different kinds of podcasting — the taxonomy of podcasting, as it were. "Podcasting” is not a genre; it's a medium. There are as many different kinds of podcasts as there are kinds of TV shows. Comparing Serial to WTF with Marc Maron is like comparing The Wire to the Daily Show.

Part of this confusion comes from the fact that radio, especially public radio, has long mixed genres, sometimes even within the same show. There are pre-taped and edited interview shows like Fresh Air, live to tape discussion shows like Here and Now, variety shows like Prairie Home Companion, and news programs like All Things Considered and Marketplace.

Some of these shows blur the boundaries between genres, mixing interviews with scripted essays and documentary style reportage. But it was arguably This American Life that set the bar for using all powers of radio to tackle its weekly themes, switching mid-show from a documentary story to an essay by David Sedaris to a radio drama, perhaps set to verse, about farm animals. Part of the reason This American Life inspired a generation of young listeners to go into making radio is that Ira Glass demonstrated how powerful the medium can actually be, how many different forms it can take.

But as much as I love the ambition inherent in TAL’s variety, I’ve enjoyed it less and less over time. These days, when the show cuts to a scripted personal essay, a work of fiction, or a parable about a squirrel, it has to be really good for me to keep listening. And when I think back on the most powerful moments from the show, I always think of episodes devoted to a single subject, like the episode about the prison production of Hamlet, or Harper High School, or the two girls switched at birth.

What those episodes (and the shorter stories like them) contain is what print journalists call “reporting” and what radio journalists call “tape” (an anachronistic but persistent term that Ira Glass discussed at the recent Third Coast Audio Festival): a journalist had a question, he or she went out into the world (or through a telephone line), asked questions of real people, and came back with answers.

You could just call this “investigative journalism,” but that term tends to only be associated with uncovering crimes or scandals, whereas this kind of reporting can be employed in even the most personal of stories. One of my favorite examples from This American Life is a story Starlee Kine did about her parents' divorce. The story starts off sounding like a semi-comical personal essay about Kine’s mother (who did crazy things like forging her husband’s signature to buy a house without his permission), but it turns dramatically more emotional when Kine interviews her actual father over the phone, asking him why he didn’t divorce his wife sooner.

Starlee Kine: It's quite a mystery why you fought so hard to keep this marriage together that you guys were never happy in. Like, never.

Father: Because I felt that I was primarily responsible for her unhappiness.

Starlee Kine: That's not true, Dad.

This exchange has almost no resonance in print. And it would have very little resonance if Kine scripted it herself. But when you listen to the tape, you can hear the pain in her father's voice as he makes this admission, and you can hear the sadness and love in Kine’s voice as she tells him it’s not true.

This is the power of tape, and I’d argue it’s a power tape has over any other form of journalism. Print can’t convey the full texture of emotion in a conversation, and film often shines too bright a light to get into these private moments of our lives. Tape bridges the divide, capturing reality without distorting it too much, and remaining sharable in its original, organic form.

I remember one of the first radio stories I ever made, I went to chaperone a prom with my wife (a high school teacher), and I just ran the recorder all night long, interviewing, capturing sounds and scenes. When I got home, I felt like I’d returned from the forest with gnarled pieces of old wood under my arm, ready to start building my sculpture. That's what gathering tape can feel like.

What makes Serial special, for me at least, is not that it’s just a good yarn, though that certainly helps. It’s that much of the yarn is made of tape, and so many different kinds of tape: journalist interviews, police interviews, court testimony, scenes in cars and parking lots, and of course those phone calls from the Maryland Correctional Facility. The story was compelling because it felt so immediate, so real. Tape was what made it real.

There’s nothing new about this kind of reporting, and there’s nothing new about using great tape to keep listeners on the edge of their seats. What’s new is that the medium of podcasting let Serial go deeper, for longer, to gather and sift and edit together so much tape so compellingly that millions of people kept coming back week after week to the same story.

The podcasts I found most exciting in 2014 were shows like HowSound, Re:Sound, Death, Sex & Money, The Longest Shortest Time and Radiotopia shows like Strangers, Love + Radio, and Radio Diaries: shows that feature the voices and lives of the un-famous, endlessly interesting real people in our world. This is why, when I recently decided to get back into radio and start my own podcast, I set out to interview people from all walks of life. I hope Serial inspires more podcasters to make shows like this, with less talk and more tape.

The Decline of Reading?

Alexis Madrigal on the sad state of reading in the US:

Remember the good old days when everyone read really good books, like, maybe in the post-war years when everyone appreciated a good use of the semi-colon? Everyone's favorite book was by Faulkner or Woolf or Roth. We were a civilized civilization. This was before the Internet and cable television, and so people had these, like, wholly different desires and attention spans. They just craved, craved, craved the erudition and cultivation of our literary kings and queens.

Well, that time never existed.

Playing at Programming

I know next to nothing about programming, but I love apps that make me feel like a programmer. Some of my favorite examples on the Mac have been Keyboard Maestro, Text Expander, Hazel, and Automator, each of which allows you to create what are essentially mini-programs, without knowing a bit of code.

The most recent exciting entry in this category is Workflow, which has been called Automator for iOS, and which has gotten some great reviews. As soon as I downloaded it, I set out to see if I could build a workflow that solved a problem I’ve had for a long time: creating a link post directly from within Instapaper on my iPhone. I made a video to demonstrate how I built it.

Update: I've since played around a lot more with Workflow and created this much more robust version of the link post action. This is new version creates a Markdown formatted link post from Instapaper (may work with other apps with the system share sheet) and sends it to Drafts.

First copy some text for the block quote, then run the workflow from the share sheet. You will have the option to input the "link text," which is the text before and inside the brackets. You will then have the option to input "post link text" which is anything that would come after the inline link. Then the workflow will create a Markdown formatted link post in Drafts.

Download the workflow here.

Technology as Exoskeleton

I've always thought Aliens (with an s) was a more entertaining movie than the original Alien, but Tim Carmody makes a great argument for why Aliens is also a brilliant movie about technology.

That’s what technology is. It’s the world of things, some impossibly stupid, some smarter than we are, we have assembled around ourselves to cover over our fundamental weaknesses as a species. The strength we have, the advantage this gives us, is our ability to stand apart from the things we’ve made: to use them and set them aside; to make them prosthetic extensions of ourselves and to let them go.

Government-Funded Innovation

One point leapt out at me in Michael Hanlon's piece for or Aeon about why so many scientific and technological innovations occurred during the period he calls the "Golden Quarter," between 1945 and 1971, and why the pace of innovation has slowed since. The surprising fact is just how many of those innovations came not from private enterprise but from publicly funded research.

The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania. (Even the 19th-century analytical engine of Charles Babbage was directly funded by the British government.) The early internet came out of the University of California, not Bell or Xerox. Later on, the world wide web arose not from Apple or Microsoft but from CERN, a wholly public institution. In short, the great advances in medicine, materials, aviation and spaceflight were nearly all pump-primed by public investment. But since the 1970s, an assumption has been made that the private sector is the best place to innovate.

Printing Flesh

Jerome Groopman on the growing use of 3-D printing in medicine:

Almost every day, I receive an e-mail from my hospital’s press office describing how yet another colleague is using a 3-D printer to create an intricately realistic surgical model—of a particular patient’s mitral valve, or finger, or optic nerve—to practice on before the actual operation. Surgeons are implanting 3-D-printed stents, prosthetics, and replacement segments of human skull. The exponents of 3-D printing contend that the technology is making manufacturing more democratic; the things we are choosing to print are becoming ever more personal and intimate. This appears to be even more true in medicine: increasingly, what we are printing is ourselves.

More Money, Fewer Feelings

There's a lot of research to show that, as long as you aren't living in poverty, making more money doesn't make you any happier. But according to Michael Lewis, writing for The New Republic, there's also evidence to support the theory (admittedly not super-shocking) that making more money can actually make you more of a jerk.

A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s.