Not just about the money: Public radio veterans drawn to creative freedoms of podcasting

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Podcasts with public radio connections dominate iTunes podcast charts, so it’s no wonder that podcasting companies are snapping up talented producers who earned their stripes in public media.

Beyond the opportunity to apply their craft in potentially lucrative ventures, the medium affords producers the ability to create content that is both more in-depth and focused than content on public radio, an advantage that public radio is touted as having over commercial radio.

Cohn, a former producer of WNYC’s Freakonomics podcast, is now creating shows for Hollywood-based Midroll Media. (Photo: Eli Cohn)

Cohn, a former producer of WNYC’s Freakonomics podcast, is now creating shows for Hollywood-based Midroll Media. (Photo: Eli Cohn)

Midroll, a Hollywood-based podcast advertising firm that handles Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and Alex Blumberg’s StartUp, among others, recently hired Gretta Cohn, a veteran of WNYC’s Freakonomics podcast, as senior producer. Cohn will develop new shows for Midroll.

Other WNYC talents who recently departed for podcast gigs include Jody Avirgan, a Brian Lehrer Show alum who is developing podcasts for the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, and Jenna Weiss-Berman, who previously worked on WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money podcast and The Moth and now toils in the podcast division of Buzzfeed. Reply All, a podcast about the Internet produced for Blumberg’s Gimlet Media, is hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, alumnae of the WNYC podcast TLDR.

Defections by some of NPR’s brighter lights started 10 years ago and recently began accelerating. Los Angeles–based NPR reporter Andy Bowers pioneered the career path in 2005 when he left public radio for Slate, where he now works as executive producer for podcasts. Andrea Seabrook, former NPR congressional correspondent and Weekend All Things Considered host, jumped ship in the summer of 2012 and now produces the DecodeDC podcast.

Last year, Blumberg, a veteran of This American Life and Planet Money, left public radio and raised more than a million dollars for Gimlet. And sports correspondent Mike Pesca decided to forego NPR’s huge audience for a smaller listenership at Slate, where he hosts The Gist, an opinionated discussion of everything from politics to pop culture.

Pesca, who took a buyout from NPR after 10 years at the network, told Current he’s getting “a little tiny bit more” money to do his daily 20-minute podcast at Slate.

“Now I’m talking to a smaller audience, but it’s a lot more interested in things,” he said.

The creative flexibility of not-for-broadcast production is attractive. Podcasters do not have to abide by FCC rules about foul language, for example. And they don’t have to be mindful of the “we already covered that” mentality that’s pervasive among public radio’s big magazine shows. During a discussion on The Gist about enforced civility, Pesca jokingly referred to his guest as an “insufferable fuckwad.”

Pesca thinks podcasting does pose a tempting opportunity for NPR talent. Other than TV news networks, NPR hasn’t had media companies recruiting from its talent pool for a long time.

“This is really the first time that the competition is something that offers more freedom,” Pesca said. Podcasting offers “a chance to do a different kind of journalism and sometimes a much deeper kind of journalism, just because of time constraints.”

Slate’s podcast chief Bowers wrote in a recent blog post that the website will launch its “biggest podcast expansion ever” in 2015. When Current asked Pesca if he knew who else from NPR might be joining Slate in the coming months, he replied, “Not that I can talk about.”

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