Seventeen percent of Americans age 12 and older have listened to at least one podcast in a given month, and awareness of podcasting medium has grown to nearly 50 percent of that population, according to recent data from Edison Research. But if you’re a creator of podcasts, you might see this number as a mere 17 percent, and one that represents a relatively affluent, smartphone-toting slice of society.
With its new Earbud.fm tool, billed as “your friendly guide to great podcasts,” NPR is hoping to expand that slice of society — and lower the barrier of entry for people who want to listen to a podcast for the first time but are paralyzed by thousands of options.
“Podcasting is expanding in a way that makes it a competitor with books, music, movies, [and] TV shows,” Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior VP of news and editorial director, told me.
NPR crowdsourced recommendations for listeners’ favorite podcast episodes via a Google survey last spring, receiving more than 800 different suggestions from more than 6,000 people. An editorial team and a six-person outside panel made up of “people from all over the biz who really know their podcasts” then met throughout the summer to pare down the list to the 228 episodes that Earbud.fm launched with.
The podcast recommendation project has been in the works for over a year, bringing in NPR visualizations editor Brian Boyer’s team, senior editor Ellen Silva’s editorial team for arts and culture, and a mix of other people leading NPR’s digital efforts. It also borrows a bit from NPR’s earlier culture recommendation efforts, such as the popular annual book guide and the Songs We Love platform.NPR itself is a big producer of podcasts, and the team wanted to balance content from NPR with content from other creators. This is the first time NPR has ventured into recommendations in an industry where it’s a major content creator, Oreskes said, and some on the company’s business side asked why NPR should promote podcasts from outside of public radio.
“It was a big editorial challenge to figure out how to build something that was going to be respected by our audiences as a reliable tool,” Oreskes said. “It was very important that we did this totally as a journalistic enterprise. We wanted to treat podcasting fairly and evenhandedly across a range of producers, regardless of whether they were from NPR, private, for-profit, or nonprofit, or even out of somebody’s garage.”About 25 percent of the 228 (unranked) episodes up on Earbud at the moment come from public media companies. The rest are drawn from diverse sources. For instance, an episode of Mystery Show, a podcast from former public radio man Alex Blumberg’s company Gimlet, is there (recommended by actor Neil Patrick Harris), and so is an episode from the indie improv podcast Hello from the Magic Tavern by Arnie Niekamp.
Crowdsourcing episode recommendations was one way “to keep NPR a little at arm’s length,” Oreskes said. The outside panel served as another check. Additionally, nobody was allowed to recommend an episode that they or their employer had produced. (The six members of the panel were PostBourgie contributor Terryn Hall, Longform co-host Max Linsky, KPLU director of content Matt Martinez, Panoply audience development head Nick Quah, BuzzFeed director of audio Jenna Weiss-Berman, and CEO of Audiosear.ch and Pop Up Archive Anne Wootton.)
Earbud listeners can click through a number of categories ranging from the traditional (comedy, music, science and nature) to the quirky (“Huh! Gee Whiz,” “Do It Like a Lady,” “Tug At My Heartstrings”). (The concierge plays the one recommended episode directly on Earbud.fm, but otherwise redirects listeners to the original website of the podcast. Earbud.fm is not intended to be a fully-formed podcast listening platform to replace player apps such as Overcast, Downcast, or Apple’s own podcast app, nor will it move in that direction.)
“Our philosophy for tagging is that we want to provide filters that are both functional and fun,” Earbud.fm editors Beth Novey, Nicole Cohen, and Rose Friedman explained to me in an email. “What are you in the mood for? Do you want something that will brighten your day? Or tug at your heartstrings? Do you want to quickly drill down to find podcasts focused on your favorite topics? Or do you want to know what radio and podcast pros listen to? We know different people search in very different ways and we wanted to provide multiple paths to discovery.”
— Beth Novey (@BethNovey) November 3, 2015
To make discovery really useful on Earbud.fm, the team listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and parsed the defining features of each. The tagging process was similar to the process used to produce the book concierge, but taxonomy for podcasts isn’t quite as standardized as taxonomy for books. How to distinguish, for instance, between formal interviews and casual conversations?
“All the producers working on this project were podcast listeners, too, so when we got stuck we’d ask ourselves: What would we want in a podcast discovery tool?” the editors wrote. “We hoped that if we made a site that was useful to us, it would be useful to other listeners as well.”
The tool was designed to play nicely on mobile, which is increasingly where podcast listening occurs, and to be accessible to podcast listeners and non-listeners alike. The domain extension .fm is a nod to radio, though Earbud lives at a URL completely separate from NPR.org.NPR has a weekly audience of about 34 million across all its stations, and over 77 million podcast downloads each month. It’s been using podcasts to find listeners outside of terrestrial radio: Invisibilia, for instance, aired widely on NPR member stations in January, but was also used to build a big podcast following.
“We are always looking to expand the universe of people who can appreciate public radio content,” said Emma Carrasco, senior VP for audience development at NPR. “We have a very large broadcast listening audience, but when we couple that with audiences that prefer accessing us over digital platforms, it equals a far greater number of people who are hungry and excited for the content that we provide.”
Keeping Earbud.fm fresh for these hungry people will be the main challenge moving forward. If the guide isn’t regularly updated, it loses its value pretty quickly, Oreskes acknowledged. At the moment, listeners can submit additional podcasts for inclusion and also subscribe to a mailing list to get new episode recommendations each weekend. Editors will try to add a few fresh episodes every week.
The team is also talking to member stations that run their own podcast recommendations (WNYC has Hodgepod, for instance) about potentially teaming up to maintain the concierge so it doesn’t go out of date.
“Our main goal here is to create something useful for anyone who is looking in the universe of many, many podcasts,” Oreskes said. “There are plenty of ranked lists out there driven by customer use. We’ve seen nothing at the scale of what we’re trying to do with Earbud.”