On Modernist Podcasting

Nick Martens employs rigorous aesthetic philosophy to figure out what makes a great podcast.

I knew right away that You Look Nice Today was the best podcast in the medium’s short history. Figuring out why took a little longer. What’s so special about three guys drinking and cracking jokes for half an hour?

My favorite way to think about what makes for good art comes from critic Clement Greenberg’s 1961 essay, “On Modernist Painting.” Describing the philosophy of Modernism, he uses this gem of a phrase: “To entrench [a discipline] more firmly in its area of competence” (27). Modernist paintings are great because they strip the medium down to its barest essence: flatness. Mondrian didn’t try to represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional canvas. He used painting’s lack of depth to create images that could never exist in reality, instead of mimicking the world with a spatially handicapped brush. He exploited what made painting unique.

What makes podcasts unique? Amateurism goes at the top of my list. I’ve listened to tons of podcasts over the past three years, and I haven’t found any show produced exclusively for the web that sounds as professional as This American Life, Fresh Air, or Sound Opinions–great independent radio shows also distributed online. This inequity is endemic to podcasting in the same way the finest painting of a sunset can never compare to the real McCoy. Rather than struggle against it, the best podcast must exploit its medium’s amateurism.

So, instead of landing top-tier interviews or funding excellent reporting, a podcast can hook listeners by developing hosts with strong, familiar personalities, which requires no money or expertise. If people like the hosts, they’ll stick with the show.

This comes straight out of talk radio, but podcasts can put a twist on the old formula. Radio shows bombard their community with broad subjects like politics or sports, casting the widest net possible over their broadcast radius. A radio program where nerds joke about Estelle Getty couldn’t find an audience within one city, but a podcast on the same subject can find listeners anywhere.

Then there’s the subject of money. To put it plainly, podcasts aren’t going to make any. (If any do, they represent a percentage of the medium small enough to be mathematically indistinguishable from zero.) On a radio show with a staff and a transmitter, financial oblivion would be a huge problem. But after fronting a little cash for equipment, a podcast only costs time, so podcasters can afford to do a show with no return on investment.

You Look Nice Today brings these features together to produce brilliant entertainment that couldn’t exist in any other format. Its appeal rests solely on the personalities of its hosts, who are simply smart, hilarious guys with eccentric chemistry. Only a special brand of web nerd can appreciate their esoteric humor, but those who do will be tickled in a very specific way (think jacuzzi jet). And, given the show’s web-savvy audience, the virtual attention gained from the show’s popularity is almost as good as money.

While it may fare poorly on the spectrum of audio comedy recordings (compared to, say, Douglas Adams reading Hitchhiker’s Guide or an old Richard Pryor album), You Look Nice Today does interesting work and makes clever use of a new, untapped genre. For a free show with no advertising, you could do a lot worse.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.