What Makes Podcasts Exceptional

An underappreciated artform.

I’ve now officially listened to a whole month’s worth of podcasts. This is spread out over a period of almost two years, and I’ve learned a lot from the content I consumed about the art of making podcasts, what I’d typically perceive as good podcast hosting skills, and what it informed me about a world that I’m in a never-ending quest to understand more.

My beginnings with podcasts have been fairly modest. What I’d mostly listen to even prior to using the Pocket Casts app, were gaming podcasts, and my still-to-this-day favorite music podcast — Goin’ Off. As my interests grew outside the confines of pop culture, so did my tastes in podcasts, and from there on out, I went through a period where I’d frantically try to fit the target audience of a podcast without any success. I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to the heavy hitters like Serial, This American Life, 99% Invisible, among others without falling into a pit where I’d blame my own sense of alertness to good art as a barrier to entry for most of these fixtures — I’d quickly realized that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my tastes; I’d just taken a liking to niche sub-genres of podcasts to the point where many of my all-time favorites are now canceled, but it’s fine to enjoy what most people don’t even recognize. It’s fine to revel in the ridiculousness of a show that knows whatever audience it’s catering to is slim, and doesn’t try to make too much pretense about the fact that it could grew dozens or even hundreds of times larger than its current size. From that greater understanding of what I wanted, I was able to forge an identity around the stuff that I like that is in no way reliant on peer pressure, or otherwise, collective disdain.

One of my earliest mainstays was WTF with Marc Maron. The host has gone on to do one of my favorite shows of all-time, Glow, and has recently surpassed the thousand-episode mark for what is undoubtedly one of the longest running podcasts in existence. It wasn’t so much my interest in particular guests that drove my excitement for Marc Maron at first, it was rather the interesting stories they had to tell about their upbringing that almost made me completely dissociate their personas from the circumstances they’ve been through. I can tell you many anecdotes of shows I’ve listened to in the past without really remembering who the guest was for what I could only assume is an integral feature of this podcast — tailor the episodes to a style that favors storytelling that is neither time-specific, nor guest-specific. It’s just a collection of good interviews conducted by a master of the craft, and the cherry on top, is that he’s never quite indulged in propping up voices in the ardent-right political sphere. Wherein Joe Rogan is far more hands off with the guests he’s picking and clearly doesn’t challenge any of them on the ideas presented, Marc Maron infuses each episode with an engaging brand of self-critical thinking, peppered in with moderate doses of humor every now and then. What you get is a show where the host is not a vessel for the guest to dump their own ideological commitments onto, but rather one where enough friction is introduced as to make the conversations that much more interesting and less iterative as a result.

Though thinking back, the first proto-podcast I’ve ever listened to was the Vergecast. I specifically tuned in around the time where Joshua Topolsky was still very involved with the outlet, and discussions were plentiful of the Nexus 4’s washed out screen and the iPhone’s indisputable reign over the camera comparisons. This was a weird time in gadget coverage where the most interesting stories in tech revolved around the sudden explosion of startup-culture, and so sticking to a more conventional playbook of tech coverage while not exactly topical, proved itself to be a much more sustainable approach. Sadly, the podcast went on a really long hiatus after the Verge was still trying to grapple with its priorities as the focus shifted away from video and was once again poured into written. Eventually the podcast returned in audio form, and has been since then home to some of the most interesting conversations in the consumer electronics space, as well as occasional bonus episodes where grander themes are broached with executives, journalists, activists, researchers, or even politicians around the bigger role that tech occupies in our lives. It’s a show that I was happy to see grow from the proverbial dick-length comparison we tend to make when talking about tech, and I’ve been a regular listener since I learned of its revival. Now, that is bolstered by Recode’s Pivot and Decode — two shows focused on the business-aspect of technology. If Pivot is more personality-driven, Decode is the podcast where tech executives go to embarrass themselves — it’s been the birthplace for many controversies where Kara Swisher is just not afraid to press the buttons of arrogant executives who think themselves above all-criticism. If you’ve followed Kara Swisher for the longest time, you know she’s been sounding the alarm about tech’s increasingly invasive and hostile role in our modern society, and both of her shows are an untainted illustration of exactly that.

Another podcast that survived many purges of resubscription sprees was the aforementioned Goin’ Off, by Rap Critic and Marc Mues. This is a show with humble beginnings, and most triumphant ends. I was always the kid who’d come into the classroom bopping to the latest beats without a moment’s thought for what that socially meant. While I’d not classify myself as anti-conformist, I do certainly think I listened to a lot of music that no one else in my immediate vicinity gave much of a care about, and that’s where my love for the Goin’ Off podcast arose from. It’s a weekly conversation around the latest Hip-Hop releases, pop culture news, and hour-long tangents on the most influential musical figures in past eras. Darren “Rap Critic” Jackson has always been a fan of Michael Jackson, and Marc Mues did not stray far away from what trailer park trash North Carolinians were accustomed to — what this gives birth to is an interesting clash of tastes and leniencies, and an engrossing take on music that is ever rarely in unison. Episodes are marked by stark disagreements and instances of tug and pull from every which direction on whether a piece of music is actually any good or not. Musical podcasts do definitely benefit from differences of opinion, and this is one of them where I find myself hard-pressed to not at least crack a chuckle whenever a dispute over artistic merit is afoot. It harkens me back to every moment I’d had the same discussions with my closest peers and fellow music aficionados, and if only for that, I still keep an eye out for new episodes despite the fact I very much have grown out of that niche.

Speaking of which, gaming podcasts have always been very tricky for me. I’ve tried plenty, but none really managed to grab me the way I expect a conversation surrounding my favorite hobby of mine to. I’ve tried nearly any and all I can think of under the sun. From Game Informer’s 3-hour show, to IGN’s suite of platform-specific podcasts, to sub-branches of pre-existing pop culture coverage websites and YouTube channels, right through the most popular podcasts like the Giant Bombcast — they’ve all lacked a sense of familiarity I wasn’t able to put myself at ease with, and most would venture way too much into off-topic discussions that it stopped becoming a good video game podcast, and a really mediocre version of a variety comedy show. What broke the spell however was Rooster Teeth’s Glitch Please, helmed by much of the creative and hosting talent of the Patch, and all I could really say about it is how much more fun the conversations were about video games since they all came from a place of admiration and were less bogged-down by the editorial bottom-line of a website as massive as say, IGN. Rooster Teeth’s content has historically been spearheaded by video games, and it is intrinsically linked to geek culture, so seeing the marriage of the two and being able to witness the riveting banter of several rotating hosts really contributed a great lot to the dynamic of the show and made it all the more enjoyable to listen to. Sadly those efforts were quashed after two years of declining viewership and interest, and with much of the original cast pretty much gone, or otherwise focused on other projects helmed by different branches of the company, it was only a matter of time before it’d get shut down, and its audience usurped by the much more popular Dude Soup — which still remains too full of gross jokes and overly insensitive humor to my liking.

What has been able to sit in Glitch Please’s place and fill so much of the void left in its absence is Kotaku Splitscreen. I remember vividly listening to the show back when Jason Schreier and Kirk Hamilton were still the only regular hosts, and I was for whatever reason off-put by Jason’s voice — ashamedly so. I sometimes look back at that moment and realize how much of a superficial dumbass I must’ve been to strip myself the enjoyment of listening to a podcast that now ranks highest on my “Listen as soon as the episode drops” scale. The addition of Maddy Myers stacked additional layers of much-needed nuance and a sorely-underrepresented voice that is women’s in games. I can’t say that I haven’t been at least partially irked by the fact that so many gaming podcasts have the same voices speaking nearly all the same words, and to see so much variety of tone, experience, and upbringing in the three regular hosts just dashes a flavor on the show that I haven’t been able to garner from any other. I’ve spent sleepless nights weeding through the alleys of a witch-frightened Novigrad; busting out a Lamborghini Murcielago to drift around the streets of Edinburgh; liberating middle-earth from the grip of a power-lustful Sauron; turning foes’ bodies into swiss cheese in Pandora; and so much of what is learned-routine to the beats of insightful ponderings of the three hosts who never fail to make me laugh, or otherwise make me think deeply about the rough realities of working in the gaming industry. It’s candidness and levity compressed into one easily digestible package. What I thought would be a seat vacated for months if not years to come, was filled quickly due to the hosts’ commitment to just making a good show where video games are a passion of complex proportions, and not an object of conspiracy, or unwarranted grief and toxicity.

Everything apart from the few I’ve mentioned are new subscriptions influenced by newly-taken interest in journalism, and specifically, what happens when you get two or more intelligent human beings on a table, and just let them talk.

The Ezra Klein Show was my entry into the wider catalogue of Vox Media’s podcasting business, and while I already talked in ample detail on why they’re such an integral piece to Vox Media’s vision as a media conglomerate in an increasingly digitalized space, there’s a particular panache to their podcasts that I haven’t been quite able to articulate or find a proper space for outside the odd mention on social media to sing the praises of. That sesto elemento has by all accounts been the fact that I’ve grown much more aware of certain information I know I’ve subconsciously gathered at certain points in my life, but was never fully able to belabor the formulation of. Ezra Klein brings in just some of the most influential faces of modern thought, and has them enlighten his quest to understanding political polarization for a future book he’s writing, as well entertain the audience on issues of grand scale that you may not quite have the time, nor the editorial sense to contract into an article that could barely scathe past the twenty-minute mark. I do allow myself the luxury of going past that written engagement sweet spot, but I fully realize doing it in podcast form is much more passable, and therefore, leaves many with a greater understanding of deeply convoluted topics they couldn’t have otherwise had if they were presented the daunting image of a small scroll bar in a web browser.

That same courtesy extends to the Weeds and Worldly. Both are policy focused, but they very much strip the element of host-anticipation and are almost exclusively focused on the known quantities of seasoned reporters. Matthew Yglesias, Sarah Kliff, Dara Lind, and the recurring appearance of Jane Coaston, and the now-customary participation of Vox co-founder Ezra Klein makes the Weeds an interesting foray into policy, and as the show’s tagline best summarizes it; it’s very much embracing a nature of political discussions almost everyone shies away from — the details. Worldly makes as equally of a compelling focus on international affairs with its much-shorter form, and the expertise of Jenn Williams, Alex Ward and Zack Beauchamp as Vox’s resident Middle-East, defense and foreign policy reporters respectively. There’s just not enough I can say that would do any of these two shows justice, so I’ll instead settle for a recommendation that I’m sure will leave you under the mercy of refreshing a feed for a new episode even when it rationally makes little sense.

Crooked Media’s Hysteria, hosted by the incredible Erin Gloria Ryan features a rotating all-star cast of self-professed feminist influencers and entertainment industry types. While it can feel second-wave-y at times — almost to a fault — it continued on the great legacy Erin Ryan has set on her previous brilliant podcast for CAFÉ, Girl Friday. That show now is canceled, but its spirit very much lives on in Hysteria. If you enjoy learning from women what their trials and triumphs entail in an era of rampant misogyny, you’d be served the finest plates of juicy hot takes on men’s latest fuck up. It’s a good way to keep tabs on what they’re up to, however weird and professedly bad it has often the tendency of being. And at the risk of repeating much of what I said on Hysteria previously, I’ll just reiterate the simple point that women’s voices are not heard of a lot in the podcasting space — so much so, that an entire meme around the ubiquity of their male counterparts has been made. To see the change we seek, we must first lend our ears to those who we deem are underappreciated, and Hysteria is only one piece of an expanding and progressively more complex puzzle.

In the midst of all these recommendations, I almost fell into the trap that democratized distribution for our favorite media tends to set up for us — we take podcasts now for granted, and we really don’t appreciate all the effort and dedication that goes into making them. I have to remind myself every now and then that someone has to listen to what I’m listening to many times over, and make sure it’s rid of every ill and stain. The levels have to be perfect; the mix has to be just right; and the process that sees our favorite guests land in-location with our favorite hosts is nothing to scoff at.

The fact that I’m able to enjoy this cultural produce without breaking a sweat is just another facet of modernity I don’t think I can still quite comprehend despite my best attempts to. To most it must sound benign, but to me, listening to podcasts has allowed me to weather the most boring and lonesome of periods without sinking into a pit of inactivity. Playing some of my favorite games or even enduring the unpleasant company of strangers in public transit has been much easier to withstand in the presence of soothing familiar voices right within a pocket’s reach.

It can be easy to essentialize this experience into the fabric of modernity without observing with a close eye the labor and great work that permitted it to happen, but, to fully assert a clear understanding of the magnitude of tasks involved from plugging an audio file into a feed, have it be distributed on two-dozen platforms, and have the experience be tailored to each individual user, it’s nothing shy of a tremendous technological feat.

Trivializing our experiences in regards to media consumption is a natural progression of having more developed gadgets in the hands of people every single day. The bandwidth necessary to accessing these entire worlds of wit, wonder and awe is fairly slim, and it makes the medium all the more accessible to large audiences regardless of class, or social standing. Podcasts even more so than video, are the great unifier.

I think of the action of opening an app, picking my favorite feed, and just pressing play as being nothing more than a barrier to me accessing what I want — that’s an ideal interpretation of it. But the road to get there was littered with failures, and only a very few were able to slip through the cracks and solidify themselves an audience in a pie that keeps expanding, but is more thinly spread as time goes on. What was once a niche mean of entertainment is now the preferred medium of learning for many, and when life got increasingly dull, podcasts were there to bring joy to the activities I dread the most.

Our individual tastes as podcast-listeners may be mostly defined by externalities largely out of our control, but we’ve undoubtedly all forged an identity around their existence that seems all-too-analogous to the early rise of YouTube creators — only now, the space is filled more than ever with talent, and when hosts’ capacity for retaining an acceptable cadence for damn-near two hours is challenged, the most creative storytellers float to the top. Podcasts in that way, have been able to aptly reward their least mediocre.

There might be an episode that opened your mind on something you might’ve not been privy to yet; another could potentially be your entry way into another podcast you might find yourself enjoying more than the original; another can challenge your preconceived notions about an individual, or a topic in a way the distilled form of the written word can never truly can — this is the beauty of podcasts. They allow us to stay in tune with second-most identifiable human trait — our voice. They allow us to stick faces to voices, and to humanize those who we may only know through the immutably lonely presence of ink on a paper or a screen. It’s that allure podcasts have been able to siphon from the early days of radio that made it such a compelling proposition to a public growing increasingly flustered from live timely distribution. What podcasts manage to brilliantly curtail, is the usual asking price on-demand platforms have conditioned us to pay before accessing their content. Podcasts are not only free, but they’re still very well-produced despite how many fewer hands go into making them. The abundance of ways to access them and consume them has made them one of the fewer examples where a free internet can make all the difference. No single platform-holder is entitled to podcasters’ bread, and it’s in complete defiance to what video has been on YouTube and Netflix on both ends of the monetization spectrum that it starts to pose the very real question of whether video can take lessons from the openness of podcasts and their ubiquity in an age where platform-specific distribution seems to yield of us more concerns about anti-trust and accountability, when we’d rather discuss just how good the best creators on the platform are, away from the conspiratorial hands of malicious actors.

The relative scarcity of problematic content has most crucially dictated that I’m more akin to listening to podcasts than I ever am to watching a two-hour video — and that’s the difference between complete disinterest, and genuine curiosity. I don’t think another medium has been quite successful in naturally curating its best to prominence, and that’s if anything, why my ears still perk at the sight of a new episode, far more times than my eyes peel at the sight of a new video. That level of excitement is yet to be matched by only a handful of YouTubers and writers, but in the podcasting space, it seems to be of much greater abundance.