Slate’s Leon Neyfakh is the latest media watcher to predict doom for public radio, specifically the organization formerly known as National Public Radio.
The competition in the media landscape is fierce, he writes — podcasts and other apps that appeal to a younger crowd can eclipse the antiquated business model of NPR.
Neyfakh cites a list of younger, hipper employees who bailed on the organization out of frustration that NPR wasn’t prepared to pivot to a younger, hipper audience.
The problem? NPR does news. The audience of tomorrow wants a different package of personality and entertainment too.
By their nature, the newsmagazines are “perishable,” meaning they are designed to be listened to when they are fresh. In sensibility, they have been impressively consistent for decades, and longtime listeners have come to count on them for succinct updates on important world events, measured analysis of major national stories, evocative slice-of-life reporting from around the country, as well as occasional offbeat pieces that are delivered by NPR correspondents with a reliably mature sense of playfulness.
The NPR News voice, though not monolithic, is unmistakably distinct from the diverse range of audio programming that has taken off in the recent podcast boom. Some of the shows that are part of that wave, such as Red Bull Studios’ Bodega Boys, BuzzFeed’s Another Round, and Slate’s own political and cultural talk shows, have found a market as “low-touch” productions, which require little in the way of reporting (by the hosts) or audio engineering (by producers) and rely mostly on the podcasters’ charisma, expertise, and chemistry.
Other successful podcasts, such as Reply All, Criminal, and You Must Remember This, have paved the way for something else entirely: meticulously crafted feature journalism that, in Alex Blumberg’s words, feels less like a collection of radio segments and more like “narrative-driven, textured, sound-rich documentaries.”
The conventional wisdom among podcasters like Blumberg is that, in 2016, listeners want audio programming that makes them feel as though they’re getting to know a person or a topic intimately, whether through the familiar banter of beloved panelists or through lovingly produced works of storytelling.
Whereas the parents of the elusive Lara turned to NPR because they wanted someone trustworthy to tell them the news, younger generations seem to find satisfaction in the velvety bedroom voice of 99% Invisible host Roman Mars as he murmurs about furniture and the self-consciousness of Serial’s Sarah Koenig, who makes the method of her reporting part of her story.
“There’s hardly any commentary, and very little exploratory or strange portraiture, documentary, or poetic stuff,” Jay Allison, one of public radio’s early risk-takers said.
“By abandoning that kind of sonic terrain of exploratory narrative, NPR has ceded that territory to the podcasters.”
Adam Davidson, a co-host of the Planet Money podcast, on the other hand, says he’s surprised he’s not getting more calls for jobs from NPR employees also ready to bail on the old media ways.
When and if that happens, NPR’s side of the talent equation suddenly becomes incredibly compelling: you can have good wages, a reliable union job, AND fast-moving creativity in a company that owns the future. NPR might even (I have thought) begin to give co-ownership to its show creators, so they might have a compelling financial inducement.
Frankly, when all that comes together I’d be tempted to quit Gimlet (just kidding, Alex Blumberg!) and come back to NPR.
My sense is that the opposite has happened. The message received by the no-promoting-podcasts-in-back-announces coverage is that the talent equation shifted dramatically in favor of the new startups.
I don’t think that was the goal of the announcement, but the simple fact that the announcement came without realizing its impact suggests that the discussion within NPR is very, very far from where I thought it was and should be.
To me, I find it hard to understand how there could even be a question of whether or not NPR should promote its own podcasts. Of friggin’ course it should. Like crazy! It’s life depends on it! Have you seen how the NY Times promotes Virtual Reality or the Upshot or the new Modern Love podcast. For that matter, have you heard how NPR promotes Morning Edition every chance it gets.
But Davidson acknowledges his latest podcast is struggling to find an audience.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro, one of NPR’s foreign correspondents, countered that it’s a big pie.
Hi Adam. As you know I have enormous deep respect for you and what everyone ‘out there’ is doing. I wonder why it always seems to be a zero sum game with you guys (and you are mostly guys) : the new world of podcasting OR NPR failing and disappearing in the abyss?
I also have to say that in many ways what the news shows provide is missing in your awesome podcasts…you know, that thing called news. Are you not interested in what is happening in China or Nairobi or …dare I say it, Brazil?
What podcast will provide reporting from the field in ways that are meaningful? What you wrote is a variation of so much of what ex-NPR staffers have written who have left to go into the private sector. But, ya know, NPR has a mission. And that mission is to inform.
It has the scale and the scope to do that. And yes, OH GOD YES, are there problems at NPR (like all media companies). But seriously NPR does matter unless you want to live in a world with ONLY 30 minutes of vocal fry on the value and meaning of Mold (which is GREAT) and not, also, let’s say… news of a terror attack in Belgium. I’m sorry if that seems quaint to you.
But as someone who has spent (most) of their entire career in terrible places telling stories that were important but came at great personal cost I find the arguments you make kinda silly. The ecosystem is evolving and growing. And that’s a great thing. Let’s not eat each other in the process. Love, Lulu
And that explains why the podcasters aren’t hearing from NPR workers. As near as I can tell, none of the people who left NPR for the upstarts have that much of an audience. So they’ve chosen creative expression over making an impact, reaching an audience and exerting some influence in the public arena.
Good for them. That’s their choice. But some journalists want more. For them, there’s NPR.
Related: Garrison Keillor’s impending departure has ‘Prairie Home’ affiliates concerned (Star Tribune)