The New Media Isn't All That New

{% blockquote -Bill Carter The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy %} Every night the show, for good or for bad, defined who he was. The act of stepping out nearly daily onto a stage and standing in front of people, millions of people, and soliciting laughs almost defined the term narcissism. Every performer would have needed an outsize ego to get through that crucible every night. Clearly the two giants of this late-night era had that in common, but they reacted to it in totally opposite ways. {% endblockquote %}

Podcasting is a medium in its relative infancy, not even a decade old. It’s still fertile territory with room for growth and lessons to learn. I think we just learned a big one.

Last week, when John Gruber moved The Talk Show from 5by5 to rival network Mule Radio Syndicate, leaving co-host Dan Benjamin behind, it was a reminder that the rules of old media still apply to this new and growing format. Much like television, podcasts that sell ads live or die by their audiences’ commitment and support. The audiences may be smaller and the stakes may be lower, but the game is ostensibly the same.

When abrupt change occurs, audiences want answers. They want to know what they don’t see. They want to choose sides. It’s a small-scale media bonanza.

On Friday, I posted and continually updated my “Why Did John Gruber’s Talk Show Leave 5by5?” article because I was just as confused as everyone else. Something smelled weird about the whole affair and I decided to share what I was thinking at the time. It quickly became the most popular post in my 3+ years of writing the candler blog, and the comments on the post turned into a forum for confused fans. They commiserated and conspiracy theorized, they corrected my mistakes and pointed me to new information, they joked around and thanked me for tracking the story. Absent statements from Gruber and Benjamin statements, this kind of speculation was about all people had.

And I like to think it helped.

On Monday, Dan Benjamin responded to all the noise about Gruber’s departure with a four minute, heartfelt statement. He offered no details about what actually happened behind the scenes, but he admitted being blindsided by Gruber’s taking the show, and its name, to another network. It reminded me of Conan O’Brien’s “People of Earth” press release.

For his part, Gruber has remained nearly silent on the matter, only offering breadcrumbs of information to let readers and listeners know that he is aware of the backlash against him. On Monday, for example, well after Dan’s statement, he linked to the Wiktionary entry for Sturm und Drang, the German phrase for a period of emotional intensity. At this point, I don’t think anyone expects he will say anything more concrete on the matter.

Anyone who hosts a podcast, or writes a blog for that matter, does so with a healthy dose of self-importance. Wanting to be heard, telling others that your voice is the one worth listening to, is inherently narcissistic, at least on some level. If a broadcaster, no matter the medium, can’t admit that him or herself, then they probably won’t be able to cultivate an audience.

The excerpt at the top of this post refers first to David Letterman, then to his rival, Jay Leno. It gets to the heart of entertaining, and I think it applies to both Benjamin and Gruber.

Listeners clearly needed some kind of closure. Dan Benjamin provided that with his statement and Gruber has coped publicly in his own, more insular way. They are different sides of the same coin, different ways of approaching the same tumultuous situation. As Bill Carter put it about the late night wars, “…they reacted to it in totally opposite ways.”

By waiting silently as rumors swirled all weekend and then saying exactly what listeners wanted to hear, Benjamin managed to out-class Gruber. It’s possible he did this because he’s a genuinely nice guy who wanted to do what he saw as the right thing. Likely, even. But it was also a well-timed move that accomplished two things:

  1. It allowed him to move on with his shows without ever mentioning this debacle again.
  2. It painted Gruber as the progenitor of the split.

He said nothing untoward, nothing against John, but he certainly made it clear that the move was his idea and that he was hurt by the launch of the new show.

I’d always thought that if we weren’t going to do the show anymore we’d retire it together. So I was a little surprised and disappointed when I learned that John had decided to do the show on his own and call it The Talk Show.

It was a deft move and an incredible bit of broadcasting. Even with all the praise he could put on John, he made it clear to listeners that this is still 5by5, where your pals are. Best of luck to John, yes, but don’t anyone forget what this project is about. We’re the nice guys.

Gruber’s new Talk Show may well outstrip its previous incarnation. In fact, it quickly rose to the become one of the top ten most downloaded podcasts in iTunes over the weekend. Of course, almost all of the ratings and reviews on the show are extremely negative, from former listeners who gave it a try and chided Gruber for the move. But, just like terrestrial radio and television, the charts do not take reviews into account. And neither do advertisers.

So what’s the point of all this? Why conflate this silly little tiff with the wars of television’s behemoths?

How we consume media is rapidly changing. As more bandwidth is made available and users are educated about ways to seek out new media, we can expect more and more of these kinds of “events.” 5by5 and other podcast networks cultivate niche audiences who may be small in numbers but exude much more passion per capita than fans of national, broadcast programs. That is likely where all media is headed.

No national paper looked into The Talk Show move; no talking heads split hairs over what went wrong and what will happen next. But there was this site. And for every show with a small, committed audience, there are many sites just like it.

This is the new media, and it bears a striking resemblance to the old one. As do our heroes, hosts and narcissists, who are often one and the same.