Brad Hill: Bryan, it’s great to see you again. And thanks for making the time to do this.
Bryan Moffett: No problem. Good to see you again, too. Lots going on.
Brad: You are the Chief Operating Officer of National Public Media, the nationwide sales and sponsorship development organization of NPR. That is an encompassing and influential role. As if it weren’t enough, you have recently been appointed — or perhaps coerced, I don’t know how it happened — to take on the leadership role of the NPR network growth team. I’ve read a little bit about this, but there’s not much information, so I’m delighted to talk to you and learn more. Please tell me from whatever angle you want, What is the mission of the NPR network growth team?
Bryan: I asked for the job, to be clear, it wasn’t given to me. [laughter] It was an outgrowth of a lot of work that I’ve been doing over the course of the pandemic with NPR, as we looked at the business and we looked at the business model and tried to understand what was happening. And I think it’s a confluence of two things, one is the podcast business, which has been fueling a lot of our sponsorship growth has gotten a lot harder over the past year or two, and I think I’ve heard that from a lot of my colleagues in the industry. There’s just saturation, big players coming into the space. I think part of this came about as I looked around at the business that I’m responsible for as the COO of MPM, trying to think of where does this business need to go in two or three years? It was looking harder and harder for NPR to try to go it alone as a publisher in this space. On the other side, we’ve been working a lot with the station network at NPR about what does it mean to be a digital network. We have a business model that goes back 50 years from the founding of NPR, and for that first 50 years, it was anchored around our radio relationship, and it worked. We had a great relationship with the audience, with each other, and the business model worked.
Bryan: There was radio programming that came out of the stations as a distributor of the radio programs, and NPR created a lot of the radio programs, and we shared a sponsorship opportunity, and they were the ones who got the support from the listeners. And they used some of that money to pay NPR. It all worked wonderful. And I like to think of it as, when you think of the radio dial, it was a unifying factor for NPR and stations just through that one signal came out everything. Whether it was the WAMU, or NPR, American Public Media, that was the conduit for it.
Brad: Not sure “nutshell” is the correct container for this vast vision. [laughter] I madly took notes, but I probably didn’t catch everything. It seems to me — unification, that’s a key theme here. Audience growth, and with a particular emphasis on youthful segments of the audience, and podcasting and digital listening and connecting that with the network. The next logical question is how, but that might be too broad. If it is too broad, then I guess a more specific question would be: How will you interact with and work with the hundreds of local NPR stations around the country to get this vision moving from the ground up?
Bryan: Yeah, and I think the one word I challenge a little bit is unification. The brands and the power of the local stations in their communities is not something that we’re looking to lose. In fact, it’s something we’re looking to harness. So I think the best way to think about what the NPR network would look like, it’s a place where brands like NPR or WAMU or WNYC can kinda live as brands. But we’re all part of a larger thing called the NPR network, so people can understand how we’re related. And then through that, we can also do things to help grow everybody’s business and revenue. So…
Brad: So a branding exercise might be a way of putting it?
Bryan: A branding exercise is a very good way to put it. And you know there’s a lot of different nuances to this too, there are… Some stations are very strong local brands, and I think they’re like, “I don’t wanna give that up, that’s… We’ve spent decades building that,” and they shouldn’t have to give that up. But we’re hoping by adding on the affiliation to the network, they can add value and make it clear to the digital audiences that, “Oh, these are all related.” And if I support one, I’m helping the other.” And increasingly as we make more content and do some of the things we’re about to talk about, it will become even more apparent that we are related.
Brad: Okay. So how does it get started? Are all the stations even aware of this now, that it’s coming at them?
Bryan: They are. So we put an announcement out to the system I’d say two or three weeks ago. And then last week there was an event, the Public Radio Super-Regional in Denver, so we had a couple of sessions there to talk to people. And in fact, just before this call, we hosted our first system-wide webinar to talk to stations about it at a very high level. There’s a lot of complexity to it, and there’s a lot of pieces to it that all may not… You may not see how they all fit together, and they may not be even be the right pieces, we may have to adapt as we go. But that’s kinda where we are, is starting the discussion with the system.
Brad: How big is your team? I know Joel’s involved somehow.
Bryan: Yeah, Joel Sucherman is on the team, he is the Vice President of Audio Platform Strategy. And then on his team, he’s got two people, Dan McCoy, who’s the Business Development Director, and Leda Marritz, who is working on the Plus, she’s the Program Manager for NPR Plus. Yeah, that’s it right now, we’re a pretty, lean scrappy team. But I think one of the changes that John Lansing has been trying to make happen across NPR is there’s been some silos and different divisions of NPR where things have been controlled. And I think one of the things we’re trying to do is have sort of the strategy for something be owned in one place in collaboration with stakeholders, but the execution can live in other places in the org. And so we’re a small team, but a couple other key pieces of the network initiative we will be overseeing the strategy for and making sure that they’re achieving the goals that we outlined.
Brad: So audience-building, revenue-building, those are broad mission pillars, it seems to me. And youth and diversity in the audience, I think too. How does that get accomplished or at least started?
Bryan: Well, I’ll go over a couple of pieces. And keep me honest here, ’cause I’ll probably meander on any one of them, ’cause I could talk for a long time. I think one of the things that’s most apparent, ’cause it’s already out in the market is NPR Plus. So we actually got into the… What we call NPR Plus… Well, I think it was almost a year ago when Apple launched subscriptions. And I view what we’ve done so far as Phase 1. So we’ve gone show-by-show and created the ability for a superfan of Planet Money or Code Switch to use the Apple or Spotify platform, or we have our own platform powered by a supporting cast where they can pay the fee to get rid of the ads, simple as that. It’s a way to support the show, but it’s also a way to get a enhanced version of the product. Our core benefit has been ad-free. We are just exploring a little bit around insider content. We don’t ever want to be a pay wall, that’s not consistent with public media, but I think we can provide a better experience for the superfans with content that is really only relevant to the superfans. As an example, Jay Williams, the Limits with Jay Williams, you can get the ad-free version. And then on Fridays, he publishes a little extra segment just for the insider, so it’s just kind of like a thought from Jay. So it’s not the core content, but it’s the kinda thing superfans enjoy.
Brad: It sounds roughly similar to asking listeners for contributions, and then they get a gift?
Bryan: Sort of, but that’s a very contentious thing, ’cause the business model of public media is that stations have been the B2C entity, and NPR is more a B2B entity. And in fact, by our board by-laws, we’re prohibited from taking donations, small donations or membership from people, that is the domain of the stations.
Brad: Right. Okay. I see that clear division. Yeah. So with NPR Plus, you’re selling something.
Bryan: It’s more of a transactional product. It’s pay a little bit of money to choose to support it directly versus just viewing via ads. But that’s the limit of it. And we’re not trying to create a deep relationship. Because people, aside from if we get their permission, we want to try to introduce them to local stations so that they can understand the benefit of the system and how it all works. And hopefully we can guide some of these people to become station members, but that’s Phase 1. And I will also say a portion of the net revenue we’re setting aside to benefit stations as well, ’cause that’s really important to NPR. But this was just to get some learning on how the subscription business works, how we can do it, it’s a lot of work frankly.
Brad: Yes. When it started, and I saw you jumping into it, saw NPR jumping into it, I wondered whether this was just a box that needed to be checked and then move on or whether there was a deeper thought. Now, I’m seeing that there is a deeper thought to it. How is it going?
Bryan: It’s going pretty well, I will say two ways. One is we have set a target of 1% of our engaged audience taking us up on a subscription offering, and we’ve exceeded that. Some shows were over 2%. A few were just below, but on average it’s about one-and-a-half percent, so we feel good about that. But what we’ve learned, I think, is the more valuable thing, which is it’s hard. Getting our shows and podcasts to produce a version without the ads or the mechanisms or markers for sponsorship which we’ve developed over the past decade pretty well was a lot harder than we thought.
Brad: So it’s not just selling it, it’s producing it.
Bryan: It’s producing it. And now people have a finite amount of time, so to add a little extra has been a challenge. I think the platforms are new to this as well, so we’ve had some struggles. It’s not as easy as just create that separate feed, and you’re done. I think for Apple and Spotify, you still have to upload individual content episode-by-episode. So all that’s getting better and worked out. But what we’re excited about, I think, is what I think of as Phase 2, NPR Plus as a service will eventually take all the podcasts that are ad free and put them in one bundle that you can get only as a benefit of being a member of a station. So if you are a public Media trying…
Brad: There we go. There’s the crossover.
Bryan: A Passport, PBS Passport allows you to donate to a station at a certain level and you get access to on-demand and over the top versions of their programming, the model between PBS and NPR and stations are very different. Those are programs that stations are paying for on the PBS side, so they’re just offering their members access digitally to them. NPR’s podcasts are NPR’s podcast, but we’re trying to figure out a way to leverage them to benefit stations so that the podcast super fans and the digital audiences say, “Hey, there’s value there. I just need to become a member of WAMU and pay $100 a year, and then I can get all of those ad free, and that’s a good benefit and that’s worth the investment of the donation.”
Brad: Okay, good. I think I’m getting somewhere in my understanding of all this. So I’m curious, what has the response been in a general way from the stations as they are introduced to this whole initiative?
Bryan: Enthusiastic across the board, although there are some elements of it that break that model and requires trust falls on both sides, so I think there’s a lot of I wanna learn more and we’re gonna dive into the details. I would say, going back to NPR Plus and the subscriptions, the initial offering of single show by show was probably viewed with a little skepticism by the system because it again broke that relationship and NPR was actually taking transactional money from an audience member, so we did set aside some of the revenue for stations. But I think as they learned about NPR Plus the bundle and how that is reserved only for members of a station, that starts to make a lot more sense ’cause they can compare it in their mind, the Passport and the successes there. But NPR Plus is what I think is gonna be transformative if we get this right for the system.
Brad: I also see in the press coverage around the audience growth that NPR One is mentioned quite a bit. How does that tie in and how is it doing by the way? It’s been years since that was launched, and I sometimes wonder how’s it going? How’s the audience developing?
Bryan: It’s going well. I would say it grew and then it hit a plateau, and it’s been in a bit of a plateau for three or four years, and I think it’s been at that plateau because pandemic, that threw everything out into the woods. And then I think the other thing is, there was a lot of aspirations for how NPR One could support digital across the system, both NPR and stations and I think there was a lot of promise in it. We know it’s a huge driver of audience to station podcast, also the NPR podcast, and we’ve done a lot to integrate local content and localization into NPR One, but then it hit a plateau because there was nothing to place it within in terms of a larger framework. And as we started developing the NPR network initiative, almost every discussion ended with, “Oh and NPR One could help with that, and NPR One could help with that.” So it quickly became apparent that that is the framework where NPR One could become very, very powerful for us.
Bryan: Right now, we are in the middle of a unification strategy because we do have two apps. There’s the NPR app and there’s the NPR One app and they serve different audiences. NPR app is more about reading and live streams, and NPR One’s more about personalization and on-demand content, so I’d say we’re halfway through a process of merging those two into one app very carefully to make sure we don’t alienate our audiences, but I think we’ve hit the pause button on that now that we’re in the middle of the NPR network initiative because we really think NPR One or whatever it turns out to be at the end of this process could become a huge engine driver for the NPR network.
Brad: Now, I think of NPR as obviously one of the most important and voluminous and successful podcast publishers in the world, and my wife and I run a public radio household. What I notice is that these are network podcasts, and I don’t hear podcasts from any of the local stations that we’ve been involved with. What’s the status on that and does this new initiative deal with that or does it really not matter?
Bryan: It does, and that’s one of the pieces that’s in the network growth portfolio. We want to launch a podcast network with our stations, and we’ve done a lot of thinking and a lot of discussions with a handful of stations and our board, and we think there’s a path forward here. Now again, it’s very careful because stations have invested a lot of time and energy in their podcast and their brand, so it’s not like suddenly everything’s an NPR podcast. It’s not gonna work with anybody, but I think under the NPR network brand, we can create a framework where everything fits together and is identified as being part of a larger whole, and so practically what would it mean and these are aren’t the words ’cause we have to go through the exercises, but it would be NPR’s Planet Money is part of the NPR network.
Bryan: And it could be WHYY’s The Pulse is part of the NPR network. So on WHYY’s podcast, you have the little bug in the corner so that you indicate it’s part of a network, and they just reference themselves as such, and we think just with that alone, there’s tremendous power because NPR has around 50 or 60 podcasts, depending on what’s in season and what’s not. Across the network of our member stations, there are almost a thousand podcasts. Now, a lot of them are small, suited for serving a local audience. Some of them are bigger. There’s a lot of successes from stations, but if you could put a wrapper around all of that and let people know that all these things are part of a larger whole, that would be powerful from a branding perspective, and then the first benefit we wanna provide through that network is cross-promotion. So there’s not a lot of this happening. As you said, you don’t hear a lot about station podcasts, but if we had this network, our goal would be to cross-promote those station podcasts in the network across everything we do, not just in the podcast, but on NPR One and on NPR.org where we have a very large audience and we can tailor a podcast to someone based on their interests or the geography and service a local station podcast they might never have heard about.
Bryan: So the goal of the podcast network is first to create at least a framework that we all live within in the user’s mind, and then second, to specifically grow the audience to the station podcast through a cross-promotion program where our aspiration is to deliver twice as much promotional value back to the stations as they were delivered to NPR because we would ask them to promote NPR podcasts on the other side of the equation.
Brad: Yeah. Alright, let me veer of in a somewhat different direction. Brian, in the past, you have been a thought leader and even a technical creator to some extent, I think of measurement solutions and certainly have been in the middle of all measurement discussions in the last several years, when it comes to podcast measurement. Where does that whole field stands now to you? And my second question in there would be, Are you friendly toward programmatic?
Bryan: Those are two big questions. I have to always start on the metric side with, I think we’re in a very good place for where the industry is right now, so between the IAB and services like Pod Track, and the certification programs, it’s easier than ever for a buyer to have a common yardstick to understand what it is they’re buying across the ecosystem of podcasting. Are you IAB certified? Do you follow these certifications? And you at least had a yardstick that works across the industry, and that is great to see. I would say, you know, and I’ve been very vocal about this, that is anchored around downloads, which is the best metric we can get right now, but it’s probably not the best metric that could exist. The better metric would be around actual play data. I don’t say listening data anymore, because it’s not really about that.
Bryan: It’s more, was the content played and was it heard by a human? Years ago, we tried to get the industry around an effort to try to solve this problem with remote audio data. That didn’t go anywhere because we quickly hit up against the limits of platforms and their privacy concerns, and I would just say a lack of momentum around an eagerness for a solution. It has changed a little bit. I will say this year, the IAB has taken a much harder look at this, and we’ve been part of some very encouraging discussions through the IAB audio committee, and in their standards committees about how we might be able to approach this again, and I do think the landscape has changed. I think Spotify’s product, which is more anchored around the actual play data, which is growing in scale as they grow, has changed the conversation and said, “Okay, it’s possible there, how could we make it possible elsewhere?”
Brad: Has Spotify increased that eagerness you were talking about?
Bryan: They have very much increased that eagerness. That is the standard we wish we all could have, and anybody who has a platform with reasonable scale can start to have that as well. I think it’s focused the conversations because it’s shown that it’s possible, the rest of it is all just safely handing data back and forth between parties, which happens all the time in the advertising ecosystem. I will say I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that we’ll get there, it’s probably not gonna be fast. Probably gonna be in a couple of years, but I think we’ll get there.
Brad: When you say get there, where is there? Is it a common currency of data understanding? What is there?
Bryan: I think there, in my mind, is a common language where you can transact business around play data, where it’s relevant, or download data, if that’s how you wanna do it. But, two different ways to approach the industry and each would have its own place.
Brad: It seems to me that even with all this, that the advertising scene is getting more technically sophisticated all the time, and that buyers have more choice of what kind of ad they want, what kind of campaign they wanna run, host-read, host pre-recorded, dynamically inserted, programmatic, there are these different campaign categories. Does that variety and that choice, how does that complicate your business, your revenue business?
Bryan: It’s always been that complicated, honestly. I’d say programmatic is new, but aside from that, it’s always been fairly complicated, and I don’t think that’s changed, speaking specifically about dynamic ad insertion versus the baked-in ad component, which we’ve been selling both of those for a decade. And the shift has definitely been happening over the last decade where dynamic has been growing, but there’s still a large chunk of our business that’s around baked-in. And for us, baked-in is just an easier way to do it and give a sponsor a 100% share of at least four weeks of publication. The other part that I think dynamic is driving though, is audience targeting and audience sales. Across our portfolio, the fastest growing segment of our business is being able to target women, 25 to 54, or some demography that is of high interest to a brand sponsor.
Brad: More like pure programmatic.
Bryan: I would not call it programmatic. Because in my mind, programmatic goes all the way to the end of the chain, which is no ability to control the creative, aside from black lists and block lists. I would say, that is the part that is the hardest for me to get square with in podcasting. Now we are doing programmatic, I’d say we’re on track to do a healthy seven figure as a programmatic business this year across the NPR portfolio. But, as my SVP of adopts, Brett Robinson says, “program manual.” Because everything about it can be programmatic up until the creative process where we still get a script, we approve a script, we voice the creative in our voice, and then we send it back to the buyers so they can traffic it on their system, because that is incredibly important to us.
Brad: That sounds like a public radio commercial placed into podcasting technology.
Bryan: Our spots on the podcast side are definitely more liberal than the radio side, but I think we know from a decade of doing this that that consistency in sound is extremely important both to our audience and to the performance for our sponsors. For those two reasons, we guard this very carefully, and I think you can see it in some of the research that’s come out this year. I think of Edison’s super user study where the people noticing the ad loads have creeped up and that the ad quality has gone down, that’s starting to eke up, and I would argue it’s probably because people are not taking as much care about what ads they put into the show, and it may not sound like a podcast ad has sounded.
Brad: This is all quite interesting. Is there any way the programmatic advertising can lead into something I’ve heard of, which is called the “public media digital audio exchange”? I’m really looking for two answers. Can it benefit, and what the heck is that?
Bryan: Yeah, so let’s start with the “What the heck is that” first.
Bryan: It’s just something we’ve actually been working on for a little over two years now. It kinda started as an idea for a podcast ad exchange across public media between NPR and stations and others in the ecosystem. And any exchange is designed to solve one problem which is, there’s always some inventory that goes unsold, you can pull all that together in a bigger pile and then you can take that out to the market and if you have enough, you can do it as a direct buy, a high quality buy with similar-minded content. The Public Media Digital Audio Exchange takes that idea and we’re adding in digital audio sponsorship as well, things like the 15 or 30 seconds spot ahead of on-demand content on a website or on a stream or on smart speakers. The idea here is we wanna work with all the stations under the NPR Network Initiative and take unsold inventory from across the entire public radio ecosystem, put it into an exchange that’s organized by topics but can also be sold by demography or geography and then bring that to market because we think that would be of interest to sponsors and advertisers who wanna reach the public media audience. But instead of having to broker deals with NPR and a handful of stations, it’s all one place where you can get it all.
Bryan: And that, I think, is going well. We’ve got our first half dozen stations signed up and I hope to have way more signed up by the end of the year. Phase one is passive revenue, so NPM will be selling that and generating passive revenue for stations but very excited for phase two which hopefully by the end of the year, once we hit another scale, we’re gonna have the stations be able to sell into it locally which I think is a tremendous opportunity because they have relationships with a lot of local sponsors in their community who would have a hard time buying into the podcast space any other way and through the exchange, they can have access to all the public media in their market and high quality podcasts. We’re very excited about this.
Brad: That sounds powerful. Is it a big technical build or really an organizational effort?
Bryan: That’s where the Programmatic part comes in. We’ll be using the ads with stack for this. And all the tools that empower Programmatic are the ones that we’ve kinda figured out how to put together to make this work. I’m glad that Programmatic is taking off because now we have an infrastructure where we can actually do this and we can support multiple ad servers. They all play pretty well together these days, from Triton to AdsWizz, we’re very excited about that. There is a system part to it as well, we have to convince the stations of the value. And I run a sales team, I know how it is. Ask any salesperson, “Do you need any help selling your inventory?” You know what the answer is gonna be? It’s gonna be, “No, it’s all gone,” but there’s always some left over. I think we’ve gotta make sure the stations are comfortable that this isn’t gonna hurt their direct sales and it’s gonna be an augment for them. And when we can get to the local sales opportunity, it’s gonna be a big benefit for them.
Brad: Well, you sketched out some outcomes that you want over the next eight years to 2030 for the new team, the growth team. Would you care to give me a prediction about podcasting more generally? Either its revenue or its listenership or anything else in 2030 so that I can call you up in that year and say, “This is what you said.”
Bryan: [chuckle] Oh, this is where I get in trouble, right? I think we’re at a very interesting moment in podcasting right now. And I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues at different publishers and I think the one thing I’m hearing across the board is, it’s harder than it’s ever been to launch a show, and specifically to launch a show that becomes a good hit. Right?
Bryan: I’ll kinda roll back the tape four or five years, we could sort of make anything and put the NPR name on it and we’d have a quarter of a million people download it in the first week. And I gotta say, those days are kinda gone. I think that the saturation in the market, the amount of podcasts out there. You saw the latest Infinite Dial where the share has dropped, it’s made it harder than ever. And the other thing that I think has changed is… What we’ve noticed is within the Apple platform when they debuted subscriptions, they kinda tweaked the behavior of how things work in the Apple Podcast App and prioritize that subscription offering which makes total sense, there’s a revenue opportunity there but the idea of following a show or subscribing to a show is now kind of a second or third tier opportunity versus just play it and sample it. And that’s had an impact on subscription numbers, which would drive the downloads and kinda the recurring content which subscriptions give.
Bryan: I think we’re in a new era for podcasting, I like to think of it as podcasting 3.0. If I go back in to the eons, podcasting 1.0 was Planet Money, This American Life, it was Fresh Air, it was the shows that you kinda knew when you’re using this as a way to listen to them digitally and maybe it came out once a week and it was a nice treat. That lasted quite a while and NPR did great in that environment. Until about five years ago, we kinda noticed that trailing off and we came up with what we call The Daily Habit Strategy. And those led to things like Up First, Short Wave, and Consider This, which are shorter, designed to kinda fit around the edges of your listening and create a daily habit for you so that if you love science, you’re just gonna listen to Short Wave every day or any day you can.
Bryan: And that worked really well for the past four or five years. I think in this new environment, I don’t quite know what is gonna lead to success. I think paying a lot of money for a celebrity to come make a podcast doesn’t seem like it’s gonna pay off in this new environment. I like to think of… I think success and a lot of what we’re trying to do with the NPR Network Initiative is become a publisher that can make way more stuff much more efficiently. And I think the benefit public radio has is, we create lots of stuff every day for radio that is super high quality, right in the wheelhouse of podcasting. As a system, if we can tailor what we do a little more on the radio so that it can be more easily re-packaged and re-purposed into podcast, that feels like a winning formula for podcast reel and I got one example. We launched The Book Of The Day Podcast at NPR earlier this year and it was an exercise in exactly this.
Bryan: We publish a lot of books content across all of our programs and every day we take a segment that was about a book, maybe it’s an author interview, maybe it’s an interview with… Or a review of a book. We do like five a day, pick the best one, do a little work topic entailing it and then just automate it out as a podcast. And that is reaching almost a million people and it was very efficient and it serves a need in a market. I think that’s a kind of example of some of the things we think we can do across the network between local content and local arts content and what’s happening in the community which is a very underserved space in podcasting.
Brad: Yeah, yeah. Very interesting. Alright, this is enlightening for me, it’s been a great conversation. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanna tell me about this initiative?
Bryan: I think we covered all the salient points. I’m just very excited to see how we do with it and if we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves over the next eight years, I think we’ve got a real chance of transforming public media for the next 50 years.
Brad: Alright, I’ll be very interested to follow along every step of the way. And in the meantime, thanks so much for coming on the show, Bryan. I really appreciate you making the time to do it.
Bryan: Always fun. Thanks, Brad.