Podcasting and the Selling of Public Radio

by Conor Gillies


A couple of weeks ago, NPR and two of its most influential member stations, WNYC and WBEZ, invited a large group of media and marketing people to Le Poisson Rouge, a nightclub in Greenwich Village, for an event called “Hearing is Believing.” Its purpose was to persuade brands to advertise on public media podcasts. Onstage, some of the most listened-to podcasters — Jad Abumrad, Guy Raz, Glynn Washington, Brooke Gladstone, Lulu Miller — presented public radio’s offerings: an intimately engaged audience, a unique narrative platform, a chance for “Mail Kimp”-level virality. Later, after an indie band performed, Ira Glass, the host of This American Life and producer of Serial, told a reporter for AdAge, “My hope is that we can move away from a model of asking listeners for money and join the free market.” He added, “Public radio is ready for capitalism.”

In 1961, during a broadcast-industry convention, the message public media delivered to the private sector was quite different: In what has become known as the “wasteland speech,” Newton Minow, then-chairman of the FCC, criticized the corrosive effects of commercial media and mapped out a vision for ad-free, publicly supported alternatives. “The people own the air,” Minow reminded the crowd. The efforts of Minow and his fellow social democrats coalesced into the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which led to the founding of PBS and NPR, and established the rule that so-called noncommercial educational broadcasters must make clear where their money comes from — but without advertising in order to limit private influence on public airwaves.

Since then, the FCC has required that public broadcasters acknowledge their sponsors through underwriting spots — short, neutral, non-promotional messages made for “identification purposes only.” But on the internet, those rules are basically null; there is no publicly owned digital commons to regulate, and the FCC has no say yet over public broadcasters’ websites, apps, or podcasts.

“Podcasts are not donated airwaves. They’re podcasts,” Erik Diehn, the vice president of business development at Midroll Media, a podcast media company, told me over the phone. “There’s no exchange happening where the broadcaster has to agree not to take ads because they are being given this grant of a public good.” Midroll Media produces original shows like WTF with Marc Maron and Comedy Bang! Bang! and sells advertising on nearly two hundred podcasts, including shows from Public Radio International (an NPR rival), like Studio 360 and Science Friday. The company’s ads — “integrated, native, often host-read spots” — are hugely effective compared to most internet advertising, so businesses pay good money for them. Podcasts, which tend to run one or two ads before the show and two or three ads during the show, can earn around three hundred dollars per ad if they average at least ten thousand listeners. For the elite circle of shows with over four hundred thousand listeners — generally the iTunes Top 50 — a single ad spot can net over ten thousand dollars.

While there are a few legal hurdles facing public media’s entry into the free market, for the first time, U.S. public radio will be able to broadcast commercials.1 And because hosts and producers aren’t just offering ad space, but effectively branding content, they are threatening a long-protected public trust.

NPR has allowed corporate sponsorship of their podcasts since at least 2003. Back then, funding credits followed on-air rules for underwriting: a short, neutral message, usually at the start of a show. Sponsor, slogan, website. This year, NPR began rolling out longer, more promotional spots, as in calls to action for a business, in the middle of their shows. On Car Talk, Ray Magliozzi makes first-person approvals of products punctuated with his signature laugh. In a recent episode of Fresh Air with guest Louis C.K., an ad for stamps.com — though not voiced by Terry Gross — is scored with music from the soundtrack to Louie. NPR’s new flagship podcast, Invisibilia, runs two thirty-second spots together in the middle of the show, produced with funky music and lively voices that interchange, Radiolab-style.

“These credits cannot be voiced by NPR journalists, but non-journalist hosts of entertainment podcasts may voice credits,” Bryan Moffett, interim president and CEO of National Public Media, which handles NPR’s corporate sponsorships, told me in an email. “We will not offer endorsements, testimonials, specific product prices, or promotional calls to purchase. Podcast credits may mention an offer or discount for podcast listeners, and tell them where or how to get it, however.” NPR’s podcast sponsorship guidelines have yet to be further defined, Moffett said. But NPR is committed to maintaining “a non-commercial posture with sponsorship on digital platforms because users expect us to have the same sound and non-commercial feel everywhere they listen or experience NPR.”

When I asked Kerri Hoffman, chief operations officer (also my former boss) at the Public Radio Exchange, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that produces and distributes shows like Reveal — whose host Al Letson has started reading ad copy mid-show — about their podcast sponsorship policy, she said, “We actually encourage our hosts to deliver spots in keeping with the sound of the show. We do ask that they identify sponsors as such — to make it clear that it is a paid sponsorship.” As for underwriters sending producers gifts, as podcast advertisers sometimes do, so that personalities can personally endorse products, she told me, “I think this is absolutely of concern with news shows. It is a little less clear with entertainment programs.” She told me producers do a great job policing themselves. Most shows on Radiotopia — PRX’s podcast network funded, in part, by large grants and listener support — make sure that sponsor products aren’t too closely aligned with show topics, for example.2

Maximum Fun takes a more old-school approach to underwriting. “Generally speaking, we try not to have more than two ad spots in a show, we keep them short and avoid personal endorsements, hard selling, and products we don’t like,” Jesse Thorn, host of Bullseye and the network’s president, wrote in an email. “We’re listener-supported, and we love to have companies support us as well, but advertising isn’t the core of what we do.”

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In this early stage of podcasting, listener expectations are far from set. The “sonic environment” of podcasts, as Diehn put it, isn’t like that of the radio dial, which makes the difference between commercial and noncommercial channels clearer. When listeners subscribe to podcasts — six is the average number — they don’t necessarily hear institutions or networks; they hear individual producers from a variety of backgrounds making similar choices. “So when you hear an ad on This American Life that sounds not too different from WTF, it’s all consistent in the listener’s soundscape.” He added, “Those ads tend to not be obtrusive. They tend to sound good. They tend to sound like the rest of the show. So I think as long as you stay in that range of listener expectations, you’re not going to offend listener tastes too much.”

Benjamen Walker, host of the Radiotopia podcast Theory of Everything, isn’t so sure about the true cost of these ads. “No one’s getting paid enough for what that means: using your own credibility, your own voice — the reason people are listening to your show — to read the ad copy,” he told me over the phone. Walker has started reading ads at the end of his show, the way Roman Mars does in his podcast, 99% Invisible. “The show’s over. That bothers me a lot less,” he said. But when it comes to public radio people reading ad copy at the beginning or middle of a show, Walker told me “that’s a terrible, terrible idea.”

“The leg up that public media folks have going into podcasting comes from this connection to the listener-supported content model,” he said. “And for us to endanger that with the fucking ads seems like a terrible idea. Who’s going to want to give support for their favorite podcast when they hear eight million ads?”

Advertising on public radio doesn’t totally undermine the virtues that make public radio public or worth supporting; we accept ads on city subway platforms and in non-profit magazines.3 However, what makes these ads troubling is that they don’t sound like ads: They sound like public radio. They exploit a special kind of trust listeners reserve for noncommercial educational media — a trust built over decades and deeply connected to the distance producers have maintained from a profit motive — to get listeners to buy things. Advertisements, no matter how relevant or blended-into-the-tone-of-the-show they are, serve only to extract dollars from the listener. Public radio serves a civic good.

When Jay Allison, the great curator and de facto leader of public radio here in the states, gave a speech in 2011, he defined public radio as “a mission-based enterprise.” He said:

Mission can become inconvenient sometimes, too much work. Understandably, as an enterprise, we crave success, too. And money. For one thing, those are quantifiable. And this is tricky, because when success and audience numbers and money are the goal, our mission can become a burden. There are easier ways to get money, and we get lazy. … The original purpose of public broadcasting, I think it’s worth remembering, was broadly educational. Education is an unassailable civic good.

We’re getting lazy.

Think of the old Newton Minow principle: what interests the public ≠ the public interest. Clicking around the internet, it’s clear that we’ve entered another wasteland, only now we face the omnidirectional pressures of data brokers and targeted advertising, of competition for likes, shares, and unique visitors, of the entrepreneurial (journopreneurial?) class’s gospel of monetization. With their “personalized storytelling” and “especially sticky audiences,” podcasts might seem like a “pretty natural fit” for native advertising. But shouldn’t public media, of all things, avoid mixing commerce and culture?

“This line between what is public media and what is not doesn’t exist anymore,” Walker says. “But I think aesthetically you, as a creator, can guard what you do and what you don’t do with your own voice.” Public media organizations would be served well, then, to at least write out their podcast sponsorship guidelines — as they would a privacy policy — to keep ads minimized and commercial pressure away from people making art and news. Do you air ads in the middle of a show or in the credits? Who produces and voices the ads? How long should they be? Can anyone sponsor a show? Do you treat entertainment different from news? Should producers be sent gifts from their underwriters? And really, listeners should have the final word.

Maybe, once the dominant public radio sound — which owes everything to This American Life’s twee first-person storytelling and fake populism — is sold off, a rising generation of listeners and podcasters will want to organize around something different, online. Something more community-minded. Or something that at least takes its audience more seriously. Maybe something closer in spirit to Radio 4, Home of the Brave, PRX Remix, Berlin Community Radio, The Biggest Story in the World, or Paper Radio. A new, more democratic, public media for the internet. What would that sound like?

1. Here are the legal hurdles. First, public broadcasters, like any registered U.S. nonprofits, need to pay tax on revenue from advertisements, defined by the IRS as: messages containing qualitative or comparative language; price information or other indications of savings or value; an endorsement; or an inducement to purchase, sell or use any company, service, facility, or product. Also, according to Jeffrey Tenenbaum, a non-profit tax lawyer, nonprofits can’t raise a substantial amount of money — the number is around twenty percent of total income — from unrelated business, or they risk losing their tax-exempt status. Finally, by inserting ads into their podcasts, public radio stations run the risk of violating contract agreements, like with music publishers who limit use of their recordings to noncommercial purposes.

2. The distinction between crowdfunding and real public funding is worth keeping in mind. As Astra Taylor writes in The People’s Platform, “Crowdfunding allows individual creators to raise money from their contacts, which gives well-known and often well-resourced individuals a significant advantage. In contrast, a government agency must concern itself with the larger public good, paying special attention to underserved geographic regions and communities.”

3. As a case study of one, here are my own habits when it comes to audio-related stuff and giving money. I am a twenty-four-year-old white male whose annual income falls under fifty thousand dollars, and as of May 12th, 2015, I listen to real radio more often than podcasts, but I do subscribe to the following shows through an app called Podspace on my Moto E smartphone, which I usually hook up to a monaural Tivoli speaker around bedtime: Fugitive Waves, The World in Words, Theory of Everything, FACT MIXES, Car Talk, Ideas, 99% Invisible, The Bugle, Short Cuts, Comedy Bang! Bang!, In Our Time, Between the Ears, Love + Radio, Re:Sound, and Radio Diaries. I give five dollars a month to MPBN to support public media in my home state of Maine. I started giving ten dollars a month to WMBR in Cambridge, where I live now, during one of their pledge drives, because I love them and want to help them however I can. I gave forty dollars to Radiotopia’s Kickstarter campaign. I did not give anything to Serial when Sarah Koenig asked for money, not because I was annoyed by the manufactured vox pop commercial but because the show felt like blockbuster entertainment, and I don’t see the point of supporting just one show.

Correction: Maximum Fun does not operate as a non-profit.

Photo by Patrick Breitenbach