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.
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.
No tricks here, just straight out asking!
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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.
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?