Things Not To Say On Your New Podcast

A quarter of the world’s population is on lockdown (a word we’re just… saying now?) and about a quarter of these people are going to start a podcast remotely with their friends. I have hosted two podcasts, guested on two dozen, and listened to so many that I am pretty sure it has irreparably given me brain damage. I once spent six minutes trying to find the perfect podcast to take the bins out to, and have Googled “Marc Maron ex wives” more times than I care to count.

I’ve seen a lot of snarky comments online about how people should resist the urge to start a podcast, all of them with this weird tone, as if someone creating a podcast behooves everyone else to listen to it. I think these people are cunts. As long as you’re not going to sit your friends down and make them listen to an mp4 of you recapping episodes of The Good Wife, you are absolutely within your right to start a podcast. This does not mean I, or anyone else, will listen to it. Do not send it to me.

But record it nonetheless. Having a podcast is really great, and the skills it teaches you are valuable and transferable. You learn how to record, produce and edit audio. You learn how to listen to people, like actually listen, rather than just wait for gaps to say your pre-scripted bit that you were so certain would make you sound smart. You will realise just how many of your conversations outside of podcasting are merely pre-scripted little bits to make you sound smart. You will learn how to be more present and focused in your conversations, and you will notice the difference in how it makes people feel. People bloom when they know they’re being listened to. You will have some of the most interesting conversations you’ll ever have while recording a podcast.

And yet, with all this spontaneity and intimacy, you will still find yourself saying stock phrases. Memorised little lines of awkward chatter that you have picked up from listening to other podcasts. Everyone has a few awkward bits of chatter that they say anyway, and that’s no bad thing, but on a podcast it can sometimes halt the flow of conversation or act as a blocker for what can be really interesting, uncharted territory. These are the things you say because you’re not sure of what else to say, and sometimes you’re better off just letting that uncertainty breath than you are swooping in with a stock sentence. FYI, I’m guilty of almost all of these, and actively cringe when I hear myself saying them. That shows you how annoyingly powerful they are.

“Well, that’s something for a whole other podcast.”

What other podcast? We’re on this podcast, nerd! Everyone who’s ever hosted a podcast has rolled this one out, because it’s an easy way of steering your guest back on topic if a tangent has taken you elsewhere. It is always accompanied by an awkward little giggle, a sort of gut-based reverse-laugh that is never about humour and always about nerves.

If your tangent is interesting, let it flow on, and edit it out later if it doesn’t fit. If it’s not relevant at all, wait for a gap in conversation and say “this is really interesting, but I’m conscious of the time limit, and I’d really like to talk about X”. Edit this out later. Your guest will not have hurt feelings about this. This is producing, and good podcasts need to be produced. When I guest on a podcast, I get extremely nervous when a host is just hitting record and hoping for the best. Their lack of structure makes me think they’re not going to edit the audio later, and that I will end up sounding like an idiot because of it. It’s like ordering a gin and tonic and not getting any lime in it: you’re like, ok, this is fine, but if they’re getting this wrong, what must the bathrooms look like?

“Can you edit this out?” / “Don’t worry, we’ll edit that out.”

Well, you haven’t, have you. Because I’m listening to it. I should never be listening to unedited material, and I shouldn’t be hearing you talk about The Edit.

I understand why it’s tempting. Podcasting feels informal, and you want to keep a fun, loose, naturalistic atmosphere. Let’s keep stuff in that we said we’d edit, because it just flows better, y’knaw??

Keeping stuff in that you said you’d edit is disrespectful to the guest, for one thing. But even if the podcast is just between you and your best friend, it’s jarring for the listener to be constantly reminded of the medium they’re listening to. It’s the podcasting uncanny valley. When the hosts are constantly talking about hosting the podcast, editing the podcast, the experience of having to put out a podcast, you start getting the sense that they’re too excited, have no clue what they’re doing, and your trust that they’re going to entertain you starts to dwindle.

It’s Monty Burns losing his job, riding the bus, and then saying “I am riding on a bus.” Everyone knows it’s wrong. You saying it makes it wrong.

“You can’t see this, but…”

No shit we can’t see it! It’s an audio medium, fucker!

“I’m so getting cancelled for this!”

Cancel culture has become this strange boogie man for creators that spend a lot of time online. It is everywhere and nowhere; it happens to friends of friends, but never friends. We are increasingly unsure of what it actually means, and scales anywhere from “attracting mild criticism” to “losing work for appearing to have an unpopular opinion”. We think that by talking about theoretical “cancellation” a lot, by showing we are with it enough to understand what cancel culture is, we will avoid any serious critiques of what we have to say. We want to head criticism off at the pass by telling our audience that any criticism they might have would fall under cancel culture, which would be very uncool of them.

I completely understand and empathise with the urge to do this, but it’s is a weirdly castrating thing to do to your audience, as well as jarringly egotistic. “My takes are so hot that people are dying to cancel me!” Girl, sit down, you’re hosting a Good Wife podcast.

“Uh, so, I don’t want to generalise…. and, y’know, obviously, I don’t know that much about this subject, and I’m not the person to comment, but, I think that, maybe…”

Ah, the conversational cladding that takes an interesting point and wraps it in so much bubble wrap that no one can tell what it is, and it takes seven extra minutes to unwrap.

This comes from the same place of insecurity as the above point about cancel culture. I.e., you’re so afraid that people are going to take umbrage with what you have to say that you couch it in a word salad of phrases taken from Twitter. You constantly “check your privilege” long after it’s relevant or interesting. You talk vaguely about “optics”. You refer to yourself as living in a bubble, you qualify that your evidence is “only anecdotal”. Unsurprisingly, you get a lot of female podcasters doing this. They constantly second-guess themselves, using their uncertainty as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for any criticism that might come later. It’s like they’re already mounting their own defence: “As you can hear on the podcast, I clearly said this was not my area of expertise, and that I was only offering my opinion as an idiot.”

Lemme tell you what I’ve learned in three years of hosting podcasts: people have a level of forgiveness and empathy for podcast conversations that they don’t have with written material. Whereas someone might screengrab a bit of your article and tweet it around as evidence of you being an arsehole, nobody is transcribing your Good Wife podcast. Podcasts are like a walled garden of online conversation, and it’s where people go to hear people sort out weird and thorny issues. Let go a little bit. Take down some of that cladding and see what’s underneath.

Thanks to fellow podcasters Aisling Keenan, Alan Maguire, Sarah Maria Griffin, Hannah Varrall, Andrea Cleary and others for helping me with this list via Twitter!