Life Support

With almost two years of regular podcasting under my belt now, three things emerge.

  1. I really enjoy doing this. I would like to do it more and better.
  2. Despite my love for the work, or perhaps because of it, a larger audience would be rewarding.
  3. In the engine room, things need to change.

The three are, of course, commingled.

Audience is in some respects the toughest nut to crack, not just for me but for almost all podcasters. A very few can launch a new show and watch it become an instant hit not only because it is of good quality but also because they already have a name and a reputation through conventional channels. Many more are part of a podcast network in which cross-promotion can direct an existing audience’s attention to new shows and new episodes. The vast majority of us, however, plough a lonely furrow, market ourselves as best we can and deal with the envy aroused by shows not nearly as good as our own that are doing much better than we are.

Solutions exist. Marketing – once one overcomes the whole self-promotion anathema thing – is just a question of making people aware of something that they might find interesting. Provided that I can deliver on that promise with some regularity, casual listeners may turn into an actual audience. And the more of them there are, the more often someone will recommend the show to a friend. Then too, the more people who listen, the more likely some of them will respond to plaintive requests to rate and review the show on iTunes, still apparently one of the most effective ways to bring it to people’s attention. Audience, then, can snowball in a virtuous circle.

Opportunities for networks and cross-promotion are harder to manage. While I wait for the surely inevitable email from Gimlet Media or Radiotopia, I continue to think about some kind of curated platform that would allow people to discover potentially interesting podcasts. At the moment, thinking about it is all I can manage. If I ever manage to go full time, however, this discovery channel will be second on my to-do list.

And the whole point of all this marketing and abhorrent self-promotion is to reach the point where enough listeners place sufficient value on what they’re hearing to enable me to devote more time to it. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t actually need all that much cash to live a reasonable life. And that’s another virtuous circle, where being able to spend more time ought to result in a better product that will encourage more support.

Adoption matters

So, how about support? Around six months ago I joined Flattr, which simplifies to some extent the business of doling out micro-payments to content you value. I like it and I use it, but the truth is that in the greater scheme of things, it does not seem to be making that much of an impression. The thing is, you have to sign up both to give and to receive Flattrs, and that is quite definitely a barrier. Many people who have been Flattrd either don’t know or don’t care and have never bothered to collect the money they have earned. I’ve no idea how much unclaimed cash Flattr is sitting on, and have not been able to find out, but I bet it is a tidy sum. Even if creators don’t want it for themselves, they could always use their earnings to Flattr others who might welcome it, adding to the general expectation that consumers will reward good content and creators can expect rewards for creating it.

Patreon offers a different model of support. Flattr is largely about individual things, although it does offer a way to subscribe by ensuring that a content creator receives a single, regular Flattr – a micro-payment – each month. Patreon is all about subscription, a commitment to give someone so much per month or per episode. The amount you pledge is variable, and you can cancel at any point. A lot of people and companies on Patreon use a tiered support mechanism whereby the more you pay, the more you get, from undying gratitude and love to your name inscribed in gold on a granite monument. Well, I made that last one up, but you get the picture. And people also promise to do certain things if they reach certain amounts. Hit $100 a month and I will buy a new microphone; hit $7500 and I’ll go full time, that sort of thing.

So far, I have not yet joined Patreon in search of support, mostly because I cannot think of anything valuable I could usefully offer higher-paying patrons, and that kind of incentive does seem to be ubiquitous on Patreon. Undying gratitude and love for $1 a month can hardly be more undying for $100 a month. Maybe that would be a selling point in and of itself. You give me as much money as you think I’m worth, and I’ll give you as much gratitude and love as I think you’re worth.

Nah.

There’s actually room for both models. The internet needs something like Flattr so that people can spontaneously reward things they come across. And it needs Patreon so that we can offer long-term support to people who consistently produce things we value. Actually, maybe that’s something Flattr could do relatively easily: tell you when you have Flattrd a particular creator more than, say, five times in a month. Then set up a somewhat larger regular payment, if you wish.

There is clearly a lot of scope for Flattr and Patreon and others to be used as ways to give people who make things our continuing support (as opposed to the one-off hit of crowdfunding). The real need, though, is for a sea change in attitude. That’s why adoption matters.

P.s.
In the engine room, the primary change needed is better to understand and make use of the RSS feed. This is the stream of information that alerts iTunes to new episodes and that enables people to receive the show in the pod catcher of their choice. This last is important partly because iTunes is not exactly a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out stuff. It would be nice if the RSS feed delivered brief notes rather than, or as well as, the full text of an entry on the website. That would enable the summary that appears with iTunes to be more enticing while the show notes could be more comprehensive and useful. I’m pretty sure that this would not be difficult, although it is currently beyond me. Access to better information about listeners and how they listen would be useful too.

P.p.s. This post was actually written on 16 January, but my incompetence prevented me from publishing it. In the meantime I caught up with Dave Slusher’s Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for January 12 2015, which discusses many of the same issues. I’d link to it, but it’s borken. You can try from here.

Beyond Poppyseeds

Poppyseeds can be a nightmare for anyone subject to random drug tests. This much I knew, having researched the topic for my poppyseed cake recipe. I never imagined, though, that food could be more than just a little soporific. ABC Radio in Australia hauled Fuschia Dunlop before a microphone to enliven a discussion about the latest news about Chinese cooking. She reminisced:

As the afternoon went on we just got more and more relaxed until everyone just felt drowsy. We all went and fell asleep on beds and sofas and I can still remember having this absolutely blissful sleep. When I woke up I went back into the kitchen and I noticed that there were poppy heads bobbing around in the broth.

ABC’s story contains the usual warnings about innocent people failing drug tests, but I found it more interesting for a couple of other points.

First, although banned in 2008, it is still possible to get opiated grub at small, family run restaurants, “thanks to a lack of health and safety oversight”.

Then there’s the question you know they just had to ask:

What does it taste like?

‘Under the assault of Szechuan pepper and chillies and black beans and all the other ingredients you wouldn’t notice it,’ says Dunlop.

‘It’s just another spice, but with a rather interesting effect.’

Uh-huh.

And finally, I wouldn’t be true to myself if I failed to point out that the photo accompanying the audio file, while definitely a poppy is definitely not an opium poppy.

Looking Forward to 2015

The year just past – especially the second half of it – was not my finest hour. I was trying to do two (or was it three?) jobs at once, not to mention my “personal” work, and not doing any of it well. I got into all sorts of bad habits and spent far too much time lamenting my inability to move things forward when the truth of the matter, it now seems, was that I was trying to move too many things. Dissipation was my middle name.

No more.

I don’t do resolutions of the all-encompassing kind. I have, however, thought hard about the new habits I need to instill and some of the new kinds of support I want in order to do so. Here are those thoughts.

Writing

The web is where I publish the words I write for fun. And judging by my output, I haven’t been doing too much of that lately. There are a couple of reasons. One, I honestly believe, is that writing for work and writing for fun at the same machine in the same space is much more tiring than expending the same amount of energy in two different spaces. During the winter there really isn’t a whole lot I can do about that, although I have not fully explored the option of establishing me and my laptop in a corner of the local bar for an hour a day. I can, however, try to just ignore how I feel and get on with it.

That’s part and parcel of a more diffuse problem with boundaries. Working at home, it is too easy to keep the machine on for work, extend hours by a little, skive off for a bit. Two tools help me to avoid that, but recently not so well. My bullet journal has degenerated into a todo list, and at the same time, I am using the Pomodoro technique as a glorified timesheet rather than to predict and manage the time I need to spend on things. This is my own doing. I’ve become lazy. So I can undo it. My hope is that by adding some rigour back to these planning and recording aspects of my day, I will stop allowing tasks to dribble on endlessly. And my further hope is that if I can stop things when they are done, I can start more things.

The final part of the writing thing is to lubricate the bearings on the publishing machine. Back in May 2013 I moved over to Octopress as my blogging engine, and back to a static, baked site. I was super happy with the result in terms of uptime and speed of rendering; no more tearing my hair out over WordPress and the hosting service. But the actual process of writing something to put here had become that much more troublesome. Too many steps, too many things to go wrong, too fiddly. Write in MarsEdit, drag and drop images, push the whole thing to WP; that’s the way it ought to be. I’ve looked at a couple of other options, most notably Known, but the truth is I have very little desire to shift again. I just want to make the publishing part of writing easier. I’ve been delaying doing anything about it because I know that there is another great option waiting in the wings, and as soon as it is ready I will jump in with both feet. Till then, though, I need to use a bit more automation and just get on with it. Today seemed as good a time to start that as any.

Podcasting

Though I say so as shouldn’t, Eat This Podcast has been one area in which “could do better” has not really applied. The stats seem to bear this out, with a steady upward trend underneath the spikes every two weeks for each new episode.1 I do, however, sometimes feel that, having cast my bread upon the waters,2 I am still waiting for a return. I don’t want to nag the people who are kind enough to listen, but wouldn’t it be dandy if they did subscribe, recommend it to friends and, best of all, rate it in iTunes so that others might stand a chance of finding it?

What do I want from podcasting then? Better stats would be nice. I’m OK for kit, although I have been eying some short shotgun microphones that would be handy for more naturalistic sound gathering on location. Crowdfund, people have said. Nah. I’ve always believed that a craftsman should bear the cost of the tools of his trade. I’ve felt that ever since the National Union of Journalists negotiated a teeny pay increase for journalists who typed their own copy into digital type-setting terminals. In my worldview, you buy the tools yourself because they enable you to produce whatever it is that you make. Alas, it is tricky making money from the things I make, which means I work for money in order to allow me to work for love.

To that end, I joined Flattr earlier in 2014, and I’m happy to say that although I am down on the deal, so far, I get a warm glow from helping to spread the idea that good stuff on the internet doesn’t have to be free. Indeed, ought not to be. I am considering joining Patreon to allow people to “support and engage with creators [they] love,” – i.e. me – but first I have to figure out what I can offer in the way of extras to subscribers. Right now, I’m coming up empty. Undying gratitude and love doesn’t seem like such a great bargain. Ideally, of course, I’d like the financial security to spend most of my time making audio stories. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

Other stuff

There are some other things I’ve been thinking a bit about, but my conclusions are still too inchoate to be worth sharing. Soon, though, if I can maintain my momentum. All in all, I am resolved to:

  1. Just do it
  2. Stop allowing things to dribble on
  3. Investigate making the machine work for me, with automation and that kind of thing.
  1. Digression: podcast stats are a nightmare. It is really hard to find out how many subscribers there are, as opposed to how many downloads or page visits. If I were smarter, perhaps I could even find out which apps people are listening with. As it is, I’d happily pay for better stats, but not to the tune of $5 a month. Ignorance is not bliss, but I truly have better things to spend that kind of money on … Like Flattr.

  2. Speaking of which, I checked the bliblical quote, and found this in the next verse but one: “If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.” Which is pretty deep, right?

Is This Thing On?

Sometimes it feels as if I am the only person in the known world not listening to the mould-breaking podcast Serial. I’m not. In fact only about 1.5 million people downloaded the show each week, but that still broke all records for a podcast. One reason I didn’t subscribe is that I’m listening to so much else already that unheard episodes would just pile on the guilt, and one of those other shows I listen to gave me a peculiar, vicarious thrill this morning. Enough of a thrill to rouse me from my blogging torpor.

StartUp – “A series about what happens when someone who knows nothing about business starts one” – has captivated me from episode one. Alex Blumberg, a great broadcaster whom I’ve listened to for years on Planet Money, has been telling the story of how he left a secure gig to start a podcasting company. In the episode I’ve just heard, he introduced the first show signed to the company. It was a good moment, seeing his hard work, the interesting bits of which he has shared, result in something audible. And that something was a reincarnation of tl;dr, another fine show that I’ve listened to for a long time. A couple of episodes back StartUp credited tl;dr’s hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, with editing help, or something, and I thought, “Ahah, I wonder whether …” And yes, they’ve jumped ship. Their new show is called Reply All and from the teaser I just heard on StartUp, I’ll be subscribing to that too.

This is not, by the way, about how my taste in podcasts is validated by the best brains in the business. Even though Criminal, another show I listen to, has been snapped up by Radiotopia, another podcast network, most of which I don’t currently listen to. It is a little bit about envy. I wish I had the time and the gumption to make more of my own podcasting, get it to pay its way, maybe get snapped up by some network or other. More, it is about how the world of podcasting is maturing and becoming a thing somewhat independent of actual radio, although one notable fact about almost all the shows I like is that the people making them cut their teeth in “proper” radio. I like this development because it gives me more choice in the things I want to listen to, even if it leaves me less time for mould-breaking wondershows.

Maple Syrup and Cheese

Amy Trubek, my guest on the latest Eat This Podcast, studies cheese and maple syrup, separately. This post suggests she bring them together.

When we spoke, Professor Trubek threw away a remark that first stopped me in my tracks and then sent me scurrying to the internet. Artificial maple flavour, she said, is made from fenugreek. Huh? I know fenugreek only as a somewhat pungent spice that I sometimes put in Indian food. To me, it smells of curries, not maple syrup.

Of course, she was right. A quick search confirmed that pretty comprehensively. “Fenugreek extract is the perfect raw material for formulating maple flavors with and it could also be useful in coffee, caramel, toffee, butterscotch, beef and nut flavors,” one flavour scientist wrote. The primary culprit is 4,5-Dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2(5H)-furanone (C6H8O3), which fortunately goes also by the name sotolon (or sotolone). It is powerful stuff, detectable in concentrations as low as one part per billion, equivalent to a drop of water in 50 cubic metres, or about 250 chemical drums. There’s another component of maple flavour, 5-Ethyl-3-hydroxy-4-methyl-2(5H)-furanone (C7H10O3), that is even more powerful, being detectable at one part per 100 trillion. This stuff, called maple furanone, is “one of the most powerful flavor chemicals known to man”.

So far, so interesting. Then a few other facts emerged. Fenugreek seeds are a traditional remedy to increase milk production in nursing mothers. And eating fenugreek can make you reek “of waffles”. There’s an unfortunate genetic disease called maple syrup urine disease that, untreated, results in severe neurological defects. It could also be called maple syrup ear wax disease, but that’s another story. The babies of nursing mothers who have eaten fenugreek to increase their milk flow sometimes have urine that smells of maple syrup, although they don’t have MSUD. And whoever first sniffed the urine of babies who do have MSUD and said “hey, this smells like maple syrup,” nailed it. The odour of MSUD is our old friend sotolon.

All of which proves only that I know my way around a search engine. I am, however, getting to the point. Along the way, I learned that there is a wine called Vin Jaune, which is “marked by the formation of sotolon from alpha-ketobutyric acid”. That’s roughly the same chemical process that creates the sotolon in MSUD, and Vin Jaune does indeed have a note of maple syrup. Furthermore, it is also typically served with Comté cheese.

If you’ve come all this way, thank you. Here’s the point: Amy Trubek studies both Vermont cheese and Vermont maple syrup. In our talk, I mentioned that in Italy, cheeses are often served with honey, and I asked whether anyone served maple syrup with cheese. She didn’t think so, and she thought it might be a good idea. Well, if the terroir-laden French traditionally serve Vin Jaune with Comté cheese, why shouldn’t mould-breaking Vermonters do the same with their alpine-inspired Comté lookalikes?

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