All Things Unsurprising

It’s formula we all know. The hook is usually a provocative snippet of nat sound, maybe the oily pop of an exotic dish sizzling in a wok or the din of group of homeowners hammering plywood over their windows in preparation for a hurricane. And then fade in the warm voices of the hosts, thoughtful, with a literate cadence, perhaps just a shade slower than their television counterparts. This is the NPR way.

We know that we will hear sounds, voices and stories that share a certain style, designed to enthrall listeners for the whole program and keep them glued to their car radios even after their commute home is over–the vaunted “driveway moment.”

In his new book, Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production, veteran radio producer Jonathan Kern makes it clear that the recipe for a compelling NPR broadcast is no alchemy, but rather a well-worn list of techniques for planning, interviewing, recording, editing and post.

Like the radio shows whose hosts he coaches, Kern’s book is thrilling at times when it reveals a juicy detail, but often suffers from a syrupy tone and pacing and a certain self-satisfaction. Granted, this is a book by an NPR veteran for NPR employees and tote-bag-toting loyalists, and as such, it contains more than enough unhelpful platitudes like “A good reporter looks and listens for the truth.” But there are good nuggets to be had for the online journalist who reads between the lines.

I offer a meta-reading of Sound Reporting; there are a number of great NPR tips that can be adapted for the do-it-yourself podcaster and these are worth repeating. If you host an online show, file audio reports or do any kind of internet radio news, much of NPR’s wisdom still applies. From Sound Reporting:

Remember that a radio audience consists of listeners, not viewers. When you write for radio, you can easily emphasize the aural nature of the medium: ‘Coming up we’ll hear from the woman who broke the story’…

There are no headlines. That means we don’t have a way to catch a potential listener’s ear the way a big headline at a newsstand catches the eye; to get our news, people have to make the effort to turn on the radio and tune to a specific station.”

(Kern’s frequent use of italics mimics the NPR trademark vocal delivery; one can almost hear Steve Inskeep musing along with the author. Kern does in fact include a section on marking up a script with underlining for spoken stresses and warns that overdoing it can sound “mannered”…)

Get people to use analogies to explain technical subjects. That may require you to let the interviewee know what you’re looking for. ‘You say the Earth wobbles on its axis. Help me visualize this.’

Identify and statements that may need fact checking, or a balancing statement or response. You don’t want to put any falsehoods on the air, so listen for assertions that may need to be checked. And if a guest makes allegations about an individual or organization, make sure you solicit a response from the person or group being criticized–ideally a second interview, but at least a statement that the host can read on the air.”

Check to that you still have a conversation [after you edit]. Sometimes a producer gets so wrapped up in technical and editorial details–in making sure that he preserves the essential elements of the interiview, makes perfect edits, leaves the breaths intact, and so on–that he forgets to listen to the finished product to make sure it still sounds like a normal discussion.”

The discussion of music is one of the most interesting in the book. I have often noticed how excellent the choice and mixing of interstitial tunes is on public radio (and personally gloated when my favorite Ratatat tracks were on high rotation.)

“Like the sounds in a news report, the music added to an interview should be there for a reason–and the way it’s introduced or faded should make a point. Sara Sarasohn describes the morphology of a music piece. ‘A hot hit means were starting on something. A sneak-up means the music here is tightly connected to the thing before it. When the music comes up full and ends, and then a someone starts talking, that’s a change of direction–the thing the person starts talking about is completely different from the music that just ended. A warm hit [starting the music at low volume] in a pause means we’re building momentum on this same subject we’re discussing. Sometimes you can have music come up and end, then you hot hit something else, and then that fades under some talking, and that’s a really big change of direction.'”

Perhaps least satisfying in Kern’s book for podcasters is his section “Beyond Radio” where he brusquely touches on online radio and podcasting itself. Kern leans heavily on the wisdom of Maria Thomas, NPR’s digital media chief, and she’s a virtuosa of the obvious.

“‘People who are looking at the Internet on the job often can’t listen to audio at their workplace,’ says Maria Thomas…They may fear that the sound will disturb the person working in the next cubicle or the corporate IT department may not allow them to download audio players.”

Kern advises that podcasters provide text versions of their radio scripts, not to skimp on recording quality and “don’t forget what radio has taught us about keeping listeners’ interest.”

What Kern does to keep our interest is spice in transcripts of short exchanges between reporters and interviewees from programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day To Day and Talk of the Nation. Inevitably, the actual journalism is infinitely more engaging then the discussion of it, and I found myself being disappointed each time Kern came back after I got absorbed in a discussion of aridopsis foliage with a botanical geneticist or a chat about Bo Diddly rhythms with Dr. John. This is obviously why Kern is a producer not a scriptwriter–he sure knows how to pick ’em–but his own material is pretty boring.

The book ends with fairly boilerplate bellyaching about the future of journalism with cit-j reporters covering the London Underground bombings (oh no!), concern that consumers of news will only get the news they want and not the news they need, (eep!) and that, according to NPR Web editor Todd Holzman, different media might “converge” (you think?) to allow for new and powerful ways to deliver the news. “It’s finding a way for the world of digital media to extend radio to a larger, younger audience,’ Holzman says. ‘There are many ways to tell a story.'”

In words Michele Norris would never dulcetly intone on air, “No duh.”

HOST: For O-J-R dot org, I’m Noah Barron.

Translating the network evening news to the Web

Jason Samuels was a TV man through and through. He spent 11 years at NBC News producing breaking news and as an award-winning long-form producer for the newsmagazine Dateline NBC.

“I am a big believer in television journalism–its power for telling stories and raising issues that should engage younger audiences who are my peers,” he said recently. “But I just didn’t see younger people tuning into network television news.”

He did see that generation flocking to online news and shifted to the Web with them. Since October 2006, he has been a senior producer at ABC News Digital where he says he has an opportunity to test how the power of television can translate onto the Web. Samuels spoke to OJR recently about sending out stringers with DV cameras to cover world news and how the webcast might be a precursor to the television newscast of the future.

OJR: Tell me about the webcast you produce for How different is it from the evening newscast?

Samuels: It started before I came here but they basically wanted a way to have some news before 6 o’clock available to those who were online. So correspondents who were working for the 6:30 broadcast would file pieces for the webcast at 3 o’clock so that people could click on them and watch them during the day from their office or before they left to go home.

But over time it’s evolved to where it has a distinct attitude, and it’s not shy about targeting a different group of viewers who may not be watching the network news. There is a different focus, a different DNA to the show. We kind of loosen the tie a little bit, if you will.

We do stories that may be appeal more to Generation X and Generation Y than stories that are directly trying to appeal to Baby Boomers and [their] parents. As a person in charge of it, it’s my job to kind of select stories that I think appeal to a younger generation.

We really have no rules to the show. We can try things that are very different. The mandate is to try to be different and try and engage the viewers who are not right now watching the evening news broadcast.

People believe that younger audiences get their news from the Daily Show. It’s a very smart show, but it’s produced by people who work for Comedy Central–not by traditional journalists. We have tried to create a webcast with content that appeals to people who are looking for news but are not really that engaged with what the traditional shows are offering.

OJR: Could you give me one example where the storytelling underscores how different it is from the 6:30 broadcast?

Samuels: Sure, I’ll first go over just the nuts and bolts. It’s essentially a 15-minute, commercial-free show every day that we tape live with Charles Gibson as the anchor. The first two and half minutes are the meat-and-potato headlines–the traditional network news fare. The rest of the show has pieces that can be on the news of the day but they can also be like features.

As an example, though, correspondents usually go out to cover stories; they write a script, edit it and put it together for the broadcast. But I tell them to just shoot a video blog. So in today’s show, Miguel Marquez in Los Angeles was assigned to do a story for the broadcast about the new line of Bible-themed action figures that are going to be sold in Wal-Mart. So when you watch the broadcast tonight it’s going to be a traditional, well-crafted 1:30 to 2-minute piece. What we asked him to do is that when you are at Wal-Mart and you are reporting your piece for the broadcast, just stand there, hold up these action figures and just tell us about them. Don’t script anything perfectly just give us your own impression and your sense of what is the story. Miguel filed a video blog piece that is about a minute long for our webcast. It’s a little less formal, it’s a little more raw and I would argue in some ways it is a little more real.

It is less polished but I think younger people are willing to accept that and almost prefer that instead of showing what’s packaged so perfectly.

Now if there is a piece for the broadcast that we are interested in, we will put that on our webcast as well. For example there is a piece for broadcast tonight about a woman who has homeless kids taking photos of what they wish to aspire to. And it’s a wonderful piece that should be interesting no matter how old you are. We’ve put that into our webcast.

Another example. We did an interview for the webcast exclusively with Christopher Hitchens, on his book, “God is Not Great.” We sat him down in front of a camera and we had him basically talk about the themes in his books and we edited that down into an essay. That would never go on the evening news shows but for us it worked. It’s provocative and it’s different.

OJR: You’re also lucky that you can use any portion of the massive amounts of content produced for ABC News on your webcasts. How much of what is produced specifically for the webcast is constrained by budget issues?

Samuels: Sure, a bit of being different is also for budget reasons. We don’t have the broadcast news staff; we don’t have the broadcast news budget. So we have to do things a little bit differently but I think effectively as well.

OJR: How are you as a broadcast-based news organization using interactivity on the Web?

Samuels: Now if you go to our website, you can comment in real-time on the broadcast.

I’ve only been here for four months but I am trying to slowly bring more interactivity into the fold. One thing we would like to do is have people watch the show, react to the show, and then the next day feature their reactions. This would mean that viewers could literally sit in front of their webcams, tell us what they thought and we will put it on our webcasts.

The Christopher Hitchens’ piece is a perfect example. We asked our viewers to send reactions and comments in video about his provocative essay. Going forward, I want to do more of that.

I am also trying to develop a way for people to send us their story ideas for the webcast. If you think there is a story in your town or city that you think should be on the webcast, send us info and we will try to assign someone to do the story.

Those are two ways that I hope would make us more interactive soon.

OJR: News organizations have always controlled distribution of their content. The Web is changing that with RSS feeds, Google News and other ways of news personalization. What is doing in that direction to share its content more broadly?

Samuels: The webcast is available on iTunes. When it’s posted on iTunes, I believe we are one of the few video broadcasts that have chapters. So when you are watching the webcast on iTunes, you can fast forward through the segment if you are not interested.

In June, we had over 5 million people download the webcast from iTunes and

I should mention is obviously every segment that we do for the webcast lives as an individual piece, if you will, on So the webcast exists as a show but it also exists as a way to manufacture very interesting short news segments for

OJR: Disney’s ABC and Apple’s iTunes have obvious connection through Steve Jobs and Pixar. But there is also this realization that you need to be on as many platforms as possible. Are your shows available on places like YouTube as well?

Samuels: This is a little bit beyond my pay grade but I think that ABC News is not letting people post our content everywhere else, including YouTube. Their philosophy is we want to drive people to our websites and we want the clicks on our websites. That’s an internal discussion that’s going on and I think a lot of media companies are trying to figure out how much do you let float out there and how much do you keep behind your walls.

OJR: How do the reporters and producers react to all of a sudden having more work to cut an earlier segment with the pressure of meeting the 6:30 deadline?

Samuels: I think that initially they probably thought it was pain in the neck but I think that they understand that this is the future.

The downloads of our show is increasing. Whereas if you look at other forms of news content–whether it’s newspapers, or evening newscasts, or news magazines, or nightly news shows–they are decreasing. With that in mind, I think they realize this is something they have to do.

We also try to have them do something a little different. They don’t have to give us the same thing that they doing for the broadcast. We want a video blog with a behind the scenes look at something.

Also, I am already using stringers around the world for content. Before the advent of small DV cameras and laptop editing, these stringers were only used when there was a huge catastrophe. Today I can call the stringers who have DV cameras and laptops for editing, can they can do a story about anything and send it to me over FTP and we can put it on the webcast.

For example, the recent stand off in Islamabad, in Pakistan, an ABC News person in Islamabad that filed for the web cast virtually everyday. He would shoot it and send it to us with his own DV camera and it was wonderful stuff. As we go forward, my plan is to have people all over the world filing for us–stuff that would never get on the evening broadcasts because they have a more serious structure to them. But we can post video blogs from people in Cuba, in China, in Islamabad, in Africa, in Australia, in France… everywhere. Because the technology allows that and I don’t need the polished or experienced correspondent. These are usually younger people. I love to have that kind of energy and that raw look at the news from around the world. Technology makes it possible.

I can’t predict the future but I know that ABC News is making a commitment and an investment to position young people with DV cameras around the world in Africa, in India, in places where they ordinarily would not be able to afford to put a crew and a cameraman and a producer. Now you can put a 20-year-old graduate student with a DV camera and a laptop in far away places and they can send you things through the Internet and you can put them on the air. I plan to have my show take full advantage of that in New York.

OJR: How do you respond to critics who say this is nothing but an attempt to cut expenses by using inexperienced and therefore cheaper labor because the technology allows it?

Samuels: I absolutely understand that argument. If I am an editor who has worked 30 years in my craft and some young kid out of graduate school and edits these pieces, what does that say for the value of my skills? I would say there is room for both, but I think if you are an editor or a cameraman that’s been in network news for a long time, you might have to adapt instead of shooting with your beta camera take a DV camera out and shoot with it. If you are an editor that’s used to working with a big beta system, use your skills to edit on a laptop. I don’t think the skills are no longer needed I just think that the tools are changing.

At the same time, what we do everyday with a smaller staff as we do is pretty remarkable. So I think there is something to the notion of less people doing more.

There are also more outlets for work in terms of work that’s different and that’s exciting.

OJR: As the generation that’s used to the structured evening news format gets older and older and continues to shrink, are we going to start seeing some of these webcast techniques making their way into the evening news?

Samuels: I think it will over time. When you have a 20-year-old stringer in Islamabad doing your report it’s not going to look like Brian Williams. I am of the mind that younger people are more able to appreciate a raw unpolished news pieces. They are used to homemade videos on YouTube. YouTube is big because it’s not the polished sitcom stuff that’s on the network. It’s raw, it’s shaky video, it’s … its real, it’s gritty and I think that appeals to younger viewers.

When I took the job, I asked myself whether the anchor, Charlie Gibson, was the right man for the job for the younger audience? I have been so pleased with how he embraces the show. He values the show and he gets what we are trying to do. We don’t have him be anything other than what he is which is a very intelligent, passionate. He is not trying to pretend like he is young and hip. But the content of the show is different and he embraces that.

There are plenty of days where he will see something on the webcast and he will put it on the newscast. That has happened more than once.

I think in many ways we are almost a breeding ground, an experiment, if you will, to see what might work going forward for the news division.

Will NPR's podcasts birth a new business model for public radio?

Last summer, the folks running National Public Radio started to get a clear message from their listeners and member stations: Give us podcasts! They received e-mail requests from listeners for months, and the term “podcast” was one of the most searched terms on The public spoke, and NPR listened, launching podcasts on Aug. 31.

Talk about pent-up demand. According to Maria Thomas, vice president and general manager of NPR Online, it took only six days after launch for NPR’s “Story of the Day” podcast to reach the coveted No. 1 spot on iTunes for most downloaded podcast. On Nov. 21, NPR’s podcasts held down 11 spots on the iTunes Top 100, more than any other media outlet.

But NPR has done much more than simply repurpose its own material for podcasts. The radio giant is hosting podcasts for member stations, and selling and splitting underwriting revenues with them. Plus, it’s launched three original podcasts under the new alt.NPR brand as an incubator for edgier content.

In a wide-ranging interview on NPR’s podcasting initiatives, Thomas told me that there were two driving forces for NPR: listener demand for portable audio, and the chance to find a new business model for working with stations. Previously, NPR’s income was split evenly from fees paid for content by member stations (who raised money from pledge drives), and corporate and foundation underwriting spots. Podcasting gave NPR a new model for selling underwriting, and sharing the proceeds with stations.

“We are actually working with a subset of stations that are providing audio to us, and we’re organizing that audio in a central database, so we can put consistent inventory units around the audio,” Thomas said. “And we would sell those inventory units to underwriters, and if we are successful with that, we would share that revenue with the stations. That’s a different model than what we have on the radio. The whole principle is that we’ll have to act differently on these new platforms because the model we have on the radio might not work in this world — but we have to be in this world.” At launch, NPR already had sold underwriting to Acura as a premier podcasting sponsor.

So what makes NPR’s podcasting a different animal? Rather than just offering podcasts of entire NPR radio shows, the most popular NPR podcasts have been “best of”-type offerings by topic. For instance, podcasts such as NPR Movies, NPR Technology and NPR Music take content from various radio shows on the same topic. That way, it’s easier to sell to underwriters interested in a particular topic.

On the news side, NPR has had success with its nightly podcast wrap-up of hearings on the John Roberts Supreme Court nomination, and will repeat that with the upcoming Samuel Alito hearings in January. The NPR podcast directory now includes 174 podcasts (including those of member stations). Thomas says the original 17 podcasts it offered from the start have been downloaded more than 5 million times.

The importance of original content

While a lot of Big Media companies have jumped on the podcasting bandwagon, much of the content is simply repurposed material from offline programming. While NPR has done that with most of its podcasts, the alt.NPR brand is a chance for NPR to look beyond the usual fare. The first three offerings for alt.NPR include a commentary on the gambling world by NPR reporter Mike Pesca, downtempo electronica music from independent Net radio station SomaFM, and a selection of the best young public radio producers on Public Radio Exchange ( called “Youthcast.”

These three mark different approaches to podcasts for NPR — one being from an in-house reporter, one being an exploration of new music, and another taken from PRX, which has worked with NPR before. SomaFM receives a freelance production fee from, while PRX will share revenues from underwriting that NPR sells. Thomas considers this as an experiment for NPR, which will release more podcasts after it gauges the success of its attempts so far.

“If we’re going to make it on the portable platform, we have to act differently,” Thomas said. “With podcasting, we’re acting like producers and seeking new voices but at the same time we’re working cooperatively with stations to find a way to help all public radio become more meaningful, which is something we didn’t accomplish in the first 10 years of the Internet.”

So what type of content works best for podcast listeners? Thomas believes that shorter content has been more popular, perhaps because people listening to podcasts are multitasking and don’t have the attention for long-form content. A case in point is the “Story of the Day” podcast, which runs from four to eight minutes, highlighting the editorial pick from NPR as the most important and unique story that NPR produced that day. Because it has occupied the No. 1 slot at iTunes for so long, Thomas believes it might be the most downloaded podcast ever.

Kris Jacob is vice president of business development for PodShow, the venture capital-backed startup from “podfather” Adam Curry, which is aggregating podcasts into an ad network. Jacob told me that repurposed mainstream content might bring in a larger podcast audience of consumers, but that podcast listeners in general like the close bond they feel with independent productions.

“The fundamental mistake that media companies, large and small, make is that they adopt the model but not the philosophy,” Jacob said. “They look at things as the adjunct to the core product that they’re providing, and not as a fundamental shift in the way that they are creating media itself. … What listeners tell us is that mainstream programming converted to MP3 files and redistributed and called a podcast is interesting to a point, but it’s not what they are really compelled by. What they are compelled by is unique independent niche programming that appeals to them and allows them to develop a relationship that they can’t forge with mainstream programming.”

Rusty Hodge, SomaFM’s founder and general manager, agreed that shovelware wouldn’t cut it for podcasts, and that the democratizing effect of so many new voices emerging was much more important.

“The most interesting content on the Internet has not been repurposed content from somewhere else (which we’ve all heard already), it will be that content that didn’t have an outlet before,” Hodge said via e-mail. “I think that NPR is using the alt.NPR podcast project as an incubator, to try out new content and explore areas that they don’t have the space to do over the air.”

PRX has been running its own podcasts culled from all the radio pieces people submit to PRX. (PRX acts as a non-profit intermediator between independent producers and public radio stations and networks.) Plus, it released Pubcatcher, a free podcast tool for public radio stations to use on their sites. Jake Shapiro, executive director of PRX, told me that podcasting might bring a new generation of talent into public radio.

“I have high hopes that out of this wave of energy around podcasting, with all of these people trying to become audio producers, that a bunch of them will emerge as truly talented new voices that will bridge into radio,” Shapiro said. “It doesn’t have to be either/or [podcasting or broadcasting]. My hope is that podcasting does identify a whole new rising generation that is producing a different sound with different ears and that public radio will embrace them.”

The challenges and potential of podcast ads

As for making money or getting underwriting for podcasts, everyone agrees that there are a slew of issues to iron out — though there’s a lot of potential. First off, anyone who sells advertising usually has to have metrics on the audience: who is listening, how often do they listen, what’s the demographic of listeners. These remain a mystery for podcasts, because there is no current way to track who actually listens to podcasts. Just because you subscribe to a podcast, doesn’t mean you upload it to your MP3 player or listen to it.’s Thomas admits that this is an initial problem, but she said she hopes to get listener information when technology companies can solve the metrics issue, as long as it doesn’t invade personal privacy.

Along with the measurement dilemma, there’s also bandwidth costs to consider. The more popular your podcast is, the more it costs to support downloads. Thomas says has already been serving streaming audio for some time, so it could negotiate good bandwidth deals with vendors.

“We went into this business with eyes wide open because we’ve been streaming audio — lots of it — on for nearly a decade,” Thomas said. “We did a lot of work upfront, pushed hard on vendors and [did] estimating and scenario planning. Frankly it helped shape our content offerings. We’re keeping it shorter not just for the user experience. I’m not at all convinced someone wants to listen to two hours of ‘Morning Edition’ on an iPod. You’re penalized for success, but we’re trying to build an infrastructure that supports a business.”

Another issue is the intrusiveness of ads on podcasts, a medium born out of people’s frustration with the ad-saturated nature of broadcast radio. So far, most podcasts have toned down the commercialism, and tried to use more low-key sponsorships and spots voiced by the host. NPR has an advantage because it is already well versed in using less intrusive ads in its radio and Web programming.

Thomas told me NPR would only do one “gateway” sponsor ad for 12 to 15 seconds at the beginning of podcasts, along with a three-second closer at the end. For podcasts less than 30 minutes long, that would be the limit. For longer podcasts, NPR is experimenting with a sponsor ad in the middle of content. Host-spoken ads would likely only happen in entertainment offerings — not in news podcasts.

PodShow’s Jacob says the potential for advertising in podcasts is “absolutely huge.” But rather than repurpose radio ads, advertisers and ad agencies will have to get more creative, and collaborate more with the audience.

“The research we’ve done indicates strongly that the listeners are interested in interesting advertising,” Jacob said. “They don’t want the same thing they’re getting in the mainstream. They want to participate in that process. That has to do with context, with host involvement, and it has to do with the advertisers, the agencies, the buyers and [PodShow] all being very creative about how we do this, and listening to the response.”

While Madison Avenue types are swarming over the prospects of ads in podcasts, the typical DIY podcaster shouldn’t expect to get a windfall profit anytime soon. SomaFM’s Hodge says that it’s hard, but not impossible, to make a living doing independent podcasts. Though SomaFM has been going strong since 1999, Hodge still has a day job running Internet operations for a computer hardware maker.

“If you start by saying, ‘I’m going to start a podcast or Net radio station and get rich,’ you’re on the wrong footing,” Hodge said. “It takes a long time to get established, and it will be a lot of work to become successful. But I know some folks running Net radio stations who are mostly supporting themselves from it. They’re not getting rich, but they’re making an OK living. And you’ll have to really hustle as a salesperson if you’re going to get sponsors (or donors for that matter). You can’t just sit back and expect the money to come to you.”

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Farewell to OJR

This column is my last one for OJR. It’s hard to believe, but my first column for the site was in September 2002, more than three years ago, reacting to the launch of Google News (which is still in beta). The column has gone from blog-like babble to deeply reported opinion pieces, and I thank all my editors along the way for their guidance. Also, I appreciate the support of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and hope that OJR continues to be an indispensable place for news and views about online journalism.

I will be spending the holidays working on a book — more of a memoir than a treatise on new media. Then in January, I will be launching an exciting new project for that I’m sure you’ll hear more about. To all my readers: Thanks so much for your feedback and for sticking with me. Have a healthy and happy holiday season!