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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In 2010, Roman Mars was a freelance radio producer at San Francisco’s KALW and Snap Judgment. KALW’s Holly Kernan set Mars up with Washington and Ristich.
That summer, Mars began a side project. He had been in public radio for several years, and while he enjoyed the work, he wanted something all his own. He yearned for a beat that encompassed everything, yet nothing in particular. On Sept. 3, 2010, KALW aired a four-and-a-half minute drop-in segment of Mars’, before NPR’s Morning Edition, about the main branch of the San Francisco Central Public Library. The segment showed how small design decisions can have a big impact, for better and worse. These design decisions, Mars thought, were nearly invisible to the untrained eye, and his show, 99% Invisible, was born.
The thing was, Mars didn’t want a radio show. “I never wanted to make an hour-long weekly unit that is sold to radio stations. I’m never going to make that thing,” Mars explained. He decided to make the show podcast only—though he still clipped a four-minute version, which was only to be aired on his favorite radio station, KALW—not as a rebellion, or to start a revolution, but because he felt public radio was failing him. “It’s not like I had a choice; I was desperate.”
By 2012, the show had developed a considerable indie following. Unfortunately, however, he was running out of money. Mars began a Kickstarter campaign to “stave off death.” He set the mark at $30,000, enough to keep the show running. He raised more than $170,000, nearly sextupling the original amount sought, and made national news as the most-funded journalist in Kickstarter history.
With the seed money, he was able to bring on staff and, eventually move his operation into the offices of Arcsine, an architecture firm in downtown Oakland, where he continues to produce the show.
The Kickstarter campaign lesson was two-pronged. It not only proved that audiences were willing to pay to support quality content, but also, they were growing. It didn’t take long for advertisers to take notice. Mars says he hasn’t had an open advertising slot on his show since. Then, in 2014, with the unprecedented success of Serial—a spinoff of This American Life, distributed exclusively in podcast form—and the attention its lead advertiser, MailChimp, received, the dam was officially broken. For the first time in their history, podcasts had the reach and popularity to attract enough advertising dollars to create full-time jobs. That same year, Mars teamed up with PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, a nonprofit that connects producers with shows, to create Radiotopia, the world’s first podcast collective.
Radiotopia functions much like a record label. The network currently boasts 13 shows, though it’s poring over submissions to fund a 14th show. The idea of a podcast collective is that shows within the network can cross-promote, negotiate with advertisers, and share resources. On May 4, the collective will hold its first live storytelling show in Los Angeles. Mars compares the emerging podcast business model to something he was very familiar with growing up.
For Mars, the idea for Radiotopia is similar to the punk rock movement of the ’70s and ’80s, when bands that weren’t mainstream enough to sign with major record labels created their own infrastructure to distribute and book venues for live shows. The same do-it-yourself ethos is suffused through the modern world of podcasting. “This is all DIY to me. This all an extension of punk rock,” Mars said.
Like punk rock, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville started small and traces its roots to the year 1977. It wasn’t until 2009 that the nonprofit news organization expanded beyond a small newsroom. The center, which now occupies a large industrial office space and employs more than 70 people, has a budget of more than $9 million per year.
Joaquin Alvarado, CIR’s CEO and a self-described “punk Cholo kid” from East Oakland, agrees with Mars that the current revolution of podcasting reflects a set of values he’s very familiar with. “In many ways, the second revolution of podcasting that we’re in the middle of is a lot like the second wave of punk rock. People figured out, ‘Hey, I can start my own label, I can organize my own tours, and I can build a direct relationship with audiences around the country.” He also pointed out that investigative journalism, like the punk movement, strives for authenticity at all costs.
In 2014, over a fateful martini, Alvarado and PRX chief content officer John Barth conceived of Reveal, a radio show that could showcase the CIR’s investigative reporting. PRX had seed money to fund a show, and CIR was looking for a new platform to distribute its content. Alvarado and Barth were part of CPB and PRX’s decision-making team for Talent Quest, so when it came time to choose a host for the new show, Alvarado had Al Letson in mind. He remembers well the fondness he developed for Letson and Washington during the contest. “I knew those two were essential talents and voices for the future of public media,” Alvarado explained. “When we went to develop the pilot, we all made a shortlist of who might be interesting. All of us put Al at the top of the list.”
The pilot episode, which aired in April 2014, won a Peabody Award, and less than two years later, the show is weekly and carried by more than 250 public radio stations and widely downloaded online. Alvarado sees his organization as an extension of the mandate set forth by those before him.
“You know, you could draw a graph, from the late ’50s jazz recording scene all the way to through to what Pixar’s doing, what we’re doing, what ProTools did. All of that is an imprimatur of the area, the combination of technology, art and community. That is totally punk rock. That’s what we’re doing and I think that’s what the Bay Area is great at.”
One of the goals of bringing Letson on was to make investigative reporting more accessible, more human. Letson’s friendly voice acts as a pillow for the light-headed feeling that sometimes accompanies Reveal’s shocking, yet extraordinarily powerful, reporting. Also, the slam poetry scene from which Letson arose is a fitting sensibility for an East Bay show; it’s an influence suffused through the East Bay’s storytelling community as a whole.
Snap Judgment explicitly draws on the strength of the Bay Area’s storytelling culture. As Ristich explained, “I don’t think we could have started anywhere else. We were lucky Oakland had such a strong base of storytelling. It was already here. It’s not like we came in here and invented anything.”
Jamie DeWolf, Oakland’s patron saint of storytelling and the founder of the “mutant” variety show Tourettes Without Regrets in 1999, didn’t know what a podcast was until Ristich and Washington approached him at Tourettes one night. Soon, he was not only a staple of Snap’s live shows, but also writing stories and doing interviews for the radio show. Like most storytellers borne of the ’90s slam scene, DeWolf prefers the electricity of a live audience, which dovetails nicely with the increase in demand for live shows, though he is learning to love radio. “When I started producing for Snap Judgment and doing their live shows, a lot of local slam poets and standup comics gravitated toward the format. Slam teaches you how to perform in all different kinds of ways and storytelling, and to do it a cappella. To do it with the combination of the band is really an awesome blend. It’s a new form.”
DeWolf’s most famous story, “The God and the Man,” about being the great-grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, was written for a Snap live show in 2011. It aided in putting both Snap and DeWolf on the national map. Now a podcast convert, DeWolf is interested in starting his own. “It’s the new form of the campfire,” he explained.
Interestingly, Talent Quest wasn’t the first time CPB tapped Oakland to help solve its diversity problem. In 1993, NPR made Youth Radio—a nonprofit media production company based in downtown Oakland—its official youth desk; its place for “teen-driven” news. It was founded in 1992 by a journalist named Ellen O’Leary, during a period of heightened teen violence in the East Bay. Youth Radio’s aim was to get kids off the street and into the classroom. It’s set up to give youth reporters access to the tools they need to meet the growing demand for new media skills.
Twenty-plus years on, it’s hard to call the organization anything but a success. It continues to produce more than 3,000 radio features per year, and has laid claim to several of radio-journalism’s most prestigious awards—including a George Foster Peabody and two Edward R. Murrow awards. The organization has taken a more holistic approach to media, broadening its curriculum to include subjects like graphic design and video production. Its pipeline has been in place for years, and its alumni continue to dot local tech and media organizations.
Nineteen-year-old Desmond Meagley was dealing with low self-esteem and lack of direction when his social worker recommended Youth Radio. A few years later, Meagley’s résumé includes clips from NPR’s Morning Edition, among others. He now interns at the organization and feels lucky to have established paid work in a creative field at such a young age. He feels Youth Radio’s commitment to community building, diversity, and empowering kids with a “robust and dynamic skill set,” is a huge win for everyone in involved. Youth Radio is the original pillar of what’s been dubbed “Radio Row”—it’s just blocks from the offices of both Snap and 99% Invisible.
In 2009, when Letson was hiring the staff for State of the Re:Union, he was disappointed by the lack of diversity in qualified candidates who had the skill-set to produce an hour of radio. “There weren’t too many candidates that were fit for it anyway, so then finding diverse people was even harder.” This was well before Letson relocated to the Bay Area. It’s fair to wonder, with organizations like Youth Radio, whether he would have had the same problem here.