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Lessons from a Year of Podcasting, Mike Pesca’s The Gist Debuts

Before I dive in, I’d like to mention a short piece that comes from The Fizzle Show podcast, which is “for people building their thing online.” The show recently had its first anniversary, and on the 52nd episode the hosts shared “24 lessons learned in a year of podcasting.” It’s both a lighthearted and useful list that goes beyond the typical podcasting advice that I see repeated over and over. In particular, this: “Podcasting is getting crowded. You’ll be better off having started now.”

Slate Debuts The Gist, with Former NPR Correspondent Mike Pesca

Former NPR correspondent Mike Pesca started his new podcast for Slate on Monday, called The Gist. Another new podcast, Money, hosted by former Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon, will premiere next Monday, May 10.

It’s a great sign for podcasting that Slate has decided to increase its investment in the medium. The New York Times covered this expansion in Sunday’s Media Decoder.

I listened to the first two episodes of The Gist and it sounds a lot like an NPR magazine show, only one where it’s OK to use the f-word. I was just a little surprised to hear FCC-unfriendly language crop up already in episode one, during a feature segment that had Radiolab host Jad Abumrad interviewing Pesca about what the plans are for this new show.

The tone and flow of that interview was much looser than just about anything normally heard on public radio, even counting the less stiff and mannered storytelling heard on shows like This American Life. Quite sensibly, the segment sounded more like a podcast.

Now, I doubt The Gist is going to become as profanity-laden as Marc Maron’s WTF. The appearance of the f-bomb in this segment was neither gratuitous nor giddy. Rather, it came out naturally in what seemed like a very comfortable conversation between two old friends and colleagues. Which, again, compared to typical public radio, is refreshing.

I use public radio as a point of reference because that’s where Pesca comes from, and also that’s where American radio listeners are otherwise most likely to encounter a daily audio news magazine. In terms of its magazine format, then, The Gist breaks no new ground. What’s different is how much the show is built around Pesca.

On The Gist he’s more John Stewart than Robert Siegel, sprinkling jokes and snarky asides throughout, and ending each show with an unabashed editorial called “The Spiel.” It’s clear that Pesca has a point of view, which he isn’t going to hide. Given the limited data from just two episodes it doesn’t seem like he’s going to let his own opinion skew coverage, but it’s too early to draw a conclusion.

If anything, The Gist owes a debt to Jesse Thorn’s Bullseye, which originated as a public radio show, grew its audience as a podcast, and was recently picked up by NPR for wider distribution. Bullseye focuses on arts and culture rather than hard news. But Bullseye’s magazine format, featuring a couple of interview segments as well as the show-ending “Outshot” wherein the host gives a short editorial monologue, is undoubtedly a template for The Gist. Like Bulleye, The Gist even uses hip hop beats for bumpers and music beds, just like Bulleye.

In fact, Pesca filled in for Thorn as host back in December. So, we definitely know that Pesca has heard the show.

At around 20 minutes an episode, The Gist makes no pretense to being a comprehensive run-down of the day’s news. There are no news headlines, which makes sense in the podcast format, even if it is daily. A listener can find news headlines more quickly and easily elsewhere. Plus, nobody’s listening to hear Pesca read 5 minutes of headlines, they’re listening to hear him do interviews and give his “spiel.”

While not revolutionary, I do think that The Gist marks an evolution, drawing together aspects of both public radio and podcasting to create an interesting hybrid that isn’t quite like anything else on either medium.

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