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Follow-up on Subcast

Plus: Oral History and the Podcast

Follow-up on Subcast. So, it turns out that a good chunk of the Hot Pod readership is pretty excited by this whole “active vs. passive,” “how will we control listening on the smart speaker” question. But it also turns out that an even greater chunk were just enthused about the notion of “Bachelor Nation Radio,” along with the prospect of being able to be covered in the warm embrace of endless Bachelor-related podcast content. Somehow, three years plus into writing this newsletter, it is only now that I’ve realized I’ve curated the perfect audience.

Anyway, just wanted to make something explicit that was previously implicit, which a couple of readers asked about and/or pointed out in my inbox: indeed, a key element that’s built into the Subcast team having “first tinker advantage” — apologies for silly, silly phrase — and being an early experimental but rapidly iterative presence in the emergent smart speaker environment is their ability to siphon in nascent forms of listening data. The question of “how will people listen to stuff on smart speakers in the future” directly falls from the capacity to know “how are people trying to listen to stuff on smart speakers right now,” and at this point in time, their machinations in figuring out to how deeply people will listen to a curated stream and how listeners move between multi-modal contexts will only strengthen the picture they’re building about how listening behavior can express itself in a relatively fluid voice-first environment. Put simply: in my opinion, the “station” orientation is secondary; the move to begin capturing a sense of people is the primary point.

I can only imagine that Subcast won’t be alone in their endeavor for long. And I assume that there are other teams working on the “Alexa media universe” question across the world that just haven’t crossed my radar yet. I’m excited to see who pops up next, and what. There’s an interesting competition bubbling up here, and I’ll be keeping an eye on this to see (a) who comes out on top, and (b) what does the “top” means in this context. An acquisition by Amazon, sure, but are there any best possible outcomes that doesn’t involve being swallowed up?

Talk history. I’ve been listening to “Origins with James Andrew Miller,” and I’ve been enjoying the show for the most part… even if I don’t think the overall execution particularly works. I love Miller’s books, partly because I’m fascinated by the companies and entities those books are about (ESPN in “Those Guys Have All The Fun”; Saturday Night Live in “Live From New York”; the Creative Artists Agency in “Powerhouse”), but mostly because those oral history tomes are about the birth, growth, and complexities of institutions. (In case you haven’t noticed from my coverage and framing tendencies in Hot Pod, I am uniquely interested in the building of organizations and stuff that are meant to outlive individual human beings.) “Origins,” as a podcast project, is an exciting prospect on paper for a fan of Miller like myself; in many ways, the oral history form should theoretically be best served by long-form audio — a structure best empowered by podcasts, though I suppose one could argue that many forms of radio documentary can be thought of as extensions of oral history  — and Miller, as a prominent contemporary practitioner of the form, is best positioned to see this experiment through.

My troubles with the production are largely aesthetic: the pacing is disjointed, Miller could use some help sounding better as a narrator, things could be tighter, and the music is way too hokey to the point of immense distraction. (Background music deployment in podcasting, by the way, is SUCH an underdeveloped concern.) But I’m also working through, and struggling with, how the context of an oral history changes when the narrator is alive and present in the text. Miller is a presence in the interview chunks that serve as the atomic unit of the larger episodes; he is acknowledged, conversed with, pandered. How I think about Miller affects how I think about the substance of the story being told and the thing being said, and it’s an element that I don’t think I typically encounter in his books.

Anyway. Just a couple of things I was thinking about. All this being said, I’m really, really enjoying the show. After an opening season that focused on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Miller’s recent focus has be retrained back onto ESPN — the subject of one of his earlier books — which is a pretty timely idea, I think, given the media giant’s current troubles (structural, social, political, e.g. the departure of president John Skipper). Its most recent arc, in particular, which focuses on the creation of 30 for 30, is a gem, and personally, a solid lesson on the importance of well-written memos and the engine of personal politics (much of it, by the way, is anchored in a gendered “good ol’ boys” social web) when it comes to getting anything done within a sprawling, major organization.

In the forums…

  • I worked in traditional business journalism for over a decade before coming to Basecamp, and I’ve done some of the best work of my career under the auspices of “branded content.” As a media consumer, I evaluate everything I read/watch/listen to based on things like: Who’s funding this? Does this outlet have an ideological bent? Who’s the reporter? What biases on the part of the reporter might have influenced this story? Are there voices that are missing? Etc etc etc. Branded content should be evaluated along the same lines as everything else.” (Link)