Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for March 2011

Meet Scott Johnson, the Orson Welles of Podcasting

Scott Johnson (Podcaster)So, how do I describe Scott Johnson to people who aren’t already listening to his podcasts?

Is he the Nick Denton of podcasting? The Henry Ford of podcasting? I think history will remember him as the Orson Welles of podcasting. Right now Scott is in his Mercury Theatre phase – testing the waters, inventing new techniques, trying a hundred little experiments as he refines his style and learns what audiences want.

Even now Scott produces more podcasts in a week than most people have time to listen to. With strong support from advertisers, FrogPants Studios has been Scott’s full-time job since 2009. The FrogPants network produces podcasts on a wide range of geek-friendly topics — from The Instance, a show about the World of Warcraft to Coverville, a music podcast dedicated to weird and wonderful covers of popular songs, FrogPants Studios produces shows on a dozen niche topics, all done in a format that sounds like your favorite morning show.

I started out as an Instance fan and have recently branched out, following Scott’s projects as he started The Creep, a podcast about Starcraft II, and The Morning Stream, a true morning show format where Scott and his co-host Brian Ibbott riff about politics, news and pop culture.

Of all these projects, The Morning Stream is Scott’s baby now.

“I feel like everything that I have done over the years has led up to The Morning Stream,” Scott said. “I am SOOO happy with [that] show so far, and it’s only a couple of months old. It just feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work, trial and error, and experience with this stuff for the last 5 or 6 years. It is something that I wish I would have done sooner, and the listeners seem to agree.”

Scott casts such a wide net, producing so many podcasts on so many topics, it’s hard to describe them all. If you’re looking for something fun and free to load on your iPod, Google “frog pants” and check out Scott’s master list of podcasts.

I subscribed to the FrogPants Ultra Feed and found a couple hidden gems – a couple great podcasts that don’t get as much attention as Scott’s big three. I particularly enjoyed the FourCast, basically a group of geeks predicting the future – not just riffing about what the next iPad will look like, but a discussion about what the human race will look like, once technology gives us the power to redefine what “human” means.

Heavy stuff, but still handled with humor and wit, perfect for fans of Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks.

I’ve noticed a pattern in these podcasts. Scott acts as moderator and provocateur, throwing out questions when things get slow, but slipping quietly into the background when his guests are on a roll. I think it’s that producer mentality, that lack of ego that has allowed Scott to succeed when so many others have faded.

I saw it first on The Instance, when Scott brought in Randy Jordan to provide some much-needed crunch and attention to detail. Scott became the jester to Randy’s straight man, keeping the tone light while Randy dug into the nuts and bolts of the game. Their chemistry took the show to a whole new level, turning it into one of the indispensable geek podcasts, even for people who are tired of the game.

Randy recently left the podcast, citing a conflict of interest with his mysterious new dream job. It could have been the end of the show, but Scott brought in a couple of fast-talking guild mates and turned the whole thing around.

Scott is rocking the house with his new co-hosts Turpster and Dills and the tone of the show has completely changed. Nothing could replace the chemistry of Scott and Randy, so they didn’t try.

The Instance is a completely new show now, and I was struck by how quickly Scott himself was able to switch gears. He doesn’t have to be the funniest guy in the room anymore, so he’s content to step back and let the others take center stage.

It’s this quality more than anything else that makes me take Scott seriously. It’s the same quality that put Nick Denton on top of a worldwide blog empire – the same quality that all great producers and directors have. These guys provide the creative juice and push things forward, but ultimately it’s not “about” them. It’s about finding the best talent for the job and getting out of their way.

Scott was modest when I asked him about it. I don’t think he spends a lot of time thinking about his role in all this. When I asked him to share his advice for new podcasters, he made it sound easy.

Scott said, “Simple: Start making shows, don’t worry about selling shirts the first day, be consistent, and do it because you love it. All of that will add up to greater things later.”

Written by Not Jaffo

March 16, 2011 at 20:02

Posted in Podcasts

A Timely Quote from The Diamond Age

One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a
research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually
turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood.
Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few
weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once
again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from
the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some
bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned
during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles
riots of the previous year provided a vivid counterexample. Finkle-
McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political
views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically
different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be,
and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not
a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some
cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view
implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never
voiced.

Written by Not Jaffo

March 12, 2011 at 13:52

Posted in Books, Culture

Charlie Sheen’s UStream Adventure

Charlie Sheen’s inaugural vidcast may be the most effective anti-drug promotion ever filmed. Now we know the real reason Bree Olson bailed. She apparently saw the script in advance.

This video is an object lesson in celebrity failure, a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to follow Sheen into fame and fortune.

I don’t know where stardom starts, but it ends in Sheen’s Korner.

This is what it looks like when your family has abandoned you, all your real friends are gone, and there’s no one left to give you a reality check. You end up behind a desk in a seedy home office with nothing but your producer, your drug dealer, and your spare girlfriend to keep you company.

Everyone in that room was paid to be there. Watch the way they laugh at his jokes — the microsecond pause before each laugh — too loud, too long and too clear for the joke that preceded it. Watch the random, disconnected way everyone behaves, like they’ve been in Sheen’s orbit so long they don’t even have free will — stuck waiting for the next bit of random wordplay, as if the last one to laugh is going to have their allowance cut off.

This is what the end of the road looks like. This is the new face of #despair.

Sheen’s debut is particularly poignant because PUA philosopher Roissy had just finished anointing Sheen as the super-alpha, the gold standard by which all lesser men should be judged.

There’s no doubt that Sheen handled that interview like an alpha. But now, scriptless, directionless, surrounded by sycophants, all that manic energy is gone.

Sheen’s previous performance was a kind of combat, a kind of verbal judo, fought against an intimidated reporter who never stood a chance. But now, with no opponent in front of him, with no challenge to rise to, Sheen looks like what he is — a lonely old drug addict, sliding into middle age.

The sponsors will RUN, not walk away from him now, and his career is effectively over. He may still have an Ozzie-style comeback left in him, but that’s many years away, after he spends a long, painful stretch #winning rehab.

@charliesheen needs to send his next tweet from a hospital, and that gap-toothed enabler on his left needs to be in jail.

Written by Not Jaffo

March 5, 2011 at 22:54

Posted in Gossip

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

Written by Not Jaffo

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

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