A Few Really Good Tech Podcasts for Your Listening Pleasure

Podcasts are back. Since I listen to a bunch of podcasts every week I was quite surprised to learn about their resurrection. But facial hair is back too, so I will revel in my short lived trendiness.

Why are podcasts back? One suggested reason is a little sad. People commute more than 25 hours a day and since cars are now faithful little bluetooth slaves, broadcasting podcasts over luxury car speakers is as easy as a smart technology and a fast cell network can make it. Podcasts are now a viable P2P radio replacement.

That’s the demand, means, motive, and opportunity side of things. What about supply?

Historically podcasts start in fire, the passion quickly burning to ash as podcasters learn making podcasts is a lot of hard work...and poorly unremunerated work at that. So podcasts have a high mortality rate.

What’s changed? Money. Strangely, people will exchange effort for money, so if podcasts can make money they will have the fuel they need to burn bright through the night.

Money from Subscriptions is New

One new source of money is Patreon, a service that makes it easy for listeners to sponsor a show with a donation of any amount for each show aired. Donation buttons were never able to tickle enough social reciprocity levers to make the money flow. Patreon’s subscription model exploits a more lucrative part of the human psyche. A donation button is always opt-in and it’s hard to nudge people into regularly opting in to anything. By setting up a recurring payment system the opt-in chasm only has to be crossed once. From then on it’s opt-out, which is a good place to be.

More deeply, subscription reverses the mental dynamics. When you subscribe to something in some sense you become the boss, you have a sense of control. Donations plug into a whole different mental circuit.

In his book Social Physics, Alex Pentland writes about how “providing incentives aimed at people’s social networks rather than economic incentives or information packets that are aimed at changing the behavior of individual people.” So it might help Patreon to figure out a way to reward a subscriber by giving something of value to their social network, which raises the social status of the subscriber among their peers.

I sponsor a few shows with Patreon. One of the shows I listen to and find useful (and entertaining) is Cordkillers, with Tom Merritt and Brian Brushwood. Formerly of TWit, they left to brave the content waters on their own, using a low cost production strategy.The general arc of the show is to consider how content should be consumed, distributed, and monetized in a future blessedly devoid of cable companies. In the process they are exploring ways to monetize their own quality content.

Patreon is spreading. Walk off the Earth, a band I like, has just released their first Patreon funded music video, Shake it Off. It will be interesting to see how this works. The streaming model of music delivery may work for the aggregators, but it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable model for the long tail of musicians.

Mark Twain Sold His Books Using a Subscription Model

Subscription content is not new. Mark Twain sold his books via a subscription model. He even started his own publishing company. In an early version of Kickstarter, traveling book sellers spread out through the back country pitching people to buy his forthcoming book. Fortified with elaborate support materials describing what the book would look like and what kind of content it would contain, expertly tuned sales scripts were leveraged to land the sale.

Early in his career Twain was primarily known as a travel writer. With great insight and humor he brought the far off world to farmers who would never have a chance to leave their farm. These were expensive books to make, which is why money was required up front. They were also expensive books to buy, so they had to give the reader a lot of value for the money. Value meaning the books were large. Twain often had to pad content to make them large enough. They included lots of pictures. And they were pitched with the promise of a laugh per page. You can just imagine a family reading a book together at night, laughing and talking about the wonders Twain brought into their life. Also, books came in many configurations. You could upsell to the fine leather bound version or stay at a cheaper entry point. Twain made a lot of money this way. But of course, he was Mark Twain.

Once cheaper books could be made the subscription model died off. Interestingly, in our age, with the marginal cost of production and distribution at zero, the subscription model may be making a come back.

Twain also made a lot of money on the speaking circuit. Which is exactly what music bands are exhorted to do now. Give your music away for free and make money on the tour. Twain would have none of that. Twain made money on his books and he made money on his tours. As it should be for content creators.

Money from an In-Stream Ad Ecosystem

Another source of money is, of course, ads. But these aren’t old style 3rd party video or audio loops spliced into a show at predetermined time codes. These are native ads delivered in-stream by the show host. These ads are very difficult to skip and have a greater sense of authenticity because the host, by selling the ad as a story, is sharing some of their “page-rank” with the ad.

Podcasts could be benefiting from some of the same forces that are driving up TV contracts for live sports shows. Big Ten schools projected to make $45 million with new TV deal. NBA set to announce new television deal worth $24 billion. NFL takes aim at $25 billion, but at what price? What makes sports so attractive for advertisers? Lots of people watch sports, and people watch it live, which means they won’t skip commercials. In a DVR world that’s worth money. Podcasts are becoming valuable advertising real-estate for this same reason.

These kind of native ads are how Leo Laporte was able to create TWit, his own successful independent network delivering high quality tech content. And if you look at several of the podcasts I’ll list below, they are often sponsored, delivering native ads during the broadcast.

Not long ago these podcasts wouldn’t have had any sponsorships. Now we have a new ecosystem for delivering native ads. You may not like ads, but ads are like food to people. You don't want these shows to starve, do you?

We have motive for the advertisers, what’s the motive for podcasters? Is it money? I doubt many are getting rich, but the money is incentive enough to keep going what podcasters already want to do.

Podcasting as a Self-Expressive Art Form

It's rare for a podcast to run short. They almost always run long. Then a little bit longer. Why? Podcasts speak to the need for self expression. Podcasting is a self-expressive art form. People have things to say and they want to say them. You would never write the same things you would say in a conversation. It just sounds silly on the page, but it’s natural when spoken.

Podcasts are like Instagram for people, in that Instagram is a perfect marriage between what a smart phone does well, which is take and share pictures. What people do well is talk and that’s what Podcasts are all about.

Some of My Favorite Tech Podcasts

Exponent. Ben Thompson and James Allworth. Every week to two weeks. Not sponsored, it seems like a branding effort. I like podcasts where smart people talk about smart things that I know little about. This podcast definitely qualifies. You’ll learn something about the future of tech. The latest episode discusses Apple Pay and breaks down the US payment system as I’ve never heard it done before. The hosts have a relationship that varies from overly polite to verbal blows being thrown. I look forward to this podcast whenever it comes out.

Cubed Podcast. Ben Bajarin and Benedict Evans. Whenever. Not sponsored. Similar to Exponent in that smart people are talking deeply about interesting tech topics. The latest episode dissected Apple’s latest product releases and what they mean for the industry.

a16z. Andreessen Horowitz, various hosts. Whenever, usually every month or so. Not sponsored, branding. Quite a wide range of topics from the future of mobile, Bitcoin,  Peter Thiel, to the future of VCs, and more. Again, another case where smart people are talking about interesting things.

Packet Pushers. Greg Ferro, Ethan Banks, various guests. Sponsored shows. Networking experts talking about networking. It’s not a subject that gets enough play given that networking is essential to the performance and reliability of any system. These guys really go deep inside the industry, in a way that’s often beyond me, but that I always find interesting. Strong opinions are expressed. Their funding model is to do entire sponsored shows with say Cisco, instead of in-stream ads. While relatively successful, this funding model isn’t quite enough to devote all the time it takes to run a quality podcast, so Packet Pushers is in a mode of trying to figure out what they want to do going forward.

Accidental Tech Podcast. Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa. Sponsored. Always a wide ranging list of tech topics discussed with deep expertise. There’s lots of Apple talk. And I’ve learned more about displays than I even knew existed. These are the guys you would want to have a beer with and shoot the shite about programming. And you can. That’s the wonder of podcasts.

Gillmor Gang. Steve Gillmor, Robert Scoble, Kevin Marks, Keith Teare, John Taschek, and guests. Weekly. There are no in-stream ads, not sure about how its sponsored. Every Friday or so this gang gets together and asks: what happened this week that’s interesting? And then they talk about it. It could be new gadgets, new apps, new acquisitions, anything. Sometimes it’s not all that interesting, but usually there’s some real insight generated as the gang works through events, trying to figure out what it all means.

This Week in Tech. This Week in Google. MacBreak Weekly. This Week in Computer Hardware. Leo Laporte’s TWiT network is the shining example of using technology to create something new and different. Only in this age could someone create an entirely new content network on their own. And as far as I know, only Leo has done it. TWiT has several weekly shows that are worth watching. Each show has a regular expert panel that tackles the topics of the week in their respective subject area. Often the shows take interesting tangents that go far beyond the show title. It’s through this process of conversation that we figure out what is happening, what things mean, and what the future might hold.

DevOps Cafe. John Willis, Damon Edwards. Once a month or so. Format is an interview with an interesting person from the world of DevOps.  It's a great exploration of a very diverse and evolving field.

Less Heavily in My Rotation

The Talk Show

Stack Overflow

Hallway Chat

This Week in Startups

VentureBeat's What to Think

O'Reilly Radar Podcast


Software Engineering Radio

Vector, Debug

More More More

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