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Public Radio Has Embraced Podcasting Big Time. Here’s What Four Of The World’s Biggest Have Learned.

Public radio in many countries continues to pave the podcast path for commercial broadcasters as they calculate the best strategy for the blossoming on-demand world. Last week’s RAIN Global Podcast Leadership Summit brought together the leaders from four of the biggest public radio networks that are charting a course in the medium. While each has somewhat different goals, the commonality among them is how podcasting is opening audio to new audiences and new ways of telling stories.

Anya Grundmann, Senior VP for Programming and Audience Development at NPR, said a big part of the network’s content strategy is simply “unleashing” the talent that the public radio broadcaster already has within its organization. “Our strategy is grounded in the fact that we have the largest audio content creation newsroom in America and that we have a lot of voices within the network that have incredible ideas and ways of looking at the world and we want to give space to that and we think the audience will connect with it,” she said. “We want to connect with people in useful and surprising ways.” Just as important, said Grundmann, is creating a daily habit of podcast listening similar to how listeners tune to “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” on the radio.

“Our podcasts are also the center of programming innovation,” said Grundmann. “We’re looking at how we take work there and then build it out across other platforms. It’s really a generative space where we are creating new voices, new ways of telling stories — and that impacts what people hear everywhere they encounter NPR.”

For Canada’s CBC, Executive Producer Arif Noorani said the podcast ecosystem is “ever evolving” and yet their multiple-layered mission remains mostly stable. It includes bringing an international perspective to their listeners. “That doesn’t mean just covering other countries but bringing a global view to how we talk about culture or the stories we tell,” he explained. “We don’t just look inward. Our creators are Canadian, and we are looking externally.” Noorani said that means CBC Podcasts has embraced international co-productions while at the same time taken a Canadian perspective on topics including with new podcast Party in the USA, which will look at the 2020 U.S. presidential election from the other side of the border. “Playing on the world stage is a big part of our strategy,” he said.

Podcasters say that, more than ever, what is happening in the world is factoring into what they do. “The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter have created shifts in the way we work and think that I think will affect us,” said Noorani. “The pandemic will make us realize that content is digital and borderless, and we can have these connections around the world and make content remotely. The Black Lives Matter movement has taught us too that we have not done enough to center the voices of Black, indigenous and people of color in podcasting as well.”

BBC Audio Head of Creative and Podcast Development Clare McGinn said at the British broadcaster there is also a lot more emphasis on bringing new voices to the medium. She said that doesn’t just mean in terms of race, but also life experience, such as showcasing a talent from beyond the U.K. borders. “And we are looking for new audiences because we are very aware that younger people who may not immediately come to the BBC are rediscovering listening and storytelling through podcasting and we need to reach them,” she said. McGinn said the BBC also sees podcasts as a way to innovate the way it tells stories. “We are having conversations that we never had before about new ways of mixing genres and that’s probably the most exciting thing about the world we are in now,” she said.

Podcasting is also helping to loosen up typically staid public broadcasters, the executives said, with podcasts more likely to talk like a listener and tackling topics that may seem too racy for a radio show.

Yet Kellie Riordan, Manager of ABC Audio Studios inside Australian Broadcasting Corp., said for all that is changing, there remains some similarities. “A great story, well told with surprising twists and turns, is going to work and an authentic, compelling host is going to work whether it’s on podcasts or radio,” she said.

Where Riordan thinks the real difference lies is in distribution, with podcasts not having a ready-made network of radio listeners tuned in waiting for the content. “You have to work to find that audience and you have to think about the distribution just as much as you are thinking about the creative,” she said. “With every podcast starting with no audience, you have a big lift to do.”

For broadcasters, the other big difference is that unlike over-the-air where the aim is to have the biggest audience possible, the podcast allows for niche targeting. “With podcasting, we’ve been able to flip into some market gaps that we saw and built that habit of listening with people in their 20s who didn’t grow up with that habit of turning on the radio,” Riordan said. She pointed to the podcast Ladies We Need To Talk, which has grown into one of ABC’s biggest shows as it features women talking about health, sex and relationships in a way that would never make it to the radio dial in the U.S. or Australia.

Noorani said the CBC is also looking at podcasting to reach a younger demographic than typically is drawn to its Canadian network. “Radio audiences are notoriously older, they are generally in their sixties, and in podcasting it’s the opposite,” he said. “It’s the 18- to 50-year-old where podcasting and on-demand audio is not just an alternative, it’s the center.”

Grundmann said podcasting has also allowed NPR to try new program ideas without the commitment that a radio show would take. But it also requires a bit of a reset too. “You can’t just assume people are going to listen,” she said. “You need to be something that people can become addicted to and that they choose — you have to become part of their lives. In podcasting you really have to make the case for why you are meaningful to people and the value you are bringing to folks.”

In the long-term, Grundmann expects the definition of engagement will evolve to focus on how many listening occasions a listener gives a public radio network through on-air or through a podcast to measure how meaningful their relationship is.

And for all that podcasting can offer, McGinn is confident radio will still have a role to play. “The power of live and the spontaneity is a still an important thing and people will always want that,” she said.

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