A few days ago, I posted about putting some real thought into your show.
Then I got into a frustrating twitter conversation with someone who basically said, sure, think about your show, but curiosity and serendipity have their place too. Yes, they do. I never said they didn’t. It seemed like a real sticking point, as though I was advocating for never doing anything that wasn’t planned to the last detail.
So allow me to exorcise this demon and clarify.
Curiosity is great. It can lead to new and interesting paths. Using what you have can be a great guide, especially in interviews. I’ve even talked about just pressing record and seeing what happens. When all else fails, hitting record is a great way to start.
But you have to start from somewhere, and you should have a purpose. If you don’t have a purpose, then press stop. Recording a few scratch episodes that no one hears is a good way to see if this is right for you, or if you need to do more thinking on what you are creating. There are thousands of podcasts out there that have little to no purpose. Do everyone a favor and don’t make yours another.
Go back to the first season of Radiolab. Radiolab then versus Radiolab now are the same shows (wait for it), and if you listened to a show from the first season and one from the current season, you could recognize them as such. But Radiolab has evolved along the way. They have refined their sound, they have moved their topics away from purely science to more broad areas and sometimes they drill down on subjects they wouldn’t have touched before. They do live shows that have turned into full productions.
This is an evolution of Radiolab, and it had to start from somewhere. That started with the choices they made that became Radiolab. They made decisions about what and who they were (production, music, etc) and what and who they weren’t. They aren’t an NPR newscast. They aren’t Fresh Air. If Radiolab suddenly starting doing long form interviews with authors of children’s books, you would wonder what the heck they were doing. You would say, this isn’t Radiolab, and you would be right.
Radiolab, because of those decisions, doesn’t have to redefine Radiolab every time they do a new show. They made the choices that made their show years ago. Then they evolved from there. For some listeners, it looked like a major change. But looking at their work as a whole, it evolved out of where they started.
You can do the same for This American Life. Look at the first season. Then the fifth. Look at them now. It’s still the same show, but it has certainly evolved. They wouldn’t be who they are without deciding who they were at the time.
I mentioned interviews above as well. There is great value in throwing out your questions (such as Craig Ferguson and tearing up the notecards) and letting the subject take you on a journey though conversation. But you still have to do research and have a few questions to jump off from. You don’t get to just sit down and start asking a complete stranger questions (unless it’s a man on the street, etc, come on, you know). Even then, you have to be coming from somewhere. What is that somewhere? What is your reason?
In an interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye (recorded several years ago), Bob Edwards was asked if they would use swearing on the Bob Edwards Show on satellite radio. Edwards, without hesitation says yes. He says it was a “no brainer.” (you can hear the interview here, and while what I’m referencing starts around 44:20, you should listen to the whole thing, because it is solid stuff)
Even if it’s a ‘no brainer’ for Edwards, there was the question at some point, and there was the decision. It may have been quick and easy decision, but it was made at some point. After it was made, there was no need to ask every time the situation came up. Sure, it could be revisited, but why go back though the question every time there was swearing? There is no need.
These are the things you should be thinking about. They are the nuts and bolts of your show, the who, what, why, etc. They will guide you when you are stuck and design your show for you when you use them. They will be the foundation of your work. They should center around your purpose.
How much should you do? I leave that up to you, but maybe do a little more than you think you should. Ask a few harder questions than you think you should. Delve into what is considered appropriate and inappropriate before it becomes a matter of putting it in your show.
Start with thinking and deciding, evolve from there. Change if you need to. But start somewhere concrete.
As Lewis Carrol said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”