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People Don't Follow Money, They Follow Vision…And Vision Doesn't Cost a Dime
Public radio’s latest existential drama, along with my view into 2022, and the questions I ask when I’m listening to someone pitch a podcast idea.
Welcome to Dispatch #20 of The Audio Insurgent.
Hello and welcome back to reality, despite all the grossness and infectiousness of the world, I hope everyone found some peace during the holidays.
In addition to being a nice round number, tomorrow is the 1st anniversary of Dispatch #1 of The Audio Insurgent. When I started this, I thought it would be a success if I could get 300 people to read and subscribe to it–and a year later, to my surprise more than anyone’s, more than ten times that number are signed up. That’s great!
We have a lot to talk about in the coming weeks…and I have three things for today. So let’s dive in.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: PUBLIC RADIO’S TALENT DRAIN, CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN]
I’m an early riser, which means I often go to bed kinda embarrassingly early, which means that I often wake up to a collection of messages from friends about what everyone was talking about…last night.
Today was no exception. I woke up this morning to a collection of texts, DMs, and emails about the latest round of talent departures, with people sharing their thoughts and asking for mine. My reaction: Public radio’s retention problems are NOT because of aggressive competition, but arise from a refusal to defend its territory. This proves true in a number of ways.
To back up a moment, a lot of this conversation was triggered (again) by the announcement yesterday that Audie Cornish is stepping down as the host of All Things Considered and leaving NPR (soon after the departures of two other hosts, Noel King and Lulu Garcia-Navarro). While every talented producer, editor, or host who leaves public radio (often to work in podcasting) is a loss, generally I think it's a good thing. It clears out space for new talent to rise up. Even during my own tenure in public radio, I felt that one of the industry’s biggest problems was that butts stay in seats far too long. There needs to be movement to create room for new voices and perspectives, at all levels of the industry.
But Audie feels different. It is a huge loss. Audie marked a generational change in NPR hosts, with a number of bright stars following behind her. She is also an immense talent. I was just recalling in an email exchange with her that I was sitting in the studio when she did her first host audition. I clearly remember two things from that day, her radiance and warmth (we hadn’t met before then) and the laser-like focus of her questions in the interviews. It was obvious on that day that she would become a star of the network.
Since her departure became public, I’ve heard numerous public radio people respond to the news by saying that public radio can’t expect to keep talent as a non-profit in an increasingly competitive commercial audio industry. I find this to not only be false, but an unintentional example of the kind of thinking that leads people to leave.
Public radio’s leaders need to understand that people don’t follow money, they follow vision. Full stop. Talented producers and hosts leave public radio because they look around and look at the future public radio’s leaders articulate—and simply see a more exciting vision elsewhere. The irony is that vision doesn’t cost a dime.
And public radio’s response is generally to shrug its shoulders and say “We can’t compete.” Again, ironically, this statement is both dead accurate, yet also completely false. It would be more accurate to say “We won’t compete.” It is like giving up the match in the first minute because the opposing team keeps trying to get at the ball.
And let’s be honest here, as we’ve discussed before, public radio is not the emaciated weakling in the corner, it is HUGE and POWERFUL in the podcasting and audio industry—and deserves to be so. Yet despite its success, it lacks a clear and compelling mission-oriented vision for the future. And until that is put in place, expect the departures to continue. And vision is not simply offering a response to criticism of your current practices–it is articulating an idea of a future–a crazy, bold, disputable idea–that others can see their specific place in. The gobbly-guk that fills most annual reports isn’t vision. Those word fests are the opposite of vision, they are the soft, safe articulation of a future where everything is fine. And fine isn’t exciting. Fine doesn’t unite people behind an idea.
And just to be clear, I offer this because I love public radio, but it needs to realize that most of its existential threats are internal, not external.
Public radio is a national treasure—and it is so because of the several thousand incredibly seasoned and talented people who make it every day. In the expanding audio ecosystem, there is so much opportunity for these people. Those people have skills that others want to hire.
But money isn’t the driver here. I know very few people who leave public radio for money (though admittedly some do—and most of those people accomplish very little after leaving). That isn’t to deny that almost every job pays better in the commercial space, because it often does. People leave because others do a better job of offering the opportunity they once saw in public radio.
This all wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so fixable.
[TODAY’S SECOND THING: THE EIGHT QUESTIONS BEHIND MY GUT REACTION TO PODCAST PITCHES…AND THE ONE QUESTION I NEVER ASK]
I hear a lot of podcast ideas…probably something every day. I’m often asked for my reflection on this idea. Not surprisingly, I give it.
Recently a client asked me a great question, “Why do you react to ideas the way you do?” He didn’t mean, why I jump up and down, or scrunch up my face, or odd things like that (and for the record, I don’t do those things). But when I have a reaction to liking or not liking a podcast idea I hear…what goes into that decision?
It is a great question–and it reflects a lot of the process I’ve done with creators for years: Let’s unpack your instinct. When someone asks me to give a reaction to a podcast idea, my response is pretty immediate, and I rarely end up changing my mind later (though I sometimes do). So in that moment of thought when I’m judging an idea, what question–or series of questions am I asking and answering in that moment?
I recall Tom Webster offering a similar breakdown of why he likes podcast ideas in his continuously impressive newsletter I Hear Things (if you don’t subscribe, you should). I have, quite deliberately, not gone back to read what he wrote on this subject (assuming I’m remembering correctly that he did), so any similarities and differences are reflective of Tom and I–two people who respect each others work, and sometimes see things the same, and at other times quite different.
To answer the client’s question, I dusted off this, which I wrote out a few years ago. So, to the best of my understanding, here are the criteria I apply to your podcasting idea while you are sharing it with me:
Is it promotable?
I’m not ashamed to admit this is the first question I ask myself about an idea. If you can’t evangelize a podcast to its potential audience, what’s the point in making it? This isn’t a crass marketing question about an idea’s inherent buzzworthiness, but rather a question that’s answered by four other questions about a concept’s benefit and clarity–and who it is for. Those questions are…
Is the benefit clear?
Is it crystal and immediately clear what the benefit is to the listener–regardless of what that benefit might be. The benefit can be learning something amazing, being entertained, or feeling connected. Many talent and organizations focus on why they want to make a podcast–and nothing could be worse and impede success more than focusing it on your benefit. For example, if the American Cancer Society wanted to create a show about all the research projects they fund…frankly, no one cares about all of it together…except for the American Cancer Society. However, if the American Cancer Society wanted to create a podcast for those diagnosed with breast cancer featuring conversations about how to live with the disease, live with the treatment of the disease, and establish a community of active breast cancer patients–that has a clear benefit for those patients.
Is it distinct?
When you describe it, does it sound like something new that’s never been done before? If the answer isn’t an immediate “yes,” then it is time to dig deeper or leave it aside. Can that description be used to describe any other show? If so, then why are you okay with making another?
Is it high concept?
High concept doesn’t mean high brow. High concept means that something can be clearly described in a way that makes sense to someone on their first exposure. High concept doesn’t mean dumbed down either. For example, Vox’s Today, Explained is very high concept. The height of the concept goes beyond its packed two-word title, the show describes itself as “News comes at you fast. Join us at the end of your day to understand it.” Everything about the show, even its artwork, fleshes out and delivers on that clear premise.
And finally, but most importantly, Is there an audience for this?
Will someone listen to this and enjoy it? And, ideally, more than just yourself and the two friends who say they listen and actually do? Audience size isn’t as important as audience loyalty and enthusiasm. Having a large audience of listeners is great, but what you really need is an audience of excited listeners–listeners who LOVE this show. When you have a pool of enthusiasts, everything becomes easier. When reading the pitch, do you have confidence that that group can be brought together to listen to and support the podcast?
Other questions I consider when looking at the idea…
Can it be duplicated?
Frankly, if someone else or some other organization could make the exact same show, you shouldn’t be making it. There has to be something that is unduplicatable about your idea. Even if the concept is really simple, there has to be something about your execution of the idea that makes it stand out from anything else. For example, for any given TV show, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of shows recapping and analyzing its episodes. But how can your analysis or take on the show be different from anyone else’s? Having a unique show subject isn’t as critical to having a unique take on that subject. Despite many trying, no other organization except the New York Times could make The Daily. No one other than Karen and Georgia could host My Favorite Murder. There are tens of thousands of celebrity interview shows, but only one Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend.
Would I listen to this?
In 99% of my work, I advocate for the listener. I always encourage talent and organizations to think from a listener’s perspective as often as possible. But if I’m honest, I do judge a lot of ideas by asking myself if I’d want to listen to the thing we are evaluating. Former NPR CEO Jarl Mohn had a phrase, “If it isn’t happening in the hallway, it isn’t happening on the air.” I’ve always interpreted that to mean that if there isn’t internal excitement about what you are doing, you can’t expect an audience to be excited.
Am I excited to tell others about it?
I have always been pretty tight-lipped about new projects–I don’t like to talk publicly about shows before they are out for everyone to hear for themselves. This is a really hard position for me to take because one of the clearest signs (to me) that I’m working on something great is that I can’t wait to tell others about it. If that isn’t the case from the start, even when something is nothing more than a simple concept, that is a pretty good indicator to me that I should have some pause about making it.
The one question I rarely ask is “Is this interesting?” Interesting is more of an outcome than an input to me. Something is only interesting if it captures my attention and makes me curious to hear more. I think I bypass that question because if something has made it through all the other questions above, we’re good on interesting.
[FINAL THING: PREDICTION FOR 2022] I was honored to again be asked to contribute to the annual Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism.
I actually hate making predictions. When I am asked, I take it as permission to tell the truth about today.
When this year’s collection was published, I kinda forgot to tell anyone about it. So here it is!
A few people noticed it, and the general reaction was, “Do you really believe that?”
Yes, I do. Read the thing, not just the headline and you’ll understand.
Okay, that’s it for this dispatch, too.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.