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Nov. 21, 2023, 10:30 a.m.
Business Models

Are public media podcasts facing a “Moneyball” moment?

In an era where the “easy money” is gone, celebrity sluggers are beyond reach, and commercial outfits are pulling back, public radio orgs can win by leaning into data and ideas that helped them create the art form.

I’m not a huge sports person, but I love a great story, which is probably why I became a podcaster. It’s also why, every few years, I comfort-watch the heck out of Moneyball.

Recently, when I rewatched the movie based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, I couldn’t stop thinking about the podcast industry and public radio — two entities that are wrapping up 2023 much like the 2001 Oakland Athletics, which is to say, pretty banged up.

Moneyball starts with the Oakland Athletics failing to beat the Yankees for the American League Division Series. (The Athletics recently received approval from league owners to move the team from Oakland to Las Vegas.) A tired-looking Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a divorced general manager with a bad haircut, looking ahead to a rough next season. He begs agents on the phone for more time as his top players head away from the Athletics and into free agency, soon to be courted by the deep pockets of bigger teams like the Yankees or Red Sox.

Eventually Beane pushes for more money with team owner Stephen Schott (played, oddly, by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick). Schott — not unlike some who’ve pushed a pile of money into the podcasting pot — isn’t interested in investing more. “What else can I help you with?” Schott asks, turning icy. Things look grim for a once-great team trying to stay relevant in a changing landscape.

Things are looking a little grim in public radio and public radio podcasts, too. Listenership to terrestrial radio continues to decline because of obvious, fundamental changes in technology. (My employer WBUR is recently an exception to the trend.) NPR (and its podcast division, which just a few years ago was bringing in more revenue than broadcast), faces an advertising freefall and a temporary-yet-untimely dearth of leadership. Digital membership — which drives revenue for all kinds of popular shows — has been adopted more cautiously by public radio podcasts even though public media helped invent the crowdfunding model. Even beyond public media, people are wondering if the “dumb money” is gone and whether the podcast boom is bust.

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Whether or not you agree that podcasting is “new” — the word “podcast” was first used within a year of Michael Lewis’s book about baseball — the medium has its struggles. Discovery is still a problem. While reporting and opinions about the podcast business are (cough) everywhere, the art form’s number of critics is low. The criticism that does exist often tends toward friends of the pod, if you will, and thus usually doesn’t go very hard (unless we count the Apple Podcasts review section). Every mature art form has movements and reaction movements. If it’s all a love fest, you don’t have a mature art form.

For many, the most exciting era of the form has passed, and the eulogies keep on coming. The most recent blow came with the cuts at WNYC, which hit both new podcasts pointed at younger, more diverse audiences and OG shows like Death, Sex and Money with Anna Sale. WNYC said it’ll refocus on a “broadcast to podcast” strategy. Employees have described the logic and strategy from leadership as lacking detail.

But here’s the part where Moneyball’s gloom starts to turn around. Jonah Hill’s fictional Yale (actually Harvard) school of economics grad introduces the concept of sabermetrics to Beane. “People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players,” Hill’s character says in the film. “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”

It’s a lightbulb moment that — spoiler — drives Beane and the Athletics to have a red-letter season and change the game of baseball. At one contentious meeting with Athletics scouts, old-school types who aren’t very interested in newfangled sabermetrics, Beane explains: “You’re still trying to replace Giambi…I told you we can’t do it. And we can’t do it. Now, what we might be able to do is recreate him. Recreate him in the aggregate.”

At WBUR, our partnership with The New York Times on the successful podcast Modern Love, based on the popular column, ended in 2020. (WBUR made the show until the Times brought it under its own audio team.) Just like that, 20% of our listenership and downloads went up in smoke.

Building back over the last three years has been hard, but it’s happened without a new smash hit. Last month, our listenership was the highest it has been in four years, with a year-over-year growth of 56%. Our downloads are up, and our plans for podcasts are as ambitious as they have ever been.

There are many reasons for this good news, but one of the big ones is that we haven’t been trying to replace Giambi. We’ve been focused instead on a group of projects and ideas that, in concert, are steadily growing our audience and setting us up for sustainability at the same time.

It hasn’t always been this way. I was still a senior producer at WBUR when someone in a meeting suggested that a new show being considered needed to hit a million downloads. When I asked why, the answer was, effectively, that a million downloads was a nice round number. If a show couldn’t get that number, then maybe it wasn’t worth pursuing.

When Jonah Hill’s character introduces the math he’s using for projections and the players he thinks will get Oakland to the World Series, he says, “People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws.” And that has certainly been true in the past at WBUR when it comes to podcasts. But our leadership is now a lot more focused on connecting audience data to revenue, and being transparent internally about decision-making.

A good example is our partnership with The Marshall Project. Violation had some challenges on paper — rough tape, a host who wasn’t yet experienced as an audio storyteller, and a story that was important but niche. Some years ago WBUR passed on it. But then we took another look at its perceived flaws. It was a story that made sense for public radio to take on because of its connection to our mission, even if it wasn’t going to be a massive hit. A few months after launch, it hit a million downloads anyway.

WBUR isn’t alone in the discovery that swinging for the fences isn’t always the path to crossing home plate.

“To some extent I think we’ve been trying to achieve too much,” said Brendan Sweeney, director of new content and innovation at the Seattle-based KUOW. “We’ve been trying to emulate other players who don’t have the same strengths as us. Now there’s more scarcity in the entire podcast ecosystem, and hopefully scarcity focuses the mind.”

Sweeney’s team partnered with a smaller station, Northwest Public Broadcasting, to put out Ghost Herd at the beginning of 2023. The limited series about fraud in the cattle industry blew past expectations, gaining 900,000 downloads and hundreds of thousands of unique listeners. The success also leveled up KUOW’s ambitions and pushed the team to have more in the pipeline.

“To really hit the audience critical mass we need to be sustainable long term, we can’t just put out two or three series that are wonderful every year,” Sweeney said. “We have to coordinate releases so that they stagger precisely. We have to have multiple things out in the marketplace at the same time.”

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Sweeney said limited series speak to the station’s mission for high quality journalism and bring new audiences, while always-on shows embody public radio’s reliability to always be there for those audiences. You need both. He said KUOW’s podcast team is also starting to realize they can’t just be a Skunk Works. In other words, podcast units can’t be siloed, purely experimental teams. They have to be better aligned with the newsroom and, er, playing ball with the business office, as well.

“We needed to stop thinking about this as a special project,” agreed Shana Naomi Krochmal, vice president of Southern California Public Radio’s LAist Studios. She was describing a reorg that brought the podcast team under the larger content team of the parent company. “We were already working collaboratively, but working better with the newsroom on both a daily basis and for longform work helps us future-proof the station as listening patterns change.”

Krochmal said some of the most important changes for her station’s podcast offerings in the last few years have been about picking up the pace and focusing on what works for public media: strong reporting.

“We looked at the data and it was clear that news was important and also that the cadence being more regular was important, and that was what drove a lot of our decisions,” she said. “Separate from that, we looked at what the opportunities were for us to continue to tell really compelling identity- and culturally driven stories within a limited series format, but in a way that was more sustainable.”

Longer eight or 10-part limited series — long the default position of podcasters, based on sluggers like Serial, S-Town, and other shows that helped define the medium — weren’t doing as well at LAist. But short run sets of stories were getting strong audience numbers in a sporadically publishing feed: Imperfect Paradise. So Krochmal and team stretched to make the show a more always-on home for short sets of episodes and partnerships with newsroom reporting. The first four seasons of Imperfect Paradise have pulled in around a million downloads since January 2022. The podcast has relaunched as a weekly series with “one consistent host and shorter, four-episode cycles” and its first series — kicking off with an exclusive interview with former L.A. City Council president Nury Martinez — has already seen more than half a million downloads in just two months.

This kind of work at LAist has made something else possible: a feedback loop between podcast and broadcast. Imperfect Paradise runs every weekend on the air, with a reminder to listeners that they can catch the show early in the podcast feed. The podcast feed, in turn, promotes the Sunday broadcast slot on KPCC. The team does the same with their local daily podcast How To LA, which airs on the station’s localized version of All Things Considered every Thursday.

“We’re not creating content as podcasts in a little walled off cul de sac,” Krochmal said. “We’re creating really compelling, really rigorous programming for LAist that should appear in as many places as possible.”

Rebecca Lavoie, the director of on-demand audio at NHPR, said the station did not bet on podcasting being a huge revenue driver for the larger organization, though it does get revenue for podcasts through major gifts, sponsorship, and digital and on-air fundraising. Instead, she says the station simply acknowledges that some of the best storytelling its journalists can do is in a longform medium, and that means podcasts. The benefit is that podcasts can drive revenue. Lavoie said that NHPR’s two always-on shows, Outside/In and Civics101, have seen significant growth, with both shows increasing by more than 50% in both listeners and downloads in the past year. Limited investigative series like Bear Brook and The 13th Step, both of which took years to report and produce, have put NHPR on the national map for podcasts. Together, NHPR is seeing around a million downloads a month.

In some ways, Lavoie agrees with the Moneyball analogy — the idea that in order to win again, public media podcasting has to refocus on a mix of projects that bring podcast units closer to newsrooms and financial sustainability via a variety of different strengths.

In Moneyball, Jonah Hill’s character says the Athletics can win by finding value in players that no one else can see. And public radio actually has a record of doing this with projects, whether putting a couple of guffawing mechanic brothers from Boston on the air or platforming Latinx stories and voices every week. At WBUR, we think about this all the time: What is the mix of projects that will serve our mission, gain new audience, and serve the listeners we already have? It’s about fielding a team of projects that can work together to win — not exclusively chasing heavy hitters. Public media has always been a place for weirdo, nerdy, real-people content that has little to do with celebrity. And it’s proven over time that there’s a big audience for that.

And if we’re doing a straight comparison of ball players to podcasters, Lavoie says public radio stations are the best in the league.

“We have the actual people that are the sluggers in public radio,” Lavoie said. “We have the talent. We have the equipment. We have the know-how. I listen to so many other things that are being put out into the world. We are swimming in mediocrity. But public radio stations have put out some of the highest quality podcasting being made in the last couple of years, full stop.”

Sweeney, from KUOW, is a baseball fan, but he cautioned that beyond choosing a mix of projects with different strengths, paying closer attention to data, and planning a cadence of releases further out, stations need an underlying philosophy.

“If you don’t have a philosophy, you turn into the Mets, and I’m a lifelong Mets fan,” he said, adding that the Mets survive via the largess of a wealthy benefactor, but don’t have a lot of pennants. (He likely meant long-suffering Mets fan.) Either way, when it comes to public radio podcasts, people want to know if there really is always next year. Some of us know there can be. Heck, if we do things right, we might win some championships.

Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR.

Original photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia Pictures.

POSTED     Nov. 21, 2023, 10:30 a.m.
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