The Podcast Review Matrix

This year (2019, date fans) I’m going to be doing regular short(ish) blogs, here on Medium, about the world of podcasting. I did a few long features last year taking a more panoptic look at the industry, and now I’m going to be focusing in on smaller issues and questions that I arrive at as part of my experience working as a professional podcast producer, here in London.

I read a tweet at some point over the Christmas break that said something, in short, along the lines of ‘why isn’t there a Rotten Tomatoes for podcasts?’

Maybe they weren’t posing it as a question (‘there isn’t a Rotten Tomatoes for podcasts!’) but the substance was similar and the question was what was left in my head. Why isn’t there a Rotten Tomatoes for podcasts?

Rotten Tomatoes, for those who don’t know, is a Fandango owned aggregator of movie and TV reviews. It harvests all the reviews from esteemed and obscure publications and assigns a percentage rating to a product based on the overall verdict on that piece. It is, essentially, an attempt to create consensus, or illustrate division. It’s not a source of reviews in itself (save for the Critics Consensus bar which has a smidgeon of editorial input) but a home for the world of reviews.

Why isn’t there an equivalent for podcasts? The answer, I think, is quite simple. There aren’t many reviews of podcasts. Rotten Tomatoes has a list of approved publications that range from the New York Times and other places whose opinions are clearly worth noting, to smaller digital-only publications who have had to fight to get the requisite credibility to be included. But either way, these are not publications that are regularly writing about podcasts, and certainly not in the sort of binary way that makes aggregating reviews possible. In order to assign a percentage score to a product, you need reviewers who deliver verdicts, and much of the discourse surrounding podcasts is still presented in the form of commentary, rather than review.

Another reason there isn’t a Rotten Tomatoes for podcasts is because it’s hard to review journalism. (Obviously not all podcasts are journalistic, but the bulk of those that exist in the mainstream still are.) The fact that coverage of podcasts is so often journalists reviewing other journalists is something of a problem for podcasters. The distance between a New York Times film critic and, say, Bradley Cooper, is necessarily far greater than the distance between a New York Times podcast critic and, for example, Allison Michaels, who hosts WaPo’s Can He Do That? podcast. Often I see recommends lists for podcasts written either by arts journalists, or critics who are podcast-adjacent, and I recognise that they must know many of the names on their lists, having served in newsrooms with them, shared friends, been to college together…etc.

The effect is two-fold. Firstly, you end up focusing on podcasts that are already within your orbit. Secondly, you cannot properly, publicly review a peer’s work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with arts critics using their platform to champion podcasts they listen to, but it’s unhealthy for that to be the sole or dominant space for podcast criticism.

The role of reviews is, equally, two-fold. Firstly, they are a great marketing tool and helpful for discoverability. Discoverability is one of the big issues in podcasting at the moment, and something that I’ll touch upon in more detail as the year goes on (and once I have better thoughts about how to tackle it!). But if you’re an indie podcast producer looking to either i) attract new listeners ii) put together a media pack for potential advertisers/investors, or iii) simply validate the effort you’re putting in, reviews can be enormously beneficial. I think this is mainly how they’re seen, and I’ve been there before in podcasting and indie film work: if you can’t get your work reviewed or otherwise covered, it feels like a product that exists only in your world. You may as well just have it on your own iTunes, listen to it in your living room, and been audience of one.

The second role, which is sometimes forgotten, is that dispassionate, impartial feedback is i) really important, and ii) surprisingly hard to get. Everyone involved in your podcast has a stake in it, so where can you turn for honest critiques? I hope that most people making serious products that they’ve worked on for a long time get this feedback relay started prior to release, but I also know that there are thousands of podcasters putting out show after show of podcasts that desperately need feedback that pops that friends and family bubble. Getting a bad review sucks and I think getting a mixed review also sucks (what sort of psychopath can enjoy the good parts of a mixed review when the BAD PARTS are screaming in their face?) but these are necessary evils. It feels great and, indeed, is great when you get a good review, but the review process is also a forum for feedback, for improving your show, and improving the standards set across podcasting as an industry.

So, how do we make a Rotten Tomatoes for podcasting? Well, firstly, I struggle to get too excited about review aggregation when there are so few reviews. So we definitely want to see more reviews, and particularly more reviews that are actually reviews and not just nebulous commentary. I think we will see more and more newspapers having a podcast review column in their arts pages this year, but the real hope is that they will look far and wide for the podcasts that they cover rather than just honing in on either the latest show from a major producer or the most recent offering from a celebrity. We have reached a point where enough new podcasts, or new seasons of podcasts, are being released every week for newspapers to take this route; I simply hope they don’t. After all, the cinephiles of the world would be pretty gutted if papers started only providing copy for Marvel movies or second seasons of Netflix binge watches. So indie producers, keep sending your press releases to all the journalists at all the publications who might review them, and keep up a steady stream of dialogue on Twitter/Facebook about your show, so that it gets into the right hands.

But, realistically, we’re not going to reach a point any time soon where The Atlantic is reviewing the work of Joe Nobody. And I don’t blame them: we need to face up to the fact that the majority of podcasts are still not at the professional standards of NPR/BBC/NYT/Slate…etc and it’s not an insult for the top-level of publications to ignore them. But that does mean that Joe Nobody misses out on the exposure and, more importantly, the feedback. Thinking about this a couple of nights ago, I wondered whether there would be appetite for a system whereby 30+ podcast professionals offered a short, anonymised public review system. In my head, Joe Nobody would send an email saying ‘hey listen to my new show guitars and cars and lemme know what you make of it’, and then, let’s say five of the pool of 30+ audio pros would be assigned to listen to Joe’s podcast and provided 100 words of feedback, anonymously. Then, on a webpage it would say ‘Guitars and Cars review!’ followed by five short paragraphs looking through its merits and demerits. It might not cause Guitars and Cars to break the internet, but suddenly Joe has reviews to promote the show with, has reached people in his industry, and also has five different perspectives from which to draw feedback. (I realise this is not an original idea and may not be a practical one, but if you have any thoughts on or interest in this, do drop me an email (in bio)).

To summarise a bit, I think that having a better system of reviews is important for the long-term health of the industry. Here are ways we can improve it:

  1. Lobby publications, from local to national to international, to improve their coverage of podcasts and stop feeling like a quarterly ‘Is podcasting the next big thing?’ feature is criticism enough.
  2. If you know people who do write about podcasts, whether that’s just on Twitter or on their blog or for publications, suggest that they broaden their search and try and find shows they would never otherwise have stumbled upon. I want people’s Best of 2019 lists to include indie-produced shows they’d never have expected to hear.
  3. We need to improve the provision of disinterested feedback in the industry, and cut the too-close connection between reviewer and product.

And this is all without mentioning Apple Podcasts reviews, which are a different kettle of fish and something I’ll likely look at in greater detail in the coming months. There is a chance for someone to set the agenda for reviewing podcasts, in the same way Ricciotto Canudo set the terms for cinema criticism at the start of the last century. It’s ultimately not down to podcasters themselves to provide this — it must be a parallel industry as criticism always is — but for now there is more that can, and should, be done by generous people who make and listen to podcasts.

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