We’ve had well over a decade of internet distributed radio shows but it wasn’t until 2005, when iTunes was updated to include native support for podcasts, that the medium gained truly mass appeal, writes Peter Willington.
Since then it seems that anyone with a microphone and an interest in games has started their own gaming podcast. You run a gaming site? You have a podcast. You’re a freelance journo? You have a desire to appear on them. It’s one of “teh laws of gamez journalismism”. Yet it’s this attitude that is at least partly responsible for the quagmire of shows that engulf the marketplace.
There are a couple of issues at play here, the first of which being that potential creators confuse “casual conversation” with “discussion for an audience”. Just as keeping a diary is a free-form and unedited experience which is very different to writing an article for others to read, so too is the gulf between chatting with mates down a pub and producing a slick, high quality podcast. Not everyone can perform to an audience to a high standard; they don’t have the natural talent or years of training that the skill takes. Yet many of these people still believe they can create a podcast and expect it to become popular.
The very best shows are scripted affairs that check off lists of pre-planned topics, featuring hosts that fulfil that lofty title of “host” by guiding conversation, playing Devil’s advocate if discussion runs dry and generally ensuring that guests have the confidence and air time to explain their opinions fully. These shows may still seem disorganised or even chaotic in their presentation – which may well form part of their brand identity – but they are quite the opposite. Those appearing on the podcast know what they will discuss and have prepared for the recording.
Another issue is that there is quite simply no money in the format and subsequently little by way of perceived “value” in podcasts. There are several mega high profile publishers – both in the UK and abroad – that see internet radio shows as nothing but a net loss. The feeling is that their editorial team should be focused on producing the next issue or site post, rather than just chatting to one another about games. This often leaves pro writers to record and create the shows out of hours or on a very strict time line – stifling creativity and enthusiasm for the project – but the lack of immediate monetary return also ensures that enthusiast press have little way to grow and expand their audio projects. However there are far more exciting, far more valuable things to be gained from podcasting than money.
In drama and performance circles there is something known as ‘The Theatre Of The Mind’, it’s a concept that affects almost everyone each day without them realising it. As an example, ask yourself the following, “What do some of your favourite radio show / podcast hosts look like?” Then ask yourself how many of those people you’ve actually seen pictures of. The brain will always fill in gaps of knowledge if it can and this includes building a mental picture of who it is that is talking, including but not limited to overall personality, how a person looks and even mannerisms that person might exude. The same is true of phone calls with strangers, discussions heard in your periphery and any other voice sample where you cannot see the person who is talking and you have not met them.
This effect is an extremely powerful tool in giving your work personality, whether that’s work as a freelancer or the overall tone of an outlet. Anyone can write “the game’s graphics were really great” but its weight and the identity of the person saying it is affected when that sentence is delivered with a surfer shlub drawl or with the gruff honesty of a Yorkshireman. Building this identity can be key to tapping into audiences outside of the show. Podcasts reflect quickly the type of people working at an outlet and whether or not those are the type of people the listener might relate to. Podcast listeners become site readers or fans of work of a particular writer, increasing audience numbers and overall awareness of the site’s brand.
Of course tapping into that potential listenership is a tricky feat. As I noted earlier there are some truly excellent shows out there waiting to be discovered if you look hard enough but finding them is still a chore. Apple have been instrumental in the podcast process – redefining exactly what a webcast was and providing the perfect outlet to house such content – but if there’s one thing the company don’t understand how to do, it’s highlighting the very best shows. This should come as no surprise, the California based giant doesn’t seem to be able to get many of the store fronts for content right – just look at the App Store if you need any evidence of this.
Since good podcasts are usually found by word of mouth, next (week / fortnight / month, delete as applicable) I’ll highlight ten utterly unmissable audio-only video game shows that you should be listening to for inspiration. They’ll be ten series that you can download right now that, for me, epitomise good podcasting in our field and I’ll also serve up an additional ten from outside of games criticism to see what we might learn from producers in other fields. Stay tuned.
Peter Willington is a freelance games critic with credits at Made2Game, Pocket Gamer, PSM3, Nintendo Life, The SixthAxis and many more. He started his career of arrogantly telling people what games they should play through podcasting and now runs a label of internet radio shows over at InRetroSpectPodcast.com. Follow him on twitter.com/xeroxeroxero