Our blog series on the specialty-coffee industry’s most innovative podcasts continues. Next up: Coffee Geek by Mark Prince
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
In 1997, when you could count the number of speciality roasters on your fingers, a photographer named Mark Prince started writing about coffee on a page on his website. Noticing that there wasn’t a ton of information about coffee online, Mark started sharing his passion and assumed not many people would notice. Quickly, however, he found an audience and began coffeegeek.com, one of the first and most comprehensive websites for home enthusiasts all over the world.
In 2005, Mark, who serves as the Senior Editor of the website, started a podcast to explore topics and ideas relevant to expert baristas and home fanatics alike. Mark has been the primary voice of the CoffeeGeek website for over 10 years, and in our second installment of the Coffee Podcast series, we talk to one of the first coffee podcasters out there about what got him started, his favorite episodes, and the future of coffee podcasting.
Ashley: You started your podcast in 2005. What made you want to start a podcast? How were baristas finding information about coffee at that time?
Mark Prince: I remember first thinking about recording a podcast after I did a series of radio interviews in Vancouver and also for a Toronto radio station in 2004. At that time, I was into the early pioneers of podcasting, like Adam Curry and the TWiT (This Week in Tech) podcast with Leo Laporte, and I thought it might be a good idea to do a coffee centric podcast, because at that time, nothing existed in the podcast realm about coffee. I’m a serious procrastinator though, and while I had plans and thoughts through late 2004 and early 2005, I got a kick in the butt when I heard that Nick Cho was planning on doing a podcast, for coffee professionals.
My audience on CoffeeGeek at the time — and probably similar to today– was about 75% consumer coffee drinkers, the rest made up by pro baristas, cafe owners, roasters and farmers. I knew that even if Cho went ahead with his plans, we wouldn’t be in direct competition because my focus would always be on the consumers of specialty coffee first. As I recall things, by the time Cho had his first podcasts up, I was in the very late stages of learning audio recording and getting equipment I needed to do my first podcasts, and the first CoffeeGeek podcast came out a few weeks later.
As for the way baristas and others were getting information; at that time, there were few resources still: CoffeeGeek had its forums which had a sizable percentage of pro barista discussions, but also forums like Coffeed were starting up as a space for more pro-centric discussions. And it’s important to note, YouTube didn’t exist until the spring of 2005! There were other venues for video at the time but they were janky and floppy for lack of a better term. Podcasts were like an explosion of a new way to get audio into many earbuds back in 2005. It was cutting edge stuff, and I wanted in on that cutting edge, using it as yet another tool to educate coffee lovers.
Ashley: Where were you professionally at this point? How far along was the CoffeeGeek site? How did you envision the blog and the podcast fitting into the current dialogue of coffee knowledge?
Mark: Me personally, I had gone through a few years of training in various coffee disciplines with the SCAA, I was a SCAA board member, and I was a fully certified WBC judge for both sensory and technical. I was also beginning to host my own events — very informal still — in Vancouver for coffee consumers, to learn, discuss, and taste good coffee. CoffeeGeek.com in 2005 had passed 1 million visitors a month. It was still under 4 years old by that point, but we had about 65,000 members signed on, and back then, a lot more people writing and working on the website. We even did our first video work in 2005, and podcasting was another tool in our arsenal to be what the website always wanted to be – a community oriented website for coffee consumers and professionals to learn, discuss, teach and debate the finer points of specialty coffee, without any kind of agenda behind what we did.
Ashley: What sort of planning went into your podcast? Was it initially popular?
Mark: The very first thing that surprised the heck out of me was just how popular the early episodes were, and that came at a financial cost! We’re so used to moving gigabytes of data today with little concern thanks to things like cloud hosting and the like, but back in 2005, if I recorded a 1 hour podcast, that meant I had 35 megabytes of mp3 data on CoffeeGeek’s servers. If that one hour podcast is downloaded 100 times, that was 3.5 gigabytes of traffic. 1000 times? that’s 35 gigabytes of traffic. As I remember it, by my fifth episode, I was averaging about 5,000 downloads per episode, and it absolutely blew the roof off our servers’ traffic limits. I remember those first five episodes cost me about $3,500 in extra web traffic costs I had to pay to our hosts.
Recording remote conversations was a nightmare too. Skype existed then, but it was impossible to record skype calls at that time. I actually resorted to buying a suction mike for my cell phone. I’d attach it physically to the back of my cell phone and record conversations I had via the phone, with our early guests on the podcast. The suction mike would plug into my computer’s line in or microphone jack, and I’d record it in a .wav format for further editing.
As for early planning, I know I wanted to talk to some luminaries in coffee, to introduce them to the broader world of the specialty coffee lover. I wanted to make sure newbies felt at home and comfortable with the podcast, and that we tried to avoid too much insider talk and jargon that would confuse consumers wanting to learn about better coffee.
Ashley: What were the first few podcast like to produce? How would you describe the format of your podcast?
Mark: I tried to mimic my experiences I had on traditional radio as much as possible with the early podcasts. When I could have “in studio” guests (my studio was my dining room early on!), I would, otherwise I got creative with recording remote conversations. I considered doing remotes, and may have done one or two remote recorded podcasts, but I was never a formula I was comfortable with, so I stopped considering that style.
I liked the idea of having newbies on the show too. One of my favourite podcasts I ever did was when I had my own Dad on the show, as he was visiting me out west from Ontario. My Dad was famous for calling out coffee snobs who loved to brag about things like blueberries in their coffee. His saying was “if I want blueberries in my coffee, I’ll put blueberries in my damned coffee!”
Ashley: You and Nick Cho started your podcasts around the same time–was there ever a ‘friendly’ competition between you guys? How would you describe the differences between what you were trying to do and what he (or other podcasts that came later) were doing?
Mark: Nick Cho’s podcast was always going to be for professionals. I remember he and I talked about this before he launched his podcast publicly, so I saw no real conflict between his plans and my own. The style of the two podcasts was radically different too; Cho’s was more topical, news and gossip specifically for the industry, and mine was always education forward for the coffee loving public.
We actually did a collaboration podcast once too; recorded very live and unscripted, well past midnight sitting in a square, or piazza in Florence Italy. We did an hour recording for my podcast, then switched over to Cho’s style for the second hour, which he posted as a Portafilter podcast. I think those came out in 2006.
I will say that Nick Cho seems a guy who loves competition and rivalries a bit; In behind the scenes, there was a bit of friendly baiting from him towards me, but I rarely reached for the hook. I do vividly recall though that Cho also got into it with a few other up and coming coffee centric podcasters, like the guys from DoubleShotCoffee Company and their podcast. I really tried hard to stay out of all of that, and for the most part, did.
Ashley: Do you have favorite episodes or moments? A favorite person to interview? A episode that you were proud to make?
Mark: My personal favourite podcast is the one I did with my Dad, especially since he is gone now; I think it’s Episode 46. It’s also a favourite because I had a great interview with Tom Owen from Sweet Marias in that same podcast.
But I count myself as really lucky to have had George Howell as a guest on a few episodes, and people like James Hoffmann before he was the WBC champion, and many others.
The episodes I’m most proud of are the History podcasts — the two I did on siphon coffee brewers, and the one I did on espresso. I should note two more episodes on the history of espresso are coming. I’m proud of them because a lot of research, some of if actual physical research done in places like Milan, Florence, Seattle, Portland and other places, went into those episodes. For the siphon one, I spent about a month pouring through old patent records and using LexisNexus as well as acquiring pretty much every single book ever written on siphon coffee makers.
Ashley: How did your podcast evolve and change? Do you see your podcast changing as a response or a reflection of how the coffee industry was changing? What do you think, looking back on the old episodes, of the first iteration of the podcast (after stopping and starting)
Mark: My podcast recording quality certainly improved quite a bit, and I owe a lot of that to a fellow who’s fairly senior at Samson Tech, a professional mixing board and microphone company. He was a fan of my early podcasts but coudn’t stand the recording quality, so he actually gifted me well over $3,000 worth of Samson-brand recording equipment and mixing boards. I’m still grateful to this day.
As for editing and mixing of the podcasts, I shifted over to using Garageband on my Apple computer when that first came out, and that eased the recording job quite a bit.
As for the content’s evolution, early on I tried to match a mix of what our site’s traffic was: to do about 50-75% consumer oriented content, and about 25% professional content. I also used to cover the barista competitions quite a bit more in the ‘aughts because no one else was doing it on a website at that time, so there’s a lot of podcasts where I interview champions and top six finishers from various regionals and nationals around the US and Canada and the rest of the world, but I always did these interviews with an idea that I was introducing these champions to the coffee loving consumer, not to other baristas or professionals.
As we moved into 2010, 2011, and so on, so much other media was taking over, including Youtube and things like U-Stream, I tried to move to those venues more and neglected the podcast somewhat, to my detriment. I don’t like doing video, I don’t have the patience for it, but I took a stab anyway. One thing I did a lot of in 2010 and 2011 was live streaming events from my CoffeeGeek Lab, but since I didn’t really know what I was doing, a lot of that content is lost forever now.
The podcast faded and it’s all on me; I stretched myself far too thin between all the things I was doing in coffee, from photographing it to managing the CoffeeGeek website, to running the CoffeeGeek Lab, to doing other types of social and multi media. The numbers never really collapsed on the podcast in terms of downloads and listeners; by 2011, each new episode was still getting about 25,000 downloads in the first month; I failed the podcast myself because of being stretched too thin.
I can say that not a week goes by when someone asked me “so when is the next podcast”. I got this from 2010 onto this past year. I get the question all the time on Twitter, on Facebook, on our Google+ page, in the emails I get from site members. I remember wanting to really revive the podcast last fall, so when I got the next question from someone, “hey man, whatever happened to the podcast?” I responded, “It’s coming back this winter.”
I published the first new CoffeeGeek Podcast since 2011, and I really do plan on doing at least a half dozen episodes or more per year. I’d like to do one a month, if I could.
I’m kind of blown away again by the traffic the new episodes garnered. I honestly expected maybe 500 downloads, max, but each of them have been downloaded over 15,000 times since publication, and most of those downloads were in the first few weeks. There’s obviously still a demand, and it’s bad on me that I’m not meeting that demand.
Ashley: Almost every podcast about coffee has ended–and abruptly. Why do you think that’s happened? Why did yours end and why did you bring it back? What do you think the future looks like for your podcast?
Mark: Here’s the thing: Podcasting ain’t easy. Especially if you set lofty standards for yourself. Some people will just put up a “live to air podcast” with little or no post processing. That’s never been my style, be it with the written word, with photography, or with podcasts. In my mind, the product being put out has to be fluid, consistent and as professional as possible.
So to record a 1 hour podcast, I would put in about 10-15 hours of work in researching, lining up interviews, and editing, the latter I really I loathe doing, but need to do. I’m sure others can do it faster and more smoothly but when it comes to audio recording and editing, I’m a rank amateur, but I won’t put out a substandard product.
Over the years, I have literally dozens and dozens of hours of recorded interviews and podcast segments that have never seen the light of day because I just wasn’t happy with the audio quality.
Right now, I’m sitting on about 2 hours of awesome interview with one of the chief people at Breville, and we talk about everything and anything that goes into the design, manufacturing and marketing of consumer coffee machines. But it took me almost 9 hours just to edit that interview down into something that is usable in a 1 hour podcast, and I still have to record my intro and middle segments.
Also there’s another thing to consider: Being paid. In my mind, there’s only three types of podcasts. The fully amateur podcast done by someone who has a passion for their topic. Then there’s the advanced amateur, or “prosumer” style podcast that has become popular enough to garner an advertiser or two to cover the basic bills and maybe give the podcast creator a tiny financial incentive to keep pumping them out. Then there’s the full blown commercial-supported podcasts that are someone’s full time job.
No matter how passionate the amateur is, eventually they’ll get burned out on producing a podcast. The advanced amateur — and that’s the category I put my own podcast in — will also eventually get burned out. I never tried to monetize the CoffeeGeek podcast, because I felt it would cheapen the podcast and make me too beholden to the advertisers. We did have some sponsorship of various podcast episodes, but that sponsorship barely covered the hosting costs for the show.
The Pros? Well this is their job, how they pay their mortgage. Of course they’re going to bang out a podcast to a regular schedule, because if they don’t, well, there goes their rent, their food, their income.
Ashley: What podcasts do you listen to, coffee and otherwise?
Mark: In my current RSS feed for podcasts I have a lot of shows from the CBC and the BBC, their weekly serials stuff, including Vinyl Cafe stories, Quirks and Quarks, and The Current. I followed a few photography podcasts but many of them are gone now, the one I miss the most is Chase Jarvis’ video and audio podcast.
Ashley: If you were to tune into a coffee podcast now, what would you hope for the hosts to talk about? What do you think the point is–should we use it as a platform to share information with members of our industry or should it be a way to make coffee more accessible and transparent?
Mark: When I decided to bring back the CoffeeGeek Podcast, I tried to go for a new formula of three segments in the show: an introduction, a topic of the day, and an interview. I’m not sure any longer if that segment style works for what I want to do, and I’m considering other options now.
That said, I’ve always liked the concept of “entertaining educational” for podcasts. These are the podcasts I always appreciate the most, be it about coffee or about any other subject someone is passionate about. I’m not a big fan of conversational podcasts, unless I know the people directly in the podcast. It seems a lot of the coffee podcasts between 2008 and today that have come and gone were more the conversational types, with a lot of insider, “in the clique” type talk.
I know Chris Baca and Jared Truby have just recently started up a new podcast, which I have high hopes for since those guys are definitely some of the most beloved guys in the specialty coffee scene. Three episodes have come out, and it seems so far that they’re leaning towards the conversational type of podcast, which is great for the professional industry, but doesn’t have the potential to break out into the greater specialty coffee loving world. It’s still early days for those guys and I’m quite excited they’re doing it, and I bet they’ll learn and evolve the podcast to expand their reach.
The podcast is still a very powerful tool to reach people. I know the majority of CoffeeGeek’s podcast listeners would use it as their audio for their morning commute into work, be it by train, bus or car. I had their engaged attention for a long, long time, and in this day and age of 140 character soundbytes and tiny attention spans, that’s some pretty powerful shit. But to keep and maintain that attention, you have to be interesting, you have to be engaging, and you have to appeal to a wide variety of people across the spectrum of passion you’re covering with your podcast.
I never felt I was doing that good enough, which is another of the many reasons I let the CoffeeGeek Podcast languish. For every 20 complimentary comments I’d get on the podcast, I’d get one bit of hate mail, or annoyed mail, and while normally I can brush that stuff off, when it came to the podcast, it cut to the bone because inside my own mind, I felt I wasn’t doing it good enough. The issue is, do you let the genuine constructive criticism you get make you better, or discourage you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco.