24 January 2016

Podcasts II: Auditory Adventures; Recommendations

Posted by admin @ 0:19 am    categories: Uncategorized

(This is a continuation of a series of posts on podcasts and podcasting; the first can be found here.1 )

Obviously, I also listen to podcasts myself. I wanted to take a brief interlude and delve into my own experiences with podcasts, before talking about recommendations—how respondents to my survey recommend, and what they think about when making recommendations. (There are a lot of links in this post. You’re welcome.)

Over the past years, I’ve gradually moved into listening to quite a few podcasts on a regular basis. Perhaps in 2008 I was sold on the idea. Not long after that, I got an iPod, a tiny iPod Nano that had a scroll wheel and 16GB of memory. (It lasted me a good four years.) I have an email from late 2007 expressing my interest in getting started with podcast-listening, and not too long thereafter a request to a friend. I don’t remember my first podcast, but I think it was probably WNYC’s On the Media, whose name pretty much says it all, and which I still listen to pretty much every week today. (It’s one of my favorites.) Also in the early running: BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy, to which I’ve only ever really listened to the News Quiz; NPR’s All Songs Considered; NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me; and The Moth. You’ll note that all of these are radio shows, although The Moth wasn’t back in 2008. A slightly less serious type of podcast followed not too long afterwards; I subscribed to The Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage’s profane and occasionally profound advice call-in program, and Answer Me This!, an advice and variety podcast. (Both are certainly not radio shows. Although I no longer listen to the latter, I really enjoy the podcast one of the presenters2 (Helen Zaltzman) now produces for Radiotopia, The Allusionist, an amusing podcast about words and language.)

Over the years, as tends to happen, I’ve increased my number of podcasts, and the amount of time I listen to them. Somehow, I’ve found, I never quite get through all of my podcasts—and some are considerably more important to listen to when current. The number of unplayed episodes only rises, of course, and getting the balance of time-spent-listening to podcast-hours-to-listen is nigh on impossible. At some point, I began listening to podcasts at 1.5x speed (the iPod used to describe this as 2x, but I believe it was always actually a 50% speed increase), except for podcasts on music or in Spanish. There are a few podcasts where the presenters speak very quickly, but there’s a tendency to speak slowly and carefully; a slight increase makes for a perfectly comprehensible, speedier listen. When I first started, I used to slow down the speed for certain podcasts I enjoyed more (99% Invisible and The Memory Palace in particular), but for a variety of reasons I rarely do that anymore, with the exception again of podcasts that play music (All Songs Considered, or Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder) or are in Spanish, my second language (notably Radio Ambulante, although there are a few other podcasts I listen to in Spanish).

I have trouble picking any one or two podcasts to recommend. As I mentioned at the top, On the Media is still one of my favorite podcasts; I think the presenters are very good interviewers, and do an excellent job at teasing the week’s news apart. But I think podcasts can do so much more than just being on-demand versions of radio shows. As such, I often recommend shows from Radiotopia or Gimlet, which often let themselves be more esoteric. I’ve mentioned a number of Radiotopia podcasts above already, as that collective brought together a number of already-established small podcasts; Gimlet’s most notable shows, in my mind, are Reply All, a wonderful show about the internet (and the successor to WNYC’s tl;dr; the presenters moved to Gimlet) and StartUp, a podcast that began as a very-introspective look at the development of Gimlet, and has turned into a show that profiles other businesses as they begin. I also really appreciate Lore, an independent (I believe) show about spooky folklore that’s not breaking much new ground in each episode, but is always a fun listen.

And yet I have some hesitations about these recommendations. I like the idea of recommending podcasts that are doing something novel, or presenting something you can’t get elsewhere. (I tend not to recommend shows like Serial because by and large, I think everyone already knows of it.) I think Reply All does this, but I also have been listening to them for a long time—as a friend (L.A.) and I discussed the other day, a key feature of their show is the way that they bring themselves into the episodes, but some people may find that frustrating. Lore is a real niche podcast, but it also stays a little too firmly in that niche. Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, a podcast that defies genres (philosophy with a touch of fiction and a touch of reporting?) has gone in so many directions that while I can point to favorite shows (e.g., “Artifacts“), I can also point to episodes I’ve explicitly not enjoyed. StartUp made me squirm so much when I heard a preview episode that it took me months to listen to a second.

Which is all to say that finding proper podcast recommendations is hard. A lot depends on the person asking for recommendations, on their interests, and so forth. There are a lot of people trying to perfect ways of recommending podcasts. NPR created Earbud.fm, which is a nice-looking website that provides podcast recommendations. Gimlet has a new show that’s just getting started called Sampler that’s designed to be just that, providing glimpses into a variety of podcasts. The Timbre seems to be devoted to cataloging and linking to great podcasts; the editors of that site wrote a list of the best podcasts of 20153, which has links to a lot of shows I listen to and quite a few I do not. I’ve slowly added to the shows I listen to by keeping my ears peeled to new podcasts that sound interesting, and being willing to experiment. Every week, I hear of new podcasts—and who doesn’t? The difficult thing is finding the time to listen, I think.

As it stands, there’s no equivalent to Netflix ratings, no Pandora for podcasts. One of the things that I’d love to be able to create is a ranking algorithm, an “if you liked this, you’ll like that.” But the complexity of these questions are pretty stunning, when it comes down to it. From the data this survey collected, we have a sparse matrix of data—many respondents who checked off which podcasts they listened to. We can presume that if people are subscribed, they generally like those shows (as opposed to movies, where you may watch something you dislike), but even so the ideas behind this are not simple. (Feel free to contact me if anyone who reads this has specific thoughts on how they would approach the problem.)

Regardless, the survey respondents were quite varied in their tastes, and quite willing to suggest podcasts that they recommend to friends. As I discussed previously, this was qualitative data; people wrote in their recommendations and their reasons for recommending these shows. We discussed last time how people reported learning about new shows, and the fact that 61% of people reported learning about new shows from friends—this is a pretty important question, then. The top-recommended podcasts are maybe not super striking, but they’re worth noting:

Podcast Number who recommend it
This American Life 21
Radiolab 17
99% Invisible 12
Reply All 12
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History 8
Comedy Bang Bang 7
Call Your Girlfriend 6
Serial 6
How Did This Get Made? 5
Mystery Show 5
WTF with Marc Maron 5
My Brother, My Brother and Me4 5


I want to point out two things here: one, that the top three most-listened podcasts (Serial, This American Life, and Radiolab) all also top this list, although Serial has fewer recommenders. (My guess is that people assume, as I do, that most everyone who has interest has already listened to Seria, at least in its first season.) The second thing to note is that these recommended podcasts run the gamut in terms of genres and in terms of sources; some are independently-produced (Call Your Girlfriend) while others are from public radio or the bigger podcast networks.

The full list of podcasts people recommended is on this website; there are 94 different recommendations. One of the other things I asked was why: why would you recommend this? The most common response had to do with humor—it’s funny, or it makes me laugh, or I think it would make others laugh. This show is entertaining. It’s accessible. It’s unique; it’s clever. Here are some example responses:

  • “I recommend Call Your Girlfriend because it is female fronted, funny, and culturally informative.”
  • Lore scratches the itch for the mysterious and macabre.”
  • “I really enjoy richly produced podcasts that teach me something new or allow me a new perspective on a topic.”
  • “I really enjoy them [My Brother, My Brother and Me and Lore] and think that they would interest a broad group of people.”
  • These shows have “compelling story telling (sic) and excellent quality in content and sound.”
  • “They’re the best of the best, you know? Also, I think both these pods [You Must Remember This and Death, Sex & Money] represent novel experiences that are specific to podcasts…”
  • These shows (The Read & The Champs) have a “focus on black culture”
  • “Less people know of them – the first [Home of the Brave] is incredible personal journalism, the second [Twisting the Wind] is a just a crazy dude”
  • Doughboys is funny and unique (and I can’t imagine someone disliking it). Reply All is well researched and produced. It is also engaging. However I think it is more niche.”
  • “Tech journalism is often correct at the expense of being fun. The Theory of Everything is fun.”
  • “I didn’t answer … because what I recommend depends so much on the person I’m recommending to… I don’t necessarily think other people will like them as much as I do. For example, for a lot of people the New Yorker fiction podcast might be boring and Love+Radio might be weird. So I guess I usually recommend the more normal ones (e.g. This American Life or RadioLab) if they’re not used to listening to podcasts.”
  • Limetown is a really well-produced fiction, serialized podcast, which has become my favorite genre. I think it’s a good intro to the series. Reply All is interesting and the hosts are charming and it’s short enough that I feel like most people will give it a shot.”

I’ve tried to give a taste of what these responses are like. One of the most difficult things, as I think is obvious when you look through these responses, the previous post, and even my own recommendations, is figuring out just what you really need to make a podcast that you’ll want to listen to regularly. It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to pin down, ain’t it?

  1. I’ve updated this post to be consistent, following a conversation with J.H., as of May 16, 2016. Previously, podcasts were named in quotation marks; I’ve now changed them to be italicized. I view podcasts as similar to magazines, and individual episodes their stories—you italicize the title of the publication, and put the story in quotation marks. []
  2. I prefer to use the term “presenter” here because I don’t love the word “host,” but obviously that’s all I mean here. []
  3. Standley, L.J., Taylor, D., & McQuade, E. (2015). “The 50 Best Podcast Episodes of 2015“. The Atlantic. Accessed January 21, 2016. []
  4. What do they have against a serial comma, huh? []
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