Tuesday, May 04, 2010

We know what you want

Got into a little bit of a dustup last night on Facebook on one of the show's two fan pages (that I know of). No, this wasn't a theist, but one of our legion of atheist viewers, taking the position that, because we were allowing too many atheists to call the show and prattle on ad nauseam, and weren't doing what we should be doing, which is painting the walls of the studio with Christian blood, that we had lost touch with our fan base, grown boring and complacent and didn't give a shit any more. And so on. I did my best to explain just what it is we can and cannot control about the program (among the latter, just whether or not any theists are watching at all, let alone feeling inclined to call in), but all my explanations were basically brushed off as lame excuses followed by more haranguing on how to do a show like this, which we've been doing 13 years, properly, from someone who hadn't done one ever. You get that from time to time.

Happily, we simmered down and ended on a more friendly note than we began. But I felt I ought to address, in particular, this assumption some folks seem to have that we're just totally oblivious when the show is being boring because some dude is yammering on about this or that and Matt or Russell or whomever isn't hitting the hangup button fast enough.

First off, you should know some history. It's true that the AETV a lot of you wish you were seeing now was the show you pretty reliably got each Sunday, back in the first half of the aughties. After that period, something new was added, and that something was the Internet.

Sure, the 'tubes existed just fine back in the earliest days of the show as well. But back then, most people were still on dialup, video streaming wasn't what it is, podcasts weren't yet around, YouTube was just a twinkle in some programmer's eye...that kind of thing. To give you an idea how different things were, there was a brief time when I redesigned the ACA website with a spiffy logo and all the rest of it, and lots of people complained because the fact there were JPEGs on the home page was glacially slowing their load times. (That the current site hasn't apparently realized it's not 1999 any more is a topic for another day.)

What this means is that, before, say, 2005, if you wanted to watch AETV, you watched it on ChannelAustin, which was then Austin Community Access. Shitty non-digital picture, titles typed out on a vintage 80's character generator, the primitive works. This meant that the overwhelming majority of our viewers were Christians, stumbling upon the show while cable-surfing and getting their WTF meters blown right into the red. So on any given show, all but perhaps one or two of our callers would be a Christian, and often a righteously pissed-off Christian. We ended up with our regular weekly trolls, like Steve the Creationist and Prophecy Tim. The hosts of Christian shows on the other Access channels would call and yell at us. Truly these were days of milk and honey.

Flash-forward to the present, and what has changed? Well, along came YouTube, and all at once, AETV burst out of its Access cocoon and went not local, not national, but global. We have fans in countries Sarah Palin has never heard of, which would be most of them. We became one of the most, if not the most, popular atheist media programs currently produced, and to date, no one's really doing it — live call-ins! — like we are and have been for a decade or more. And this of course means that, now, atheist fans of the show, who barely existed in the early 00's outside of the regular ACA bagel-shop meetup group, vastly outnumber any Christians who chance upon us via a fortuitous clicking of the remote. And those fans, every Sunday, queue up to call in and talk. Which further means that, now, screaming matches with indignant fundies are a far more rare occurrence on the show.

If you're one of the many folks kvetching in the UStream chatroom about this fact, pause for a moment to consider how those of us who lived the glory days must feel. We know what hijinks you're missing, even more than you do. You guys know the "I'm gonna punch you in the head" dude? Imagine that kind of wacky (not so much the direct threat of violence, but the general loss of temper) all the fucking time, and you'll have a good picture of the show from around eight or nine years ago.

Now, having said that, consider this.

What are we gonna do? Just tell our atheist fans not to call ever? Of course not. Most of you are fans in the first place because the show filled a very special niche in your life, one you probably didn't know you wanted filled. If I had a buck for every email we get from a viewer who thanks us profusely, who thought that they were all alone in their nonbelief and didn't feel anyone understood them or relate to them...well, I'd have a few bucks. The point is, the fans — the very people who are, ironically, complaining their own calls on the show are overrepresented — are profoundly important to us. And AETV is not simply intended as a weekly believer beatdown. It is also an outreach to isolated and lonely atheists. So if someone calls with a heartfelt question about, say, dealing with an alienated family member, we're not just going to boot that guy off the line because all you bloodthirsty psychos in chat are itching for us to go Leatherface on a creationist. That call may be a bore to you. But it is certainly very important to him. A lot of your godless brothers and sisters do live the proverbial lives of quiet desperation, and if we're the only people they have to talk to about a serious problem, we take the role seriously.

And yet, we do want more slugfests, like we used to get. And we are aware that a number of calls from atheists are allowed to prattle on. There were at least a couple of callers last Sunday I'd like to have seen Russell hit the button on about five minutes sooner than he did, but that wasn't my call to make. To put it in its most direct terms, if you've found the show disappointing in its lack of interesting and heated on-air exchanges, remember the following:

  1. In live TV you never know what you're going to get.
  2. Not every caller will be a stupid fundie we can tear to pieces.
  3. You will find some calls interesting and not others. (Corollary: You will find some entire episodes interesting and not others. We sure do.)
  4. We're all just enthusiastic amateurs at the end of the day, volunteering our time to do this because we enjoy it so much. That said, though I'd say we've gotten pretty good at it over the years, our efforts will always be imperfect.

We appreciate that we have an international fandom now. And perhaps it's because we make this look so much easier than it actually is, that a number of our viewers become so vocal about how we could fix it. But while we simply cannot force more Christians to call us (and when they do, trust me, they get moved right to the top of the queue), there are ways you can help us make the show better, brisker, and less inclined to tedium. While I'm no longer the full-time host and it's not my prerogative to set standards for callers, I don't see that Matt or Russell would disagree with me too strongly over the following suggestion.

If you, as one of our atheist fans, want to call the show, be prepared. Make sure you have an interesting and pertinent question. When we take your call, ask your question, allow us to answer it, and then once we have, allow us to move on to the next caller, instead of putting us in the position of having to cut you off. Once we've answered your question, don't think Huh, what else can I talk about? to keep us on the line. Fifteen minute epic calls that aren't about something damned interesting can be pure pain to endure. Check the ACA FAQ before you call, to make sure we haven't already addressed your issue. Moreover, check Iron Chariots if you have some complicated question relating to counter-apologetics. In short, when you call, be on point, get to the point, and stay on point. Short and sweet.

And who knows, if we get in the habit of blowing through, say, eight or ten callers an hour instead of only four or five, we might get a better variety of callers being far less long-winded. And some of those might just be the indignant Christians you've been hoping for! With everyone doing their part, we may yet return to the days of milk and honey. And blood.


  1. Part of the "problem" is that you bill yourselves as a live call-in show. But, that is only one part of the shows loose format. There is a usually a talk given by the co-host.
    I often find these informative and insightful.
    It could be that the distilled youtube clips have given a false impression of what the whole show really about.
    Some viewers may come to the show expecting constant fundie-bashing and get a more measured and challenging experience.

  2. i love the fundi-bashing too, but i also love the show overall.

    and i follow your podcast from greece.


  3. Some of the more interesting calls lately have been from atheists actually, asking about church-state issues in their area/family problems, etc. The calls from atheists that I DON'T care for are the ones where someone basically just calls in and goes "Man! Isn't this religion thing silly? Have you guys heard of Ray Comfort? What's up with Pascal's Wager?? Is this thing on?"

    Also, even when a theist does call in, it's not a guarantee it'll be interesting. Most likely it's just some yahoo who happens to be watching it and wants to throw some tired version of Pascal's Wager at you.

    I think the most interesting call I can remember from a recent show was the atheist woman calling about her fiancée and his religious beliefs, not really knowing what to do.

  4. Great post Martin,

    I always get annoyed when people who don't actually make a product they consume chip in and start criticizing you for this kinda stuff. Criticism in general is not bad, but unless you can actually do it better you shouldn't be too high on your horse. I have refrained from criticizing at times for exactly this reason. Something annoyyed me and I thought about mailing you guys, but then I realise that I couldn't do a better job (not even close) and my point is rather minor and refrain from criticizing. That is not to say that I think everything you do is great, or that I won't criticize ever, but simply that I think that when you have criticism it has to be substantial and be about something fundamental, not about the lack of christian callers.

  5. Sparrowhawk: Precisely, those are the kinds of atheist calls that we appreciate, that discuss matters pertinent to the overall "atheist experience".

    Frits: Right, let me reiterate. I'm not telling any of our viewers to keep their criticisms to themselves, like it or lump it. I'm just saying that if one's criticism is really nothing more than "There's too much X and not enough Y," people gotta realize that in a show that deals in X and Y and sometimes a bit of Z, that's just how things can be.

  6. as usual you made my point in a much more concise and clear way. One of the reasons I like you guys a lot is because you are able to clearly put what I try to communicat to others in my own much too convoluted way. People shouldn't moan about things beyond your control. and as sparrowhawk some of the atheist calls are more interesting than those of some theists.

  7. While there have been some good atheist callers, there have been others that have just been like "I love your show! What do you think of this?" Those get boring fast and would be better if they could be encouraged to be sent by email.

    The topics have been interesting in the past, and they can keep the show interesting enough to watch even when you get nothing but boring calls. Never get rid of them, please. :)

    Also, if you want to squeeze more time out of the show, you could always try exporting the announcements to the website. Then you'd be able to say something like "For the latest ACA announcements and meet-ups, visit the ACA website" and then just one or two important announcements before or after that.

  8. Be careful that you don't adopt an attitude of "don't criticize me". That's a sure way to keep yourself from getting better.

  9. Scroll up three comments and read what I wrote, Juju.

  10. Excellent post, Martin! I fully agree!

  11. In terms of criticism, it's all about the tone. I hate people condescendingly implying that you are too dumb to have thought of something vs humbly offering up their thoughts.
    "have you considered limiting atheist calls and extending presentations"
    "you let atheists talk too much and don't bother to prepare your own material"
    I have managed creatives for years, and there is nothing worse than busting you ass in adverse conditions trying to make a product as strong as possible within the limitations presented, only to have someone whining about some simple "solution" without even politely asking if I had tried it.

  12. While I think the recommendations to would-be callers in the article are good (e.g. research before asking your question), we can't expect that all of these future callers read this blog regularly, or even happen to catch this article prior to calling in.

    How about if the call screeners ask for a little more detailed information from the callers and refer them to the appropriate sources (IronChariots, etc.) if the call sounds too cliche? I've called in to the show twice and both times I "got past" the screener in about 10 seconds (I assume at the time they were only trying to ascertain that I was not a prank call). Maybe a little more rigorous call screening can help please both viewers and the hosts? Just a friendly suggestion.

  13. "That call may be a bore to you. But it is certainly very important to him."

    I think the chat room forgets that sometimes. Then again, this is the chat room that discusses the nuances of Hentai.

  14. Huh, I've been intentionally not calling in so as to not blog down the show. Cool if i send an e-mail with the topic idea to make sure they're of interest to the hosts/won't make for boring TV?

  15. Also, would it help if we non-austinites put up fliers or the like advertising the show and challenging theists to call in?

  16. Ing: That'd be fine!

    Tyler: Not a bad idea. But I know the screeners ask callers for their question/topic, as what appears on the laptop is always Name/Location/Question.

    I certainly don't expect everyone to have read the blog before calling in. But you know, that's why this is the internet. Word of mouth/keyboard can take my ideas from here.

  17. Just a thought. Starting the show with a little talk, such as something in the news, an argument related to theism, etc., might result in more constructive calls. It might give a more "Call in to add to the discussion, or something important enough to sidetrack to" feel rather than generic chit-chat when the show is entirely calls. If not, you still have control over the initial discussion and the listeners can always look forward to that part of the show.

  18. toomanytribbles: That's great! For a while I thought I was the only listener from Greece, until I left for Canada.

  19. rvkevin: Actually, some of the cohosts do come on with a prepared topic of discussion. Don Baker pretty much always has one planned well in advance.

  20. I'm surprised that you haven't seen the number of theist callers rise since you'd think that the rise in popularit thanks to the interent would have made a lot more theists aware of you. And then, due to your status, you'd think these theists would be itching to call in and ''pwn'' the atheists.

  21. @Cafeeine Addicted

    too bad you're not still here... we could've made a 'the atheist experience fan club, greek chapter'.

  22. I'm, kinda frustrated with the callers myself. But I would never blame you lot for it. I am pretty confident if there's a hot call on the line you guys will make it a priority. Some of the other stuff is definitely interesting but it is also available in many other places on the interwebs. The one thing that you can't get anywhere else is that live interaction. To me, this is why I eagerly look forward to the show each week, where the many more typical podcasts and blogs I read as I get to them. I can even get the hosts unique and interesting thoughts outside of the live show with but a little searching. To summarize, I hope you realize some of the frustration from everyone is because you offer something very unique that is greatly appreciated.

    There is something odd about all the exposure, though. Certainly the YouTube highlights have been mined from years of shows and offer some of the greatest and often most absurd moments. If this was your introduction to the show, it could be misleading. Also, fans from around the world now want to say howdy and kudos (I admit I get more upset with them than I should when they waste the very finite time prattling pedestrian ramblings I could read at a million sites). This all makes sense. What doesn't make sense is why this mass exposure does not seem to be generating more theist callers defending their faith from around the globe. Have we now actually heard from every single individual who is willing to share their thought process under the cold glare of reason? I even look forward to the occasional spacey-hippy pseudo deep thinker caller these days just for a taste of oddness. I'd be curious to know the percentages of the last year or so to see if my perceptions are accurate. Maybe when I am completely bored some weekend and am resorting to alphabetizing my socks drawer I will look in to it.

    So please don't take it all personally. It's a really cool thing you're doing and we appreciate the effort. (You get an "A" for effort! Ha!)

  23. [offtopic]
    @toomanytribbles Couldn't be helped. I have mouths to feed and bills to pay, so I'll be staying here for the foreseeable future.[/offtopic]

    I've tried calling in the show even back when I was in Greece a few times, and what would happen was, I spent 25-30 minutes on hold to either get 3-4 on air or not have time at all. One time when I called the show I was politely told to make room for theist callers (I don't recall my subject, but I recall I agreed it was best)
    No matter whether any theist wants to call in, and regardless of the AE gang being willing to push him to the front of the queue, it won't happen if all the lines are held up with a couple of atheists for 30-40 minutes each per line.

    In the spirit of what Tyler mentioned, I propose that when it comes to atheists who have a well formulated question, that they can leave it with the phone screener for the hosts to answer, maybe during dead air later, and leave the line open. I'm not talking about callers that, say, want personal advice on e.g. family issues that require a personal interaction.

    From my part, I've been daring theist commenters on various AE youtube clips to bring their objections to the show by calling in, but so far without any result that I know of.

  24. A|E, you have done a wonderful job (I am a vehement anti-theist). However, please concede there is room for improvement relative to serving as a model for your viewers in terms of the decorum of debate. I'm not accusing you of ALWAYS being aggressive, but it does happen with some regularity. Demonstrate that it is possible to deliver cognitive, rational commentary without overly-emotive and limbic explosions. Emotions distort both message delivery and receipt, I'll contend.

    Could it possibly be that fewer theists contribute (despite worldwide viewership) because discussions get so emotive / aggressive? True, these are endlessly frustrating discussions that you endure with Theists (I know, I do it all the time). I appreciate that. But bashing people does not necessarily help them come around to a new world view, psychologically.

    I'll contend that creating a safe place for discussion provides call-in theist with a model for critical thinking, constructive skepticism, abiding by principles of logic, (etc.) THESE are the things that will eventually build a new world view for them, not yelling, not insulting. The later may actually reinforce delusionary practices and thinking.

    Please also heed that for some die-hard theists, this may actually be a neurological deficiency (poorly functioning temporal and pre-frontal lobes), not just a psychological / cultural handicap correctable with reason and critical thinking. Demonstrate the same empathy to them as you would an amputee and their inability to walk.

    Again, THANK YOU for your show; it is powerful. I believe you are teaching many thousands how to engage - which is why it is so important to bring more light than heat, more cognition and less limbic explosion. Thank you. I love the show am immensely grateful for your sacrifices and commitment and DESPERATELY want you to continue and succeed. Best wishes.

  25. While I cannot blame you for atheist callers prattling on with the equivalent of "yeah, me too!", what I have noticed recently is when you do get a theist with a little bite to them, you talk over them, not let them finish or accuse them of not listening and then hang up on them.

    Why, when it is so rare that you get one, do you get so frustrated so easily? Sure you've heard their arguments time and time again, but the viewers might not have and if you'd let the caller have a little rope it'll be more entertaining when they hang themselves with it.

    If it is an acknowledged bummer that so many atheists are calling in with "yeah, me too!" why not have more topic focused shows even if you're repeating a topic from even 4 years ago? It used to be so rare that a show would be titled "Viewer Callers". If you know most of the callers will be like-minded, why not have a topic go longer and watch the phone queue for the callers who'd like to argue with you?

  26. @Ing - FULL STOP!

    If you want to put up flyers on behalf of The Atheist Experience, the ACA Board needs to approve what you post and where you post it. Go to the website and send an email to the co-chairs describing what you want to do.

    If you're trolling theist chat rooms or discussion forums and want to encourage them to call the show, that's fair game. Putting flyers out is a whole other issue.

  27. @Jen: KInda offtopic, but when referring to chat rooms, you might get misunderstood. Instead of calling it 'trolling', say 'trawling' ;)

  28. The calls from atheists that I DON'T care for are the ones where someone basically just calls in and goes "Man! Isn't this religion thing silly? Have you guys heard of Ray Comfort? What's up with Pascal's Wager?? Is this thing on?"

    This. I love the outreach aspect of the show and I'm as happy with that as I am with the bloodsport type calls, but once a guy starts rambling about how silly it all is and, as they say, preaching to the choir -- especially when he starts repeating himself -- it's time to clear the line.

  29. @EricVDG
    Part of the problem is that theists have been getting a pass for so long. Therefore they perceive any act of challenging what they do and say as de facto act of aggression.

  30. @Ing - FULL STOP!

    If you want to put up flyers on behalf of The Atheist Experience, the ACA Board needs to approve what you post and where you post it. Go to the website and send an email to the co-chairs describing what you want to do."

    I was thinking of getting a flyer approved by the board and posting it on the public forum message boards locally. The boards often have "WORLD ENDS in 2011 TURN TO JESUS" flyers so I think it's good waters to troll.

  31. Meh! The solution is obvious!
    Upside down crosses in the setting, hosts that look less good and human and more like vicious beasts and babyeating. The last can be simulated by eating chicken wings and having had a bucket of blood poured over the table.

    Also, the atheist callers should have more balls, calling for ban of religion, etc.

    Seriously though, the AE is a bit repetative which is why I cry a little every week I find out that the NP is on further hiatus.

    Please please please please please brake the hiatus and let the reason flow.


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