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Yes, I Know it’s a Podcast

by Noah Lugeons

When I first set out to make the “Scathing Atheist” I made a number of decisions that seem odd to a lot of podcasters… and a lot of listeners, for that matter. For example, instead of using a “pod-safe” music service, I chose to compose all the music myself, though I admit that I probably could have gotten better music with less effort. Instead of doing a more typical “stream of consciousness” semi-directed conversational podcast, I chose to script the vast majority of the show, even though it would have been far easier to opt for a more typical, free-form format.

I’ve discussed both of these decisions a bit on the blog before, but the one that I’m asked about most often is the time constraints I put on the show.  I received an email from Carolyn this morning that was rather typical of the sentiment that a number of listeners have expressed.  I cut out the flattering paragraph and skipped straight to the meat of the email.  I point that out because without the opening and closing paragraphs this might paint Carolyn as demanding and mean, but I can assure you that the overall tone of the email was overwhelmingly positive:

I noticed that in your Pope-ulation Zero episode you said something about the interview ‘running long’ so you put the full interview on the website.  You do know it’s a podcast, right? You can make is as long and short as you want and I’m sure I would much rather just listen to a longer podcast rather than miss out on some of the interview. It seems like making it exactly thirty minutes would make it much harder than just some weeks doing a 25 minute show and other weeks doing a 40 minute show. Trust me, your listeners would not mind if the show is different lengths every week. Most podcast[s] are.”

Of course, Carolyn is not the first person to point this out to me.  In fact, enough people have mentioned it that I have something of a standard “copy and paste” response to it.  And since enough people have asked about it that I’ve formulated a standard response, it seems that addressing it on the blog might save me a bit of copying and pasting in the future.

So why the draconian 30 minute limit?  There are actually three reasons that I’ve chosen that:

  • Personal preference: I just prefer podcasts that are consistent in length.  Though I listen to a number of shows that vary greatly, I prefer the ones where I know that I’m investing an hour or forty minutes or twelve minutes or whatever.  I know that this is not the “standard” in podcasting, but I listen to podcasts to fill voids in my day and if I know that a particular podcast is going to give me exactly forty-five minutes each week, I know that it can be my “Thursday morning commute podcast” or whatever.
  • I ramble: One thing that most podcaster share is a love of their own voice (or, more specifically, their own opinions). I have a bad habit of rambling ceaselessly and I know that if I’m not on script and on point, I can take half an hour to make a two minute point and still never really get there.  By restraining myself with the 30 minute time limit, I know that if I want to make a point, I’ve got to do it with an eye on the clock.  I’ve can’t afford to get distracted talking about how pissed I am about the Oscars for ten minutes or I’ll have wasted a third of the show without ever hitting the topic I’m there to discuss (and the listener is there to listen to).
  • Thinning the Herd: We typically record at least 35 minutes for each episode, but more often it’s closer to 45. Sometimes I have to pull whole segments and put them in hold for future shows, but more often, I find myself making small trims and clips through all the segments.  The headlines segment might start at 14 minutes when I know I only need about 10.  So first I’ll cut the least important (or least funny) news item, but then I’ll go back through and ask myself of each sentence “what purpose does this sentence serve?”  When I find one that is redundant, unfunny or otherwise unnecessary, I cut it. Sometimes this does leave me gutting good material, but most of the time I’m able to trim away fat.

The fact is, I love everything I do. I make no apologies for it: I’m a big fan of me. I think every skit I write is hilarious, every point I make is profound and every song I write is a work of art (and hilarious, and profound). But as much as I feel this deep in my bones, I also know that it isn’t true. Like everyone else in the world, I do some good and some bad. The time limits I put on myself in the show is largely a counterbalance to my own arrogance. I know that I’m arrogant and if I wasn’t at least a little arrogant I’d never have thought to myself, “I bet people would listen to me for 30 minutes every other week, despite the fact that I’m completely unqualified to opine on anything.”  But I’m also a firm advocate of scientific skepticism and I know all about confirmation bias.

The way I account for this is by setting a pretty strict standard. If Heath comes up with a skit that is hilarious and we have a good interview, I know that I now have only, say, 18 minutes of show left. That means that only the funniest, most important shit is going to make it into the final cut. If I really, really, really want to put in some particular bit, I know that the only way to get it into the format is to shorten the diatribe, shore up the headlines and keep the feedback segment short. So I then have to ask myself, “Is this skit worth stealing time from all these other segments? Would it be better to just push this bit to the next episode?”

Obviously, sometimes really good stuff has to be cut.  A news item that won’t be topical in a future episode, a few minutes of hilarious tangent during an interview, a skit that relies on current events; but ultimately I think the positive far outweighs the negative.

I’m reminded of a great quote from Pascal (pithy yes, but a terrible gambler) that every writer can appreciate.  It came at the end of a correspondence and it sums up the point better than I could ever hope to:

I’d have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.

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