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  • Chris OBrien

What the New York Times got wrong about podcasting

Back in July, the New York Times ran an article called, "Have We Hit Peak Podcast?" In it, the author's main points were:

  • Too many people are starting podcasts

  • Podcasts will follow the same path as blogs; they will be the big trendy thing—for a moment—then start thinning out

  • To quote the author directly: "We’re definitely tired of hearing from every friend, relative and co-worker who thinks they’re just an iPhone recording away from creating the next “Serial.”

I can't say I'm part of the "we" in that last quote. I'm not tired of hearing about people's podcasts. I think it's great when someone starts a new one; whether it's offering sales advice, random thoughts, or finding the best breakfast spot in Boise, Idaho. When it comes to podcasts, my view is the same as it is with blogs: the more the merrier. I couldn't get on board with the author's argument in this article.


But, before sharing any of my disagreements with the author's viewpoint, I wanted to begin with which parts I did agree with. The main one: Yeah, most podcasts are way too long.


When I started doing a basketball podcast with a couple of friends, we were making hour long episodes right out the gate. The reason was simple: that's what the ones on ESPN or The Ringer clocked in at. We were imitating the professionals.

Our first few episodes were recorded by an iPhone on a table. We'd do these during our lunch breaks. People would walk by the conference room and wonder what were we doing. Why were we huddled around a table, laughing?


After listening to a few of those early episodes, I thought the sound quality was pretty bad. It sounded like what it was: a group of friends sitting around an iPhone in a conference room. So I went out and bought a Blue Snowball iCE microphone. Cost me like 50 or 60 bucks. Did some more episodes, listened to those and thought hey, this sounds pretty legit. At least the sound quality was really good.


We were having a lot of fun doing this show. We'd bring on esteemed guests (aka other co-workers). Even asked our Chief Revenue Officer to join for the Dallas Mavericks' season preview. I think we ended up doing 10, maybe 15 episodes. Then we stopped. Haven't done anything in two years. And now that we're all at four different companies, we miss it. We jokingly (maybe not even jokingly) talk about recording some more episodes.


But you look at that process, and yeah, the shows were too long. The sound quality was bad. I also heard myself doing a lot of "Uh huh" or "Yep" after agreeing with someone's point, which didn't sound very good on air. So I worked on limiting those moments, always trying to improve in each episode.


We discovered these things by actually getting started. Doing the work. Learning. Should we have started with five-minute episodes? Absolutely. But I think you have to make a bunch of hour-long episodes before realizing, "You know, maybe we should just start with five?"


Discouraging people from getting started at all doesn't make sense to me. Anyone with the courage to share a podcast on iTunes, or start a YouTube channel, or publish a book, those things should always be applauded. Getting started and releasing your work, those are really hard things to do.


And if the result is something that wasn't ready to be shared, well, time to go back to the shop. Buy the better microphone. Make some edits. Stop saying, "Uh huh." But you can't learn those things without some trial and error.


So, while I do agree that most podcasts are too long, I believe that's just part of the learning process. People are learning how to share their voice.


"We'll make it rich!"


Another area I agreed with: We shouldn't be feeding into this idea that everyone who starts a podcast will be able to monetize it, land big name sponsors, do this as a full-time job. I look at books/articles about making millions doing a podcast the same way I do with things like, "Make a fortune as a self-published author." Those sales pitches are like seeing this sign out on the street. Does anyone actually call that number?


Side note - For someone who made over $30k last month, how come they couldn't afford a better sign?


But even if people believe they are going to strike it big, is there really anything wrong with that? I think of it like 10-year-old kids dreaming about becoming a professional basketball player. Or a famous musician. Or, nowadays, 3 out of 10 kids wanting to grow up to become a YouTube star. Is it a bad thing to keep dreaming like this into your 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's with a podcast (or book, YouTube channel)?


Granted, if people are quitting their day jobs, selling their homes, etc., because they believe they are the next Marc Maron, yeah, that should be advised against. Way too risky. But if you're doing this at night, weekends, your lunch breaks at work and every now and then you secretly daydream about hosting one of your future shows at Radio City Music Hall, what's wrong with that? This may be my love of Disney talking here, but why not keep that magic alive?


Who determines if it's meaningful?


The first area where I begin to drift apart from the author is this idea that there are already too many podcasts (according to the article, there are 700,000 podcasts on Blubrry, 2,000-3,000 added each month) and, because of this, people should reconsider if they have anything important or new to add with theirs. I could be misinterpreting the author's viewpoint, but it felt like they were saying that new podcasts were somehow a nuisance to society.


But using my basketball podcast as an example, our episodes never had more than 50 plays. Several of them were in the 10-20 range. The only people who listened were some of our friends and then maybe the occasional person who stumbled on it by accident and either liked it or said, "This is just four guys talking into an iPhone."


If a podcast falls in the forest and there are only a couple of people there to hear it, did it really make that much of a sound? Was it a nuisance?


700,000 podcasts. 1 million new self-published books per year. 23 million YouTube channels. Too many blogs to count. People are sharing their stories in record numbers and I believe these formatsblogs, videos, podcasts, booksare much better avenues than Facebook posts or 140-character Tweets. These are exciting stats and I think we're right in the middle (maybe just the beginning) of a really cool movement.


So let's say a podcast starts, a person records five episodes, gets a grand total of seven listeners, then quits doing it. Was that time well spent?


If they had fun doing it, then absolutely. If someone spends five hours on podcasting as opposed to scrolling through Instagram or Netflix, isn't that a better trade-off?

And then one more angle to consider. Think about how excited we get when we find out anything about our great-great grandparents. We'll see an old photograph or letter or just a note of their name on a ship and it's like finding gold. Think about how incredible it would be to find audio of them talking with their friends about their favorite delis in Chicago. That'd be the coolest thing in the world!


Maybe that's only one future person in the family who is really into genealogy and is actively digging for stuff like this, but what a way to connect with them. Maybe they share out the episodes to the rest of the family. Maybe they go in as an editor and make little 3-minute clips. Here's our great-great grandfather talking about some show called Breaking Bad. We'll have to give that a watch.


We've entered into some uncharted waters with family stories and family history. A hundred years ago, there weren't many options for people to share things other than writing, artwork, and some grainy black and white photographs. Thirty years ago, there were more options available but these things were hard to preserve because it was all on physical tapes, cassettes, printed photographs. Now, with tons of different avenues available and everything stored digitally, we are going to have mountains of information about ourselves to pass on to future generations.


And maybe the author would argue that this idea is also "self-important," even laughable to think future generations would tune in to a podcast that never found more than 10 listeners when it was new. I can only use myself as an example, if I found a great-great grandparents' podcast, I'd absolutely listen. I'd read their book. I'd watch their YouTube web series. I think that'd be amazing.


So create because it's fun to do. Create because you might connect with an audience; be that 10,000 people, 10 people, or 1 future person in your family tree. Create because you can. There are no credentials you need any more, no college degrees, not even much money to access all of the tools out there. Go in with an open mind. Get started. Seek feedback. Try to keep getting better at the craft. Create, regardless of how many articles like this New York Times one are out there saying the world doesn't need another podcast. Or another YouTube channel. Or another self-published book. Who are they to make that decision?


As you can tell, the New York Times article did get under my skin. In an earlier draft of this blog post, I was arguing that there's enough resistance already built in that keeps us from creating videos, podcasts, blog posts. The resistance could be lack of time, fear of failure, a feeling of not being good enough, etc., so I saw no value for this New York Times article to exist. I was arguing for why the author never should have written it, why the New York Times never should have published it before realizing that I was totally contradicting myself. How can I be in support of everyone sharing their stories, sharing their views... except for this one author. The New York Times author is part of that everyone. What I realized is their podcasting article, that particular viewpoint—even though I don't agree with it—still deserves to be shared. They have an audience too.


But I do have to wonder what was the point or what was the goal of it. To borrow language from Seth Godin, when you share your views with the world you are sending out the message, "People like us, do things like this." You're setting up a magnet, attracting the people who agree and repelling (or not reaching) those who don't. When reading the NYT article, to me it felt like the author was part of a middle school table that deemed everything around them not cool. "People like us discourage/make fun of/discredit people who start podcasts." Doesn't sound like a fun group to be a part of...


In contrast, Long Overdue is proud to stand on the other side of the tracks. We'll stand next to Seth Godin and Gary Vaynerchuk. Next to the writing camps at Interlochen in Northern Michigan or the English teacher you had in third grade who said, "This is great! Keep going!" We're with the generous leader who hosts a free podcasting class, teaches people about the best microphones to use, how to make edits in Garageband.


There are so many forces telling you not to get started. That's why we proudly stand with anyone who replies, "No, you can totally do this."

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