wice a week, three of us—senior editor Abe Greenwald, associate editor Noah Rothman, and I—gather in a room less than six feet wide and 12 feet long to record the Commentary Magazine podcast. The room’s walls are haphazardly covered in acoustical panels, and on the folding table in front of us sit a soundboard and microphones. Altogether, these things—panels, table, soundboard, mics—cost about $800 on Amazon.
Noah plugs the soundboard into his laptop and off we go, talking for 45 minutes to an hour. When we’re done, one of us writes a little blurb with a headline describing the podcast to go up on our website. Noah checks to see that everything has recorded smoothly. Then, usually within half an hour, it’s up and ready at commentarymagazine.com and at ricochet.com; at some point in the subsequent hours, people who have subscribed to the podcast on their iPhones and Android devices will have access to it as well.
I will confess that I am astonished at the extraordinarily enthusiastic response to our efforts, which really do define the word “improvised.” I resisted the idea of a Commentary podcast for several years in part because one of the enduring aspects of Commentary as an institution is its commitment to an unimpeachably high level of professionalism. This has always involved casting an almost obsessive eye over the tens of thousands of words in each issue to ensure they are grammatically sound and typographically correct. And we have, to the extent possible, sought to achieve comparably pristine results with the prose that appears on our website.
Podcasting, by contrast, is a loose and shaggy thing. The sound quality isn’t always the greatest, which makes sense, because our $800 investment is probably on the high side for a great many homespun podcasts. And unlike professional broadcasting, we podcasters say “um” and “like” a lot and don’t have the surreal verbal fluency you hear in radio people of all stripes from the classical announcer on WQXR to a baseball play-by-play guy to NPR’s Terri Gross to Rush Limbaugh. I adore that professionalism myself and will honestly admit that, as a listener, I find its absence jarring.
But just as big-city newspapers found themselves under attack in the 1960s and 1970s from poorly printed counterculture weeklies that seemed more authentic to young readers in part because of their indifference to mainstream aesthetics, podcasting works for its listeners in part because it lacks the gloss. You might say that it is amateur in the best sense of the word—that it happens because most of the people who do it have a love of the doing of it.
This befits a medium accidentally summoned into being by a device (the iPod) whose inventors never even remotely conceived of the form when they brought it to market. The term “podcast” itself dates back to 2004, after a former MTV personality named Adam Curry got the idea of recording an audio file similar to a radio show and then automating its delivery through the same systems by which people downloaded music from the Internet.
Like blogging, early podcasting was the work of individuals offering a solipsistic investigation of their own lives and navels—because, after all, who else would bother to spend the time recording something only a few dozen people even knew existed? That spirit still animates 95 percent of the podcasts today and is what makes the medium so vivid—though it must be said that the top 5 percent comprises mostly repurposed NPR shows and the productions of well-known media entities like the New York Times or Slate.
I guess the Commentary podcast is, like the Times’ Daily, a form of “brand extension.” The truth is that after that initial Amazon investment, the whole process costs us nothing but time, and we do it because people seem to like it: Our audience has grown over the past year literally from zero to about 33,000 an episode. Not bad for amateur hour.