Episode 64: Podcast Saga Part 17 - Not The Revolution But After


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            In retrospect, or as illuminated through experience, it’s clear to me that there was a gap in the conceptual framework I laid out. In that, I don’t think I fully went into how podcast discovery works for the listener. I stated—accurately I would think—that one of the benefits to podcasting as a medium is that because Apple didn’t have to offset the cost of maintaining a digital infrastructure or—for any other discernable reason—didn’t need this section of the iTunes storefront to generate a profit, podcasts of all sort on all topics were able to sprout up, and a listener could find any show they wanted to hear. Within reason, that is. What Apple needed was to maintain a sense of respectability, and for that, they could just lead with established voices, carefully arranged on the front page to capture your attention and imagination, albeit a more boring one.

            All that means to the listener is that Apple won’t lead you to content through an algorithm designed with alternative goals in mind that then escapes the complete control of the programming team who made it and runs creators if not the whole platform into the ground. The end take away was that not only is there no gatekeeper to content, but that even the host of this party doesn’t have invested interest in who wins or loses. Of course, there’s a limit. See the need for respectability, but historically Apple has been incredibly reluctant to step in, and with so many podcast players scraping off of Apple’s feeds, Apple does set the tone for the industry.

            Even the players that don’t pull from Apple take this approach in their own user interfaces. Unless they have original shows, there’s genuinely no reason to shift your listening habits in a certain direction. They usually pay their bills either with subscription services or by offering premium features at a price. And this disinterest in your listening habits is to their benefit. After all, the best person who can persuade you to stay on a particular app is you. So making it easier to find shows you’ll like, either by making it easy for you to find the creator’s other shows or shows within a similar genre or have similar tags is all they have to do. They have to give you the ability to act rather than the ability to remain passively engaged.

            And that provides a somewhat okay explanation for how people find the show they love.

Now, this is a pretty critical point for creators. You can make what would be considered a technically perfect show potentially loved by the masses, but you might not realize that’s what you’ve done because your potential audience never found you. Algorithms might be destructive, but before they destroy you, they give you a chance to bask in the sun. Or that is to say, they bring people to enjoy what you do. It’s almost like a manipulation tactic, but let’s not think too much about that for now.

            In many ways, it’s up to the creator to generate enough attention for their show for the dust cloud to then grow into a large audience. And that’s a pretty easy thing to take for granted, until you can’t. Because life through you what could be called a curve ball earlier this week. I say, “Could be called” because that’s a literal drastic. In reality, this is just par for the course.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 64.

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            In some ways, in the absence of an algorithm or anything of the sort, podcast discovery is more organic. In that, it doesn’t have any aritifical barriers getting in the way. Rather, it’s word of mouth that carries the day or the show. And while there are more prominent reviewers or promoters, if you’re engaged in the social media scene, you’ll stumble upon any number of shows. Or you can Tweet a request to get recommendations, and then watch the replies come flooding in. If the recommender “at’s” the show, to use the Twitter lingo, then you can just click back to the show’s Twitter page and hopefully there will be more information waiting for you. Also hopefully links for the show in the main podcasting apps.

            If not, or if they don’t include a link to your podcast player of choice, it can be harder to maintain that initial momentum and listen to show. But if you trust the voice that shouted out this podcast name or if the title-slash-premise-slash-logo is compelling enough or speaks to you enough, you can overcome this hurdle.

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            And then you might end up binging the entirety of a show in one day, forgoing some of your other responsibilities and your plan for your podcast on media.

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            What? Did you think this entire episode was going to be on podcast discovery? That wasn’t going to work because there isn’t enough to say to make a full length episode.

            And, I get it, this lack of talking points can be incredibly frustrating for creators who are struggling to get their shows out there. In that case, you would want there to be some sort of secret to growing your audience because it means that if you can figure it out then bam, exponential growth. Occasionally, you might stumble upon the niche where your audience is—for lack of a better word—lurking, but that’s not going to be the case with everything you try, and there’s only so many things you can try.

            But here’s why I brought that up. I wasn’t going to talk about this podcast today. In fact, I hadn’t heard it before this week. While it was sitting on my to-listen list, it wasn’t that high up until earlier this week when one of those many Twitter feeds crowd-sourcing podcast recommendations included a recommendation from the showrunner of a show I like and had mentioned this show. And that recommendation was for the show I’m talking about today. For some reason, it was only when I saw it in this context that the weight of the title finally hit me. And I feel a little stupid for that.

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            And I’m talking about It Was Never Just About the Revolution, a production of the Multiversal Podcasting Network. I say that the title should have landed with me because in college, I developed a passion for political philosophy, particularly revolutionary ideologies. Though I use the term “particularly” loosely. In reality, I just had an obsession with the idea of revolutionary ideologies or an obsession with a specific line in the book On Revolution by Hannah Arendt that actually just clicked with some old psychological baggage I was carrying, allowing me to unload this burden. But that’s neither here nor there. Rather, it is in another episode on this feed.

            But here’s the truth that this podcast goes into that resonated with me from the outset and should have been reason to bump this up my podcasting queue: it’s never just about the revolution or the political ideals being championed. Ultimately, there’s a story beneath the disobedience and fire. After all, for better or worse, there are people involved. And how you make sense of that fact can make multiple stories out of a single narrative. Or even just one really good podcast out of a single person telling their story in a somewhat disjointed way to avoid facing things they don’t want to face just yet.

            Let me explain.

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            It Was Never Just About the Revolution takes place hundreds of years in the future where galactic travel is something vaguely akin to a road trip. It follows Jemma as she traverses a distant place in the galaxy, fleeing a failed student revolt, trying to escape capture while figuring out who betrayed this group of revolutionaries whom she became close to. I should repeat that point. This story isn’t so much about the failed revolution. That event has passed, and our protagonist is left dealing with the aftermath, specifically not being arrested for what she did and how she would like that fact to remain true by evading authorities. These tapes we are listening to essentially document this flight while also being proverbial calls into the void, specifically to the captured leader of this failed uprising whose is also Jemma’s love interest otherwise not clearly specified. And you get the sense, listening to the tapes, that the uprising or Jemma’s involvement in it—while it had political goals—wasn’t just about political ends. It’s never just about the ideology. Rather, what we see through Jemma is that there was a bond amongst the students that helped them overcome their fears in confronting these political issues and gave them the strength to champion for societal improvement.

            That’s at the core of the tapes we are hearing. This need to reach out to a person now out of reach but with whom Jemma will forever be bonded to. And that’s an important approach, in my opinion.

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            I was in college not that long ago, well into the current era of skepticism for the arts and humanities. Political science has been liberated from this due to current events, but I missed that unintended redemption. When I was in college…. Where I was in college, being a political science major who didn’t intend to go into law school wasn’t rough on campus but off-campus… yeah, kind of. It was just the sort of thing regarding with a sense of contempt or malicious amusement. The “have fun in your parents’ basement” type of condemnation. But we were taught from the upperclassman to say that studying politics had value because “everything was politics.” I mean, we didn’t know what was to come. But the problem was that this was a phrase that could work and was applied to pretty much anything. But don’t let that deter you. Because it is true in every case.

            What these disciplines, those in the arts and humanities, try to study is humanity as a whole—for all our strengths, flaws, and everything in-between. We aren’t beings particularly well-known for our simplicity. In many ways, politics is more about how we relate to each other and navigate conflicting interests not just in the public sphere but in our own minds as well. The former is pretty obvious. The latter not so much. So to clarify, at the bare minimum, there is comfort in the status quo—in maintaining the way things are even if they are not ideal—that is jeopardize in revolution or in any sort of social change. After all, things could get worse and maybe not better, but there will be consequences for your actions. And this leads to a cost, benefit analysis that maybe you think people shouldn’t be making, but hey, most people are going to make it.

            It Was Never Just About the Revolution, despite not being a documentation of the revolution, captures this underlying logic in hindsight. It captures this shift in an actor’s priorities that made them become actors in the first place. Considering how restrictive and under control the world within this podcast is and the stakes therein, Jemma—as she admits—wasn’t immediately inclined to jump into a cause like this one. But she came around through the people who were already there. It was particularly through a sense of solidarity to and with this larger group of people that she found the courage to act.

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            Beyond just saying that factually, this might not interest you. I might be pushing to far into an overly specialized territory. And I realized that as I typed out the world “solidarity.” There’s plenty of things you could be reading to that end if it’s important to you. But for now, I still have more to say about this podcast. I haven’t even gotten into the framing, have I? Because we aren’t listening to these transmissions as they happen. Rather, these tapes have been unearthed by a museum and immortalized as educational material for posterity.

            And that raises some questions because revolutions aren’t typically preserved in this way. History is written by the winners after all. And the winners wouldn’t typically want to portray the opposition—particularly a revolutionary opposition—in a benevolent light. You don’t want the other side to be seen as reasonable people with contrary views least you validate those contrary views, fueling another revolution that you then have to deal with. It doesn’t always matter objectively who was in the right or wrong. It’s more a matter of political survival than anything else.

            And it could be that this human element—this need for connection that I would see as a political element—is the justification behind it. That is to say, that to another listener, Jemma might be little more than a love-struck child who had the misfortune of falling for the wrong person. Her tapes than serve as a way of discrediting the failed revolution rather than as a political message, advocating for coordinated even if contrarian political action.

            This discrepancy is a hard thing for me to wrap my head around, but—in theory—that has to be a more standard interpretation because you can’t expect something like this to slip through the cracks.

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            This is actually an important point, not so much a plot hole. Ignore the existence of my other show for about ten minutes so I can hash out this point. But the problem with one voice audio fiction shows is that it is harder for the writer or performer to keep a sense of momentum going to push the listener through the story when they cannot mix it up with other voices. Voice changes, particularly drastic ones, can help reengage someone’s attention. Without this, the production must rely on other ways to keep the audience engaged, and this inconsistency is one of the currents that pulled me through to the end.

            Because at no point did I stop asking: why are these tapes significant and permitted to exist counter to reasonable expectations? And this isn’t the only thing I was asking. The other question is perhaps more obvious: what happened? Yes, there was a betrayal, but what went down, exactly?

            This uncertainty ends up framing the narrative’s underlying current. And from there, no matter what Jemma is doing or saying, this current moves the story along. It creates leeway in the case of narrative drag, which can happen to the best of writers, because it replicates or follows. A question is posed, we work through it across the season, and then we get to the answer. Inciting action, conflict, and then resolution.

            None of that has anything to do with the revolution itself, does it? This show isn’t a recitation of—albeit—fictional events. It’s about what comes after: the struggle to resituate oneself after everything has shifted, particularly when it comes to those who were lost.  And to do that, you need to realize and accept things that might be hard to swallow.

            After all, it was never just about the revolution…

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            I think it’s fascinating how this idea of stepping past such a defining event as a revolution to tell a related story has helped this particular podcast avoid so many pitfalls and comes to define the story as a whole. But none of that can happen until it has your attention, however, and that’s the hard part. Or even the tragic part you could also say.

            It Was Never Just About the Revolution is the sort of podcast that depends on world of mouth to find its audience. And this is where I could make a joke about the name being so long as to not fit in your mouth properly, and its acronym doesn’t really work as a solution to that. It seems means to do, but it does depict a reality of the situation. I think in the course of working on this episode, I pulled this show on the podcast player I only use for this podcast saga five different times and struggled to type it out each of the five times. This is despite the fact that the title fits well with the content itself, so this isn’t so much a critique but a lamentation or frustration that this show is able to fall through this particular figurative crack.

            To add to that, its premise is necessarily vague for the sake of the listening experience, but it also approaches an uncomfortable point where it almost serves as a callback to larger podcasts that will not be named here. While—in theory—that would mean that this podcast could pull from those audiences, that would only be possible in an algorithmic driven context where the pieces of content can be broken down into data points and matched up later to maintain an audience’s attention and the resulting ad revenue. Hint. Hint. As it stands, every podcast exists in its own bubble, connected to other bubbles when possible. Like, let’s say connections to other established podcasts through a common creative team. If you know what I mean. I’m like sub-podcasting right now. And I don’t like it.

            The thing is, up until literally this week, we didn’t have a way to find audio fiction podcasts easily on the Goliath that dictates the norms in this space. And even now, sorting by premise isn’t a great way to find shows you like. And connecting audio fiction shows thematically or stylistically is almost a fever dream. This podcast and others like it have to depend on its audience to do the work required for it to grow, particularly those members of the audience who are more anchored in the podcasting space.

            While it puts the power in the hands of the audience, it is yet to be seen where the audiences’ actions and attempt to evangelize will fit into our schema of media consumption. Genuinely, without a gatekeeper or algorithm, it’s the audience that can decide what lives and dies. And I’m not sure we know how to wield that power yet. I don’t know if we know to be actively engaged in a show’s growth. And while the protesting that sometimes comes with Netflix cancelations might make you think this is a power we already use comfortably, I’d caution against having too much optimism on that one. Because I would call that a reaction not a direct action and podcasting would require a direct action.

            Have we experienced a cultural revolution? Yes. Undoubtedly. But it’s not just about the revolution. It’s also about what we do with the result.

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            Thanks for listening. And by the way, you can now think of my other podcast: the audio fiction show that I told you to not think about for, what did I say, ten minutes? I don’t know if it’s been a full ten minutes, but let’s rebel a bit. We’re also long passed that section, so feel free to think about it now and pull it up on your podcast player. That’s The Oracle of Dusk, if you didn’t know. And Season 2 starts this week.

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