Last week on the Midnight Citizen podcast, I devoted the last thirty minutes to talking about its future. I didn't mean to focus so much of my energy at 2 am on a Saturday morning to this topic, but once the fuse was lit, I couldn't stop until the bomb had been detonated, spewing my home studio space with reflection and self righteousness.
The proverbial fuse was lit when I played a clip from "The School of Podcasting", a show I had recently given a try to, and was subsequently put off by when the guest -- a podcaster himself -- passively remarked that we've brought the medium a long way from the time when "guys would just talk into voice recorders". If you know my show and other shows I've been inspired by over at The Overnightscape Underground, you know that's the kind of podcast that's closest to me, and that I frequently release shows that are just me talking into my trusty Zoom H-1. Even when I do studio shows, it's just me verbalizing aimlessly, doing my best to continue the tradition that Jean Shepherd started when he pioneered night radio in the 1950s. I have always felt that this freedom to just experiment with free association can be the ultimate form of entertainment to others. Sure, some of my one-time listeners have passed it off as narcissistic and pointless. That's fine. But I see it as pure and unfiltered communication. Rambling monologues can be appealing to just about anybody because of their intention to explore any topic that pops into the host's head.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but what got me about this particular podcaster who dismissed the monologue show was that he made no distinction between talent and the tools that a person uses -- in this case, a voice recorder, and "just talking" into it. His view seemed to betray -- with abandon -- the reason podcasting became huge more than a decade ago. Its appeal was democracy. Anyone with a voice could get in on it. The talent could be developed at the host's own speed, and the content was driven in whatever direction he or she wished. I wish I could dismiss this guy, but unfortunately, he's not alone. While it has experienced a massive comeback in the last few years -- mostly attributed to "Serial" and Marc Maron's "WTF" -- podcasting, more than ever, is driven by the very reasons we escaped radio -- commercials, numbers, sleek production value, and strict narrative.
Yes, podcasting is still democracy. As hosts of our own shows, we do not have to kowtow to demands if we want to continue broadcasting. We do not have to include corporate bean counters in the show, who swoop down every time we record and strike us for exploring the Rock-afire Explosion because it doesn't play to a certain demographic, or saying we can't smoke this brand of cigar because it conflicts with our sponsor.
This is all well and good, but in the last several years the market has been overrun by a certain formula established by the successful shows -- you know, the ones that are featured on the front page of iTunes, the Adam Carolla's and the "Doug Loves Movies" shows; the ones that perhaps already have a built-in audience because they play on the radio in addition to being available to download, like "This American Life", or anything else NPR for that matter; the ones that get such huge numbers that they drive the conversation and create a unilateral shift in an industry that is inherently independent -- that is not really supposed to be an industry at all, but just a bunch of hobbyists who throw their voices into the digital ether for anyone to catch. By establishing this formula -- whether directly or indirectly -- podcasting is fast becoming an institution rather than an alternative, establishing its own rules for success, and turning a tight curve into a near dead end for newcomers.
Of course this isn't the first time this has happened with something independent. We only need to go back to the '90's to see what happened when deep pocket money machines conformed anarchy. It was the decade that started promising for independent filmmakers. But then Disney bought Miramax, Universal bought October Films, and suddenly these outside-the-studio rebel filmmakers started making happy endings. They bumped up their budgets and got top shelf talent. They started shooting in Europe. No one wants to ever say they "sold out", because many indies who started small went on to do some of their best work once their budgets got big and their visions got bigger. But still, something changed when money hit the independent film markets that is still leaving a sour taste in our mouths years later -- probably because we see the same thing happening to podcasting.
In his excellent 2004 book, "Down and Dirty Pictures", Peter Biskind dissects the independent film spirit of the Go-Go '90's, and really splits it up into two eras, pre- and post-1994, when guys like Tarrantino and Kevin Smith hit the scene. He quotes one movie studio executive:
"No matter how grounded somebody is, once you have one Kevin Smith...instantly launched into a career and wealth, the expectation that this could happen to you...is inescapable. Whereas it was once 'Man, we just need to get our movie screened,' it became, 'Now's the time to make a big score. To get what's ours.'"
I can't help but think of the current climate of podcasting in relation to what Park City, Utah must have been like between 1992 and '94, when the Sundance Film Festival became a bidding Thunderdome, when the acquisition and distribution of content suddenly became sexier than the content itself. Filmmakers who were still on the payroll at their video store jobs were suddenly being sold by their new studio bosses as the next Spielberg. It was a brave new world, for sure. A game had been created, and if you were unable or unwilling to play that game, then you were lucky if you could just get a seat in the stadium.
After I turned off "The School of Podcasting", I was curious to see how truly pervasive this shift toward formalizing content had become, and what expectations are being thrown out to aspiring content creators in an effort to establish a "success" formula across the board. Looking at seven meta-podcasts and tips-and-tricks blogs for creators, I found two of them emphasized sponsors, three stressed branding, one stated booking guests as a podcast requirement, and one mentioned driving revenue (although, to be fair, this was an entrepreneurship web site). While my sample size was small, I don't think it's difficult to see certain format restrictions. Where there was once a new landscape open to trial and experimentation, there is now a Step 1-2-3. What's more, the top three podcast aggregates (iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher) all feature branded shows on their homepage that are uniformly sponsored by big names, like Audible, Adam and Eve, FanDuel, and on and on and on into the deep commercial void.
So what's the message for would-be podcasters? Yes, you can achieve fame and success through doing what you love, and there is certainly a market for podcasting bigger than ever. But like the independent film movement of the early '90's, the little guys are practically unrepresented unless you look with a magnifying glass, and their margin for error is a closed window painted shut. In his book, Biskind quotes another filmmaker, shaking off the dust of the experimental film apocalypse that happened in the late '90's:
"People's expectations for [independent film] have really shifted. When they go see a so-called independent film they want to see Shakespeare in Love, they don't want to see something that is really challenging, that's in black-and-white, where the sound is difficult to make out."
The parallels between then and now are uncanny. When people listen to Podcasts now, they expect a "Serial", or a "This American Life", or a "Hardcore History" -- all fine shows, sure, but a far-cry from the open ended, mostly unscripted platform that built the platform.
In 1995, a scrappy bunch of independent filmmakers led by Lars von Trier saw the commercial avenues their craft-of-choice was taking. Their response was the "Dogme 95 Manifesto", a set of nine rules and guidelines that one must follow to make a truly independent film that enables the artist and inherently discounts a project from being commercial. Such rules included shooting on location and only using props that are found there, the elimination of all special lighting, and absolutely no genre movies.
The rules were indeed strict, and you might argue even more rigid than what it takes to make something commercial. With only a small number of filmmakers who bought in, the Dogme 95 movement collapsed in 2005. But in its time, a fair share of movies were produced in Europe and the United States -- Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners, Martin Ringell's Joy Ride, to start -- that defied commercialism to achieve cult success, even as the average "Independent" film's budget was skyrocketing toward $80 million.
Dogme 95 was an experimental effort to fight conformity in something that is supposed to be anarchic. Likewise, as a medium that was set up without the help of deep pockets, podcasting can benefit from the same kick in the pants. So please consider:
The Dogme 16
1. No Sponsors. You don't need sponsors. It's your show, and no one else should have a say in it. Feel free to ask for donations, but don't take them under stipulation to review something or talk about a specific topic.
2. No Guests as a Formatting Choice. Don't lock yourself into a format where every show you have to book another guest. Pretty soon, people will only listen to your show for the guest you have on, and will not be interested in anything else you have to offer them. "WTF with Marc Maron" is one of the biggest podcasts out there, but people frequently skip his opening monologues because they just want to hear what his guest has to say. That's kind of sad.
3. No Editing. Don't be afraid to keep all the "ummmms..." and "you knows.....". You'll only get better at talking if there are stakes for failing. If you can freely edit out all of your gaffs, then there is no incentive to stop doing them.
4. No Music, Unless Found. This is similar to Dogme 95's rule about only using found props. Sure, music can naturally connect with a listener and help you emphasize your point. But where's the challenge in that? You should get really good at thematic storytelling if there is only your voice and no outside influence on your audience. Alternatively, found music can be serendipitous and punctuate your monologue. For example, if you're recording in the field and you lose your train of thought right as a car drives by blasting "Where is My Mind?" by the Pixies from the radio, then that is a synchronicity that only the Gods can hand you, and your listeners will take a joy in that you can't buy.
5. No Script. I used to write out monologues and perform them on the podcast, and I've always felt those were some of my most lackluster shows. There is no freedom to experiment, digress, or expand on your thoughts. A finished script will always be a draft if you're the only one reading it, and you may discover something when you're dictating into the microphone that you previously didn't in your written text. Ditch the script, write out some loose notes, and just talk.
6. Genre is Fine, but Don't Fear Digression. Most successful independent, non-sponsored podcasts are genre-based. They deal with movies, music, or television rather than a hodgepodge of topics. These are totally fine for targeting listeners. However, don't worry about starting a podcast about "True Detective", and digressing as the feeling strikes you. True, some listeners don't like hosts talking about their trip to Starbucks this morning when they should be talking about the Yellow King, but for some listeners -- like me -- the journey is just as fun as the destination. If you're having fun taking a detour from the topic you started out with, then there will be some people out there who will go along for the ride. Just as with any hobby, entertain yourself first, and your audience second.
7. No running time. Don't limit yourself to a running time. Many podcasters are afraid that someone will not download their show if they see the running time is three hours. There is no doubt this is true. But if you establish a relationship with your listener, they will, in time, not even look at how long your show is. If you are talking about something and feel you can go another twenty minutes, then do it. At the end of that 20 minutes, if you feel you can do another forty, then do it. Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" routinely runs five hours, but it is one of the most successful shows out there.
So there they are, the Dogme 16. If you wish to subscribe to these tenets, then comment with your name and a link to your show below. Even if you already have a show with strict interest on attracting listeners through commercial means, then I encourage you to at least try a show -- separate from your regular brand -- that engages these rules, and let me know about how it worked out for you. Many independent filmmakers, like Steven Soderbergh, were happy to do this in the '90s, with the model of "One for THEM, One for ME."
You don't have to flip your boat completely, just rock it a little. Experiment. That's what podcasting is. At the end of the day, it's just megabytes.