Intro from Jay Allison: For our "In Conversation" series, Jenna Weiss-Berman (Pineapple Street Media) and Laura Walker (WNYC) sat down together to ponder public media, podcasting, and our future. They covered mission, diversity, disruption, and the stuff they like. It's encouraging to hear Jenna and Laura enjoying each other and their work. This charming and important conversation is available both to read and as a podcast.
*Editor’s Note: This conversation was recorded on October 25, 2016.
Jenna: So let’s start with who are you and what do you do?
Laura: I’m Laura Walker, I’m the President and CEO of New York Public Radio.
Jenna: And how long have you been here?
Laura: Very long. [Laughter] I’ve been here for twenty years.
Jenna: What job did you start out doing here?
Laura: President and CEO. [Laughter] I came when the board had made a deal with Mayor Guiliani to buy the stations for twenty million dollars. And there were two radio stations and, I think, two reporters. And we, over time, bought the stations and created much stronger radio stations.
The Road to WNYC
Jenna: And what were you doing before WNYC?
Laura: I started out as a print journalist and then I did radio. I worked at NPR for a little bit. I loved editing tape and I loved creating. It is so fun. And then I went to business school, and then did a little consulting, and then I was at Sesame Workshop for eight years where I worked on Ghostwriter, which was a mystery adventure.
Jenna: It was my very favorite show, probably of all time. It was such a great show. [Laughter]
Laura: Thank you.
Jenna: No, it was the best show ever. I still sing the song from it all the time.
Laura: Oh wow.
Jenna: And what drew you to public media initially?
Laura: I love the combination of mission and really great journalism and storytelling. But also competing in the real world for both attention and, you know, having to get out there and make some revenue and kind of build a business.
Jenna: Yeah, that’s interesting. [Laughter]
Laura: It’s a great combination.
Public Media’s Mission
Jenna: Just how has public media changed since you started working in it? And how do you think it still needs to change?
Laura: I think the fundamental kind of goals of public media are still very much the same. You read that wonderful speech that Lyndon Johnson gave almost fifty years ago, you know, when he set up CBP, and he quoted E.B. White and he talked about the theater of the imagination and the mission to tell the stories of America. So I think it’s still very much a fundamental mission to do great news, to tell great stories and to lift the voices of those that are not heard. When I first worked in public media, I was an intern at WGBH, and then I went to NPR and it reminds me actually of what podcasting feels like now. I mean, NPR in 1980, which is when, you know, nobody was over the age of thirty. There was this kind of like we’re changing the world thing, we’re doing something that’s really important, we’re going to be the best journalists. But we have this medium of radio that we’re redefining, and I think in some ways that’s come back. I think it’s very hard economically for a lot of the stations to actually have a mission in their communities that’s more of a news mission. They do a lot of outreach and other things. I think the journalism of radio and the deep roots in the community, and the fact that so many newspapers are, you know, like you look at what’s happened to the Bergen Record where they’re laying off half their reporters. Who’s gonna fill the void? I think it’s gonna be public radio to a large extent, and so all eyes are on us in a way that feels like we have a huge responsibility.
Podcasting at (especially small) Public Radio Stations
Jenna: Definitely. Podcasting has taken on a big role in public radio and it’s taken on kind of a controversial role. There are some people in public media who seem afraid of podcasting, there are some people who think that podcasting and radio are at war, which I don’t agree with that at all. [Laughs] I think that everything can work really well together, and that it doesn’t have to be this competition between podcasting and radio. But I do wonder with a small station that’s trying to be local, so not necessarily WNYC, but let’s say, the station that I grew up with, which is New England Public Radio, at WFCR. What do you think the role of podcasting can be for small stations who are trying to stay local and, you know, podcasting has seemed like broader issues than just local? How do you think that podcasting can work with small stations?
Laura: You have to turn it around in a way and ask what are the people in Amherst doing and how are they getting their audio. And they’re getting it on the radio, but they’re also getting it through podcasts and through other things. So a station like WFCR, or any other small station, I would love it if we could all work together to try to figure out a way for stations to really serve the needs of the people in their community. So they’re doing a lot of local news, they’re doing a lot of music programming, they’re doing other things, and if the local, locally-oriented stuff could pop up on Apple iTunes or somewhere, where people are gonna really want to learn about what’s happening in the five-college area or whatever in New England in general, that would be great. So I think that’s a way that we could be working more together to develop the tools and the platforms. And also, there are incredibly talented people that have things to say to a national audience there. So to figure out how on-demand content from the station can go to a larger audience. I think some of that is having the confidence to just do it and the experimental kind of chutzpah to say, okay, we’re gonna try this. And some of it is figuring out the tools and the platforms, so that it’s easy to do. I think from the point of view of serving the people in your community, I also think that there’s a ton of people in the community there that are listening to our programs and other podcasts. And are there ways that we can help to get the names of those folks to the people that are creating the radio station there so they can engage their community in dialogue or discussion around the issues and also know who they are. I think if the public radio stations can both see themselves as producers of content, but also as the engagers of the community, and that we can figure out how the digital tools can get people closer to their community through what they’re listening to — their own content or just regular public radio content. I don’t know, what do you think? [Laughs]
Jenna: I think about it a lot, and I do wonder if there’s a role for like local podcast, even in small towns, even if, you know, 500 people are going to listen to them. Is it worth it? [Laughter] I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I wish that more stations would try.
Podcast or Radio?
Jenna: Something that a lot of stations struggle with too is they can’t quite figure out the role of podcast versus radio, and what should be a podcast and what should be on radio. And it seems like you guys generally keep them pretty separate. I rarely hear your podcast content on your airwaves, and I’m wondering, what makes good podcast versus what makes good radio, and why the choice not to air more podcasts on air?
Laura: We went through a period of time where we were introducing lots of podcasts and we weren’t introducing much radio. If you look at this year, we started New Yorker Radio Hour, which is both radio and podcast. We also are repurposing the Freakonomics podcast into radio shows that people are really enjoying. And that’s kind of following the Radiolab model, and this is really the genius of Dean Cappello, you know, of let’s create something not because it has to be 58-minutes, let’s create the best content, and let’s give somebody a voice, and let them create what makes sense. And that’s what podcasts do, you know, you’re freed from the constraints both of the time and of having to basically create it to sell to program directors. You’re kind of giving it direct to people, so you can really speak directly to the audience. I think that’s the kind of freedom that podcasts give.
Laura: But we are bringing more to the radio and thinking more about what we could do like New Yorker Radio Hour that are both.
Jenna: So you think in the future you’ll do more crossover?
Laura: Yeah, probably. And I’d like to feel like the radio will also get more flexible in a way. So another thing that we’ve done recently is United States of Anxiety, which is a podcast that looks at Trump supporters here in the New York area. It has two kinds of radio plays as well as a podcast; there are excerpts in Morning Edition, and every Thursday we air the podcast itself and then have a discussion around it, and open up the phones and ask people to call in. It’s taking the form of the podcast, but then putting it into the various formats that we already have.
Jenna: And it’s also bringing your community in to kind of be a part of it.
Jenna: Yeah, and I think it really engages people.
Laura: You know with podcasts and with radio, I think the technology is here that we, I think, can convene different kinds of conversations and maybe model a kind of public discourse that we need to have in this country.
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Diversify the Range
Jenna: Yeah, definitely. I want to get to a sort of a more difficult issue, which is diversity, and I want to acknowledge that we’re two white women talking about diversity. [Laughs] And there are problems with that, but this is something that everyone should be talking about more. I came from public radio, I worked for, I guess it was probably almost nine years, I was at The Moth and StoryCorp and NPR in DC, and I was here [WNYC] for a little while helping my friend Anna Sale [Death, Sex and Money] between producers. I think I became kind of disillusioned and I started to feel like the mission that I thought drove public radio was lagging. I started to feel like I could accomplish more outside of public media; it felt a little bit stalled to me. And I do think this has changed quite a bit over the past few years, but I left public media partially because I just felt like I kept hearing similar voices. And to me, public media was supposed to be something that was really for the people, you know. So I went to BuzzFeed and we created Another Round and–
Laura: Yes, great show.
Jenna: –and it was a lot of fun and I’m really proud of it. And to me that was kind of the most mission driven thing I’ve ever been able to do. And it was at this big for-profit company and their values were around, like if we neglect certain audiences, we’re actually losing money. So if we make this really successful black podcast, hosted by two amazing young black women, that has hundreds of thousands of listeners every week. . . and I think that their view was, it’s great for us and it’s a moneymaker and it’s a lot of fun. After people saw the success of that, I watched public radio stations, and NPR in DC be like, oh, okay, so maybe that actually does work. I really wanted public radio to take more risks, and I think public funding should allow people to take more risks. Do you have any general thoughts on that? And also what audiences do you feel are still left behind in public media and how can we fix that?
Laura: Yeah, I mean this is obviously a huge question, and a question we think about a lot. We’ve made commitments in the last couple of years in a couple of areas. We’re doing a paid internship program which will hopefully increase the diversity, socioeconomic and other, of people who can work here. I hope that that will increase the diversity of the people coming in, because we do hire people from internships a lot. But we’ve also worked to try to get both more voices in management and more voices on the air. And on the air, 2 Dope Queens, two incredibly smart, incredibly funny black women, talking about their lives and Sooo Many White Guys with Phoebe Robinson.
Jenna: She’s amazing.
Laura: She is so funny; she is so great. And, you know, The United States of Anxiety, with Kai Wright, and Jami Floyd is our All Things Considered host, and Sarah Gonzalez doing this incredible reporting about criminal justice reform in New Jersey. So, you know, we’re really working to both diversify the newsroom itself, and our producers. But we’re not there yet. And we’ve just added a new role of vice-president of on-demand content, Tony Phillips, who comes from the BBC and brings a diverse perspective as well. I think there’s something about public media’s sound that, you know, it’s almost like the Saturday Night Live Alec Baldwin skit. [Laughter]
Laura: You know that it just, unfortunately, is a little too true. [Laughing] And we have to change that sound too, which is, I think, as much about listening to this country, and listening to the diverse kind of sounds of peoples’ voices, and not trying to put that NPRish sound out there, which I think can turn off certain people. It’s related to diversity, but it’s also about enabling different people’s experience to be respected. We’re also doing an LGBTQ show, Nancy, with two incredible hosts. The other thing we’re doing is asking every show to look at the sources they have and to be very conscious of where there may be hidden biases. It’s easy to go to the same old sources, or reporters, or commentators or whatever. We also have a program on race and reconciliation that Rebecca Carroll is working with in the newsroom, so it’s a very conscious effort. I don’t think we in New York, or in public radio, do very much with a Latino audience, specifically. You look at LA and New York, and we may be more the future of what this country looks like and so, I think in that sense, we have a responsibility to be leaders.
Jenna: Yeah. A show I think about doing a lot is something for first generation in America; they have such a unique experience having a different language from their parents. When I was at BuzzFeed, they saw this audience and they quickly became the biggest news source for young Latinos in America because they saw this hole in the space.
Laura: I think your point about the for-profit companies see the opportunity and see the revenue. And so they see it as an unmet need for an audience, and–
Jenna: Yeah, and there was something really progressive about that in a way that I had always sort of thought only public media could do. But then it was like oh, it’s capitalism and it’s sort of working. [Laughter]
Filling the Gaps
Laura: I’m curious, so what would you do?
Jenna: I think a lot about gaps in the space. A show I think about a lot is some kind of huge production podcast for kids that’s sort of like the Sesame Street of podcasts. I get excited about seeing what the gaps are and filling those, and I’ve been honestly a little bit disappointed at some of these for-profit podcast companies. It feels like they’re going for the same audience over and over again. And that’s their prerogative and if that’s what they think is gonna make money, I understand it, but I get really excited about trying to do totally new things.
Laura: Yeah, new things, and break the mold, and try to figure out– The whole idea of radio drama I think is so interesting.
Jenna: [Laughs] You guys could do a great one.
Laura: But it’s hard and you have to approach it by reinventing it because the old radio drama model isn’t gonna work right now. What’s kind of fun is that no one really has the skill set, so you have to develop it. Or if you think about like what we were just talking about, Ghostwriter.
Laura: Like a mystery adventure for kids, you know, kids six to eleven love narrative.
Jenna: I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends listen to Radiolab with their kids [Chuckles]. And they’ll be like, “My kid loves Radiolab, wouldn’t it be cool if there was like a Radiolab for young people.”
Laura: Yep, yep.
Dreaming the Future
Jenna: What are your future dream shows that you’d love to do at this stage?
Laura: I’m really interested in drama. I’m really interested in ways to engage the audience in new ways, you know, things that will spark a real conversation, or like what Anna [Sale] does, and other new shows, some other podcasters where they ask the audience — and you’re doing it too — ask the audience a question and then feature, you know, so that we’re really listening, as well as telling. And I think, you know, game show kinds of things could be kind of fun. I think there are so many formats to think about. I’m really proud of what the newsroom has done with The United States of Anxiety, cause I think it really is combining narrative journalism and, you know, looking at people who I think many people in the newsroom may not know how to communicate with so well.
Jenna: Yeah, I’ve been really loving it. [Chuckles] It’s humanized Trump supporters in a way that I didn’t necessarily want them to be humanized. [Laughs] But it’s been a good challenge.
Laura: Exactly. I was telling somebody yesterday; I was suggesting they listen. It’s a woman who lives in Long Island. And she said, “I just don’t want to hear anything about them.” I’m like, “Just give it a shot. Just listen and listen to– They’re your neighbors, you know, and for no other reason than you should not kind of either demonize them — and she was obviously a Hillary supporter — or think of them too narrowly, you know. And for me, in many ways, it kind of reminded me of people I grew up with, so that was comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I think looking at some of the tectonic shifts that we’re going through as a society; I’m really interested in trying to explore those in a range of different ways. I mean like one of the things, criminal justice reform, there are people on the left and people on the right that are realizing that imprisoning so many people in this country has got to change. And I think it’s a moment. I think we have to look at global warming and the environment in a way, it’s a moment. And obviously, to try to figure out how to talk to one another and build bridges among diverse experiences and diverse people, I think is essential. We can come out of this election and be more divided, or we can choose to come together. And I hope that we can play a role in doing that.
Jenna: I’d love hear more newsy podcasts, too. This seems to be happening at NPR where there’s kind of a separation of on-the-air is newsy stuff and what’s podcast is more evergreen.
Jenna: Yeah, I like those. I guess because they’re topical, they don’t have as long a life, and so people worry about that. A lot of people listen to podcasts by binging, so they’ll go back months, and it doesn’t really work with the news. But when you don’t have news podcasts, you’re kind of neglecting the audience that only gets their information through stuff online, through podcasts. So I feel like we’re gonna see those more and more. Even like a short daily news show, something like that.
Laura: Yeah, maybe something funny.
Jenna: Yes! [Laughter] A funny daily news show would actually be great.
If You Could. . .
Laura: I’m curious, if we said to you, you could do whatever you want. . . [Laughter] Obviously don’t give away your ideas, but you know, like break format, do something that makes us understand somebody we don’t know. What kinds of things would you want to do?
Jenna: I think a radio drama could be fun. I think that these short series are working really well. I think that, like podcasts, it seemed at first people thought that they all had to be weekly and come out at the same time every week. And I think that doing a lot of short series can be really fun. We’re making Hillary Clinton’s podcast now. It’ been fun.
Laura: Oh, yeah, oh cool. I’ll have to listen.
Jenna: Yeah, it’s really fun, I think you’d enjoy it. It’s called With Her. I think having a revolving cast of interesting people, whether it’s Hillary Clinton who kind of wants to talk about issues of the week, and I would love to hear a fireside chat style podcast that comes on every week with the president [Laughs]. That would be amazing. I’d love to do a bunch of short series with diverse and interesting voices and people who bring big audiences. So do ten episodes with Ta-Nehisi Coates where he’s interviewing ten people who he’s really interested in. Ten episodes with Lena Dunham, which we’re working on right now and that’s very highly produced and, you know, lots of stories of women around the world. Have people who are thought leaders do these short series that don’t feel super overwhelming to them. That’s what I’m pretty excited about right now. I think what Another Round did successfully was that it wasn’t just two people chatting forever unedited. It was these concise segments. We learned how to edit from public radio. [Laughter] So I think that a lot can be done in the space between these never ending chat shows and highly produced shows.
Laura: Yep, yep.
Jenna: And I think you guys have definitely been doing that — Death, Sex and Money is kind of in that space.
Laura: She’s so talented.
Jenna: She’s so awesome.
Laura: She is awesome.
Jenna: That space to me feels like there’s so much opportunity there and to do a young Latino show. I’d love to hear young modern Muslims talking about being new American Muslims, and the perceptions versus the realities, and just kind of these fun, either two-person chat shows, or one person who interviews a different person every week. There’s so much there and I’m really excited about it.
Laura: Yeah. You think about the fireside chat thing of the president and how [the president] could listen to the people, listen to questions and comments and it would be really fun to try to bring that to her, if it’s. . . [Chuckles]
Laura: In a way that is comfortable for her and that also allows her to respond and listen to the American people, and gives people a way to feel like they’re communicating with the president.
Jenna: I just want to ask you one more question. I think you address this a bit in your great Medium piece about how public radio can really lead in this podcast space. How do you respond to push back from other stations and from, I don’t know if you get push back from NPR in DC, anyone who’s worried about podcasts and how they might be too disruptive to public radio?
Laura: For whatever reason, people don’t come up to me and say, “You’re wrong to put so much into podcasts.” There’s a certain group of people who are like, you go girl, this is great, this is fabulous. I think the hardest one is people looking at us and saying, “But what about me?” So that’s really led me to think about public radio as the center of the community, and how can we as producers of podcasts help stations get close to the people in their community through podcasts. None of us know who is listening in our communities to podcasts. It would be great if the folks up in Amherst and the people in New York could all know who’s listening to public radio produced kind of podcasts and figure out ways–
Jenna: The stats are the problem.
Laura: Yeah, the stats are the problems. Imagine if you had the email address of every single person who listened to public radio podcasts in your community. And then you could communicate with them, you could talk about the mission of public radio. But more importantly, you could bring them together to be part of a larger local community that’s thinking about issues that matter and stories that matter. And also be able to communicate to them the news in their own community and ask them to be part of a larger discussion. Every single public radio station needs to disrupt themselves, not because radio isn’t relevant. Radio is relevant. I’m very high on radio. I think radio will continue to be a really strong force in our communities. And I think on some level, the moment-to-moment breaking news, the kind of work that only a public radio station can do in emergencies, the sense of being a live companion to so many thousands of people at the same time, there’s nothing like it. But every single public radio station can and should be asking: how can I disrupt myself? Not just in order to disrupt myself, but because all those people, and particularly younger folks, are listening to content in new ways. So we are lucky that we don’t have to, that our business model actually really can work in the podcast world because it’s about engaging people, it’s about a loyalty, it’s about producing great stuff that people will pay for, even though it’s free. And that works in podcasting too. And so I think we are very lucky in public radio. We have to take this moment and take this inflection point and push ourselves to be even more relevant and even more meaningful to our listeners in our communities.
Jenna: Well, your station’s really leading the way in public media, [Laughter] so I’m excited to see what you guys do.
Laura: And to see what you’re doing.
Jenna: Thanks so much for talking, this is great.
Laura: Okay, thank you, this was fun.
*Listen to this whole conversation on our podcast.*