The Pub, Episode 3: Podcasting tests definition of public media, Indiana governor does too

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Jake Shapiro, c.e.o. of PRX talks to Current about the definition of public radio.

Jake Shapiro, c.e.o. of PRX, says “the definition of public media . . . has to be stretched.”

Just as some of the best dramatic TV right now isn’t on TV (Orange is the New Black, House of Cards), much of the best public radio isn’t on radio. Some of it isn’t even being produced by public media entities.

“The definition of public media . . . has to be stretched,” said Jake Shapiro, c.e.o. of PRX, which recently completed a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign for its podcast network, Radiotopia, which includes such non-public media hits as the design show 99% Invisible.

“Public media isn’t necessarily just based on the tax status of the organizations or the particular channels of distribution, but more about what its intent is and who’s producing it and how they think about their impact on the world,” he said.

The present post-Serial podcast boom therefore not only presents big questions in the platform realm, but also questions about the very nature and identity of public media. If public media isn’t a system of terrestrial radio and TV stations, but more a style and a mode of storytelling, how can public media entities lay claim to it?

This week’s The Pub explores that question with Shapiro, as well as:

  • Jon Kalish, who will report in an upcoming piece for Current that such hit podcasts as 99% Invisible are commanding serious advertising dollars; and
  • Teen podcaster Olivia Millar, who with her high school friends produces Synapse, a podcast that demonstrates how deeply public radio norms have penetrated her generation’s sensibilities.

We also have a bonus segment with former WTIU news director Chuck Carney on the recent controversy over Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s aborted plans to create a state-run news organization — yet another re-definition of public media, you could say.

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at ragusea_ac@mercer.edu or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

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  • Andrea Muraskin

    Re: the mattress ad that may or may not be native advertising in Mike Pesca’s podcast. It leaves it bad taste in my mouth, and the reason is this: the way he leads into the ad sounds like he could just as well be leading into a story. If I hadn’t first heard it in this context, I would of course have figured out soon enough that it was an ad, but I would have been taken off guard. It feels sneaky. I much prefer Gimlet’s style of using ads, with their “special ad music” and interview format. (By the way, I was a bit surprised not to hear Gimlet mentioned in this episode!)

    • Adam Ragusea

      Meh, I mentioned Gimlet indirectly (“other podcast networks”). They’ll get their day, they ain’t hurting for press. BTW, Pesca has special ad music too, you can hear it in that clip.

      I understand your reaction to the ad, but frankly, I think it stems from public radio’s rather puritanical, holier-than-thou attitude regarding advertising that I myself am still working to shake.

      I recognize that many smart and conscientious people will disagree with me, but I want us to make more money that we can spend on better journalism, and if we’ve gotta sing for our supper and move a few widgets for corporate America, so be it.

      Also worth remembering that Slate is for-profit.

      • Andrea Muraskin

        So out of fairness, I just went and listened to an episode of the Gist (I had not listened before, mea culpa). I noticed the music, and I also noticed that he says it’s a “word from our sponsor” or an “ad,” before he reads them, which makes it fine to me.

        I’m still a little bothered by the particular ad you used as an example in this podcast, for the reason I gave above. The other thing that bothers me about it is that Pesca has this very, for lack of a better word “genuine” voice and tone, he sounds like he’s giving such an honest unfiltered expression of himself, including poking fun at the news, which is really fun for the listener and something we don’t get that much in public radio. But when he turns his skills to a mattress ad, – and I’m referring to the way he prefaces the ad by talking about corporate scams that have been in the news or whatever it is- his “genuine” persona becomes more of an act. Does that make sense?

        i don’t disagree with your overall point about “singing for our supper.” And I acknowledge I have some pubradio biases as you said.

        I also think podcasts, with for-profit podcasts playing a significant role – are introducing some ethnic and vocal diversity into the landscape, and of course that’s a very good thing. (I’m thinking about Episode 4 of the Pub when William Drummond says Robert Seigel is from New York but sounds like he’s from London. Pesca, of course, is from New York and sounds like it. I’m glad the Gist exists and he’s the host.) With podcasts, you don’t have to worry about the local station push-back when a new voice comes on the air that you talk about in episode 4.

        Geez, I could talk about this forever but I can never afford to go to any of the conferences. The Public Media Journalists Facebook group is great, but I would love to have a live discussion. Maybe Current and the Pub could host a reddit on some of these topics?