Good and Bad Podcasts, Nuance, and Rejecting Prescriptivism

I’m not a fan of podcasts, on the whole, particularly the ones that I’ve listened to that focus on coding and developer culture. For a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that put me off them, and I just figured podcasts weren’t for me. However, in the past year, I’ve found two podcasts that I absolutely love. They are Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, and Slate Magazine’s Lexicon Valley. Their respective subjects are history and language, but the scope of both is expansive, going beyond the boundaries of their nominal subjects to consider issues of human nature and culture that arise from them. Discovering these two podcasts lead me to try and analyse why I enjoy them so much, and why I don’t enjoy many others as much. I concluded that it was partly a matter of presentation style, and partly a matter of content.

On the surface, the respective presentation styles of Hardcore History and Lexicon Valley are rather different. Hardcore History has only a single presenter1, Dan Carlin. His voice, loud and animated, is the whole focus, and the only words other than his own, aside from the introductory jingle, come in the form of quotations from sources that he reads aloud. And he has a lot to say. His “podcasts” are closer kin to audio books than radio broadcasts, their length usually measured in hours, with each topic frequently spanning multiple episodes. They are extremely detailed and gloriously digressive, informed by passion for their topic and a more basic passion for knowledge in general.

Lexicon Valley episodes tend to be significantly shorter, rarely exceeding the thirty minute mark. It has two regular hosts, Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, and features regular guest contributions, usually from academics and authors providing insight into their area of expertise. Mike Vuolo is the producer, and appears to do most of the research for the show, with Bob Garfield adopting more of a sidekick role. In a typical episode, after a brief introduction, the hosts usually have a vaguely Socratic dialogue around the chosen topic, in which Vuolo adopts the position of wise man, and Garfield is his inquiring, somewhat skeptical and occasionally philistinic interlocutor. Vuolo will then provide an extended section of analysis, often speaking with one or more of the aforementioned guest contributors. Sometimes these guests sections appear to be recorded as part of the discussion between the hosts, whereas others seem to be recorded either before or later, then edited in. Finally, the show returns to a discussion between the hosts, who try to reach some kind of conclusion about the topic, before signing off in signature fashion.

Despite their differences, I believe these podcasts share a certain amount of DNA. The first similarity is their command of their subject matter. Dan Carlin’s podcast appears to be meticulously researched. He speaks of wanting to have at least fifty sources for each topic he covers. For Lexicon Valley, Mike Vuolo is a professed language junkie, and both he and his guests grapple with and explain many complicated aspects of language. Garfield deliberately affects a somewhat less informed persona, but he is also clearly very knowledgeable.

The second similarity is the clarity of the presenters’ style and the assurance with which they present the material. Carlin’s verbosity and intensity might not be to everyone’s taste, but his prose is always clear and vivid. Lexicon Valley’s hosts are equally eloquent, as they naturally luxuriate in language, yet still produce a show that is tight and economical, but not rushed.

Overall, the quality that attracts me to both these podcasts I would best describe as professionalism. It isn’t surprising to learn that all three hosts have backgrounds in journalism and broadcasting. They display an investigative journalist’s ability to explore and communicate complex topics, and a radio host’s comfort behind a microphone.

Unfortunately, most of the other podcasts I’ve listened to do not exhibit these characteristics. They tend to follow a structure whereby each episode features one or two regular hosts, one or two guests, and a discussion that wanders around whatever relevant topics are in the news and a specialist subject of the guest’s. They can feature nuggets of gold, but it is always surrounded by a lot of hesitant and aimless chatter. It’s difficult to listen to an hour long podcast for just a few moments of insight, particularly for technical subjects where there are usually many articles and blog posts providing the same information in a format that is much quicker to digest.

Although their hosts’ relative lack of experience with journalism and radio contributes to the problem, I don’t think it is only a matter of professionalism. I’ve realised that I often feel just as bored and uncomfortable watching live interviews between professional journalists and their subjects. The reason, I think, is because very few people are capable of speaking insightfully and entertainingly about something in an off-the-cuff manner, even if they are heavily involved with it. They can usually talk at a high level, offering statements and explanations they have probably repeated many times before, but when pressed to answer deeper or more theoretical questions, the usually clam up, becoming hesitant and imprecise. It isn’t because they’re stupid, but because insightful analysis isn’t easily done on the spot, under pressure2. Or, if it is, it involves a lot of umming and ahhing and talking around a topic as those involved work their way towards a shared understanding and good answers. The thing is, it’s easy to understand how such a conversation would be fascinating and vital to the people involved in it, but it can seem long-winded and halting when listened to second-hand via a recording.

I have listened to interviews with some of my favourite writers, artists and scientists, people whose work otherwise demonstrates a great deal of intelligence and self-awareness, but who struggle to offer almost anything in the way of an illuminating, or even coherent, answer when faced with anything beyond the softest questioning, particularly if it’s a line of questioning they weren’t expecting. And even recorded conversations between experts can often tend towards the banal and the obvious if they haven’t done the necessary thinking through of their positions.

A good example of the latter is RedLetterMedia’s movie review show, Half In the Bag. I should qualify my opinions by saying that I love Mike Stoklasa’s Mr Plinkett reviews, and a lot of people like Half In the Bag, where he and Jay Bauman engage in a Siskel and Ebert like discussion of new cinema releases . Even I don’t find it bad per se, just not essential. The contrast between the painstaking, scientific deconstruction of the movies featured in the Plinkett reviews with the freewheeling, conversational, but kinda shallow analysis offered by Half In the Bag just makes me miss the former. Every episode, Stoklasa will offer some interesting insights that he seems to have conceived in advance, and it just makes me wish I could listen to an hour of him giving such insights.

It seems that producing the kind of effect that Lexicon Valley achieves, of a discourse that is both conversational and insightful, requires a great deal of expertise, preparation and careful editing. It’s a sort of conjurer’s trick, where a great deal of effort is expended to hide the signs of the effort itself, one most easily achieved by those with training and experience in how to do it. Perhaps the internet will help to spread and democratise these skills, or perhaps the decline of traditional journalism will cause them to gradually be lost. I hope it’s the former.

As an addendum, I should also make clear that, of course, this is all just my preference, and many people will have an entirely different one. Depending on your nature, you may prefer the freer, less artificial tone of podcasts that just get a few guys and girls in a room and let them have at it, figuratively speaking. I can certainly understand that perspective, even if it doesn’t usually align with my tastes, and I’ll admit such entirely improvised affairs can sometimes produce a kind of joyful anarchism that the best prepared and edited shows can’t match. There’s room in the world for both.

Rejecting Prescriptivism

Another common trait that I realised both Hardcore History and Lexicon Valley shared, and which contributed to my enjoyment of them, is their rejection of reductive or overly-prescriptive theories and ideologies, in favour of a more modern, more nuanced view of their subjects. It demonstrates a real quality of thinking, which moves beyond obvious answers, and goes hand in hand with the professionalism I discussed earlier.

Case in point: Dan Carlin in Hardcore History often talks about the “great man” theory of history and the “social trends” theory. Both have held sway at different times and tended to be viewed as in opposition, but he professes a view that neither offers the complete truth, but neither can they be discounted. History is shaped by many factors, he thinks, and the relative importance of certain individuals vs trends varies in different situations, often contributing to one another. This doesn’t mean Carlin retreats from offering opinions or conclusions about the subjects he discusses, but that these aren’t offered through the prism of a particular dogma, and don’t deny the inherent complexity involved in all human events.

Likewise, Lexicon Valley, despite focusing on language and grammar, shies away from finicky, grammar-nazi prescriptivism to explore, even revel in, the ambiguous, always changing nature of real world language. Again, the hosts aren’t afraid to offer up opinions, with Bob Garfield usually adopting a deliberately reductive or conservative attitude, to contrast with Mike Vuolo’s more nuanced and progressive explanations and put both to the test. It’s intellectually fulfilling, and it’s great fun, alike to finding a restaurant that serves food that is both tasty and healthy.

And speaking of rejecting prescriptivism, I, like many others, absolutely adored reading the slides of Angus Croll‘s recent talk The Politics of JavaScript, which have been doing the rounds on Twitter for the past month. It’s a wonderfully iconoclastic demolition of much of the nonsense that surrounds JavaScript development and the dogmatic application of idioms that bake in pointless paranoia, total mistrust of the developer and their peers, and a general rejection of nuance and personal style in programming.

Croll’s polemic ties in, I think, to an issue Paul Irish has been agitating about recently; the web development community’s tendency to focus on trivial, religious arguments at the expense of far more important things, including existential threats to the open web itself. He makes the point that some web developers are stridently opposed to things like Dart, even though their purpose is only to improve the web and make it more competitive with native applications. We as web developers need to have a better, more nuanced perspective on the relative importance of the topics that interest and agitate us, and consider whether a future where Dart coexists with or even supplants JavaScript would really be so bad, compared with one where the only way to release software is through corporate app stores, because that’s the choice we’re facing right now.

Any and every project that can help promote the web should be welcomed, and be given an honest and open-minded consideration. We don’t have to suspend all thought or criticism, and there are certainly questions about the standardisation of Dart that need to be answered before it becomes an accepted part of the web platform, but outright rejection and hostility gets us nowhere. Likewise arguments about semicolon usage and all the other pointless, religious debates should be put aside in favour of making the best software we can.


  1. For the most part, it’s possible that there’s episodes I haven’t listened to yet that feature guests. 

  2. Interesting therefore that most employment interviews centre around an interrogation that expects candidates to do just this: Answer complicated questions and justify their answers in detail. On the one hand, this demonstrates whether they have sufficiently internalised certain concepts well enough to explain them under pressure, but it can also leave candidates floundering on topics they might actually be able to provide a great deal of insight into, but only with a little time more to consider them.