Podcasters in Pop Culture: Why Spoofing With the Right Equipment Matters

As I readied to launch Ben Franklin’s World in October 2014, I discovered a new podcast called StartUp. The podcast released its first episode on September 5, 2014 and it offered weekly episodes that followed the real-life story of Alex Blumberg and his quest to start Gimlet Media. I loved StartUp. It conveyed the genuine challenges and emotions Alex, his family, and his soon-to-be business partner Matt Lieber experienced as they worked to give birth to a company dedicated to producing high-quality podcasts.

This podcast spoke to me for many reasons. Like Alex, I had met a lot of people who didn’t know what a podcast was and who looked at me like I was a bit crazy for wanting to start one. People had turned down my invitations to co-host and my requests for interviews, just like Alex had people turn him down for funding. Plus, like Alex, I had begun spending a fair bit of money on my new project and working longer-than-normal hours all to get my podcast up and running. Making these investments caused some friction with friends and family and made me wonder whether I was making a good move. At times starting a podcast felt like a risky bet. What if I failed? It was like Alex could read my mind and articulate what I felt. The honesty with which he discussed the challenges he faced in trying to start Gimlet Media struck a chord with me and made me feel like I had a friend on my journey.

Needless to say, I was very excited to read that ABC purchased the rights to adapt StartUp into a television show called Alex, Inc. I couldn’t wait to see the show both because I loved the podcast and because I wanted to see how a podcast could be adapted for television. Audio programs such as podcasts and radio shows have two big advantages over visual media like television shows and movies: Audio captures honesty and emotion better than video and audio storytelling activates our brains. Our brains consume audio actively and video passively. When we hear a story our brains create their own ideas and stories about what we’re hearing. With video, writers and directors have already done this creative work for us so we experience visual stories differently. I wondered how ABC would turn an audio story into a good video story.  

Alex, Inc. debuted on March 28, 2018 and it is not what I expected. First it’s a sitcom. I loved Startup because of its real-life dramatic tension, which the television show Alex, Inc. trivializes and virtually eliminates with comedy. Second, the writers and directors of Alex, Inc. spoof podcasters and podcasting, but they do so in a way that gets so much of how we do what we do wrong. Their spoof on podcasters and podcasting isn’t funny because the writers clearly don’t understand the world of podcasting and why it’s humorous.

Recording wave sounds in Sint Eustatius for the  Doing History: To the Revolution  series.

Recording wave sounds in Sint Eustatius for the Doing History: To the Revolution series.

I take my work as a podcaster very seriously, but I appreciate just how elements of what I do can seem ridiculous. I wear big, black, over-the-ear headphones and I often sit in a room, by myself, and talk out loud into a giant microphone suspended in front of my mouth by a shock mount and overhead studio boom. And that’s just the scene in my office. When I record in the field, I don my big, black, over-the-ear headphones and carry my Tascam portable recorder in one hand, and a microphone in the other with an XLR cable dangling between the two. I admit, I look silly, and I always laugh when I see how ridiculous I look. Still, it’s part of the job. If you want to capture great audio you need to acquire and use the right equipment. A veteran of NPR, Alex Blumberg has and used the right equipment to record StartUp, but the character ABC created based on Blumberg, Alex Schuman, has no clue what he’s doing.  

Just like Alex Blumberg, Alex Schuman quits his job to start a podcast network that will produce high-quality podcasts. Like Blumberg, Schuman meets with venture capitalist Chris Sacca (played by himself) and fumbles through his pitch. But Sacca sees something in Schuman, just as he saw something in Blumberg. Sacca encourages Schuman to start the business and make his first podcast for the network about his journey to create and build a startup.

To record his podcast about starting a podcast network, Schuman begins the next episode laying in bed with what is clearly a Marantz portable recorder laying on his nightstand. The scene moved quickly from the recorder on the nightstand to Schuman, but my best guess is that the recorder was a Marantz PMD661 MKII, which is the latest model of a portable recorder favored and used by many NPR veterans. This quick scene made me happy because it showed an appropriate, if high-end, recorder for recording a podcast on-the-go. For a quick second, I thought Alex, Inc. would offer a great spoof of podcasters. Many of us are gear nerds.

My hope proved short lived. As the scene panned out from the recorder, it revealed Schuman laying in bed holding a Heil PR-40 microphone. I shook my head and dropped my jaw in disbelief. This was all wrong.

Many podcasters love and use the Heil PR-40 mic. It was the second mic I invested in and I used it to record Ben Franklin’s World from episode 15 to about episode 146 or 147. I loved recording with the Heil PR-40 because it’s an end-fire microphone. Heil designed it to record kick bass drums and podcasters love it because its design means it excels at minimizing background noise. To record well on a Heil PR-40, you have to speak directly into the end of the microphone. Additionally, it was designed to be an in-studio mic. It’s not a microphone you hold when you record. In fact, there is nowhere to properly hold it while recording because it has a short fixed jack; Heil designed the mic to be held in a stand or in a shock mount on a boom.

Zach Braff as Alex Schuman in ABC's  Alex, Inc. 

Zach Braff as Alex Schuman in ABC's Alex, Inc. 

It’s clear that the writers of Alex, Inc. don’t understand how the Heil PR-40 works because they frequently show Zach Braff’s character holding the mic upright by its jack and the connector of his XLR cable. By holding the mic upright, Shuman is always speaking into the side of the mic not its end, which means it won’t properly capture what he’s trying to say. Plus by holding the mic by its jack and XLR cable, Scuhman is likely wiggling the XLR connection with his handling of the microphone, which would produce an audible static in his recordings. Of course, he would hear this static and could fix it if he ever recorded with headphones, which he never does. A podcaster as serious about their craft as Schuman is portrayed to be would know that he should record with a mic along the lines of an Audio Technica ATR-2100, or even better, a decent shotgun mic, which like the Heil PR-40 would minimize background noise because you have to speak directly into its end.

At the end of the first episode, Alex Schuman stands on the tarmac of the Teterboro Airport imploring Chris Sacca to support his vision. Schuman reminds Sacca that he had asked him what his company’s “unfair advantage” would be. Schuman shouts “my company’s unfair advantage is me!” Viewers are led to believe that Schuman is an expert, who knows what he’s doing, and that he is the best person to start a network dedicated to producing high-quality podcasts. Only, it’s clear in episode two that Schuman is not only out of his depth in starting a business, he has no clue how to record high-quality audio.

I realize most viewers won’t notice that Zach Braff and his character use the wrong equipment and use it improperly. However, the purpose of the show is to provide a spoof on both start-up culture and podcasters. Having lived through the successful startup of my partner’s tech company in the early 2000s and through my own podcast startup, I see that ABC understands startups and what makes them crazy, fun, and stressful. Start-up culture presents plenty of fodder for one to make fun of and the writers of the show seem to understand enough about startups to get this aspect of the show right. But it’s clear they don’t understand podcasting or the work it takes to create a high-quality podcast. You can’t properly spoof something unless you understand it.

For example, a funnier and more realistic episode would have been to portray Alex Schuman agonizing over what recorder and mic he should buy. I can picture the scene where he’s trying out all the different mics in his local guitar store saying ridiculous things to hear how he sounds. I can also see him falling in love with a particularly expensive mic that is really too much for what he needs but he loves it because he sounds so great on it. The rest of the episode would then see him trying to justify a larger-than-expected investment by weighing the benefits of the audio quality provided by that mic against its cost and the fact that he will also have to buy a boom, shock mount, USB mixer, XLR cable, and likely a range of USB-C dongles so he can make his mic compatible with his new MacBook Pro. I know this is a hilarious story because all of this has happened to me and many of my fellow podcasters.

In February 2017, I attended PodFest and visited Marc Johanssen’s impressive mic display. I loved my Heil PR-40 and yet I still had to geek out and try all the various mics he had on display because they were there. I still thought I sounded best on the Heil PR-40, but then I heard how I sounded on a vintage Electro Voice RE20. Marc said my face lit up and I told him it was because I sounded great on that mic. He had me try the new version of the RE20, but I didn’t sound as good. Marc explained the differences between the manufacture and construction of the two versions. He explained why the older versions of the mic were so good and how if I wanted one I would need to find a used one. He then cautioned me about what I would need to look for in a used mic. I felt out of my league, but I wanted this mic so I asked Marc if he could help me find a good, vintage RE20. I went home and prepared my spouse for what would be another fairly substantial investment in my podcast. Four or five months later, Marc messaged me. He had found a good mic, likely one manufactured in the 1980s or early 1990s. We agreed on a price, I sent him the money, and he sent me the mic. I checked my FedEx tracking number for days until it arrived.

My vintage Electro Voice RE20 Microphone nestled in its Pelican Case.

Today, I podcast about history on a somewhat historic mic. I love my mic, I sound fantastic on it, and I love the meta nature of how it fits into my professional life. I love my mic so much it has its own special carrying case. It’s a small, yellow Pelican Case. Pelican makes cases with heavy-duty plastic exteriors and soft foam interiors. I customized the foam interior so that it hugs and cradles my mic so nothing happens to it as I travel between Boston and Williamsburg. And I never check my mic. It always accompanies me onto the airplane. I recognize that I’m obsessed with my mic and that my obsession is a bit humorous. If you’re not a podcaster it can seem over the top. Yet, I’m just one podcaster and so many podcasters have similar stories.

I don’t have high hopes for Alex, Inc. and its attempts to spoof podcasters and podcasting because it’s clear the writers don’t really understand our world. The best satires and spoofs are great because they hit close to home by turning something serious into something funny and by exaggerating what is funny all while making a serious point. Alex, Inc. doesn’t and won’t accomplish this feat and it’s a missed opportunity for ABC because podcasts are having a moment. They’re a burgeoning media form that so many people and businesses want to get involved with. Society wants to understand podcasts and what all the fuss around them is about. Humor is a good way to help them do this, but it needs to be done with a humor steeped in reality, and this show deals in generalizations and stereotypes, not in reality.