At NHPR podcasts are a blessing – unless they become a curse

  • Editing podcasts is a team effort at NHPR. “Here we are editing the first episode (of ‘Bear Brook’),” wrote Maureen McMurray, director of content for NHPR, in a Twitter comment. “We may have taken it too far.” Courtesy of NHPR

Monitor staff
Published: 11/17/2018 10:11:31 PM

There are some interesting things happening at New Hampshire Public Radio these days, but in a departure from tradition, they draw as much inspiration from the success of House of Cards as from the legacy of Edward R. Murrow.

“The on-demand world is out there – look at Netflix and see how that has worked,” said Tim Brady, director of corporate support at NHPR. “See what on-demand has done to the movie and TV space, in the conversations and the creativity. ... The fact that we have already been doing this is very positive.”

Positive, yes, but also problematic.

For radio, “on-demand” means podcasts, the clumsy name for programs made to be downloaded or streamed and heard at the listeners’ discretion rather than broadcast over the air at times the station decides.

NHPR is punching above its weight in the podcast world. It has produced successes like the environmental program “Outside/In,” which has won prestigious national awards; the government how-to show “Civics 101,” such a surprise hit with educators that it may be extended beyond its original run; and the true-crime podcast “Bear Brook,” which has been downloaded 1.1 million times as of Friday and almost topped the iTunes version of the hit parade.

But NHPR also has to figure out how a station that has thrived via a half-century-old fundraising model will handle the financial transition that podcasting brings.

Public radio is very good at getting listeners and corporations, who hear the same programs at the same time, to give money, not just because they like a show but because they like the station as a whole. The question is how that can translate to a world where listeners are increasingly likely to hear only separate, distinct programs at scattered times.

Will NHPR have to depend on straightforward advertising in their podcasts like commercial TV, or subscription models like Netflix, or luring people into opening their wallets for exclusive content like some online newspapers? Or will something else entirely come along?

“We’ve been putting a process into place to figure out how we can do things moving forward. We understand that this is the future and we want to be there. But we have to figure not only should we do this, but can we do this?” said Maureen McMurray, director of content for the station.

“The revenue piece has to go there, too. But if you don’t invest in the on-demand programming now … at a certain point you’re not going to exist,” she said.

‘Serial’ changed things

Podcasts have been around for a decade or more but for years they were either small, amateur efforts – somebody talking about their hobby or ranting about politics – or regular radio shows copied from broadcast to download. Then in late 2014 the explosive success of “Serial,” true-crime journalism made specifically for a multiple-episode podcast, led audio producers to think about creating shows just for download, free of constraints about running time or production schedules.

Now there are literally thousands of professionally made podcasts out there and they are rejuvenating the whole idea of audio content.

A recent survey by Edison Research said that 54 million Americans – one out of every seven people over the age of 12 – listen to podcasts for an average of 6½ hours per week. The total value of advertising on podcasts is estimated at $400 million. And in the ultimate sign of acceptance in the startup era, a company called Luminary Media that wants to be a global platform for podcasts recently raised $40 million from investors.

NHPR, based on Pillsbury Street in Concord, has noticed. Despite the fact that it’s small compared to on-demand organizations with national presence like WNYC or the Radiotopia conglomerate, with about 70 full-time staffers and an operating budget of around $8 million, it has plunged into podcasting.

That includes creating a separate group to oversee the creation of podcasts, called the Creative Production Unit, that will soon have 10 people.

While those people also work on broadcast material – there’s so much overlap that NHPR doesn’t have a separate budget for podcasting – this does indicate that more than 10 percent of the station’s journalistic energy and attention is now devoted to on-demand material.

Podcast vs. broadcast

As will be familiar to any company developing new products while keeping up the existing line, this growth can create clashes over resources.

The obvious example to listeners is Sam Evans-Brown, who was once the stations’ environmental reporter, heard regularly on the air covering news and providing insight about pollution and energy markets and climate change and many other issues.

Since the environmental podcast “Outside/In” launched in 2015 and turned Evans-Brown into something of a celebrity among the tree-hugging crowd, his presence over the air has been much curtailed. He generates long podcast episodes every week but is only heard over car radios occasionally, such as in “Ask Sam,” short twice-monthly segments where he answers listeners’ questions.

Erika Janik is executive producer of the Creative Production Unit – when asked her title, she replies: “I say podcast producer.” She agrees that there sometimes can be a tension but she calls it a creative tension, the product of inventing something new more than protecting something old.

“Sure, we lost Sam from the daily news – buy now we have another environmental reporter, and the two of them are always in consultation. There’s a lot of crossover between what we’re doing on the podcast and what we’re doing on the daily show,” she said. “One isn’t robbing the other.”

One of the things that NHPR has been trying to do is mix and match the on-demand and the broadcast material, getting their audio journalism onto as many different platforms as possible, to use industry terminology.

This mixing can be as straightforward as having Jason Moon, the reporter who created “Bear Brook,” do a short segment touting the podcast on the popular morning call-in show “The Exchange.”

“We might do that to get our broadcast listeners who aren’t quite ready to pick up a podcast, to incentivize them to join this new world,” said Taylor Quimby, a senior producer at NHPR who has held a host of jobs at the station, including producing “Outside/In.”

Or it might involve taking created pieces of podcast shows and using them as part of broadcast programs such as “Word of Mouth,” or going the other way, like expanding a broadcast item and turning it into a podcast episode.

“It makes sense to put them in all these different places because it looks different in each one and serves the audiences differently,” said Quimby.

What about money?

Public radio has always depended on a mix of incomes streams: donations, grants, the subtle advertisements called sponsorships, and some public money. Podcasts are experimenting with these, too.

At the start of one episode of “Bear Brook,” for example, Moon flat-out asked for a $20 donation. McMurray says more than 1,000 people responded, many from far outside New Hampshire, even without the lure of a tote bag.

“Outside/In” has featured short simple radio ads from a number of places, including the state of South Dakota.

“Civics 101,” the how-government-works podcast, received $230,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which was impressed with its original approach. NHPR hopes to get a repeat for the upcoming year.

Down the road, there’s always the possibility of offering “exclusive content” such as extra interviews or bonus episodes in return for payment, or even going the route of paid subscriptions. No podcast has done that yet, but it is often discussed as a way to pay for the ever-growing cost of listener’s ever-growing expectations.

“It’s a test, try something and see, because there’s no definitive model out there,” said Brady ,the director of corporate support. “We try something, if that didn’t work, we got bad feedback, we’d turn right and try the next step and see if it works. It’s a learning experience for everybody.”

On-demand revolution

The fact that the existing public radio audience skews older, a demographic that doesn’t always embrace technical novelty, is a potential obstacle.

“I spend a lot of time showing people how to sign up for podcasts,” said Janik. “I am surprised at the range of people who aren’t quite sure how to do it, although they are super-excited about it. They like the idea of not being tethered to a certain broadcast schedule.”

McMurray thinks that continued change in technology will make the transition to on-demand more important, pointing to the explosive growth of smart speakers that makes it easier to listen to a specific podcast instead of a radio station.

“My parents never listened to a podcast until they could say, ‘Hey, Alexa, play this,’ ” she commented, referring to the smart speaker from Amazon. “When you see more connected cars, you’ll see lowered barriers of entry and then you’ll see it being adopted more and more.”

But there’s one aspect of the on-demand revolution that most people at NHPR would agree on: It has rejuvenated the whole idea of audio journalism and spoken-word presentation.

“When I started, in 2002, people said: Radio? It’s a dying industry! Why would you go into it?” commented McMurray.

Not anymore.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)




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