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Public radio's chance to not make

the big print mistake

February 10, 2016

The 21st century has not been kind to most newspapers. The growing power of online news has drawn readers away from print editions, and publications' advertising models have struggled to keep up. The few that have embraced the challenge and created comprehensive digital strategies have been met with at least some success. One of the newspaper industry's major mistakes was its hesitancy to address online demands head-on, and, of course, giving content away for free.


Now, another legacy media industry is approaching an online impasse. I recently read "WNYC is leading public radio's transition to public podcasting" from the Columbia Journalism Review. The nearly 6,000-word piece discusses the challenges facing the public broadcasting world, and the opportunity for massive growth in podcasting. The piece argues that public radio stations would be somewhat crazy not to invest in on-demand online shows (podcasts), and traces the advances of one station—WNYC—that's doing it really well. 


Of course, podcasts are nothing new. What is new, though, are the talent acquisition and revenue models that have been developing within both public radio stations and private podcasting companies like Gimlet, Audible and Earwolf.


Private podcast companies have a distinct advantage compared to their public counterparts: They are able to charge a pretty penny for their advertisements. 

Graphic by the Columbia Journalism Review; statistics from Edison Research

These advertisements are dynamic: They can change based on where you are, and stay updated to your current date (even if you're listening to an archived episode). They also tend to be more engaging in fascinating ways. Take, for example, Gimlet's native advertisements. They're story-like vignettes related to the product, reported and produced by Gimlet's own staff members. They're clearly labeled as advertisements through intro and exit music, and people love them.


Private podcast companies are also exploring membership options to stay viable: Gimlet offers a membership for a small fee that give listeners special access to episodes and giveaways, while Audible requires you to pay to listen to any of its content. This sort of creativity and foresight is radio's chance to avoid the mistake the print industry made. By staying flexible, exploring revenue options that speak to listener's needs and insisting on the value of high-quality content, hopefully podcast companies will be able to stay viable for the long run. 


CJR also touches on how private podcasting companies are effectively poaching some of public radio's best and brightest. Some public radio stations, notably WBEZ, WNYC and NPR, have very solid shows (both online and on air) that draw talent in their own right. But to stay competitive, public radio stations will probably need to give their best producers the opportunity to explore creative online radio options. WBEZ's "podcast accelerator" is an interesting idea that may help them move even further down the field of great podcasting.


It also has the possibility of addressing one of public radio's major problems: lack of diversity. My guess is that the coming years will bring success to radio companies that are intentional about reaching out to communities of color for hiring and for training opportunities like Transom Story Workshop and the Salt Institute. It will give companies the chance to reach new audiences, bring new voices to the airwaves and tell more nuanced stories.

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