Advertising, Podcasting And Public Radio

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Intro from Jay Allison: On July 26th, The New York Times ran a piece by Dino Grandoni called "Ads for Podcasts Test the Line Between Story and Sponsor." These are some of the notes I shared with the reporter.

Public Radio vs. The Marketplace

Over the years, public radio has been a magnet for talented and idealistic people. It provides a context of mission, not marketplace. It draws producers committed to journalism, education, art, social issues, a full range of perspectives, and the free voice. It’s a social engine driven by the energy of those who believe in it. Without that central mission, the energy dissipates. With a commercial focus, driven by metrics of popularity, it will be entrepreneurs — not necessarily driven by high ideals — who thrive.

For now, podcasting draws heavily on the public radio talent pool, often because public radio itself is not supporting the very talent it has incubated. You ask what I mean by that. There are too few national programs or stations willing to reach beyond their staffs to pay people for doing the kind of work they’re now doing on podcasts. Indeed, there are fewer public radio vehicles for independently-produced content than there were even ten years ago. Stations are bound by their big programming blocks and unwilling to carve them up to create slots for these voices. Ask people like Roman Mars or Jesse Thorn and many other podcasters who continue to knock at public radio’s door. I could riff on this for hours, but will spare you.

From The New York Times: Jay Allison producer of "The Moth Radio Hour," said even though he sympathized with podcasts' funding needs, he was uncomfortable with the idea of people who worked in public radio being asked to sell products. Photo by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times
From The New York Times: Jay Allison producer of “The Moth Radio Hour,” said even though he sympathized with podcasts’ funding needs, he was uncomfortable with the idea of people who worked in public radio being asked to sell products. Photo by Shiho Fukada.

Native Advertising

Interweaving host identity and product sales is nothing new. It’s always been done that way in commercial radio. But there’s been a pretty solid wall between the two in public media, where underwriters have wanted to connect to our mission and identity, not use our skills and personalities for their own benefit.

I’m utterly sympathetic to podcast hosts and entrepreneurs trying to fund their work. CPB and foundation funding has pretty much dried up; those small pools were how many of us made our radio series in years past.

I confess, though, to feeling uncomfortable hearing public radio people in the role of pitch-person for product, since I’m counting on them for something else. It messes with their identities. Public radio has incubated human-scale sensibilities that are honest and real and even good-hearted. Advertisers are trading on this. I’m not so much worried about podcasters “tricking” listeners, but do worry about producers considering advertisers as their priority.


For now, podcast listeners are enamored of the producer sensibility and story-telling styles born in public radio. We producer nerds, for our part, are pleased to be suddenly popular and supported, finding ourselves more welcome than we are in public broadcasting.

As time goes on, though, where will the new talent come from? Will it cling to public radio ideals? As for advertisers, will they want to up the ante in what they ask of hosts? If one host is willing to shill like crazy, will the others be expected to follow suit? Even now, the ads are trending toward charming, story-based “pieces,” eroding the trust that listeners have traditionally placed in public radio people to be “above all that.”

For my part, I like listener support and subscription as a model. It’s a direct compact, and an honor system that requires both parties to be honorable.

Bigger Stories

When we depend on advertising to make our work, what happens to important subjects that can’t attract underwriters — things that are sad, difficult, controversial, unpopular, etc.? Things like poverty, corruption, the environment. With the marketplace in charge, I doubt we’ll hear many stories about global human rights or the diary of an inner city kid. All of this is embraced by the mission of public media. Will a system based on big audiences and corporate sales keep those stories coming?

Comments

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  • danesanders

    7.29.15

    Reply

    I’m curious Jay… can’t entrepreneurs be driven by ideals just as well as committed journalists, educators and artists? I can think of several unexplored models where each of these characters approached their work more entrepreneurially… here I mean entrepreneurial as adjective not subject.

  • Jay Allison

    7.29.15

    Reply

    Absolutely. And there are plenty of podcast entrepreneurs working in that mode. But my concern is for the mission-driven enterprise of public media that has incubated a lot of those people and encouraged their ideals by giving it context. If that context morphs into an entrepreneurial one, then we have only the marketplace as context.

  • danesanders

    7.29.15

    Reply

    I appreciate your take on this Jay. Sincerely. Further, I’m in agreement that the mission-driven enterprise of public media has incubated a lot of great talent and shows. That said, I’m also inclined to point out that that the public radio pioneers are no longer the only players in this narrative driven radio/audio eco-system. Just last night I attended Cast-Party, a stage variety show featuring many of these new popular podcast hosts, all of whom seemed to have a direct tie to Ira Glass (he even made a cameo appearance). I bring that up because what occurred to me when I was watching was how most of those on stage were trained by Ira but they themselves were all iterating in unique ways… creating similar but slightly new contexts. If we were to categorize that crew as children of the incumbents of public radio (with that idealized context you mention), I wonder if this could actually be very good news in a day when so few players get to have the privilege of working for the Ira Glass’s of the world. What gets me excited (and just a little nervous) is the next generation of radio/audio creatives… namely, those who don’t have a direct tie to the established generation. Folks like me who wander onto places like Transom and just fall in love with good radio but want to create space to possibly do this for a living someday. My sense is we must do include an entrepreneurial possibility or we’ll be cutting a lot of folks out of the game. I’m not saying we must use the old advertising model by the way. There are several other models that could be far more effective actually but no less risky and no less profitable. One final note: My favorite part about your article is your curiosity about how to navigate these challenging ethical nuances. What is good for commons? What is good for the individual? I for one would like to keep fighting for both… and good radio. Thanks for all you do Jay. Please send my thanks to Rob R. too. I learn from you both every day.

    Dane Sanders
    GoBeCollective.com

  • Jay Allison

    7.29.15

    Reply

    Dane, in many ways, these days are thrilling and just what I’ve hoped for–an radio (ish) environment that rewards creative people and lets them connect with their audiences. I have spent much of my life badgering public radio to be that environment. Sometimes it has, and a lot of the stuff you saw last night was spawned there. Which is great.

    I’m concerned about losing that incubator, a place where money isn’t the main goal–where public service is. I don’t actually worry about entrepreneurs. They’ll do fine! I worry about people who are, as you say “committed artists, educators, journalists” who may not be entrepreneurs. I want them to have a context, a rallying place, a common enterprise not driven by profit motive.

    But, yes, I think new models, not simply drifting back to advertising, that’s where the hope lies.

  • danesanders

    7.29.15

    Reply

    I think I’m hearing your more accurately Jay. Thank you for persisting. I so appreciate your take. If I could add… my sense is Transom is just such a rallying place. Thank you for making such a significant contribution here. As an aside, might you be open to being interviewed on this topic? I recently had Starlee Kine of the very curious Mystery Show and Steve Pratt of the very clever Slack Variety Pack (there’s a model!) on my podcast. It’s called converge: the business of creativity. It’s for people who make something out of what they make. Could be a buck. Could be a point. Both count. Your perspective would add a lot to that conversation. No expectation or presumption of course. Just an invitation. I’m dane@gobecollective.com in case you’d be open to it. Thanks for considering.

  • 16barzRadio

    8.31.15

    Reply

    I believe that advertising on podcasts takes away from the creative environment and distorts it!

    • danesanders

      8.31.15

      Reply

      Interesting… how so?

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