Vox’s Today, Explained will launch on public radio this week, marking the return of Noel King and Sean Rameswaram to stations’ airwaves.
WNYC will distribute the half-hour show to at least 13 licensees in the initial launch, including New Hampshire Public Radio, WHYY in Philadelphia and WVXU in Cincinnati. Produced as a podcast since 2018, the show digs into one topic in depth each day, a departure from King’s previous hosting duties at the fast-paced Morning Edition.
“We do something that I think radio especially will benefit from, which is that we spend a lot of time providing context for the major stories that are in the news,” said Rameswaram, who left WNYC in 2017 to launch the Vox podcast. “On the radio you might be tuning in for five minutes here, 10 minutes there, and catching a little piece of a big news story. But we’re going to hang out with you if you will hang with us for 22-ish minutes every day and give you as much context as humanly possible to help you understand a major story.”
Today, Explained has been collaborating with journalists from local newspapers, small news outlets and public radio stations, as it did for a March episode exploring the U.S. Border Patrol with a reporter from KPBS in San Diego.
“We always want more collaboration with public radio stations and with their reporters,” King told Current. “We go to the person who is the most equipped to give us the full picture, who has the most detailed analysis, who has the most experience … and public radio stations have those people on site, so that’s an incredible resource for us.”
At first, Jenell Walton, VP of content at WVXU, had no plans to switch around her program schedule. But she was convinced to pick up Today, Explained after listening to the episode “All-American divorce,” in which King visited a wealthy Atlanta neighborhood attempting to secede from the rest of the city.
“It was as if I was just sitting on my couch, listening to a really smart friend who happens to actually hold a Ph.D. on the subject,” she said. “They break it down into something anyone can actually understand. … They make it fun by going back sometimes and grabbing some archived interviews, and it just takes you to the place where it’s actually happening when they do that.”
Other stations are still assessing the podcast and how it could fit into their schedules. KPBS is taking a “wait-and-see attitude,” said Associate GM John Decker.
“While I’m happy to see new daily programming, which is incredibly time consuming and expensive to produce, I am reluctant to provide valuable air time for an organization that is outside of our ecosystem,” Decker said in an email to Current. “I used to be an open-sourcer who was all in favor of welcoming new content creators to the pub media world, but I have become much less open minded as we see consolidation in the media business which is aimed at less profit-sharing, so to speak.”
So far, Decker says he hasn’t seen anything from Vox or WNYC that helps assuage his concerns that stations won’t benefit from airing Today, Explained as much as Vox will. Similarly, Decker said, the New York Times’ The Daily benefits from public radio carriage without cross-promoting its presence on stations.
Other program directors shared similar concerns over providing a public radio audience for commercial competitors. Like Decker, Ben Adler, PD at CapRadio in Sacramento, Calif., has reservations about bringing on Today, Explained.
“My biggest concern is with anything that could eat away at our core audience,” he said.
Adler said he’s also seen that appointment listening for programs has decreased, with the exception of live shows and events. While NPR’s newsmagazines can become appointment listening when major news is breaking, he said, “it’s not really true for a show like The Daily or Today, Explained. You can listen to that show anytime you want.”
King argues the podcast could draw new audiences that public radio needs to survive. When she visited NPR stations for fundraising events during her time at Morning Edition, King said, she heard that stations “wanted younger and more diverse listenership. They wanted listenership that better reflected their communities. Sean and I are those voices. We’re both millennials. We are a bit younger. We are a bit more diverse, even though NPR’s made some great strides there.”
WNYC will produce a pledge-friendly version of the podcast starting in a few weeks, though the launch stations that are pledging have not scheduled the program during pledge-drive hours. WNYC charges stations one fee for all of its content, including Today, Explained.
The show feeds to stations at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, allowing some scheduling flexibility. At WHYY, the show will carry substantial weight as it leads into the station’s flagship program, Fresh Air, said Audio GM John Mussoni.
“Part of me is intrigued with the idea of, we’re all trying to figure out what the digital frontier is, and in a way the the podcast digital world is saying, ‘Hey, we still need a little boost from from the legacy world,’ and the legacy world is saying, ‘We still need new content,’” he said. “So why don’t we figure out where’s the intersection of our worlds and try to grow ourselves together?”
This article has been updated to clarify that 13 public radio licensees are carrying Today, Explained.