In Pod(casts) We Trust

In Pod(casts) We Trust

Public radio’s downloadable future.

Gary Eichten retired four years ago. Garrison Keillor is stepping down from A Prairie Home Companion after decades. Public radio audiences are increasingly older. But St. Paul-based American Public Media Group, parent of Minnesota Public Radio, is trying to stay fashionable.

APM launched its Infinite Guest podcast network in 2014 and is steadily boosting its roster of “on demand” programs. “Podcast listeners are younger than traditional public radio listeners,” says Steve Nelson, APM’s director of on-demand programming.

Nelson says APM currently has about 50 podcasts, including shows that exist only as podcasts (such as Unretirement and Brains On!), as well as downloadable versions of APM radio programs (The Splendid Table, Marketplace).

But is there income in free downloads? Nelson says that underwriting has been “very encouraging,” adding, “It’s a growing area of revenue.” He declined to comment on APM’s revenue from podcasts or the percentage of total programming revenue it represents.

The primary channel for downloading podcasts is Apple’s iTunes. Apple’s list of the 25 most popular podcasts for 2015 included downloadable versions of public radio programs Fresh Air, Planet Money, TED Radio Hour, Wait Wait . . . . Don’t Tell Me! (all from NPR); Serial, This American Life and The Moth podcast (Chicago Public Media). In March, ratings tracker Nielsen announced plans to roll out Nielsen Digital Audio Ratings, which will ultimately include podcasts.

Bryan Moffett, general manager of National Public Media (an NPR subsidiary), says that within the last two years they have seen a strong uptick in podcast underwriting interest. “Now we are getting Fortune 500, Fortune 100 brands coming to us,” says Moffett. “It’s helped us grow our radio business.” NPR does not disclose podcast revenue specifics, but in fiscal 2014, it doubled; in fiscal 2015 it tripled. For fiscal 2016, which ends in September, NPR has already booked nearly twice the revenue of last year.

Minneapolis-based Public Radio International, a producer and distributor of public radio programming, currently has 23 podcasts, with eight stand-alone podcasts, according to spokeswoman Julia Yager. PRI’s most popular podcast is the radio show Science Friday. “We’ve got a number that are in development,” she notes. “The more downloads you have, the more you are able to sell underwriting.”

—Burl Gilyard