Note: this piece has laid dormant in my drafts folder since November 3, 2013 and given recent events, notably the controversy surrounding Ben Brooks’ Why Tech Podcasts Bother Me, I thought now would be a good time to release it rather than bore you with my pedantic take on this whole conversation. While my opinions about podcasting generally have shifted since I wrote this, the thrust of this article remains unchanged for me.
There have been a number of takes on what constitutes a “good” podcast recently. Harry C. Marks argued that professional podcasts take care in how they are crafted, featuring tight editing and a well planned agenda. Myke Hurley wrote a partial response arguing, unlike Mr. Marks, for sanctity of a conversation’s natural flow. Zac Szewczyk follows up with a considered, point-for-point reaction to Mr. Marks’ article; the spirit of Mr. Hurley’s article features quite prominently in his article beyond the direct quotations, of course.
All of the authors above have well reasoned arguments detailing the various ways in which a podcast could be appreciated. The contrast between them does nothing to say that only one opinion should be regarded as the correct one. Podcasting is not the spiritual twin of Jet Li’s The One, there's room enough for everyone, so long as you're not overly concerned about money or listenership.
I mention these articles because conversations like these always have the effect of stimulating the mind. The more voices there are in the ring the greater the opportunity to measure yourself against the world. Questions arise like, Where do I fit? Do one of these arguments capture how I feel about podcasting? Or are my thoughts something altogether different? Somewhere between the dissenting voices we find space to construe our own position, taking bits of each argument that catch our fancy and heaping them together to build something we can call our own.
I don’t have a well laid out theory like those above, but when I was wading through this small storm—I stress the word small—I realized that there was one feature that draws me into a podcast that I hadn’t seen represented well. Although I wouldn’t consider my words worth reading, I found the opportunity to add to the conversation too irresistible to stop myself.
The podcasts that I remember with a soft, rose-coloured glow are always those where the hosts seem to have a real connection between one another. There is just something intangible, yet magnificent about the way to friends speak to one another. The way one voice’s enthusiasm peaks while the others lower and trough, or how one joke can span an hour because it is continually made between people who truly enjoy it.
This isn’t to say that interview-styled shows or monologues cannot be enjoyable or endearing, just that they instead offer a different sort of entertainment. Be it informative, revelatory, or purely theatrical there are many opportunities for one-person shows or rotating guests to break interesting ground. All I know is that despite the many I have heard I always keep my ears open for a great rapport.
Take for instance the characters from You Look Nice Today (of which Adam is most assuredly a cartoon character, I mean gruff and talented? Pah-lease). These outlandish conversations would not have the same effect if not for the black magic swirl that is comprised of their personalities, their friendship and that twangy little banjo. If YLNT was a rotating panel show it might be informative or in other ways entertaining but it wouldn't be YLNT in the way I want to remember it. Their relationship enables wild conversations to ensue. Where else but between friends could three grown men ramble on about the horrors of board games or the intricacies of the "standing-oh"?
*[YLNT]: You Look Nice Today
As another example, take the 5by5 show Bionic and it's evolution over the past few months. Whether you regard it as entertainment or tired drivel (hey, it's your opinion) it would be difficult to deny the fact that Matthew Alexander and Myke Hurley appear their most comfortable when they speak at length about clown strippers. In fact, listening back to past episodes where Myke served more as a shepherd’s crook to reel in Matt’s inventive (colourful? indecent?) sense of humour you can feel an immediate difference. The episodes miss a certain warmth that some of their later rambles have. Is that attributable to the shifting content focus? The difference may be in the gulf between an evil laboratory and talks about Google’s market strategy, but I'm not convinced. I get the sense that whatever the difference it lies, in part, outside of the talking points.
Though I couldn’t possibly describe what are the marks of an enjoyable friendship—in a voyeuristic sense—I do contend that the difference is audible. A technical discussion can be interesting but adding in that small spark of familiarity between the speakers can easily push the discussion beyond mere interest into captivation. Technical acumen is important, perhaps even the most important ingredient in a coherent conversation, yet I yearn for human connections even while I listen to a podcast, say, on the bus home. Even if I only listen to drowned out my surroundings and not to learn specifically, I appreciate the ability to unconsciously discern a friendly conversation rather than a series of noises or shouting in the public square. Otherwise I might as well listen to myself as I crazily gab aloud on the back seat of a bus, terrifying nearby teenagers.