John Lagomarsino at The Verge, in Stop listening to podcasts at 1.5×, presents an argument commonly made by radio and storytelling purists against speeding up your podcasts (including my Smart Speed feature). Unsurprisingly, I disagree.
I’m a purist for a lot of things. As I’m writing this, I’m drinking Kenya AA coffee, black (of course), that I roasted myself a few days ago. And I’m listening to music — a full album, in order — on what I can confidently say are the best headphones in the world.
But if everyone had to drink coffee black, there would be far fewer coffee drinkers, and the business would dramatically shrink. I also wouldn’t expect much success in the music business if I spent a lot of time pleading with people to please stop listening to shuffled, streamed singles on earbuds and Beats because that’s “not what the artists intended”.
Anyone dictating how people can or should consume media only ensures their own rapid irrelevance.
Lagomarsino illustrates his point with the Mike Daisey “Retraction” episode of This American Life, which famously includes extremely long, tense pauses. This episode’s timing and pauses are the content.
Speeding up the Mike Daisey pauses is like skimming an article — you’re missing some of the detail and experience that the author intended. But a lot of articles aren’t interesting enough to be read slowly and completely, and most people don’t have time for that. People naturally skim and vary their reading speed as needed for the situation they’re in, how much they care, and how much attention they think the content deserves, and many people are simply faster readers than others.
Podcasts (and video) are impossible to skim effectively, but we can vary our listening speed. Just as not every article is worth reading slowly and completely, not every podcast is This American Life. Even most episodes of This American Life aren’t as timing-sensitive as the Mike Daisey retraction. Some podcasts are painstakingly crafted, artistic “storytelling” shows, but most aren’t, by far.
Most podcasts are produced by hobbyists and audio amateurs, effectively none of whom are editing for hours to craft precisely paced stories, and that’s fine, because the best thing about podcasting is that not everything is a big production. Not everything is a professional radio show. Instead, we have a rich breadth of voices and niche subjects, free and on demand, that makes the medium infinitely better than broadcast radio could ever be.
Enjoying the full experience of all media and preserving “what the artist intends” is a romantic ideal, but it’s both overrated and unrealistic in reality. Not everything is that good, not everyone cares that much, and not all media produced is perfect and immutable.
The biggest reason people cite for not listening to more podcasts is that they don’t have the time. My goal with Smart Speed was to directly address that: to make more time for people. And it has: since Smart Speed time-saved totals are synced to Overcast’s servers, I can happily report that Smart Speed has cumulatively saved 55 years of listening time so far. I bet that the vast majority of that time saved was subsequently filled with… more podcasts.
And it doesn’t hurt anyone. I don’t want sugar in my coffee, but it won’t impact my enjoyment of my coffee if you put sugar in yours. I can enjoy the crap out of listening to live Phish shows with my HE-6 regardless of whether you listen to pop music with Beats. And your enjoyment of podcasts at 1× isn’t affected at all by me listening at 1.125× plus Smart Speed. There’s no downside to giving people these options.
If the option to speed up podcasts lets people listen to more podcasts, everyone wins.