As a public radio station, Boston’s WBUR is in the business of audio news and storytelling, so the fact that it’s launched a new show about health care issues shouldn’t be surprising. But it isn’t a new radio show — it’s a podcast. And it’s a collaboration with the for-profit media world — in partnership with Slate, home to one of the most successful collection of podcasts outside public radio.
The Checkup is a new weekly podcast hosted by Rachel Zimmerman and Carey Goldberg, the writers behind CommonHealth, WBUR’s three-year-old blog on health care issues and medical research. The show is the next evolution of the blog, where Zimmerman and Goldberg talk with doctors, scientists, and other experts about topics like pregnancy myths, mental health, and problems with sex.
WBUR and Slate are partnering to produce six episodes of the show, with hopes to continue if it gets a good response. It’s an experiment for both organizations: WBUR wants to reach wider audiences on the web, while Slate wants to grow its podcasts by working with partners.
It’s the classic media trade — you give me content, I give you audience — only this time with a public/private twist.
Working with WBUR is the second public media collaboration for Slate, which partnered with New York’s WNYC to shape the site’s Gabfest podcasts into a weekly hour-long radio show. “We know from our guts and our research that there is a lot of overlap between the Slate and public media audiences,” said Andy Bowers, the executive producer for Slate’s podcasts.
Slate creates and distributes 10 podcasts at the moment, covering topics ranging from politics, sports, and culture to women’s issues, technology, and books. Those shows have created a kind of runway to help launch new shows as audiences have become more accustomed to Slate’s brand of shows, Bowers said. While The Checkup will have its own feed available through Slate, the show will also be featured in the site’s daily podcast feed.
Bowers, who comes from a public radio background, said partnering with stations makes sense because they have the expertise and resources when it comes to making a show. “We’ve been actively looking for public radio partners who we might be able to expand podcasting and offer them a national platform,” he said.
Zimmerman and Goldberg put the show together at WBUR, which is produced by editor and engineer George Hicks. The two have backgrounds in newspaper reporting; Zimmerman is a former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Goldberg was previously Boston bureau chief for The New York Times. CommonHealth in something like its current form came to life in 2010 as one of NPR’s Argo Project blogs, designed to look at health care and health insurance issues.
The idea behind the show, Goldberg told me, was to have the show feel accessible and relatable — to have a format that is conversational and chatty but also backed with reporting and knowledgable experts. “The best compliment we’ve gotten so far is that we’re the Click and Clack of health,” Goldberg said. But the show takes a lot of its cues from the blog, which often looks at health issues around the news and examines them further with the help of researchers and clinicians. “We’re not doctors, so to be able to talk about health we needed the experts to talk about it,” she said.
Zimmerman said the transition into a podcast wasn’t difficult because their stories from CommonHealth are often turned into radio pieces. Zimmerman said the difference now is that they try to find sources who do well in a kind of radio interview environment.
Each episode of The Checkup centers around a theme, but if the show goes forward Zimmerman said they’d like to find a way to work on more newsy issues. One part of the pilot process of the first six episodes will be learning how much of a time commitment the show is and what the work flow looks like, Goldberg said.
The two think the show has a shot of doing well with a wider audience, especially because the blog already sees half of its traffic come from a national audience, Goldberg said. In some ways, it’s the kind of success the Argo Project aspired to — topic-based, locally produced content with the capacity for national reach. Public radio stations are inherently local, and reaching a national audience has typically meant going through NPR, PRI, or APM. But with podcasts, someone like Slate — with a loyal audience for audio already baked in — can step in to be a powerful distributor.
While Bowers didn’t offer specific numbers on podcast downloads or listenership, he said Slate’s audio audience continues to grow. Advertising in the podcasts continues to do well, with some shows having sold out their ad slots through the rest of the year, Bowers said. At the moment, The Checkup does not carry ads, but if the show goes forward they may find ways to monetize it, John Davidow, executive editor of WBUR.org, told me.
Because of that advertiser interest, and the continued growth in listeners, Slate wants to keep producing new shows and partnering to help bring others to life. “I think of podcasting as a way to pilot things in a low-cost way,” Bowers said.
Air time is a limited resource for most public radio stations. Competition for schedule space is fierce and leaves little room for experimentation. It’s a problem confronting NPR as well as it tries to find a new generation of shows and hosts as favorites like Car Talk are phased into retirement.
But even as NPR tries to become more agile in its show development, it’s hard to beat podcasting as a route to Minimum Viable Product. There’s more freedom to figure out what format works, how production should be handled, and whether the show can find a following, Davidow said. Podcasts are also cheap to start: “With a podcast, you’re not going right to hiring staff and creating a show because you think there’s an audience for it,” Davidow said. “You can get in people’s ears before you have to make a commitment.”
Davidow said the station plans to launch several new podcasts and other digital shows this fall, all based on existing blogs and other projects. The Checkup, he said, is a great example of a show that has potential to flourish online and maybe make it on air some day. “A lot of web sites for legacy media, for broadcast legacy media, they reverse that trend: They take what’s on the air and webify it and put it through the process to fit the digital medium,” Davidow said. “In this case, we’re reversing that flow.”
Image by Alan Levine used under a Creative Commons license.