Interview: Digg founder Rose talks podcasting

Digg.com came into its own in 2005, practically exemplifying the Web 2.0 with its user-defined content and categories, and integration with popular blogging applications like Blogger, Typepad and WordPress. The weblog-style site relies on member-submitted entries, similar to Metafilter, Slashdot and other group weblogs. Yet it takes the traditional group weblog concept a step further by letting its users define which stories are prominently featured. Digg users sort through entries each day and vote, or “digg,” for the submissions they like best. The entries with the most diggs are then featured on the site’s front page.

Every week, Digg founder Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, both TechTV veterans, put out the Diggnation podcast, highlighting the best stories of the previous week while they crack jokes and drink beer. It’s one of the most popular podcasts on the iTunes Music Store, and was an early podcast to offer video as well as audio. Playlist spoke with Kevin Rose about the Diggnation podcast.

Playlist: How did the Diggnation podcast begin, and how did it grow out of Digg.com?

Kevin Rose: I initially started Digg as a personal project of mine in December of 2004. Everything you see on Digg is actually submitted by individuals, and then the masses come to Digg and “digg” the articles, and if it receives enough diggs it appears on the homepage. We were receiving thousands of story submissions a week and we decided, ‘hey, we have all this great content, why not run some of it and create a podcast around it, run the best of the weekly Digg.com stories?’

Playlist: Do you have idea how many subscribers you’ve got, how many of those Digg users are also Diggnation listeners and viewers? And is there a different audience for the two?

Rose: There’s definitely a big portion of the Digg user base that listens to the podcast. As far as actual numbers that come to Digg, we have about a half-million unique visitors a day that come to the Digg.com site. As far as the listeners of the podcast each week we receive about 130,000-140,000 downloads.

Playlist: Do you have any idea if those are the same folks who are Digg users?

Rose: Oh, definitely, without a doubt. We launched the podcast on Digg itself, put an announcement on there. We have a link on Digg on the right-hand corner that this is the official Digg podcast. So, yes. It’s the same fan base. We get a lot of people who are really into the podcast, because every single story that we mention on the podcast actually highlights the user that submitted it. So we’ll say this user submitted this story to this category on Digg. So you’ll even see on Digg itself, people will comment, ‘oh, this is a great story, I hope we see it on Diggnation,’ under particular stories they want to see on the podcast.

Playlist: I’m glad you brought that up, actually. I wanted to ask you how essential the users are to Diggnation. Do you consider them a part of the podcast?

Rose: Oh, without a doubt. There’s not a single story that we choose that’s our own, we take just the stories submitted by the users. We couldn’t do it without them; they’re the ones writing the stories. We read verbatim their exact title and description of the story. Yeah, it’s very key. (laughs) It’s our source material!

Playlist: I think you have 30 episodes online right now.

Rose: Yeah, we just finished shooting 31 yesterday.

Playlist: And you’ve done these from all over the world, what have been some of your favorite episodes, and some of your favorite places to broadcast from?

Rose: Japan was a lot of fun for me, because I’d never been there before and we had a really good time going out into Japan and shooting there, it’s just amazing. But we shot from Japan, Las Vegas, we’re shooting from a Tahoe ski resort where we’re inviting all the fans to come out and go skiing and snowboarding with us as we shoot an episode of Diggnation.

We try, every couple of months, to pick some place where all the fans can come out and watch us do the show. We’ve done it in strange places, like a design conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We go all over the place. We try and at least travel between the coasts and try to find our fans and let them come out and have a good time with us, and drink some beer.

Playlist: Now you came out of the traditional world of broadcast TV. What’s different about producing a show for the Internet than from cable or a more traditional broadcast outlet?

Rose: Oh, it’s a world of difference. Like you said, for the last three and a half years, I hosted a show on TechTV [now G4] called The Screensavers. On Revision3, the parent company of Diggnation, we do a bunch of different podcasts and vidcasts. We do a technology variety kind of how-to show called Systm. We’re launching a new cooking show in the next couple of months called Control-Alt-Chicken. We’ve got a little computer hacking show we do called The Broken. So we have a bunch of different projects.

But it’s a complete shift for me coming out of the traditional media. When you’re working on a television show you have an executive producer, and four or five show producers, and a series producer, and so you have this huge group of people you have to answer to who provide direction and all have input into what you’re doing. When you’re doing your own personal vidcast or podcast you have complete control over it. It’s just a handful, a couple of people, instead of fifteen or twenty.

Playlist: How many people actually work on the Diggnation podcast aside from the two hosts, is there a behind the camera production side we’re not seeing there, or is it just the two of you putting it together yourselves?

Rose: Revision3 has, I believe, six or seven employees now. There’s the two hosts, myself and Alex Albrecht, Keith Harrison, the cameraman and editor, who by the way does all his editing on his Mac, which is good, and someone who handles ad sales for us, David Prager, who does all the ads for the show.

Playlist: That’s still pretty small.

Rose: Oh yeah, without a doubt. The nice thing is, we go down, and Alex and I have complete control over the direction of what we want to do. It’s so much easier, and it’s a lot quicker to turn out shows. When you’re talking traditional TV, it takes weeks of planning. Here with Diggnation we can do it day-of. We can decide to shoot at a remote location at a moment’s notice. It makes it really easy for us to be nimble and move around. If there’s a conference that’s out of town, we can fly down there, shoot a piece and have it edited and compressed and posted online in two days, max.

Playlist: It looks like you guys are having fun—you’re sitting there with your laptops, drinking beer, joking around—and it seems like you’re adlibbing. But I assume there’s more to that than meets the eye. What goes into planning an episode? Or is it just, ‘hey, we want to go here, and these are the top stories, and we’ll figure it out as we go along?’

Rose: What we do is, half-an-hour or forty-five minutes before we shoot the show, we sit down and select the stories. We copy them down so we can read them, put them in a list and then we just go for it. Crack open a couple of beers and just have a good time. It’s not scripted at all. The only thing we actually read from are the titles and descriptions submitted by the users. And then everything else is just our own personal take. But you know Alex and I, we worked with each other, we hosted the show together on TechTV, and we’re really comfortable with each other. We know which stories we’ll play off best with, and which stories we can have a lot of fun with. You know, it’s really not that complex (laughs) I wish I could tell you that there was more to it but it’s really just a couple of guys sitting down having a good time with beers.

Playlist: But you do have a pretty slick production process—are you guys doing 5.1 surround now, is that right?

Rose: We did do a couple of episodes. We went down to Dolby—that was actually another episode that I forgot was a lot of fun—we went to Dolby labs, a buddy of mine runs their consumer electronics division. He hooked us up with the ability to broadcast in Dolby 5.1. We were the first podcast to actually put out a downloadable file in 5.1 that didn’t require any third-party software—which was pretty amazing—just using Dolby technology.

Playlist: Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of hardware you use and what kind of software you use for editing?

Rose: We shoot on a Panasonic [AG-DVX] 100A DV cam, which is a great little 24P cam. That’s how we capture all of our video and audio, we don’t use any other recording devices. It’s all captured onto MiniDV tape and we use a couple of wireless Sennheiser mics to record all of that. Once that’s done, Keith will plug it into the G5 and capture it in Final Cut and go to town.

Everything’s done in Final Cut, we export the MP3 and do all the compression on the G5. Actually, we kick out the H.264 versions on the G5, but we send out a raw uncompressed file that goes into a Linux box, that basically we run a script on and it will compress all the other variations, XviD or whatever you want to output to other than H.264.

Playlist: How many versions of each episode do you put online?

Rose: It depends. Right now we’ve kind of scaled back to just an MP3 file for the audio and H.264 for the video and XviD. But some of our other shows, like Systm, and other things we’re releasing we do in the open source Theora format, XviD, H.264, Windows Media and also DivX.

Playlist: And are you still distributing those through BitTorrent, or is it all through iTunes now, or how does that work?

Rose: We do a combination of both. We give users the ability to come to the site and download through BitTorrent, or subscribe through iTunes and get it that way.

Playlist: Or I assume Odeo, or whatever their application of choice is?

Rose: Yeah, exactly, we run our feed through FeedBurner and then that will pretty much work with any of those third-party sites, Odeo, PodNova, you can stream it or play it directly in your browser.

Playlist: Can you tell me a little about podcasting or vidcasting in general? Are there other shows out there that you keep your eye on that you like?

Rose: Without a doubt. The strange thing is, when we started off we thought this will be fun, this will be a great little podcast. But it turned out that now we actually receive more subscribers to the video version than we do the audio. And we saw a huge jump when they released the iPod video. Within the first week of them being available people were searching for the keyword ‘video’ in the [iTunes] music store under podcasts, I guess, and obviously ours has that in the title. We received this huge jump in subscribers, and now we have more video subscribers than we do audio. It’s been a really crazy transition for us to focus more on the video side, and adding elements to make the video a little snazzier.

But as far as other vidcasts out there, there are a bunch of good ones. Tiki Bar TV is a really good one. There’s another funny one just released here a couple of weeks ago called Ask a Ninja. You’re seeing a lot of homebrew little projects that are very well done.

Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.

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