Ask Eric Anything

Apple vs. Spotify, the future of public radio, annoying things about podcasting...I asked readers for AMA-style questions, you sent them in, and I did my best with them.

Welcome to Dispatch #13 of The Audio Insurgent

Speaking of AMAs...this week brought some sad news about another AMA. NPR announced they are going to cease production on Ask Me Another, a show I created about ten years ago along with my now business partner, Jesse Baker Folkenflik (that is how we first met). As someone that often counsels people to make priorities and let go of things that no longer serve them, every once in a while, things that are precious to me get cut, too. And I need to be okay with that. Ask Me Another was a terrific show that always had a ton of potential. It was right in ways that few other new public radio programs are right. There was real magic there. They made a lot of changes to the show over the past few years to try to grow it further, and it seems those changes didn’t work out as they had hoped. It happens. Not everything works out the way you hope. Yet, it is still sad. (And yes, my book Make Noise is named after the audience applause signs in the picture above. They story of why is in the intro to the book.)

Moving on...over the past few weeks, I’ve been collecting questions for an “Ask Me Anything” version of The Audio Insurgent. I received almost 100 questions on all kinds of things. I’ll answer a handful here, and I’m saving a few of the meatiest ones to do a full treatment on in the future. Thanks for offering up all the questions--they were super impressive.

So let’s jump in...


[TODAY’S THING: ASK ME ANYTHING]

Most popular question: “Do you think Spotify will succeed in unseating Apple’s dominance in podcasting?”

I got no less than eleven versions of this question.

In truth, I have no idea. And neither does anyone else. Bobby Fischer may have been able to tell if he’d win or lose a chess match after the 2nd move, but we are so early in the evolution of podcasting that I think it is silly to make any declarations.

And why do you feel the need to have a “winner”? As creators, networks, and listeners, we want competition. We want multiple companies duking it out to amaze, make everyone happy, and breaking a sweat to innovate. We don’t want a dominant force--we want a lot of forces.

That said, I have feelings about what both companies should be doing. I don’t mind saying this because I’ve shared these thoughts before, even with representatives of these companies.

Spotify should focus less on buying things and more on building value from the things they buy. And that value needs to be value to listeners. Sure, there are buckets of podcasts that are only available on Spotify, fine. But how do listeners benefit from exclusive deals? And, besides a check, how do creators benefit? I don’t want to hear talk about this, I want proof that it is happening and working. How can they make these podcasts MORE valuable to everyone (including Spotify)? There are a lot of different answers to that, and I’m not suggesting that they aren’t thinking about those things. That should be the next mountain that they put as much effort into scaling as they have with acquisitions.

Apple needs to figure out what they want to be. Perhaps they have and just aren’t sharing it. I love the leadership they’ve shown in subscriptions--that benefits everyone. But what is next? I just don’t understand what they want to be. This isn’t an original thought, but I think this lack of clarity has multiple negative effects on creators and users, far beyond whatever Apple intends to do or not do in the space. Almost any answer is acceptable, just say it.

“What is the thing that bothers you most about podcasting?”

I’ve been pretty shocked by the growth of “sponsored interviews”--a euphemism for paying a fee to be a guest on an established podcast. The shock comes from how widespread this is becoming, and that this is becoming a more and more mainstream practice. It is borderline payola (which is a nice way of saying it is payola), a gross practice, a violation of your audience’s trust in your editorial choices, and needs to stop. And if you won’t stop, at least acknowledge it in your episodes and in your show notes so everyone knows how much of a sell-out you are.

Also from multiple people: “What do you think is the biggest challenge for podcasting? Discovery? Monetization? Content diversity?”

I’ve been blowing off “discovery” for years, because I didn’t think it was a real problem. It was a problem for creators and networks/distributors, but their problem is different from the listeners’ problem. I’ve often viewed this as a usability and “noob” problem of new podcast listeners taking a while to get oriented to the basic mechanics of podcasting.

However, in the past two years, with the explosion of new podcasts, I’ve somewhat come around on this issue. Though I still don’t think the issue is “discoverability” per se. My version of discovery is a bit different than what I’ve heard discussed over the past five years.

What I want is for someone to do with podcasting what Google has done with YouTube. Over the pandemic, I’ve become a YouTube watcher in a way I never was before. I treat it like Netflix or HBO Max. I sit down and turn it on knowing there will be something I’ll enjoy. There are 300 hours of videos loaded on to YouTube every minute and, frankly, I could care less--because I’m only seeing what I’m likely to find interesting. The beauty of YouTube is that it cuts through the piles and gets me to what I want pretty effortlessly. If I want to watch videos about wilderness camping, or about boating, or electric cars, or exploring abandoned buildings, or whatever other super niche things I’m interested in--it is pretty easy to find. Then I subscribe to the channels I like best and YouTube gets smarter and smarter about what it suggests.

There is nothing like that in podcasting (and I’m sure I’m about to receive a few emails from folks claiming that their product does this...after trying out so many of these, I’m highly skeptical, to say the least). So maybe it isn’t useability, promotability, or discovery that’s the problem. Perhaps it is just a really, really, really smart search tool. Why is this so hard to solve?

In our current state, it is very hard for podcast creators to connect with those who will love their work. The most obvious evidence of this now is how most distributors are expecting creators to add another 20% on top of their production budget just to buy advertising to promote it. Advertising does (kinda) work, but it is incredibly costly, incredibly out of reach for most creators, and unbelievably inefficient.

So, better search is my answer.

“Do you take the inevitable decline of radio as a given? Why/why not?”

Honestly, I don’t take radio’s decline as a given, but there are some huge caveats to that.

My answer really applies to radio in the U.S. It may be true elsewhere, but the U.S. is what I know best.

I think commercial radio as we know it now dug its grave a long time ago and is just standing on the edge waiting to fall in. No surprise there. And frankly, good riddens. Commercial radio has decimated itself and that is upsetting. However, I also believe we’ll see yet another era of radio broadcasting that will share similar elements with the revival of interest in vinyl records. 

Let me back up. Radio listening has been on the decline for a long time--as in since the early 1980s. Many people still listen, but they listen far less--and its relevance to listeners has fallen off a cliff. If you asked a consumer which media technology they couldn’t live without: television, radio, the Internet, or social media--radio wouldn’t stand a chance. That wasn’t the case a generation ago.

The amount of radio people hear each week is where the erosion happened. Radio used to be the thread that knit communities together. Now, with few exceptions, commercial radio is wallpaper: soulless, vacuous, and insubstantial. Sure, 90+% of U.S. adults listen to a radio station each week, but that’s exposure, which is a hell of a lot different than awareness--let alone caring. (I.e.--if you walk into a store that’s playing the radio, do you even know what you are listening to? No, but that counts towards audience measurement.)

Due to the trough-feeding of the 90s and aughts, radio stations are over leveraged--meaning most station owners paid so much money for them that they owe more than the station is arguably worth. Any net revenue is just paying off debt. There is no money to invest in programming, no interest in innovation, nor appetite for risk taking. They just spit out money to pay off debt...and grow less and less valuable. It’s a bad cycle.

So what happens when these stations, or more likely the station ownership groups that own them, collapse? There will be a lot of great deals to buy radio stations. And that is when things could get interesting. My optimistic side says there will be a mini-renaissance in traditional radio. New owners will have modest expectations, but tolerance for risk and a bigger appetite for reinvention. They will bring the most substantial ingredient of all: passion. While the current example of this is vinyl records, there are many examples of this in the past where the mainstream interest in a technology or medium fades away, and then upstarts emerge who build and/or bond communities using that “old” technology. Radio is ripe for this.

“What do you think about NPR these days?”
“Would you ever go back to NPR?”

Just to be clear, “NPR” and “public radio” are two different things to me (and increasingly so in the world). And my opinions of each is a bit different.

First off, I have always loved NPR and always will. I think it is a bona fide national treasure. I still believe in its mission, the essentialness of its service, and the need for it to not just exist, but thrive. It isn’t as substantial a part of life as the BBC is to the United Kingdom, but still pretty damn amazing.

I think those that write off NPR as being slow or old really underestimate its potential and power. 

NPR sometimes makes stupid decisions, often moves too slow, and makes tepid choices--but what big organzation doesn’t? Especially a large non-profit institution. In short, I understand their shortcomings and it is natural. What it does right so far exceeds what some might question.

I don’t worry about the future of NPR, at all. It will change, but it will be fine.

In all candor, I don’t know if I have that same optimism about pockets of the wider public radio system. I think stations are in the midst of an existential crisis, frankly, and they are at a decision point that will determine their future relevance. There is massive opportunity, but frankly, some stations will live up to the moment and redefine public service; others won’t. In fact, the majority of them won’t. Two things will come of this: consolidation and diminishment. There will be fewer independently-run stations (this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily) and a number of markets will just be underserved (that is a bad thing). There is a lot of Darwinism at play here. That doesn’t bother me, but I do worry about the diminishing stations dragging down the healthier stations and NPR in the process.

I think if anything frustrates me, it is that the reality I just described is pretty obvious, and I don’t understand why some people who aren’t up for the fight don’t decide to hand their station over to someone who is. 

But would I “go back” to public radio? That’s really hard to say. I’m having a great time with Magnificent Noise now and it's doing really well (knock on wood). I still do some things in public radio. I do some small consultation projects for a few organizations and shows. I write a monthly column for the industry trade. I really enjoy all this and do it more for fun then as a “job” and because I believe in the cause. Would I ever go back full time? Maybe some day. I think that depends on the role and the need. I think the fair answer is that I wouldn’t say a hard “yes” or “no.” I’m at a stage where what really excites me is impact. And I think the future chapters of my career will be focused on that, and not being worried about the platform or type of organization.

“Do you think that documentary and highly edited podcasts are going to take up the majority market share over talking head/conversation podcasts? It seems like everyone wants to start the latter, but the former seem to be a significant number of the ones that have really big audiences.”

No, I don’t think so. But that’s actually not a problem. Podcasting started with conversational shows and these types of podcasts will always dominate. Every few years, something kinda revolutionary happens, like Welcome to Nightvale or Serial, that opens up a new avenue inside of podcasting to show the range of what’s possible (which is fantastic), but communal chatting will always be the bedrock of podcasting.

“If you're running a big public media company, what's the best strategy for keeping listeners/viewers tuning in (literally) to your on-air content and also developing podcasts?  Do you make two separate production teams? If your on-air content is regional/local, should your podcasts also be? If resources are scarce, which should come first? Like do you repurpose podcasts to fill your hours or broadcasts to go digital?”

This is a great question that I had to give a lot of thought to. It’s also really complicated. 

I think the answer, which surprises me to hear myself offer this, is to not make decisions based on platforms (broadcast vs podcast) but to set your ambitions based on your organization’s ability to effectively train your staff and producers. Organizations that succeed, both on the radio and in podcasting, make substantial investments in people and in making those people smart and great. They either provide literal training or they give them space to experiment, test, and learn.

The audience expectations and needs are different on broadcast than they are for digital projects like podcasts. It isn’t so much that the teams should be separate or combined, but if you give them the ability to get smart and the headspace to pay attention to the details.

For many public radio organizations, their on-air sound has been on autopilot for years. They are so focused on building out their podcasting and digital media efforts that they give little thought anymore to broadcast. And not just the small stations, major big stations haven’t refreshed or rethought any element of their air sound in years.

You need to train staff to ask “why” a lot. Why do we do this? Why do we do it this way? Why haven’t we changed this in years? Why does the audience listen? Why do they tune away? Why does this matter? Why should this story be on the radio and that story be a podcast? Why do we produce podcasts the way we do? Why don’t we sound like this? Why aren’t we more successful at this? Can we do this better? How can we improve?

Then turn them loose. It almost doesn’t matter what platform or project. They should walk in knowing how to access the opportunity, understand the audience, understand the advantages and drawbacks of the platform, and how to make good, creative decisions.

As far as regional vs local in broadcast and podcast, I’d approach this a bit differently too. Instead, ask “What are we good at?” “What are we the experts at?” “What stories or beats do we want to own?” “What assets do we have in our community (talent, stories, industries, history) that we can use?” I often point to New Hampshire Public Radio as a great example of an organization that punches way above their weight by understanding its local strengths and assets can be leveraged to produce stories that are also of national and international interest. They aren’t a huge organization. Almost any public radio station can do what they do.

Also, and arguably the most important of all, radio and podcasting are different. They are not universally interchangeable. Pretend I said this 16 more times. Both are audio, but both fill somewhat different needs. It is hard, and rare, for one to succeed on the other platform unless it was intentionally designed to do that—and that’s REALLY hard to do (trust me).

“Where do you find the time to write all this?”
“Where do your dispatch ideas come from?”

It’s pretty simple. I get up at 4:30 or 5am every day and write for 2 hours. Sometimes I’m working on a document or report, sometimes I catch up on email. One or two mornings a month I write The Audio Insurgent and another morning I write my Current column Frequency Boost. That means that nearly 100% of what the world sees from me takes up about 10% of my writing time.

(It helps that I have always been a fast writer--though I wish I was a fast reader instead. I’m not, I’m a very slow reader.)

The ideas seem to sort themselves out. Most ideas come from conversations. If I find myself saying the same thing repeatedly, I will often take mental note that it may be an idea for a dispatch or column. When I need to think, I spend a lot of time staring out the window or walking my dogs. So maybe I’m working on these things all the time.

It never feels like a burden or big effort. And most importantly, it never feels like work.


Okay, that’s it for this dispatch.

If I didn’t get to your question, it was only because of length. We’ll do this again sometime.

If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?

And while this is free, you are also always welcome to buy my book or (even better) buy me a beer

And before I sign off, a few last Ask Me Another photos, from the taping of the very first non-pilot broadcast episode in 2012. I always asked the photographers to take as many pictures of the crowd as they did of what was happening on stage. Confession: When I worked at NPR and was having a bad day, I would pull up these photos and look at them. The joy I saw reminded me why I worked so hard to make new shows. As many of you know, it is such fucking hard work, no one understands and appreciates what it takes, and the world sometimes seems to be relentlessly working against you.

But those faces.

I imagined radio and podcast listeners across the country having those same reactions. Those faces were the reason I came in every morning and did this work.

Make great things. I’ll be listening.

--Eric