WNYC is leading public radio’s transition to public podcasting

Illustration by Jeff Drew Pictures

WNYC has something at stake. The 91-year-old radio station is walking a high-wire between two eras—extending one arm deep into new territory while trying to keep the other steady.

WNYC’s footwork is familiar. Broadcast radio is today where newspapers were 20 years ago. The medium of the industry is shifting—fast. While the print world stumbled as it tried to understand and adapt to the dynamics of the Web, public radio has a chance to keep its footing. If the industry is to push ahead in its own digital transition, public broadcasting must become public podcasting.

New York and New Jersey’s flagship public radio station, WNYC, is at the forefront of this trend. As of this writing, WNYC owns or distributes six of iTunes’ 100 most popular podcasts (including two in the top 10): Radiolab; Freakonomics Radio; Death, Sex & Money; Snap Judgment; The New Yorker Radio Hour; and Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin. NPR is the only organization with more shows in the top 100.

When it comes to money, WNYC sits in the company of kings. New York Public Radio, which owns WNYC and classical music station WQXR, boasts a $70 million budget—nearly three times that of most comparable public radio broadcasters. Chicago’s WBEZ, for instance, which puts out shows like This American Life and Serial, only had $25 million as of June 2014.

What this all means is that WNYC has a lot to gain and, as it often goes, a lot to lose.

 

The packaging must change. If it doesn’t, then we become the newspaper business.

 

Digital natives hold certain advantages over traditional media. Storied print institutions carry greater weight, thanks to their histories. But digital startups, without traditional publishing costs, have dexterity and flexibility. The podcasting world looks similar. WNYC may have the resources, but it also has a costly and expansive operation. Local listeners rely on teams of reporters and well-paid personalities like Brian Lehrer to guide them through their morning drives, as well as broadcast necessities like breaking news coverage. On the other hand, private podcasting startups—like Gimlet Media, Earwolf, and Audible—are experimenting, free from the burdens of convention and reputation, and public radio producers and high-ranking executives are migrating to these flashy new companies. In the wake of Serial’s enchantment of audiences and advertisers, the rest of the world is beginning to see commercial viability in public radio’s narrative journalism and the staffers who know how to make it.

WNYC is gunning to fuse its expertise with some startup chic. “It is this moment where you go to dinner parties and people ask what podcasts you listen to, rather than what books you read,” says CEO and President Laura Walker. “So this just gives us the opportunity to double down on podcast production.”

It’s all meant to address a crucial question: Can the digital transition, which has been the bane of print journalism, be a boon for public radio?

 

On the other side of the country, inside a ballroom in the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel off the Avenue of the Stars in Los Angeles, WNYC takes another high-wire step.

Over the summer, the station announced its first-ever “Podcast Accelerator.” The goal? Find the Next Big Thing in podcasting—the next Serial or Ira Glass, the next Another Round or Starlee Kine—and find it before someone else does. WNYC narrowed a pool of 370 applicants to five: a pentad of finalists who are now shuffling their feet inside the Hyatt Regency, waiting for their names to be called. Some of the station’s brightest creators coached these aspiring hosts as they gathered tape and crafted stories to develop pitches for an original show.

On this late-September afternoon, the finalists are preparing to sell their ideas to a panel of judges at the Online News Association’s annual conference. One of the contestants will leave with a pilot deal.

Anna Sale is the day’s emcee—herself the winner of an in-house contest at WNYC that launched her acclaimed interview show Death, Sex, & Money in May 2014. Sale’s work has spanned public radio hits like Fresh Air, Marketplace, and All Things Considered, but she owes her throne to the podcast. Now she takes the stage like a rock star, channeling Lady Gaga in a tuxedo that is more costume than formal wear, structured shoulders rising into tall, shark-like fins.

“I know the courage it takes to put yourself forward,” she tells the contestants. “I know about the humility and fortitude it takes to go through iterations and to take notes from producers.”

What matters now are the opinions of the Accelerator’s three judges: Dean Cappello and Emily Botein are WNYC content executives; Glynn Washington hosts Snap Judgment, a podcast distributed by the station. None of them knows anything about the forthcoming pitches, but they do know the ingredients that make a podcast a “grand slam”—in Washington’s words—and that’s what they’re looking for today: charisma, a lasting idea, and a direct path to new audiences. WNYC has the money. It just needs a voice with the right idea.

Cappello is the chief content officer of WNYC, where he’s built a reputation for doggedly sniffing out and steering rising talent (Jad Abumrad of Radiolab credits his success in part to Cappello’s support). As the finalists deliver their pitches, he jots down notes, ranking his favorites. He likes the vision for a longform investigative show called The City and a witty pitch for an LGBT magazine show called Gaydio. But Cappello is no magpie; he doesn’t jump at shiny ideas. He’s focused on what these finalists can do. For him, experience weighs heavily.

 

wnyc-hosts.jpg

Podcast Accelerator contestant Robin Amer (left) and Death, Sex & Money host Anna Sale (Twitter)

 

Robin Amer, creator of The City, is a veteran muckraker with experience in public radio and print. There’s also writer Katie Herzog, who, with her twin sister, is pitching a project called Twindex. Filmmaker Michael Tapp’s En Route chronicles neighborhood stories dug up by mail carriers, and Slovakian radio host Katarína Richterová’s Take Me to Your Leader dissects people who want to influence, or become, power brokers. Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, radio producers who met while attending the well-regarded Transom Story Workshop, are selling Gaydio, which they say is “exactly what it sounds like.”

The true worth of winning the Accelerator competition is difficult to define. The reward is valued at $10,000, but it’s also a chance to work with one of the most seasoned teams in public radio podcasting. “I’m not Ed McMahon with a giant check,” Cappello says. “We know that the most important thing is that we will surround these projects with extraordinary people.”

For WNYC, the prize is murkier. At best, it lands a hit show that not only makes the station money but also further propels it into public favor. At worst, WNYC overlooks a promising show that makes it big for a competitor. And in media—as is true in most every market—your loss is often someone else’s gain.

 

You know what the digital revolution did to the newspaper business: 20 years of shriveling newsrooms and suffering coverage. Ink-and-paper evangelists paid the price for reacting too slowly to the change.

Journalists in public radio are hoping to learn from those mistakes as they stare down a similar shift. Increasingly, listeners are tuning into the radio on their smartphones instead of on actual radios, and this is especially true for millennials. The result is that broadcast rates are shrinking while podcast rates are growing. Take, for example, NPR. The organization’s broadcast programs in 2014 reached one million fewer weekly listeners than the year before. During the same period, seven million more people visited its website each month than the previous year.

The challenge for stations like WNYC is in balancing the needs of the present with the expectations of the future. Executives don’t want to alienate the nearly 800,000 listeners who tune in to WNYC every week. But podcasting offers a chance to continue that programming, while experimenting with the new. “The packaging must change,” Cappello says. “If it doesn’t, then we become the newspaper business.”

 

 

Roughly 50 million Americans listen to podcasts at least once a month—a number that has nearly doubled since 2008. The murder-mystery sensation Serial is a perfect illustration of what can happen to listenership when a show takes off. Serial’s first season saw 100 million downloads, capturing the attention of audiences and advertisers. “Those are the same numbers as Game of Thrones and much larger than shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” says Goli Sheikholeslami, CEO and president of WBEZ, the home of Serial. Indeed, the show was podcasting’s first major hit.

 

 

This is what’s important to know about the podcasting ecosystem: It’s huge. Unsurprisingly, it’s also tough to navigate. The scope of genres alone is daunting—beyond the shows that are rooted in traditional journalism, there are podcasts about comedy, geek culture, business, fiction, relationships, science, horror, tech, the list goes on. They’re produced by low-budget hobbyists, or entrepreneurs, or celebrity comedians. These are tribes that live by no rules but their own, and that’s working for quite a few of them.

Then you have the hard-news shows. Most print, broadcast, and digital outlets have tested podcasting at some point. Some repackage broadcast audio and slap it online, hoping for downloads. But a few are pushing the platform forward. Take the digital magazine Slate. The veteran podcaster pumps out about 20 original shows. Slate’s roundtable discussions, like Political Gabfest, are some of podcasting’s most-popular and longest-running shows. The publisher also runs a network called Panoply that helps outsiders produce, distribute, and sell ads on original podcasts. Its partners include The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Vox.

All of that hype is giving rise to a new species of podcasting startup. These newcomers aim to fuse the cool factor of the digital native—think Vice, Vox, or BuzzFeed—with the storytelling clout of public radio. They’re also courting venture capitalists.

Gimlet Media is the dominant force here, led by This American Life and Planet Money veteran Alex Blumberg. Earwolf Media, co-founded by Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast! host Scott Aukerman, is quickly building a reputation as the funny pages of podcasting. Earwolf also got industry insiders talking when it picked up the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time after WNYC cut ties with the program (a decision that’s drawn the ire of some critics). Amazon’s Audible, meanwhile, is assembling a podcast lineup for paying subscribers only. The company has yet to announce the new shows, or when they’ll go live.

But public radio still controls the market. NPR and its member stations churned out six of iTunes’ 10 most-popular podcasts this year, just as it did the year before. NPR is the mothership that feeds programming to satellites across the country. It produces about 30 podcasts that bring in millions of monthly downloads. Public radio’s top players, This American Life and Radiolab, propped up podcasting in its early days and continue to dominate every podcast chart.

And then there’s WNYC, the darling of member station podcasting. “They’re the powerhouse in this space right now, and they’ve done an amazing job,” says WBEZ’s Sheikholeslami, whose station is the other major public radio podcaster. “They have a head start on us.” Even though NPR’s wallet and scope are larger, WNYC is ripping through this new terrain, backing up its outspoken commitment with cash and talent. In fact, WNYC released the first-ever public radio podcast in 2004 when it uploaded a digital file of the weekly radio show On the Media.

Last fall, executives announced the launch of a $2 million podcast-centric creative house called WNYC Studios, which is working to raise another $13 million for the incubator. That’s the kind of money seen in the private sector. (For perspective, Facebook raised the same amount in its second round of funding circa 2005.) WNYC Studios is also shooting for private-sector cool to seduce new listeners and producers. It’s collaborating with hot acts like The New Yorker, as well as millennial favorites Vice News and The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams. It’s all working to make WNYC Studios a microcosm of the podcasting ecosystem—focusing on narrative journalism, interview shows, and even fiction. “We’ve been here for a long time, and we’ll continue to be here for a long time,” Cappello says, brushing off those who claim podcasting is a passing trend. “I am totally bullish about what WNYC’s going to accomplish.”

The organization also thinks of WNYC Studios as a magnet for keeping ambitious producers on staff. It’s no secret that podcasting startups are poaching from public radio. A quick look at Gimlet’s staff page proves the trend—out of a 26-member staff, 23 people came from public radio, previously working on shows like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Radiolab, and Freakonomics Radio. WNYC has also lost several executives to private podcasting. No business as well-known as WNYC wants to be the place where talented people come to learn and then leave.

WNYC Studios was conceived in part to satisfy producers “who want to have a new experience,” says CEO Walker, by establishing something of a startup culture inside a longstanding institution. WNYC Studios distributes its programs and third-party podcasts to other radio stations—which means WNYC, not long-time distributor NPR, gets to pocket the money. American Public Media and the Public Radio Exchange also sell radio shows to stations across the country. They recently launched similar distribution networks, bolstering independent podcasts like The Heart and Criminal along the way. Insiders think self-distribution could become a lucrative model.

It’s another sign that podcasting—both as a distribution method and a driver of editorial change—is emerging as public radio’s best chance to quash any whispers of the end times.

 

Twenty-four hours until the deadline to file for the Podcast Accelerator. Robin Amer is sneezing her way through an editing session. She’s been sick for days and in overdrive for weeks, balancing the demands of the Podcast Accelerator with a new job.

“I’m worried about losing my voice,” she tells her mentor, WNYC staffer Jen Poyant. They still need to revise the language and structure of Amer’s pitch for The City. She’s close to wrapping it up, but the next few hours of writing, discussing, and rewriting promise a special kind of pain for someone who more than anything needs a nap.

“You have to take care of yourself, too,” cautions Poyant. But Amer doesn’t take well to slowing down.

She’s always considered long hours on weekends and late nights as necessary casualties of her journalism career. And that go-getter bent is, by all accounts, working for her. As a senior in college, she produced an hour-long radio documentary on gentrification in Rhode Island that she sold to three separate New England radio stations. Soon after, she beat out hundreds of applicants for a job at WBEZ, landed a full ride to Medill’s prestigious graduate program, and contributed reporting to a Chicago Tribune investigation that went on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. This summer, she accepted a job as a news editor for the alt-weekly Chicago Reader, quickly learning that she’d made it to the Podcast Accelerator’s final round.

 

I’m not Ed McMahon with a giant check. We know that the most important thing is that we will surround these projects with extraordinary people.

 

For a moment, the opportunity scared her. Finally, she might be able to fuse everything she loves about journalism—narrative audio, longform storytelling, ruthless muckraking, and urban issues—into one package. But how could she squeeze the Podcast Accelerator into her schedule, which had just been decimated by her new job? It only took a few minutes for Amer to overcome her hesitation. No more waiting for the Next Big Thing in her career. This could be it.

The Next Big Thing: That’s the reward both sides are chasing, and they’re hoping to find it in each other. Amer and her fellow contestants think they can achieve their goals with help from WNYC’s institutional muscle, and in turn, WNYC executives like the contestants, in part, for their lack thereof. Producers are looking for something new, maybe even someone a little green.

Nicholas Quah, who writes the newsletter Hot Pod, argues that many public radio podcasts stick to a single concept: “The hidden secrets of everyday life.” It’s effective, but arguably unexciting. NPR has also acknowledged public radio’s overall “whiteness,” both in its audience and its content. So the idea driving the Podcast Accelerator is that the Next Big Thing probably lives somewhere new. “It’s hard to find unique,” Cappello says. Why not open the door to outsiders?

WNYC wants shows—and hosts—that speak to particular demographics. Take the health podcast Only Human, which launched in the fall. Station higher-ups picked Mary Harris to host the show, in an effort to continue building an audience of young women. A program largely for women and hosted by a woman might have been hard to find on public radio once upon a time.

Broadcast shows must cater to a general audience, or risk losing the interest of listeners and program directors from other stations. But people don’t stumble across podcasts on their car stereos. They search for them based on genre or rating or recommendation. They choose to download, and they listen when they feel like it. As long as these listeners are loyal, stations like WNYC don’t need massive audiences for every podcast. Rather, each show’s audience contributes to a larger whole. That’s why WNYC can produce podcasts about Columbia University’s struggling football team, or about the television show Empire.

But a fresh idea and a potential audience mean nothing without a good host, so the judges are closely analyzing the applicants themselves—not just their pitches. What makes a good host is difficult to define. The judges aren’t looking for Walter Cronkite reincarnate, someone with the right voice and gravitas. What they’re looking for is, ultimately, someone you’d invite for dinner, says Botein, who, in addition to being a judge, is WNYC’s head of on-demand content. A podcast already mimics the intimacy of a conversation to a much greater degree than broadcast. Podcasts offer a retreat inside your headphones, where a familiar voice speaks directly to you, and seemingly to no one else. Your guide needs the right balance of brains, charm, and humility. “It’s almost like a guttural sense,” Botein notes. The Podcast Accelerator is designed to find someone who has that intangible, subjective “it” factor.

 

wnyc-staff.jpg

WNYC’s former head of sponsorship Sarah van Mosel (left) and chief content officer Dean Cappello (Twitter / WNYC)

 

Back in the Hyatt Regency ballroom, the Accelerator’s grand finale kicks off. Amer steps on stage and begins her pitch with a story about a backyard barbecue in Chicago ruined by flurries of chemical waste from a nearby industrial plant. More than telling the story, Amer performs it like an actor, with punctuated words, unsettling pauses, and exaggerated body language. She describes a Cool Whip salad dotted with “Oily. Black. Dust,” each syllable accentuated to underline how strange the situation is.

Amer eventually gets to the essence of her podcast, The City: “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” Applause rumbles throughout the room, and offers from other outlets fly across Twitter as she leaves the stage.

 

Podcast ad sales are booming. Ad rates for podcasts now surpass those of broadcast, revenues are rising, and big-name brands are signing on.

Analysts generally agree that podcast ad spots sell for $20 to $25 per every thousand listens, which lines up with WNYC’s prices, says Sarah van Mosel, the station’s recently departed head of sponsorship. At best, radio broadcast rates earn about half that. Runaway successes, meanwhile, like the comedy interview show WTF with Marc Maron, can reap as much as $100 per thousand listens.

Consider, for a moment, why these numbers are so remarkable. When newspapers started to go digital, they ran up against Web ads that sold for much less than their print counterparts. Audiences grew online as they gradually dwindled in print, yet print ads still accounted for the bulk of newspapers’ ad revenue. Publishers might have been able to sell more online ads, but they sold for so much less than print ads that the gap in revenue was staggering.

Compare that to the situation in which public radio finds itself. Although broadcast currently reels in more sponsorship money for WNYC, both podcast audiences and ad dollars are swelling. Ad money from podcasting and broadcasting made up a quarter of the station’s 2015 budget.

Podcasting is one piece of an overall ad-sales explosion at WNYC. The station’s sponsorship earnings grew 55 percent from 2010 to 2014, bringing in $16 million in FY14. Most of that growth came from digital, but even broadcast sponsorship increased, at a time when most of the New York radio market was in decline. Meanwhile, NPR’s podcast revenues doubled from 2013 to 2014.

The financial success of podcasts can, in many ways, be traced back to their primary demographic: millennials—specifically, educated, affluent millennials. “We’re talking to global brands who really want to reach this highly engaged, millennial audience,” van Mosel says. “They tend to, in many cases, think podcast first, before radio.”

Podcast audiences are attractive because they tend to binge-listen; or they get hooked, counting down the days until the next episode. The reason can be found in what is perhaps the platform’s most alluring trait: intimacy.

Podcasts breed intimacy through hosts who speak openly and directly to listeners, sharing their defeats along with their victories. Take Gimlet’s hit meta-podcast StartUp. You feel like you’re with host Alex Blumberg as he tries to get his company off the ground, whispering his insecurities about what he should wear to a meeting with a potential investor and mercilessly bashing his own sales pitch. It’s a technique that makes listeners feel like they’re more than mere observers, as though they’re privy not just to a host’s performance, but to their thoughts. That intimacy leads to trust. And trust signals dollar signs to advertisers.

Here’s another way sponsorship is picking up: dynamic ad insertion. Unlike conventional ads that are embedded within episodes and become increasingly archaic, “programmatic ads” are designed around listeners’ locations and are periodically updated. That means ads don’t grow outdated while stuck in some episode made years ago. New ads replace them, and the cycle continues. This technology monetizes both faraway listeners and older episodes. Radiolab, for instance, has more listeners in California than it does in New York, where the show is based, van Mosel says. Even more significant, 40 percent of its monthly listens take place in the back catalogue. This technology is a step up from the direct-response model, which measures an ad’s effectiveness by tallying how many listeners use promo codes to buy a featured product. And while audio can fall victim to ad-blocking software, it’s affected much less than display and video ads.

Public radio usually misses out on ad booms. The federal government strictly regulates what stations and sponsors can say on public airwaves, and so ads on the air can broadcast little more than a sponsor’s name and a neutral slogan. But podcasts live online, in an untouched sovereign land. Ads can imitate story qualities and champion products. The only hard rules come from stations. WNYC hosts, for example, don’t write or read ads.

Public radio’s private-sector competitors have more leeway. “In many ways, it’s a very clean and easy transaction versus public radio,” says Erik Diehn, a business executive who left WNYC for the podcast ad network Midroll Media. Midroll mostly sells spots on comedy and culture podcasts. It can’t jam too many ads into a show, or else listeners will flee, but podcast hosts typically write and read ads.

 

We’re talking to global brands who really want to reach this highly engaged, millennial audience. They tend to think podcast first, before radio.

 

You can listen to most podcasts without spending a penny. Apple, for instance, only stocks free podcasts in the iTunes Store. Even so, podcast startups are test-driving new business models. You don’t have to pay Gimlet to listen to StartUp, Reply All, and Mystery Show, for example, but for $5 a month, you get a membership that includes early access to new shows, a T-shirt, and surprise bonuses. Audible, meanwhile, will only offer its podcasts to paying members.

Some people in public radio aren’t buying the podcast hype. Bill Davis is the founding president of Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles. He rightly points out that, for now, the numbers still favor broadcasting. Until podcast listenership makes up for the decline in on-air listening, podcasting isn’t his top priority. “I could be wrong there. If I am, my board will have my head in a couple of years,” Davis laughs. Even so, he points to broadcast’s chief advantage: Real-time breaking news is in its DNA. The same can’t be said for podcasting. “You don’t know when bombs are going to start dropping in Tehran, or when that earthquake hits, or whatever else might happen.”

A common argument against the podcasting craze goes like this: It’s a distribution method, not a new medium. The storytelling and style identified with podcasting can translate to radio. This change is about on-demand content. Podcasting evangelists contend that the medium shatters time constraints, encourages longform, and appeals to specialized audiences and advertisers. “When you have a shift in a delivery system, that shift oftentimes changes the content itself,” says Snap Judgment’s Washington.

Old-school print journalists once viewed newspapers going online as a distribution issue. The industry flailed. Digital natives like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post disrupted journalism, possibly for decades to come, ripping their audiences from sluggish print outlets. But some legacy institutions, like The New York Times, eventually caught up, giving rise to groundbreaking projects that couldn’t be replicated in print. The publication’s data vertical, The Upshot, highlights how much journalism and presentation can change along with a distribution method. And the sprawling audiences of digital outlets highlight how much legacy journalism needs to change.

 

Someone’s about to score the break of a lifetime. After an hour of back-and-forth, the judges walk on stage. They greet the Podcast Accelerator contestants and head for the mic. Washington reaches into his pocket for a slip of paper. It bears the winner’s name. “But,” Washington tells the audience, “as it turns out, I have two slips.” Two slips mean two pilot episodes.

Gaydio gets the first golden ticket. The second goes to Amer and The City

Each pitch dazzled the judges in different ways. Gaydio, Cappello later says, is an idea whose time has come. Co-host Tobin Low jokingly called himself a “Gaysian” while pitching the magazine show. Kathy Tu, the other co-host, shared her coming-out story. “They were willing to laugh at themselves,” Botein says. The judges think the show’s emotional backbone will grab gay and straight listeners alike. The City, meanwhile, “put a bow on” investigative serialized journalism. It’s a risk for WNYC, but it could yield big rewards. Amer showed reporting chops in her story. She showed grit when she overcame a sound problem during her pitch. Most of all, she showed she can captivate an audience.

Gaydio and The City won for two reasons: People will listen to them, and their hosts can do the job. Simple as they may be, such attributes are hard to find, says Cappello, who decided to greenlight both shows. It takes time, resources, and failures to unearth a gem, so when he sees the potential for another hit, “It’s like, well, a no-brainer,” he says. At roughly $10,000 a pop, the pilots are a bargain. “Does that amount of money represent some giant, make-or-break proposition for WNYC? No,” Cappello adds. “But it does represent a serious dedication of resources to building things in the pipeline.”

Station executives firmly believe only inaction, not failure, will push the station backward. No one knows how long it’ll take to reach the end of the high-wire, but those who don’t take the first step will never get there.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha Tags: , ,