My Lifetime Ban from the Podcasting Cool Kids Club

I haven’t been officially banned yet, but once this hits the Interwebs, it won’t take long.

Here’s an audio version of this article for your dining and dancing pleasure.

The first time I spoke into a microphone in front of an audience, it was 1974. I was in third grade, and as part of a homework assignment I was giving a speech in front of our whole school on a particular dialect of British English that’s specific to the Northeast of England, where the people are known as Geordies. I did about eight minutes of what essentially was stand-up comedy, translating Geordie phrases into plain English. I was hooked by the experience. Less than ten years later I was working as a DJ on the radio, and by 1985 I was doing actual stand-up.

So I’ve been speaking into microphones, and recording, mixing and editing other people who speak into microphones, for nearly fifty years. And the bottom line is this: I know, beyond anyone’s reasonable ability to debate, what a good microphone sounds like, and what a bad microphone sounds like. I’m not quite at the level of expertise possessed by my old friend Bob Doidge – who once had to FedEx a U47 to Ireland because Bono insisted on using that specific microphone to record the vocals for The Unforgettable Fire in a mossy, mildewy old castle – but I know a good mic from a bad one.

Here comes the line that will get me forever banned from the Podcasting Cool Kids Club. And most podcasters have a sense of who the cool kids think they are.

The line of unforgivable heresy is this: The podcast you’re listening to right now was recorded on a twenty-dollar microphone. Nope, didn’t get it at a garage sale, or inherit it from a long-deceased relative. Bought it brand new for twenty bucks. Even more horrific to the podcasting illuminati, I bought it off Amazon. And the death blow to my future as a Podcasting Cool Kids Club member? It’s a lapel mic.

What I’m beginning to understand, much to my disappointment, is that there are some in the podcast space that have set forth kind of a nebulous list of “minimum requirements” for podcast production – kind of the same way your computer has minimum requirements to run a particular piece of software. The implication is that anything less than these minimums will result in a show that’s unlistenable. What that has resulted in. is the deliberate construction of false barriers to entry. You have to spend a certain amount on your microphone, they’ll say. And you need to spend money on software to produce your podcast, or have certain amount of technological prowess to allow you to navigate the feature sets of the freebies. And heaven forbid you should use one of those free podcast hosting services. How gauche. Next you’ll be telling the elitists that you don’t plan on spending hundreds of dollars on acoustic foam for your dedicated recording space. The horrors.

As a person who’s been in broadcasting at a very high level since the early 1980s, here’s what I will tell you with indisputable certainty: If you’ve booked an interview with Ryan Reynolds, Mick Jagger or even the ridiculously overexposed Elon Musk – and I mean “overexposed” in about three different senses of the word – and they’re doing the interview through a drive-thru speaker, there will be tons of people who will listen. And I’ll additionally promise you this: At least 90% of the people who will be critical of the audio quality, will be people in the industry.

Rolling Stones fans want to hear what Mick Jagger has to say. And the only thing they care about is that Mick sounds good enough that they can easily understand what he’s saying – in fact, they don’t even care about THAT. Because they’re not thinking about it. Not thinking about it at all, unless his audio is so garbled and distorted that you can’t understand him. That’s the only time audio quality even occurs to them. They don’t care if his audio is at 384k or 32k. As long as they can hear it. They won’t write a scathing review about how you obviously didn’t use the low-end rolloff switch on your RE-20. It’s like most anything else – you don’t notice something until it is obviously wrong. You don’t notice the function of your left knee, for example, until your left knee hurts. You don’t think about the marvels of your charger cable until the cable stops working properly. You only think about the functionality of your can opener when it’s not opening cans anymore.

If the concept is anathema to you, that listeners don’t tend to think at all about audio quality unless it sucks, that’s okay. It happens to everybody at one point or another. To tons of people I know who are legends in their respective media, whether that’s podcasting, TV, movies, radio, whatever – it happens multiple times. Regularly, even. In radio, we used to describe it as having to remember how to “listen like a listener”. You spend long enough as a broadcaster, you forget how to listen and evaluate things the way the average listener would. It’s why, as I’ve said before, you’ll get tired of your intro theme, or the jingle in your commercials, in about a tenth of the time it’ll take before the audience will. Because they don’t hear it the same way you do. You’re coming at it from different places.

It reminds me of the first time I saw the movie The Return Of The Jedi. I saw it in a theater with my friend Rob Petrovicz, who was seeing it – without a word of hyperbole – for something like the 44th time. That’s not to be critical of Rob in any way, he went on to become a massive deal in science fiction television; but for me that day, it meant that in the middle of one of the climactic battle scenes Rob leaned over and said, “Look! You can see the reflection of the camera crew in C3PO’s head!”


But we were there for different reasons. I was there to watch the story unfold. Rob was there to nitpick the technical details because the technical details were his passion. A passion that turned into an award-winning career. To him, the story was secondary, because the passion was in the behind-the-scenes part of telling it.

The dirty little secret that the gurus won’t admit to is this: Your fans don’t love your audio quality. They love your content. If you don’t have fans, or don’t know how to convert listeners into fans, or or don’t know how to do the kind of content that gets you fans, there’s no microphone in the world that can save you. (Not even Bob Doidge’s U47, which I think he’s still cleaning the moss out of.) I’ve quoted this number before, and if my math is wrong, please feel free to correct me on the numbers, but something like 150 million people a week still listen to talk radio in the United States. And on talk radio, about half the airtime is taken up by people who are on the phone. No one cares about the audio quality of the people on the phone because the talk radio audience isn’t there for audio quality. They’re there for the content.

The self-appointed gatekeepers seem to want you to forget that in the majority of cases, your audio is being delivered after having been converted from actual audio to a low-resolution digital file, which is then being broadcast across a Bluetooth radio signal into ear buds with a limited frequency response, likely in a place where the listener is also dealing with a ton of ambient noise. Just how good are you demanding this recording should be?

What I’m demonstrating to you right now, much to the chagrin of the Podcasting Cool Kids Club, is that you can do a show with audio quality that is perfectly acceptable, with a twenty-dollar microphone. And I can back up that assertion with nearly fifty years of experience with microphones that cost everywhere from eighteen dollars to eighteen hundred dollars.

Pretending that you need something better, and erecting false barriers to entry, is preventing us from hearing from potentially powerful voices in already marginalized communities.

So before you run to your powerful keyboard and start a Twitter movement in support of my lifetime ban from the Podcasting Cool Kids Club, maybe stop for a second and examine whether your perspective is the result of your privilege.

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