Ten Years of Down the Road

Why I probably won’t watch your vlog or listen to your podcast – and why I probably won’t create my own

It seems like podcasts and, especially, vlogs (video blogs) are where it’s at. All the cool kids are doing one. Some vloggers and podcasters have become Internet famous!

Will podcasts and vlogs leave traditional blogging in the dust? I worry that I’m out of step that I don’t make my own — and that I don’t follow any.

Well, hardly any. For the right podcast or vlog I will make an exception. I call it the Osgood Exception.

CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING

Charles Osgood. CBS News photo.

During my 1970s kidhood we listened to the radio over breakfast. We always tuned to the station that played middle-of-the-road music and CBS news on the hour. Being a CBS station, they also carried The Osgood File, a little vignette written and read by Charles Osgood. More than 40 years later, he still does four Osgood Files each weekday for CBS Radio. And he even makes them available on the Internet now as podcasts!

It was the perfect podcast before anybody could even conceive of the idea. Each one is a human interest story, crisply and engagingly written. And best of all, each one is short, clocking in at about 1 minute and 45 seconds.

As a kid, my whole family piped down for the 1 minute and 45 seconds it took to listen to an Osgood File. We could pack it into our busy mornings with no problem.

That’s the Osgood Exception: is it interesting and can I listen to it quickly and easily?

I will always prefer to read a blog post — I can do that anywhere. I’m not going to listen to your podcast or watch your vlog in a waiting room or in the can. I don’t want the sound to fill the room and I won’t carry headphones everywhere.

And how much of a time commitment are you asking of me? The shorter the better. I can skim and scan a blog post, but when I launch a podcast or vlog there isn’t any good way to cut to the good stuff. I have to listen through. So deliver the goods fast and I might stick around.

If it’s too long, it becomes like a television program: something I have to schedule time for. For the little time I have for television, the competition is fierce. Your podcast or vlog is going to have to be stunning to make the cut.

So the list of podcasts and vlogs I’m willing to follow is very short. A model podcast, one I do follow, is called Agile in 3 Minutes. (It’s about software development, which is what I do for a living.) See what the podcaster did there? He tells you right away that you need a bite-sized amount of time to listen to his podcast. I can listen to it quickly while cooking breakfast or while taking a quick work break. And it’s easy to listen to as it uses simple language, spoken clearly. That removed pretty much every barrier to me sampling his work, and now I’m hooked.

There’s a vlog I want to like. It’s by a blogger fairly well known in software-development circles who writes unfailingly interesting blog posts. But on his vlog, the stuff I want to hear is interlaced with cut scenes of him walking or driving through his city and interacting with his family at home. And his videos sometimes go on for as long as 10 minutes. I just want him to cut to the chase, tell me what he has to tell me, and end it already! I’m about to unsubscribe.

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I could probably make my own podcast or vlog. A podcast would be easier: I’d need to buy a good microphone. I happen to own audio-editing software already. While my radio voice is rusty, with a little practice it would be fully sonorous again. And I do know how to write for audio, which is different from writing to be read.

Vlogging is another matter. I could do it quick and dirty with my Canon PowerShot S95 on a tripod. The video would be serviceable and the audio would be tinny and include ambient noise, but at least it would be a way to start. But ultimately I’d want to invest in a good camera and microphone.

I could just write a podcast and film myself reading it. That’s all some vlogs are: a talking head. An especially attractive or animated talking head can be interesting. But I’m a reserved middle-aged man; therefore I fit into neither category. So I’d have to do something else creative to make it more than a talking-head vlog, which would require extensive shoots and editing.

All of this would take time away from blogging. Which is what I really want to do. So if I’m to be left behind by popular podcasters and vloggers, I guess that’s how it has to be.

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Stories told, Ten Years of Down the Road

The Electric Breakfast

Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.

Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.

mewmhd1989aI got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.

Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.

Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.

I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.

WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!

mewmhd1989bOur station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.

I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.

I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.

But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.

This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.

I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.

My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.

But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.

I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!

I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

How to attract readers to your blog – and keep them

Even though you’re almost certainly never going to become rich or famous through blogging, with effort and patience you can build a rewarding regular readership, and start to form a community with your readers.

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A masthead image from this blog’s bygone days

I’ve learned a lot about how to do this in my ten years of blogging. Some of it I’ve figured out on my own, and the rest I’ve learned from other successful bloggers.

Titles and opening paragraphs must be crackling good. Your readers follow many other sources of information and entertainment. They probably don’t have time to read everything they follow, so they scan titles looking for stuff that might be interesting. When the title pulls them in, they skim the opening paragraphs to decide whether to read the rest of the post.

As people find themselves regularly drawn into your posts, they often start to think, “This blog posts good stuff, so I’m always going to read it.” That’s the moment a reader becomes regular.

I’m still not as good at titles as I want to be, but I feel like my opening paragraphs are much improved now over just a couple years ago. And it is paying off in terms of views, likes, and comments.

Post regularly, on a schedule if you can. The more often you post, the better your posts rank in searches. And readers come to look forward to your posts. One of my blogging friends posts every Friday morning, for example. When I see his post in my feed, I think, “Oh yeah, Friday morning!” And then I dive in and read. It’s a little weekly dopamine hit.

I don’t publish regularly on my other blog, about software development. The stats reflect it: that blog gets five percent of the views this one does.

Keep your posts short, between 300 and 1000 words. The Internet is a short-attention-span theater, after all. People are more likely to stick with a post when it’s bite sized.

I’ve not always kept to this. Last year, I wrote a post that was over 2,500 words! Because most of my posts are 500-800 words, I hoped you’d all beg my pardon. I was surprised by how many of you read it all the way through and commented.

But when all of your posts are long, people become fatigued. “Ah, another post from that guy. It’s probably gonna be a mile long. No time for that today. Pass.”

Tell stories. Humans are naturally drawn to stories. Using them keeps them engaged with your posts. Even when I’m writing something routine like a camera review, I tell little stories about the places I photograph, or of a triggered memory, or about what’s going on in my life as it relates to the photographs I took. It humanizes the post and makes it interesting even to people who don’t care much about the gear itself.

Write as someone who’s still learning, still growing – except when you’re really an expert, when you should write as an expert. A blog becomes tiresome when the author always comes across as the World’s Foremost Expert. We’re all works in progress here. Let your blog reflect it. You’ll resonate with readers more deeply.

Yet you just might be an authority on some things. When your imperfect humanity comes through elsewhere on your blog, you have air cover to boldly assert the authority you do have. (Like I’m doing in this post.) Your readers will accept it because they aren’t fatigued from it.

In your feed, show your posts’ full text rather than a summary. This might seem counterintuitive – don’t you want people to click through from their feed reader to your blog, to juice your stats? But unless you’re a famous blogger, people won’t hang on your every post. They’re skimming and scanning their feed readers looking for interesting stuff. Making them click through gives them a good reason not to read your posts.

Remove that friction! In WordPress.com, go to yourblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/options-reading.php, click the “Full text” radio button and click Save.

showfulltext

Reply to comments. Leaving even a simple reply lets your reader know that you’re a real person and that you are happy they stopped by. It encourages them to keep coming back.

And for those of you who don’t allow comments at all: what the? I know that on some sites the comments are a cesspool. But on your blog, that’s fully under your control. You’ll get the comment section you cultivate. Cultivate a good one and more readers will become regular.

Include images in your posts. This is a trick more than a technique. But most feed readers show one of your post’s images, which adds interest and encourages people to click through. And when you share your posts on social media, one of the images generally appears as part of the share. It causes the share to take up more real estate, making it harder to miss. And eyes are naturally drawn to good imagery anyway.

This is what I’ve learned so far. One thing I’ve very much enjoyed about blogging is that it has provided endless opportunity to learn. So when I learn more, I’ll share it in future posts!

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Ten Years of Down the Road

Longtime subscribers to this blog: I’m making changes to my subscription services and they might affect you

When this blog was young WordPress didn’t yet offer good options to let you subscribe to my posts. So I turned to Feedburner, which hadn’t even been bought by Google yet, to provide that service. Feedburner gives you an RSS feed for your favorite feed reader, or lets you subscribe by email.

I’ve grown unhappy with Feedburner and am considering getting rid of it. So hang with me through this post, as it could affect you.

A few of you, anyway. My Feedburner stats say that 14 of you use Feedburner’s RSS to follow this blog, and 27 of you get a daily Down the Road email from Feedburner.

I’m sure you have no idea whether you used Feedburner to subscribe to Down the Road. For those of you getting my posts in email, here’s how you can tell. If you subscribed through WordPress, the emails look like this:

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If you subscribed through Feedburner, the emails look more or less like this:

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Here’s why I’m ready to get rid of Feedburner. When I started Down the Road I set all photos to be 500 pixels on the long edge. It made sense because back then we were still using 4:3 CRTs set to as little as 800×600 pixel resolution. But technology has marched on and we’re all rocking widescreen LCD monitors and those 500-pixel images look tiny. So I’ve steadily increased image width, first to 640 pixels, then to 700, and just recently to 1024.

The WordPress email service adapts beautifully, shrinking images to fit your display. Feedburner, however, is stuck in 2008. That’s why the photo in the image above dominates and the text is so small. In your email program, it might even cut off the images. Horrors!

You will have a better experience with the WordPress email service. I’d like to ask you to unsubscribe from the Feedburner service (use the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email) and follow me via WordPress instead. Just use this handy subscription widget:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

(If you see “You are following this blog” above, you need do nothing! You’re already set.)

I’m not sure when or even whether I’ll do away with the Feedburner service. It depends on how many of you actually unsubscribe there and how I feel about that, and how frustrated I remain seeing my own daily Feedburner email with its cut-off images.

Thank you for your kind consideration!

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Ten Years of Down the Road

The whole point of blogging today is to build community

I had dreams of being well known, maybe even famous, when I started this blog. I hoped I’d say things so interesting, even so profound, that my words and pictures would go viral.

We all see how that worked out.

Me at Crown Hill

Not famous.

WordPress says I have about 2,500 followers. But realistically I think that if you read Down the Road at least semi-regularly you number among a couple hundred people worldwide.

There are two ways to look at this.

One: This is a pretty good result. The Internet is cram packed with voices hoping to catch your attention. You have only so much attention to give. I work hard to deliver good work here and an interesting way of looking at life, but so do many thousands of others, many of whom have better skills than me.

Two: This is a terrible return on investment. I spend an average of ten hours a week in front of the WordPress editor to deliver words and photographs to you Monday through Saturday. Those hours come only after the considerable time I spend out with my cameras and just thinking about what I’ll write here. That’s an awful lot of work for, frankly, such a small audience.

But this presupposes that the point of blogging is to reach a very large audience. I think it’s not. At least not anymore. As I’ve written before, the era of hugely popular bloggers ended a long time ago. If you start a blog today, unless you’re already famous for some other reason it’s never going to find a huge readership.

To find blogging satisfaction, you have to redefine the investment.

At Down the Road, you regular readers have become a community. A loose one, anyway — it’s not like Down the Road Appreciation Societies are forming, or all of you are secretly conspiring to fly to Indianapolis to take me out for a beer. (But if you do ever show up here, I prefer whiskey.)

But your interests overlap mine, and what I say and show are interesting enough for you to keep coming back. If you have a blog, too, I check it out sometimes and perhaps even include it in my regular reading list. We have conversation, here and on your blogs. We encourage each other and share our perspectives and even sometimes offer constructive criticism of each others’ work. I am absolutely a better photographer thanks to you. I hope you learn from me as well.

Community. That’s the point and purpose of blogging today. We might search for and never find that kind of community locally; few people around us might share our interests. But the Internet opens us to a much larger portion of the world. With a little effort, even the most esoteric interest can find community online.

I’ve put in that effort over the past decade, sharing my posts on social media and seeking out your work and interacting with you over it. And now here we all are, doing what we do and sharing the results with each other.

I still harbor a faint fantasy of fame. It’s incredibly unlikely ever to happen. But that’s OK, because this community is plenty satisfying. It takes the pressure off — I don’t need to be a guru or go viral. Nor do you. We can relax and just continue to share our mutual journeys of growth and fun.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

So… tell me a little about you

Today I’d like to turn it over to you.

I’d love to know who you are, where you’re from, how you found my blog, and how long you’ve read it. Especially if you’re a new reader or a longtime lurker. Please leave a comment and tell me!

My blog - Down the Road

Also, I’d love to know what topics I’ve covered that you’ve enjoyed, and which ones you skip over. If you’re a longtime reader, have I left any topics behind that you miss?

This is ultimately a personal blog. I can write whatever I want because this doesn’t pay any of my bills. But I also want to be read. The surest way for that not to happen is to ignore my audience!

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