For a few months a while back, it sure felt like the A.V. Club, where I was a staffer for about 16 years and remain a columnist today, was mentioned on The Best Show and Hollywood Handbook on a weekly basis, and never in a positive or non-mocking light. The website, and particularly its podcast coverage, joined Mike Love, Kelsey Grammer, and various other pop-culture scourges as low-level perpetual irritants on Best Show host Tom Scharpling’s lengthy shit list.
This struck me as odd, because I became an obsessive Best Show fan through the A.V Club. Back in the late 1990s, I had a Road To Damascus moment when my old editor Stephen Thompson lent me the Tom Scharpling & Jon Wurster debut Rock, Rot & Rule and I was so blown away by it that by the time the CD had ended Scharpling and Wurster had a fan for life.
But I was more than a fan. I evangelized on behalf of The Best Show and Scharpling & Wurster wherever and whenever I could. I bonded with my early A.V Club co-workers over our love of Rock, Rot & Rule and everything that came after it. We didn’t just listen to the radio show; we bought the CDs and tee-shirts and even pledged (and pledged generously, I might add) to WFMU, the non-profit station that ran The Best Show before it struck out on its own. And I am a deeply uncharitable person (almost Trump-like in my aversion to giving back) so that really meant something.
I see the primary goal and work of the podcast press to be one of advocacy. Features like Splitsider’s Pod-Canon and The A.V Club’s Bestcasts, both of which I created, exist to point both fans and neophytes to the very best podcasts in the medium’s history. The weekly podcast press exists to turn listeners onto great podcasts on an ongoing basis. True, there are sometimes negative reviews or articles about podcasting, but the overwhelming thrust of the podcasting press is positive. I see the podcasting press and podcasts as having a symbiotic relationship. They’re both invested in promoting podcasting as a medium, in helping spread this still young art form as it continues to find an audience.
The Best Show and Hollywood Handbook aren’t just two of my favorite podcasts; they’re two of my favorite things, period, so it’s a little strange to hear the place where I worked most of my adult life treated in such a mock-adversarial fashion, as some of the weird white noise of contemporary life haphazardly conspiring against them.
On some level it’s shtick. It’d be a mistake to take anything on Hollywood Handbook too seriously or too literally. There’s always infinite, intricate layers of irony and on The Best Show Scharpling needs windmills to tilt against, and The A.V Club was slotted into that role at some point. Hell, on some level I was flattered. When I started at The A.V Club in 1997 we were left out of stories about The Onion so frequently and so completely that I joked that we should have t-shirts made up reading: “The A.V Club: We Exist.” The site has grown tremendously in popularity and visibility since then, and these references are further proof that not only does The A.V. Club exist, but podcasters are constantly acknowledging it.
There is a popular perception that the podcast press consists largely of 22-year-old freelancers who may or may not make their livings primarily as baristas and may or may not still live with their parents while they try to figure out what they want to do with their lives after college. There’s certainly an element of truth to that stereotype. I doubt Maureen Dowd is itching to write blurbs on You Made It Weird or that Anderson Cooper’s going to be writing up WTF any time soon, but I suspect that the podcasting press probably isn’t much younger or less experienced than the rest of the pop-culture online press, which tends to skew very young.
A podcast is not a commercial proposition in the same way that a Jack Reacher movie is. It’s more likely to be a labor of love that generates very little or no money, so it’s understandable why criticism might affect a podcaster with a modest following on a more personal level than a middling review might affect Jack Reacher: Never Go Back star Tom Cruise. The prominent Scientologist has had his share of negative reviews but also is famous and rich beyond human comprehension.
This is another place where the overall positivity of the podcast press is a double-edged sword. Podcasts are criticized and panned so infrequently that to be harshly critiqued can easily feel cruel or random, or a matter of a powerful press arbitrarily attacking a modest little personal project. And while the film and television and music criticism worlds have their gods and legends, their Roger Eberts and Pauline Kaels and Alan Sepinwalls and Lester Bangses, the podcasting criticism world is too young to have huge names who might help legitimize it both in the podcasting world, and in the podcasting public’s eye. We are a long, long way from someone winning the Pulitzer for podcast criticism.
Podcasters are kind of like finicky cats; they want to be petted and adored, but only in a very specific manner. There are multiple ways to piss off podcasters. The biggest one is by ignoring a podcast, or by leaving them out of the weekly rotation. This speaks to the podcaster’s fear and anxiety that in a world where it’s still tough for even the best, most beloved podcasts to monetize their work successfully, they are perpetually on the verge of being forgotten by a podcasting and entertainment world with countless other options, some of them porn.
But I’ve also known podcasters to get upset about receiving the wrong kind of praise, for the wrong kinds of episodes or for highlighting the wrong aspects of a podcast. I know a podcast producer who was annoyed that a project he was involved with was compared to The Beatles, which he thought was insultingly inapt. True, it wasn’t a particularly accurate association, but you know you have high standards for praise when you take being compared to the consensus choice for greatest rock group ever as an ambiguous slight.
I once had an unexpectedly contentious lunch a few years back with my coworkers and a pair of ubiquitous podcasting fixtures who were convinced that the podcast press had it out for them and was actively working to try to keep them from getting their own TV shows. No matter how hard my editors tried to convince them that there was no secret vendetta, they didn’t budge and one of the gentleman later blocked me on Twitter, which struck me as odd since I had never written a negative word about him and have praised him extensively.
It speaks to the sensitivity of the podcasting community that I write a column here that is devoted to singling out the very best podcasts of all time (Pod-Canon) and I am never surprised to discover that a podcast I have lavished praise upon doesn’t know how to feel about my column on them.
I also think heightened sensitivity to criticism is pretty widespread, if not universal, among creative people. I know what it’s like to scroll through a comment section and see 49 super positive posts and one negative one and conclude that the world is unanimous in its hatred of you and your work. There’s something in the DNA of really talented people that makes them oblivious to praise yet hyper-sensitive to criticism. That’s what creative people do: they take things way too personally. They see insult where there is only praise. They overreact.
This also helps explain why they’re so good at what they do. They’re passionate and intense and take what they do, and sometimes themselves, very seriously. It’s the gift and the curse of genius. If the occasional (or even not so occasional) light-hearted jab is the price to pay for a podcaster’s sometimes prickly brilliance, then that’s a price that I, and I suspect the rest of the podcast press, will be happy to pay, and keep on paying. And if pretending that an overwhelmingly positive and supportive podcasting press is hostile or adversarial helps veteran podcasters stay sharp and hungry, then we in the podcasting press should continue to play the villain, no matter how strange and inaccurate the fit might be.
Photo by Mike.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.