What Public Radio Can Learn From Slate's Podcasts [VIDEO]

Feb 13, 2013

The line outside a taping of the Culture Gabfest in New York wrapped around the block.
Credit Slate

In the early days, Slate’s podcasts amounted to Andy Bowers reading web articles into a mic. Podcasting has come a long way and has seen its share of experiments. Slate's podcasts, in particular, now have a unique sound that fans love. Their popular podcasts include Political GabfestCulture GabfestHang Up and ListenThe Audio Book Club, and many others. 

I reached out to Andy to talk about innovation in digital audio because the sound of Slate's success is so different from what I hear from traditional public broadcasters. Much of the public radio podcasting space consists of repurposed broadcasts. But if you take a listen to some of the other successful podcasters, you too will hear a difference in sound. There is room on the internet for all varieties. 

Andy Bowers outlined the extraordinary development of Slate's Podcasts in our innovations in digital audio webinar

Three is better than one
Unlike the typical single- or dual-host public radio show, Slate found success with the chemistry of three hosts.  

"The format is incredibly simple," says Bowers. "They're kind of like a family. They argue, they each have their quirks. But the audience has gotten to know them." 

"It's like a high-brow version of Howard Stern or Don Imus, where you have an ensemble cast of people who become as important as any one particular member of the group," says Bowers.

Date your podcasts, don’t get married
Not every podcast needs to be permanent. Bowers often launches new podcasts as a 6-episode series, as a kind of beta-test. The audience understands the episodic nature of series. 

"When we launch a new podcast, we don't think of it as a ready to go finished product. We think of it as the very beginning of a process. Most of our big podcasts have very active Facebook pages. We encourage people to lay into us and tell us what they hate as well as what they love. We've changed a lot of things because of that. We actively encourage people to tell us what they want us to talk about on our shows where we have to pick current topics every week and they often help us produce the show. It is a very interactive medium."

Still relevant content
And because of the shelf life of searchable content online, audiences can find more timeless episodes. You can listen to Lexicon Valley because you’ve just developed an interest in the topic. Now that you’ve had the time to read the book, you can hear The Audio Book Club discussion. The 10 episodes of Slate’s Negotiation Academy from 2011 still gets listeners because the lessons are still relevant beyond the upload date. 

The episodes also vary in duration since there is no clock to follow online. Some episodes are 45 minutes, others are 7.   

Sounds liberating, doesn't it? 

Andy outlined these important points about podcasting in the webinar:

  • We are only at the dawn of podcasting.  
  • Podcasting is intimate, even more so than radio. 
  • Podcasting is about personality and opinion. 
  • Podcasting is about niches. 
  • Podcasting is mobile, and always has been. 
  • Podcasting is about experimentation. 

Are you ready to experiment? I hope the webinar gives you some ideas and inspiration for innovating in the digital audio space.

Want some tips on podcasting with Core Publisher? Check out this post from Scott Pham, formerly with KBIA in Columbia, MO.


The podcast is dead, long live the podcast (Feb 7 2013) from NPR Digital Services on Vimeo.

Highlights (timestamped to the video)

  • 2:00 Bowers details his own path from public radio to commercial podcasting, and the growth of Slate’s podcast offerings.
  • 6:15 Bowers tells how he has discovered the audience wants longer shows; the shows must be interesting and well-produced, but podcast listeners will listen to longer shows. Live shows have also become an important way to take the show to the audience. And in 2012, Slate partnered with WNYC to produce a weekly radio version of Political Gabfest and Culture Gabfest.
  • 8:45 Bowers talks about the winning formula of Slate shows: multiple hosts who are regulars. He says it’s the interaction of the hosts that is as important as the topics or the guests. It’s not unlike Howard Stern, where a cast of regulars is the glue that holds the show together.
  • 10:00 Bowers discusses the three things he’s learned about podcasting: first, he wishes there was a better name than “podcasting”; second, because podcasting is simply on-demand audio, Bowers thinks interest in it will only increase; and third, podcasting has advantages over radio - you can time-shift your listening and you can tailor what you’re listening to to where you are.
  • 13:30 Bowers thinks audio will also see the disruption that has come to newspapers and other mediums. 
  • 14:10 Podcasting is an extremely intimate medium and Bowers thinks that it’s actually even more intimate than radio because listeners are more invested in their shows and identify with them. He also says that personality and opinion thrives on podcasting, and podcasts can be a thriving marketplace of ideas. Niche content can also be successful in podcasting: grammar, history, beer brewing, etc. You might not put it on the radio but it could still be useful and interesting as a podcast for a segment of your audience. 
  • 19:15 Bowers encourages experimentation with format and topic ideas because podcasting is an excellent medium for it. He offers an inside view of a number of Slate podcast experiments, including ones that didn’t work.
  • 24:50 Bowers asks who in your community might be a great podcast host? It’s a low-risk way to reach out to the community and find new talent without risking the radio service. There’s a lot more here about being open to experimentation and examples of public radio shows that began as podcasts: Freakonomics, Here’s the Thing, Dinner Party, etc.
  • 28:35 Radio and podcasting aren’t separate media: they’re two sides of the same coin and podcasting can add value to radio. Bowers provides useful comparisons to Netflix, TiVo and Youtube.
  • 31:20 Bowers offers his predictions about what podcasting will mean to radio. Radio now competes with so many different offerings, and Bowers says the real battleground over the next few years will be in the car. There’s a place for new entrants like Pandora and Slate, but also a place for the professionals who produce content for public radio.
  • 36:05 Host Ki Sung asks about the “sound” of podcasting and how it compares to the “sound” of public radio. Bowers says the two are different and reiterates his belief that podcasting is more intimate, personal and opinionated. He encourages public radio to treat podcasting a little more like the op-ed page.
  • 38:20 How do you pitch a podcast idea to your boss? Bowers recommends you pitch a pilot and offers some ideas on how to do it. When Slate launches a podcast, it’s not a finished product. Slate pays attention to listener feedback and adjusts the show topics and format to best serve the audience. The upside is big compared to the cost.
  • 41:00 What is Slate’s tolerance for testing a new podcast? Bowers says he often pilots a show for 6 episodes to gauge listener response. He might follow that with a 10 episode run and continue to increase the frequency of episodes. You can stop and start; try a new idea; go on hiatus if you need to.
  • 42:50 Why do the hosts read sponsorships in Slate podcasts? Bowers recognizes that this might not be appropriate for all public radio stations (however, Ira Glass and Alec Baldwin do read underwriting announcements on their podcasts) but when the host reads it, the ad is much more effective and often that’s because the hosts banter back and forth and ad-lib the sponsor reads. These kinds of ads sell at a premium - a higher rate than any other advertising on Slate - and Bowers says the ad slots are sold out.
  • 45:25 Bowers offers some more detail about the live shows that Slate puts on, related to the podcasts.
  • 47:25 Bowers puts forth the idea of a public radio “skunkworks” where producers would get some "10% time" to develop ideas they have.
  • 48:25 Building an audience for your podcast, using radio and other means.
  • 49:50 Bowers talks about this growing library of podcasts - some of which are timeless. Those episodes are findable and searchable, and Bowers gives examples of podcasts that have been long-lasting hits with the audience.
  • 52:15 Bowers talks about some of the technical aspects of recording and editing podcasts.
  • 54:00 Are podcasts in competition with segmented services like Stitcher? Bowers offers his thoughts.