The results of About.com's 2011 Reader's Choice Awards for the freethought community are in, and The Atheist Experience took the award for Best Podcast. This prompted me to subscribe to that podcast, and having listened to three episodes, I hereby issue an enduring assessment of its quality: meh.
I want to quickly qualify that by saying the middling assessment is due to the format, not to the people who do the podcast. The speakers seem to know what they're talking about and do an admirable job of keeping things interesting and informative. For starters, one of the speakers founded the Iron Chariots Wiki, which took the award for Best Atheist Web Site, and for good reason based on my initial wanderings there. If only I knew some philosophically-minded atheists, I would have a strong recommendation to give them. Chime in if you know anyone like that!
Still, I would have voted for the runner-up podcast, Reasonable Doubts. When I say I "would have," I apparently mean to insist on the conditional in that statement, because the Reasonable Doubts crew encouraged listeners to vote for them, and I didn't actually do so. Still, I would have, and the reason can be illustrated as follows:
The Atheist Experience invites callers from the general public to participate in real time -- the general public of Austin, Texas, especially, where the podcast and tee-vee simulcast originates. They take calls from all over the globe, but the callers tend to be nearby. Granted, Austin is the one place in Texas any self-respecting human being would freely confess to calling home (apologies to sister in Houston!), but being from the best city in Texas is roughly like being the least aggressive giant centipede in a jar, or the most comfortable bedbug-infested pillow of several.
The Atheist Experience messes with Texas and Texas-style dead-enders from far beyond, and it is correspondingly dumber for it. That is, it tends to get bogged down in long conversations about small matters -- what does "believe" mean (sigh) -- or long-refuted arguments (the Kalam Cosmological Argument ... blogga please) -- or, at best, tangled in interesting exchanges for which the 60-minute run time and the "callers waiting" format is very, very poorly suited.
By contrast, the Reasonable Doubts guys do an excellent job of selecting topics that fit their time constraints and their format. They do not take calls, though they do read and address e-mails, comments, and other messages from listeners. On those occasions when they select a topic that exceeds the time limitations, they segment it into additional podcasts, e.g., last year's three-part treatment of Buddhism -- episodes 73, 74, and 75 -- which was excellent. Their format allows them to be sure they've covered the topic in the depth it deserves (which is not the same as claiming they have always accomplished this.)
I acknowledge there are trade-offs. The Atheist Experience podcasters are accepting the risk that someone will call in with a strong argument they can't address, and wouldn't that be fun? This injects a degree of lively improvisation by allowing, in principle, any drooling redneck to call in and create some havoc. While the Reasonable Doubts guys can't predict everything a given guest will throw at them, it's true to say their format is less amenable to that kind of dynamism.
Fortunately, only one podcast could win the award, but we don't actually have to choose between them. I recommend listening to both podcasts, and meanwhile, whether you listen to one, both, or neither, don't mess with Texas. Really, don't. It will just make you dumber, and Texas has been striving for decades to prove it won't learn anything. By now, we should go ahead and take that as its final answer.