I come about my love of public radio and podcasting honestly. I’ve paid my dues, and then some. When I started graduate school at Stanford in September 1990, I had never even heard of public radio. But our lab manager controlled the radio dial, so I was immediately surrounded by the KQED radio broadcasts, often 8 to 10 hours a day, almost every day, for 5 years and 9 months. You could call it a sink or swim situation: get on board and learn to love it, or go crazy. Fortunately, I quickly grew to appreciate the news and entertainment that public radio had to offer, and I kept listening after I graduated from the lab. I estimated how much public radio I’ve listened to in the past 24 years, and it comes out to more time than I spent in formal classroom education, kindergarten through my PhD. So yes, I am a fan, and it is fair to say that public radio has shaped my life even more than being a neuroscientist did. Maybe Terry Gross will present me with an honorary Doctorate in Public Radio someday!
I have been involved at the local level for 14 years since moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I adore WUNC, and I was an early adopter of podcasts. As long ago as about 2004, I encouraged WUNC to offer their own programs as podcasts, which they did (whether thanks to my encouragement or not, it’s hard to know, but I did spearhead the idea of giving away iPods as prizes during the on-air fund drives).
As “Mojo Mom,” I produced my own show,The Mojo Mom Podcast, which ran September 2005-May 2010, about 50 episodes, over 291,000 downloads. I had a co-host and guest segments, and my internal goal was to be Fresh Air for moms.
Now we’re in what might be called a tipping point or Golden Age of Podcasting, with public-radio-quality, professionally produced shows coming into existence as podcasts rather than regular broadcasts. One catch is that as soon as we recognize this tipping point, it might morph into a new technology, streaming or a new app, supplanting what we call podcasting. Apple iTunes is certainly in need of reinvention, as was discussed on Morning Edition today. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Apple for deleting my treasured collection of The Story With Dick Gordon podcasts with one of their updates about a year ago. (Thankfully, episodes are still available through TheStory.org but it’s not the same, and it really undermined Apple’s credibility to see iTunes change so radically and ruin my library.)
So it’s been really interesting to see the podcasts Serial and StartUp burst on the scene in the past few months both as spin-offs from This American Life. I’ll admit I don’t listen to podcasts much out of that general universe, so what I have been thinking about is what do podcasts like Serial and StartUp mean for the future of public radio?
My short answer is that podcasts (or whatever technology carries on into the future) feel like the vital next generation opportunity for public radio, but the content does not have to fit the current public radio mold. There is danger and opportunity here for all involved. Podcasts offer the opportunity for experimentation and trying out new forms, such as the serialized investigation, or following a start-up company in real time. There should be more of that on public radio, which is in danger of becoming calcified and neglecting the next generation of both listeners and producers. As much as I adore the current public radio talents, the cast of characters has not changed that much in the past 25 years–a whole generation’s worth of time. The epitome of this is the insistence on continuing to run Car Talk as reruns after it stopped producing new shows. This already felt like a safe and stale decision while both Magliozzi brothers were still alive. Now that Tom Magliozzi has passed away, the re-runs seem ghoulish to me, and should be offered a dignified sunset. As much as we loved Click and Clacl, that time is over. Ira Glass was one of the highest-profile people to take a public stand on this issue back in 2012, saying that Car Talk reruns would stifle innovation, and I agree.
Ira Glass is wonderful and the boss of Serial producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, but we can’t count him as a new kid on the block any more. It always strikes me as funny and almost unbelievable that Glass is actually older than President Obama, but it’s true. Serial may have its origin story in This American Life, but it has a distinct feel of high-stakes, long-form investigative journalism that arises from Sarah Koenig’s reporting. It irked me to no end when “the podfather” Christopher Lydon was interviewed on The Gist podcast with Mike Pesca (same episode of Alex Blumberg talking about StartUp, as it happens), and when Lydon was asked about his favorite podcasts, he named only men: he led off his recommendations by saying he would have to credit Serial, “I love Ira in any form,” without even mentioning Sarah Koenig. It seemed like Lydon was caught off-guard, and I don’t want to put too much weight into this one comment, but it landed as a revealing, if inadvertent snub.
With budget cuts and media consolidation, and successful Boomers firmly entrenched in their jobs, podcasting feels like one of the main opportunities for Gen X to advance in broadcasting. StartUp‘s Alex Blumberg came from NPR’s Planet Money podcast which also had its origins in This American Life. I remember asking a famous NPR journalist a few years ago, “What is the future for young reporters?” and she was quite discouraging. Old pathways are gone and people have to find a way to break in on their own. So podcasting and other independent efforts such as the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) are a way to go. It’s a little heartbreaking though to listen to StartUp and feel like what they were originally trying to do with their company Gimlet Media is re-create public radio–while finally getting paid enough to live on! On the other side of the mirror, public radio had really better think about developing its next generation of talent, investing both money and airtime to new kinds of programs. Perhaps NPR is counting on podcasts and PRX to serve as a low-cost minor league team, to see who rises to the top to join the broadcast league. But what if one of those small-pond guppies creates something that challenge NPR’s relevance?
It sounds like something new is dawning in the mind of Alex Blumberg and others: they may have started off creating a Gen X satellite of NPR, but they actually have an opportunity to reach a much wider audience than they expected. Not just in terms of numbers (with Serial reaching 1.5 million people per episode), but who is listening. I feel like public radio has bought into its own stereotypes as old and white without enough effort to challenge that, outside limited efforts like Snap Judgment. But on this week’s episode of StartUp, Alex Blumberg looked into who is listening, and found that is an audience he could not have imagined, including people who found out about the podcast in a myriad of ways–among them an atheist, former Mormon who feels guilty about developing a successful Spanish-Bible app, as well as a minister from the Winnebago-capital of America. These were fascinating stories, and I loved both hearing Blumberg get back into storytelling mode, and his realization that maybe he is onto a bigger and different audience than he had imagined. This sense comes through in Serial as well, as Muslims and other diverse listeners are drawn in by they tale that involves potential racial profiling in the trial and murder conviction of Adnan Syed. I am not saying that white people would not also be interested in this issue, but I did feel like at first Koenig felt like she was explaining the story to a whiter audience, possibly without realizing how many different kinds of listeners would be tuning in. This is more of an impression on my part, and is reinforced by discussions on the Slate Spoiler Podcast (yes, a podcast about another podcast). But I feel like there are several rays of light coming into focus: for the next generation of podcasters, aim high, think about what really comes next, and how to reach more people than public radio has ever imagined.