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A Game of Podcasts

About 10 weeks ago, I started a Game of Thrones podcast with Joanna Robinson from Pajiba. Joanna has read all the books in George R. R. Martin’s series, while I have not. It took us a few episodes to really get down the format and get into the groove of interacting with each other in an entertaining fashion, but after recording a recap/review for season 2 episode 9 last night, I think we’ve finally nailed it. It’s been great fun to chat about this great show with a knowledgeable, articulate writer like Joanna and I’m impressed we’ve been able to crank out even half-decent episodes despite the fact that we’ve never met.

The podcast grew far faster than I could have possibly anticipated. To give you some sense of the scale of our growth, in less than 10 weeks we’ve achieved about 50% of the subscribers that it took the /Filmcast four years to achieve. Simply staggering.

But with success came a large number of haters, many of them on the /Film boards while others took to iTunes to leave negative reviews of our show (some while extolling other Game of Thrones podcasts). Many people accused me of disliking the television show, even though such an accusation makes no sense, even on its face (Why would I devote so much time to trashing a show I hated? Don’t I have better things to do with my time? Answer: Yes.) I shared my thoughts on these comments at the end of this week’s episode.

I’ve been podcasting for four years now and in that time, I’ve been subject to any number of negative remarks by listeners. I’ve always found various ways to deal with it. One of the reasons it hasn’t been difficult is because the proportion of positive/negative comments has always been something like 95% positive to 5% negative. This makes sense; podcasting is a medium that demands a lot of effort from its audience. Most people who don’t like a podcast simply don’t listen. They don’t return each week to complain. Some do, though. And apparently, most of those that do love listening to “A Cast of Kings.” The percentage breakdown for this show has been closer to 70% positive and 30% negative. For a podcast that’s just started to get off the ground, this is a huge amount of negative feedback to take in. This is one of the reasons I’m particularly vexed by the complaints about this podcast, as opposed to any of the other podcasts I’ve ever done.

On the last episode, I remarked that I wasn’t certain if I would return for next year’s show due to all the negative feedback and the ensuing stress. Since then, there’s been a deluge of fan mail, most of them praising the show and demanding that I not “feed the trolls” by listening to their critiques and quitting. I found the following e-mail from listener Chris to be particularly insightful. It doesn’t really say anything new or revolutionary, but it distills a lot of good ideas in a really articulate way:

I’ve been a listener to A Cast of Kings since its inception, and a fan of the /filmcast going back to the Kevin Smith/Dark Knight episode. I’m writing to offer my appreciation for the work you do, and to offer a theory as to why you receive the kind of personal criticisms from your listeners that discourage you from continuing to podcast. I suspect the kinds of criticism David receives, which are leveled at him personally, are rooted in the psychological nature of a certain kind of geek. Some of us in the geek community suffer from low self-esteem and a lack of self-actualization which has hampered our daily social interactions for our whole lives. People like this, who are insecure about their own identities and have no internal source of happiness, subsume their identities into their external sources of happiness: movies, TV, and other aspects of pop culture. As more and more people subsume themselves into a particular property (like Game of Thrones), they form communities of mutually-reinforcing dependence. Because of the nature of this relationship, any attack on the property will be conflated with an attack on their person. That’s why, when you offer a critical analysis of the property, they respond with a personal criticism. They’ve taken your criticism personally, and responded in kind.  As for Joanna, her greatest crime was analyzing GoT from a feminist perspective. Geekdom is a largely patriarchal community, comprised of men who have been made to feel insecure about their feminine sides by years of bullying, and women who feel the need to repress their femininity to conform to the largely-male geek community that would otherwise resent and shun them. The criticism of Joanna’s analysis is the same criticism feminists have been facing since the the women’s suffrage movement started in the 1840s. To both of you, all I can say is that there are those of us who really appreciate what you do. Every week, you produce amazing content. Every week, you celebrate the show we all love in the best way possible: by giving it serious thought. Challenging, intelligent, critical analysis is a rare treasure in this world. As a graduate student, when I facilitate discussion among groups of undergrads, I only hope to achieve the same level of discourse and reason that the two of you bring to my favorite TV show every week. Thank you for your insightful and impassioned analysis. Please continue to discuss Game of Thrones for as long as it makes you happy to do so, regardless of what the haters say. After all, despite all their hate, they continue to listen. So you must be doing something right.

As I’ve said many times before, podcasts are nearly always a labor of love and frequently hang onto their existence by a thread. There’s no reason for them to exist, other than that a group of people are passionate about a specific topic and want to let others in on what they hope will be an interesting conversation about that topic. In this instance, there’s no money involved, no benefit to status, no tangible rewards. Just the satisfaction that comes from delving into one fo the richest, most well-acted and visually sumptuous television shows on the air right now. Try to take away that satisfaction, and what remains?

I can’t promise that we’ll do the show next year because I have no idea where Joanna or I will be when Season 3 of Game of Thrones premieres. If I had to guess, I’d say Joanna will probably be eating caviar and drinking fine wine due to her newfound riches as a New York Times culture writer, while I will be subsisting off of offal in a ditch somewhere in Central Washington. But what I can say is that the e-mails I’ve received (and hope to continue receiving) have started to tip the balance and make me believe that this is something that’s worth doing. It’s a huge sacrifice in time and energy to record the podcast each week. But knowing that people are deriving some kind of enlightenment and enjoyment from it? There’s nothing finer.