You're Listening Wrong (No You're Not)

Overcast turned up to 'Crazy'
Overcast turned up to ‘Crazy’

In a piece for The Verge yesterday, John Lagomarsino made the claim that listening to podcasts at greater than 1x speeds is doing a huge disservice to both the podcast’s author(s), as well as the listener themselves:

I love audio. And I want you to love audio, too. But I’m not sure you can, because of this habit you’ve got. I know you’re busy, and you have a lot on your plate, and there are so many shows to keep up with, but you need to stop listening to podcasts sped up to 1.5x. You need to open yourself up to love.

Notably, he lamented the state of affairs in which a new podcast app introduced speed-saving features because it had to. He argues that podcasts are not meant to be sped up, and when they are, a certain amount of gravitas is lost on the listener.

He does have a point. Lagomarsino provided several examples of note-worthy podcasts, namely This American Life, in which the Smart Speed’s truncating of pauses caused the spirit of the moment to be ruined. That’s true. When Serial was going on, I turned down my normal slider from 1.83x to around 1.17x, so that I could appreciate the production values of the show. Sarah Koenig’s team spent a ton of time producing their series. That makes sense because Serial was a spinoff of the aforementioned This American Life.

Of Course™ Serial Was Going To Have Great Production Values

And if there ever was a case to slow things down, it would be for shows like this, or for shows like Myke Hurley’s latest series for Inquisitive, Behind The App.

I was driving to work this morning, and when I heard the background music, I had to turn the speed down.[1]

So, sure, it’s probably best for you to listen to artfully crafted podcasts at more normal speeds.

For The Rest Of Us

I don’t currently have any audiophile gear, but when I did, I was up there with the best of them in the ‘prosumer-student-on-a-budget’ category. My Sennheiser HD 650 sounded great when powered by my Duet 2. I listened to music in lossless ALAC format, and I listened to whole albums at a time.[2] I was downloading all my music from great sources, and if someone told me about a new album to check out, or if I heard something on the radio, I was getting it in lossless and listening to it like a purist.

Things have changed a bit for me since then. I sold all that audiophile stuffs, probably to fund whatever was to be my next gear acquisition quest. And now, my willingness to buy stuff on the iTunes Store has been amplified by my sorta-recent life change from a student to a professional. In other words, I have the money to buy something if I want. And boy does it feel good to buy something and know that it supports whomever produced the effort.[3]

But my point here is that I was that guy who would look down on someone and think, “How could you listen to music with EarPods, at 256 kbps, and compressed all to shat!?”

So I have been where Lagomarsino currently seems to be; I know where he is coming from.

You Should Listen How You Want

Do you want to listen to podcasts at ~2x like me? Go for it. Does ATP ‘slowed down’ to 1.17x sound like turtles talking? If that’s the case, by all means, speed it like I do. Turn on Smart Speed.

A lot of people (myself included) consume podcasts while commuting. We might only have 30 minutes on our commute. Listening at greater than 1x speeds helps get through more content much more quickly than listening at normal speeds.

Just because I listen to How Stuff Works at crazy speeds doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy other podcasts at 1x. And listening to things sped up certainly doesn’t make worthless the rest of my podcast experience.

It’s Okay To Pick And Choose

Lagomarsino makes it seem like it’s all or nothing. You’re a podcast purist or a podcast idiot.

I’m not the lone dissenter either.

Stephen Hackett of 512 Pixels had this to say:

As a host and producer of podcasts, I view things like Smart Speed as a net positive on the industry. I’ve saved 33 hours in Overcast personally, as a matter of fact.

Yes, Smart Speed and features like it change our shows; listening above 1x can cause little issues with things like music and pauses, but in reality, it doesn’t greatly impact what we create each week [emphasis added].

The truth is, for shows like ours, it doesn’t matter anyways. The ebbs and flows of conversation are still present when sped up a touch. What the listener hears and what we produce doesn’t have to be 1:1 to be good.

I’d rather people listen a little faster and consume more of our content than hear every single beat, as it comes out of Logic.

And the developer of Overcast himself, Marco Arment, weighed in as well:

Anyone dictating how people can or should consume media only ensures their own rapid irrelevance.

Besides the above gem, Marco had added this:

Speeding up the […] pauses is like skimming an article — you’re missing some of the detail and experience that the author intended. But a lot of articles aren’t interesting enough to be read slowly and completely, and most people don’t have time for that. People naturally skim and vary their reading speed as needed for the situation they’re in, how much they care, and how much attention they think the content deserves, and many people are simply faster readers than others.

And finally:

The biggest reason people cite for not listening to more podcasts is that they don’t have the time. My goal with Smart Speed was to directly address that: to make more time for people. And it has: since Smart Speed time-saved totals are synced to Overcast’s servers, I can happily report that Smart Speed has cumulatively saved 55 years of listening time so far. I bet that the vast majority of that time saved was subsequently filled with… more podcasts.

And it doesn’t hurt anyone. I don’t want sugar in my coffee, but it won’t impact my enjoyment of my coffee if you put sugar in yours. I can enjoy the crap out of listening to live Phish shows with my HE-6 regardless of whether you listen to pop music with Beats. And your enjoyment of podcasts at 1× isn’t affected at all by me listening at 1.125× plus Smart Speed. There’s no downside to giving people these options.

If the option to speed up podcasts lets people listen to more podcasts, everyone wins.

I do what I want. You should too.

  1. Federico Viticci of MacStories said the music was great, but I’m so out of touch that I hadn’t heard of Brave Wave. Insta-follow.

  2. Crazy, right?

  3. Lots of arguments to be made here. Suffice it to say that what’s right is right: if it’s easy, most people will do the right thing and pay for digital content. It just hasn’t been (and still isn’t) the easiest thing in the world.