Why NPR’s new podcast strategist sees opportunity after a turbulent year for the network

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Tyler Falk

Collin Campbell is the self-proclaimed optimistic new guy at NPR. 

“Everywhere I look, I see opportunity,” he said two months into his role as NPR’s SVP of podcasting strategy. “I took the job because I’m energized by it.”

Campbell, who arrived months after NPR ceased production of four podcasts amid budget cuts, told Current that he’s being deliberate and talking with colleagues and stations as he evaluates options for strengthening the network’s podcast portfolio. 

Collin Campbell, NPR’s SVP of podcasting strategy

Prior to joining NPR in December, Campbell was executive editor for new show development at Gimlet Media and EP of original content at Audible. He produced public radio news for about a decade earlier in his career, starting in 2003 as an associate producer for WNYC’s Morning Edition. He then moved into national program development and production with The Takeaway and Freakonomics Radio. Campbell left WNYC to become managing director for audio content and strategy at KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., where he worked until departing for Audible in 2016.

Campbell talked to Current about his priorities, how he hopes to build on NPR’s successes in podcasting and why limited-run podcasts still have a place in the network’s portfolio.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tyler Falk, Current: Why did you want to return to public media?

Collin Campbell: I left in part because I was frustrated by the attention that was being paid to podcasting at that time. It felt like there wasn’t enough focus on the podcast audience or enough investment in producers and programming to meet that audience. And it feels now like a really different world. 

I was really excited to see the December Podtrac ranker with NPR News Now as the top podcast in the country. Public radio is in a really different spot with a lot of really wonderful things happening across a lot of different platforms. 

I also entered the capital-P big podcast universe with a lot of other public radio producers and public media people. The work over the seven years that I was there just got further and further away from journalism and from news, and from having a sense of what it was trying to do and who it was trying to connect with. It became pretty clear to me in 2023 that I wanted to find my way back.

Current: What drew you to this specific role?

Campbell: NPR has a really diversified strategy. In the podcast world, it’s kind of an anomaly. NPR is a very big production operation that has a very big footprint in traditional broadcast. It’s got a very big footprint in podcasts, incredible placement in Alexa and new platforms. The NPR app, newly unified, is an incredible thing to offer. And stations … have incredible communities connecting with them on new platforms and event spaces around really interesting new topics. 

Public media is something I have a lifelong passion for and I really want to see succeed. And I’m here to be a part of it.

Current: What is NPR’s biggest challenge in the podcasting space?

Campbell: I haven’t unearthed enormous challenges. I’m the new guy in the building who sees a lot of opportunity and has met a lot of really talented people. I’m feeling pretty sanguine at the moment. It’s really exciting to see the work we’re doing connecting in really big and creative ways. That goes from Up First and NPR News Now, which are pretty traditional news products, all the way to the Sunday version of Up First. It’s a longer version of the show called Sunday Story that reflects Sunday listening patterns. It’s a place where we’re featuring the work of member stations and more creative things that feel kind of like a driveway moment. It feels really exciting to be able to do all those things at once. 

Everywhere I look, I see opportunity. I took the job because I’m energized by it. I’m trying to line up what we’re able to do and put together our ability to do it. There’s a lot of operational stuff with that, a lot of being able to set a strategy that can focus everybody, motivate us and give us a chance, knowing that it’s a really unpredictable world right now. 

Current: What are your top priorities?

Campbell: I don’t have them yet, to be honest. I’m talking to everybody in every corner of the building and trying to make sure that the full brain trust of NPR is working at this. I’m also trying to keep close tabs with stations and get a clear sense of what they’re trying to do right now and what’s working for them. There are some clever ideas in the building about how [National Public Media] can participate with station podcasts. And there are a lot of promotional exchanges going on and ways that we can function as a bigger network all together, which feels important to me. 

I’m trying to make sure that I have all the stakeholders in my mind as I try to make some of those choices. I’m not ready to make them now necessarily.

Current: What strategies are you hoping to implement to help NPR grow its podcasts?

Campbell: We need programmatic coordination, and we need to take advantage of the platforms that NPR has. Podcasts have to support each other in some ways, and we have to look for affinity between listeners and content to move people around and to build the most habitual kind of listening that we can.

Our content really stands apart, especially from the lighter-format, less intensely produced material out there. Some of it is telling that story and making sure that we’re making that case with people. And some is just how we message it, how we get ourselves covered and how we advocate with platforms like Apple and Spotify and other places. Some of it is how we feature that work on the air. We have to try and get in front of new audiences and tell that story all over again. 

There’s a strong relationship in other new media for people making financial contributions to media that they want to support or to people they believe in. We’re legacy holders of that kind of relationship in media in a very big way. We have to remind people of that and make that case all over again to people who didn’t grow up listening to their local public radio station. Some tools are making it easier to do that. 

For about the first 14 years of Apple Podcasts and iTunes, there wasn’t a way to do that. And now there’s a button that does, the NPR+ program. It’s trying to raise money in that way and has started making payments back to stations to help support the work and function like a network. A lot of that stuff is super encouraging to me.

There’s less overlap than ever before between broadcast and podcast audiences. So figuring out how that revenue functions among podcast listeners is really important for us. And it’s helpful to have the platform support it. 

… We grew up with a really unhealthy reliance on advertising and sponsorship. And that’s part of what put NPR through the last year that it had. 

It’s important for podcast platforms to be responsive to the needs of the producers. I would love to see Apple recognize NPR as a nonprofit and give us a different status where we don’t have to give up the same amount of contributions that everybody in for-profit land has to give up for being on their platforms. It would be really helpful to have advantages like that and have nonprofit media recognized as having a unique relationship with the people who contribute to it. 

I’ll be advocating for things like that internally and externally just to help us grow the safety net. Or maybe the better metaphor is the foundation or the rough carpentry. We need to make sure that’s in a really good spot before we can grow more. 

Current: When you’re looking to add a new podcast, what do you think would help bolster NPR’s portfolio?

Campbell: It’s partly building on the success we’ve had. Think of Planet Money, which has a really unique voice in podcasting. They were able to create The Indicator out of that and establish listening habits where people come for shorter daily experiences and longer narrative experiences. Planet Money‘s TikTok reaches 800,000 followers now. It is a really fascinating audience that looks a lot different than our other audiences. The people running that are among the most creative people in the building. They’re coming at stories from different angles every single day. It’s a really wonderful thing to see. 

So I’m thinking about how we create an environment to incubate or launch things like that. Some of it is development work for us to refine the work we’re already doing. 

Up First has a clear place in everyone’s listening day and with a very big audience. I’d love Consider This to find its place in that way and have a strong, wide audience of people looking for a different approach to the day’s news, one that has a real place in their news diet each day. 

Some of it is just operational. We’re not in a position this year to launch a ton of new things. We’re trying to keep as much of what we have in a good place by making sure that the actual support and execution of the podcasts that we have are strong.

Current: When NPR cut its podcast slate last year, limited-run, seasonal shows like Louder Than a Riot were canceled. What do you see as the viability of limited-run podcasts at NPR?

Campbell: It’s important for NPR to have commitments to that kind of storytelling. Those kinds of storytellers and those shapes of stories are a big part of what defined NPR’s voice and attracted people to podcasting in the first place. There’s still an incredible footprint for us in that space. 

One of my favorite shows is Throughline, which has kind of a seasonal publishing cadence and  relentless originality to it — from the way they tell stories to the original score that Ramtin Arablouei creates for each episode. They’re going to turn five years old this year, which is a really important milestone for the show and for NPR. In five years flat, they won a Peabody Award. They’re connecting with listeners in really amazing ways. And some of the listener support for that show is really strong. So it’s great to see that. 

Current: What do you see as the path to sustainability for seasonal, limited-run podcasts?

Campbell: It’s wrong to ask about sustainability just for those kinds of shows. Everybody is watching them with an eye for that. They’ve obviously taken a black eye with their inability to get there. They work much better in an organization like NPR that can support them and has the scale to do many things at once. 

I’m excited to be here and much more comfortable pushing that kind of work when we have so many different places that we can connect with listeners, so many different places that we can raise money and connect with sponsors. It’s not all on one feed or one show to do that. 

It’s clear for the brand that that kind of storytelling matters. It’s clear when you make membership appeals and connect development and fundraising with that original storytelling. Fewer and fewer outlets are able to do this, but it’s being done at NPR. That makes a huge difference. People will speak up and support that. 

It makes a remarkable contribution to those appeals, to that message, to the NPR brand and the public media brand broadly to keep that kind of work going. 

Current: What needs to happen to grow podcasts sustainably to avoid what happened last year?

Campbell: That’s another question I don’t feel qualified to answer, honestly. I’m trying to figure out how that happened last year. I don’t totally get it. I think it was an industrywide shock, not that NPR misjudged things.

I’m going to approach this year pretty carefully. I’m not here to tell you that we’re on the march and that I’ve got 25 ideas in my back pocket that we’re going to have out the door by October. All of us in content leadership are looking at ways to unify the content division, looking for all the advantages that gives us and for where audiences are building.

That’s happening in a lot of places. We have big and demanding audiences that I’m really excited about serving. But we have to approach the expansion of the programming and podcasts we make in a way that’s careful. We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past or fall victim to the shocks of the past.

Current: How much of your role, if any, is dedicated to working with or helping stations with their podcast strategy?

Campbell: It’s a little TBD. Because I came from stations, I am listening all the time to what stations are doing. I like to think of the public media network not as 625 people making content under the NPR banner, but as 4,000 people across the country trying all kinds of different things, who have incredible skills and incredible insights into their communities. … I feel very connected to the creative processes at stations and all the really talented people there. 

There are some really important footprints at NPR right now — from Embedded to the Sunday release of Up First — to other places where we can feature and connect with the work of stations. I’m trying to encourage and identify some promotional exchanges and sponsorship inventory partnerships, and stations are a really important part of the mix. I feel that pretty deeply.

Current: What’s stood out to you, in terms of listener data, that might inform your strategy going forward?

Campbell: I was really surprised to see that the overlap between podcast and broadcast is almost in single digits now. These audiences are really different. There’s a similar, almost generational gap in age now between the podcast and broadcast audiences. 

More than ever before it feels like those audiences are separate, and they have different relationships to the NPR brand.

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