Radio The Way It Should Be Done

I (Heart & <3) Ben Blacker
I (Heart & <3) Ben Blacker

As we begin to weave our way into the Golden Age of podcasting, two things remain abundantly clear:

1.) More and More people include podcasts among the kinds of media they consume on a daily basis

2.) The People who are the best at producing podcasts make shows that they would like to hear themselves.

Neither of these points are shocking, or even revelatory in any way.  Newspapers went through a very slow but similar evolution over time, gaining more and more readers, and being created in a way to reflect the creators own desires.  The same can be said for radio and television.  This is merely the process through which media gains the respect needed to be considered a legitimate outlet.  Which, of course, brings us to the very crux of all of this to begin with: none of this was the case six years ago, when podcasting still seemed like the future, something that “wasn’t quite there yet.”  By 2007, you were already behind the curve if you didn’t include a podcast now and then in you list of things you Liked on a public social media site, and now, as genuine digital networks are beginning to flourish while terrestrial stations shrug their heads and licence off a few more minutes per hour to an insurance company.  Six years is an incredibly short period of time to make the transition from Obscure to Source Of Daily Entertainment.

And that, to me, is fantastic.

Not only has podcasting finally delivered the promise that radio seemed to make in the late ’60’s and ’70’s (media belongs to the people, dude!), but it’s allowing entire genres to develop, and others to return, in ways that commercial radio could never allow.  It’s not just that podcasting could outperform radio in terms of cost, but by virtue of the much wider reach that the entire Inter-Web has to offer, nearly any show can develop and blossom as they reach a devoted web community provided they actually can deliver in terms of content.  Even shows with poor production quality can hit a home-run provided the hosts are funny, the subjects interesting, and the overall show carries a certain element of fun.

Nerdist Industries, brainchild of Chris Hardwick, has been extremely adept when it comes to keeping things fun.  And one person that seems to have internalized the notion is Ben Blacker, the host of both Nerdist Writers Panel, and writer of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, both excellent examples of the possibilities of podcasting.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a podcast based around edited highlights of recordings of live performances of the titular stage show.   Ben Blacker works with a troupe of actors – The Workjuice Players – to produce audio theater “in the style of old time radio” where they offer supernatural thrillers, cowboy space adventures, sixties-style superhero parody, and everything else in-between.  Using foley artists and music to flesh out the experience, this show not only reflects the sensibilities of old-fashioned narrative audio theater, but the modern sensibilities that they infuse this product with offer a level of playfulness that actual old time radio never managed to allow.  (With the possible exceptions of Groucho Marx, or Abbott & Costello.)  While something like this would languish on traditional radio in spite of a wide range of guests the show regularly features, in the world of podcasting it can thrive.

In many ways, Nerdist Writer’s Panel is the opposite of TAH.  Ben Blacker hosts this show, instead of writing it.  The show features discussion panels with a variety of writers from various fields, instead of offering a dramatized version of a story Ben has written.  In fact, where TAH is the final product of Ben’s writing process, NWP offers Ben a chance to discuss the craft of writing with peers, in a fairly informal manner.  While the guests can often make or break the draw of any show, Ben Blacker manages to keep the show focused, keep the guests on track, and to keep the conversation ever focused on the subject at hand: the art of writing.  As someone who fancies himself interested in word craft and word play, this show is endlessly fascinating, to the point where I’m interested in listening to people talk about TV shows that I have never seen – nor do I want to – and yet I’m attentively listening to how they broke the pilot episode.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Nerdist Industries has, in many ways, done things right: they grew their fanbase out of things that they themselves would find interesting.  Case in point: the format of many of these shows.  Out of financial necessity, many podcasts these days are live recordings of conversations that happen with the hosts and guests, often done in one take, and with little production or editing afterward.  And, in many cases, “conversation” is being kind.  Bullshit is what it really comes down to.  A group of people get together and bullshit about all sorts of crap.  And record it.  And post it on the internet.

While this might seems like “bargain basement” in terms of production values, the fact of the matter is that the kinds of people these shows are aimed at are people who love to sit around and have these exact same kind of bullshit sessions.  Podcasts, through evolution, created the conversational talk show, a form of bullshit that is so relate-able and identifiable that it is very easy to be drawn to these kinds of conversations.  We would be having them ourselves if we weren’t commuting, or sitting at our desks, or if our friends weren’t already at work, or if we weren’t already somehow impaired from being able to spew our own bullshit.  Instead, we like to fill that time with other people having those kinds of conversations instead.

Nerdist Industries has also recently launched a fantastic YouTube Channel that’s not only an extension of the other great things that Nerdist offers, but also has vintage Kids In The Hall clips, among other things.  However, my money is now on the Writer’s Panel shows, of which there are at least 20 more that I haven’t yet heard.

There’s nothing like an iPod full of podcasts to make any day feel right.

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