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Jan. 24, 2024, 12:06 p.m.
Business Models
Reporting & Production

City Cast, a local news podcast network, is still expanding three years in

This month, City Cast published guest demographic data for podcasts in its 11 cities and analyzed how that data compared to each local community.

2023 was, on balance, “the podcast world’s year from hell.”

But if you can cast your mind back to the state of podcasting a psychological eon ago, in 2019, you might remember that the vibes were extremely different. That was the year, most notably, that Spotify paid around $400 million to buy three podcast companies, including Gimlet Media (which the company gutted this year — again, 2019 was a long time ago).

One person thinking about opportunities in podcasting in 2019 was Tim O’Shaughnessy, the CEO of Graham Holdings (the same Grahams that owned The Washington Post for four generations; the company’s other media assets include Graham Media Group today). For all the growth and innovation the medium was experiencing, O’Shaughnessy saw unrealized potential in one niche: local news.

Enter David Plotz, the former Slate editor-in-chief and then-CEO of Atlas Obscura who, since 2005, has co-hosted the popular national podcast Political Gabfest. (Graham Holdings had invested in Atlas Obscura and owns Slate.) When Plotz was planning his departure from Atlas Obscura in late 2019 and stopped by O’Shaughnessy’s office, “he and I talked over his idea of a local podcasting network,” Plotz recalled. (A spokesperson for Graham Holdings did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)

Plotz officially joined Graham Holdings in September 2020, and Andi McDaniel came onboard the next month. Together, the two co-founded City Cast, a for-profit network of local podcasts and newsletters in cities across the U.S. where Plotz is CEO.

City Cast’s first two chapters launched in Chicago and Denver in March 2021. Almost three years later, City Cast has four-person teams producing newsletters and podcasts in 11 cities — including Plotz’s own D.C. — with expansions to Austin and Nashville coming soon.

City Cast podcasts delve into what each city “is talking about” in 15-25-ish minute episodes posted every weekday morning. That encompasses hard news and location-specific life hacks alike. Last week, City Cast Madison interviewed the coordinator of the Madison Rafah Sister City Project about how Madisonians can help those in Gaza. City Cast Boise, meanwhile, explored what makes a local coffee shop great in one episode, and, the day before, interviewed a ProPublica reporter about an investigation into why psychiatric patients are held in prison. City Cast Chicago, a couple weeks back, interviewed restaurant owners about how Chicagoans can eat less meat, and, another day, spoke with the editorial director of Borderless magazine, who described the conditions inside Chicago’s largest migrant shelter. (But my personal favorite might have to be City Cast D.C. “power ranking” the city’s iconic cupcakes, with podcast host Michael Schaffer describing one red velvet cupcake as “Melania Trump Christmas tree red.”)

Plotz said City Cast thinks of itself as providing “a toolkit” for the city.

“That toolkit is a mix of the things you need to know to be a knowledgeable citizen, the things you need to know to be a good neighbor, the things you need to know to just get by … and then the things you need to know to have a great time,” he said.

From its launch, Plotz told me City Cast made an internal commitment to its staff to hold itself accountable for whose voices it was elevating to tell those stories by tracking the demographics of its guests. (He pointed to the company’s core values, specifically, accountability and diversity, as reflecting that commitment externally.) In general, City Cast podcast guests fall into one of three categories, according to Plotz: about a third are community stakeholders involved with a given issue; a third are “newsmakers,” like politicians and heads of businesses; and a third are other journalists. City Cast published partial demographic data for its first four cities (Denver, Chicago, Houston, and Salt Lake) in 2022. This month, with a full year of guest data for its podcasts in all 11 cities, City Cast went much further; for the first time, it published that data and an analysis of how each podcast’s guest demographics compare to the local community.

City Cast is not the first to collect or publish source demographic data. Especially after the murder of George Floyd, and the national racial reckoning that shook media in 2020, interest in and demand for source audits ticked up for national and local outlets alike. Within the radio and podcast world, NPR is one of the most prominent national outlets to track source diversity (NPR has tracked source demographics since 2013, but its real-time tool Dex debuted in 2021). Other radio and media companies that have tracked source demographics include KQED, KUT, Chalkbeat, Gastropod, and Wisconsin Public Radio. But City Cast’s networked analysis — breaking down the data for all 11 cities in its network, and comparing local data sets to both metro-area and city demographic data — makes it a bit more unusual, and a potentially useful model for other networks of local outlets.

The data

Across the 11 cities, City Cast guests matched the U.S. population (per 2023 estimates based on the most recent census) closely in terms of race/ethnicity, except for on one front — Hispanic/Latinx guests were underrepresented at 9% of guests, but 19% of the population. Plotz noted in his review of the data that “many Hispanics and Latinx people are immigrants, and immigrant communities are traditionally hard for journalists outside those communities to access.” Additionally, members of these communities may not consume English language media, making them “less likely to know City Cast and be part of the community we’re building, and we may not know the right people to contact to book as guests.” From 2022 to 2023, City Cast increased Hispanic/Latinx representation, “but not as much as we hoped to,” Plotz wrote.

A slight majority of City Cast guests identified as male, while 47% identified as female and 2% identified as non-binary. Plotz noted that these percentages varied widely by city — at the most extreme ends of that variation, 65% of Houston guests identified as male, compared to 41% in Salt Lake City (and, conversely, 34% female guests in Houston and 58% in Salt Lake City).

Local City Cast data varied significantly in other ways. Among specific cities, Boise, for instance, is the whitest of City Cast’s 11-city network, and “the vast majority” (close to 80%) of its guests were white. Its Black and Asian/Asian-American guests represented the city’s demographics, but it was also the only City Cast network city with more Hispanic/Latinx guest representation relative to the local population.

Plotz noted that in some cities, he’d discovered that podcast guests more closely matched the metro area than the city proper thanks to using both comparison points. One example of this is City Cast Philly, where City Cast’s proportion of Black guests matched the metro area fairly closely, but was underrepresented compared to the city proper (the inverse was true for white guests).

Nationally, podcast audiences tend to skew whiter, wealthier, younger, and more educated. City Cast listeners are no exception, Plotz told me, but the organization has not considered its audience data together with its guest data to date. “We tend not to try to be too choosy about who’s listening,” he said. “We want to make shows that represent the city and help people connect to the city. And we do that best by having really interesting hosts and then diverse guests.”

Executive producers in each city are using the data as a roadmap for future improvement, Plotz told me. “It’s good to have to look directly in the face at what you’ve done,” he said.

Trial — and error — in collecting source audit data

City Cast podcast teams have built a quick questionnaire into their process, asking guests a few questions in-person and entering the data into a database. Plotz opted to include only two categories — racial/ethnic identity, and gender identity — to avoid making the process too onerous for respondents. (Teams also ask about guests’ neighborhood of residence for internal knowledge.)

City Cast settled on this simplified, standardized process after previous iterations of the source audit proved “rather cumbersome.” When experimenting with the source audit process in City Cast’s first four cities in 2021-22, some teams tried asking a longer, more detailed set of questions, including about age and sexuality, but their response rates were “really low,” Plotz said. The teams also learned to limit, or simplify, the identity responses to census categories (with the exception of adding a Middle Eastern ethnicity category), because that “keeps the data clean.” Plotz said he has manually “cleaned up” more detailed data from some cities — counting someone who had identified as Italian-Ukrainian, for instance, as white.

With the streamlined data collection, City Cast got a very high response rate — 95% — with data for “1,390 responding guests who collectively made 2,132 appearances on the 11 different City Cast podcasts from Nov. 1, 2022 through Nov. 9, 2023.” (This data does not include City Cast staffers who appeared on podcasts.)

The business of a local podcasting network

While others have predicted the growth of local podcasts, nearly five years after O’Shaughnessy dreamed up the idea of a local podcast network, City Cast is still mostly an outlier in betting on podcasts as a viable medium for local news.

Today, City Cast is “not yet” profitable, Plotz told me in a follow-up email. It’s true, he said, that “local podcast advertising is a new beast,” which means that City Cast’s local account executives “have to educate clients about the unique value of advertising on podcasts (and in some cases what podcasts are).” But to Plotz, the medium’s potential is worth its hurdles.

City Cast is “heavily tilted to local ads for podcasts and newsletters,” Plotz told me, and “we’re seeing tons of interest in the cities where we have local account executives.” Overall, “advertising increased 10x in 2023 (albeit on a small base) and we expect significant growth for 2024,” he said.

Beyond advertising, City Cast recently started offering paid memberships that it’s rolling out gradually across the network. (I noticed membership offerings in at least six cities.) So far, City Cast has “more than 1,000 paying members,” Plotz said. “We anticipate membership will eventually be a solid chunk of our revenue, but still a much smaller portion than advertising.”

The next revenue horizon for City Cast is events, Plotz added. The company is currently hiring a director of events, and plans to hold “our first large-scale sponsored event in one of our cities in late 2024.”

Another key challenge of local news podcasting: You’re dealing with a pretty small potential audience.

“It’s hard enough to build a podcast audience when you are targeting the entire world,” Plotz said (and, again, the last year has been a bleak one for podcasts). “But to say, ‘we’re not targeting the entire world, we’re just targeting the tiny fraction of the world that lives in the Denver metropolitan area, and the tiny fraction of them that listen to podcasts, and the tiny fraction of them that listen to podcasts and care enough about what’s happening locally to give something like this a try’” makes it that much more difficult.

That said, for City Cast’s model, “it doesn’t take a huge audience to be really successful,” Plotz emphasized, if you get the “right listeners” — listeners who are loyal and consistent. Specifically, “5k and up daily listeners is probably where a good business is,” he said. City Cast’s daily downloads have doubled in the last year, and City Cast podcasts see between 1,000-5,000 daily downloads apiece.

The newsletters have much larger audiences than the podcast for now — in total, City Cast has about 350,000 subscribers across its network, triple last year.

The biggest challenge for the organization, along with audience growth, is its distribution model and “discoverability,” Plotz said: podcasts require a “significant effort” to find. City Cast’s podcast and newsletter are strategically complementary — the daily newsletter, in particular, serves as a “pipeline” to help residents discover the podcast, Plotz said. (Newsletter content for each city also lives on the web.)

Plotz told me he saw podcasts as a medium with untapped potential for local news because of its intimacy and conversational, accessible style. “People love cities; they love the place they live,” he said. To him, it follows that “people are always looking for ways to connect with their city,” which is exactly what City Cast tries to offer. Podcasting, he added, is “a superb medium for making people feel like they belong in Chicago, like they belong in D.C., like they belong in Boise.”

City Cast has experimented with city size and geography in choosing places to launch, Plotz said — with the encouragement of O’Shaughnessy. So far, they’ve found that the cities where they do best are generally cities that have strong “master narratives” and senses of identity. The organization also tries to focus on cities that are growing, but not too big.

Larger cities, like Chicago (approx. 2.7 million, or 9.4 million metro area) and Houston (approx. 2.3 million, or 7.3 million metro area) are, in a way, “too big for any one person to comprehend,” Plotz said — that means “it’s trickier to capture what that city’s talking about each day,” as City Cast seeks to do. That said, Chicago has the second-largest City Cast podcast audience, he noted. Denver has the largest (about 713,000, or a metro area of 3 million). (As mentioned earlier, those also happen to be the first two cities where City Cast launched.)

“We’re confident that we can succeed in large cities, which is why we launched in Philly not long ago,” Plotz told me. “That said, it does feel like the medium/medium-large cities are the sweetest spot for our current model,” referring to cities like D.C. (679,000, or 6.4 million metro); Salt Lake (205,000, or 1.3 million metro); and Portland (635,000, or 2.5 million metro), where City Cast is “seeing success and growth” and has the next-largest podcast audiences after Denver and Chicago.

D.C., Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Philly, and Pittsburgh have the largest City Cast newsletter audiences, Plotz told me, noting that “newsletter audiences are more directly connected to city population size.”

City Cast’s next two markets, Austin and Nashville, fall into the “medium/medium-large” sweet spot, Plotz said. Beyond those two planned launches, the company is looking at eventually adding chapters in cities including Omaha, Oakland, Columbus, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Brooklyn, and Boston. “Our hope and plan is for City Cast to be a network of 40 or more cities in a decade,” Plotz told me.

City Cast considers the existing media ecosystem in cities where it launches, and focuses on cities with a strong network of local news, since an important component of its guests are other reporters. While the teams do some original reporting, “it’s so hard to be a primary newsgathering operation” in the podcasting space, Plotz said, so City Cast’s relatively lean four-person teams focus on a mix of aggregation and original reporting.

“We only go into cities that have a pretty rich ecosystem of news, and we see ourselves as symbiotic with that” by growing that ecosystem, getting the information to more people in a different medium, and “offer[ing] a different kind of conversation,” Plotz said. But City Cast also picks cities with room for more media, he added — “we like to go places where there’s good media, but not where there’s infinite amounts of great media.”

Unlike local TV, or local newspapers, local podcasting is “not a defined industry,” Plotz said. As he sees it, that’s the core challenge and business opportunity for City Cast. “There are 50 million digital local startups; there are 50 million local TV stations, and no one has done podcasting [in this way],” he said, “which means that we can define it.”

Photo of podcasting equipment by Will Francis on Unsplash.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Jan. 24, 2024, 12:06 p.m.
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