No matter when you wake up, someone from one of the podcast world’s biggest shows is working on that day’s episode.
Whether it’s the overnight shift putting together NPR’s “Up First,” the crew behind the New York Time’s chart-topping “The Daily,” the team finalizing Vox’s afternoon show “Today, Explained,” or those closing the drive home with “The Gist” (the day as filtered through the mind of Slate’s Mike Pesca), these shows are all the products of people working from the wee hours all the way through sunset, each telling the story of the day’s news in their own distinct way.
For as much attention as the 24-hour news cycle gets, podcasts like these have emerged as a trusted, preferred place for processing the day’s information. They cut through traditional notions of what a newscast should consist of and sound like. And according to listener numbers, it’s working. A recent Podtrac report placed both “The Daily” and “Up First” in the top 4 most-downloaded shows in all of podcasting for the month of February 2018. If outside observers only see podcast as a place for comedy or longform true crime stories, they’re missing a sizable chunk of the picture.
At “The Daily,” producer Theo Balcomb has seen an evolution in the way podcasts have responded to the needs of a growing audience.
“There is a tendency for broadcast to feel like, ‘We have to be up to the minute. We have to be the latest, latest, latest,'” Balcomb told IndieWire. “What we found on ‘The Daily’ is that actually what people respond to is context and understanding, and the depth to what we do that doesn’t need to be the most breaking information. We all believe so strongly in not confusing people and also not adding unnecessary worry or stress or anxiety to people’s days. We’re here because we want to share a story with you that will help you understand the world. That is our main mission.”
As an on-demand, on-the-go media diet is allowing consumers to learn about today in a way that caters to their schedules, podcasts offer a way to make sense of what’s happening around the country and around the world. In the process, it’s challenging the conventions of how issues present in the national consciousness are being covered.
For “Today, Explained” host Sean Rameswaram, some of the most positive feedback to the first two months of the new show has been to stories that have veered from the national script. “When we put a Parkland survivor in the same conversation as a Columbine survivor and just had the two of them talk to each other after the March for Our Lives, it wasn’t necessarily the newsiest way to approach the issue or the story, but people were so taken aback by that conversation because it was new and emotional and real and authentic,” Rameswaram told IndieWire.
Many (if not all) of the daily podcast world’s most popular shows feature people from a background in public radio, one of media’s premiere places to hone the craft of producing news stories and generating broadcast-worthy content for an audience familiar with its rhythms. Even for a show like “Up First,” which still exists in the NPR universe, the process of having a dedicated podcast to morning news meant an opportunity to expand what lifelong listeners could expect from something that didn’t also air on radio.
“When we were creating ‘Up First’ at the beginning of last year, we spent a lot of time thinking about tone and personality and engagement. One of the things we know from the data that we’ve gotten from out of NPR One on our own podcasts and the podcasts of our competitors is that one of the things that keeps people coming back to the show is a sense of connection with the hosts,” said Neal Carruth, NPR’s General Manager of Podcasts. “One of the most gratifying things that we got out of some research we did with the ‘Up First’ audience was just around half of them were new to ‘Morning Edition’ content, not NPR regulars.”
That sense of fostering audience relationships with the people instrumental in making the show happen has been a key driving force behind “The Daily.” As a product of the New York Times, the show is in a unique position to not only respond to the news, but to feature the reporters and individuals helping guide the national conversation.
“So much of the ethos of ‘The Daily’ is exposing the listener to what the reporting process is and how dogged and incredible our reporters are,” Balcomb said. “In a time where sourcing is so important and kind of misunderstood by people, we make really clear what it means to break a story and what kind of knowledge the reporter has to have before they put something in the paper. We’re actually teaching people what it is to be a reporter.”
Some shows like “The Gist” have a stronger basis in commentary. But when listened to in full, that podcast — presented by Slate and a part of the Panoply network — still achieves a balance of what the country and what one man might find interesting about the day’s events, all shaped by Pesca’s perceptions.
“The conceit of ‘The Gist’ is that you’re running the news through Mike’s Special Digester, so it’s the news as filtered through Mike Pesca’s brain,” said producer Mary Wilson. “Mike can play with an idea even though it might rub people the wrong way. He’s not so worried about alienating, say, dues-paying members. We trust the audience to come along for the ride and when they disagree with something that Mike says, they’ll tell us. But usually people are pretty faithful to the show.”
Unlike the kind of straightforward relaying of information that formed the basis for long-running network TV and radio newscasts, the podcast approach to news has been built around conversations from the beginning. The general format has not been one where a solitary anchor delivers the news from on high, but in the form of reporting a particular topic through a series of discussions. There may be some commentary mixed in, but this a style that Rameswaram argues hinges on the hosts’ sense of discovery as much as its listeners.
“You don’t want to know so much that you’re not surprised by any information, but you want to know enough that you can ask the right questions when they arrive. It’s about having a general understanding of what’s going on, but not necessarily knowing every single last detail,” Rameswaram said. “Something we always try to do in the studio is not going there with every single answer and try to let the interview breathe enough that spontaneous things happen.”
Creating a consistent, well-produced show that can still adapt to a changing news cycle is a challenge. Though both shows can include and address late-breaking information, “Today, Explained” and “The Daily” are each producing shows a day in advance, editing tape and tightening the shows’ interviews to their most concise form up until they’re released to the public.
But the freedom and patience that comes with not having to react as quickly to breaking news means that some of these shows can take liberty with a format. “Today, Explained” can rewrite the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to run down a list of White House departures. “The Daily” can include a bit of NYT reporter Maggie Haberman serenading the microphone before talking about domestic policy. Pesca on “The Gist” can unpack the day’s biggest headline from a linguistic perspective rather than a political one.
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The main observation through all of these shows is that what constitutes news is inherently subjective. Even with a constant source of new sensational things happening out of the White House, there are plenty of other worthy entry points into continuing a national or global conversation. In most cases, the guiding principle to keeping these shows’ identities and audiences alive is selecting stories and angles that the people making the show find most compelling.
“There’s so much news to choose from and to be honest, we go with what we find interesting,” said Irene Noguchi, “Today, Explained” executive producer. “Sometimes, there’s what is the number one SEO-rated top headline of the day and you’re just repeating the same old thing. There’s an echo chamber in news. And so for us, we can cover what everyone’s flaring up on Twitter about, which we sometimes do, but it also has to pass the test of ‘What is the big explainer here, what’s the big takeaway for us, and is it interesting?'”
“Up First” prides itself on a dependable story structure and a runtime for each morning’s episodes, but the main guiding principle is not resting on what’s happened, but what is already on its way. Executive producer Kenya Young explained that even with stories dominating the news cycle, rather than recap the previous day, “Up First” puts an emphasis on the stories with a more profound impact on what lies just beyond the horizon.
“My thing that I tell the editors all the time is, ‘How do we move the story forward? How do we make the listener smarter about this topic and what are we giving them different today that they didn’t know yesterday?’ That’s the premise for what we put in the pod,” said Young.
Each of these successful shows has found its own way to establish a sense of consistency, with varied topics, formats, and release times. For “Up First,” that distinct avenue into the day’s conversation comes hand-in-hand with when it’s released. Its 6 a.m. ET release time often puts the episode first in the feed for many podcast listeners, even ones who subscribe to many different daily shows.
“The completion rate on this podcast is off the charts,” Carruth said. “Nobody’s dropping out of this podcast halfway through. It’s very respectful of people’s time. We know that mornings are frantic and busy for a lot of people and this podcast is very respectful in the way it works into people’s morning.”
The timeliness of “news” is something that’s also undergoing a change. In line with the Vox explainer model, “Today, Explained” has tried to gear its episodes in a way that not only informs what’s happening on a given day but can be used as a resource at a later time. Noguchi says that’s why they don’t give “Today, Explained” date-specific episode titles.
“We put out an episode called ‘It’s Never Too Late to Understand the War in Syria.’ That’s an episode you can really listen to any time. You can listen to it today, you can listen to it a few months from now, even a year from now,” Noguchi said. “I think there’s a certain storytelling quality to our episodes that give our listeners some flexibility to hop around in our feed and listen to most episodes anytime.”
Even though “Today, Explained” was conceived and is executed as an afternoon commute listen, Rameswaram said that the show has received feedback from a number of listeners who save episodes for the following morning. Multiple listeners have written into “The Gist” to say that they’ve started at the beginning of the show’s run and binged on years’ worth of episodes before catching up to the present day. It’s the kind of listenership that gets cultivated when a show has freedom to step outside what’s expected.
And it’s the kind of guiding hand that will help each of these shows sustain expansions of their own. The New York Times’ latest podcast series, “Caliphate,” follows reporter Rukmini Callimachi as she looks for answers connected to the rise and current reach of the Islamic State.
“It’s not going to sound exactly like us,” Balcomb said. “It’s going to sound unique in its own way, but it is the same kind of obligatory, necessary story that you need to hear. That’s ‘The Daily’ gold standard. There is a reason that you are listening to this right now. It goes back to the listener, not only how smart they are but also how valuable our place in their lives is.”