Awl author calls for a critical eye on podcast advertising

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Public radio producer Conor Gillies argued in a post for the Awl Tuesday that ads on public radio podcasts undermine public broadcasting’s mission and risk the bond that public radio has with its audience.

Gillies quotes from the 1961 “wasteland” speech of then–FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who spoke against the “corrosive effects of commercial media and mapped out a vision for ad-free, publicly supported alternatives,” Gillies writes. By adopting commercial media’s approach to ads, public media could move away from that original goal: “With their ‘personalized storytelling’ and ‘especially sticky audiences,’ podcasts might seem like a ‘pretty natural fit’ for native advertising. But shouldn’t public media, of all things, avoid mixing commerce and culture?”

Gillies spoke with Theory of Everything podcast host Benjamen Walker, who said show creators should at least draft sponsorship guidelines and work to minimize commercial pressure on creators of art and news.

“This line between what is public media and what is not doesn’t exist anymore,” Walker told Gillies. “But I think aesthetically you, as a creator, can guard what you do and what you don’t do with your own voice.”

Gillies’ article comes on the heels of skyrocketing popularity among podcasts. This month, NPR’s board of directors heard that underwriting sales at National Public Media, which handles sales for NPR and PBS, were 27 percent ahead of budget in the second quarter, largely through podcast sales. NPR’s revenue from podcast advertising doubled from fiscal year 2013 to 2014.

NPR, WNYC and WBEZ, along with producers of some of public radio’s biggest podcasts, met with ad agency representatives and podcasting fans April 29 for the first-ever podcast advertising upfronts. The event pitched Madison Avenue on the merits of advertising on public radio podcasts.

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  • Harold Sepke

    Revised headline: “Guy who just finished first internship thinks public radio is selling out”. Why is this news?

    • Adam Ragusea

      Because he made a really strong argument in a prominent forum that was widely-read and influenced one of the biggest discussions in our field right now. Also, I think the viewpoints of people who are relatively new to the field are valuable. They’re not yet accustomed and immune to the compromises we’ve made over the years to keep the lights on.