Podcasts: Uneven Interviews

A typical Sunday evening will find me, after the children are tucked in, getting last week’s podcast episodes of Marketplace, Washington Week, and the CBC Current, downloaded and sync’d to my Palm T|X. I start each week, walking to the train and riding in to Toronto, listening to a week’s worth of stories and news that fill in gaps I might otherwise have missed. Occasionally I supplement this standard body of podcasts with one-off interviews I’ve come across on the Web. What has surprised me is how few are really listenable, not because there aren’t interesting things being said, but because of the presentation. It’s never been so clear to me why a good radio interviewer is worth his or her weight in gold.

I won’t name names about which ones I listened to that were good and which ones weren’t.  Take one I listened to this morning.  It involved a podcaster interviewing a very well-respected law and information researcher (not a librarian).  Instead of letting the interview proceed, the podcaster kept interjecting with observations and tangential hypotheticals that exhibited a lack of both seasoning and knowledge.  It became an interview where you dreaded the podcaster’s participation – the interviewee was terrific, but so often seemed to be held back, if not downright distracted, by the interruptions or innaposite remarks.

Another example.  I downloaded three from another site, all with the same podcaster, interviewing three different individuals.  Each created the same uncomfortable environment; you felt like you were overhearing a very awkward lunchtime conversation, not a get-to-grips informative interview.  Questions seemed surprising, pauses were squirm inducing.  The podcaster has a great professional rep, so did the interviewees.  But the mixture didn’t work.

As I looked back on the podcast I did with Monica Bay, I tried to analyze that experience from the perspective of a listener.  Monica sounds like an interviewer to me, but I’m sure the quality difference (high quality on Monica’s end, low quality telephone on mine) distracted.  We did a good job of not overtalking, but again, that was more likely to be due to Monica, who knew to avoid (and noted that we should anticipate) overtalking.  We shared some question ideas in advance, which meant that the podcast started off in a direction we both expected it to start, even though it moved past those initial questions.

I’m not sure our end result was any better or worse than any of the others I’ve listened to.  It’s hard to be objective.  But what is clear to me is that the podcaster has to be a really sharp interviewer.  A podcaster with good intentions but either bad conversational skills or the inability to get out of the way of the interviewee can really drag a podcast down.  I think I’d be a terrible podcaster (and probably only a silghtly better interviewee!) between balancing my know-it-all nature and really helping to move the conversation along.  I wonder if lawyers who are good story tellers or litigators would be better than the average lawyer at podcasting.  If the podcaster is good, then the interviewee can be good or bad; but a bad podcaster means the interview starts behind the 8 ball.

The whole point of podcasts is to get an audio information experience.  So far, my overall experience is that semi-pro and amateur podcasts sound as though they are, and the value gained by listening to 15 or 30 or 60 minutes is diminished because it takes so long to get to the quality information, if ever.  Compare that to a good radio interview, or one from a podcast done in a more professional manner, where stories are short, topics are covered quickly, and the experts on either side of the microphone are showcased.

When I listen to a podcast now, I put it to the same test I do for a book.  If the story or experience doesn’t grab me in the audio equivalent of the first 20-30 pages, it may be that this information container isn’t the one I’m going to spend my time using.