Eric Nuzum on expectations for shows, channeling creative energy and his future at Audible

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Eric Nuzum, center, celebrates with the team behind NPR’s Ask Me Another after a taping in New York. Nuzum describes the concept behind the show — combining a live event into a fun audio program — as something he wants to continue to work on at Audible. Also pictured, from left: Josh Rogosin, Jonathan Coulton, Ophira Eisenberg, Jesse Baker, John Asante, John Chaneski, Eleanor Kagan and Art Chung. (Photo: Steve McFarland for NPR)

Before saying farewell to his colleagues in June, NPR Vice President of Programming Eric Nuzum appeared on our weekly podcast The Pub to reflect on his career as a public radio programmer and to discuss his new job developing original content for Audible, an Amazon subsidiary that produces and sells audio programming. He was tightlipped about the programs he’ll develop at Audible, but Nuzum did tell host Adams Ragusea about the types of shows he’s interested in and why he had to leave public media to help audio producers do “the best work of their lives.” This is an edited transcript.

Current: As a guy who’s been around a little bit, did people used to get hired away from public radio to work in high-level commercial media? I feel like what used to happen is that it was the opposite direction, that public radio was hiring a bunch of newspaper people. Is this a thing now or was this always a thing?

Nuzum: To some degree it’s always been a thing. There were many years where — especially when there was a need to have prime-time entertainment like 20/20 and shows like that — that a lot of people got hired away to work on those. One of my predecessors, Jay Kernis, was hired away twice by TV to go do that kind of production. And so it’s happened, but it’s probably been not necessarily to work in an audio space; it’s been to work in print or long-form journalism or more teaching or various things other than audio. And audio has probably emerged in quite a different way, so the competitive space has really changed.

Current: Let’s talk about what you’re going to be doing at Audible later and right now fill in the blanks for folks who might not be super-familiar with you. Your current job, as I understand it, is to basically be in charge for all of the non-news programming at NPR — all the radio stuff other than the All Things Considered.

Nuzum: And the weekend shows. But, yes, that’s the way I describe it at cocktail parties.

Current: Over your tenure, what shows have you developed or had a hand in?

Nuzum: Earlier in my time at NPR, I had much more of a hand in, and then in later years I was kind of the one steering the ship. I’ve been involved in everything from The Bryant Park Project and News & Notes to Tell Me More early in my years, which informed a lot of my thinking later on when I developed the TED Radio Hour and Ask Me Another and Invisibilia. And over the past [18 months] I have been one of the primary nurturers of our podcast portfolio.

Current: The three shows that you listed all died. Has that aspect informed your thinking subsequently?

Nuzum: First off, I have been a long-time believer that not everything good lasts forever. One of the ways that we often set programs up for failure in public radio is an expectation that they should be producing more than they are naturally able to do, or for a longer period of time. Or we look at things that have a run and go away as being a failure when, in the case of Tell Me More, that show was on the air for seven years.

Current: And it was a great show. But then again, The Bryant Park Project — what was that, like 10 months?

Nuzum: Yeah, and that process taught me quite a bit about how to develop programs, because I think that the program we started off trying to develop was different than the program that we launched, which was different than the program that was canceled 10 months later.

Current: How so?

Nuzum: Perhaps a layering of expectations. Many people forget The Bryant Park Project was originally meant to be a morning show on Sirius, later known as Sirius XM. It was never supposed to be a podcast. It was never supposed to have a digital online presence. It was never supposed to be on traditional broadcast radio stations. And yet all those things were layered on top of that original expectation and became quite diluted, and therefore it had trouble exceeding any of them.

Though, if you look at the legacy of Bryant Park and the talent that was involved in that, you see people who are hosting NPR news magazine shows [like] Rachel Martin. You see Matt Martinez, who ran ATC for a number of years and is still a contributor to many of our new initiatives, including Invisibilia. You see Luke Burbank, who is now hosting a quite successful podcast. You have Dan Pashman, who is hosting The Sporkful. Ian Chillag, who’s now the senior producer of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! So that crew ended up well, [but] Bryant Park didn’t work out very well. They have contributed to public radio in a way we could never have imagined.

Current: Going back to my earlier question, how did those experiences change your programming philosophy over your time at NPR?

Nuzum: I hinted at the answer in that the thing I’ve attributed a lot of the problems of Bryant Park to have been the kind of laying of expectations. I think that I was the person sent from Washington to sit in on the last Bryant Park show, and I watched that crew say goodbye to their audiences, goodbye to each other, and I sat there in the control room feeling a lot of things. One of the things I remember saying to myself then: “I will never let this happen again.” And I have kept that word, and our program development process that we’ve developed since then, if anything, is incredibly disciplined and focused, and is able to apply discipline and focus in a creative environment that does not stifle the creativity but actually provides it with direction.

The way I prefer to describe it: If you have so much energy and you’re pushing it a bunch of different directions, you’re only going to go so far in all of those different directions. But if you can harness and channel that energy to go into one direction, you will go much farther with the same amount of energy, right? And so I think that the creative audio-creation process is very similar to that, that if you provide people a framework that is crystal-clear and everyone knows what they’re doing, and if you ask anyone in the project, they would say the same thing, you’re going to get so much farther.

Current: Give me some specific examples about how that philosophy manifests itself, maybe using Invisibilia as a case study?

Nuzum: I will, because it’s actually a great one for that. When we were getting ready to launch Invisibilia, we had a webinar with public radio program directors to tell them about the show. And let them know about our launch strategy to air it at basically the same time. That had never really been done before outside of a political event or some other sort of major news event.

Current: Yes, there’s no radio equivalent of common carriage.

Nuzum: Right, but we wanted to basically create that. We were worried that if stations didn’t do that, they would be left out of all of the buzz that would be created by the show.

I didn’t want stations to be in that position. So we start off the webinar, and the host asked me to describe Invisibilia. I said, “It’s a narrative journey through the invisible forces that affect human behavior, like ideas, emotions, beliefs and what have you.” And then 15 minutes later, Alix [Spiegel] walks in and says, “Invisibilia is a narrative journey through the invisible forces that affect human behavior, like ideas, assumptions, beliefs and so on.” Then Lulu [Miller] walks in 10 minutes later — again not having heard anything — and she answers the same question the exact same way. Everyone started laughing. She didn’t know why, and we told her that we each had said the exact same thing. That wasn’t an accident. We spent a lot of time coming up with the definition of what that show was.

I do this with my shows and pilot projects and when I visit radio stations. I say, “We’re going to spend a couple hours coming up with a description that’s hopefully 10 words or less that describes this project and nothing else in the world.”

When I did an exercise like this at New Hampshire Public Radio, we spent two and a half hours coming up with a seven-word sentence to describe a project they’re doing.

It sounds like a simple process, but you would be surprised how a group of people who may have been thinking about a project for a year will not be able to immediately come up with that description and will struggle with it. At the end of that process, it’s you have more than the language describing the project. The idea behind it goes from being very amorphous and maybe holding different meanings for each of the six different people in the room, to something that everyone is thinking and feeling the same way about.

Then when they come up with ideas down the road, they can ask whether it matches that ideal or not. That sense of focus provides an amazing amount of support for a creative group.

Current: Invisibilia was always conceived of as something with a limited run — not necessarily a limited run of seasons but certainly a limited-run series, which is very different from starting a morning radio show.

Nuzum: Yeah, but if you still have a group of people who are applying their energy to a specific idea, it’s really not that much different. Rather than perusing a two-hour morning program that airs in a bunch of different places, now you are producing six hours of audio that can be heard once a year. We have actually thought about Invisibilia — to the level that we have a calculus, an algorithm actually, for how we produce it — which is that it takes two people three months to produce one show. If we had six people, they could produce that level; if we only have two, then we know we can only produce a certain amount of content in a year. And that’s not a very different calculus than you see for This American Life, Radiolab or a lot of high-touch productions.

Current: Do you see the transition to Audible as an opportunity to do even higher-shelf audio?

Nuzum: At Audible our aspiration is to be the place where creative, top-shelf creative talent come to do the best work of their lives and not have to worry about how to market it or how to pay for it — that’s the job of others. That’s a very attractive idea, and I think that that could be applied to a number of different projects — from very, very high-touch, high-production-value programs to things that are much simpler and focused on a concept rather than a person, perhaps, rather than a style of approach.

Current: I just went to Audible.com earlier today, and it’s amazing. I know they’ve done some other types of projects, they’ve done some dramatic series, but they absolutely still position themselves as an audiobook company. Is it your understanding that, with your involvement, they want to change that core identity?

Nuzum: I think they want to expand it. Many people who may not be as familiar with Audible forget that the kind of evolution we’re talking about making is not new to them. They actually created much of the idea about podcasting way before there was podcasting. One of their big core services when they started was allowing you to hear Fresh Air, Marketplace or This American Life on your time rather than at broadcast. At that time, it was basically a DVR of audio. And the expansion of audiobooks became a massive part of their brand and their definition; it’s why many people go to them. But I think that this is the next chapter, which is not meant to supplant; it’s meant to augment.

Current: In other interviews, you have said that you envision the work that you could shepherd at Audible as being the HBO of podcasts. Can you expand on that?

Nuzum: I’d say “the HBO of audio.”

Current: Yeah, but that’s all podcasting means at this point, right? Audio on the Internet?

Nuzum: A number of years ago, HBO acquired rights from content creators to redistribute on their channels, until they realized that they would be much better-positioned with their customers and in their future if they had original content of their own creation. I think the HBO example applies to Audible in two ways.

One is that some of this thinking is going on at Audible now. Secondly, HBO decided almost immediately that their niche in original content production was to create very high-end things that, again, were in a range of different types of production — from dramas to shows that were almost cinematic to talk shows like Bill Maher that are actually produced live. At Audible we’re going to be thinking about those same things.

Recently, Donald Katz, c.e.o. of Audible, asked me if I had a metric in mind for what success would look like. I said, “I think my metric is, ‘Wow.’” He said, “You’re exactly right.” So my goal is to create “Wow.”

Current: You told Current’s Dru Sefton that the reason you were willing to make the jump to Audible from NPR was that you felt like the company’s values were aligned to your own. How, as a lifelong public media person, can you say that? I can’t think of a value more integral to public media than the fact that it’s free and for everyone, and Audible, as a subscription service, is the antithesis of that value.

Nuzum: That’s actually a very good point, and it’s actually not what I meant. Where the values align is the emphasis on quality and on creating an enriching listening experience. Audio can be used as a means to make mundane tasks less mundane, whether it’s mowing the lawn, walking the dog or driving someplace in the car. One of the things that public radio has historically done — one of the reasons that I’ve always been attracted to it — is that it takes that time and makes it really valuable to people. It introduces them to ideas and voices and ways of thinking that challenge them, sometimes in a very entertaining way, and sometimes a very provocative way. When Audible looks at how it approaches the listening experience, both from the content they choose to acquire and the content they choose to create, those are the same metrics they look at. To find that in a commercial company is, I think, rather unusual.

Current: That said, are you sad to be leaving behind the public service mission?

Nuzum: I don’t see it as being that different. By applying myself to incredibly innovative and enriching audio experiences, I’m still serving people. I’m still serving the same things that attracted me to public radio. I’m just doing it in a for-profit space rather than a not-for-profit space. When I think about the things I will miss — outside of my colleagues in the system who happen to be many of my best friends — I will miss the ease of access. The great thing about podcasting is anybody can enter into that space and anyone can access it. Audible is a very different environment; it’s a place where creators can create, and listeners can pay a modest fee to find things of the quality that they seek out.

Current: Without revealing proprietary information or talking out of school, can you give me a more specific idea of the kind of stuff that you want to make at Audible?

Nuzum: I can’t give you specifics for two reasons. One, for the reasons you mentioned, and secondly, it’s so early on. I’m literally going to a section of their building where there are no phones, computers, people and systems, and I have to build it all.

When this became something I decided to pursue, I sat down with Donald Katz, and he said, “Let’s talk about the ideas that you’ve always wanted to do but you never do.” Like ideas that were either too big, or cost too much money, or are too risky, or you couldn’t find or attract the right talent for it.

Current: So what was your answer?

Nuzum: I can’t tell you. Damn, I’m sorry.

Current: What category of programming was it in?

Nuzum: There were two that I thought of immediately, and one was a thematic documentary series, and the other was a game show, which I’ve done recently.

Current: Yes, you did Ask Me Another.

Nuzum: One of my white whales has been finding the perfect combination of a live event and then something that’s just as much fun to listen to afterwards. It came out of Ask Me Another and some of the other pilots I’ve done over the past several years. Ask Me Another is the closest we’ve come to it. That’s something that I really aspire to continue to figure out because it’s a lot of fun.

Current: Should the public media system be worried by your departure and the departure of so many other talented people to, arguably, competing services that we’ve seen in recent years? Or is this an indication of success, that our aesthetic, our values are winning?

Nuzum: To some degree it’s probably both. It should be a validation of what we’ve said for many years: Public radio content is extraordinary. What is changing is that the places that listeners can get that kind of programming are becoming more numerous. Part of the public-radio value equation has been that it was a very unique island in a sea of mediocrity and other audio entertainment. That is no longer the case. It will ultimately serve public radio well to get back into fighting shape so it is keeping both the talent and the audience that it has historically had.

Even in public radio, I’ve actually been a very big fan of competition. Competition makes my heart beat faster and makes me want to work harder and be better because someone else is trying to have the same success that I am.

One of those things that’s driven a lot of our work at NPR has been trying to create things that will basically annihilate any competition that comes up against them. How do we make the best trivia program? There are lots of trivia podcasts; Ask Me Another is the best. There are lots of podcasts that talk about pop culture, and Pop Culture Happy Hour is the best. I want to hit that mark, and I don’t want a competitor to hit that mark.

Current: Speaking of competition, Audible has notably been a major sponsor of podcasts and, in fact, was the sole sponsor of Slate podcasts for years. As you start to bring Audible into a space where you’re competing more with all the podcasts that are out there, are they going to keep funding other people’s podcasts?

Nuzum: You’ll have to ask them that question. They’re very, very happy with the investments they made in podcasting. They’ve been big supporters of podcasting — not just Slate, but with many, many other podcasts. I am unaware of any change in that space, and a lot of people who reported about my departure have overstated the podcasting element of this. In truth, that has yet to be defined.

Current: Part of that is that the meaning of the term “podcast” is completely breaking down. The only distinction I can think of is that podcast means audio on the Internet and also has a serialized element. Is that what you’re saying? That it’s not necessarily going to be a regular serialized program that you create?

Nuzum: We’re looking at doing a range of programs; some of them would fall into that category and some wouldn’t.

I have been really trying to get away from the word “podcasting” for about the last five years, and now it’s become very, very difficult to do. I’m convinced that most people who listen to podcasts have no idea what a podcast is. They just know that if they used this app on their phones or go to this website, click on this button, they can listen to something. I’m just sure that there’s any clear distinction in that space.

Current: I don’t think anyone disagrees with you, but there’s a lack of a functional alternative.

Nuzum: “On-demand audio” is the only thing that anyone’s ever come up with. It’s even less sexy than the word “podcasting.”

Current: Why can’t we call it radio? Because what is Orange Is the New Black? It’s a TV show. Has it ever been on television? No, never, not once.

Nuzum: It’s never been on broadcast or cable television. [But] you’re hitting a point that I’ve actually been quite focused on for the last several years. For example, if you go to iTunes and look at one of the icons for different things they have between movies — Sprocket and Film are their representations for movies — they have something for TV. But if you look at radio, what they say is “Internet radio.” The icon is a little tiny tower with beams coming out of it. And if you click on that link, you’ll see that maybe 1 percent of those options are brick-and-mortar radio stations that are broadcasting Internet streams. Everybody else is working in the back of an office, in a basement, or somebody’s dorm room, setting up an audio experience that they’re calling “radio.” Everybody else calls it “radio,” and that’s actually right, because radio is evolving from being a technology to being an experience.

Current: Well, Eric, thank you for this conversation, thank you for everything that you have done for the public media system and thank you for the fire that you will hopefully light under its behind with the work that you do at Audible. By the way, when you’re there, what are you going to call the stuff that you’re making?

Nuzum: I can’t call it “podcasting,” I can’t call it “radio.” What do I call it? I don’t have the answer yet, but I spend a little part of every day with this very question, and hopefully I will come up with an answer.

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