The East Bay Becomes a Nexus for Podcasting

There’s a radio revolution underway with podcasting playing a leading role. It’s all happening in the East Bay.


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Al Letson hosts Reveal for the CIR but got connected through his show State of the Re:Union.

Photo courtesy of Al Letson

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Al Letson, the host of Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s flagship podcast, remembers the spring day that sent him on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

“I had a little shed in my backyard, and it was a beautiful day,” the Florida native recalled. “It wasn’t hot-hot, so it must have been early spring, because the mosquitoes weren’t out.” That afternoon, Letson learned he won an public radio show; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would give him $10,000 to create a pilot for his show idea, State of the Re:Union. He remembers holding a long stick during the call, and then thrashing it into a tiny stub in the throes of his celebration.

In 2007, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB, and Public Radio Exchange, or PRX, decided public media had an image problem. After about a decade of listener growth between the mid-’90s and 2003, audience numbers were no longer moving in the right direction. For years, the tenor of public media programming had been carefully crafted to serve its core audience: upper-middle class, well-educated white liberals. When listenership plateaued, CPB, a government-funded nonprofit, sought methods to reach the next generation of listeners: specifically, it coveted younger listeners and people of color.

Before long, an idea was born: Talent Quest; an American Idol-style competition, adminstered by PRX, where contestants would send audio clips to radio professionals who would subject them to a rigorous judgment over several rounds. The prize: funding for an upstart public radio show. In fact, American Idol, still in the midst of its run as the most popular show on television, was Letson’s through-line to the contest. After watching an episode with his daughter, he wanted to know whether his favorite singer made it to the next round. He googled ‘American Idol,’ only to stumble upon the result: ‘public radio launches American Idol contest.’ He figured it was a folk-singing contest; he clicked anyway.

 

 

The contest drew more than 1,400 submissions. When the field was whittled down to 10, the contestants began to get to know each other. Letson became particularly close with the contestant from Oakland: Glynn Washington. He vividly remembers Washington’s Snap Judgment teaser and the mix of despair and excitement that came with it: “It was about a guy who had just gotten out of prison. He got his first check, cashed it, and someone tried to rob him. Then the guy has to decide: Is he going to go gangster on this dude, or is he just going to give up his check? And he left it with a question mark. That was the end. That was his submission. I remember hearing it and going, ‘this dude is going to win.’ ”

One of the phone calls he made that fateful afternoon from his Jacksonville, Fla., backyard was to Washington. They were under the impression there would only be one winner So, when it was announced that both would be funded, it was pure bliss. “I remember immediately calling Glynn and we laughed and jumped around—I don’t know if he was jumping, but I was jumping—and screaming in my backyard and we were both like, ‘can you believe this shit?’ ”

CPB hasn’t done anything like the contest since, and nor will it, largely because personalities like Washington and Letson are moving directly to the podcast universe, where there’s virtually no barrier to entry. “This was honestly a very strange initiative,” reflected Snap Judgment executive producer Mark Ristich, “but it worked.” Ristich was Washington’s close friend and collaborator before signing on as a co-producer of the show.

Podcasts aren’t new. The name itself, “podcast,” was invented to correlate with the virtually defunct device upon which they were supposed to play, the iPod. The first wave of podcasts had almost no overlap with public radio. Shows were do-it-yourself, ad-free ventures about geeky arcane hobbies like comic books and ’80s movies. By design or coincidence, the East Bay has quickly established itself as an audio-production mecca, a center of sorts for the latest radio revolution, and the lines between radio shows and podcasts have become increasingly blurred.

Once upon a time, radio episodes weren’t catalogued on the Internet for easy post-market consumption. Listeners were out of luck if they missed their favorite show on a given day. Nowadays, shows are uploaded online and packaged in podcast form. The podcast versions of shows are mostly the same, though they tend to be more lax with length and language. Also, it’s not uncommon to hear a message from a sponsor—an advertisement. The current financial model for podcasts/radio shows is a cocktail of advertising, live shows, donations, grants, and—for those lucky enough to be broadcast on the radio, carriage fees. Proportions vary by show.

Public radio staples like This American Life and Radiolab were some of the first shows made available to be consumed in podcast form. It wasn’t until smartphones and Bluetooth technology became ubiquitous—when listeners no longer had to plug devices into their computers to download content—that podcasts really began to surge. The more seamless and on-demand audio technology has becomes, the more podcasts can compete for listeners, and, by extension, advertising dollars.

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