Tagged: podcasting

There’s No Accounting for Taste

Longtime readers of this site know that I am almost universally appreciative of everything that Apple does. But over the last few years, there was one thing about Apple that has bugged me: their taste in music—and now TV shows—is pretty lame. I think this casts a shadow over their otherwise nifty products, which reflect a refined sense of taste in their hardware and software design that is unmatched. And now that they’re getting involved in TV and movie production, I worry about what they’ll produce.

iTunes Podcast Directory

Back in the summer of 2005, Apple first entered the podcasting game by integrating it into iTunes. Up until that point, listening to podcasts was an exclusive domain for nerds. It required third-party software: I used iPodder. It required some understanding of RSS and how it worked, and it required expertise in knowing where to find podcasts in the first place. I vaguely remember listening to a subscribing to a few podcasts back then. Some related to “budget rock” music, some to news and politics, and a bunch other nerdy fare. Suffice to say, these reflected my own personal tastes.

Apple's Podcast Directory, July 2005

Apple's Podcast Directory, July 2005

Apple sought to introduce podcasts to the masses when it integrated podcasts into iTunes 4.9, making it easier to add podcasts to your IPod. They also added Podcasts Directory to the iTunes Store, a feature that remains to this day. However, I disliked the store because it highlighted the podcasts of the big media companies, especially Disney, a media conglomerate that Apple has had a close relationship by virtue of Steve Jobs and Pixar. I wrote as much on the old, Moveable Type version of this site:

But what is most significantly different from all the various podcasting directories and the new iTunes is that its podcast directory spotlights the podcasts from large content producers. When you first open the directory, you’ll note the presence of the big media companies. When I opened the directory this afternoon, I got a podcast for ABC News and one for ESPN. Clearly, there’s an arrangement with Disney. But the other partnerships seem a bit more tailored for the iPod crowd’s tastes, according to Madison Avenue. There’s NPR affiliates (KCRW, WGBH), CBC, and Bravo’s Queer Eye. If you dig a little deeper, you can find a large number of independent podcasts, but it’s like finding that rare imported beer at your supermarket. You’re going to have to dig past all the Bud, Miller, and Coors to find it.

The popularity and variety of podcasts has exploded since 2005, although its rise has been uneven. While there have been podcasting stars, such as Adam Carolla and Serial and now Bill Simmons and The Daily, podcasting remains a relatively open platform with an wide variety of choices for every possible taste. Podcasting in 2018 is not wholly determined by the Podcast Directory of 2005.

Keep Music Personal

Another example of my distaste for Apple’s taste is the live musical performances integrated into many keynotes.1 I relish each and every keynote address and product launch Apple does. These are not just well-produced media events; they’re often studies in great theater. But I cringed, for example, when John Mayer came on at the end of the iPhone’s introduction at the 2007 Macworld Expo.

John Mayer playing at the Macworld 2007 keynote where the iPhone was announced / Photo by Derrick Story

It’s understandable if no one remembers Mayer playing this keynote. After all, he followed the introduction of what would become the most influential computing device in a generation, and no one can really tell you what else Apple also announced that day. I don’t have anything against John Mayer. I hear he’s a fine musician, and I feel bad that he had to follow the iPhone in the same way I feel bad that the Rolling Stones followed James Brown in The T.A.M.I. Show. But having these performances felt like Apple was trying to shove some middle-of-the-road rock music into our iPods and, later, our iPhones. Apple has continued this tradition with having Coldplay’s Chris Martin perform in 2010 and Sia take the stage in 2016. Neither is music that I would ever listen to on my own. And when these performances start, I always stop watching the keynote.

The public seemed most upset about Apple’s middle-of-the-road tastes in 2014 when they “bought” U2’s new album, Songs of Experience, and added it to everyone’s iTunes account. Undoubtedly there must have been some U2 fans who appreciated getting this album on their iPhones, but I think Apple overestimated the breadth of U2’s appeal. A lot of people were angry about this unwanted gift. Even if U2 was the most popular living rock band in the world, which they arguably were, I understand the backlash because, for years, Apple has marketed their devices as personal and adding U2 to everyone’s device seemed invasive.

I initially feared that Apple Music would turn out to be a disaster because they focused so heavily on the Beats Music aspect of it. I watched the June 2015 WWDC keynote with great interest, and the Apple Music introduction was by far the least impressive of all their announcements that day. Not only that, the Beats Radio stations and programs reminded me a lot of what we saw featured in the iTunes Podcasts Directory: a bunch of middle-of-the-road offerings that betrayed why I liked podcasts and streaming music versus terrestrial and satellite radio, and why I liked buying CDs online instead of the limited selection at the local music store.

If you watch the video of the Apple Music introduction, there’s something off-putting about watching Eddy Cue make playlists. His personal, eclectic taste isn’t mine. Did you just tell me to listen to Loren Kramar? Kramar, by the way, hasn’t released anything since the 2015 single that Cue demos.

There’s no way for me to prove this, but I think that Apple Music is succeeding despite Beats Radio not because of it. Apple Music is doing well because it lets users stream music in much the same way Spotify does, although I suspect Spotify’s recommendation algorithm is better than Apple Music because Apple kinda sucks at AI.

All Apple Music had to do to succeed was flawlessly allow subscribers to find and play whatever music they want, reflecting each user’s personal taste, not the middle-of-the-road taste that Apple seems to espouse.

Now, We Add Pictures to Sound

On a recent episode of the Upgrade podcast, Jason Snell and Myke Hurley reported that Bryan Fuller had left the Apple’s revival of the 1980s anthology TV series Amazing Stories. They speculated that Fuller left because he wanted the license to produce adult, dystopian programming, something like a Black Mirror on Netflix, but that Apple wants programming that is safe to show on a big screen in Apple Stores. They reason that this caused some creative friction between Fuller’s and Apple’s goals, and that led to Fuller’s exit.

Of course, nobody except Fuller really knows the exact “creative differences” that led him to leave the series, and Snell and Hurley indicate as much. But their reasonable speculative explanation shows that Apple has established a specific taste for content, and it’s not necessarily as groundbreaking as they might think it is.

  1. There’s also the comedic bits at the beginning of recent keynotes. While I normally like James Corden, I’d much rather listen to Craig Federighi tell some dad jokes about macOS than watch Carpool Karaoke with Tim Cook and Pharrell

Forward Nation Radio

One of my former students at Queens College has been producing something really valuable lately. Forward Nation Radio launched in March as a videocast and podcast that the producer refers to as a “progressive show with ‘bite.'” The program arose as a response to what I would call the “fake news” echo chamber. This is where the commercial press publishes something critical about the president and then he and his surrogates cry “fake news.” The commercial press responds with “no, you’re fake news!” And on it goes…

The latest episode starts with a skit of a childlike Donald Trump character inviting his pal Sergey, presumably Sergey Kislyak, to come over to his White House for play. He entices him with a few secrets that he wants to tell him. It reminded me of what Harry Shearer does on Le Show, voicing several characters in humorous but chilling skits about current political topics.

The episode continues with a news summary, responding to listener feedback, and interjecting a healthy dose of political opinion. The host, David Leventhal, is undoubtedly a political progressive but offers well-reasoned and critical counter arguments to what you normally hear on commercial print and television media. And it is certainly a lot more thoughtful and educated what you get on right-wing propaganda outlets.

Leventhal’s finest moment in the episode came when he responded to an op-ed about the “lack of diversity” on campus, apparently written by one of Leventhal’s colleagues at Queens College. (Departmental infighting, anyone?) He immediately deconstructs the questions, noting that it is not referring to ethnic, gender, religious, or even income diversity. He quick identifies that the question is referring to ideological diversity: a balance between liberals and conservatives on campus. Leventhal draws on his professional experience to debunk this question: this was “bullshit” and “propaganda” thirty years ago, and it is “bullshit” and “propaganda” today, he says.

Leventhal take a long view about the purpose of labelling college campuses as liberal havens to undermine the value of education. He correctly identifies that what passes as conservative media is actually propaganda. The only way to counter propaganda is through education, he says. When quote-unquote conservative media rally against liberal bias in the media and in education, they are really trying to undermine the professional investigative methods of journalism to uncover truth and, at the same time, undermine the research methods and expertise of academics. In other words, quote-unquote conservatives aren’t represented on campus because those quote-unquote conservatives are actually propagandists who spread “alternate facts,” and Leventhal concludes, those “alternate facts…are not what should be peddled on college campuses.”

Of course, this is an extremely partisan series, but honestly, it was refreshing to listen someone use a balance of fact, reason, and emotion to argue against the attacks on journalism, academia, democracy, and even our own government that the right-wing is seeking to dismantle.

Speed Doesn’t Always Kill

Yesterday, I linked to a Wall Street Journal article criticizing television networks for speeding up movies and television episodes to squeeze in more time for commercials. While an informed first-impression might react in horror at such a practice, I argued that it’s no big whoop for two reasons.

  1. TV broadcasts and in-class screenings are, at best, proxies for the original work. No one should expect these viewings to be the canonical version of a film or a first-run broadcast.
  2. Whereas time and pacing might be crucial for some films, speeding up a film by 2-4% doesn’t really matter for other works. An educated expert in film history and aesthetics like me should be able to determine when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.

All of this was before I had read Marco Arment’s defense of letting people listen to podcasts at whatever speed he/she wants, published on Tuesday. He has an interest in the matter because he developed Overcast), a popular podcatching app for iOS. One of the unique features of that app is Smart Speed, which allows listeners to skip moments of silence to reduce the overall listening time of the program. In his nuanced argument, he distinguishes between certain podcasts, where timing and pauses are essential, and other podcasts where it is less relevant. He notes:

Podcasts (and video) are impossible to skim effectively, but we can vary our listening speed. Just as not every article is worth reading slowly and completely, not every podcast is This American Life. Even most episodes of This American Life aren’t as timing-sensitive as the Mike Daisey retraction. Some podcasts are painstakingly crafted, artistic “storytelling” shows, but most aren’t, by far.

The same is true for most feature films and television programs. There are some works where pace and tempo absolutely matter and others where it does not. As I wrote yesterday, I would never speed up a Hitchcock or Maya Deren film—or an episode of The Wire—because speed and tempo absolutely matters in those works. The same is true for even less artistic works, but it takes a trained and experienced viewer to know when it does matter. For example, in college, a well-respected film professor—I won’t say who—confessed that she “skimmed” certain silent films at double speed because, in her expert opinion, the time saved outweighed the original intent of some long-dead hack studio filmmaker making five films a week (my words, not hers).

One of the unique aspects of Overcast is its approach to reducing listening time. Most other podcatching apps simply allow listeners to speed up playback. For example, Downcast for iOS allows listeners to audition a podcast at 1.5x and 2.0x speed.1 I have used Downcast for years but never used its 1.5x/2.0x feature because it altered the pitch to such a degree that l simply couldn’t enjoy the content. Smart Speed in Overcast, on the other hand, is a compromise. It retains the same pitch, a crucial aspect of sonic fidelity, but also allows listeners to “skim” the content. Reducing the moments of silence might be terrible for a chilling interview on 60 Minutes, but it might not matter as much for a group of journalists discussing the television industry, despite the fact that both are excellent, informative, and well-produced programs.

You can be doctrinal about screening and auditioning things at their original speed, but as with everything good and holy in this world, it is more complicated than you might have initially thought. That’s why we have to make our own decisions about balancing our precious time, in-class discussion (or advertising minutes), and the integrity of a work.

The above links to the iTunes store are affiliate links.

  1. Remember, that I have only sped up fewer than ten screening and only at 1.02x–1.04x.