To paraphrase the Magnetic Fields, a podcast is like a violent crime: if you do it wrong you could do time, but if you do it right it is sublime. Poor audio quality or a bad phone/Internet connection can torpedo even the most illuminating conversations, turning a podcast into a herky-jerky affair with all the grace of a junior high dance.
Conversely, the art of audio production can create complete works from the relatively static content of a conversation. A lowering of technological limitations opened the yakking-for-public-consumption field to anyone with a voice and a prayer, and the most successful shows have learned some of the tricks used by radio to spruce up content. Oftentimes, podcasts make the stuff found on the airwaves seem like the nascent artform.
But picking the best podcast, or an ideal? It’s that type of foolish thinking that led Stephin Merritt to conclude, “A pretty girl is like … a pretty girllllll.” Personal standards will dictate what I call the pod-tonic ideal (see graphic above, and your infographic may vary). I define content as the combination of perspective and personality that makes me care about a conversation. This can vary quite a bit within a show, especially one that relies on long-form interviews. And production simply means the planning done before a show and/or the production work done after a show to make a podcast more than just a random conversation held within range of a recording device. Proper mics and audio levels set a strong baseline in this regard.
These aren’t all the shows I listen to, but their end results offer up enough examples to represent a nice cross-section of podcast approaches.
I’ve written skeptical reviews after the premieres of The Colbert Report and How I Met Your Mother, so my initial thoughts can oftentimes seem premature in hindsight. But the same things I liked about the House of Punte remain true today. In a world full of fraudulent LOLs, the two shows I can’t afford to listen to in libraries are House of Punte and The Flophouse. This strength originates from the same source as the show’s biggest weakness: a group of people situated all over the country connecting through Internet means. The show has managed to stave off some of its conversational hiccups recently by connecting through Google+ and giving its hilarious participants some visual cues. But it’s still a crowded house, especially when guests wander in unaware. Regular features like the news and Phil Raintree’s Old Timey Newsreel provide anchors amid frequent diversions, and there’s a fun meta quality to a show that offers up the efforts of a smooth-running show but keeps in all the “backstage” talk that connects segments.
*Caveat: Host Josh Zerkle is the commissioner of an Ottoneu fantasy baseball league I participate in this season. His terrible fantasy team has not affected my opinion of his show in any way.
Comedy podcasts like Doug Loves Movies and Nerdist (among many, many others) ultimately found success because the talents of telling a joke or a funny story translate so easily to podcasts. But proximity for podcast guests counts almost as much as it does for horseshoes and hand grenades. Areas rich with talent and time can afford to tape a show in person, and it’s a luxury the Fangraphs team can’t afford. Host Carson Cistulli mixes one-on-one interviews with roundtable discussions, and the limitations of a group phone conversation dampen the type of personality that would liven up conversations involving wins above replacement and baseball organizational philosophy. Cistulli takes a little while to warm up to as a host, as he isn’t afraid to pause awkwardly if it means eventually getting to a clever turn of phrase. And if a guest tries to get on the same wavelength as the host, it can lead to some awkward grasps out into the ether. Still, the sporadic output of the show churns out some guests deep within the baseball culture that you probably won’t hear anywhere else.
When it comes to biases, a bias against interview-centric podcasts certainly isn’t as frowned upon as those against lawyers or, say, the Irish. But it exists for me, partially because I spent many years interviewing people on a daily basis. I can’t see the conversation beyond the minutia of making a guest comfortable or phrasing a question the right way. But this is my particular hang-up, as the entire media landscape is based on attracting eyeballs, ears and all other pertinent organs through appealing interviews.
Both the Poscast and the Jonah Keri Podcast use the same concept: engaging writers as hosts talking to people they find interesting. Each struggled somewhat in the early going, with the Poscast figuring out the right mix of technology to avoid sounding like the bottom of a tin can, and Keri dialing back the casual energy that makes him the Practically Perfect Podcast Guest to allow his guests to shine. Still, both shows shine when conversing with familiar faces. Keri works best with Rob Neyer as guest, as both can jump from baseball to pop culture to culinary pursuits without missing a beat. And Posnanski takes full advantage of a friendship with Michael Schur, a television writer and statistically minded baseball fan that drops by monthly to talk sports and engage in ludicrous fantasy drafts.
Other installments of the podcast contain enough insight to rise above right-click/delete status, but seeing Neyer or Schur in the iTunes description propel those shows to the top of my must-listen list.
Consider the audio drop – maybe a few seconds of sound, compressed into a .wav format and available with the click of a button. It takes a momentary sound captured either in pop culture or the world at large and offers it a new context. And it allows an additional voice (producer/board op/etc.) in on the fun. Applied judiciously, the drop can serve as the inside joke among friends separated only by the airwaves. But when abused, you’re left with Crazy Ira and The Douche.
The drop seldom shows up in podcasts, in part because most setups would require that work to be done after recording. But Rocco DeMaro comes from the world of radio, and he uses that experience to craft a podcast where he anticipates the post-production before recording. With a spot for the drops already set, his podcasts feel more like a one-man show than your typical podcast presentation. And it’s a show that appeals directly to my demographic. The former host of the Pittsburgh Pirates radio postgame show touches on a variety of sports, statistical analysis and video games, all with a self-deprecating style and a willingness to go with a running gag. You’ll notice his professionalism in the way he continually re-racks the identifiers in an interview (“We’re here with …”), even if that interview starts off with asking the guest their opinions about athletic pants and swear words. His first “season” ended just before the MLB First-Year Player Draft in June, and here’s hoping that Rocco’s life involves a well-deserved paycheck and a forthcoming second season of the podcast.
The age of the specialist means a podcast to scratch almost any itch, as well as the continued employment of lefty reliever Trevor Miller. A general interest podcast must be able to talk about the latter, as well as a hundred other intricacies while exuding an authority akin to the specialized competition. Years of writing about, caring about and talking about baseball have honed the abilities of co-hosts Rany Jazayerli and Joe Sheehan to accomplish this task. These two friends and former stalwarts of Baseball Prospectus usually take a simple topic, say the American League Central division race, and burrow down into each team’s strengths and weaknesses. Oftentimes, this can lead both to a macro view of the team-building process smashed together with a micro view of roster construction and managerial decision-making. Sheehan accomplishes that feat so many columnists strive for, in that you may seethe at one of his opinions but still care about what else he has to say. And Jazayerli can seem indefatigable (honed by a Kansas City Royals fandom, no doubt) in talking through the issues of the day, like a dentist who can’t help but converse even when his patient is struck silent with mouth agape. It makes for a quick, no-frills hour each week, and a great option for a baseball fan whose cares aren’t specialized solely on the local team’s fate.