WAMU’s Metropocalypse podcast debuted Monday, and it’s a 15-minute look at the shaky present and hazy future of Washington’s public transport system. The show is also a peek into the future of WAMU itself, which has undergone a foundational reorganization in recent months and is trying to reach a larger audience through media beside radio–including podcasts.
WAMU news and content boss Andi McDaniel has repeatedly talked about making content that finds audience through ways other than broadcast, something podcasts do very well. As she told me last December about content, “We just don’t get the luxury of making it and hoping someone will find it.”
So how does it sound? Transportation reporter Martin Di Caro hosts the podcast, and the first episode features guest co-host Martine Powers, who reports on transportation and infrastructure for Politico. We learn in the first episode that Di Caro doesn’t own a car and relies on Metro to get around, and Powers brings some valuable above-eye-level insight, talking about the deep antipathy many in Congress feel toward Metro. While that feeling may often get expressed in laughable fashion, soothing it is an important task for Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld if the system is ever going to right itself. Di Caro also brings questions from listeners to DC Councilmember Jack Evans, the principal director of Metro’s board. Much of the show is recorded on a train ride, and it’s a lot less formal-sounding than you might expect from WAMU.
WAMU Managing Producer for New Content Brendan Sweeney says the show came together quickly after last March’s emergency shutdown of the entire subway system. Di Caro explained arcing insulators at a news meeting in nerdy detail; that kind of context, Sweeney says he realized, was sometimes missing from daily reports, which can “end up telling the story from the officials’ perspective.” WAMU’s aspiration with Metropocalypse is to “amplify the lived experience” about Metro. To that end, it’s also a Facebook group: “What we’re hoping is we can curate that conversation and take the signal we’re getting from the audience and push that into the podcast.”
“Most people do not follow Metro as closely as reporters do or as I do,” says Di Caro, who confirmed that he has not owned a car since he moved to Washington in 2012, when he sold his “1990s-era Nissan Altima” for $120. It was necessary to get this show out quickly, Di Caro says, because of Metro’s upcoming “safety surge”–“There won’t be a time in the near future when there’s as much attention paid to it.”
The opportunity to address questions from listeners was also important, Di Caro says, noting that he can’t always respond the way he’d like on Twitter. Maybe the first podcast isn’t perfect, he says, but it’s done, and it’s out: “There’s nothing like a deadline to get a group of journalists to get something done.”
Listening, reacting, pushing out new products (WAMU has already launched The Big Listen, a show and podcast about podcasts): That sounds a lot like what McDaniel and General Manager J.J. Yore have said they want to see come out of WAMU as it and public radio faces a graying audience and revenue challenges. The show will continue through the summer at least: “Basically this is an interesting sandbox for the station,” says Sweeney, who also says the podcast is one attempt at getting the station’s arms around the enormity of the Metro story, and trying to solve the problem of “How do we communicate this giant mess?”
Yet another Martin, this one reporter Martin Austermuhle, will join the show for its second episode, about how Metro’s surge will affect nightlife. This surfeit of Martin(e)s is something Sweeney acknowledges: Powers, he says, did a wonderful job and may be back for more hosting but is “not exactly helping us with our name diversity.”