Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why this Podcast?

On September 25th, we will record Episode 26, looking back on the first six months of this podcast and towards its future. I wrote this post to put down my thoughts about just that, in terms of what drives me to produce it.

My experience of mission statements has been that of viscous ooze of liquid insincerity stiffened by a rehash of the tediously obvious. I have no interest in writing such a thing. However, I think it does do good to sit back and ask yourself from time to time “why am I doing this?”. After all, podcasting is not like parenting  - you can stop doing it whenever you want, and no one has any business being upset about it should you stop. Just as bands are better off breaking up after they have had their say, and not keep touring for forty years playing the same songs the same way, so podcasters who can not explain why they continue should admit this to themselves, and stop.

There are lots of possible reasons that people may start and continue a podcast, and they usually have little to do with the medium itself. Podcasts are undertaken to promote something or someone, to get a message out, to educate and inform, to sell advertiser’s products in exchange for entertainment, or just for fun. While I am not hostile to any of these motives, neither the Wow! Signal or the Unseen Podcast exist for any of these reasons. So, why then?  What is the purpose of the Unseen Podcast? Why do I pour more time than I have to spare, and a little money, and a fair bit of lost sleep into it?
The Wow! Signal began because I thought it could be the podcast that was missing - the one I wanted to hear that no one was doing. For a while, I thought that Seth Shostak’s podcast Are We Alone, complete with its ads for green lasers and telescope stores, was almost that, but he joined forces with the formidable Molly Bentley and went off in a different direction. At that point, I knew less than nothing about podcasting, but I had a deep intuitive sense of what I wanted the Wow! Signal to be, and how it would be different from any other podcast. The introduction to Episode 1 was my attempt to articulate that at the time:

I’m not a pessimist.  We uppity monkeys can, over time, puzzle through quite a lot, and adopt mind bending new concepts with a kind of rebellious joy.  We reject the limitations of being survival machines for our genes - limitations that constrain how we explore, but not whether we explore.  There is a great deal of confusion we can clear up, new knowledge we can hope to acquire, and best of all, I continue to hope for much better questions.  It won't be quick or easy.  Even the most tentative answers to "who's there?" will take generations to acquire.  All we can do is start; and persist, and be ready for when the universe comes knocking.  That is why we have named this podcast after a single transient event that MAY have been a faint hint that we’re not alone.  

Now, almost three years and nearly 30000 downloads later, the Wow! Signal is still not exactly the podcast I want to listen to, but it is starting to find its way, and I don’t think it has much competition.

The problem I had with the Wow! Signal is that, although great guests agreed to appear, and the listenership seemed healthy,  I was failing to build a community around that podcast. I wanted people to interact with me, the podcast, the subject matter, and each other. My efforts in this regard had been a failure, and I admitted to myself that I didn’t know how to go about it. The subreddit was a ghost town, and the Google Plus community for listeners was growing, but had very poor engagement. I had almost no response to calls for questions or comments. I even invited listeners to come on the show and speak their minds, and no one was interested. I desperately wanted the podcast to be more of a conversation within a community than a monologue with interviews.

I decided to try an experiment, and that was to spin off a podcast from the Wow! Signal that is as completely open as I know how to make it, and to get people directly involved by appearing on the podcast. It would be an unedited, unscripted (i.e. uncontrolled), hour or so with a panel of whoever wanted to participate, talking about whatever they found most interesting.  That was the genesis of the Unseen Podcast. I announced that the first episode would be April 3rd 2015, and I recruited physicist Ben Tippett to appear to give our discussion a little focus and direction. I recruited Marsha Barnhart, Ciro Villa and Nick Nielsen to appear as the first panel. It worked. Ben was terrific, and the panel and I asked most of our burning questions. I was encouraged.

This was all about starting the conversation within a community that I only imagined existed, and that we are still discovering and may still be forming. This is an active, controversial, civil, but spirited conversation about the human future, and where or when in that future we may meet with other technological beings who may be presently wondering about their future. We are, of course, getting a lot of things wrong, but if we approach these big subjects with the requisite humility, we can hope for and encourage progress, and to be wrong in far more productive ways as we go forward.

So, the Unseen Podcast is just one public voice of this conversation in which anyone can participate. We are not a soapbox, a classroom, or a crusade. Other people engage in science education far better than we can hope to do so, and we leave that to them with our blessing. We use science as a searchlight to illuminate a tiny corner of that immense darkness before us. We look here and there, and we have questions that stay with us night and day. We feel a powerful need to talk about these questions, and we can. Anyone can.

We will get out of this conversation what we put into it. That is why I am doing what I can to support it, but of course, I will need a great deal of help. If everything depends primarily on me - my efforts, my ideas, my words - that is a certain failure. 

I hope we can begin by growing our listener community from hundreds to thousands, and to have them engage with us. We will look for a high degree of engagement with listeners in online forums. I will look for broader panel participation, with some new people and one or two veterans on each panel. I want more women and young people on the panels. I want several different people to try their hands at hosting, and maybe one or two to try co-producing. We’ve had stellar guests so far, and I want more of them, every 3 or 4 episodes. I want to see lively and creative engagement with topic threads by a wide section of the community. I’m not going to ask anyone for money, but time and energy, yes, I will ask.

The ideal panelist on the Unseen Podcast is someone who knows what they don’t know, and finds what they don’t know most fascinating. Come on, that’s you, isn’t it? Want to join in?

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