The Inertia of Podcasts in a Time of Abundance
I like quiet. I don’t have background music on much at all, although I love music and there were definitely years of my life when it was a constant presence. Maybe I can’t read or write or just sit and think about things as well surrounded by attractive noise as I thought I could once.
When quiet is the norm, selecting audio to at least partially occupy my mind is worth doing with some care and intent. Why settle for commercial-laden radio and drop myself randomly into someone else’s on-going sound stream to take what I get? Which brings me to podcasts.
Since podcasts are universally reported to be booming, I assume the advantages of programming your own audio experience are well known. What might be less well known is how the heck we’re supposed to do a good job of it. How are we supposed to know what’s out there and make informed choices about what to listen to?
It’s not that tough to find a few shows you like, but how do you branch out and add to your repertoire? New and improved podcast apps can nudge and make suggestions, but the problem is deeper than that.
What If I Don’t Like It?
It’s not hard to find great new podcasts because they’re hard to find. It’s hard because the way podcasts fit into life doesn’t call for something new — it wants something known and reliable.
When a podcast is a significant part of your life, it is usually because it fits into a regular slot and makes something we do into a better experience. I listen every day on my morning walk, which currently includes five blocks up steep San Francisco hills. Part of the reason I can get myself to do it every day is that I don’t think of it as my morning uphill walk. I think of it as my morning podcast, and it has to be good.
What if I’m half-way up the hills and realize I don’t like what I’m listening to? I’m not going to stop and deal with the MP3 player while I’m huffing up Lawton Street.
From the grand perspective of our whole existence, one new-podcast-listen is nothing. But that’s not how subjective experience usually works. Most of the time, we’re dominated by the present, all wrapped in what’s happening Right Now. We’re not looking at it from a grand perspective.
This Podcast needs to be good because it’ll be the sound track for This Walk. I know a few proven shows that will take just the right amount of attention and hold it enjoyably, but they can’t keep up with my increasing needs. I’ll gamble on a new podcast some other time when it doesn’t matter, except every walk will always be This Walk. That’s the problem.
I have no way to eliminate the uncertainty that underlies the inevitable reluctance to try a new podcast for This Walk. So instead I developed a reserve set of partially tested shows, with new episodes ready and waiting to be thrown into the daily rotation, a podcast Junior Varsity. My idea was to focus on the supply side, get out ahead of any anticipated or unanticipated podcast needs, and stay there.
Developing a Candidate Pool
The morning walk is my most sensitive podcast slot, but it is not the only one. Driving around doing errands. Folding laundry. The hour-long drive to San Jose where my son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter live. An afternoon walk. Eating a meal alone. These are better slots for evaluating new possibilities.
Approaching the podcast universe with intent means sorting it based on your life and media experience. The pre-existing categories you will find are based on the content of the show (News, Comedy, History), which can be useful at a later point. First I found it helpful to organize my own experience.
I allocated a Sunday afternoon a while back and started by Googling ‘Best Podcasts.’ I was immediately looking over categories and lists, remembering shows I’ve listened to and finding new ones to check out. I made separate spreadsheet columns for my existing stalwarts as well as the podcasts I tried and did not enjoy enough to promote.
Most importantly, I filled up other columns with a large set of promising prospects. The National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball all have minor leagues where candidates can be seen and evaluated and placed rapidly into big time slots as needed. I wanted the same type of development league for my podcasts. Except the podcasts wouldn’t be developing — my relationship with them would.
It was fun and very satisfying to make that Personal Podcast Inventory, because it meant recalling and re-saving experiences that flew by way too quickly. I know the media that occupies and shapes my mind fades fast and I don’t like it. The Inventory shows some respect for how much I enjoyed it, how it may have influenced me. It helps things that were important at the time feel a little less ephemeral.
Since then, I’ve keep the Inventory up-to-date by adding new podcasts I read or hear about, and moving ones out of the prospect pool that I don’t like after giving them a fair chance.
These are my main Podcast spreadsheet categories and the number of podcasts in each one at the moment:
The first group consists of 100% reliably great podcasts. Game. Set. Match. Why is there anything else to say? Because my HOF standards are extremely high, only a small group of immortals is enshrined. They need a supporting cast. Hall of Famers go on vacation. All-Stars have mediocre stretches. Specialty shows require the right circumstances. I need great podcasts every day and this group can’t keep up on its own.
The second group is the D-League. When I add new podcasts to my spreadsheet, I print it so I can see the list and keep it on my mind. I think seeing the name of a podcast posted on the bullet board next to my desk is part of getting ready to try a new one.
Once I start listening, I try to adopt the attitude of a jury member — don’t form an opinion until all the facts are in. One episode can’t predict how well a new podcast will stand up to daily listening. Podcasts need to move from being “Hopefuls” to “Active Prospects” over the course of several listenings, and then on to higher status, or not, after more..
Podcasts end. One of my all-time favorites, ‘The Mystery Show,’ with Starlee Kine, only managed six episodes. I like to remember retired podcasts in my compendium because some of them were All-Stars and might have been Hall of Famers, but for one reason or another they concluded. The flip side is that sometimes the situation that led me to a certain podcast comes to an end. For instance, none of the podcasts produced in other countries that I listened to before traveling there are still in my rotation. I have retired them.
The fourth group are the ones that had their chance, but didn’t make it out of my personal D-League. Some are well-known, even award-winning podcasts that I tried and did not adopt as regulars. I’m not a professional media critic and I’m not trying to act as one. The reasons I didn’t like some are very subjective. Sometimes I steer away from certain books or movies specifically because everyone is raving about them. I know it’s crazy that ‘This American Life’ is in my Discontinued group. I also notice others and wonder, ‘“’Why is this on four Top Twenty Lists and I didn’t get drawn in at all?’ Maybe one reason to list these podcasts is to keep them alive in my mind for another chance after some time has passed.
Establishing a Flexible Rotation
I try to sample one Hopeful from the D-League every week. New podcasts that might join the regular rotation tend to reveal themselves rapidly. They make me want to listen to them every chance I get, morning walk and all. Sometimes I’ll stay with an attractive newcomer several days in a row, then stop, and see if I miss it. Very few stand up to daily use and get promoted.
While D-Leaguers are evaluated, Hall of Famers and All-Star podcasts canrestock their inventories. Sometimes I go for weeks without one of my all-time favorites while I am occupied with Active Prospects. At the moment, for example, my podcast time is completely dominated by one topic — China. I discovered a mother lode of China History and China Current Affairs podcasts and it’s been all-China ever since, with an occasional comedy for change of pace.
This too will pass. Meanwhile, new Hall of Fame podcasts are being published and saved, just waiting to support many uphill morning walks. It’s a listener’s market. I download at least ten episodes of each Prospect because I know that for me convenience is closely linked to what I listen to.
I do not subscribe to any podcasts, which might seem to contradict what I just claimed. To me, subscriptions are not a convenience. Once launched, they keep acting on their own and create an unintended presence, an on-going reminder of all the stuff cluttering up my phone that I’m not listening to. For me, it has a ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ feel. I would rather decide what podcasts I want where and then download them periodically to my PC, to my MP3 player or to one or more of my two iPhones.
It also helps me to decide the night before what podcast I will listen to on my walk the next morning. I can always change my mind, but if I don’t feel like thinking about it early in the day, I don’t have to. It is not difficult to have a default assumption in place, because it’s usually the next episode in the one I listened to the day before.
Appendix I Current Spreadsheet Podcasts
I have avoided naming podcasts for the most part so far because I wanted to focus on the structure of the problem — how to identify and promote the right podcasts into increasingly central roles. The issue for me is not FOMO. I assume I will miss out on many great podcasts. I’m trying to do something much simpler and more personal — make sure I always have the right kind of podcast for any situation ready to listen to, that’s it and that’s hard enough.
Because I’m just trying to fend for myself, I don’t have to take on the pressure of constructing Best of … Lists. Still, I feel a need to apologize in advance that your favorite show is not in my Hall of Fame, unless it is.
Group I — Current Hall of Famers
Unlike most Halls of Fame, active players can be members; in fact, being a podcast currently in production is an eligibility requirement for mine. Each of my Big Three is long-running and highly-rated. They are not Unknown Gems.
They represent a range of production values and infrastructure — from Radiolab’s high-gloss, on-location masterpieces of the WNYC media-verse to Dan Carlin’s guy-with-a-mic level of independent media that I find just as gripping and sometimes more so. It’s not about the production, once you’re over a certain threshold — it’s about the storytelling. The guys on ‘Reply All’ might not have that craft down quite as well, but they’ve found just the right je ne sais quoi for me and I love the subject matter. Their ‘Yes Yes Nos’ about Twitter phenomena is an Internet phenomenon.
I can listen to any new show from this rarefied group with total confidence that it will be a good experience. In the case of ‘Radiolab,’ I have also written thumbnail descriptions for most of the episodes and rated each one. I keep several five-star past ‘Radiolab’ podcasts on my iPhone at all times.
I have listened to every available episode and have contributed money to each of these podcasts. If these three shows produced enough to keep me in podcasts, I might never listen to anything else. Fortunately, they are not able to do so.
Group I — Current All-Stars
I do not love this group as much as my Hall of Famers, but it provides reliably great listening. They are all well-known, well-regarded podcasts. Most of them have hundreds of shows and I have not listened to every episode. Each one has its own individual voice, or in the case of ‘Freakonomics,’ voices. They are auteur-style productions, most podcasts are, that’s a large part of their charm. These are some of the best, and also. my favorites.
Between this group’s current output, extensive archives, and my Hall of Fame — I’m set for life. I don’t really need anything else. But I like to listen to new shows, as long as I do it in the right type of podcast slots, where I can bail and switch easily if needed.
Group I — Current Specialty
I have to be in the right mood for the podcasts in this group. The English Language is the air I breathe, but I knew nothing about it, nothing, until this podcast found me. Philosophy is completely conceptual in its view of things and Ricky Gervais is completely merciless in his humor. VR is what I’d call my professional podcast if I had a profession any more.
A currentlyActive Prospect, ‘The Dollop’ is about to join this group — Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds have a perfect format and both of them make me laugh out loud, but like Ricky Gervais, comedy is best appreciated at a relatively low frequency, like twice in a row once a month. I plan to listen to the first ten episodes of the ‘History of the English Language’ again. An edited-into-very-quick-segments Best of Kent Bye’s ‘Voices of VR’ would be amazing.
Group II — Active Prospects
All the China podcasts are on the way up or out. Mostly out. This group cycles fast, finding new (for me) stars to join it is the most critical point in the system.
Seven might be too many for the way these podcasts need to be evaluated. ‘Migration Nation’ has waited here too long. I’ve neglected ‘My Brother, My Brother, and Me.’ All I’ve been interested in lately is podcasts about China.
Group II — Hopefuls
I wish I could inhale these. The list changes but it changes slowly. I want to know what these are like but I love the ones I already know too much. Faced with a choice between an Active Prospect I’m really enjoying and who-knows-what from ‘Dirty John’ or ‘Timesuck’ — I’ve learned that I need the once-a-week rule or I’ll never get to ‘Professor Blastoff.’ I have been waiting for so long to listen to ‘The Bugle,’ why don’t I just do it?
I could easily make this list longer. When something promising crosses my normal path, I’ll add it, but I don’t go looking for more. If possible, I should take one off when I put one on.
Group III — Retired Honorably
Retired? Podcasts are now a path to a TV show. ‘Homecoming’ already has a two-season deal with Amazon. It would not surprise me to see ‘Mystery Show”’again in some form or another. ‘ I sure loved ‘Millenial,’ season one.
Group III — Past Travel
There is no reason not to keep listening to each of these podcasts. I knew zilch about Ottoman History. now I know a teeny bit and I’d like to know much more. I think it’s relevant to understanding Turkey today, in addition to being a great story. ‘Our Last Week’ is something unique — free-form conversation light-hearted conversation between two very smart guys who are good friends and know how to talk.
Group IV — Tried, Discontinued
Gone, but not forgotten. I don’t feel like this aspect of my life can end with ‘This American Life’ still Discontinued. I suspect ‘Roderick on the Line’ also deserves better. You would think I’d love Roman Mars and Debbie Millman; maybe that day will come.
I love the time I spend listening to podcasts and also the time I spend organizing them. I’ll get better at it. This system is still evolving. The inertia it is designed to accommodate is a sign of how deeply great podcasts can hook me. The time of abundance is why I choose to write things down and use a few key rules, and think of it as my system.