A little while ago, reporting from one of BBC Future Media’s briefing events, I discussed an exchange between filmmaker, comedian and consultant Dave Birss and the event’s host, Fiona Bruce. Dave had posited the notion of “concertina content” (if memory serves), that is, content that could expand from a two-minute soundbite to a long-form interview. It was an idea inspired by Dave’s own frustration at having to leave too much great material on the cutting room floor when making documentaries. Bruce picked up on this and pretty vigorously disagreed. From her experience, long-form interviews are messy, rambling and boring.
I have sympathy with both standpoints. I just had the misfortune of sitting through an interminable interview with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, an extra on the DVD of Sacha Gervasi’s otherwise highly enjoyable documentary Anvil – The Story of Anvil. Jeez, Lars can talk.
But on the whole I incline towards Dave’s point of view. Specifically, I think that long-form interviews tend to be shoddy precisely when they’re intended as source material for soundbites – that is, when they’re expected to be edited. (This is almost certainly the case with the Ulrich interview.) But as with so many things, it’s a question of intention. If an interviewer knows that they’re going into an hour-long conversation that will go out unexpurgated then they’d better make every moment count.
Over the last couple of years I’ve become obsessed with podcasts. Yes, I’ve been listening to online audio for a lot longer than that but recently it’s become my overriding media source, with the possible exception of, well, books. They’ve even replaced my beloved World Service as the kitchen background ambience. Why is this? Well for one thing, given their potential reach, podcasts can – and do – cover editorial niches in depth, niches the mainstream media will do no more that skim – if that. As my own personal interests have moved more and more to the media margins – paleo, contemplation, endurance sports, opera, metal, quantified self…. you get the picture – podcasts have become the only media source that’s even vaguely satisfying. (There’s a problem here with confirmation bias and over-specialisation, I’ll grant you, but I’ll save that for another day.)
But there’s something else going on here, beyond all this fabulous niche-y-ness, and that’s that the very best podcasters truly exploit the possibility of long-form, by going deeper and deeper into any topic, or, more simply, going places “professional” journalists rarely get the opportunity go. (There are honourable exceptions, of course. The World Service’s The Interview used to be one, although sadly it’s been superseded by the pointlessly combative Hard Talk, with even a name that’s straight out of Brass Eye.)
Timothy Ferriss, the writer and lifestyle experimentalist mentioned often here has emerged, through his own podcasts on The Timothy Ferriss Show, as a really fine interviewer. Admittedly, in curating his show’s interviewees he somewhat puts himself in a stronger position than some journalists. But it’s not just that. He plainly does a huge amount of research before each show and is all over the topic at hand. He’s also a fine conversationalist: gracious, curious, explorative, emotionally intelligent. And above all interested.
If there’s an overarching theme to his interviews it’s what you might expect: human motivation. What drives interesting, creative, successful people? By what rituals do they abide? How have they got where they’ve got? Recent interviewees have been as wide-ranging as Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, historian Dan Carlin (himself a podcaster of some brilliance – check out his incredible Hardcore History), Pixar president Ed Catmull and Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner. But a standout for me is his interview with Kevin Kelly, and hour and a half interview (presented on the blog in three parts) that I sat through straight at the kitchen table after dinner a couple of nights ago. Ferriss calls Kelly possibly “the most interesting man in the world”, and he’s not wrong there. Kelly is probably best known to this blog’s readers as a tech writer in general and the co-founder of WIRED in particular. But that barely scrapes the surface; to call this man a polymath is to understate the case. Once I’ve digested the show I’ll write up some of its nuggets in a later post.
In the meantime, a heartily recommend pretty much all episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show, which can be found here*.
*Astute readers will note that this is the post’s only inline link. I explored the reasons behind that in my recent post about Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. But, lordy, I have to tell you, it’s tough eschewing them. More on that soon.