Death, Sex, and the future of WNYC podcasts


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On Wednesday afternoon, staffers at WNYC’s podcast division sat down for an all-hands meeting looking for answers. Last week, 6 percent of New York Public Radio’s workforce was let go — with most of the cuts targeting its podcast vertical, WNYC Studios.

LaFontaine Oliver, CEO of New York Public Radio, said the nonprofit would be shifting its current strategy of producing both national radio shows and on-demand podcasts to a new model known as “broadcast to podcast.” The podcast studio would focus on shows that can work for both broadcast audiences in New York and online audiences globally, he said. For the most part, WNYC will no longer continue with short-run and seasonal podcasts — unless a third party is footing most of the bill for production costs. Many employees wondered: was such an abrupt change to WNYC’s mission really necessary?

The strategy shift came down to the numbers, Oliver said. According to remarks from today’s meeting that were shared with Hot Pod, the CEO pointed to stats from Edison Research showing that while podcasting is growing, AM/FM radio’s reach is still three times greater.

“Part of what the strategy is about is saying that we are still having material success in reaching people from traditional media broadcasting,” Oliver said. “Quite honestly, most of the folks in the podcasting and on-demand world wish they had broadcast sticks in order to sort of queue audiences and induce sampling for on-demand audio, and we have that.”

“What I am pretty clear about is … less of a focus on the specific platform that is podcasting.”

Oliver acknowledged that WNYC’s plan for diversifying its shows and creating audio for “multiple platforms” was still not set in stone. “I’m not sitting here today claiming to have all the answers,” Oliver said. But he was sure about one thing: “What I am pretty clear about is it means a greater focus on the audience and less of a focus on the specific platform that is podcasting.”

WNYC employees expressed concerns at today’s meeting over the lack of details in the public radio giant’s new pivot. Although a new goal like increasing audience reach with social media and increasing local news coverage sounded good, it would have to be accomplished with fewer staffers. Outreach on social platforms in particular will likely be an even heavier lift for shows like Radiolab and Notes from America, which both lost their social media producers in last week’s layoffs.

Some staffers feel like it’s a strategy shift without a strategy, lacking hard details on how to execute. “Seems like they have goals but not a real concrete strategy for getting there beyond saying ‘broad to pod’ over and over,” one WNYC staffer, who asked to remain anonymous to freely discuss the change, wrote in an email to Hot Pod. 

WNYC’s vice president of communications, Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, told Hot Pod that the shows remaining were picked because they were already successful at serving multiple audiences and providing multiple revenue streams.

“The shows that are continuing each have a different revenue mix, but serving broadcast and on-demand audiences is a continuation of what they are already doing. Putting a focus on these multiplatform shows is where we see a competitive advantage in a very crowded, competitive, and disruptive podcast environment,” Roussel wrote.

To current and former staffers who spoke with Hot Pod, the cancellations feel like a step back from the studio’s original purpose — to incubate and produce both radio shows and podcasts for a national audience. “Broad to pod” has left podcasts like More Perfect and La Brega on the cutting room floor. Meanwhile, industry-favorite Death, Sex & Money, once seen by staffers as a safe bet, is in limbo.

Last Thursday, the team behind Death, Sex & Money was pulled into a meeting with Kenya Young, the senior vice president of WNYC Studios, and two members of the organization’s human resources team. During a day when 20 other staffers at WNYC were given the pink slip, Death, Sex & Money effectively received an expiration date: the show would be sunset at the very end of 2023. This development wasn’t mentioned in an internal memo that WNYC later shared with reporters.

“They let the team know that the show would be sunset by December 31. Unless WNYC could find a strategic partner or buyer for the show,” said one employee with knowledge of the meeting.

Death, Sex & Money’s potential cancellation reflects the uncertainty of the podcast industry itself

Host Anna Sale tells Hot Pod that she wasn’t blindsided by the news and is working with WNYC to find a new home for the podcast. “We’ve been given this wonderful opportunity to come up with a whole new way to make the show,” she said. 

Still, Death, Sex & Money’s departure from WNYC and WNYC Studios is no small thing. The nearly 10-year-old podcast was launched during a time when podcasts appeared to be the clear future for public radio — and traditional radio stations were scrambling to evolve with the times. Death, Sex & Money was having a very strong year so far, according to employees. The podcast was one of the few WNYC shows with host-read ads, which commanded a higher CPM. Its potential cancellation reflects the uncertainty of the podcast industry itself. 

Although WNYC leadership said they had “put out some feelers” to see if any buyers were interested in Death, Sex & Money, they didn’t name which entities they contacted during last week’s meeting. They did maintain that there was enough interest in the show that it would be allowed to remain in production at WNYC until the end of the year, in the off chance it could secure a partnership or new home by then. 

Sale is adamant about the interview-style podcast simply not being a good fit for radio production, in the same way that other WNYC podcasts in the “broad to pod” strategy are. Death, Sex & Money was always designed to be a podcast. Sale referred to it as a “podcast for podcast listeners” in a phone interview with Hot Pod. 

During Wednesday’s episode of the podcast, Sale included a special message for listeners.

“There is a big change coming for our show. Since we launched in 2014, we’ve made it with WNYC, the public radio station in New York, which, like a lot of podcast and digital media companies, is facing a really difficult budget situation. Because of that, they have to make cuts, and we’ve learned that our show is affected by those cuts. But what exactly that will mean…we’re not sure yet,” said Sale. 

For now, the plan is to continue making the podcast at WNYC until it sunsets at the end of the year.

When WNYC Studios first launched in 2015, it was billed as a way for the public radio giant to specifically develop programs for the then-red-hot podcast market. But it was also a way for WNYC to distribute its own shows to public radio stations across the country instead of using NPR to syndicate those programs. While many of its current podcasts are standalone, other WNYC Studio shows like The New Yorker Radio Hour and Radiolab can be heard across hundreds of public radio stations across the country.

WNYC Studios was always a separate entity from WNYC’s newsroom, which enabled it to focus first and foremost on creating podcasts. This allowed the outfit to experiment, which it did, launching dozens of original podcasts over the past several years — a cadence that, largely, seems to be on the way out.

NYPR says this isn’t the end of standalone podcasts

“The buried lede is that they destroyed WNYC Studios,” said the employee of a major WNYC podcast, who asked to remain anonymous to candidly discuss the changes. “I don’t know why they can’t come out and say it. But there are no podcast-only shows left after this. There’s just none.”

That’s a loss the studio’s employees are feeling acutely. “We’re not going to do anything original. So it’s dismaying that they can’t be clear about that. They couldn’t have been less transparent about what’s actually going on and everything seemed like it was minimizing what was actually happening,” said the employee.

NYPR says this isn’t the end of standalone podcasts — not exactly. The organization is cutting “most short-run, seasonal, podcast-only titles,” Roussel said in an email. But there will be “rare exceptions,” such as when there’s a production partner or another organization “contributing significantly” to funding the show. “For instance, we are moving forward with another season of Blindspot with the History Channel,” Roussel said.

But as it stands, WNYC’s podcast studio is currently tied to a radio giant that now sees podcasts as another mode of distribution. And the future of radio, at least for WNYC, doesn’t appear to be podcasts — just good shows that, hopefully, work as podcasts, too. 


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