How public radio podcasters are like the Underpants Gnomes from ‘South Park’

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underpants gnomes screenshotThis is the prepared text of a speech I gave Friday to the Radio Scholarly Interest Group at the 2016 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Atlanta. I’ve lightly edited it for readability. For copyright reasons, only some of my slides are reproduced here.

Good morning, radio nerds.

My name is Adam Ragusea. I am of your tribe, though no doubt my academic credentials are considerably thinner. My radio credentials aren’t superlative either.

(Photo: Lwp Kommunikáció, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Lwp Kommunikáció, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Really what I am is, basically, the Anthony Bourdain of the public media world.

And that’s not just because I, like Bourdain, enjoy adult beverages — hence one of the two meanings of my podcast’s title, The Pub.

Anthony Bourdain did not get famous for being a chef. I think he’d be the first to characterize his cooking career as middling. He got famous for being a loudmouth — for writing and speaking about cooking with obnoxious honesty.

Bourdain’s middling culinary career was actually the perfect preparation for the life he lives now. He brushed up against the fine-dining world enough to gain an understanding of it, but his time in the trenches dunking fries gave him a worldliness that other celebrity chefs conspicuously lack.

Likewise, I did not get famous by being great at public broadcasting or journalism. I have gotten famous, within my little corner of the world at least, by being a loudmouth about public broadcasting and journalism.

In my day, I did do enough national work to where I now know that scene, but most of my hours were spent doing the radio equivalent of dunking fries.

So, disclaimer: That’s the perspective you’re getting today.

I’m going to talk about how podcasting is changing public radio, both creatively and economically.

2000px-Rss-feed.svgWhile I’m showing you a slide right now of the RSS feed icon, I do not consider RSS-based file syndication to be a defining feature of podcasting anymore. I would define podcasts as any primarily spoken on-demand audio on the Internet.

I’m sure this room is filled with early adopters like me.

Ten years ago, we were downloading files in iTunes on our computers, plugging our iPods into our computers, dragging the files from iTunes to our iPods, manually deleting the files we’d already listened to and then at some point actually heading to the freaking gym.

Most people are not radio nerds like us, thus podcasting is an idea that has had to await mass adoption until now. Why now? What’s changed?

Easy answer: smartphones.

There are some differing studies out there, but they all agree that more than two-thirds of American adults now carry smartphones, and Internet audio consumption has risen in lockstep with that number.


This slide from Edison Research’s latest Infinite Dial survey is actually showing streaming audio consumption overlaid with smartphone adoption, but the correlation is just as clear for podcasting.

According to Edison’s research, 98 million Americans over 12 say they’ve listened to a podcast at least once in their lives. But here’s the big number from that latest survey:


Twenty-one percent, or one in five Americans, have listened to a podcast in the last month. Edison therefore concludes that podcasting has “made the jump to the mainstream.”

Maybe. I think better proof of that assertion might be the fact that this joke was in this week’s episode of Jane the Virgin. Jane and her fiancé Michael were trying to talk themselves into renting an apartment that was much farther out in the suburbs than they’d hoped for.

JANE: You know, the drive didn’t even feel that long to me.

MICHAEL: It really didn’t, right?

JANE: And with podcasts…

MICHAEL: I actually like driving, I think it’s relaxing.

I did a triumphant fist jab on my couch when I saw that.

And yet, podcasting remains a vanishingly small part of America’s overall audio diet.


This is from Edison’s Share of Ear survey, which is a few months older than the Infinite Dial numbers we were looking at before. Looking at Americans 18–24 — young, tech-savvy people — only 6 percent of their time spent listening to audio is spent listening to podcasts. About 30 percent is spent listening to terrestrial radio, and about 30 percent is spent listening to streaming audio, which includes music services like Pandora and Spotify.

College-age people! The people you’d think would be hip to the podcasts — it’s only 6 percent of their listening diet. Then again, this is the general population we’re looking at. If we switch to looking at public radio listeners, do we think that podcasting number is going to go up or down?

Down, believe it or not, at least when we look at all age groups of public radio listeners together. (And we know public radio listeners skew really old. The average NPR listener is about 60 now.)

tech survey all ages

This is the 2015 Public Radio Tech Survey from Jacobs Media. Fred Jacobs does an email survey with an address list that’s drawn from station member rolls, so these are donors, core users.

Only three percent of their weekly audio consumption is podcasts. Now, if we look at public radio–listening millennials, like me …

tech survey millenials… it goes up. Seven percent of their weekly listening is to podcasts. But 54 percent of their audio diet remains AM/FM radio in the car. Millennials!

Podcasting is barely a dent in the bumper of terrestrial radio. So why are we all talking about it?

Well, believe it or not, I think it has to do with The Wire.

Between The Wire and The Sopranos, something big happened to Hollywood around the mid-2000s. The money and the mass audience was still in movies. But young writers and directors and actors who really wanted to do something — to make a statement, to prove their genius, whatever — all the Young Turks started wanting to do prestige TV series instead of movies. All the creative energy went there.

Just like we’ve been talking about with podcasting and smartphones, the onset of this Golden Age of Television we’re in was a product of technology as much as anything else.

On-demand video services like Netflix made it possible to easily binge-watch an entire series, which I’m sure we all know firsthand is a much deeper, more immersive, more novelistic experience than watching a movie. If given a choice, what smart, ambitious filmmaker would choose a two-hour format over a 48-hour format? (Breaking Bad is literally two full days and nights of television.)

In the year 2016, I think podcasting is to radio as television was to movies in the year 2006. If you want mass audience, radio is still where you want be. But if you really want to do something, all the action is in podcasting.

Almost every talented young radio producer I know who isn’t already working on a podcast is trying to get hired onto one, or to get a new one going. People in very high-profile on-air jobs at NPR, people who are heard by 20 million radio listeners every week — I know people like that who would gladly give it up for a podcast that would draw a fraction of the audience.

Why? What makes podcasts so much better than radio? It’s all audio, isn’t it?

Well, speaking as radio producer turned podcaster, I can tell you it’s great to be liberated from the formal constraints of radio.


I don’t have to jam all of my stuff into a hard clock, like the Morning Edition clock here. I don’t waste energy making each segment time out perfectly. Things just take however long they take.

Likewise, I don’t have to worry about finishing a show by deadline every day, lest there be dead air on the radio. I can wait until I have something great before I publish it (though there’s a lot to be said for frequent and regular publishing in podcasting, too).

Another really nice thing is that I don’t have to worry about people dropping in right in the middle of my show.

When you do radio, you have to be mindful that listeners are constantly coming in and out, so you’ve got to do awkward things like refer to your guest by her full name so that stragglers will know who you’re talking to: “So tell me, Susan Sarandon, when did you start feeling the Bern?”

Also, a show like Morning Edition is built from the ground up for listeners who are coming in and out. That’s part of the reason why all the segments are so damn short. It’s hard to start listening in the middle of a long story. It’s much easier if I can turn on the radio and know that whatever the hell this story is, it’s going to be over in a couple minutes and then I can get in on the ground floor of something else.

Nobody starts listening to a podcast in the middle, so segments can be way longer.

This leads me to what I think is the most important difference between podcasting and radio. It’s what I call the “opt in” factor.

People usually don’t listen to a podcast by accident. It’s not like radio, where you get in the car, and you flip it on, and whatever your NPR station is playing is what you’re going to listen to, like it or lump it. That force-feed dynamic is why broadcasting tends to look like this:

broadcasting graph

Here’s a little graph I drew. On the horizontal axis, you’ve got the percentage of people interested in a program. On the vertical, you’ve got the intensity of their interest.

On my graph, broadcast programming tends to plot like a wide, short bar. You put stuff on the radio that a high percentage of people are going to be interested in, but unfortunately not many of them are going be super interested in it. Why? Because there are very few intense interests that most of us share.

Podcasting can be like broadcasting in this respect, but most good podcasts fit more into the “narrowcasting” model.

narrowcasting graph

Instead of a wide, short bar on our graph, now we’ve got a narrow, tall bar. A much smaller percentage of people are going to be interested in this narrowcasting program, but the intensity of their interest is enormous.

A good radio station programmer is not going to put something like this on her schedule, at least not during drive time. She needs programming that is going to appeal to a wide, undifferentiated audience — an audience whose only thing in common is that they all happen to be listening to the same NPR station in the same city at 7:30 in the morning.

With a podcast, unlike terrestrial radio, you can aggregate an audience that is widely dispersed in both space and time.

People with a narrow interest or affinity may be minorities in their own geographic communities, but when united by the magic of the Internet, they are a large enough audience to sustain a show.

For example, my favorite podcast at the moment is called The Greatest Generation. It’s literally just two dudes who are watching every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and talking about them, one by one.

People like me, who are totally into that, are pretty few and far between. But we’re really into that.

I sure know that I’d rather make a show for an intensely interested specialty audience than for a barely interested mass audience. And in fact, I do. My listeners don’t stumble on my show; they seek it out. They call it up deliberately on their phones. In fact, they subscribe to me.

I don’t have to grab their attention straight out of the box with cheap tricks and overhyped story leads. I already have their attention. I earned it a long time ago. So I can take a meandering road to the point, as I so often do.

That’s why podcasting is more attractive creatively.

Let’s talk for a moment about why it’s more attractive economically.

Obviously you can save a whole hell of a lot of money by not screwing around with radio towers and satellites and FCC licenses, though most big players in public media podcasting also do radio at the moment, so those costs remain.

But going back to the FCC for a moment, the feds highly constrain the type of advertising we can sell on public radio. “Underwriting” announcements can have no calls to action, no statements of comparative value, etc. The result is pretty boring spots that have limited value to clients.

Over on podcasts, however, the FCC has no jurisdiction. Public radio stations can sell straight-up advertising, even spots with host endorsements! For instance, on WBEZ’s great podcast Nerdette, you might hear co-host Greta Johnsen doing a personal endorsement for Audible.

It’s not surprising that spots like that can command more money. In fact, This American Life host/CEO Ira Glass talked about this a couple weeks ago at SXSW when he was interviewed by writer Mark Olsen.

OLSEN: And what are the economics of the podcasting model? Like, is it …

GLASS: It’s crazy. It’s amazing. It’s unbelievable. It’s like boom time. It’s like it’s a bubble. It’s a bubble! [laughs] But we’re gonna ride out this bubble for as long as it lasts.

Like, the podcast ads bring in more money than the radio ads do, even just for a little 15-second, like, “This show brought to you by Squarespace” or MailChimp. You know, they bring in more money — the CPMs are like 50 or 60 CPMs, for people who know what that is.

If you don’t know, CPM is the unit by which a lot of advertising is sold. It stands for “cost per mille” — “mille” is Latin for a thousand. (I have no idea why we do Latin for this.)

But let’s do some math here, based on that scrap of information Glass gave us.

According to This American Life’s iTunes description, they get 1.5 million downloads a week. The podcast version of the show typically has two advertisers per episode, I’d say. The advertisers get a preroll and a midroll — I have no idea if they pay separately for those, but let’s say they don’t and that it’s a package deal.

If the advertisers are paying a 60 CPM — $60 per thousand impressions on 1.5 million downloads — that’s $90,000 per ad.

If you have two advertisers in an episode, that’s $180,000 a week, times 52 weeks in a year — that’s almost $9.4 million annually, just in ad revenue for the podcast version of This American Life, to say nothing of what they make in underwriting and station subscription fees for the radio version of the show, and to say nothing of that other little show they make called Serial.

(I emailed This American Life to confirm my math and never heard back.)

That’s serious money. I can’t say exactly by how much, but that’s a lot more money per listener than anybody in public radio makes on the radio with underwriting.

That’s serious money that Ira and co. are using to pay for serious journalism. Every third or fourth episode of This American Life these days is a deeply reported piece that somebody spent months working on exclusively. It’s wonderful.

Can we see why podcasting would be attractive economically, as well as creatively? Remember, this is with podcasts making up a tiny fraction of America’s audio diet. Imagine the growth potential here.

What does this all mean for public media in particular? Well let’s look at the iTunes top 20 podcasts chart.

itunes screenshot

At the time I made this screenshot the other day, 10 of the top 20 shows were either public media, or public media–affiliated.

(I say “affiliated” because Ira Glass split off from WBEZ last year and formed his own for-profit B corp; I’m not sure This American Life and Serial fully qualify as public media anymore.)

We’ve got TED Radio Hour at number one, Fresh Air, Radiolab, Freakonomics — all NPR or WNYC shows. Plus you’ve got Modern Love from my old station, WBUR.

Whenever I talk to public radio leaders and ask them about how podcasting could threaten their business models, they always love to point out how public radio is owning the podcast charts, and that’s true, at least for now.

I’m not sure it’s going to be like that forever.

We have to remember how much commercial radio had atrophied before podcasting. Public radio was really the only place left where high-quality programming was being made. That monopoly on quality is already slipping.

Look at all the great stuff on this list that isn’t public media.

itunes chart reverse faded

You’ve got nerdy stuff that sort of feels like public radio even though it isn’t, like Myths and Legends and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. You’ve also got stuff that is aesthetically a million miles away from public radio, like The Joe Rogan Experience. Yep, the guy from Fear Factor has a top-10 podcast.

And yes, I absolutely do think that podcasting can and will threaten public radio’s business model — not in spite of public radio’s success in podcasting but because of it.

You’ve got remember how the NPR system works. It’s really weird. Analogies that people make to the newspaper business or movie studios or any of that are all inherently flawed.

If you want to know more about this, listen to my last show. But here’s the short version.

NPR, the mother ship, makes the most popular radio programming in the system. Morning Edition and All Things Considered are the engines that drive the whole public radio economy.

Local, independently operated stations pay membership dues and programming fees for the right to air those programs locally. The popularity of those programs and a few others enables stations to make money — money from the small-time donors we call “members,” money from advertising-er-I-mean-underwriting, and then they get tax dollars in various ways. It usually works out to a third, a third and a third: donors, corporate money and tax dollars.

Most midsize to large stations make enough money that they can pay all those fees to NPR and they have enough left over to make some local programming, some of it quite good.

Sometimes people compare the NPR-station relationship to that of a manufacturer and a retailer: When the manufacturer starts to sell direct to the customer, as NPR is doing with podcasting, it sucks for the retailer, but c’est la vie.

That comparison doesn’t work because of this added wrinkle: Representatives of local stations hold a permanent majority on NPR’s board. Back in the early ’80s, NPR had a budget crisis; stations bailed it out, and in return, they took control. It’s always reminded me of this scene from the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol.

SCROOGE: In return [for bailing out the company], we wish to be allowed the option of buying up further shares in the company to a maximum of 51 percent of the total.

JORKIN: In short gentlemen, if you wish to save the fair name of the company by accepting their generous offer, they become the company!

Now, some people — myself included — have probably overstated the influence that stations exert via their hold on the board, but the dynamic is there.

If NPR were its own master, it could simply decide at some point to leave local stations behind. NPR could say to stations, “We’re making more money and doing cooler work with podcasting, so peace out, good luck to you!”

But NPR probably can’t do that, and I go back and forth on whether I think that’s a bad thing. Stations are, I think, both the best and the worst thing about the NPR system. But that’s a talk for another day.

Suffice it to say, podcasting is just starting to threaten the economic and political order that has kept the system going for 45 years.

Here’s a Nielsen chart that got a lot of attention late last year:

Source: Nielsen via NPR

Source: Nielsen via NPR

Morning Edition listening dropped 11 percent from 2010 to 2015. The only age bracket that NPR stations made progress with over that time was 65+. (I think what that is, by the way, is baby boomers — who have always been NPR’s core demo — aging into that senior-citizen bracket.)

Now, are younger people listening less because they’re listening to podcasts instead? No doubt that’s part of the reason. Livestreaming of radio is probably a bigger factor, and that makes a lot of public radio people happy because livestreaming basically duplicates all of the organizational relationships we have now.

But NPR will also tell you that livestreaming, while big, is flat. Podcasting is growing; it has the momentum.

I’m not terribly worried about any of this stuff. I think the NPR station system will either adapt to the coming world or it won’t. But public media does not rest on NPR’s shoulders alone. There are Internet-native public media organizations like Public Radio Exchange that can carry the flame.

For the rest of my talk, I want to talk about the things I am worried about vis-à-vis public media and podcasting — two things I will call the “mission crisis” and the “localism crisis.”

The mission crisis first.

This is LBJ signing the Public Broadcasting Act, which turns 50 next year:

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 in the East Room of the White House. (Photo: Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Library)

(Photo: Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Library)

Believe it or not, there are two competing narratives within public media about what those old white guys intended public broadcasting to be.

Narrative A: Public broadcasting was supposed to do important things that commercial broadcasters either can’t or won’t. It was supposed to fill gaps in the marketplace.

Narrative B: Public broadcasting was just supposed to be better than commercial broadcasting.

Both of those interpretations find support within the text of the act and in Johnson’s signing statement, but I do think they offer conflicting objectives. “Different” and “better” are not necessarily the same thing.

For a lot of its history, public radio hasn’t had to think too hard about this conflict within its mission. Why? Because in most cities, there basically is no serious commercial news programming on the radio.

Simply by doing competent journalism on the radio, public radio was both filling a hole in the market and being better than commercial media. It still is.

But when we hop over to podcasting, things are more complicated.

The new NPR Politics podcast is really good, and really popular. But does it fulfill a public need that is all that different from the need being met by the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast? Or Slate’s Political Gabfest? Or Vox’s The Weeds? Or any of the other dozens of high-quality commercial politics podcasts out there?

I would say no. With the NPR Politics podcast, public media is duplicating a service that is already widely available in the commercial market. If the point of public media is to fill holes, then this product is off mission.

If the point of public media is to be better than commercial media — to raise the bar — then we have to ask ourselves: Is NPR Politics better than FiveThirtyEight Elections or all the others? I don’t know, and I don’t know how you measure that.

These are the questions that I think producers of major, national public media podcasts need to wrestle with.

That’s the mission crisis brought about by podcasting. Let’s talk about the localism crisis.

It’s really hard to make a high-quality local news or public affairs radio show that carries its own water. Most shows like my old local show at WBUR, Radio Boston, are — again — subsidized by the popularity of the big national shows.

This is the most valuable thing about the NPR station system, as it exists now. And when people say, “Man, NPR just needs to leave those mooching local intermediaries in the dust,” what I think is, “Dude, do you seriously not care about local?”

Local stations are producing tons of podcasts too, of course. Most of them are repurposed radio content. I don’t know of any successful podcast-only podcast that a public radio station is making for an exclusively local audience. The scale needed to make such a program monetarily sustainable just isn’t possible when only 20 percent of Americans are listening to podcasts at least once a month.

Sustainable local-only podcasts, in most markets, will have to wait until podcast adoption rockets way up, I reckon.

However, I do think many stations are experimenting with a model that is perhaps viable right now. It’s what I call the “local+” podcasting model. Here’s how I represent it on a whiteboard:

local+ podcast graphWith local+, do a show that appeals to a geographically concentrated local audience, but also has some appeal to a niche, geographically dispersed global audience. Maybe neither of these audiences would be big enough to sustain your show by themselves, but put them together and you get a viable podcast. Or so the theory goes.

What sort of show might have local+ appeal? Let me show you a few.

Here’s a clip from Inside Appalachia, a podcast made by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Obviously a podcast about Appalachian culture is going to appeal to their local audience, but it may also appeal to the very large Appalachian diaspora. Sadly, this is a part of the country where a lot of the best and brightest grow up and leave, seeking economic opportunity elsewhere. But many such people still feel a deep cultural connection to the region.

From a small market to the biggest market, here’s a new podcast from WNYC called There Goes the Neighborhood. It’s about gentrification in Brooklyn.

Obviously people in Brooklyn are going to be into this show, but Brooklyn is also the leading edge of a nationwide phenomenon. Anybody, anywhere who is interested in gentrification — or urban revitalization, or whatever you want to call it — is going to have their eye on Brooklyn. It’s ground zero for this issue.

Are We There Yet is the new podcast from WMFE in Orlando; it’s about the future of manned spaceflight. Lots of people all over the universe, shall we say, are interested in that subject. But there’s also a concentrated local interest in WMFE’s service area, which includes the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral — what they call Florida’s “Space Coast.” A lot of local people’s jobs there are connected to spaceflight.

In contrast to the continuous productions we’ve mentioned, I think limited-run series might be particularly conducive to the local+ model. When a big national story pops up in your backyard, you should make a podcast about it for as long as the story holds the national attention.

For example, Finish Line is another great podcast from my old station in Boston. When the Boston Marathon bomber went on trial, WBUR did a podcast episode every day that court was in session. It was great for the concentrated local audience, and it was great for the dispersed global audience that was following the story.

Really exciting stuff, right? I could have gone on and on. There’s so many great examples — lots of local stations, big and small, experimenting with podcasts.

My fear — and forgive me for ending my talk on a down note — is that there is a certain Gold Rush mentality happening around podcasts right now.

Ira Glass called it a “bubble” earlier; I’m not sure that’s right. A bubble happens when speculators drive up the price of an asset far beyond its actual value. I don’t see a lot of speculators investing in podcasting right now.

I don’t think it’s a bubble — I think it’s a gold rush. Somebody struck gold, so now we’ve all got to start digging, too.

“Well, where should we dig?”

“Shut up, it doesn’t matter, just pick somewhere at random and start digging, man!”

Actually, the better analogy might be from South Park. Remember the “Underpants Gnomes”? They steal your underpants in the night, because that’s the first phase of their three-phase business plan.

STAN: I don’t get it.

GNOME: You see, phase one: collect underpants. Phase two: [silence]. Phase three: profit!

None of them knew what “phase two” was!

I think in the present podcasting market, we have a lot of Underpants Gnomes out there — people who have started a show with the expectation that it will somehow build audience and/or make money, but the map from A to B on that is kind of smudged.

But you know what? I think that’s OK. It’s great, even.

Public radio has been calcified for way too long. The kind of low-investment, low-expectations experimentation that gave us Car Talk 40 years ago just hasn’t happened on any kind of wide scale for a long time.

Public radio was a victim of its own success, I think. It professionalized, it set great ratings and revenue benchmarks that it then had to uphold, and it got really cautious for a really long time.

Now with podcasting, everything is up in the air again, and I can’t wait to see what comes down and sticks the landing.

To all the gnomes out there, I say, keep stealing those underpants. If we steal enough, somebody might actually find a way to convert them into profit.

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

One thought on “How public radio podcasters are like the Underpants Gnomes from ‘South Park’

  1. Adam, this is an amazing piece. I appreciate the thought and consideration you put into this. Coincidentally, our blog post today is on the same topic (although my post is much less colorful than yours) – how broadcasting can become better podcasters. I based it on the Neiman Labs story about the New York Times’ podcasting division (featuring former NPR exec Kinsey Wilson), as well as NPR’s new podcast, Kelly McEvers’ “Embedded.” You can read it here:

    I also appreciate you quoting PRTS7, and wanted to mention that we’re talking to public radio stations around the U.S. right now about participating in PRTS8 which fields next month. We’re going to be taking a much deeper die into the podcasting waters. Interested stations can contact Lisa Riker at 248-353-9030.

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