On News, Mission, and Digital transformation in public radio

One of the strongest critiques of digital audio is that it is not newsy. It’s fun, it’s sometimes deep, often silly, but there is no same-day reporting from Baghdad or the campaign trail. There is no investigative reporting. Fundamentally, this argument goes, traditional public radio is mission-driven, seeking to inform the public about crucial issues. Podcasts are commercially-driven, seeking to amuse the audience while selling ads. That critique is pretty fair, for now. I do find Mike Pesca embeds a huge amount of insight on the news every day on The Gist and I find the Political Gabfest and several other podcasts to be among the most helpful guides to this election. But neither is out there, on the road. I take the point: my own show, Surprisingly Awesome, like the other Gimlet shows, most of Panoply, and all of Earwolf, are some variation of features, fluff. I think they’re smart and good and well crafted, but they’re not going to get any Congressperson imprisoned, they’re not going to shine a spotlight on endemic poverty. They’re diverting. They’re toys. Public radio is more serious. If someone is driven by a mission to inform people about crucial issues, they should stay in public radio. If public radio embraces podcasting, it will become less substantive.

I actually think this all is true. But it’s only true for now and only for clear reasons that will, soon, become irrelevant. Pretty much all major new innovations are, first, dismissed as toys. (Chris Dixon has a smart take on this. H/T Vivian Schiller.) Steam power, the telegraph, the automobile, the airplane, radio, itself, TV, not to mention desktop computers, cell phones, smart phones, Facebook, twitter, and the rest. This is for two major reasons:

1. People are conservative. They’ve built their lives and industry around some old technology and any new thing can only, at first, be understood by the logic of the old and the old dismisses this new thing as a silly, cheap trifle.

2. New products are, generally, presented to the world by new, small companies or by new, small divisions within old companies. There is often not a lot of capital and there is no revenue, so the new thing has a bunch of pressures that the old, established thing doesn’t have. The new thing needs to be made on the cheap and needs to make money as soon as possible. In media, it’s just easier to build a big audience, really quickly, with fun stuff than with serious news. And it’s cheaper to hire one or two people to produce a fun show than dozens for a newsy one. News takes time. It takes people traveling all over the world. Investigative work is especially costly. So, of course, the first wave of podcasts would be ones that were recorded fairly cheaply by people whose primary attribute is a big personality and they will be focused on fun and amusement.

We have seen the toy-to-very-important-disrupter process unfold many times over the centuries, which allows us to reasonably predict what happens next. There will be a series of steps, some of which are quite positive for those who want more audio news and some are pretty negative. I have no idea precisely how these next steps will play out — which specific companies, shows, individuals, will be involved; exactly what year they’ll happen in. But I think the general picture is pretty clear and I would be surprised if the following doesn’t happen fairly soon, in the next two or three years:

  • The easy, quick end of the market becomes saturated, precisely because it is easy and quick. I’d say we have long ago reached this point in podcasting. It is very, very hard to have a success if all you are doing is putting two or three people in a room with a microphone and posting the unedited tape. You better have the two most charming people on earth or a super-narrow niche.
  • A small number of players are able to stand out by doing things that aren’t so easy and aren’t so quick. These are known as “barriers to entry.” They are the things that allow a company to stand out in a crowded marketplace, attract a larger audience and charge a premium for its products. It is the primary goal of business these days, to stop being an undifferentiated commodity and to become a unique offering. Think of any big brand or, for that matter, any smaller brand that super-focuses on a specialized niche (Dove soap Vs. Ivory Vs. Method). In podcasting, the differentiation can be through higher production values. Gimlet is achieving this through building an operation around super high-touch, hard to replicate master editing. The New Yorker Radio hour is using its long-standing brand and access to unique talent to differentiate a fairly standard show built around 2-ways and lightly produced pieces. In general, the podcasts near the top of the rankings, the ones getting higher ad revenue, greater audiences, etc., will be those that do something hard and slow, not easy and quick.
  • Soon, the industry will become more differentiated. It is bonkers that we still use this one term “podcasts” and look at one list of podcast hits as if they are all equally competing with each other. It’s as if the makers of Star Wars and Frontline and your cousin’s Bar Mitzvah video all benchmarked themselves against each other. Soon, we will see more refined differentiation based on the kind of show, the nature of the audience, the length, level of production, etc. This is why I find it confusing that people report things like “only 1% of podcasts reach 100,000 listeners” or whatever. I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean. If someone works at NPR, knows how to cut tape and structure a story, and has the ambition to create a podcast, then anything they produce will be competing with a much smaller and much more successful segment of the market. If it’s at all good, there is a very good chance it will reach tens or hundreds of thousands of listeners. If NPR gets behind a podcast in any serious way, it should soon reach millions of listeners. The fact that there are, also, a bunch of homegrown podcasts that nobody listens to isn’t relevant. Differentiation will help us understand the mix of podcasts. We’ll develop a language to explain highly-produced podcasts versus two people in a room ones. The audience, also new to podcasting, will begin to refine their tastes. I would expect that this differentiation will reveal a massive hole in the “news” category. Glancing at the News & Politics listing on iTunes shows that the only podcasts that are anything like NPR’s daily offering of news, right now,are the NPR hourly news summary and the BBC World service. I do think that, if they were allowed to be distributed as podcasts, Morning Edition and All Things Considered would dominate this category. A digital only ME/ATC companion, with longer versions of some of the stories, equally credible but more relaxed hosts, experimental approaches to storytelling, would be very successful, I would expect.
  • No matter how much demand there is for newsier podcasts, there are economic challenges working against news podcasts. That’s because one of the central facets of podcast business models is that they build up a library of content that is reaccessed indefinitely. Often, when someone discovers a new podcast, they go back and listen to the old ones. The ads on those can be refreshed, that new listening to old episodes counts in the audience numbers when selling to advertisers. The back catalog represents a huge part of the revenue, and its importance increases as podcasts get older and their catalog grows. This means there will always be some economic pressure for podcasts to be evergreen and not tied to news of the same day.
  • However, the economics will change when bigger players come in. This is why the New York Times’ major podcasting effort is so noteworthy. (Imagine NPR proposed creating a daily newspaper. That would show some chutzpah, some vision, or, probably, pure insanity.) I think a lot of the big media companies dipping their toes into podcasting will fail. It’s hard to do audio and it’s impossible to do without at least some trained expertise on hand. But it’s not impossible and I — admittedly on the payroll and full of bias — believe the NY Times is being quite smart on this. The plan, as I understand it, is to build a truly audio-first operation but then leverage the existing assets of the paper to build something nobody else can, that will stand on its own but also support the overall organization’s mission. The NY Times is big enough and has enough resources that it can think of its overall podcasting operation in total and not require each individual show to be maximally profitable. I don’t know that this will happen, but it’s easy for me to imagine the NY Times producing at least one or two daily news shows, produced by people with great public radio experience but also access to the world’s leading news operation. (I know some of you are saying: hey, they tried that, it was called the Takeaway. The industry will have to try lots of things and some will fail outright, others won’t be to everybody’s taste. I think it’s very possible for the NYT to do something new.) People won’t want to listen to news from three weeks or three years ago, so these shows won’t benefit from the long-tail of a catalog, but it will still make sense. The daily news product will help establish and differentiate the NY Times podcast brand and serve as a springboard for all the other NYT shows. (I should say: these are my own ideas and don’t represent anything I’ve heard from others at the NYT.)
  • At some point soon, there will be one or two or more major new players who are trying to create a complete vertical podcasting-first operation: they will have a potent app with lots of awesome bells and whistles for sharing, search, and discovery. They will control the full experience, from content creation to distribution and ad sales. They’ll work a bit like Facebook or Apple’s products, they will benefit from keeping their users inside their own products, so they will need to offer them a steady stream of compelling content. They will be smart about integration and partnership with other powerful media outlets. They will do this at scale and will be well capitalized. They will want a few big flagship shows that draw a lot of elite attention and praise, even if they are money losers. This is when we will see the creation of major news shows. They’ll likely partner with other operations — maybe ProPublica or the NY Times or, even, NPR. My sense is Audible and Panoply and Acast and Scripps/Earwolf may be moving in this direction already. We’ll probably see some others, too. It’s clear that executives and investors believe these efforts are worth many millions of dollars in investment. These large players will be concerned about getting new audiences and making sure that existing audiences come to the app every day and linger on it for longer and don’t go off to someone else’s app. I would expect that news will become an essential part of this competitive strategy. News shows won’t build that catalog, while evergreen shows won’t have immediacy and a reason to return to listen right now. So, a slate of shows that includes evergreen shows (including substantive ones, like Planet Money, that help listeners understand the news) alongside a daily news show — with a passionate, smart, engaging host and great, substantive and compelling produced content — will be a compelling mix and will be no slouch. I would guess that pretty soon, the annual revenue and editorial staff size of Audible’s podcasting operation, Gimlet, Panoply, Earwolf, and Acast will approach that of NPR. Then, soon after, they will surpass NPR in revenue, staff, programs, and audience. News won’t be as big a part of that mix as it is at NPR, but it will be there and will be important.
  • I would expect these new news operations to be nowhere near as comprehensive as NPR’s. My hunch is some will focus on big and attention-grabbing news stories, or “newsy” stories. They will be more like Vice News than like All Things Considered. Others might be more thoughtful, but still fairly targeted in their areas of interest and designed to be lively, fun, immediately engaging. We’re not going to have a ton of reporters carefully banging away at their beats, year after after year, producing dutiful, earnest but not especially exciting stories. That costs a lot of money, doesn’t get a lot of attention, and is probably hard to justify in a for-profit model.
  • We will also continue to see many companies, publications, think tanks, using podcasting not as sources of revenue but as platforms for promotion. Most of these won’t be especially well-produced, but I’d expect some stand outs to appear. Some of these already are especially good for deep dives into specific topics. I find EconTalk, for example, to be a great source for the economist’s view of the world. I’m quite interested in economic development in poor nations and am a fan of the podcast by the Center for Global Development. It’s pretty wonky and not for everyone, but it’s great for me and gives a lot more than any general news report on poor nations. I also like the more listener-friendly Tiny Spark, on the same topic. I’m sure that there is, already, a podcast, or a dozen, on whatever newsy topic you care most about. Although, these are generally talking heads, not the rich reporting that NPR offers at its best. More like a Brookings position paper than a New Yorker article. (Incidentally, any NPR person looking for a new gig might go around to those think tanks and offer to take their offerings up a few notches. I think that could be a real business.)
  • All of which is to say that I think people who care about listening to audio news will have access to a lot of it. People who want to produce it will probably find a bunch of outlets available to them. This means that NPR will continually face increasing competition for the serious news lover’s ears. The new players will become better at their own branding, distribution, and curation. NPR and terrestrial radio will continue to offer the simplest “one button” solution for people who like NPR. But the other buttons will become simpler and more compelling. The obvious analog is broadcast networks versus basic and premium cable. Listen to Morning Edition or All Things Considered with all this in mind. Imagine you had an easy way to flip over to something else that was also compelling, newsy, smart. Or imagine you had an easy way to flip over to ten other things that were. How many of the stories you hear each day would keep you tuned to the NPR station? How often would your fingers or your voice direct your audio player to check out another service.
  • This is not to say that I expect there to be one massive NPR competitor. I do think the unique force of NPR — a single, comprehensive, utility audio news service — will only survive if NPR, itself, survives. And it will have to be subsidized by some combination of philanthropy, corporate underwriting, government support, listener contributions. The entire reason I’ve been writing about NPR does not come from a feeling that it should or will, inevitably, go away. It is the opposite. NPR is essential and has all the external conditions needed to thrive. And that is why it needs to be on a more sustainable path.
  • NPR has had a near-monopoly on intelligent, longer news shows on the radio. Nobody on the commercial end of the dial wanted to devote the resources because they had to cover their expensive license. Nobody else on the public band tried to do anything as big as NPR. NPR was the best because it was the only. It isn’t alone anymore and its neighborhood is going to get increasingly crowded with exciting new entrants. Some will be pretty damn good at exactly what NPR tries to do.
  • For people, including me, who have devoted chunks of their lives to the news mission of NPR, all this should be semi-scary, semi-thrilling. But simply announcing that audio news is something you value is not enough. There needs to be a way to pay for it. That is the point of everything I’ve written. Anybody who believes in the mission of audio news should not be complacent and simply assume that NPR will figure it out.
  • I very much enjoyed Linda Holmes’ essay about NPR One and her celebration of straight-forward news. I was also moved by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro’s similar call for the future to include a space for the news mission. I feel the same way. Linda put it well: “In its current form, podcasting — at least what most people mean when they talk about podcasting, which is projects that have reasonably big audiences — is brilliant and fascinating and fun and wise and informative and mind-opening and weird and smart and funny and innovative, but it’s still very limited in two of the most important areas that public radio exists to cover: one is local stuff, and the other is … you know, the news.” I’m only a few months into my frivolous audio career. I spent most of my time in radio doing real reporting, often in pretty scary places. Once again, that is precisely why I am so worried about the direction of NPR. Linda and Lulu weren’t saying this, so I may be attacking a straw man, but I think there’s a view among many in public radio that NPR and public radio are the only sources of substantive audio news; podcasts are silly. So, if podcasting becomes bigger and NPR diminishes, there will be no substantive audio news. I doubt that. Podcasting is very young. This is a very big year for the new industry. News is a-coming.
  • I have written elsewhere about some ways that NPR can avoid diminishing, can avoid the false choice of radio or podcasting. NPR, as I said there, has all the raw material to grow, thrive, support its mission and dominate audio news and podcasting. It should be the big player everybody else benchmarks against. It shouldn’t be the old legacy beast that the new players only reference with giggles and shaking heads as it lurches between missteps and touts its too few successes.
  • I like NPR One (though I can’t imagine ever doing what Linda did and listening for four hours without once skipping.) I love Kelly’s new podcast, Embedded. I think NPR Politics is great. I love hearing about the new training program that Alison MacAdam is designing. I think some of the executives at NPR want to scream at me: Dude, we’re doing all this stuff we weren’t doing before. We’re talking about digital all the time. What more do you want?
  • I think the only benchmark NPR should have for itself is total domination of the serious news, substantive audio space. Being a promising second-string player just doesn’t cut it. That’s not going to be enough to bring in the money to keep subsidizing the core mission. What do I want? Audible is launching Channels. Earwolf has launched Howl. Panoply and Gimlet are launching so many things so quickly, I can’t keep up (and I work in the Gimlet offices and visit Slate/Panoply fairly often). I would want NPR leadership to articulate a vision for how people will engage with smart, news-based audio content in 2 years and in 5 years. I would want a vision for how NPR will fit into that world, the apps and shows and processes and staff that will need to be in place to be a major player. And I would want a plan for how to get from here to there. It would, I hope, be expansive: a plan for investment in new ideas and to raise more money in the future than in the present. There will be real resources transferred to the new experiments without devastating the legacy shows (I have some ideas on that, that I’ll share later).
  • By the way, once NPR leadership does all that: that is when the fun really starts. The next phase is awesome. Anybody who craves more smart audio news will love it. It is so much fun experimenting with new shows, trying things out, learning from listeners, fixing them and trying again. Come by the Gimlet offices some time. Visit Slate or Audible. I find people so engaged and happy and excited. And when they’re frustrated, it’s most often with themselves. I have gone from somebody who was able to blame my bosses and the stupid public radio system for holding me back from living my dreams. Now I can only blame myself. I have all the tools, all the opportunity to do the greatest work I possibly can. If I don’t, it’s because of me. That’s a wonderful, terrifying feeling.