Why the push to launch podcasts is missing the point

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(Photo: Juanibb, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Juanibb, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Juanibb, via Wikimedia Commons)

Every year I ask my staff what they would do to make Michigan Radio better if they had a magic wand. A couple of years ago I heard about increasing diversity, more investigative reporting and adding digital staff. This year, lots of people said we need to be doing podcasts.

I hear similar remarks when I go to meetings with other programmers. The conventional wisdom is that public radio stations that aren’t doing podcasts are making a big mistake. Podcasts are where it’s at, and if you aren’t producing them you are a dinosaur on the brink of extinction.



But hang on. I’m not anti-podcast, but I believe we are thinking way too small. True, podcasts are the shiny objects that sponsors are falling all over themselves for. Yet the percentage of the U.S. population that is listening to podcasts on a monthly basis has only grown from 9 percent to 17 percent over the past seven years, according to the Pew Research Center. I worry we are putting too much of our creative energies into this one platform.

As I see them, podcasts are just a distribution technology. Listeners sought out Serial because it was great content, not because it was a podcast per se. Two questions get at the real things we need to be talking about as we consider how to build on its success: “Are we creating great, innovative content?” And “Do we have a strategy to engage audiences with it?” We need to be asking both questions and working on both fronts at both the network and the station levels.

But whenever colleagues bang the drum for podcasts, I also hear another conversation in code.

The real issue being voiced in yearnings for more podcasts — particularly by younger producers — is a desire for innovative content that sounds different from the classic public radio sound of Noah Adams and Susan Stamberg. Tangled up in that wish for a different sound is an idea that, unfortunately, has been widely embraced by public radio colleagues: the belief that podcasts are inherently different from radio.

Really? I beg to differ.

Week after week the top-ranked podcasts in iTunes are podcasts of radio shows or podcasts that became radio shows. WTF has aired on public radio stations. Serial was picked up and broadcast by BBC Radio 4. Sure, there are differences in the language that can be used on-air due to FCC rules. But podcasting’s advocates believe that the inherent differences are deeper than words you can’t say on the radio.

This belief even infects people who I know know better.

I recall an exchange at a small meeting that I attended this year where Chris Bannon, then v.p. for content at New York’s WNYC, was explaining that podcasts have a different aesthetic and different production values. Chris created some big podcasts for WNYC. Everybody was nodding as he talked.

“But wait,” I asked, “How is it different?”

“It’s often more personal and informal and intimate,” he explained.

“But why can’t we do that on-air? It would make our radio better to be less stuffy and standoffish?” I persisted.

Chris paused, smiled and then agreed. “Of course it would be better,” he said.

Though Chris has since left WNYC and public radio, his work provides a great example of how this more personal approach can work. It comes from Death, Sex & Money, a podcast that launched under his watch.

Host Anna Sale became a podcast star when she was allowed to follow her passion for great stories and was encouraged to stop talking like a reporter. Now she’s guest-hosting shows on WNYC and even Fresh Air. Clearly, using that so called “podcast aesthetic” turned her from a talented reporter to an up-and-coming radio star.

Invisibilia became a driveway-moment series on All Things Considered because producers brought the podcast aesthetic to the air. Or wait — was it a radio show that brought the best of the public radio storytelling aesthetic to podcasting? Hmmm…

This is what I’m talking about. Radio and podcasting — they’re the same thing.

Podcasting has shown us that there is an appealing aesthetic for audio storytelling that isn’t commercial news radio or Schweddy Balls public radio. We need to embrace this new sound and the new voices that embody it. That means not criticizing new talent for having vocal fry or for just sounding like who they authentically are. It’s refreshing on podcasts, and it’s refreshing on the radio, too. And listeners take notice.

But we’re missing the bigger picture when we focus on creating podcasting units, podcast contests and podcasting strategies. It’s not about podcasts. We need to create true content-development strategies. The generation that built this industry has begun retiring. Public radio is in desperate need of new shows — weekday shows, weekend shows, hour-long shows and short recurring segments. We’re also in need of great digital content — must-read bloggers, videos, podcasts and social media stars. We need new voices, new approaches and new ideas across all our platforms, not just on podcasts.

Podcasting is a great place to pilot ideas, to try out new concepts and techniques, and build audience for them. But ultimately we need to be thinking about how to create in all of our organizations the space to play, to innovate and to bring new voices to the table in everything we do — not just on podcasts.

This innovation can’t just happen at “labs” at NPR and big stations like WBUR and WNYC.  We need to nurture fabulous ideas and diverse talent to create content on the local level, too. Our future is going to depend on getting that innovative and essential content to the communities we serve through traditional radio, podcasts, blogs, video, infographics, in social media and at live events.

The days of just doing radio are long past; just doing a podcast or two won’t change that. Public radio needs to focus on creating great new content and engaging new audiences.

It will take some investment, not a magic wand, to make that happen.

Tamar Charney is program director at Michigan Radio. She’s worn several hats since joining the Ann Arbor–based station in 1997, including newscaster, reporter, producer and creator of talk shows. She has produced numerous documentaries for the station, including the award-winning Ashes to Hope: Overcoming the Detroit Riots. She serves as chair of the board of directors for the Public Radio Program Directors Association.

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19 thoughts on “Why the push to launch podcasts is missing the point

  1. I see this all the time, too…people confusing the medium for the message.

    There is one thing and one thing only that podcasting brings to the table: the ability to try new ideas quickly and easily, and with little potential fallout. If you bring a new show to air on your 100kW FM signal in a major market at 7am every weekday and it flops, you’ve just killed off a HUGE source of revenue. If it succeeds, you’ve just locked yourself into a ironclad paradigm that can’t be changed without alienating huge swaths of audience.

    There’s an old adage that there is no person on planet Earth more risk averse than a radio program director. And with good reason: ANY change you make you are balancing the mere possibility of success against the certainty of angry listeners.

    Whereas with a podcast, go ahead and give it a whirl online and then promote it on your FM. If it does well enough, you can certainly consider moving it to FM, too. If it doesn’t? Eh, no big deal. Maybe it’s successful enough on the podcast framework to keep doing anyways. Or maybe not and you just kill it off and cut your (relatively minor) losses.

  2. Lord knows why, but some up and coming young Turks actually ask me for advice on how to break into radio. I tell them to go into accounting so they can afford to eat something other than ramen. But if being on the air is that critical for them, the way to do these days is to start their own podcast.

    The idea is not because podcasts are the “it” thing these days. It’s because you can suck really badly (and you will, when you first start) and learn how not to suck in a “safe” environment. And if you’ve got what it takes, either you’ll eventually start gathering enough of an audience that someone at a larger institution will offer you a paying gig (although that will likely take a while…years, maybe) or you’ll be able to convert that audience into a paying gig yourself…or you won’t be able to do either, in which case it’s time to give up and go get a real job in accounting or whatever. :)

  3. I just shared this with my staff because I heartily agree and said please tell me whenever you have a podcast idea and let’s think of it as good ol’ broadcast. They sent good ideas right away, we’re putting one in motion already. The word podcast is a little like a magic wand, freeing our thinking. I like magic wands.

  4. I totally agree. Podcasting is a question not an answer. If younger listeners prefer podcasting, why? Is it the format? Maybe. Is it the ability to self schedule? Almost certainly or is it about the aesthetic? Sometimes. My own view is if you make great content that transcends your geography, podcast it. If you can be more than a FM station by picking off niche audiences that you would normally miss, that can work too. But, you are right just blindly trying to copy Serial won’t work. The problem isn’t radio, it’s how radio has been run. We will be having the same discussion about beats1 in months to come and the answer there is the same

  5. Excellent article and great companion piece by Adam. In my opinion, the answer is both. We cannot ignore podcasts as a legitimate method of reaching our audiences; they are an extension of our public service. Tamar is right in that we tend to confuse technology with content and thus lose the real opportunity. Smart content folks will figure out a way to add podcasts to their station’s offerings AND allow that creative outlet to influence “plain ‘ol” radio content. We have done that here at KPBS with a series entitled Incoming http://www.kpbs.org/radio/series/incoming/ that exists on both platforms. Your audiences want their favorite public radio station to do great content and they will reward you for taking the risks.

    • Exactly, it isn’t an either/or situation. As you say podcasts are another great way to engage audience, but I was frustrated by the growing sense that we’re forgetting to innovate on radio too.

  6. I am in total agreement with Tamar’s viewpoint. It seems to me that podcasts are now what the web was in the early days – a place to put stuff you wouldn’t put on the air, as Tamar says. Look where we are with the web now – instant radio stations, global reach (in real time). The ultimate question and answer is content – if it’s good, people will consume it. If it’s “meh,” then they’ll try it and reject any further exposure to it. Podcasting is another platform for delivery – it’s not a savior for our work, but another way to get our work out there. If “refreshing” is what the audience needs, we should take a look at everything we do and make it refreshing, compelling and done with intent to inform and/or entertain. Stations and broadcasting entities need to look to how they sound vertically – on the air, on the web, on a podcast, on whatever thing is next…because there will be a next!! There are great ideas all around us – on the shop floor of the stations, in the audience listening – learn to spot them and use them to serve the audience to the best of our abilities. It is always, always, always about the audience! Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Tamar.

  7. Spot on, timely and absolutely true Tamar. Some people seem to be mistaking form and content. It’s the same thing happening with the proliferation of apps: just because you give people two buttons to push, that doesn’t mean that you have created a compelling narrative. Radio is living an exciting time – because these are exciting times all around! – but exciting doesn’t mean easy, it still requires hard work, good ideas and being able to listen to what’s happening outside.

  8. Actually, WTF “I ask my staff…” “My staff”? Sounds like a plantation owner to me. Totally hate overlords who talk like that. If I had a good audio story idea and I worked for you, I wouldn’t give it to you!

  9. I had much the same reaction as Adam Ragusea to Tamar Charney’s observations on podcasting vs. radio. Along with a germ of insight, she ignores significant differences, which Adam’s followup piece begins to elucidate. He points to (1) the lack of “clock constraints” that allow a somewhat freer approach to program content and editing, (2) the ability of podcasts to serve smaller audiences than typical radio content, and (3) to the “opt-in” subscription relationship between the listener and the show. These are all useful distinctions, but there are still other important differences.

    Start with Ms. Charney’s statement that “podcasts are just a distribution technology.” Why yes, it is, but that technology enables a fundamentally different “use case” (a term from software development), one which happens to be the crux of an ongoing revolution in media. That is, podcasts enable “on-demand” use.

    It is impossible to overstate the importance of this, no matter how radio professionals like Ms. Charney would like to minimize it. On-demand, global, digital network delivery of media–whether via streaming or downloading (podcasting) is a fundamental improvement in access to audio content that enables wider, deeper and more flexible engagement by a far less constrained audience. Ignore this at your peril — even television is being disrupted by on-demand access. It is a fundamental paradigm shift in media.

    There are two other important differences between digital network delivery (on-demand streaming and podcasting) and radio.

    First, there is no limit to the number of new shows and new ideas that can be created and delivered worldwide via these methods, vs. the strict limit on shelf space on the air, which boils down to just a handful of prime hours each day per broadcast channel, framed by vast marginal dayparts with fractional audiences. Historically this has been the biggest underlying factor in discouraging experimentation and program diversity in public radio — even with a demonstrably appealing program, it took years to gain significant carriage, even in marginal time slots and with little financial incentive.

    Second (and perhaps more problematic for PDs) podcast producers do not need the approval of any professional gatekeeper to create, produce, promote and distribute these shows. They just need a good idea, some talent and the will to try it, plus a modest amount of startup money. That’s not to say that some of these producers would not benefit from professional development advice and support, but they do not have to pass through a go/no go barrier to publish.

    If, as Ms. Charney concludes inarguably, “public radio needs to focus on creating great new content and engaging new audiences” it will surely be obliged to embrace the more flexible, powerful usage and delivery paradigms that Internet delivery has provided, which will change what we mean when we talk about “radio” in the future.

    As Mark Ramsey points out in another comment,the larger concept of audio content is dissociating from the technical methods of delivery. Call it what you will, I believe we’re headed to a world where (with limited exceptions) any broadcast program that cannot also be accessed on-demand will be fatally handicapped.

    Stephen Hill, Producer
    Hearts of Space

  10. OK, here is the problem I have with this: Tamar Charney is the program director of Michigan radio. She

    knows the on-air schedule better than anyone. In fact here is the weekly schedule:


    Where does she find space for the new work she is looking for? Other than the slot Wits is in (which is going away), it doesn’t exist. That’s one hour a week for new on-air programming. One hour. And that’s a lot better than at many stations out there, who would be hard pressed to give up a rerun slot on a weekend.

    And while the Wits slot opens up for Michigan Radio, it cost the station nothing to run it. It was offered free with APM programming, like Marketplace, which MR already runs, as well as The Dinner Party Download. What is MR willing to invest in their new and original programming? What are they willing to raise the budget to when the old budget for that hour of programming was zero?

    And yes, a podcast will still cost money to make. But if the time slot isn’t there, why bother with trying to create a “radio” program?

    So while Ms. Charney may be asking for suggestions from her staff for what to do next, the response that podcasts are the thing may be because they simply don’t see anything else they can do. I appreciate what she says about the difference between podcasts and radio, but I don’t think they are the same thing. If the only difference is that podcasts are a different distribution channel, then it’s certainly a more available channel than the on-air signal.

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