Industry Expert Nick Quah on What Makes a Great Podcast
In 2014, Nick Quah launched Hot Pod, a newsletter focused on the art of podcasting. Today, the Malaysia native also serves as a podcast critic for New York magazine’s culture and entertainment website, Vulture, and hosts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah, a podcast on the craft and culture of podcasting. We recently phoned Quah at his home in Idaho for an off-the-cuff conversation about his enthusiasm for the medium, the industry’s changing landscape, and why fun is an essential ingredient of any great audio show.
Podcasts can adapt to a wide array of topics. Is flexibility their greatest asset?
My first and very immediate answer is yes. Podcasting came out as an extension of blogging. If the medium is the message, the point of blogging at the time was the freedom of publishing without having to go through an intermediary. Low barriers to entry. No gatekeeping. People who previously didn’t have a platform to express themselves, or certain ideas, suddenly had one. What remains super interesting about podcasting is that, because it’s still not governed as its own distribution, you get a lot of random shit.
But podcasting as a medium is changing as it becomes an industry, a monetary and capitalistic concern. There’s now this layer of commerce over the heart of podcasting, which is about flexibility and the possibility of new forms of expression, art, and creativity. Whether the former beats back the latter, I don’t know. The reason I got interested in podcasting, and why it continues to be so fascinating, is because there’s always potential.
We’re in a frenetic moment of throwing things to the wall to see what sticks. What do you see falling away, and what’s sticking?
The stereotype of podcasting is three white dudes in a basement talking about stuff for a long time, unedited. People make fun of that, and I like to make fun of that. But in that image is the point that podcasting doesn’t have to be an enterprise of commerce. People don’t have to express themselves so that they can become brands and businesses—they can express themselves because it’s something that’s fun for them. Today, podcasting feels like a niche within an ecosystem that privileges narrative projects that can be packaged into intellectual property for television and film. We’re also seeing a lot of celebrities and influencers come into podcasting as an extension of their [personal] brands. The point is, everybody should have an inroad to this.
What makes a great podcast?
I am such a soccer dad about this. There’s a lot of overthinking, over-intellectualization, and over-categorization about podcasts. But fundamentally, it comes down to: Is the person listening having a good time? They don’t have to learn something new, but they should feel that their time was well spent. Some people interpret this to [entail] making shorter podcasts. But a three-hour-long podcast with a couple of people talking about something I couldn’t get anywhere else—that resonates with me. The thing has to have a purpose for existing, and it has to be identified very quickly by the people listening. It’s more a question of positionality and spirit, as opposed to a question of form. It’s function over form.
Right. You’ve written that the podcast community is “an ecosystem in search of itself.”
You’re touching on something that’s at the core of how I see the world. Nothing is separate from anything else. The way I feel about podcasts is the same way I feel about food, and the same way I feel about my life. You spend your very short time on earth with these things, so they matter. You do this in part because capitalist systems push you into it—but also because it makes you feel good. It’s important to think about podcasts that way.