United States Project

A newspaper podcast explores the history—and humor—of the Iowa caucuses

December 21, 2015
Photo: AP

Three Tickets, the Des Moines Register’s podcast on the history and culture of the Iowa presidential caucuses, has been a yearlong labor of love for political reporter Jason Noble—with equal emphasis on the love and the labor.

Noble is justifiably proud of how the podcast, whose 10th and final installment debuted last week, turned out. Three Tickets is deeply reported, reflective, and funny; it’s affectionate but unsentimental about the caucuses; and it features a wealth of revealing interviews with famous and less-famous politicians, journalists, national operatives, and locals who played their part in caucus lore past and present.

It’s also a bit of a foray into new territory. Most local newspaper podcasting so far has fallen in the talk-radio category. But the Register is one of a few local papers, such as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which have gone the more ambitious route of producing reported, long-form narrative podcasts that explore one story in depth. The model, of course, is the phenomenally popular true-crime podcast Serial, which Noble says he and others at the Register were “enamored with.”

But for any other newspaper that may be looking to blaze this trail, the Register’s experience also demonstrates the significant challenges looming ahead.

To start with, of course, making a narrative podcast demands different technical skills, and it means learning a new storytelling format. Noble had some experience with video hits, but this was the Register’s “first major podcast effort,” he says, and neither he nor any of his colleagues had much experience with long-form audio programming. The Register had to hire a freelance audio engineer, a significant expense—and Noble also had to develop a new writing style.

“The average script for the series was 6,000 words,” he says. “Compare that to a 600-word news story. It’s a totally different kind of storytelling.”

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Noble had to temporarily unlearn the straight-to-the-point, inverted-pyramid newsprint format in favor of a more relaxed, informal, and intimate approach. The first few minutes of the first episode unfold slowly, as Noble burrows through a storage box in a closet at his house before he unearths a novelty “Dean is No. 1” foam finger—a treasured artifact of the first campaign he covered, in 2004, when Howard Dean experienced the thrill of newfound fame and the agony of humiliating defeat in the space of a few months in Iowa.

Three Tickets—the name refers to the old axiom that only the top three caucus finishers have a chance at the nomination—is tightly scripted and thematically cohesive. But Noble also embraces the freedom of the format and often allows his narrative to take unexpected turns. With high-profile interviewees like Bob Dole and Tom Harkin, he allows the story to drift off course slightly to revel in their personalities and preoccupations. When Noble rides along on a rural town-hall tour with Sen. Chuck Grassley, whose annual ritual of going “full Grassley”—visiting each of Iowa’s 99 counties—has been adopted by many presidential aspirants, the listener finds out just how far behind schedule the senator is willing to fall in order to find the nearest Dairy Queen. (Grassley, apparently, really likes Dairy Queen.)

Of course, Noble had to be away from his desk, and away from his usual beat, to record Grassley on his tour through the state. He also had to venture out of state for some of his biggest interview “gets”—to Washington, DC, for Bob Dole, to Minneapolis for Walter Mondale, and to Chicago for David Axelrod.

These side trips would have been unthinkable in the midst of caucus season, so the schedule was planned out a year in advance. Noble did most of his reporting in the spring and summer; July and August were the heavy production months; and he was able to mostly resume his normal reporting duties in September, with several months still to go before the caucuses, though the first episode didn’t come out until October. Altogether, “probably a third or more of my working hours this year were devoted to this project,” he says.

That’s obviously a serious commitment of resources. Was it worth it? Judging solely by the quality of the product, I would answer yes. But judging solely by the cold, hard return on investment? The jury is still out.

Noble says he approached the project with “high hopes that it could be revenue-generating,” but “that hasn’t really panned out. We weren’t able to get a sponsor for it.”

Ultimately, he says, “newspaper expertise on how to market this kind of product needs to evolve a little bit.”

Serial has made big money for National Public Radio, and even the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s true-crime Unsolved has cracked the top of the podcast charts, but Three Tickets doesn’t seem to have broken through quite yet. Noble says the audience has grown week to week, and has spread from Des Moines, which represents a “plurality” of listeners, to DC and elsewhere across the country. The Register’s editor, Amalie Nash, declined to release numbers at this point, saying the paper expects the audience to keep growing. Though all the episodes are now live, the Register plans further marketing efforts, especially around the arrival of the 2016 caucuses, now just over a month away.

While he’s proud of the final product, Noble isn’t sure this experiment will result in more narrative podcasts in Des Moines. “I’m trying to think about what other stories the Register can tell, and I’m not sure—there may only be a few stories we can tell.”

For other newspapers looking to do similar projects, the lesson of the Register’s experience may be that some self-reflection is in order first. The best reason to do a narrative podcast is simply that you have a story that your staff is passionate about, that you can tell better than anyone else, and that can be best told in a long-form audio format.

For Noble, the project was worth it if only to capture the voices of aging luminaries like Dole, who—now in his 90s, but ever the politician—is heard dutifully but sincerely inquiring about the reporter’s family in Kansas. Then there are the Iowans like Teri Goodmann, a longtime Democratic activist who has developed a decades-long friendship with Joe Biden; and Jim Hogan, whose father may or may not have forced national Democratic operative Joe Trippi to milk his cows in exchange for opening up a caucus venue to Ted Kennedy supporters in 1980. Their stories and personalities would be more difficult to convey in the conventional print format.

“The gift is time,” the late New York Times columnist David Carr once said, in assessing the appeal of some of the most popular podcasts. There’s a freedom inherent in the format that allows journalists and their subjects to reflect, digress, and let a story unfurl at length. Narrative podcasts like Three Tickets also benefit from “the gift of time” necessary to report, produce, and edit. The question for other newspapers that want to break into narrative podcasting is whether they can devote that time, and the money, to create a product worth subscribing to.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.