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Mukul Devichand

Mukul Devichand

· Time to read: ~12 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Mukul Devichand is Editor of Audio Programming for The New York Times — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

SS: First, congratulations - it’s two years at The New York Times, as LinkedIn tells us - two years since you left the BBC. Feels like that’s going quickly.

MD: It feels like that for me, too!

SS: You recently launched a new app for The New York Times. What is the app, and what does it offer?

MD: It’s called New York Times Audio. Two years ago, I was very privileged to be asked to join the Times, and I moved from London to New York.

The Times, even two years ago, was well underway with its journey in audio. In 2017 it launched The Daily, which — it’s no exaggeration to say — changed the podcast world, and invented a new form of audio journalism.

Before I joined, that sort of “one story a day” idea was already being built upon into a much more well-rounded audio report, so you can engage with the Times in audio in lots of different ways. For example, a new kind of podcast in The Ezra Klein Show, but also the Times had acquired Audm, which brings longform magazine journalism to life in audio; it had acquired Serial Productions and partnered with This American Life. That was the amazing mix that I was privileged to get to come and engage with.

What we had been doing is developing a way to experience that audio journalism from the Times, and to bring more of the Times’s journalism into audio in a new way. And that is what just launched.

It’s a new app. New York Times Audio. It’s available to Times subscribers at the moment on iOS. It is a daily front page told in audio. It’s curated and produced by The Times editors. It’s powered by The New York Times’s newsroom, and it includes a roster of exclusive shows and output in a daily playlist, which is really your distilled way of of engaging with a wide range of New York Times journalism, ideas, features and essential listens. That’s the weekday experience.

At the weekend, it kicks off with a new episode of This American Life, available a day early in the app, and infused through the experience are new audio formats, like narrated articles which turn New York Times text articles into a new audio format, but also articles in audio from a number of other publishers like Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, and so forth.

SS: You’ve made this only available to existing subscribers. Was that a decision to keep it tight to begin with and maybe you’ll go open later — or is it only ever going to be available to subscribers?

MD: So much of our audio journalism is part of the podcasting ecosystem, and will continue to be. There’s plenty of development there, and we’re growing that. And it’s really important.

This app is a paid-for service. It’s included in your existing Times subscription.

As well as being an established leader in audio journalism, The New York Times leads the world and the journalism industry in developing a direct paying consumer relationship. We believe our journalism and these products are worth paying for when they’re envisioned together. And that’s what New York Times Audio is. It adds incredible extra dimension and value to your New York Times bundle. It’s already quite a wonderful thing: not only does it provide world class journalism that is not available elsewhere, but also games, cooking, The Athletic, and now a new listening experience that really adds value to your life as a Times subscriber. We’re creating more and more reasons to be in that relationship with us.

Smart, curious people are engaged with us and want to be engaged with us through the day and through the week. Audio is just a fantastic way to to consume ideas, to consume stories, to consume journalism. So we are finding ways to make more and more of the work of our journalists available in ways that suit the moments of your day, that suit the frames of mind that you might go through through the day. We think that can be a wonderful service for people, and increase your level of access to what is some of the most important journalism that you can consume that helps you understand the world.

SS: One question that James (Cridland, Podnews Business Journal’s Editor) will ask, because he has an Android phone, is when will it be on Android?

MD: Let me back on again, Sam, in the future and we can have that chat! At the moment we are focusing on the iOS audience. That’s where we normally launch new products.

SS: When we last spoke at the BBC, you were producing in an AI robot for the BBC. Can you remind me what it was called?

MD: Thank you for remembering. I was part of the BBC Sounds team, and we were developing a bunch of services for smart speakers - like, for example, interactive audio news, and the BBC Sounds skill. One of the things that we piloted in beta was a BBC synthetic voice called Beeb.

SS: Given your history and your knowledge and background, and with the AI glory days that we’re having, is this something that we can expect you might be bringing to The New York Times?

MD: The audio app is really about hearing the voices of our reporters, and that’s really the focus. Beeb was a great thing to work on: I was a radio producer for many years at the BBC doing serious journalism. I think the privilege of this job is really much more about finding ways to bring so much of the Times - the daily report is available in audio, but actually still a lot of it is not, and so much of it has great audio storytelling potential. I’m thinking about how to bring in more of that, more tone, more range, and create this distilled New York Times experience each day.

SS: It’s very specifically called the New York Times Audio app. Obviously, we’re now living in a tik-tok generation. YouTube is certainly becoming more interested in podcasting, whether they’re successful or not - the jury’s out still. I can imagine I’m on the subway in New York with my New York Times app, maybe I get the app out. Would video be the next evolution of this, bringing some audio content into video content so I can watch as well as listen?

MD: I love the fact that you keep on asking me about the far future: we’ve just launched it!!

Our focus right now is very much on the ear, and the listening. I think this is something that, in some ways, we haven’t really seen. I don’t think there’s any kind of direct comparator to what we’re doing here. A lot of people out there feel that the podcast ecosystem is both wonderful, but also a little overwhelming: there’s the sheer volume of what to listen to. It’s exploded in recent years. The sheer volume of what’s available has really gone up. I think that leaves people with the problem of deciding what’s worth listening to every day - especially for what we care about here, informed people and journalism.

New York Times Audio is one answer to that. It makes it easy for you to find something worth listening to every day. It is completely anchored in the world around you. When you open it, you’ll get a sense of what’s happening in the world. You get the top stories, but you’ll also discover what our editors think. And that’s actually what me and my team at the Times are picking to meet the moment - to tell the story of the day. It’s audio journalism from the ground up. It’s a front page. That’s why people come to The New York Times in print, and we hope that you will come to us in the Audio app too. It’s stories that are different every day. We change the mix. We look at what’s happening in the world, we look at what’s going on in culture. We want to catch you up, but we also want to offer you serendipity. We want you to go deeper on certain things.

We all go to big platforms, and there you will find a volume of content and it will be very varied and you will have to sift through it; or you can come to us and we will curate a really essential, interesting, high quality audio journalism mix.

SS: Traditionally, that’s what editors did in newspapers: they picked the best of the day and got great writers aggregated all together and presented that, which is what you’re doing, right? In terms of interactivity - being a digital medium, is there any mechanism for me to comment? In the old traditional world, you used to write a letter to the Editor and get it published; we’re here in the digital world, so is there a mechanism for me as the subscriber to say, Oh, I’ve just heard this lovely article, now I want to comment back on it?

MD: I think you said you haven’t got a New York Times subscription. You should at least have a go!

The New York Times has published every day since 1951, so it’s a very traditional journalistic organisation. It’s the paper of record in America - and I think the world really. However, we have been very successful at putting that marriage of really journalistic thinking with new forms of storytelling that really work for mobile and new technologies. So definitely you will see interactivity, innovation with video, innovation and storytelling woven through The New York Times’s reporting. The newspaper is still very important, but it’s really the digital product that is, for many people, the focus. And so, audio will be part of that as well.

For example there’s the playlist features that we have - our daily playlist, which is really a frictionless “hit play”. You start with the news, and then carry on through The Daily, but then also an app-exclusive range of culture shorts - so this morning we have a wonderful piece in which two of our top theatre critics debated which are the biggest plays on Broadway right now, and then another culture piece, and a narrated article, which today is profiling a Disney executive, and tomorrow we’re featuring a narrated article that is looking back at the history of wildfires. So very topical right here in the United States, but a very deep piece of journalism. The innovation right now is very much about understanding your day, where you are, the mood that you might be in, and trying to provide just the perfect thing for that.

We aim to keep a fresh mix each day. The main refresh is done for the New York morning - it’s actually done from London. But we think really about the mix that you’re going to get that day. There is news and there is kind of we do follow the latest news. For example, in the headlines this morning, we had something about wildfires, we had something about CNN and Chris Licht and all of that. But as well as that, the strength of audio is often that it can be a journey, and there’s very strong storytelling here. It is programmed to meet the moment of the day, but it isn’t a live app - we have one of those.

Of course, I have a news background and I’m very much aware of what is happening through the day, but really the mix is much more like a listening menu - we’re not just thinking about what’s in the news, we’re also thinking about the themes and the culture. We think a lot about how it feels on a Friday and how it feels on a Saturday, because you might feel differently on a Friday and on a Saturday. So we’re trying to make the mix for the moment. But for example, like this weekend is the Champions League final and I think tomorrow night it’s Djokovic against Alcaraz in the French Open. So we’re quite aware of that. We’re working with the Athletic to get some some special material ready for that. You probably won’t follow the game through our audio, but we’ll certainly offer you something for either the sports fan or the non-sports fan to have something to listen to.

SS: Will it ever be audio first rather than news first? Would you commission content purely for the New York Times Audio app that didn’t actually come or generate itself from the paper?

MD: I think we’re doing that now. We are part of the New York Times and a lot of what comes out of the Times newsroom comes from the same journalists, but the way that you experience it in audio, the way you tell the story will be different. And there have been great things like, I don’t know if you have heard the latest series of Serial, but that was with Kim Barker, a New York Times reporter, and they told the story of what was going on in this town of Laramie in an original audio way. It’s a wonderful listen.

Exclusive to the app, there’s a New York Times “Short”. This is one of the new exclusive strands that we’ve created for the app - two of our top critics, not reading out their pieces, but going back and forth, each person critiquing each other’s reviews of two of their best pieces. As an editor, what an amazing opportunity to take the journalism of The New York Times and bring it into audio. And in so doing, I think we do create something original a lot of the time.

SS: Mukul Devichand, thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on the launch of the app: I look forward to getting my hands on it. If somebody does want to subscribe or wants to get a hold of it, where would they go?

MD: It’s on iOS. You can go to the App Store, download NYT Audio and as a subscriber you can sign in, or you can get a subscription.

SS: Thank you. Congratulations and thanks for your time.

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