Radio and television together have been commercially available for over a century. Over time, media producers have developed a huge base of institutional knowledge about how to create the best possible media.
No matter the subject, the question of "how" to produce a radio or television show has already been answered countless times over. Formats, standards, and protocols are established and deeply ingrained in both amateurs and professionals.
You might not have even noticed these standards, but to paraphrase Harry Plinkett, "your brain did." For example, if you've ever watched a late night chat show (Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, etc), you've likely noticed that they all follow the exact same format: Stand-up monologue, comedy sketch, guest one, guest two, musical guest, credits. Talk radio also follows basic structures, including station identification, news, traffic, weather, show content, and advertising.
This doesn't mean that every single show is exactly the same, only that the basic format has been proven to meet standards of both scheduling and entertainment value. Whether you're producing a news magazine show or single camera sitcom, you follow basic formatting standards. This is not laid out by law, it's evolved naturally because it works.
The WoW community, however, seems to have largely missed the boat. Rather than drawing on decades of institutionalized media experience, it seems to have developed in a vacuum. WoW media doesn't look like it's produced by people who have spent years consuming (and learning from) media on their own. It looks like what television and radio would be like if it suddenly fell out of the sky one day. It's quite bizarre.
Again, I want to emphasize that not every single piece of media needs to be exactly the same. This is not about conformity, it's about using a readily-available, thoroughly tested knowledge base to produce the best media possible. Here at WoW Politik, the goal is not to police mistakes, but rather to provide assistance to self-selected individuals interested in improving.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at some of the most common formatting choices in WoW media, what makes them less than optimal choices, and who gets it right. The usual WP disclaimer applies; this list is not intended to be absolute or definitive, only a conversation starter.
The vast majority of WoW podcasts, be they audio or video, clock in between 90 minutes and two hours. This is a ghastly formatting choice, for a number of reasons.
The first, and likely most important, is that it is asking for a huge commitment from your audience. You are asking me, the viewer or listener, to spend two hours of my time, my life, listening to you give your take on patch notes, news, and whatever else strikes your fancy that day. Unless you're just breathtakingly fascinating or entertaining, it's probably not worth my time to give you my attention for that long. Most likely though, you're not that interesting, and your take on the issues at hand is just as insipid or predictable as the next ten, twenty, or thirty podcasts who also want two hours of my time.
The next reason for a conservative time format is that it cuts down on waste. When you set a firm limit on your time format, it forces you to cut out anything that doesn't directly contribute to the content of your show. No pauses, distractions, tangents, or otherwise uninteresting information makes it in.
For example, withmany shows I skip past the first 15-20 minutes right off the bat, if only to skip the junk information that I'm not remotely interested in (up to and including who's having trouble connecting to Skype, your car problems, or what your mother's roommate's dog had for lunch that day). If you, as a media producer, are constantly under the threat of a ticking clock, chances are you'll go out of your way to ensure that only quality content makes it into your episode.
The last reason is potentially more subjective, but still important. By the end of each episode of your podcast, I should be eager and excited for the next installment. I should not be tired and bored of hearing your voice. Put simply, you don't want to overstay your welcome. If, at the end of your show, you let out a weary sigh and declare "well, I guess that's all we have this week," that's a sign you probably should have ended your show 10 or 20 minutes ago. Save something for next time! Give me something to look forward to.
Who gets it right: The best example of a conservative time frame is 30 Minute Cooldown. As the name implies, each episode is only 30 minutes long. Sometimes they go a tad longer, but if you're only asking for half an hour, an extra 5 or 8 minutes is not really a problem. ALT:ernative Chat is another example, with each episode clocking in under 15 minutes. It's a complete show of content, with multiple topics, segments, and even musical interludes, yet it still leaves you looking forward to the next episode.
On the less conservative side, you have Convert to Raid, which generally clocks in around 90 minutes. However, it should be noted that their episodes consist of multiple segments, weekly jokes, parody songs, comedy sketches, guests, interviews, and more. It simply doesn't "feel" its length. Keep this in mind when determining what the best length for your show might be.
A good number of WoW shows follow the roundtable panel format made famous by cable news networks (think Meet the Press, or Real Time with Bill Maher). This is my absolute favorite kind of television format, as I will never get tired of 4 people sitting around a table and arguing about stuff. However, the key to getting this right is having a host to moderate the discussion. The moderator has several jobs to do over the course of the show.
The first job of a moderator is what's called "setting the table." This is basically just explaining what you're going to talk about, so the audience is on the same page as you. On political shows, this goes something like "this week congress passed such-and-such law which does blank, X congressman had this to say, and senator Y said this in response. What do you think, panel?" Very simple. Setting the table also includes explaining unclear or insidery language that your guests might use. For instance, if you're hosting a show about raiding and someone mentions that they don't think it's worth using "MS" abilities during the "Execute phase," fill your audience in that he or she is talking about using healing reduction spells when the boss is below 20% health. Again, very simple, but so easy that you just might forget that it's your job as moderator.
The next job a host must perform is that of controlling pacing and rationing of time. Allot yourself, say, 15 minutes to talk about patch notes, 15 minutes to talk about a new feature, and 15 minutes to talk about a recent blue post. As host, it's your job to make sure you're sticking to that time slot, and also to ensure that no one person eats up the entire slot.
Make sure you hear from everyone, not precisely equally, but enough that no one voice dominates your panel. If you have 3 people on, but we're only hearing from one, you're wasting the other two people's time (as well as, in a way, the audience's). Ask probing questions to stimulate the conversation and stifle predictability in the discussion. When the time allotment is over, cut off the discussion as gracefully and charmingly as possible, and force the show to move on to a new topic. Keep the show on track, fair to the participants, and accessible to the audience.
The last and seemingly hardest job for the moderator is to keep your mouth shut when you're supposed to. You're the moderator, not a member of the panel. Ask the questions, get the discussion going, but then sit back and let your guests talk. If you have something to add, feel free to drop it in at the very end, or if the discussion is flat-out struggling. But you bring on guests because you think they have something interesting to say, not because you want a target dummy to talk at. Know when it's appropriate to speak, and when it's your job to sit back and let the discussion happen.
Who gets it right: Gary Gannon and Mike Schaffnit, both on Legendary, do a great job of this. Granted, it's not a roundtable panel show in the traditional sense (the participants are generally the same from week to week), they do an excellent job of setting the table for the audience, controlling the pacing, and allowing the panel to say their piece.
Another good example is Adam and Anafielle from Final Boss. Sometimes murky due to having dual hosts, they do a good job keeping the show focused and on track. It never devolves into "their" show, the guests are always spotlighted and center stage.
Question & Answer
The concept of the advice column goes way back to early newspapers, but it's also a staple of talk radio (think Savage Love or Dr. Laura). This is where members of the audience write in with their questions, and the host answers in a general enough fashion that it applies both to the questioner as well as the audience at large. It's a very common media genre, so it's no wonder that it's made its way to the WoW community.
However, what's often missed is that generally the host offering advice generally has some unique or specialized insight to offer the audience. This can be anything from long personal experience to specialized knowledge or education, or some other professional qualification. This is often what WoW media producers lack, and have no doubt, it will show.
Having lots of romantic partners doesn't automatically translate into you being a qualified sex advice columnist, nor does playing WoW since vanilla translate into you having anything insightful or interesting to say about the game.
For one thing, most WoW questions you see on these shows and websites can be summed up with one of two answers. Either "go to Wowhead" or "I don't know because I don't work for Blizzard." But instead, what you will most often find is that the Q&A format is used as a disguise for either deep narcissism or unacknowledged, plain old passion about the topic.
The narcissists will use their audience as cover for their desire to hear themselves talk. They're not just talking out of their rear, somebody asked them to do this, don't you see? You'll find this most often with the extremely speculative questions. "Dear so-and-so, what do you think the next expansion will be?" Then the media producer will go on at length about something-something-Burning Legion-Emerald-Dream and aren't they so smart? No, again, the correct answer is "I don't know because I don't work for Blizzard."
The more unfortunate counter-part is those with an unacknowledged passion for the game that they feel a desire to mask as Q&A. If you want to talk about WoW, just talk about WoW, don't beg Twitter to ask you stuff. If you want to speculate about the next expansion, just do it. Don't do it under the guise of someone asking you, it's pretentious and, frankly, a little sad.
If you have something to say, just say it.
Who gets it right: The best example of this is WoW Insider's Drama Mamas. They follow the time-tested format of a traditional advice column, and address real problems with useful and insightful advice. Interesting to both the casual reader and the actual person asking for advice.
The second example, because I play favorites and don't you forget it, is Final Boss again. They have a Q&A segment with questions from the audience, but the questions are specifically aimed at their guests, and could only be answered by their guests. For example, on a recent episode featuring two heroic raiding Shadow Priests, one listener asked which shadow priest specific addons they personally use while raiding. Perfect.
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Now that we've looked at some of the most common quirks with the WoW community's media formats, I'd like to put forward a few challenges to all of you current and aspiring media producers.
If your podcast is currently 2 hours long, cut the next episode down to one hour. Compare it to older episodes, and ask yourself if it's better or worse because of the length? Listen to your old episodes and ask yourself which portions you wish you could cut. Then cut them out of your next episode.
If you produce a roundtable show, go and watch one episode of several different televised panel shows. Take notes on what the moderator says and does not say. When does he or she speak? How does he or she control the discussion? Take notes.
And if you do a Q&A type show, for the love of god, make sure none of the questions on your next episode can be answered with either "go to Wowhead" or "I don't know because I don't work for Blizzard."
If you'd like to add to this discussion, leave some feedback, or find out what I think the next playable race in WoW will be, follow me on Twitter or drop me a comment below.