Public Broadcasting Podcasts: Stories Worth Selling

By NPR Archives
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The voracious consumer appetite for podcasts is paying off for the usually outstretched hand of public broadcasting. Even the “seen everything” agency types at last week’s Advertising Week conferred star status on the three panelists set to reveal the secret sauce that makes their public broadcasting podcasts so popular and so compelling for exposure-hungry brands.

Ira Glass, multiple Emmy and Peabody award-winner and host of This American Life, is introduced to huge applause. He’s followed by solid enthusiasm for TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, with his own journalism awards and charismatic hipster style. Molly Wood, impressive in her own right as host and senior tech correspondent for Marketplace podcasts, chuckles about her smattering of claps and genuflects good naturedly to Glass and Raz.

The Appeal

The collected NPR-produced or distributed podcasts are currently netting about 75 million monthly downloads -- double-digit percent increases in year to year growth. Season one of Serial alone, the Glass and Chicago Public Media baby, has had at least that many downloads, raising all podcasters’ fortunes with increased awareness of the medium in general.  “Now advertisers are paying attention,” says Glass. “‘This is a thing where we can advertise,’ they say.”

But it’s their unique “storytelling” skills married to today’s other key word, “mobility,” that is really helping drive big public media podcast numbers. Glass says listeners “get caught up in This American Life like we would in a TV show … But unlike TV they can listen while cooking, driving, or running.”

Panel moderator, National Public Media president Gina Garrubbo, asks why, in a world of 140 character content, it is long form that people choose to spend hours with. Glass immediately responds that this is his pet peeve: “You hear people say attention spans are shorter … but we’re also binge watching shows for 40 hours! We’d watch longer if it’s really good.  Well, we’ll listen longer if it’s really good!”

The Counterintuitive Secret Sauce

The fact that podcasts are spoken word is good for starters. “It’s oddly counterintuitive that hearing, not seeing, can be more powerful,” explains Glass.

Wood adds that “you have to work harder to paint a complete picture with radio.”

Raz describes that theater of the mind: “It’s your own personalized movie in your brain. When you see someone you’re focusing on micro-expressions. With just voice you pick up on cadence … even interpreting silences. You can feel the connection. The connection is the “Secret Power.” For TED Radio Hour it includes a common thread: “It’s about being human … People recognize themselves in the stories.”  Raz, a natural storyteller even on a media panel, can’t help but offer a humanizing analogy: “We’re like ‘The Magic School Bus,’ where Ms. Frizzle takes the kids on a journey -- so it’s like I’m Ms Frizzle.”

Sponsor Satisfaction

The scores of new podcasts added by commercial and public media almost daily make audience numbers -- and thus revenue -- hard to predict.  Before Serial became the biggest podcast in history, Glass and team underestimated its appeal and so undersold its value at first.

Early sponsors were thrilled by the surprise numbers and the branding experience. The “man-on-the-street” style ad created for MailChimp became a viral meme when a girl mispronounced the brand’s name, for example, netting astronomical impressions.

An essential ingredient for sponsor success with most public broadcasting podcasts is trust -- to let go and let the talent and producers craft a natural message that fits the show and rings true with listeners. Matching podcasting’s intimate nature with public media’s authentic personalities becomes a clear advertiser advantage.

Optimum length is still debatable, but that is also dependent on quality content and engagement. Wood said Marketplace podcasts were an “experiment in extreme audience engagement,” starting out as weekly five minute episodes. The now-daily 45-minute length was dictated by audience input as “the perfect commute length,” she explains.

National Public Media has seen a shift from transactional clients as their core podcasting sponsorship base to more Fortune 500 brands, “especially if they’re seeking brand awareness or an integrity-driven marketing message.” Garrubbo touts the halo effect for brands associating with the trust factor of public broadcasting combined with iconic and beloved podcasts.

The halo itself may very well be deserved by some of these programs like TED Radio Hour. As Guy Raz explains, “We want to leave listeners with a sense of possibility, of optimism … and we get letters from doctors saying they used a podcast as part of therapy, or tweets that ‘this podcast changed my life.’”

That alone is a good story worth telling.

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