I hate breaking the drought of (real, non-Twitter summary) updates with a gripe fest, but this has been bothering me for a couple weeks and I just wanted to get this off my chest. If you don’t listen to the podcast “This Week in Tech” (or TWiT), feel free to ignore this post. Of course, if you’ve considered listening but haven’t gotten around to it yet, this might be informative enough to help you reconsider, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
I’ve been a fan of Leo Laporte for a number of years, ever since we first discovered TechTV (before it died a miserable death at the hands of Paul Allen and G4). “The Screen Savers” was one of our favorite shows and became a nightly staple in our house for several years. When Laporte left TechTV and “The Screen Savers” was canceled (or, more properly, devolved into “Attack of the Show”), we had a small sense of loss. The show was entertaining and informative, and a big part of the entertainment value was Laporte’s friendliness and personality. The network was never the same after that, and now we largely ignore G4’s existence on our cable listings. (“X-Play”, the only remaining show from TechTV’s original line-up, is the only thing still worth watching on G4, and even then it’s not nearly as good as it used to be.)
When I discovered a year or so ago that Laporte had gone on to create his own podcasting network, I was thrilled. Several old TechTV allumni were among the guests and cohosts, and the selection of podcasts has been diverse, engaging, and ever expanding. The flagship of the network, of course, is TWiT, a weekly roundtable of tech industry players and journalists discussing the latest tech news. The show is often wild and unpredictable, spiraling down rabbit holes and meandering in bizarre directions, but that’s often part of the fun of the show. The bottom line, though, was that the show was about tech news, and it and Slashdot were two of my main ways of keeping on top of what’s been happening in the tech world.
Something happened in recent weeks to change that, however. Since I can’t follow the live streams (both for practical and technical reasons), I can only guess the sequence of events based on what’s been released in the podcasts or written by others after the fact. But from what I can tell, the TWiTters have been hosting a live wine tasting show right before TWiT starts recording on Sundays. Now I’m a teetotaler myself, but I won’t condemn anyone who wants to imbibe their spirits if they really want to. What self-destructive behavior they engage in on their own time is up to them. As long as no one’s forcing me or anyone else to participate and nobody’s operating motorized vehicles, they are free to destroy their own livers to their hearts content. But what’s really annoying is that once TWiT starts taping, everyone in the studio is already tipsy, if not totally soused. The wine continues to flow as the show progresses, and what follows is a train wreck of drunken giddiness and squabbling that’s only really entertaining to those who are equally inebriated. To top everything off, from what I’ve read the final podcast (what I’m actually hearing and complaining about) is heavily edited before it’s released; the live feed is even worse.
The latest episode is a perfect example. Subtitled “Corked” (which is appropriate; I originally intended to say “ironically” but I’m pretty sure the choice of subtitle was intentional), the show is a disaster of panelists talking on top of each other about nothing worth talking about. Leo, who is usually an excellent host and often does a great job of keeping everyone else in line, is interrupting his guests and spinning things even further out of control. John C. Dvorak, whose input I always find amusing and often enlightening, is equally rude and—from what I’ve read from those who saw the live feed—apparently egged on the other guests to get them even further inebriated. I was originally going to complain that neither of the female guests, Lisa Bettany or Shira Lazar, could manage to finish a sentence before being trampled upon by Leo or Dvorak, but Lazar was just drunk enough to be an unstoppable stampede of rambling who couldn’t let a topic go. As previously stated, one of the appeals of TWiT is its unpredictable nature, but this show was so far off the beaten path that there was no path left to beat. Somewhere, deep inside the tangled mess of four people talking at once about Twitter drinking games, is only the vaguest hint of tech news, a thin whiff of the scent of information that rapidly gets swept away by the torrent of uselessness that follows. And for the cherry on top, several times during the show Leo pauses to read complaints from the live chat room about how terrible the show has become… and makes fun of them. This following a single glimmer of insightfulness in a discussion about how important the community has become in modern online media.
Now, I’ve been a webcartoonist for a decade, so I’m no stranger to the vast swing between amateurism and professionalism when it comes to online media. Before there were basement-dwelling podcasters, there were basement-dwelling webcartoonists, and you can tell in both cases which ones take their craft seriously and which just throw things out without any care for quality. I consider Laporte an accomplished pro, and virtually every other show on his network stands as shining proof of that. “Security Now!” is brilliantly informative (and my personal favorite), “FLOSS Weekly” (when it updates) shines the spotlight on some great open source projects, and “Jumping Monkeys” (before it went on indefinite hiatus) was a great parenting podcast for tech-savvy parental units. In all three of these examples, Leo is an excellent cohost to the show’s main star, showing his versatility with rare skill. He asks the questions many of us are thinking, assuming the role of the everyman so the expert can answer to the fullest. The TWiT Network as a whole is an example that many podcasters should look up to, a yardstick of professionalism by which all others should be compared.
All except for TWiT itself. Leo, what the heck happened?
I won’t stop listening to “Security Now!” or “FLOSS Weekly”, both of which I enjoy immensely. If “Jumping Monkeys” ever comes back, I’ll resubscribe in a heartbeat. My wife loves “net@nite”, “The Daily Giz Whiz”, and “Munchcast” and keeps bugging me to listen to them. But TWiT… oh, TWiT, how the mighty have fallen. What was arguably the best show on the network is now the worst.
What’s incredibly ironic is that in a recent episode of “net@nite” (unfortunately, I don’t know which, but my wife thinks it’s either #85 or #86), Leo chastized Kevin Rose for a drunken comment he made on-air that caused a bit of an Internet stir. He commented that in today’s world of streaming media, celebrities have to assume that they’re always on the air and that anything and everything they do will be rebroadcast repeatedly, even stating that it’s a big mistake to be drunk while recording. Maybe it’s time Leo listened to his own advice.
I’m still not sure whether or not I’m dropping TWiT now or if I’ll give it one last chance. Leo posted on FriendFeed that the “message [was] received” and, based on overwhelmingly negative feedback, there will be “a little less wine and a little more tech in future TWiTs”. We’ll see. What’s ironic is that it was Audible.com‘s sponsorship of TWiT that turned me on to audio books, and now there’s a good chance that audio books will completely replace TWiT during my long, boring commute each morning. It’s Leo’s loss, not mine.