Here Are Five Takeaways from my Interview with Dean Cappello

Feb 22, 2013

Dean Cappello, Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President of Programming WNYC/NYPR
Credit WNYC

We've been hosting a series of conversations about audio innovation over the past few weeks, including webinars with Andy Bowers of Slate and Roman Mars, creator of 99% Invisible. Earlier this week, I spoke with Dean Cappello, the Chief Content Officer of WNYC/New York Public Radio. I wanted his perspective as someone who has years of experience producing audio, as well as overseeing the work of others, including successful shows like Here's the Thing, Radiolab, Studio 360, and On the Media.

If you missed the webinar, you can watch it here. But if you don't have an hour, here are my takeaways from the conversation with Cappello; the paraphrasing is my own.

On-Demand listening is more intimate

Cappello: online, we've removed the artifice and some of the conventions of public radio as we know it, and we think about what it's like to be in conversation with one other person and speak directly to them. Radio is a community experience: as a listener, you have the knowledge that you're not the only one. But when you carry that audio to other platforms - when you break it out of the frame of the radio station - it becomes a much more intimate experience. (This mirrors what we heard in our conversations with Roman Mars and Andy Bowers: they also believe that the experience of on-demand listening is more intimate.) 

WNYC, the dinner party host

We see WNYC as the dinner party host for the New York City tri-state region. We don't occupy the conversation, we facilitate it. What's changed is the nature of the conversation: how familiar are we with you, the listener? How much do we know about what you're doing while you listen to us? What device are you using?

On-air listening to WNYC and WQXR is flat. But online listening is rising… 12% of listening is now digital. (Interestingly, Cappello points out that this is more than twice the US radio average.) In the past several months, we've responded to our on-air and online listening trends by creating a new broadcast schedule designed for an on-demand world. We looked at what the successful shows are in the world of on-demand audio (On the Media, This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab) and placed them in the schedule to create magnets to draw more audience. It's a bit heretical to think about it this way, but your station becomes a showcase for this popular online content.

Reversing radio's role

Cappello sees a virtuous circle in the launch of successful program ventures, a number of which now begin online. We practice a careful timing that reinforces the success of program ventures. An example: when we launched the Alec Baldwin podcast Here's the Thing we had a number of stations contact us immediately wanting to air it. We held off on radio distribution so we could build it online and then there will be a moment when we have critical mass and then we'll put it on air and that will in turn build the audience for the podcast.

In this way, the radio station becomes a giant megaphone to draw audiences to really great, compelling content online - and that's a powerful advantage we have over other players in the digital audio space.

When to create new programs... how to do them... when to stop

[I found this to be a particularly interesting piece of the conversation.] Cappello: at a high level, our approach to developing programs is to identify the key audiences that we want to serve, to super-serve them with the limited resources we have, and to avoid trying to aim for the broad middle where we are going to have less impact. There are plenty of organizations with a lot of money that are working on ideas and creating content for the broad middle. We can't compete in that space effectively.

We think carefully about the vernacular of audio as we develop programs. When is it appropriate to do something highly produced and packaged, like Radiolab? When is it appropriate for a much more spare interview style, like Fresh Air? There is a craft here, but we have to be careful about dogma. When is a highly produced program effective and when does it become self indulgent? Cappello says his producers ask, "What is it that someone wants from us? What would they be doing while they listened to this show?" We have a 40 year history of making great audio and we shouldn't give up on that, but we need to evolve it. The way we made audio in the past is not necessarily the way we'll make it in the future.

Cappello says we need to increase the volume of our output. Online, we're in a different environment and listeners have different appetites. If Mark Maron can produce several podcasts a week that are an hour and a half long, then we need to figure out how to produce more content more efficiently because that's what listeners want.

What about public radio's obsession with the length of on-demand audio content?

Cappello's rule is simple: is it interesting? We're not bound by clocks online. If the show is 94 minutes and interesting, great; if it's 14 minutes and interesting, great. He notes that the Radiolab podcast only became a big success after it broke out of the conventions of the 53 minute radio format and focused on how the online audience uses the show.

Now, to the question of style and sound.

Cappello says if you're going to create a highly produced foreground experience, you need to ask yourself, "Does my show deserve that?" Or is it better suited for a more lightly produced companion experience? At WNYC, we think about the energy of New York as we fashion the sound of the station and the shows we produce. This causes us to drive for a sound that's not as highly produced and is more conversational. We reserve the highly produced content for major productions and for impact.

What if it flops?

Cappello: if we put time, energy and talent into something online, then it needs to be successful: a lot of people should be downloading it. If there isn't a significant audience, then no matter much you want to do it, it's not achieving good public service.

Sometimes, you can save it. Cappello talked about a critical moment in On the Media's history when the series wasn't successful, and they had to decide whether to change the show or kill it. Their decision to relaunch the show with a new brief and new hosts (Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield) was ultimately a success. Cappello returned to one of his principles of creating good online content: how does it fit listeners' habits, how they use devices, how they consume media? He says we need to develop the same understanding of online that we developed for radio, which led to massive audience growth over more than 25 years.

When a relaunch isn't possible?

Cappello is forthright: there's an opportunity cost to keeping anything going. So if you're doing something today, you're not doing something else. We must challenge ourselves constantly: is what we're doing now more important than what we could be doing? He says most of the time we get six to twelve months beyond when we should have killed a show before we kill it. If, as with On the Media, you can say, "I'm not where I want to be, but I see the way I can get there in a year," that's great. But if you can't, pull the plug.

Program development: there's a better way

Cappello says let's change the way we experiment. What if instead of deciding you're going to start a podcast and then just starting it… what if you decide that you're going to start a podcast for, say, six episodes or six months? Develop the criteria by which you'll judge the success of the podcast, and then evaluate and iterate, or shut it down if it doesn't succeed. Cappello: we have this trope that it takes ten years to make a hit program in public radio, except that nobody can afford this anymore. And should we really be producing things on a ten year timeline? Working in a time-boxed construct forces one to make a decision: am I going to keep doing this or not? It also limits risk, which is good.

What else?

There's other good stuff in this conversation, including Cappello's thoughts about how to effectively monetize online content. (It's hard.) I highly recommend you watch it, but if you can't, I hope this gives you a few good things to think about.