Podcasts Breathe Life Into an Industry in Decline
By Maya Kashima
The typical Berkeley City College student is a person of color, more likely a woman than a man, and almost certainly a millennial. According to the school’s 2015 Self-Evaluation Report, the average student is 26 years old, with a plurality between 19 and 24. Most have received their high school diploma or GED and are working towards an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution. BCC does not release data on student incomes, but the U.S. Census Bureau reports that for East Bay residents, the median income for those with some college completed was $40,467 as of 2012.
The school’s population shares little in common with the average NPR listener, an employed, college-educated man between the ages of 35 and 54 with a mean annual salary of $85,675. And a whopping 87 percent of those who tune in are white, per survey data collected by NPR Audience Insights in 2015. Presumably, most BCC students caught in traffic would opt for sports on KNBR, hip hop on KMEL, or top 40 pop on Star 101.3 over the droll murmur of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.
For NPR, this presents a major problem. A 2015 Nielsen report indicates a sharp decline in listeners of almost all ages, particularly Millennials and younger Gen Xers. NPR and its local affiliate stations rely heavily on listener support to stay afloat, and a shrinking audience combined with the Trump administration’s plan to eliminate all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting threatens to jeopardize the future of public radio.
NPR now has one last hope — podcasts. Though in many ways an analogue to public radio, podcasts are cheaper to produce and easier to access, the end result is a medium with more diverse content and listeners.
The BCC Voice asked 50 students, staff and faculty members about their podcast listening habits; this is what we found:
“Historically, entertainment has been about big corporations producing the content, you know, where you need a huge amount of money and infrastructure to create anything. Now people are open to consuming that of a lower production quality if it’s more authentic,” said Maeven McGovern of the Oakland nonprofit Youth Radio in an interview with the BCC Voice.
Kirsi Goldynia, a producer of CNN’s online “Opinion” section, aims to bring that kind of authenticity to her podcast “Sex, Drugs, and Healthcare.” In an interview with the BCC Voice, she described her show, a low-budget, one-woman production, as a “humanistic spin on the advancement of healthcare.” She agrees that shows like hers fill the needs of niche audiences, creating a curated experience for a generation with a pick-and-choose mentality. Podcasts are on the rise, she believes, “for the same reason that Netflix and HBO are so popular among young people. We can consume the content we want, when we want, with virtually no interruption.”
To adapt to a changing media landscape, public radio producers must adopt a mindset of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” NPR and its affiliate stations have started to pour more resources into podcast production. In March, the producers of “This American Life,” a popular syndicated radio show and podcast, released “S-Town.” Unlike most podcasts, all episodes were available for download at once, catering to what Goldynia calls the “new-age binge culture.”
Public radio has also begun to answer calls for more diversity in the industry. Last year, NPR created the podcast “Code Switch,” which features discussions on race and culture in everyday life. The show asks questions like, “Why don’t more black and brown people hike?” and, “Why do we still care about Tupac?” Leah Donnella, a news assistant for the show, told the BCC Voice, “The mission of public radio is to educate, inform and challenge all listeners — and our target demographic is all Americans. But we can’t do those things without incorporating a diverse array of voices and perspectives into our programming.”
NPR also airs “Snap Judgment,” an Oakland-based production. Its format of personal stories set against a percussive beat borrows from the host Glynn Washington’s slam poetry background, reflecting the vibrancy of the East Bay’s literary and performance scenes. And “Snap” is only one of a few shows produced in the area, most of which feature people of color as hosts. “Radio Row,” located near the intersection of Telegraph and Broadway, is coincidentally a gathering spot for the diverse, urban millennial audience NPR so desperately courts. The future of radio, then, might just look like downtown Oakland.