An interesting roundtable about criticism in podcasting, particularly in podcast fiction. This is further wellspring from the #podcrit Twitter discussion.

I encourage you to go listen to this discussion; I’ve got a few comments and quite a bit more thinking below…

Let Me Tell You That You Screwed Up

There is definitely an interest in having more critics, but a suggestion that they need to not be podcasters — that they be outside of the politics of the community.

On standards, there is the question of where the standards come from — who made them? Who forces them to be? Who enforces them? The fact that podcasting has no gates, has no barriers, presents a problem.. Does the free market enforce these standards? But how does the free market work when everything is free?

There is definitely some sentiment that we have to “get our act together” to “earn some legitimacy” so that we will be taken seriously by paying markets.

Are we really treating each other with kid gloves? Where does that come from? Are we worried about discouraging amateurs? We’re (almost) all amateurs here, but some of us are more experienced than others. There definitely seems to be a need to be tough on veterans.

Levels of Criticism

Certainly, there is one kind of criticism that we all can accept: pure blunders, things that are obviously wrong, like repeated lines, tracks screwed up, etc.

The next level is more of craft: is the audio clear? Does the recording sound good? Is the editting clean, or is it sloppy?

The next one is trickier: criticism of content. This seems to be where most people get a little more leery.  Again, when there are obvious mistakes or mis-spoken words, that’s easy to take — and should be pointed out enthusiastically. I’ve gotten called out on not doing enough research when I do a piece for my other show (TWS) — and it was very reasonable, and made me really think about how I produce the show — and how seriously people were actually taking my words.

But What About Podcast That Aren’t Books?

The discussion on the roundtable was specifically for podcast novelists, and they have a distinct advantage over most other types of podcasts: there are generally more revision steps involved in writing fiction and producing audio versions of the fiction. Those revision steps are external as well as internal, involving beta-readers and beta-listeners who serve as vetting services for podcast fiction.

In most other podcasts, however, there seems to be between 1 and 5 stages:

  1. Do research.
  2. Write the segments.
  3. Record the segments.
  4. Edit the show together.
  5. Review the edited show, maybe returning up one or more stages.

Most podcasts have stage 3 and a little bit of stage 4. I think that very few have stage 2, even if they have stage 1. Most shows, even if they have research, prefer to record “off-the-cuff” for a more natural expression. Some shows have a stage 5, but I think that they don’t do that very often, due to time.

For some examples from my own work:

  • For TWS, I go through stages 1, 3 and 4. I don’t have time to do 2 or 5, and trust that my editing style and skills put the show together reasonably well, so even stage 4 is very abbreviated, more on the level of “assembling” than “editing”. I don’t review my show for content at all — a step that I sometimes regret, but one I simply cannot afford to do.
  • For WOL, I go through stages 3 and 4, and occasionally 5. I don’t do any research at all, although I might get some ideas at hand. I have experimented with stage 5 during the editing process, in which I react to my own original recording with clarifications, corrections or extensions. Again, my stage 4 editing is more like assembling, bolting a front-end and back-end on and leveling things.
  • For UP!, I started by doing all 5 stages. The first episode was done that way, but there was a problem: I could not write them fast enough (2). I found it tiresome and passion-killing. Now, I tend to also skip step 5.
  • For the work I did for The 9th Heroescast, it generally followed all 5 stages for any segments I contributed to the show; there were some “live” segments which generally followed the 1, 3, 5 pattern.

The most professional shows tend to follow all five steps, but they also tend to sound very staged. There seems to be a trade-off between the fluidity of live conversation and the perfection of scripting. A few shows that I have heard use heavy editing to craft the episodes as if they were written — The Dusty Show on WFMU is a fine example of some rather extensive editing used to craft a show, although the editing itself is really a part of the show.

I think most podcast producers let step 5 be done by their listeners, but rarely return to the podcast and do any updates — instead, they will put an update and/or comment in the next episode. The old one is, strangely, fixed in time — despite that it can be consumed at any future point as well. In part, this is understandable: it’s already been downloaded by the audience, so it doesn’t really live in any controllable space.

But What About Criticism For Non-Novel Podcasts?

I think we can and we must start thinking about standards for all podcasts. I would challenge the idea that standards imply a sort of authoritarian, “down-from-the-mount” dictatorship over the form. Rather, I think standards can be simply a recognition of good practices to strive for and bad practices to avoid.

I have not yet read “Expert Podcasting Practices For Dummies” by Tee Morris, Evo Terra and Ryan Williams, but even in skimming it, I can see that a number of these issues are at least addressed, usually in terms of “good” and “bad”. If we needed a start on standards, it might be argued that this is it. I’ll be digging into it over the next couple of days to reflect on it’s advice and what we might apply going forward.

(Aside: I admit that the reason I only recently got the book was a combination of arrogance (“I’ve been podcasting for 5 years, and doing (amateur) radio for 12! I know what I’m doing!”) and annoyance (“Any book for ‘Dummies’ is aimed at a beginner audience, despite the fact that it says ‘Expert’ right on it!”). I’m trying to correct that now…)

But where does the criticism for podcasts come from? It has been suggested that it must come from somewhere “else”, someone not entirely in the community — not a podcaster, someone without a personal stake it in, so that they aren’t mired in the politics. Or, perhaps, they should be anonymous, free to say what they like without backlash.

The path of a critic isn’t without peril: if you say something bad, you are bound to piss someone off. I suspect that most critics need a very thick skin, or anonymity — but, a critic who puts themselves out there is going to be listened to more than an anonymous poster, I believe.

This reminds me somewhat of the Wikipedia problem: to write an article for Wikipedia, you must have sufficient credentials to claim some familiarity with what you are writing, but you must not be directly involved in what you are writing, and can only cite sources other than your own expertise. The goal here, of course, is to have some distance to be able to write objectively about the topic. The real effect, of course, is to eliminate much of the expertise in the field, because in most cases to truly know something is to be involved with it, to have a stake in it..

And In The End, We’re All Individuals

I don’t have any conclusions for this post — it was originally going to be just a few lines of reaction to the roundtable! — but I feel like this will be one of those things to come up from time to time. What’s your opinion?

  1. Is this really a genre thing? Is criticism much more important in the genre of podcast fiction (and the sub-genre of podcast novel fiction particularly) than in other genres of podcast?
  2. Should we draft criteria for rating episodes, perhaps within the two broad categories of craft (how well the show is put together) and content (the material that the show has)?
  3. Do we put up with crap too much? Do we forgive too readily? Do we all need to be a little more direct with each other, and as podcasters, grow a little thicker skin?
  4. Am I missing the point here? Is this really about stuff we need to teach people to do right, or about calling out and criticizing the things that people have already done?
  5. Are there other steps in the production process to consider? Are there particular examples you would hold up as “good” and others you would hold up as “bad”? (Feel free to use my shows as examples of bad, if you don’t want to name other names..)
  6. Is this all just wishy-washy whistling in the wind? Is this a distraction from the real issues of quality control?
  7. Do we need to create some sort of artificial barriers to podcast entry? Do we need to erect ivory towers and let only the best podcasts enter (ideally completely devoid of any politics)? For an alternative description, should we create a “gold certification” given out by a qualified and respected body of judges (drawn from peers), to indicate those podcasts which demonstrate compliance to standards or exceptional production value/content value?

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