Finding A Voice: How Far Can A Public Radio Podcast Go?
After months — though it feels like years — of campaigning, debates, primaries and controversy, it's finally time for the conventions. This week, politicians, pundits and protesters are clogging the sidewalks and eateries of Cleveland, my hometown. (I'm hoping the crowds stay as well-behaved as a Cavs victory parade.)
The media, as it does, has also descended en masse, providing wall-to-wall coverage from this week's Republican National Convention. NPR is no exception: The network has teamed up with PBS NewsHour for a "first-time collaboration" on TV, radio and online. We'll have more about how that collaboration is working later in the week.
On the digital front, there's another first: NPR's popular Politics Podcast is posting new episodes daily during the conventions, in what it is calling close to real-time podcast reporting.
It's exciting whenever NPR experiments with its podcasts. It creates new ways to connect with listeners, particularly younger listeners, as NPR Chief Executive Jarl Mohn told the Los Angeles Times last month. The future of NPR will, in some form, include podcasts, a technique NPR helped pioneer. But a new medium brings new gray areas in terms of style, tone and ethics.
Case in point: Last month, our office got a note from listener Mason Gibb in North Highlands, Calif., about the June 16 episode of the NPR Politics Podcast. Gibb complained that Domenico Montanaro, NPR's politics editor, had done "an unflattering impression" of Donald Trump during the show, "lampooning the candidate's recent statements on our sitting president — while the rest of the team giggles."
The moment happens during Montanaro's turn in "Can't Let It Go," in which the reporters conclude by sharing a miscellaneous story that's piqued their interest. Here's the audio, since a transcript doesn't capture what Gibb takes issue with. The "impression" comes around 1:55.
Gibb quoted from NPR's ethics handbook, which states: "We are civil in our actions and words, avoiding arrogance and hubris," and "even in our doggedness, we are polite and do not respond in kind to those who are less than courteous to us."
Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, said he doesn't see an issue in this case.
"I didn't think it was a very good impression," Memmott told me. "He was kind of saying things in the style of Donald Trump. I think it was fine for the podcast."
It's not the first time Memmott has been asked about possibly objectionable behavior in a podcast. Last summer he penned a memo after getting questions about profanity in podcasts. ("The answer was 'no,' we don't want an NPR correspondent to say that on a podcast." Why? He wrote: "We're professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we're using or where we're appearing, we should live up to our own standards. Yes, there's more room in podcasts to let guests speak freely and for our journalists to be looser with their language. But it doesn't mean NPR correspondents are free to use words or phrases in podcasts that they would never use on the air.")
Profanity still isn't kosher. But, as he noted, there has been an evolution toward more conversational podcasts.
"I think it's dawned on everybody that the podcast world is different," Memmott told me. "We don't want to sound stuffy or boring."
On the Politics Podcast, reporters discuss the news in a looser, less formal discussion than they would on, say, All Things Considered. Montanaro's ribbing wouldn't sound out of place at the bar or the lunch table, nor would the rest of the team's analysis — and that's fine, in my opinion. Great podcasts can simply be great conversations, things that demand humor and surprise.
That is, so long as ribbing does not become ridicule.
"That's not our place," Memmott said. "But as long as we're not being unfair or mean-spirited, there's room in the podcast to have fun that way."
There's also more time available on podcasts than on terrestrial radio. As Montanaro told me, a political reporter interviewed on the air might only have three minutes to explain a story. Every second counts. This forces reporters to spend their time giving the most essential facts, which helps create concise, efficient segments. But on the Politics Podcast — which can run beyond 40 minutes — reporters have time to let "more personality come out," which some listeners enjoy, Montanaro said.
"It's important to have enthusiasm and liveliness," Montanaro added, "and I think my enthusiasm and liveliness comes from being comfortable with the material. It's researched and reported."
Memmott conceded that Montanaro's joke might not "fit in the style or the tone" of NPR's flagship newsmagazines, such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Why not? Why can a reporter speak one way on air and another way on a podcast? That podcasts give reporters more time for "personality" is part of it. But the history of podcasts — a history very different from traditional public radio — also provides some clues.
The earliest podcasts developed as "an extension of blogging," says Nick Quah, who writes a weekly newsletter about the podcast industry for the Nieman Foundation's Nieman Journalism Lab. Anyone with a keyboard and dial-up could disseminate their thoughts on a blog. Likewise, podcasts let anyone with a microphone broadcast their voice.
Early podcasts were often unscripted and lightly edited; sometimes they featured cheesy sound effects and ill-advised music choices. The deeply-researched, sound-designed masterpieces of reporting and storytelling we listen to today? Those came later. In its infancy, "podcast" was often spoken in the same breath as "amateur" and "rant."
NPR's early coverage of podcasts marveled at how anybody could now broadcast their thoughts. "The podcast makes online rants available to listeners around the world," Michele Norris said on All Things Considered in January 2005. "As NPR's Nathan Santamaria reports, the quality is low, but podcasters' hopes are high."
"What podcasts lack in professionalism, though, they offer in variety," Santamaria reported. "Shows cover topics from snowmobiles to fine wines, from theology to Finland."
Then we hear tape from that latter podcast. "Good evening, and welcome to my corner," a man says. "Let's start talking about Finland. In previous episode, I talked about Finnish weather and Finnish winter... ."
OK, listening to a podcast about Finnish winter might sound like watching very cold paint dry. But chances are you're fascinated by some other niche topic, say, baking or poetry or politics. There's a podcast for that. And — crucially — that podcast's audience is presumably well-versed or interested in the topic. After all, they've chosen to listen.
Contrast this with a show like All Things Considered which, as its name implies, strives to be eclectic, to transport a listener from a police station in Dallas to a conflict in South Sudan to a protest in London and back to the studio in Washington or California. Listeners have chosen to tune in, but they haven't chosen the issues they'll hear discussed. Hosts and reporters, then, will preface a story with context before sharing new developments; they can't assume a listener is versed or interested in a topic.
But on a podcast, you can assume a listener has some interest or knowledge about the topic. A podcast, then, takes on less of a teacher-student dynamic, the sort in which a reporter explains some unfamiliar issue to a listener. It becomes more peer-to-peer. It's as if you've overheard some fascinating conversation in the cafeteria, and you've pulled up a chair to listen.
As Memmott told me, the goal is to make a listener feel podcast hosts are "not talking at me, but talking with me."
To that end, podcasts must sound like conversations. If you close your eyes and listen, you should be able to imagine Sam Sanders talking in your kitchen as you chop onions, or Kelly McEvers in the passenger seat during rush hour. (Just please don't close your eyes while driving.)
Great conversations can fluctuate from serious to silly, from topical to trivial. There's an unpredictability that keeps a listener from tuning out. If a gentle joke can pull a listener back in, breaking up the politics with some levity, I'm all for that.
I don't see arrogance or hubris in Montanaro's aside. I also don't think he responded "in kind" to Trump, a candidate who seems to relish put downs, the sort that mocks a reporter with a physical disability. Montanaro's aside fits the podcast's conversational style, one in which a reporter can be both civil and silly, both polite and cheeky.
In fact, honing that style will only become more important going forward, as podcast listenership explodes: In March, Edison Research reported 57 million Americans had listened to a podcast in the past month. NPR is at the fore of this boom: Podcasts created or distributed by NPR average about 12 million downloads per week.
And there's no reason to think that trend will stop, as younger listeners are more likely to download podcasts and less likely to tune into terrestrial radio than their parents. So, if podcasts are here to stay, NPR should act accordingly.
"This is where the audience is going, and we need to meet them there," Memmott said. "It's a pretty rewarding place to meet them."
Shane McKeon is an intern in the Office of the Ombudsman.
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