What Makes a Good Podcast?

I discovered podcasts a bit late a few years ago, but now listen to many of them either in the car or while walking.  As a teacher of college students, I pay close attention to what seems to work or not work.  How do you maintain attention?  What makes a podcast worth my time?  Do I walk away with something new?  Do I even manage to get through the whole episode?

Keeping these things in mind, I offer the following advice:

  1. If the podcast is about something in particular, then make sure you stick closely to that subject.  I was excited to begin a new fantasy football podcast.  The hosts proceeded to spend the first fifteen minutes (or more as I checked out) talking to a musician friend of theirs about his new tour.  Hey, remember me?  I was here to listen to you talk about fantasy football.
  2. Do not focus on how you feel about doing the podcast, the dynamics of podcasting, etc., unless, indeed, the podcast is about the great emotional rewards or struggles of podcasting.  Listeners are not terribly interested in your psychological state unless the podcast is about you and your psychological state . . . and is advertised as such.
  3. If you have guests, spend most of your time asking the guests questions and letting them answer.  There is very little point in having guests if you are going to talk over them.  You may have so much you want to say that guests don’t make sense for you.  That’s okay.  Just remember not to bother with guests in that case.  Otherwise, you will frustrate the guests and the listeners who have tuned in to hear the them.
  4. One great thing about podcasting is that there aren’t strict time limits.  A podcast interview need not involve cutting guests off at artificial points as a way of getting to a commercial break.  On the other hand, some guests can talk too long, repeat themselves, filibuster, etc.  After a guest has had a full and fair chance to speak, it may well make sense to ask another question, to redirect, etc.
  5. Perhaps the greatest sin involved in podcasting has to do with hosts who make it a regular feature to banter with one another for several minutes at the beginning of each show.  I recall a podcast with a young, hip, Christian approach in which a gang of younger hosts carried along in the “hey, we’re clever” sort of way for quite some time at the beginning of each show.  Many of the bon mots were punctuated by the almost static-y giggling of one of the members of the team.  Real substance is much more satisfying.  If you need to warm up, go ahead and warm up for 5-10 minutes before you hit the “record” button.
  6. Take advantage of the archivability of podcasts.  Podcasts have tremendous evergreen potential.  If done thoughtfully and with an eye to the kind of material that endures, then a podcast from 2006 can remain interesting for a long time.  Because of this feature of the format, it is important to do a good job with labeling.  Apple’s iTunes podcast store only allows for a little room in which to explain what a podcast is about.  When putting your episodes online, make sure that they can be easily browsed by topic.
  7. If you want to hear a master of the form at work, I recommend Russ Roberts, who does the EconTalk podcast.  Roberts is a professor of economics, but he is the kind of person who has read widely and well and understands a good many things about life.  The combination of education, culture, and courtesy in Roberts makes him an ideal interviewer.  He seems to know how to pick people with interesting ideas, the right questions to ask them, and how to help them make those ideas understandable to the listener.  Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge podcast is likewise highly edifying, but he doesn’t produce nearly as many episodes as Roberts does.  Roberts is the king of high output podcasting that leaves you smarter than you were when you began.

9/11 and Today’s Men in Masks

I remember the morning of 9/11.  On that day, I was employed as a lobbyist with a non-profit organization.  I pulled out the driveway to head to downtown Atlanta.  Almost immediately, there was a news update reporting on a small plane that had hit the World Trade Center.  Interesting, but not a big deal.  Before long, I’d made it to the state department of education to pick up some paperwork.  I don’t remember how it took, but as I drove to our office on the north side of town, a friend from law school called with tremendous urgency to tell me that one of the towers of the WTC had collapsed.  I arrived at my destination to see the second tower fall.

My colleagues and I sat in shock.  The news piled up.  The Pentagon had been directly hit.  There was a rumor about an attack on the State Department (untrue).  We wondered what other shoes might drop.  Would the siege continue?  One thing seemed certain.  I thought life in the U.S. would never be the same.

At first, it seemed my prophecy might be true.  We had booked a trip to the Caribbean well before the tragedy.  Our flight was maybe a week or two after the attacks.  When we went to the Atlanta airport, it was a ghost town.  But there were new inhabitants.  We walked past soldiers with automatic weapons after we checked in with our luggage.  I felt as if I’d moved to some Central American republic of the moment.

Over time, we have adapted to the need for greater security.  Airports are less fun than they once were, but the industry has found ways to become more efficient so as to take some of the irritation away.  We don’t have the level of intrusiveness that I forecast (though some would argue that it occurs without my realizing it, Hello NSA).

The greater cost has been in terms of our national spirit.  Easy victory in the Gulf War of the early 1990’s led us to believe that our response to 9/11 would take the form of another quick hit followed by a victory lap.  And we did get the victory lap (remember Mission Accomplished!?).  But the problem was that we hadn’t won.  The United States learned the same hard lesson that occupiers have been taught throughout human history.  Most of the time, you don’t win.  You are an invader, an intruder.  You aren’t wanted, not even as a liberator.

We don’t seem to be able to solve problems like some benevolent international justice league.  We can’t go knock off the bad guys and then leave while the villagers rejoice.  The only way to win is to take the gloves off.  And we aren’t sure we want that on our consciences.  Taking the gloves off is ugly.  Taking the gloves off hurts people who shouldn’t be hurt.  Lots of them.

More than a decade after 9/11, we seem to have come full circle as we watch men in masks cutting heads off of journalists.  They challenge us.  They goad us.  They threaten.  But they should stop lest they overcome the spiritual restraints we place upon ourselves out of love for God and man.  They should stop before they convince us that limited means cannot achieve a lasting peace.

The Odd Logic of a Graduation Address

I saw an online video which featured a graduation speaker in England. He assured his audience that life has no meaning and that whatever it is you do, it isn’t to your credit or blame because that is just how you were made (by evolution and random circumstance).

For some reason, he kept talking.  He had a list of nine things he wanted to say.  

But I stopped watching and listening because I could not figure out why it would possibly matter if I believed him up to that point.

The Death of the First Wave For-Profit Colleges

In 2012, I wrote a piece on the future of higher education for a journal called Renewing Minds.  With regard to the for-profit colleges, I made the following prediction with some advice:

Contrary to expectations, the institutions that will come under the greatest pressure will ultimately not be the traditional schools (though they will have to grapple with change). The greatest pressure will apply to the entities currently believed to be the wave of the future, which are the (for profit) online programs. If you are considering a long term financial investment in the University of Phoenix or one of its competitors, I would urge you to go elsewhere with your funds.

Within the last month, we have seen the closure of two large entities of the type I describe: Corinthian Colleges and the Anthem system.  The reason is simple.  They were able to make a great deal of money when they had little competition in the convenient “class in your pajamas” market, but they could not survive when the more established names entered the market.  Given a choice, would you take an online degree from Corinthian College or from Florida State University?  The answer is clear.  The higher ed brand names have figured out the vulnerability of the for profit players and are gearing up rapidly to exploit it.  

Gay Marriage Arguments: Blistering Bench Slap or Thrasymachus Redux?

I saw a friend share an article online about Judge Richard Posner blasting away at lawyers charged with defending state statutes regulating marriage in its traditional form.  His posture is not new.  We have seen court after court treat the defenders of traditional marriage as though they had no argument to make outside of prejudice or superstition.  

As I read this last piece, I recalled an exchange from Plato’s Republic in which Thrasymachus challenges Socrates to defeat his highly empirical argument on justice:  “Justice is the interest (or advantage) of the stronger.”  It’s a pretty good argument, really, though Socrates gets the better of the sophist.  At the beginning of the exchange, Thrasymachus tries to prohibit the use of certain arguments by Socrates.  Socrates replies that his brash interlocutor has done something like trying to prevent him from arguing that six times two or three times four is twelve.  

When I look at the public debates over gay marriage, I see something like that dynamic.  The proponents of gay marriage say to the defenders of traditional marriage, “You may not argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes.  Okay, proceed.”  It seems silly to say that you can’t argue from the physical complementarity of the sexes or that such an argument is an obvious non-starter.  Why is it a non-starter?  It seems like a reasonably good argument to me.  You may not be convinced, but it is not a big nothing.  To treat that as some kind of non-argument is to rule out three times four and two times six by way of arriving at twelve.

On Having Children and the Cost/Benefit Analysis

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As the years go by, I have come to realize that one of the durable news items has to do with the cost of having and raising children.  Such studies inform us that having a child results in extraordinary expenditures (both direct and indirect).  We may be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per son or daughter.  

I can understand the fascination with performing such studies.  Maybe the idea is that a couple can take such information into account and make a highly rational calculation as to whether having children is worth the costs.  After all, if you have the children there is money you will have to spend on them and not yourself.  In addition, your time will be restricted by their needs.  If you have children, you will take less impressive vacations, see fewer high quality stage productions, see fewer films not made by Disney, eat at fewer great restaurants, etc.  All of those things are true.  But I have to say that I would not make the decision to have children on that basis.  

Having children is what might be called a sui generis experience.  It is not really comparable to anything else.  You cannot truly generate parallels between the allure of vacations in Europe, for example, and day to day life as a parent.  

Being a parent is sui generis because it is the only way to experience the mountainous responsibility for new life.  You must provide for the child’s survival, but that is the lowest level.  You are also responsible, to some degree, for how the child will live and who the child will become.  I think that if you do it correctly, you come to care more about your child’s life than your own.

Nothing hurts me more than to see one of my children rejected by others.  Nothing gives me more joy than to see one or both of them happy or successful.  Having a child is high risk.  It is high risk because you are sending part of yourself out into the world, but that part of yourself is more vulnerable, less wise, less capable than you.  And sometimes all you can do is watch.  Parenting is painful.  

But having a child is also high reward.  I wouldn’t trade anything for the first time my daughter realized she could make me laugh or having been able to comfort my son after an early surgery left him disoriented and frightened.  Parenting is joyful.