Battle heats up for morning daily podcasts as NPR enters the fray

Hosts of Up First, David Greene, Rachel Martin, and Steve Inskeep. Credit: Stephen Voss/NPR

The morning-news wars, long contested on newsstands, over network airwaves, and via email newsletters, has a new front.

NPR on Wednesday plans to launch Up First, a 10-minute daily news podcast hosted by Morning Edition anchors David Greene, Rachel Martin, and Steve Inskeep. Up First’s launch comes as podcast listenership booms, and just months after The New York Times began its wildly successful The Daily podcast.

NPR is pitching Up Firstrecorded live in studio each morning just after 5 am Eastern Time, and posted less than an hour lateras the most up-to-date summary of the day’s news available anywhere. Up First Executive Producer Sarah Gilbert tells CJR: “We are up first, all night, sifting through that myriad of dizzying news that everyone’s experiencing, so that by the time you get it at six in the morning, we will have distilled the best of what you need to know into this podcast.”

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By expanding the Morning Edition brand (the flagship radio program has 14 million weekly listeners) to include a daily podcast, NPR hopes to reach a new audience that is both younger and more diverse. Host David Greene says that Up First “is a way for us to reach those sorts of audiences who have already drawn to NPR podcasts, but to serve them when it comes to the news in the morning, to give them 10 minutes and fill that void they might be feeling. I don’t think they’re the type of people sitting around watching cable news all day, but they want to be smart, they want to know what the big stories are.”

Any outlet entering the morning news podcast space will invariably draw comparisons to The Daily. Since its launch in February, The Daily has quickly become an audio juggernaut, residing at or near the top of the iTunes charts. Hosted by Times journalist Michael Barbaro, the slickly produced show has exceeded expectations even within its own newsroom.

A full-page ad for The Daily in The New York Times Magazine.

A full-page ad for The Daily in The New York Times Magazine.

Episodes of The Daily generally clock in around 20 minutes, with an opening segment that goes in depth on one particular piece of Times journalism. “The reason the show succeeds is because we have 1,100 of the world’s best storytellers who are doing the reporting,” Barbaro tells CJR. While the quality of the Times’s journalism provides a foundation for the show, that explanation gives short shrift to the seamless transition Barbaro himself has made from print journalist to podcast host. Additionally, as both he and Lisa Tobin, executive producer for all New York Times audio, are quick to point out, the paper has invested heavily in audio, bringing in NPR veteran Theo Balcomb as senior producer on The Daily and hiring aural whiz Andy Mills away from Radiolab.

Given the success of The Daily, how will Up First differentiate itself? One focus seems to be on timing. Greene and Gilbert stressed the value they see in recording each morning, allowing the team to update stories throughout the night. “Everything that has made Morning Edition unique is what you’re going to find on this new platform, but you’re going to get it with immediacy,” Greene says.

Gilbert says that the NPR team settled on the 10-minutes duration because they believe it is the right amount of time to expect audiences to devote all their energy to getting up to speed on the day’s most important stories. “It’s a conversational, accessible on-ramp to two or three of the most important stories that are going to come that day,” Gilbert says. “We are able to put together something of a hybrid which has all of the best qualities of live conversational news but is also available to you on a platform which you’re much more comfortable consuming it on.”

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The Daily, meanwhile, is wrapped the day before it is posted. Tobin says this allows her team to focus on “a narrative done with less of a reactionary approach and more of a proactive approach when possible. We’re looking for the larger context instead of the latest update on a story.” Both shows will likely evolve as they get feedback from listeners on what’s working and what isn’t, but in this distinction it’s easy to see them serving as complements rather than outright competitors.

One area in which the hosts and producers of both Up First and The Daily are in complete agreement is that their morning podcasts are appealing to a different demographic than their traditional audiences. Podcast consumers are younger, better educated, and more affluent than the population at large, and the percentage of Americans who listen to podcasts each week has doubled since 2013.

Tobin says that one reason Times management has been so supportive of The Daily is because of the show’s potential to create brand loyalty among younger consumers. Gilbert’s hopes for Up First are similar, “We see this as a way to create the NPR loyalists of the future.”

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.