The folks at Apple’s iTunes have chosen The Skeptics Guide 5×5 podcast as one of the top 25 audio podcasts of 2008. As the producer and one of the co-hosts of SGU 5×5, I have not felt this level of pride about something I’ve worked on in quite some time.
It is one set of feelings to be able to play a smaller part of a much greater project, such as our primary podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. That in itself carries a great deal of weight and a great sense of accomplishment. But in the most honest assessment, it is but a mere and limited contribution in the light of what Steven Novella has accomplished as producer, host, and editor of The SGU. To be a part of Steve’s show has been the highlight of my career in skepticism.
About a year ago, when all of us on The SGU were talking about new projects and fresh approaches for 2008, we unanimously decided that we needed to produce a second podcast. It was rather clear and apparent what our new podcast had to be. Just about all of the other top science podcasts in the world, such as those being produced by NASA, National Geographic, Discovery, and Scientific American, had multiple podcasts available, with more on the way. If we were going to try and “keep up with the Jones’” to some extent (at least as much as a small group of friends doing this as a hobby can accomplish), we had to come up with a new show. Fortunately, there were already a few things working in our favor.
Whereas the other top science podcasts had multiple shows, none of them were as long as The SGU. That meant we would need to produce a shorter show. If we had a shorter show to begin with, and tried to come up with a much longer second show, that would have been a big mountain to climb. In addition to show duration working on our side, we did not have to re-invent the wheel. The model for success had already been established with The SGU. We would use the same cast and the same, open, roundtable format. All we had to do was to shrink it down into a “bite-sized” nugget covering a single skeptical topic, and presto, we have a new podcast.
Something else that was determined from the get-go was that Steve had no additional time to produce another podcast. It was incumbent on one of us to take control as the producer and editor of this new show. The combination of my pride in our work with The SGU and our collective desire to keep The SGU moving forward motivated me to volunteer to produce the new show. I would be responsible for coming up with the topics, scheduling the recording time, collecting all the files, and editing the show. All Steve would have to do is give the final stamp of approval and upload the file. I would have a small taste, and an even greater appreciation, for what Steve does every week for an 80 minute show.
Now we needed a title. We agreed that the show should be around five minutes in length, and we had already agreed that the podcast would be the five of us participating on each episode. The moniker ‘five by five’ was a natural fit. It was short, catchy, and had the added bonus of being a phrase used by the dropship pilot, Ferro, in the movie ‘Aliens’ to report that the drop is proceeding as planned. And you know us – we can’t let a perfectly good science-fiction catch phrase go unused. And “five by five” is also another way of saying “a-ok.” It was a perfect fit.
SGU 5×5 started out as a discussion on a weekly news item, much like we do each week on The SGU. After several weeks of following this format, we decided to move a bit laterally and go with more generic topics of discussion, such as discussing the basics of skepticism in our ‘Skepticism-101’ series, or our breakdown and discussion of individual logical fallacies. Given the feedback from our listeners, this slight shift has been a positive adjustment. SGU 5×5 is a favorite amongst teachers in the classrooms. Its five minute format is a good, unencumbered piece to present in a classroom, and it needs no editing for such an environment, as we have produced SGU 5×5 so that it will always be appropriate for all age groups.
SGU 5×5 is a supplement podcast to The SGU. In addition to all the reasons we wanted a second podcast, one thing not to be overlooked is that we wanted SGU 5×5 to also bring in more listeners to The SGU. It was targeted to those who, for whatever reason, did not want, or felt they couldn’t listen to an 80 minute show. I have found SGU 5×5 to be a great means of introducing people to skepticism. When people ask me what I do in skepticism, I tell them to just take 5 minutes of their time and listen to an episode to get a taste. Apparently, this approach has drawn the attention of the folks who run the podcast universe over at iTunes.
Apple’s iTunes is a funny thing. It is without a doubt the center of the podcast universe, rightfully so, as podcasting was born out of Apple’s iPod genesis and genius. About 80 percent of The SGU and SGU 5×5 episodes are downloaded through iTunes. As any producers do, we try to keep track of the statistics and data about our number of downloads, where people are downloading from, and the demographics of the listeners. The SGU is a regular top-10 podcast in the iTunes ‘Science and Medicine’ category. We enjoy a weekly audience of 45,000 listeners, and of all of the excellent skeptic-themed science podcasts that are available, iTunes rates The SGU the highest skpetic-themed podcast on a day-to-day basis. I mention this not to gloat, but rather, to make an honest observation about iTunes.
Back in the summer of this year, iTunes, quite unexpectedly, decided to make SGU 5×5 a feature podcast on the iTunes store cover page. At the same time, SGU 5×5 ranking on iTunes shot up from our regular rating (which hovers roughly between 20 and 40 on any given day) to the #3 position in Science and Medicine. It shot up to #2 for audio-only podcasts in that category, and perhaps the most surprising was that SGU 5×5 was ranked as the #48 podcast of all podcasts, covering ALL genres. For a full week, we were heavily promoted by iTunes, and vaulted to higher positions in the rankings. As much as we were thrilled with the attention and love we received from iTunes for SGU 5×5, it left us scratching our heads a bit wondering why. The SGU download numbers were, and still are, much greater than SGU 5×5. So it wasn’t just a matter of the number of downloads. There seemed to have been a more complicated formula that the folks at iTunes used to determine their rankings.
I fired an email off to iTunes to hopefully begin a dialogue with them, so I could get a better sense of how iTunes works and comes up with their rankings. I did not get a response. But I have come to determine a few things about iTunes over the last several months of paying attention to our activity in their system. First, the number of downloads is probably their leading indicator as to how to rank the podcasts. Scientific American was good enough to share with us some numbers on their downloads, and the numbers seem to correlate accordingly with iTunes rankings. Second, the folks at iTunes have it within their personal judgment to promote whatever they want, whenever they want. If a podcast tickles the fancy of someone at iTunes, that podcast will benefit. Apparently, SGU 5×5 has done just that. Which gets back to my point about the show length and trying to get new people interested in skepticism with a short-n-sweet show to offer them. This formula has definitely struck a cord with some people at iTunes. The combination of their promotion of SGU 5×5 in the summer, along with the honor of being named one of their top 25 audio podcasts in 2008 (not just in Science and Medicine – it is all podcasts in all genres) is an extremely thrilling and humbling validation that we have met one of our primary goals in 2008, with honors. So to those at iTunes that might be reading this blog, thank you so much for the recognition you have bestowed on us.
In addition, to those at iTunes, please understand that if it were not for The SGU and its 45,000+ listeners and the success that we have achieved through these raw numbers, there would probably be no SGU 5×5. As I like to remind people on The SGU, our listeners are what keep us motivated and active in producing more and better content. There is no more appropriate time to remind everyone that, as producer of SGU 5×5, I am pleased to share this accomplishment with all of you. Please take your share of pride in knowing that you have helped make both The SGU and SGU5x5 great podcasting successes.