Similarities in art do not always denote theft, but it takes time to find that difference.
As the internet shrinks our world by the minute podcasting as an art form grows exponentially. As my consumption of audio media continues its infinite march onward I find myself constantly wondering a tough question: Is this podcast original?
This weekend I loaded up Magic Folk (a show you should be listening to) to binge-listen during some downtime. Within a few minutes I had fired off several snarky messages to a friend poking fun at the similarities between this new indie podcast and The Adventure Zone. Put simply, this was a dick move and here’s why:
Standing out in a crowd.
If podcasting is a busy train station, the D&D terminal is packed at all hours. There’s hundreds of the derned things out there, all with hundreds of hours of content to consume before one can truly be caught up (so many I got bored of downloading thumbnails to make the above image).
The biggest shows in town owe their continuing existence and growth to the runaway success of The Adventure Zone. There are plenty of big D&D podcasts that have run years longer than the McElroys have been running TAZ, but they were predominantly in their own audience sphere. If you played tabletop gaming and listened to podcasts, you probably listened to D&D podcasts.
Consider Wil Wheaton’s addictive web series Tabletop. There were dozens of people on YouTube reviewing and playing tabletop games before Geek & Sundry launched Tabletop, but Wheaton’s show took that basic formula and used a generous dose of humor, talent, and star power to rejuvenate the tabletop industry almost single-handedly. There are games in comic stores across the U.S. that wouldn’t have been there if Tabletop hadn’t recommended it and enough fans requested it be carried.
Learning to live in a porn’s shadow.
One of the most frustrating things one can say to a podcaster about their show is “Oh, so it’s like ___ .” At least, over time it becomes the most frustrating thing. This comes from a place of experience as I run an erotica comedy review series called The Red Light Library. After a year of kinda-sorta keeping a regular schedule of uploads and occasionally pulling in new listeners from around the internet I’ve come to accept one overall truth: this show will forever be haunted by comparisons to My Dad Wrote a Porno.
This is the result of what
Not that there’s anything wrong with MDWaP, it’s a funny enough show I stumbled across myself after a recommendation on The Jimquisition. An English gentleman discovers his father published a full-length erotic novel and decides to read it line by line with two friends and make fun of the piece. It’s one of the few semi-popular podcasts that features hosts reading pornographic fiction and making comedic quips along the way, so MDWaP is the only reference point a digital person on the street might have when trying to fit the Red Light Library into their existing podcast schema.
Truth be told, there are enough differences in the mission statement between MDWaP and the RLL I could write an entire (insufferably petty) article on said differences. Instead I’ve learned to embrace the fact that MDWaP has created a shorthand between myself and prospective listeners to help them understand the broad strokes of the show.
Now imagine if MDWaP was a much bigger show with hosts that were already famous in the podcasting world before they’d ever stepped up to a mic. They had a two year head start on my show and I would’ve had a huge fanbase who can quote MDWaP chapter and verse on the RLL’s ass from day one.
A Folk Tale
In coming to terms with the idea that my podcast will naturally be compared to bigger shows in the same genre, I’ve also realized this is a two-way street. We as listeners need to learn to take a moment to truly listen. Podcasts, tabletop ones especially, are a long-form audio experience. In the age of Netflix it’s become common knowledge that most good television shows kinda suck in their pilot episode. Very few things that sell the series are nailed down in that first experimental shout into the void. Hell, there are hugely popular series out there today that hardcore fans will happily tell newcomers to skip early seasons in favor of when “it gets good,” (e.g. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Parks and Recreation).
Podcasts deserve the same amount of time investment before passing judgement. I’ve left behind quite a few bad ones in my time, but the commonality between all of the “Like Welcome to Night Vale but…” and “Like Radiolab but…” shows is they were consistently sketchy, even after a healthy grace period.
Yes, the Magic Folk DM kinda sounds like Griffin McElroy during his more dramatic narrative moments. Yes, the phrase “You solved my ___ puzzle” was used. But herein lies the difference. Magic Folk is a podcast of people who love The Adventure Zone wanting to go off on their own adventure, not a group of people simply trying to capitalize on TAZ’s success and temporary vacation away from traditional Fantasyland D&D structure.
The party has a completely different dynamic to TAZ, the story (that we know of) has nothing in common with the Balance arc, it’s a bunch of good friends having fun and making a fun piece of entertainment in the process. I don’t subscribe to the idea of having one favorite podcast, but the best compliment I can give Magic Folk is I dug out my broke-ass headphones to continue listening to their holiday special while running into Wal-Mart to grab food after a long day at work last night.
It had been a long day. I’d woken up to a car with a check engine light and a five hour shift at work that meant my significant other would have to walk to work in the show and ice. I felt like shit. Even after the check engine light was taken care of, other life stuff was keeping me grounded all through my shift until I decided to pop on some Magic Folk for a more positive podcasting experience. Then I arrived at Wal-Mart to spend the last of my paycheck on a late dinner of frozen pizza, listening to this podcast.
My headphones are near the end of their operational lifespan, only the left one works right and that’s only if I put my phone at the right angle in a pocket higher up on my body than the normal pants pocket. Yet I still did it, smiling like an idiot in the frozen food session as a druid turned into a cat and attacked a fantasy Christmas tree.
I wouldn’t have gotten that moment if I’d made the choice to continue being that asshole judging a podcast from jump street. I might not have gotten the choice to not be that asshole if this group of people I’ve never met before hadn’t listened to and been inspired by another podcast made by people I’ve never met.
Bland imitation does exist in the podcast world, and always will, but don’t let it get in the way of finding those bright moments of inspiration.