Interview: CNET’s The 404 podcast

CNET The 404

Rapidly approaching its 1600th episode, CNET’s “The 404” show is one of the internet’s longest running daily podcasts in existence.

Bearing the tag line “High tech – lowbrow” The 404 makes no apologies for its more comedic commentary on what is generally –but definitely not limited to– tech related content. Its relaxed, conversational approach to broaching the topics of today is part of the show’s great appeal and contributes to a regular slew of return guest hosts like CBS’s Jill Schlesinger and celebrity appearances such as Marc Maron, Scott Aukerman and Dany DeVito.

Originally called “The Dudecast”, the first episode was released in November of 2007. It was hosted by Randall Bennett, Wilson Tang and Jeff Bakalar, who remains still joined by board operator Ariel Nuñez and soon to depart co-host Justin Yu.

CNET The 404: Jeff Bakalar

However, the credit for The 404’s creation goes to former CNET staffer Caroline McCarthy. Bakalar recalls, “at the time, Caroline McCarthy was here. Wilson, Randall and I had become pretty tight. I’d been working with them a lot on little videos and skits and stuff, things that we thought the typical CNET audience wasn’t exposed to. Then one day we were shooting some video, goofing around, and Caroline was like ‘You guys should just record this on audio’ and we were like ‘Alright, let’s go’.”

Luckily for them the equipment and know-how were already at their feet. “The studio we’re sitting in right now literally had dust collecting on the table,” said Bakalar. “It might not look like it but there’s over a hundred grand worth of stuff sitting in here and we were like ‘How is this not being used?’ So Wilson and I decided to just figure out how to use the stuff. I’d taken a couple of radio courses in college so I knew the basics when it came to running a mixing board and we went for it!”

CNET The 404: Jeff Bakalar

Originally a film graduate, Bakalar joined CNET in 2007, hired to review home theatre and editorial for gaming. “I didn’t really understand [CNET’s] gaming presence. I knew they owned Gamespot, but I didn’t understand the relationship that they had in terms of the content sharing. The work I was doing on home theatre soon became less of my main focus and I decided to really push the gaming stuff and see what I could do. Then along came The 404, accidentally really, and I don’t report to edit anymore, I work for CNET Video now.”

For Yu, his path to becoming a host on The 404 was a very different one. Working as a bike courier in San Francisco, he’d previously interned with CNET reviewing iPod accessories. Then, nearly two years later, he was offered a position in their New York offices while delivering a package. “One day I was on this rush job and I got a call from CNET and they were like ‘Hey we got this job out in New York’.”

CNET The 404: Justin Yu

The job was reviewing printers, something Yu has done right up until this month. His first day in New York was on Valentine’s Day in 2008 and –as if written for a movie– the first person he meets is Wilson Tang.

“[He] was the first person I saw walking out of the elevator, even before I met the receptionist. We chatted and seemed to just have a good natural rapport. Next things I know he was like ‘Hey you know, you seem pretty talkative and Jeff’s not here today and I do a podcast with him and another guy’ and he invited me to guest host the show. That day. It was weird because I hadn’t even met my boss yet!”

Later, in 2008, Bennett left CNET and having guest hosted since his first day Yu was a natural choice to fill the spot. He would continue to do so up until the end of July 2014 where after four years Yu would call episode 1531 his last, to focus on a new role as CNET audio editor, working closely with reoccurring 404 guest Steve “Audiophiliac” Guttenberg.


Board operator Ariel Nuñez joined after the departure of Wilson Tang in 2012. Co-creator of CNET’s “Apple Byte”, Nuñez –another member of the CNET San Francisco alumni– made the move to the New York office in search of a new challenge. “I was looking for a ‘change’ and the opportunity presented itself at the right moment.”

Greeted by a studio almost smaller than his previous desk space a challenge he did so receive. “I was truly inspired to see the quality of product coming out of [here] with such little equipment and space” says Nuñez, “It was humbling how they’d developed such a fan base with the limited resources at their disposal and I was excited to contribute to that.”

Last November saw The 404  take its next step in its evolution. A new bespoke studio was unveiled to its audience that had been a long time in the coming. Years of hard work from all involved had culminated in a true studio space from within the New York CNET offices. Dwarfing their former cubicle-like home, the new “set” was a pivotal point. “We’ve transitioned into a ‘video show'” says Yu, “It was intimidating to be in a big studio with that transition but it’s our new home now and I’m not sure how we did it where we did for so long.”

CNET The 404: Arel Nunez

Technically, things have changed dramatically too. The transition from audio-only to video, and migrating to today’s purpose-built studio, the experience hasn’t been without its challenges. Lack of space, dealing with equipment malfunctions and learning on the job was all part of the ride.

“The problem was that none of us were engineers.” says Bakalar, commenting on the ongoing issues before moving into their custom built studio. “I found it embarrassing. I know it’s like a big joke to us and we dealt with it for so long but deep down I hated it, I really hated it.” “I am just always impressed that people keep coming back despite the technical difficulties,” comments Yu. “That’s really nice we must be doing something right!”

“We want people to get the feeling that they are a part of the show and I think we’ve been able to do that.”

Listener feedback and participation has always been a big part of The 404’s makeup. Since their inception a steadily growing, ever faithful community of listeners regularly interact with the show in a way most podcasters find quite strange. When I mentioned previous hosts I’d interviewed would tow the “No feedback is good feedback” line, Yu was shocked.

“Wow! That is not the case with us. I’ve been so surprised and impressed with the amount of love that we’ve gotten from our listeners. Creatively alone it’s incredible!” The show’s logo for instance created by a long time audience member. “We’ve gotten everything from audience submission. The theme music, voice over work, presents, creative gifts like crazy wood carvings and custom Star Wars Rogue Squadron helmets, it’s awesome!”

“I think certain audiences are maybe more interactive than others and we really try to push that. We want people to get the feeling that they are a part of the show and I think we’ve been able to do that.” says Bakalar.

It’s been a long way to the top for The 404, today sitting proudly amongst CNET’s main navigation. Bolstered by celebrity guests and a sturdy crew of ever faithful regulars such as Bridget Carey and backup board keeper Richard Peterson, the show has long outlasted other CNET productions including Bakalar’s own “Pregame” video podcast and its once lauded west-coast rival “Buzz Out Loud” (BOL).

Rival is perhaps not the best way to describe the portrayed riff between the two podcasts back in the days when BOL was clearly the network’s big audience-puller. A story I’ll let the guys tell and leave you with…

Jeff Bakalar (JB): Well I’ll be total honest with you, if not now when, you gotta be honest about it…

Justin Yu (JY): OK.

JB: You know what I’m going to tell him right?

JY: Yeah. Tell it

JB: It’s a funny story. These days I’m good friends with Tom [Merritt], he’s a good dude. What happened was, we were all out at CES together. We were at buffet, in line and Tom goes to us… I feel like nobody knows this story… Tom was like, “You know what we should do? We should have like a fake rivalry.” And we’re like… ummmm, ooooo-kaaaaay.

JY: We were literally standing in line, twenty employees deep, all of us from CNET Video waiting for this buffet.

JB: Brian Tong was there and he was like “That’s a great idea”. So we’re like “OK” but then, I’m not joking, it got real somehow! I don’t think Tom or anyone had malevolence in mind, it just happened, it’s the sport of competition, the whole east coast, west coast thing and it was something we both agreed on that we kind of knew would end up being more.

CNET’s The 404 can be seen daily on the CNET website here. You can also follow its hosts on Twitter, Jeff Bakalar (@jeffbakalar) Justin Yu (@malusbrutus) and Ariel Nuñez (@rel). Their constantly referred to “dicktopping” website is still nowhere to be seen.