5 tips for managing your media consumption

It pays to be deliberate about your media consumption

One of the best things about being a creator, other than the standing invitation to Ira Glass’s après-ski parties, is that watching, reading, and listening to stuff you enjoy is part of the job description. 

What’s leisure time to everyone else is market research for you: you need to know what other creators are doing, especially in your medium and category, to make sure your content stays fresh and original. It also fills your creative well, inspiring and encouraging you to try new things, to be more bold and creative.   

But no matter how stimulating it may be, how passionate you are about your craft, keeping up with the relentless flow of content out there can start to feel like just another burden. 

It pays to be deliberate about media consumption — and to tailor your media diet. We talked to a couple of accomplished podcasters about how they manage it; their insights are just as relevant for video creators and anybody who’s serious about creating good content. 

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Know what’s out there

The only way to be sure you’re doing something differently from everyone else is to know what everyone else is doing. That can be overwhelming if you’re creating content in a crowded space (are there any uncrowded spaces left?).

Jackson Musker is a novelist, podcast producer and publicist; he also created and wrote the fictional show The Sea in the Sky. His work requires him to really know the lay of the land for himself and his clients. That means keeping up with what’s current without feeling obligated to listen to every episode of every show. “I hop around,” Jackson admits, “based on which guests I like, or what's exciting me. How are other people talking about a particular topic?”

In order to create a “sampler platter” of the latest podcasts, Jackson relies on newsletters like Nick Quah’s 1.5x Speed and Lauren Passell’s Podcast: The Newsletter. “I lean on curators to be like, this is worth my time,” he says. “I'll flag three things that [Lauren has] mentioned out of, you know, 15 on her list.Those are the ones I'm gonna listen to when I'm driving to basketball on a Saturday.”

Expand your horizons

Some of the best places to look for inspiration are outside your chosen medium. When Molly Lambert and her podcast co-hosts Tess Lynch and Emily Yoshida got together to make the now-defunct chat show Night Call, terrestrial radio was a big influence. “We talked about Art Bell's show Coast To Coast AM a lot,” she says. “We wanted a show you could listen to on long drives through the middle of nowhere.”

And Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” helped her imagine how to make her most recent project, Heidi World, a deeply-researched audio drama about the life and times of notorious Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. The podcast includes an ensemble of performers acting as Heidi and her contemporaries, an approach that overlaps with Welles’ historic audio drama.

But Molly also looks beyond audio altogether when she’s thinking about these stories. “As I got into the story of the Fleiss family, I felt it was like a Russian novel about class and sex and other timeless issues,” she says. Trying to fit the digressive sprawl of a Russian novel into a stricter format– say, the beat-sheets of a television script– would have been a daunting task, but the flexibility of podcasting could accommodate the richly layered world she wanted her listeners to enter. And plus for which, she didn’t have to worry about casting lookalikes; in this case, it was all about evoking a world without needing to paint it exactly.  “Podcastingl a little bit of a Wild West, which is exciting because you can take risks creatively,” Molly says.

Figure out what you like and why

When you hear (or read, or see) something you love, ask yourself: why is this working for me? And how could that element translate into what I want to make?

Sometimes, the answer is obvious: War of the Worlds helped Molly solve a technical problem. The story she wanted to tell had a ton of characters to keep track of. If she gave each of them their own voice — in this case literally — it would add texture and humor to the show while also helping the audience remember who was who.

But sometimes the translation process is a bit more complex. For instance, Jackson uses the freeform structural possibilities of podcasting to remind himself to take risks when he writes his novels. A moment he draws on often comes from a show called The Shadows, which was created by Kaitlin Prest.

The Shadows is a fictional show that focuses on a single relationship, but with about half the episodes told from one partner’s perspective and half from the other’s. In the middle, there’s an episode told from a neutral perspective — that of…a sweater.

“It's just this total curve ball that you don't expect, that I absolutely loved,” Jackson says. “The sweater has its own voice, its own biases. It was that moment where I was like, you can do whatever you want in pretty much any medium. And now in any project I do, I ask, what’s the sweater perspective moment?”

That moment doesn’t have to be about shifting point of view, specifically — just about “smacking someone upside the head” and surprising them with a smart, exciting creative choice that brings a new dimension to the story.

Confront your imposter syndrome

Sometimes, listening to other people’s stuff can be more depressing than inspiring. You start to get in your head about how everything’s already been done, and by people who are more talented and better funded than you.

Both Molly and Jackson encourage you to ignore those feelings when they crop up. They happen to everyone; they don’t necessarily mean anything. They’re just part of the process of trying to make stuff.

“You have to be careful comparing your work to other people's, because there's so much stuff out there,” Molly says.

And be wary of the temptation to imitate other content just because it’s popular.  

“Trying to guess what will hit seems like a bad way to make art generally,” Molly says. Instead, she focuses on making something that feels important and interesting to her, and letting the audience find her — or not.

Molly has been on both sides of that wall. She’s created things that she thought would be hits, but they bombed. She’s been filled with doubt about projects that turned out to be hits. “While making Heidi World I was nervous that nobody would care about it, and I was pleasantly surprised anyone did,” she says. “So I think you just have to follow your muse and hope for the best.”

Jackson sees a close connection between competition and inspiration. Feeling a little envious because someone else’s content is so good can fuel you if you channel it right. “I want to do what they did, but in a different way,” he says. “That makes me excited to keep working on my project.”

Don’t treat it all like work

The hardest thing about being a creator is that it turns a thing you love into a thing you do on a schedule, and (if you’re lucky) for a living, which can flatten it a little bit. So as much as it’s important to consume other people’s content as part of your job, sometimes you also need to treat it like other people do, as art to be savored and enjoyed.

Molly loves to go to bookstores and browse the shelves instead of heading in with a specific plan for herself. “I think browsing is important because that's how you really figure out what sparks your interest,” she says.

For Jackson, it’s crucial to let himself have a few shows that he listens to whether or not they’re “relevant” to his work. For instance, he never misses an episode of Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight. There are no specific lessons he takes away from it — just the joy of listening to something beautiful.

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