On the same day Spotify announced that it would eliminate 200 podcasting positions, New Hampshire Public Radio launched The 13th Step, a six-part investigative podcast about sexual misconduct in the addiction-treatment industry that took nearly three years to produce.
The timing wasn’t planned. But it may be indicative of public media’s role in narrative podcasting moving forward.
“With what’s going on in the commercial space, we have a really unique opportunity to once again be leaders in the narrative audio space,” said Rebecca Lavoie, NHPR’s director of on-demand audio. “We are not completely reliant on advertising money to be able to make compelling narrative journalism. … We really are uniquely positioned, and we should be taking full advantage of that right now.”
Nearly 10 years after Serial’s first season popularized the format of the narrative investigative podcast series, NPR and its member stations are using what they’ve learned about how to produce and promote long-form podcast series that will both stand on their own and fit in with other podcasts and programming.
Stations are also learning how to make the most of limited-series podcasts in their fundraising and to use the format as a hook for sponsors. Station leaders say such innovations are essential to ensure that public media can be an outlet for this type of journalism moving forward.
Multiple series, one podcast feed
Limited-series podcasts generally range from six to 10 episodes that are released weekly or all at once. One challenge of this format inside and outside of public media is that it’s difficult to build an audience from scratch in a short time frame when each series is a separate show that listeners need to find and subscribe to in their podcast app of choice.
“We’re past the point of ‘If you podcast it, the audience will come,’” Joni Deutsch, formerly of WFAE and now VP of marketing and audience development at The Podglomerate, wrote for Nieman Lab. “With every media outlet, lifestyle brand, and nonprofit organization getting into the audio race, it won’t be enough to produce the first, the biggest, the best, or the most celebrity-filled podcast to attract ears.”
One way NPR is addressing this problem is by using its Embedded podcast as a platform to showcase limited series produced by member stations and freelance producers who pitch the network’s Enterprise Storytelling team. Embedded runs a new series every six to eight weeks; its current feature is Buffalo Extreme, which examines the May 2022 shooting at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
“The goal is that when you go to Embedded, you know you’re going to get a documentary-style series that digs in and makes you feel closer or better understand a particular community, or a particular way of life, or a particular incident that happened to a community,” said Irene Noguchi, EP of NPR’s Enterprise Storytelling Unit. “We want these things to be recognizable over time and listeners to know that if they go there, they can expect quality stuff.”
This approach also aligns with NPR’s goal of becoming part of its listeners’ daily routines. Noguchi said she hopes Embedded and “The Sunday Story,” the Sunday edition of the Up First podcast that showcases long-form reporting, can be just as much a habit as NPR’s daily podcasts are during the week.
“I listen to, like, five different daily podcasts nearly every day, but when I get to the weekend, my brain switches into weekend mode and listening to long-form series,” Noguchi said. “And I think people are still hungry for that and will work us into their habits when they’re ready for it.”
Noguchi joined NPR in November after working in podcasting at the New York Times, Vox and Politico. “I remember the early days at Vox where Today, Explained was one of the first daily podcasts. It was a lot easier to build up an audience,” Noguchi said. “Now, you know, it’s a trickier landscape, and I find listeners are attracted to quality. That’s what will keep their loyalty. And so that’s what we’re trying to build up with our long-form work.”
Noguchi and the Enterprise Storytelling Unit plan to talk with stations this summer about how they can adopt the Embedded approach with their own podcast series. But some stations are already reaching that conclusion on their own.
Montana Public Radio has produced several limited podcast series, including Richest Hill, about the impact of mining on the environment, in 2019 and Fireline, about the consequences of wildfires, in 2020 and 2021. Joshua Burnham, the station’s digital editor, said the team dove into those projects based on the strength of the stories and didn’t consider how they would promote them once they were released.
“It’s the kind of thing where everybody on the team says ‘Let’s do this,’ and then we move forward with it,” Burnham said. “We were just flying by the seat of our pants.”
Despite the lack of foresight, Fireline went on to win a Regional Murrow Award, and Richest Hill was reviewed in The New Yorker. Burhnam also leaned into the niche aspect of these series to do promotional swaps with other podcasts in those genres as a way to build an audience outside the station’s coverage area.
“Podcasting is part of that long tail part of the internet. There’s always a niche you can fill,” Burnham said. “So if we’re putting out Richest Hill, we’re going to look around and see if there’s anyone else doing environmental podcasts like this.”
Moving forward, Burnham said his team plans to start a new podcast that will showcase its long-form investigative work, similar to what NPR is doing with Embedded.
“Maybe the biggest lesson that we have taken away from our experience is that listeners on those series are so hard-earned and we can’t just go away for them,” Burnham said. “Now, something in our strategic plan is to create some kind of umbrella franchise that we could put these things under and carry our audiences over from one series to another.”
Making the money work
Aside from building and retaining an audience, limited podcast series also challenge conventional methods of generating income. They’re not around long enough to sell stand-alone sponsorship or make money on dynamically inserted ads unless bundled with other podcasts.
Given the cuts to commercial podcasting, both NPR executives and station leaders say they remain committed to finding ways to fund investigative journalism at the heart of narrative podcasts. Rather than focus on the drawbacks of limited series, Bryan Moffett, National Public Media COO and NPR’s SVP of network growth, said his team is thinking about how they can be a selling point to potential sponsors.
“It’s less that the special series are an add-on and more that they’re a hook to putting money toward NPR sponsorship,” Moffett said. “We need new things to talk about. And limited series, I think, really fill a nice need that we have. You can’t not do them. You just have to figure out how to do them in this new environment.”
At NHPR, Lavoie said podcast series like Bear Brook and The 13th Step have become ways to garner support from individual donors who make major gifts to support investigative journalism in podcast form. Securing these gifts requires Lavoie and her team to spend time cultivating donor relationships, something that’s still fairly new for NHPR.
“The reason that it’s worked is that someone like me on the content side is willing to work with the development team and go to events and talk about our work, and our hosts are willing to go to events and talk about their work,” Lavoie said. “And we’re no longer feeling like we can’t share what we are doing [and] what we’re thinking about or talk directly to the very people who are very interested in supporting it.”
Both Lavoie and Burnham said securing funding in advance is now critical for starting any narrative podcast. The reporter’s passion for the topic and the legwork they put into reporting the series can go a long way toward securing the funding needed to make it a reality.
“Our sponsorship support staff is out there pursuing donors for the things we’re currently working on, either donors who can pay for big chunks of it or smaller donors,” Burnham said. “We also at this point have budgets for podcasts we do so we can lay all of that stuff out, try to find the funding and then see if we can make a go of it.”
The shift to major gifts and bundling narrative series with other podcasts also frees podcast producers from the pressure of generating revenue with their series. Lavoie said her thinking on this has evolved since she became NHPR’s head of on-demand audio in 2021.
“Nobody asks how we’re funding our political reporting or our Spanish-language reporting or our website, but they’re asking it about podcasting,” Lavoie said. “I would like to make a plea to every public radio station to think about [limited podcast series] as a platform for a specific type of journalism you do and fund it the way you fund the rest of your stuff. Find the funding model that works for it and talk about it like you talk about the rest of your stuff.”
Thinking outside the box
As public media cements its role as a producer of narrative podcasts, industry observers warn that it should not become too complacent in any one format or approach. Ellen Horne is director of the podcasting and audio reportage concentration at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and a former Radiolab executive producer. She said the current moment feels similar to pitching Radiolab to NPR in 2003.
“Back then, there wasn’t a big clamoring for narrative, big-thinking shows that only produced five episodes at a time. Nobody was asking for it, and it wouldn’t have occurred to anybody that there was going to be a huge audience for that,” Horne said. “But the reality is that when you make really good things, it turns out there is an audience for them.”
The popularity of narrative podcasts created demand from people wanting to learn the craft. NYU’s program is evidence that the demand persists, though there might be fewer opportunities for podcast producers to find homes for their ideas.
Horne said she’s excited by what she’s hearing in the classroom and hopes public radio will remain receptive to new ideas from young producers — something she knows can be difficult.
“At Radiolab, every three to six months, we would do a review to look back at the content that we made and to try to make sure that we weren’t becoming a parody of ourselves,” Horne said. “I think that public media needs to do the same thing. Like, really push itself to try to keep evolving. Right now, its sound certainly doesn’t sound like America, and that continues to be a challenge.”
Horne worked with VPM in Richmond, Va., to produce the series Admissible: Shreds of Evidence, which examines the role of forensic evidence in the criminal legal system through the lens of a Virginia crime lab. The project began as a thesis for one of her students and grew into a collaboration with both VPM and iHeartRadio.
“Frankly, it had not occurred to me to go to VPM originally,” Horne said. “I didn’t think that a public radio station would be receptive to the idea, but it was quite the opposite. VPM has been funding work and taking risks. And that’s honestly that’s what it takes.”
At NPR, Noguchi said her team is already starting to receive pitches from college students and recent graduates, as well as people who have been laid off from elsewhere in podcasting.
“We’re already getting pitches from student podcasters who have a lot of great ideas and a lot of wonderful energy,” Noguchi said. “We’re also finding that many people with amazing pitches are turning towards NPR as one of the last homes to really build out long-form and they’re bringing their pitches to us.”
Another part of the evolution for public media podcasts, Lavoie said, is moving podcast promotion away from in-house marketing teams to outside companies that focus specifically on podcast promotion. NHPR hired The Podglomerate to promote The 13th Step, a decision Lavoie described as a “game-changer” that generated buzz for the show in advance of its launch. Lavoie said The Podglomerate’s work marketing the show built a large enough audience to place ads on it right away.
“It’s not free to hire someone, but it’s also not free to not have an audience for your work,” Lavoie said. “It’s difficult to get public radio stations to spend money on outside marketing, but I can say that once you do it, you’ll see the results.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Rebecca Lavoie joined NHPR in 2021. She became head of on-demand audio in 2021.