Podcast: The evolution of podcasting, with Ed Marsh
Here’s a transcript that has been cleaned up a bit by AI to make it more readable:
TOM: Hi, you’re listening to a podcast with Tom Johnson and Ed Marsh and we’re going to be talking about all things podcasting, um, podcasts on the topic of podcasts. And, Ed, can you introduce yourself a little bit? Tell people kind of where you’re based, what you do, that kind of thing.
ED: Yeah, thanks for having me on Tom. It’s been a long time but it’s, ah, it’s cool. And I haven’t podcasted in a while so it was nice to be invited. But I’ve been a technical writer, I’ll have been a technical writer for 30 years in February of 2024. I live in New Jersey. It’s a rainy Sunday here, so it’s a good day to record.
I fell into technical writing by chance when I went for a temp job and they said, “Hey, you’d be good as a technical writing assistant.” I didn’t know what that was but it paid more than being a reporter. Over my career, I’ve worked for major financial firms, small and large software companies, and now a 40,000 person enterprise which is crazy. It’s been fun along the way.
As you know, I had a podcast called Content Content that is on permanent hiatus now. I’m not ready to put it to bed but it’s been a while.
TOM: Permanent hiatus. You’ve got me wondering about some things. I see you’ve got drums in your background and before we started you were telling me that you’ve actually got an extensive background in music, from marching band to teaching and directing. How did you kind of get interested in podcasting in the first place?
ED: Well, I had time to kill during my commute into New York City or Jersey City. Podcasts and audiobooks were a great way to spend that time. A couple podcasts inspired me, like This Week in Tech and Back to Work with Merlin Mann.
Around then, I knew I wanted to put my name out there and give back to the tech writing community. I wanted to show potential employers how I would treat their clients. So it all fell together. My podcast was wildly successful. It took me places I didn’t anticipate. Here we are talking about it now.
TOM: Yeah, I mean I remember, you had a very laid back style in your podcasts and they were pretty in-depth. I mean you weren’t worried about making them short, you wanted to really get to know your guests and go in depth. The audio quality was superb, I was very impressed by that.
ED: Oh thank you, it took a lot of work making each one perfect and spending too much time editing. But I appreciate that it came across well.
TOM: Yeah, so now…you said that’s on permanent hiatus. Why did you put it on pause?
ED: It was a combination of things. The pandemic meant I wasn’t commuting anymore so I didn’t have time to listen. I saw my numbers dropping, maybe due to less frequent recordings or more competition.
And some of the A-list people I hoped to interview had moved away from tech comm. It was like, where do I go from here? Also, work got very busy. So it was time to take a break after 3 and a half years.
TOM: I think for me, I initially faded podcasting because I wanted to spend more time on writing. I felt podcasts took time away from that. But that Spectrum panel on podcasting and blogging reminded me how much fun it was.
When we talked enthusiastically about podcasting there, I remembered the medium’s intimate nature. I recognize the voices of leading tech podcasters. It’s different from reading anonymous articles.
You really get to know podcast hosts from listening for half an hour in your headphones. It’s a nice connection. So I thought I’d try podcasting again and see if I can make it valuable without spending too much time on it.
ED: Yeah, and I think that panel got me thinking about it more too. With some more time now that I’m commuting again, I’ve been listening to podcasts that inspire me. So when you reached out to do this podcast on podcasting, I was like “absolutely, let’s do it!” You’ve inspired me at different points, so here we are again.
TOM: Well I also started to think more about the video aspect of podcasts because the Google Podcasts player is being replaced by YouTube Music. YouTube has a podcast feature but they’re videos. Do you ever watch video podcast feeds or just listen to the audio?
ED: I mean I’m usually staring out the window listening to someone talk in my ears. If I’m driving I definitely just want audio. But I think the times have come where video is a required element, and the person has the option whether to watch or just listen.
TOM: I’m still trying to figure out video. I struggle to look at the right spot and come across natural. But what really sold me on YouTube is the auto transcription feature.
I copy transcripts from long videos into Claude or other AI tools to get a summary. The verbatim transcript alone is painfully unreadable, so I have the AI tool make it more readable. It’s pretty nice.
ED: Yeah I mean back when I looked into transcription it was too expensive at a dollar a minute. The automated options then were pretty bad. But AI has come a long way, it can probably do it easily now.
TOM: Yeah, it’s too tedious to transcribe manually. But these tools also automatically remove filler words to clean it up, which could sound unnatural if the pacing seems off. Still, for a polished enterprise script that level of editing could be useful.
ED: Yeah exactly, I wanted my podcasts to sound like natural conversations, not robotic or over-edited. Is the transcription good enough now to handle pauses and make it still sound natural?
TOM: That’s difficult, because removing too many pauses does risk making it sound strange. But I don’t think many podcasts I listen to incorporate that level of editing. It’s almost more for highly scripted corporate content.
Here’s another AI development - generated voices. Have you listened to any AI narration? Would you want to listen to an AI voice or only human voices?
ED: It would have to be really compelling for me to listen to AI-generated audio now. The way AI currently speaks sounds choppy to me. For short news clips maybe it’s fine if it sounds natural. But so much of what engages me is the witty human banter and interactions. How do you replicate personalities and regional knowledge? I don’t think AI can sound conversational enough yet to hook me for a long podcast. But in the future with more advances who knows.
TOM: You’re right, for a co-hosted show it’s very hard to replicate that chemistry. But for solely informational purposes like an audiobook, I could see AI narration being used to generate audio versions.
ED: Well radio is already using AI to read news that replaced their news people. If it’s only a couple minutes I guess it’s fine. But that’s not how I get my news. Still it’s happening, AI is moving into radio.
TOM: Yeah let’s see…what do you think is the ideal length for a podcast? You mentioned under 2 hours which for most people is still long. Some podcasts strategically keep it short like 15-20 minutes to fit a commute. What’s your philosophy on length?
ED: I didn’t want to limit my show’s length too much. I’ve had 45 minutes up to almost 2 hours. But realistically based on my commute time, somewhere between half an hour and an hour is probably ideal. Asking people to go much longer makes it harder - better to break it into a series. You can’t expect someone to sit for 3-4 hours listening.
TOM: I agree, it’s rare I tune into something longer than an hour. Finding that right format and commitment level is tricky. The interview format gives you access to guests, but listeners may skip episodes if the topics don’t resonate. Some back-and-forth discussion tends to work better to hold attention. But that chemistry isn’t easy to manufacture.
ED: Yeah exactly. My goal was to showcase the “people behind the content” with interviews. I always ended asking what they enjoy outside of work to humanize them. For me that insight was the draw to come back.
Now when I think about shows I like to listen to regularly, it does tend to be more of a panel format with the same people riffing each time rather than a single host. Especially after years, you really feel you know those people like friends. I wrote one host a thank you for how much he motivated me over the years. He wrote back appreciatively.
TOM: Definitely, when you listen in your headphones for half an hour it creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity much more than reading articles. I often don’t remember who wrote a given article but audio sticks with you.
I wanted to talk about some of the AI audio editing advancements lately, like in tools such as Descript. They let you edit audio by editing text transcripts. Have you tried anything like that?
ED: I’m not sure I understand how that works. Does editing the text change the actual audio, or just insert awkward pauses? I want it to sound natural.
TOM: That’s a good point - the technology has to be smart enough to handle pacing properly in spots where text is added or removed. Potentially AI will get good enough to smooth that out, but you’re right…
ED: Well hold on, can AI go the other way too? If I write a blog post, can I throw that into ChatGPT and have it create an audio version?
TOM: Definitely - there are lots of text-to-speech tools out there. But I was thinking more of trying it the other way. If I want to write a post but am struggling, maybe I’ll just talk about it for 10 minutes then feed the transcript to AI asking it to structure an articulate post. There’s a lot of word-smithing and organization that I think AI could potentially help with. But lately I’ve wanted to do more writing myself rather than fully outsource it.
ED: And that all comes back to AI and how quickly it’s progressing nowadays with generative abilities. It’s amazing to see, both in the podcasting world’s evolution the past 8 years, and where AI is heading at lightspeed. Looking back at the body of work I created, while I made a ton of mistakes, I learned a lot and it was pretty cool.
TOM: Podcasting itself may have changed behind the scenes, but the appeal remains timeless - having meaningful dialogue around ideas. I bike commute and listen to podcasts routinely as part of my day. I expect that routine, intimacy and convenience around the medium will ensure podcasting continues thriving.
ED: Yeah exactly, there’s lots of untapped potential still there around AI, structuring content, giving back knowledge to the tech comm career, and so on. Maybe it is time you or I jump back into podcasting since there’s gaps there now. But who knows!
TOM: Thanks Ed, appreciate your time and insights! If people want to find you and Content Content, what URL should they visit?
ED: Just my name, edmarsh.com. There’s a link right on that site to the podcast. Feel free to reach out with any other questions!
About Tom Johnson
I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.
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