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May 17, 2016, 9:59 a.m.
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Hot Pod: Is This American Life violating the public radio mission by straying to platforms like Pandora?

“Here we have a public radio station that seems to not only fail to recognize who its natural friends are, but one that is lashing out at potential allies.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue seventy-three, published May 17, 2016.

Radiotopia lets a snake person in. The beloved Cambridge-based podcast indie label (or network or collective or whatchamacallit) is welcoming a new show to its ranks today: the bildungsroman-extraordinaire Millennial, produced by 25-year-old Megan Tan out of Portland, Maine. It’s the network’s 14th show overall, and the first addition since Julie Shapiro assumed the executive producer throne at the network last September.

In case you haven’t checked it out before, Millennial is…a bit of tricky podcast to explain. First gracing podcast feeds in January 2015, it’s a thoughtfully-crafted narrative podcast about a woman navigating her 20s. Principally written in the first person, the show is constructed on a complex machine of identity choreography where the documentarian is the central character and an unreliable narrator, one actively choosing the points in which the real world and the narrative intersects.

(In this sense, the show is incredibly reminiscent of the first season of StartUp, albeit with the enterprise of constructing a self instead of a business. Well, at first, anyway. Like I said, it’s complicated. Of course, StartUp has since moved away from complex structure to feature more straightforward stories about, uhm, startups I guess, and here I am mourning the loss of Alex Blumberg The Character.)

But Millennial is also a show overtly engaged in a certain kind of self-awareness. You can feel the show thinking about itself even as it unfolds (creating an interesting stiltedness); you can hear it in the way it’s uneasy with its own sincerity (even as the show wades forward with its heart fully on its sleeve), and you can even see it in its very title design (the word “Millennial” emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow, as if sashaying past the cultural agita — and reductiveness — that the concept evokes).

It’s a bizarre, intriguing, playful podcast. And so it’s a no-brainer to me, then, that Radiotopia, whose roster also includes the similarly hard-to describe Love+Radio and Benjemen Walker’s Theory of Everything, would embrace the show.

“I just felt like she ticked so many boxes for us: having the right content, having a vision, having done so much of it by herself,” Shapiro explained when I asked about the addition. “It’s equal part quality of the work, part spirit of the producer — a sense of determination and wanting to be independent, but also having that creative spark…She’s also, you know, a young woman of color doing it on her own. One of the Radiotopia goals is to get different voices in here, to support people who don’t have traditional training but have that moxie.”

Millennial’s recruitment into the network comes shortly after Tan left her job at New Hampshire Public Radio to pursue the show full-time earlier this year. When we spoke last week, she talked about the decision coming out of a desire for something close to creative freedom, or a space to learn and explore and develop on her own terms. But the effort to do so was grounded, it turned out, in a grappling with her economic chances. “I crunched the numbers, and I figured I could be making more money doing Millennial if I started putting out two episodes a month,” she said. Prior to joining Radiotopia, the show enjoyed an average of 27,000 downloads per episode. (That’s the number reported to advertisers, by the way. Keep in mind, in thinking through the number, that the show did not support dynamic ad insertion at the time.)

“I feel like there’s just a window of time when I can do this,” Tan said. “It feels like, well, nobody’s going to be talking about Millennial a year from now, and I can’t wait that long until I decide that this is what I want to do. There’s a lot of urgency in myself to just, sort of, buy the ticket and take the ride.”

(Boy, don’t I know that feeling.)

It’s worth noting, commensurate with a recent column by Current’s Adam Ragusea about the podcast industry’s trend towards clustering in New York, that Tan’s being able to make this professional leap can largely be attributed to her financial realities being based in Portland, Maine — where housing costs are roughly 58 percent lower than in Brooklyn, according to this nifty CNN Money calculator that sources its data from C2ER.

Speaking of New York, Tan mentioned that she was considering interest from a few other New York-based networks, which would’ve possibly led to her moving to the city. But her choice to go with Radiotopia came from multiple alignments — structural, creative, ideological — that she couldn’t ignore. “They feel like a family, and I feel like they have a similar intention for what they want stories to sound and be like that I have,” she said. “And there’s this freedom with them that’s almost unheard of in the industry…I mean, you get to own your own show! I don’t need someone to hold my hand through everything. I want to feel like I have as much stake in my show as somebody else. And I think, when you get to some of these other institutions, that’s not necessarily true.”

“Plus: When I think about Radiotopia, I just think about the fact it’s run by these badass women like [chief operating officer] Kerri Hoffman and Julie Shapiro,” she added. “And I’m like, yeah, I want to be on your team, and I want you to be on my team!”

With Radiotopia’s backing, Tan is looking to expand the scope of the show. “I want Millennial to be the show that people go to about coming-of-age,” she said. “And the best thing about that topic is that it’s narrow enough to be focused but it’s still big enough to encompass everything. You don’t stop coming of age when you get out of your 20s.”

You can find the podcast here. I imagine, given the podcast’s affinity for meta-narrative, that Tan will producer her own narrative on the show being picked up by Radiotopia. In which case, that episode is probably already out by the time you read this. [It is:]

How Radiotopia works. I figured this was a good opportunity to try and figure out what, exactly, a partnership with Radiotopia looks like. So I posed the question to Shapiro, and she was kind enough to walk me through it — even if my brain had a hard time grappling with it.

Radiotopia shows are supported by a collection of three different revenue streams. There’s advertising revenue (Radiotopia takes a 20 percent cut of the advertising revenue; they handle some sponsorships, but shows are incentivized to bring in more by themselves); there’s money that comes in from listener donations that are open persistently throughout the year (which are then distributed evenly across shows); and there are the annual pledge-drive fundraisers we’ve become familiar with (which are then distributed based on performance on top of an evenly split base amount). The way this works out, then, is that all shows get a baseline financial support but are still able to benefit in proportion to how well they perform both with advertisers and listeners.

Also worth noting: Ownership of the shows remain with the creators, not Radiotopia.

It’s a balanced, equitable approach; one that lets shows enjoy a relatively small cushion of comfort but places them in a position where they’re incentivized to hustle, because they stand to directly benefit from their own inputs.

And the network systems are designed such that the growth of each show will directly and indirectly benefit the wider family — a kind of virtuous cycle that encourages network cohesion. As Shapiro explains: “The shows make a nice chunk from the fundraiser, but that means everybody has to jump in and help fundraise. And the more we raise, the more they make from that. Then over the course of the year, as the shows get stronger and as the listeners get deeper and more loyal, listeners give more randomly and then the shows get more from that, and that means the networks get greater visibility for sponsors so they pay more. There’s a symbiotic relationship.”

It’s a fascinating system, but it’s certainly not for everybody. “There are other networks doing interesting, great work with business models that are in some ways more stable for producers,” Shapiro said. “I mean, if you work for a company, you get a steady paycheck.”

And boy, steady paychecks are sexy.

Mission vs. economics vs. a false dichotomy. Okay, let’s think through this one:

Last Thursday, Mike Savage, the general manager of WBAA, a public radio station operating out of West Lafayette, Indiana, announced in a LinkedIn post that the station will no longer carry This American Life come August. Several factors reportedly informed the decision, but Savage singled out TAL’s recent move to partner with the streaming service Pandora for distribution as the prime reason.

His argument is built on two key concepts:

  • Pandora poses a fundamental threat to public radio’s broadcast model. “Pandora is not complementary nor friendly to public radio,” Savage wrote. “Just go for a test drive in a new car and you will see their aggressive presentation…In fact, I believe it’s one of Pandora’s main goals to put traditional radio out of business.”
  • This American Life’s partnership with Pandora, then, represents a misalignment in interests, and given that WBAA pays TAL in order to serve its programming to the station’s listeners, the station would rather not fund an entity that is indirectly contributing to its demise.

This is, of course, an incredibly complex issue. It touches upon the disparity in resources between bigger and smaller stations, questions about how stations (and to extrapolate, publications and media companies) can hold their own, grow, and perhaps thrive in smaller markets, and of course, the structural tensions between emerging digital platforms and traditional broadcast. Add to that Savage’s claim that TAL wasn’t actually performing well for the station, and you have what looks to be a performative gesture with little immediate sacrifice for the station itself, which further complicates the way we read this. All of that is at play here, yes, and those things deserve discussion. And discussions are happening across Twitter, in Facebook groups, in forums, and most importantly, in the comments section of Savage’s LinkedIn post, where a substantial, multi-threaded conversation has been playing out, which even includes Glass mounting several responses.

But there a few parts of Savage’s decision — and more importantly, his rationale and argumentation — that I find especially troubling apart from those discussions. I’ll point out two in particular.

The first is an axiom that seems to drive Savage’s thinking: the sense that any programmatic attempt at aggressively growing an audience is somehow antithetical to the public radio mission. “At what cost do we grow the audience?” Savage writes at one point, in a response to a comment. “That’s the great thing about public broadcasting — we put mission first as opposed to shareholder value or audience size,” he writes at another.

There is, I think, a fundamental difference between the intention to aggressively grow your audience to maximize profits and the responsibility to aggressively grow your audience because they make up the Public you are meant to serve. Furthermore, such audience and revenue growth initiative should be a concern only if such initiatives directly contribute to a decrease in the quality of work being produced or service being provided. (Conversely: To impede initiatives that would generate greater audiences that wouldn’t dilute editorial quality should be read, then, as being counter-productive to the public good. I mean, what’s the point of producing work of quality if nobody’s listening to it?) Quality dilution obviously isn’t a problem that This American Life faces, which has demonstrably increased its capacity for public service journalism since incorporating as a public benefit corporation and has gotten more financially ambitious (a sample list of stellar reporting from the past four months alone: “My Damn Mind,” “I Thought I Knew You,” “Anatomy of Doubt“). Savage seems to almost automatically equate a drive towards revenue or audience growth with an immediate straying away from the public good — which is a viewpoint that’s not only simplistic, but also counterintuitive to the entire enterprise of helping to build a more informed public.

The second part is considerably more troubling. The thing that’s most striking to me about Savage’s whole deal is this: Here we have a public radio station that seems to not only fail to recognize who its natural friends are, but one that is lashing out at potential allies — a state of affairs that isn’t great for a system that thrives on cohesion and solidarity.

This whole business would be one thing if all we’re seeing is a brash decision made by a small public radio station — operating with few resources within the 236th-largest market size in the country, as Savage himself noted in the comments — even though, yes, the station represents a view held by a number of other, similarly under-resourced public radio station. But it’s incredibly important to note that Savage is a member of NPR’s board of directors, and that he actively brings this thinking into those meetings and could well complicate efforts to strengthen the core over there.

Let’s pause a second. It’s important to note that Savage’s decision comes chiefly out of fear — a concern for its own existence, for whether the shifting conditions will leave it to wither and die. I understand that. And that fear is especially acute when you’re small; indeed, when you’re small, a lot of things seem scary. But the way to survive isn’t to shrink inwards and struggle for the status quo. The way to survive is the same as it has always been: to continuously embrace new ways of doing things, new political realities, new balances of power.

I’m trying to be sympathetic here, but it’s really hard not to read this as anything but a scenario where a station is making a principled stand for its own existence at the expense of the mission it purports to serve. Perhaps, as I’ve done in the past, it’s worth asking whether many of the stations that make up the public radio system — all of which were created at a very different point in history with very different technological realities — are still the right entities to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, Nieman Lab has a great interview with NPR One’s Tamar Charney on what’s been up with the app. (Spoiler alert: There are hamsters.) Also, this week’s Frederic Filloux column over at Monday Note seems particularly pertinent to this hullabaloo: “Fossilized culture, not lack of funding, put news media on deathwatch.”

To everyone reading this who isn’t really into the whole public radio thing: Sorry about that.

Responses to dynamic ad insertion concerns. Last week, I published a few concerns held by Collin Willardson, who heads up marketing over at Mack Weldon, about the changes that dynamic ad insertion brings to podcast advertising. Joel Withrow, director of product over at Panoply (my old day job employer), was kind enough to address some of those issues.

His reply was pretty long, so I posted it in full over in this Google Doc, but here’s the essential paragraph:

Podcast ad sales are undergoing a big change — one of steadily increased scale, better technology, and professionalization. Our growing pains focus on ad insertion because the technology behind it should be held to a higher standard, so that we don’t mess things up for listeners or advertisers. While giving podcasters access to the best reporting and sales opportunities out there, the best platforms will keep ceding total creative control over every minute of the episode, ads included, to the creators. If we do that, any given show’s migration to ad insertion should be inaudible.

Cool.

Bites:

  • In other Radiotopia news, the 10 finalists for their Podquest competition have been locked in. They were informed last week. Watch out for more developments on this front as the weeks roll on.
  • Wondery, the new L.A.-based podcast network launched by former Fox executives Hernan Lopez and Jeffrey Glaser, announced three additions to its roster last week: Radio Drama Revival, The Cleansed, and Ruby: Adventures of A Galactic Gumshoe. That last show comes out of ZBS, an audio drama-oriented nonprofit founded by Thomas Lopez, who was recently profiled on All Things Considered.
  • Two weeks after publicly announcing its arrival, Pineapple Street Media makes its first hire: Bari Finkel, who has previously worked on Radiolab, the upcoming Radiolab spinoff, and the Panoply Custom team.
  • “Apple updates iTunes with a ‘simpler’ design that doesn’t really help.” (The Verge)
  • “How Monocle found money in radio.” (Digiday)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter, with more news, analysis, and material, here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member; more information on the website.

POSTED     May 17, 2016, 9:59 a.m.
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