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Podcast Survivor

Podcasts: a Kick in the Pants of the Public Radio Establishment

Last week the New York Times published a feature article on Ira Glass and This American Life. Ostensibly it covers the show’s departure from distributor Public Radio International to join the more independent-minded Public Radio Exchange. However, the piece also follows Glass’s multi-tasking forays into other endeavors, like leading an off-Broadway dance show.

Relevant to podcasting, the article reports that advertising and sales income from the show’s podcasts and smartphone apps totaled enough to contribute $180,000 towards the recent This American Life live stage show. While there was a bidding war reaching seven figures to win rights to distribute TAL, Glass also reveals that podcast revenues were not part of the negotiations.

While the success of This American Life is hardly overnight–the program has been on the air for nearly 19 years–it blazed a trail for a new generation of public radio programming. The move to PRX and online distribution legitimates an independent path for public radio producers, that may or may not have direct ties to actual radio stations.

As Glass acknowledges, the independent path carries risks along with the potential rewards. But the avenues for distribution and income generation that podcasting and internet distribution bring offer an opportunity to create new well-produced news and storytelling program of the type that public radio is known for, but free of the constraints and bureaucracy of the actual public radio establishment.

That’s something Glass’s colleague Alex Blumberg is setting out to do himself. As he tells Current, Blumberg is launching a for-profit podcast network to produce shows based on a public radio style narrative journalism model, but outside a station or distributor. He’s seeking funding from Silicon Valley venture capital to launch three shows in the first year.

He told Current, “There’s a viable business model here where we can do great work, create awesome programming, and have it pay for itself. I don’t see why a company like that should be a nonprofit.”

Blumberg also discussed his plans on the Wolf Den podcast (which I produce) in May, telling host Jeff Ullrich, “The most successful version of this is that in 5 years we have 5 to 10 Planet Moneys, This American Lifes or Radiolabs. [Shows] like that, that have that number of listeners, and are that sort of successful. But, then, each of the brands by itself has to be a thing.”

Based on his experience running a Kickstarter with NPR’s Planet Money, Blumberg expects that audiences will voluntarily support quality programs that connect with them. If anything, that is perhaps the overarching lesson of the internet-distribution era: it is easier now than ever before to find an audience willing to support good work. On the other hand, this is neither easy, nor guaranteed.

As I noted in my last Podcast Survivor, I think the notion that good content will necessarily find its audience is simplistic and too often used as a justification for success for failure that is complicated by many other factors. That said, the ability to reach thousands or millions of people over the internet is not trivial when compared to the structural barriers imposed by the centralized gatekeepers of broadcast which ruled the roost for some eight decades, and still wield considerable power.

The emergence of podcasts that are self-sustaining alongside or outside the broadcast establishment is perhaps the biggest kick in the pants to mainstream public radio since the modern era began in the early 70s. And it’s needed.

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