Lessons learned from the Escape Pod

Two years ago, almost exactly two years ago in fact, I set out to create a daily podcast, “fully produced” as if it was meant to be radio-ready, to build up a “today in history” audio archive for those, like myself, of a geeky bent.

This week, I finished that project. Well, sort of finished it. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Escape Pod: Mission Complete!

It's a trapIt’s a trap: the universe does not need a daily podcast. When I started out on the Escape Pod project, the idea was that it would fit within my time budget. I have tried to do longform podcasting before, because sitting in a small padded room and talking to myself is perfectly natural (due to my radio experience from years ago… hey, what did you think I meant?). But I quickly identified my own weaknesses: I tend to ramble a bit if I improvise, and it’s best if I work from an outline with notes, if not rigidly adhering to a fully written script. Fortunately, I’m a writer too, or at least I try to think of myself as one, so I can write my own stuff: not a problem. I decided on a short-form show, which is a bit of a rarity in the ramble-until-you-run-out-of-hard-drive form factor of quite a few podcasts; it would be quicker to record, and I could “block record” several in one session and produce them en masse. But the soundbyte-heavy format I set for myself, complete with music underneath everything, was a trap: every five-or-so-minute installment could take half an hour or more to put together. So much for creating something that fits within my sparse spare time. Multiply that by 366 (because February 29th has to be taken into account for leap years), and the whole project took a ridiculous two years for a one-year podcast, during which we sprouted an additional kid. (Though there’s something to be said for editing podcasts with a baby in your lap.)

I got the form factor right. I totally fluffed my estimate of how long it would take to get 366 episodes done.

Headphones ONAnd here’s the thing. Nobody but me will ever make the time to sit and listen to all of them. And I don’t blame them. 366 five-or-more-minute shows? That’s crazy. No one will ever have listened to all of them. And I don’t expect them to. It’s done this way so you can hear what geeky, spacey stuff happened on your birthday. It’s done so you have something to listen to on the drive to work or while you’re on the crapper (surely I’m not the only one who listens to podcasts in that venue – the acoustics are great). I don’t expect anyone to ever listen to all of them, either at once or over the course of a year. No one is ever going to e-mail or tweet me or come up to my convention table and say “Hey, man, I listened to every single Escape Pod, and it’s great!” That will never happen, and it’s really not why I did it. This is a project that only a mother[f@#$in’ idiot who had the idea] could love. It was an attempt to fill a podcasting gap with a radio solution, and was a reminder that the two mediums are very, very different in their requirements, to say nothing of their audience expectations. My radio skill set, as much as I wanted to use it to craft something very “produced” and polished, really isn’t a pre-requisite anymore.

1200 year diaryAnd yet I’m still glad I did it. I have way too many half-finished or never-gets-past-the-drawing-board projects. One of my goals this year, at the risk of sounding pretentious, is to finish some of the unfinished symphonies I’ve got going, and clear the decks. It’s also family-friendly, and I’d have no problem subjecting my kids, or your kids for that matter, to my little radio show. It’s actually kind of educational – I found out a lot of stuff in the course of researching it, writing it, tracking down the sound clips. (In many cases, I had fun revisiting the days when there was actually news on the radio that consisted of something other than “let’s take the audio stream from CNN”.)

It also allowed me to keep my “radio muscles” from atrophying. (Contrary to popular belief, just talking to people doesn’t keep those skills fresh. Sitting in a room – or in some cases with the Escape Pod, a car in a parking lot, or the bathroom, or while cleaning the dishes – and talking into a microphone, by yourself, as if you have an audience of a thousand, that’s how you keep those radio synapses firing. The microphone is very important; if you don’t have that, they eventually send men in lab coats with a jacket whose sleeves are unfashionably long. Don’t ask me how I know that.)

A fresh round of thanks are due to John Morrison and Mark Holtz; between them, they gifted me with the stuff I needed to cobble together a hands-free digital recorder setup, which is the only way this project happened. If it had required me to sit at a desk, this would’ve taken eight years.

And on a fundamental level – and this has been weighing more on my mind with every book, podcast, or awkward-selfie-with-the-baby as I get older – there is a record of me. Assuming this material is kept in some form, my kids, and their kids, will have some idea of what the old man was like. It’s not narcissism; if anything, it’s a reaction to the paucity of any photographic or any other record I have of my own mother, who I lost when I was 14. I have a few pictures, that’s it (a former… relative, for lack of a better word… made sure of that); we didn’t own a camcorder until after she was gone. She’s almost vaporware. She exists in my mind, and likely my brother’s mind. All of us wind up existing only there some day. I want to leave more than a quickly evaporating contrail across time, and yet I don’t have the kind of money or success that most people would consider a true legacy. But for now, I had the time to do this. My kids, grandkids, etc. will know what I sounded like, what my interests were, and they can judge for themselves if it was really cool to have done, or a huge waste of time.

So there you go. A project finished, however much of a time sink it was. And year after year, I’ll refresh a few installments as significant developments arise (and I’ve already recorded a round of “refreshes” to add historical events from 2014 to podcasts that pre-date those events). But for now? Mission accomplished.

You can listen to all 366 installments of the Escape Pod, or download 10-or-11-day “survival packs”, here.

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