Intro from Jay Allison: Curtis Fox produces podcasts for The New Yorker, The Poetry Foundation, Parents Magazine and others. He got his start in public radio and it still resonates in what he does. In this issue of The Transom Review, Curtis lays out his podcast philosophy, plays samples, and answers all sorts of practical questions too. Come download the PDF of Curtis's dispatch from this edge of the multi-dimensional new world of audio distribution.
There’s something about the word “manifesto” that demands bold underlined STATEMENTS. And so I will conform my (modest) message to the medium.
PUBLIC RADIO ISN’T THE ONLY PLACE FOR PUBLIC RADIO PRODUCERS TO WORK ANYMORE
I’ve always thought of public radio as a kind of ghetto for producers (and listeners) of reasonably intelligent audio. And things were crowded in our mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class, always well-mannered ghetto. There was little room for new programming, little appetite for experimentation. But things outside the ghetto looked even bleaker; commercial radio was a cultural wasteland.
Just a few years ago, if producers wanted to earn a living outside of public radio, the best option was books-on-tape. Lucrative perhaps, but not always stimulating, especially if you had to slog many hours editing the latest Danielle Steele. (I did.) Besides, a few entrepreneurial producers had sewn up the market.
But then in 2004 new medium opened up a world of new possibilities. With podcasting, magazines, museums, cultural and political organizations, non-profits, and even corporations could now put out their own audio content, directly, without having to work through a traditional media outlet. Here was a medium with no limits! You didn’t need a fortune to buy space on the FM dial. You didn’t have to pad your shows to conform to a broadcasting clock. And screw the FCC, you could say anything! The problem? These organizations did not know how to produce or market effective audio programs. Enter the independent public radio producer.
I got the idea of getting into public radio late one night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as I was driving to New York with all my worldly possessions stuffed in my Honda Civic. I was 31 years old, without a career or any inclination for one. At the time I was a poet, troubled that none of my otherwise educated friends ever read poetry and would not be able to appreciate the blinding insights that would one day flash from my brain onto the page. My friends read a lot of fiction, but I never saw any of them crack a book of poetry. Why was that? Because academia had soured them on it, I figured, and besides, they felt so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff out there they didn’t know where to start. So what could introduce people to the very real pleasures of an art that I loved? A public radio poetry show.
In New York, energized by the idea of gaining skills I would need to be the producer of that show, I took the traditional path into public radio: an unpaid internship (at WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show), then paid work (editing Bridges: A Liberal Conservative Dialogue). I started producing history programs independently, did pieces for some national shows like All Things Considered and On the Media, and eventually started working on staff for WNYC’s The Next Big Thing, where along with standard host interviews and cultural journalism I produced comedy, radio drama and audio essays–types of radio that after the demise of that show don’t seem to have found a home anywhere inside the public radio ghetto. Along the way I managed to do some literary and poetry segments, but was gradually disabused of the idea that a poetry show would work on public radio, outside a few local markets. Public radio was in full retreat from educational programming in favor of news and entertainment. But now at least I was a skilled producer who could earn a modest living in an honorable profession.
When podcasting came along, I took the skills and values of public radio into the new medium and started producing programs that would never find their way onto the schedules of most public radio stations, including several poetry podcasts for The Poetry Foundation.
I originated podcasts for the Jewish cultural website Nextbook.org (which is now ably produced by Julie Subrin, a former colleague at The Next Big Thing), and for Parents Magazine, where some on staff have natural radio talent.
I started working with the New Yorker, where we developed the Fiction Podcast and the Campaign Trail, both of which are edited by freelance public radio producers. Partly by virtue of being in New York, the center of the magazine industry, and partly because it’s a time when many media organizations, cultural institutions and advocacy groups want to put out their own audio programs, I’ve had my pick of interesting projects, and, after producing a long documentary of Walt Whitman for WNYC, I gradually stopped producing pieces for public radio. Deep down I still consider myself a public radio producer, but my last piece, for Studio 360, went up in early 2006.
PODCASTING IS NOT REVOLUTIONARY (YET)
Podcasting is an immature medium. It is far easier to flick on the TV or radio than it is to download or subscribe to a podcast, much less find it on your mp3 player. The technology needed by podcast listeners isn’t cheap either, and because they are distributed free podcasting has a ways to go before developing a viable business model. Many of the most popular podcasts are simply radio programs re-issued as on-demand audio. Non-broadcast podcasts may be chipping around the edges of broadcast radio, but podcasting is still a niche medium used by a small fraction of audio consumers. As data pipes get fatter, podcasting or some version of it will eventually mature into a mainstream advertising medium that serves up network TV shows and a whole lot more, on demand-TIVO for computers and cell phones.
Ultimately, podcasting is simply another medium to deliver audio and video, and major media companies will dominate it as they now dominate TV, radio, print, and, increasingly, the web. So I’m not somebody who sees podcasting as a revolutionary technology in the media landscape. For consumers, the real significance of podcasting lies in its role in the general and generational shift away from TVs and radios to computers and cell phones; for producers its significance is the new ability to create content for discrete demographics located anywhere in the world-in other words, to create audiences that currently don’t exist.
Podcasting is the first really effective audiovisual medium that narrowcasts to groups that are not being served by broadcast media-people interested in contemporary poetry, to cite an example relevant to me personally. For independent public radio producers, narrowcasting gives a producer greater freedom to explore subjects without fear of losing a broadcast audience (or station managers) which may tune out when you stray too far from the news or middlebrow entertainment.
I can safely assume that they’re already interested in poetry, somewhat knowledgeable about it, and can stay with us for twenty minutes to look at a poem by Sylvia Plath or to hear a range of poems by the new poet laureate Kay Ryan. This simply does not happen on public radio. (Some podcasts geared to a more general audience may develop a large enough following to be picked up by broadcast radio, as in the case of The Sound of Young America, so podcasting isn’t only a narrowcasting medium. It can be the proving ground for new broadcast programs.)
Podcasting opens up a market for audio that would never even be contemplated for broadcast. Businesses that want to talk shop with potential clients are starting podcasts; advocacy groups that want to get their message directly to their members; non-profits that want to fundraise; political groups and politicians; professional and trade groups; giant corporations that want to reach their far-flung employees.
I don’t pretend to know if podcasting will ultimately undermine the mothership of public radio. I suspect not, given how well public radio podcasts have done on iTunes, and the high quality of most public radio programs in general. But podcasting, with its emphasis on the program itself and not the network or station that produced it, plus the drift toward the greater diversity of the web, does threaten public radio’s franchise business model.
To survive in the long term public radio stations will have to develop programming and web sites that serve general and niche audiences, or face a gradual erosion of membership and listeners. (Interestingly enough, Poetry Off the Shelf is distributed by alt.NPR, which I think is NPR’s attempt to embrace long-deprived niche audiences in the bosomy mothership brand.) Think how few general interest magazines are published anymore and how many specialty titles fill the newsstands. I would not be surprised to discover in the corner store a thriving magazine for turtle lovers; in any case, there’s a website! Like it or not, that’s the future of audio as well, it seems to me. This is good news indeed for public radio producers who want to find work outside the ghetto.
We try to help producers get there.
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WHAT A PODCAST PRODUCER DOES
It all depends on the program, of course, but podcast producers like me do pretty much what public radio producers do, plus a host of things unrelated to production. Like radio producers, podcast producers design programs, audition talent, write script, voice, report, record, edit, sound design, pull their hair out, mix. But they also have to come up with budgets and business plans. They have to market podcasts, or at least advise clients on how to get their program noticed. They have to function as audio consultants to the web sites from which their podcasts spring. These last two points are related, because podcasts are unlikely to thrive without a very supportive and heavily trafficked website. How else will an original podcast get noticed if not for a website that continually trumpets its existence? (Magazines can advertise in their pages, which the New Yorker has done extremely well; they also make the podcasts available as web audio on their website, with links to subscribe on iTunes. Radio stations have the biggest marketing advantage, because they can promote a podcast to an audience that already likes the product; they just have to say, more or less, “Here’s another way to listen to this show, whenever and wherever you want.”)
But probably the hardest part of being a podcast producer is helping a client identify the potential audience–general listener or specialized group? underserved audience, or are there competing programs?–and crafting a program accordingly. In other words, why do they want to produce a podcast, who is that niche audience they want to reach? Or is it a general audience they want to appeal to?
The New Yorker is justly famous for the fiction they’ve published over the years. Pretty much every writer of note in the last eighty years has appeared in its pages; the magazine’s archive of short stories is unparalleled. I thought the natural audience for a New Yorker fiction podcast would be books-on-tape consumers, many of whom were already accustomed to downloading audio from places like Audible.com. Another audience would be New Yorker readers not naturally drawn to podcasts or audiobooks who might nevertheless be interested to hear what the fiction editor of the New Yorker and contemporary writers might have to say about other writers they admire (the guest writers don’t read their own work; they choose a story from the archives by another writer, which they then read and talk about). So the program was designed to address both these audiences, with a brief conversational introduction to the story between Deborah Treisman and the guest writer, followed by a straight books-on-tape-style reading, followed by a conversation about the story.
Thanks in part to the New Yorker brand and to frequent features on the iTunes store, as well as advertisements in the magazine, the podcast has developed a sizable audience. It doesn’t hurt that the podcast is evergreen. New listeners can always go back and download the entire archive, or cherry pick ones of interest. In other words, here was a product naturally suited to the medium. (Its only competition is the excellent radio show Selected Shorts, where actors read short stories in front of a live audience. Incidentally, I think Selected Shorts works better as a podcast than a radio show because unlike the radio version you never tune in in the middle of a story and you can always pause to answer the phone without losing the thread.)
The Campaign Trail, another New Yorker podcast, is not as suited to the “long-tail” nature of the medium. Information and opinion about the presidential race date so quickly that programs won’t accumulate downloads over time. Last week’s podcast is like last week’s magazine-curious, but you’d rather hear the most recent one. Competition is also fierce, not only from dozens of political TV shows (think “Shields and Brooks” on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer), but also from print outlets like the New York Times, which also has a political podcast. (The New York Times has a formidable array of podcasts, but production quality is uneven and even their good programs are poorly marketed. If they ever got it together I think they could go toe to toe with NPR.) But public interest in the campaign is high, and the New Yorker has some of the best political journalists writing (Ryan Lizza, Hendrik Hertzberg, George Packer, Elizabeth Kolbert, John Cassidy, David Remnick, as well as executive editor Dorothy Wickenden, who is the program’s remarkably warm and skillful host).
The idea here is not to respond immediately to the onslaught of events in the race, but rather to analyze events from the deeper perspective that these writers and editors bring to the helter-skelter of electoral politics. But the podcast would be quickly irrelevant if it talked about events that the rest of the media has already digested, so production speed is important. We record in the morning and the podcast goes live that afternoon. They have the talent; my job is to direct recordings and do a tight edit and mix that reflect well on the extremely high editorial standards of the magazine. I’ve noticed that many glossy, well-edited magazines have put out amateurish-sounding podcasts that reflect poorly on their staff and their brand. The idea that audio is easy and cheap to produce well is the first assumption I try to put to rest when talking with potential clients.
AESTHETICS: DOES A PODCAST HAVE TO SOUND DIFFERENT THAN RADIO?
Yes and no and maybe. I think one of the reasons I get hired is because I can bring a public radio “sound” to a program. But podcasting got its start with amateurs who made it up as they went along, technically as well as creatively, and they have left their mark on what audiences expect out of a podcast. Like blogs, podcasts are often rooted in personal opinion, and there is often little sense, as there is in public radio, that you have to be fair and balanced. Technical quality and consistency don’t always seem to matter much either; there is much more tolerance in podcasts for inferior audio-SYKPE recordings and the like. This is not a problem if you are an individual, but for a professional podcast producer different standards apply, according to the client you are producing for. If that client wants to sound like public radio, you have to match public radio technical, aesthetic and editorial standards.
The problem, of course, is that magazines, for example, are set up to produce magazines, not audio. So a professional podcast producer must help clients choose equipment that will get the best possible sound in the available recording space, at a reasonable price. Fortunately, while it’s almost impossible to match the dead space of a radio studio in an office setting, with the right equipment and proper direction of talent it’s relatively easy to get good sound. Only professional producers will even notice the difference.
It’s extraordinary how quickly the media landscape has changed with the rise of podcasting, youtube, iTunes, satellite radio, and smart phones. How things will ultimately shake out remains to be seen, but we’re obviously in a period of great experimentation. All sorts of individuals and organizations are now producing their own audio and video, standards are in flux, and all media seem to be converging on and connecting to the web.
I do think that in spite of the overwhelming quantity of stuff now out there, quality content will prevail, and public radio producers are well positioned to bring their skills and values out of the ghetto and into this brave new marketplace. They need us out there.