Don’t ignore pubmedia core values in podcast debate

Public media has become obsessed with podcasts in recent months. Many think they may be the silver bullet that will finally bring coveted millenials into the public media fold. Many more feel threatened by the success of podcasts in the commercial world and fear public media is missing the boat.

I’ll be honest. This conversation is making me nervous. Not because podcasts are bad or because I’m scared of new things, but because the debate and many of the resulting actions seem to be minimizing three core public media values:

Unbiased news, localism, and public service over profit.

I’m not saying nobody’s talking about these values, but they’re not front and center. That’s concerning because this debate is already affecting how public media organizations allocate their scarce resources. Without these ideals at the forefront, public media will become, well, just media.

Here’s a closer look at what I mean.

1. Unbiased News

As I’ve written in the past, podcasts are not news.

Some play the important role of illuminating and humanizing topics in the news; a few are standout examples of documentary-style investigative journalism; many are entertaining and compelling … but they’re not news.

Distribution platforms aside, podcasts’ content make them the audio equivalents of TV documentaries, like Frontline or Planet Earth. And like TV documentaries, the primary goal of most podcasts is to provide a compelling and immersive experience for the listener.

By contrast, as I wrote earlier this year, the primary goal of a news story is to deliver accurate, unbiased information about a current event or topic that’s relevant to a large number of people.

Frontline and Planet Earth are great programs, but no one would argue they’re news or that they should supplant news.

Likewise, podcasts like Serial and RadioLab are great programs … but why are people in public media suddenly suggesting they represent the bright gleaming future while conventional news is the stodgy old past?

Adam Davidson – formerly of NPR’s Planet Money, now with podcast company Gimlet – recently told folks who produce NPR’s standard four-minute news stories, “you should know that you’re in a dying market.”

NPR CEO Jarl Mohn perfectly summed up my thinking on this in a Slate article earlier this month:

“Look, your storytelling is great,” Mohn said [about podcasters]. “It’s fine. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s charming. But we’re covering Syria. We’re covering Ebola.”

The next quote in the article, from NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, is pretty great too.

2. Localism

Many podcasts – even those produced by local stations – tend to be national in scope, with very little connection to their communities of origin.

This is by design, of course. All podcasts compete in the same digital space, so they aim to appeal to the largest potential audience.

But where does that leave local journalism?

Not so long ago, local public radio stations were rushing to provide local and even hyper-local content. They aspired to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of local newspapers. That need is even greater now than it was then, but the move to invest in podcasts is eroding the focus on localism.

Happily, one of next year’s Knight Fellows is injecting this value into the conversation. Gabriel Spitzer will spend the next academic year investigating the possibilities for localism in digital audio.

According to an announcement from KPLU in Seattle, where Spitzer is assistant news director, he’ll be looking at questions like, “How do we get traction for local journalism and storytelling in the world of on-demand audio? How do we broaden and leverage the podcast boom to benefit local content?”

These are the right questions, and they deserve a year’s worth of study.

3. Public Service over Profit

Almost every piece of pubmedia podcasting  evangelism I’ve seen has money at the core of its argument.

Now, I’m no namby pamby, kumbaya, we-can-live-on-nothing-but-granola-if-it-serves-the-mission type of public radio-ite.

I run a business. I know the importance of a solid financial plan.

Of course NPR and its stations need to think about money and audience growth. But when that becomes the first priority, the mission becomes secondary.

Public radio veteran Jay Allison, now host of The Moth podcast, uttered these prophetic words five years ago in a speech to the Public Radio Program Directors Association conference:

“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.

I think of the musical nostalgia fundraisers on public TV, for example, pre-empting Frontline. That’s a break in the trust. It’s cynical, it’s a short sell, and it’s the beginning of the end. We haven’t done that yet in public radio. But the risk of dedicating ourselves primarily to fulfilling metrics or budgets is always there.”

Most of us in public media made the decision to sacrifice some of our earning potential for the opportunity to serve the needs of the public over the desires of advertisers, to work for organizations that value quality over popularity.

Sure, it’s easy to get stars (or dollar signs) in our eyes when a podcast gets a bunch of downloads, or to get lulled into thinking the most-clicked thing on our station’s website is the best or most important thing. But are we still putting our core mission first?

Raiding the newsroom to jump on the podcast bandwagon

Most successful podcasts, like TV documentaries, are highly produced and require significant investments of time and, therefore, money. Most small to midsized public media organizations don’t have those resources lying around.

So, as the podcast pressure rises, stations are using their news resources (i.e., journalists) to produce podcasts. That means fewer journalist-hours spent on news reporting, particularly local reporting, at a time when our society really needs it.

None of this means stations shouldn’t experiment with podcasting. I’m not anti-podcast, just like I’m not anti-TV-documentary. But I don’t want public media to put all of its eggs in the podcast basket, and I don’t want stations to raid their newsrooms to jump on the podcast bandwagon.

News is never going to be captain-of-the-football-team popular. News is the nerdy kid with bad fashion sense who’s juggling five Trapper Keepers and sitting at a table by himself in the cafeteria.

But when something big happens, we’re going to need that nerdy kid. If we haven’t invested in him properly, we’ll be sorry.

Don’t ignore pubmedia core values in podcast debate

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