NPR’s Podcasts — A Case Of Love & Hate

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(By Troy Price) Back in fourth grade there were perfect autumn days when we were able to have recess outside. (NOTE: For Millennials reading this, the term “recess” as used here means a period of time of outside play scheduled in the school day — not the break Congress takes between sessions.)

On these perfect days we students were able to play in the big field behind the school as well as the outside basketball court adjacent to the field. Here is the reason I found these fall days so perfect. Fifth-graders who were bigger and meaner would all hit the door for recess and run crazy fast to the big field to play softball, or freeze-tag, or whatever the sport of the day was. My favorite place during these recesses was that basketball court. There we could play flexible-rule foursquare or talk about TV shows or the book the teacher was reading to us. But during those recesses most of us would throw those tan-colored maple tree helicopter seeds crazy high in the air and watch them spin down. That was perfect.

But there were other recesses. Sometimes the big field was muddy and everybody had to play on the basketball court for the whole 35 minutes. It was much different. Those fifth-graders would use their size, skills, and experience and do what they wanted. Half the court became dedicated to actual basketball for just 10 fifth-graders to use. On those days, fourth-graders never moved past the fourth square, there was less happy talking and, maybe the worst thing, the fifth-graders would trample over the helicopter seeds and we couldn’t throw them. Everyone was inwardly angry at the fifth-graders, but everybody also wanted to be a fifth-grader. It was not a perfect set-up.

Today as a grownup, I love listening to NPR on the radio in my car. I appreciate what they talk about and have had many “driveway moments” where I stayed in my car after arriving home to hear the end of a good story. I give money to my local station to support their work. They use donations for their quality equipment, their quality staff, and for the associated costs of putting on quality radio.

If you are reading this, you know that NPR recently began podcasting. Just like at my fourth-grade recess when the big kids would swoop in and disturb things, NPR has entered my space as an independent podcaster and right now it is not a perfect set-up. They use their resources and put their radio shows out as a podcast. They also use their size, skill, and experience and produce podcast-only content that could not be broadcast over the air. Don’t get me wrong, I have never heard an NPR podcast that is not perfect. But I think I can speak for independent podcasters when I say we are inwardly angry at NPR, but we secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) want to be NPR.

Having grown beyond fourth-grade, I believe I have some perspective on the current podcast situation. The podcasting space is big enough for whoever wants to be in it. There is enough Internet to share. There is enough in this beautiful world for everyone to talk about something. Having NPR in the podcasting space is in some ways…nice. Lots of people are talking about the next series of Serial, and counting down to the S-Town movie. But, you can also find unsolved mysteries or deep dive into a Southern town by searching for True Crimecast or the V/EWS podcast. NPR or independents offer a lifetime of listening.

However, based on my experience in fourth grade, here is what is going to happen. NPR (the big kid) is going to move on to whatever comes next and thus, away from podcasting. When that happens, we, the independent podcasters, will still be here producing our shows. We will be like the big kids on the playground, it will be a golden time for us. I just hope we don’t trample anyone else’s playthings underfoot.

Troy Price is the co-founder of Front Porch Studios in Berea, Kentucky. He has been involved with podcasting for over a decade. Do you listen or produce a show that you think should be on the list? Comment below or email Troy@frontporchstudios.com to be included!

6 COMMENTS

  1. Podcasting is at a point in its timeline similar to where FM radio was in 1968 – just starting to attract enough listeners to make it enticing to big broadcast companies. Just as those early free-form, progressive FM formats and quirky hosts were displaced by formulaic hit-music stations with slick DJs, professional writing, hosting and production values are starting to pour into the podcast space.

    But while the number of FM stations serving a given geographic area is limited, the podcast “dial” is infinite. NPR, iHeart, newspapers and other big producers may compete for attention and listening hours, but they can’t fire you from the internet or push you around. What they will do is raise audience expectations for quality, and I think this is what makes many amateur podcasters uncomfortable.

    If you’ve coasted along with poor audio or a lack of focus on the listener, 2019 may be the year to decide whether this will be a hobby conducted largely for your own entertainment, or something more. The beauty of the audio medium is that good content production is relatively cheap. A huge influx of new listening will be drawn into podcasting by these big new players. If you sound like you belong next to them, there’s no reason you can’t get your share.

  2. With or without NPR my show will remain the same, albeit I will always strive for continuous improvement. But I do think the presence, push and pull of the ‘big kids’ will help to drive audiences to podcasting in general so they can play on my pitch whenever they want to, so long as they leave it reasonably tidy if they get bored and leave!

  3. “If you are reading this, you know that NPR recently began podcasting.” — certainly not “recently.” It is inaccurate to imagine NPR joining the modern podcast era already in progress. Serial launched in 2014, and essentially launched the modern podcast era. Even before that, NPR created and launched NPR One, which might be described as a network-specific podcast app. Before that, many NPR radio programs were distributed online for time-shifted listening.

    Of course it is true that podcasting as a technology and media category began much earlier. But most people reading this probably started their shows in the modern era, post-2014. NPR started that. So it could be said that most podcasters are playing on NPR’s court — but that isn’t really true either. It is a new court now, and a bigger one, with many dominating players. NPR is not a newcomer.

    • Brad, Thanks so much for the comment. I agree that I condensed my thought too tightly saying ‘began podcasting.’ Lord knows I was listening to Radio Lab via podcast before they really found their groove. I was speaking more to their podcast-only content (I may be getting old, but I do view 2014 as recent) and their very recent support for Remote Audio Data.

      Do you think most readers began podcasting after 2014? I might email The Feed podcast and ask them when most currently producing podcasts were created. I think that is worth checking out. Who knows, you might see an article about that in the near future – Thanks for the inspiration!

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