You’re Not Special: Notes to Public Media from the Podcast Revolution

Public media talks so much about podcasting, but isn’t offering more than what it already offers on the radio. How it relates to the greater podcast ecosystem says a lot about its potential to break that cycle.

When WNYC shared on May 29 its plans to self-distribute two flagship programs and launch a free show for radio stations, you might think the podcast world would take some credit. After all, its innovations in on-demand distribution and independence through scrappy confederations have indubitably been a major inspiration long before This American Life took a similar plunge about a year ago.

Instead, there was barely a nod of acknowledgment to WNYC’s announcement.

It’s not like podcasters are ignorant of the goings-on in public media. WNYC’s Radiolab and On The Media are known commodities, as are quite a few other radio and television programs delivered via podcast. What gives?

On the one hand, public media is absolutely enthralled by podcasting. Yet the lack of involvement by longstanding podcast communities, those involved in podcasting years before, hints this adoration may be superficial to some degree. More importantly, little engagement by veteran and new podcasters may mean the appreciation is hardly mutual. While public media mainstays flood the iTunes podcast charts, look no farther than what those not oriented to public radio mainstays are following. Note that people talk more about a range of programming outside the public media sphere, such as The Read, far more than most any NPR, American Public Media or even WNYC offering.

Maybe part of the lack of connection is a presentation issue. Podcasts outside the public media spectrum simply sound different than a public media podcast. They may sound just as polished in some cases as public media, but the style and approach stands out. As ex-NPR executive and new Audible original content leader Eric Nuzum alluded to, they also take content risks public media avoids. At their most raucous, your average public media podcast is no more lively than a polite dinner party after a few glasses of wine. That’s in part because public media has a particular sound makers are committed to conveying, not to mention people with various sensitivities. The downside, as KQED’s Chloe Veltman notes, is the strong possibility public media will not come up with anything new, but rather just deliver that public media sound to your mobile device.

That would be a tragedy.

Public media has a wonderful opportunity to do unique podcasts, but it’s going to take some work. As good as the public radio sound is, sticking to that approach is not going to cut it. In fact, it is incumbent on public media to not always sound like public media if the hope is to cultivate a new audience. That atmospheric longform storytelling thing sounds great and all, but it’s got an art-house movie quality to it. More to the point, I am just not entirely convinced that sound is going to reel in anyone beyond the traditional public media audience, which has historically been quite small.

Yet why public media gets so little notice from podcasters is worse than jealousy, or seeing its shows as competition or a threat. The problem is that podcasters are indifferent to public media and, in some cases, have no idea public media’s even doing anything as far as podcasts are concerned.

The first time you understand that disinterest fully, it’s humbling. Public media folks tend to think we’re exceptional, or are doing something important within civil society, or are making something with value that goes beyond commercials. It’s a little crushing to feel like people who are connecting with the audience you need have zero interest in what you do. Then you’re pushed to ask why.

The deeper issue is that public media isn’t as connected as it needs to be with these independent content creators. Like much of the public, those creators may not frequent public media as often. They also have an ear to what people outside typical public media audiences listen to, and sound less insular. Public media needs to hustle a little more than it is used to in order to link up with podcasters. Overall, public media must be more ingrained in a podcast culture that existed long before its new romance with the medium.

From many engagements with the independent podcast plane, I came away with the perspective that public media must come into the podcast space with some very clear understandings.

Show your relevance. I’ve heard of more than a few instances where public media types introduced themselves to podcasters by their radio or television credentials and got a blank stare. The wonderment of TV and radio is fading, and many podcasters don’t understand public media’s importance. They also do not know why they’d bother with it. The notion of radio curating the best and brightest is not only going away, but it’s inherently false, and a tad condescending. The best and brightest are already shining in the podcast space, and are fine without public media, thanks. Public media needs a better hook to make a better case.

Be able to articulate why public media is special in this ecosystem. What really separates a public media podcast from what people already get via podcast? If the production, tone, values and aesthetic is the same as what’s on broadcast, what is the appeal to a new audience that does not connect with public media already? Remember that in the mainstream, quite a few only think Cookie Monster and Big Bird when they think public media. They don’t think edgy, bold or even podcasting. They assume the only people who do public media are the art-house types and not the podcaster or her/his audience. I am still trying to persuade some podcasters to see the impact of public media. Sometimes it’s not easy, but winning advocates outside of the system is essential.

Bring a learning attitude. Technology and tenacity have leveled the field. In addition, while public media has The Pub to reflect on the craft, there are dozens of podcasts about podcasting to help teach novices. As a result of this crowdsourced learning, a lot of podcasters have built a quality sound and presentation and need to be respected for that. What they lack in institutions, they make up for in a passionate base and engagement. Public media needs to learn from their determination. Fortunately there is also much knowledge from public media makers to offer, and such a skill share can be the basis for something positive.

The on-demand media market has ruptured the audience’s traditional relationship with radio, or rather the audio content listeners hear when they listen. Public media still has a fantastic opportunity to bring its A+ game to podcasting. However, it must not simply reassign its people, but more actively make independent podcasters a part of its work.