Press Pass: Wasting Time With Robert Ashley of "A Life Well Wasted"
Head on over to the iTunes Podcast directory and search for "video games." Pick one podcast at random. Ninety-nine times out of 100, that podcast will adhere to a certain standard format: a bunch of videogame fans sitting around a microphone and rambling about videogames. Likely they'll talk about what's in the news that day or week, review games they've been playing recently, and maybe answer some letters from readers. If you're lucky, they may talk to a game developer or touch lightly on some larger themes surrounding gaming culture or the industry. If you're really lucky, they'll avoid the kinds of inside jokes and rambling asides that make most gaming podcasts hours-long bores.
But if you're extremely lucky, that videogame podcast you picked out at the beginning will be the one in 100 that doesn't fit the standard formula. If you're that lucky, you've probably stumbled upon Robert Ashley's "A Life Well Wasted." (ALWW)
More than just a gaming podcast, ALWW is, as the tagline puts it, "an Internet radio show about videogames and the people who love them." Rather than just jawing about whatever comes to mind with other game journalists, Ashley actually tracks down and and interviews gamers inside and outside the industry, on subjects ranging from game journalism to game preservation, independent development to fan fiction, hardware hacking to cosplay. Ashley then snips the best parts from the interviews and cuts them together with music from his band, I Come to Shanghai. The result is a roughly hour-long audio story that resembles public radio shows like "This American Life" or "Radiolab" more than other gaming podcasts.
I'm relatively sure that Robert Ashley does not usually work in the middle of a graveyard.
"The idea is to focus on the people, the human aspects of the gaming scene," Ashley said in an interview with Press Pass. "There are a lot of people out there for whom gaming is something that almost defines them, in the same way there are people out there for whom music really defines them, or cooking, or watching certain television shows. Gaming is everything to some people, and that's really interesting to me."
Ashley said he first got the idea for a different kind of gaming podcast while working as a regular freelancer for Ziff Davis. "I started going on all those podcasts at Ziff Davis and realizing people were downloading these two-hour long conversations with people just randomly mouthing off about things and seeming to enjoy it. I thought people might be into a real radio show," he said. But Ashley's responsibilities as a freelancer prevented him from giving the idea the attention it required until this year. "It was definitely when Ziff shut down and sold to UGO and shut their last magazine that I really got the fire lit under me to do it," he said." I definitely prefer what I'm doing now to what I was doing a year ago."
While ALWW takes gaming lifestyle and culture seriously, Ashley said he's careful not to let the show become overly serious, a feeling he says is reflected in the show's somewhat jokey title. "I don't know if everyone feels this way, but a lot of people who are into gaming who I know, that are creeping toward middle age, can start to feel a little weird about their gaming habits," he said. "I think to acknowledge gaming as a serious subject is a little bit of a waste of time -- even though I take it really seriously in the show, I think you have to be a little playful with it and not pretend you're studying the Bible or something."
The balance seems to be just right for many gamers. Since its launch, ALWW has garnered glowing reviews from around the industry and attracted 30- to 40,000 downloads each for the first four episodes, Ashley said. "You can't overestimate the power of the gaming audience as far as overall numbers," he said. "The kind of presence gamers have on the Internet compared to real life... In real life, gaming is like a weird little store in the mall that teenagers go to, but on the Internet gaming is in the center. [On the Internet] gaming could be like half of New York City; it's so active and there's so much community around it that things get popped around more than a lot of other culture stuff."
But Ashley also hopes that ALWW will appeal to people who aren't already completely immersed in the world of gaming. "I do consciously try to leave the show open to people who are not familiar with games," he said. "I can pretty easily hit all the serious gaming sites, but when it gets picked up elsewhere it's a little victory, and I'm definitely seeking that out. I probably wrote Jason Kottke like 10 times trying to get him to listen to it before he posted about it, because I just felt like that was the audience that I wanted. This guy, he was into games, but also culture and art and really interesting stuff, and I know lots of different kinds of people subscribe to his blog. So I feel great about it when it gets picked up outside of gaming."
Despite his desire to reach outside the audience of hardcore gamers, though, Ashley said he doesn't think the show is necessarily cut out for terrestrial radio. "For the first couple of episodes I thought I was just kind of working on a portfolio of stuff, and that I would like to move on to work for NPR or work on radio stuff," he said. "But then as the audience started coming around, it seemed stupid to wish for work from someone else when I could basically work on my own thing. I also think that podcasting is easily the future of this kind of content. While it would be cool to be on a radio network ... it's a lot nicer to work on exactly what I want to work on, and not have another editor standing over me telling me how to do it."
Which is all well and good. But can an Internet radio show, even one with tens of thousands of listeners, provide the basis for a livelihood? Ashley is trying to find out by selling limited-edition posters based on the episodes as an alternative to direct advertising. "I always wanted to do merchandise as my business plan for the show," he said. "I don't want advertisers attached to the episodes. I'm making stuff I want people to still be interested in in a couple years, five years. I want something that's not dated by advertisement or the kinds of stories I do in it." While Ashley said the prints are selling a little more slowly than he'd like -- 25 of the 200 posters printed for episodes one and four are still available as of press time -- he thinks the business model is working for now. "It's not exactly living-like-a-king money, but it's a start," he said. "I'm married and my wife brings in cash too, and we're not dying or anything."
Of course, keeping the show going as a business probably means avoiding a repeat of the four-month gap between episodes three and four. Ashley said ideally he aims for four to six weeks between episodes, but his idiosyncratic work habits sometimes get in the way. "I sort of have the twin illnesses of perfectionism and ... just pathological procrastination," he said. "As some point during the making of the show, I definitely think, 'This is going to be a disaster and it's gonna really suck, and this is the one where I'm gonna f*** it up and everyone's gonna hate it.' It takes a long time to get back, because that's what causes the procrastination ... it makes me not want to work on it because I'm afraid I'm going to do a horrible job. And once I get one good thing going, I think, 'Oh, maybe this'll be good,' and that's when I get obsessed with it and will start spending like 14 hours a day working on it -- and that's the only way it gets done, when I do five or six days of working on it all day and all night."
Sales of limited-edition posters like this one provide the sole revenue stream for the show thus far.
Ashley said the show is also delayed sometimes by difficulties coming up with and tracking down interesting subjects, especially when contacting those subjects requires going through the standard press channels. "The press apparatus in games exists almost entirely to promote games," he said. "It's pretty hard when you approach someone and say, 'I'm not really interested in promoting your game but I just want to talk to you as a person.' At least so far, for me, that doesn't seem to produce many results."
That said, Ashley said he doesn't see more broadly focused shows like ALWW replacing game journalism that's tied more directly to new and upcoming releases. "For the most part, [product-focused journalism] is what the audience wants ... at least, when it comes to blog posts or Internet stories," he said. "If we ever get to the point where people are back into immersive, deep reading with a reading device of some kind, I think we could see more stuff like that. But I just don't think people have time to get to know someone in a story, or enjoy the subtleties of a profile. ... That was the kind of thing I always wanted to do at the magazines, but they were always focused on the product. They definitely gave me some leeway now and then -- I did some stories that were people-oriented -- but for the most part the audience didn't really respond to it. I don't think that's what they bought game magazines for, y'know?"
But for gamers and others looking for a different perspective on gaming, Ashley says he thinks there's something unique and special about the podcasting format. "I think that stories in audio form are just so nice in our current age in media," he said. "It's like your one opportunity to grab someone's attention and hold it. ... You put on your headphones or you put it on in your car and you get lost in it; you enjoy it; you don't reach for the remote control or the mouse to flip to the next thing in two seconds. I think people crave giving their full attention to something. ... Very few people are able to sit still and read a story, but when you read that story to them and you get people away from their computer monitor, if you can; and get them to pay attention, I think they really enjoy that. I think it's really relaxing."
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