How NPR Is Preparing for "The Year of the Podcast"

With next week's launch of "Invisibilia," the network plans to be more agnostic about platform.
Invisibilia creators and hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller. (Photograph by John W. Poole/NPR.)
Invisibilia creators and hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller. (Photograph by John W. Poole/NPR.)

During the 18-month incubation period for Invisibilia, a soon-to-launch show about human behavior, NPR asked the categorical questions media organizations have always used to give direction to their efforts: Would it be its own radio show? A podcast? A segment on other shows?

Instead of trying to fit Invisibilia into preexisting categories, “we decided to just answer yes,” says Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming.

Invisibilia will debut January 9, and it “is really meant to be a big thing on a lot of different platforms at once,” Nuzum says. Pieces from the show will populate Radiolab, All Things Considered, and WBEZ’s This American Life. And, of course, Invisibilia will be available as a podcast.

“We’ve become a huge, massive force in podcasting, and, I think it’s fair to say, without even realizing it,” Nuzum says. The network published its first podcasts—none of which were full-show podcasts, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara says—in August 2005, and now serves 69 million downloads per month. But the massive success of Serial (like This American Life, produced by WBEZ), abetted heavily by smartphone adoption, has helped bring a large new audience to the once-nerdy form of media consumption.

“You can make the argument that 2015 is the year of the podcast,” Nuzum says, and NPR believes that “for a lot of people they do serve as the gateway to public radio.” The architectural plans for that gateway, though, are a little unclear. Last month, for example, WBUR General Manager Charles Kravetz told New York Times reporter David Carr public radio’s audience growth is “off slightly, probably in part because people are listening to on-demand programming on podcasts.” In other words, there’s no guarantee a listener will switch on their local NPR affiliate station after an episode of Serial or the TED Radio Hour finishes on their iPhone.

But listener habits aren’t the only thing changing. The economics of public radio shows are changing as well.

“I think what we’re learning in public radio is there’s mutual interdependence,” he says. The TED Radio Hour has a larger digital audience than it does on terrestrial radio, and wouldn’t be sustainable if it were “just supporting itself off its radio underwriting revenue.” Listeners attracted to the deeper storytelling they encounter on flagship podcasts like TED may lead them to the network’s news products, Nuzum says.

NPR’s research has shown that many people who’ve downloaded podcasts “believe when they make a contribution to their local station it’s paying for that podcast,” Nuzum says. “I don’t mind that assumption being made.”

Some of the network’s existing podcasts have made great gains in listeners in the past year—the Pop Culture Happy Hour has quadrupled its audience, and recent live versions of the show (including one held earlier this month at Sixth & I Synagogue) have sold out in minutes. The network has other new podcasts/shows/whatever-you-call-thems in the turnstiles behind Invisibilia, but it has no definite plans about when they’ll be released, Nuzum says.

I will say we’re working on a number of different ideas,” he says. “Our hope is to really embrace the opportunity we see in front of us in podcasting. This is a great, golden moment. The popularity of Serial has shown this is not just a niche platform: This is a mainstream platform, and we should be treating it like that.”

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