“Safe” podcasts aren’t what people want

In the past year or two, I’ve begun listening to a lot of podcasts. I don’t know if it’s sustainable, but currently for my job I often have to do lots of tedious work that would otherwise be mind numbing (like sample fabrication, experiment setup, etc), but is perfect for listening to podcasts. I also go to the gym regularly, and walk or bike around everywhere, all more time to listen to them. In addition, I usually increase their speed: usually about 1.5x if it’s something I need to think about a little, and 2x if the speaker has a lethargic pace (cough, Sam Harris, cough) or spends a lot of time saying dopey stuff (cough, Joe Rogan, cough, gee, I must be getting sick). So my point is that I go through a lot of them.

They’re perfect for me right now. I’ve listened to audiobooks some, but since they’re longer, it’s hard to just jump in and out of them. A half hour, hour, or two hour podcast is a perfect length, especially sped up. Long enough to get a little in depth on a topic, but not too long that it’s a chore.

Anyway, I’ve noticed a pattern with them, in which almost all of them fall into one of two categories.

(For the purpose of this post, I’m talking about podcasts in which there’s a host who talks to a new guest every episode.)

The first one that made me notice this was The Nerdist podcast. I’d heard of it because it’s probably one of the very biggest podcasts out there (gets very high profile guests, and at the time of this writing, ~870 episodes!) but I hadn’t listened to it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I listened to a pretty decent number of them, probably one or two dozen, and I wasn’t hating it, per se, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

Eventually I realized: it was just too safe. It felt too much like some E! News interview, which isn’t what I’ve come to expect from podcasts. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t need the host and guest to be at each others throats, but I want something different from the podcast format than “safe”. It seemed like he never pushed them on anything controversial, disagreed with them, delved into anything unpleasant or personal, or generally did anything that I couldn’t see from a typical celebrity news source.

And to some extent that makes sense. High profile celebrities are either focus-grouped to all hell so far that their handlers won’t let them be in the same city as something controversial, or just don’t want to deal with something that might be unpleasant. If you’re a big deal, why interact with someone who might give you a hard time about something when you can deal with someone who will lob you softballs?

But podcasts can be something different. They’re meant to be a less polished, less concerned with image, dirtier, more nuanced format. You can swear, there are typically no censors, from what I can tell sponsors (if there are any) don’t care much about the content, the creative control is usually in one person’s hands, and they’re waaay longer than interviews on most other formats. There’s also typically a much smaller audience with a very different demographic than other formats (TV, foremost).

All this leads to an opportunity for different content, which is what we’ve seen a lot of with podcasts. If you ever read online about some interpersonal controversy among big names in some area, often enough people will mention something that was said in a podcast where a guest was put in a unique (in the ways I mentioned above) interview situation, and something interesting came out.

A great example of this, for all his faults (and boy are there many), is Joe Rogan (his podcast is the Joe Rogan Experience). He gets all sorts of guests, and he usually tries to give them a fair chance to say their piece, and see their side. He’s had any number of loathsome characters as guests (Gavin McInnes, Milo, Alex Jones, etc). And in general he doesn’t just roll over and make it easy for people; if he disagrees with someone he’s normally pretty open about it.

A good example of this was when he had Russell Brand on as a guest. At one point RB mentioned the famous double slit experiment that is a great demonstration of quantum behavior. However, as anyone who has spent some time on the dumb parts of YouTube knows, the implications of this experiment are often abused; because an integral part of the experiment is that if you “watch” each of the slits to know which of them a given electron is going through, it will actually change the results of the experiment, many people misinterpret this to think that the electron “knows” it’s being watched by a conscious observer. From there they usually use this as evidence for our minds being connected to the universe in some way. Anyway, RB did exactly this, excitedly explaining. Now, in my experience, JR has some beliefs that border on pseudoscience, so I didn’t know what he would think about this. But he interrupted RB to say that he had actually heard from a physicist friend of his that the “electron knows it’s being watched” interpretation is BS, that really to watch it you need to essentially measure it, which is the important part.

My respect for him grew a little when I heard that, and it’s the perfect example of why podcasts can be great. Can you imagine a host in another format doing that? Telling a pretty big celebrity “no, you’re wrong”, which is a little embarrassing? That doesn’t happen a whole lot. That’s relatively easy though, disputing a misinterpretation of a well established scientific fact. However, I’ve also heard him disagree with someone’s ethics or morals, saying something like “isn’t that messed up though?”, which is a much deeper dig at someone, because it implies there’s something wrong about their core personality or worldview.

And that’s exactly what I want! I want people to voice it when they disagree, like they would in real life. And that brings me back to what I don’t like about “safe” podcasts like The Nerdist. Here’s a way I like to look at it: the classic celebrity talk show interview is totally unlike a real conversation (it’s in front of a crowd, there are tons of constraints, it may be scripted, etc). A podcast like the JRE is having a real conversation with a regular person. A safe podcast like The Nerdist is having a conversation with a flattering, obsequious person who just wants to make you feel good and wants to avoid stepping on toes because they’re afraid it might come at a personal cost to them. In a way, safe podcasts are even worse than a typical talk show interview, because they’re insidious: they use the format people expect from podcasts to bring you the same inanity that you’d expect from a “Tonight Show” interview.

Anyway, I don’t mean to specifically pick on The Nerdist too much, as much as it sounds like I do here. It’s fine and I guess if it makes people happy, it shouldn’t affect other podcasts who do the style I like. Like I said before, I’m guessing that he would never have gotten the profile of guests he does if he had had a more confrontational style… but I would also speculate that now that he has this fame and stability, he could probably slowly start changing his style to go that way a little more. I’m not holding my breath for it though.

 

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