WGBH Raises Its Podcasting Aspirations

Recent moves include a strategic investment in podcast app company RadioPublic
By James Careless ,

When it comes to public media and popularity, WGBH Boston has always punched above its weight.

Bob Kempf
Photos courtesy of WGBH Boston

For years, WGBH-produced TV programs such as “Frontline,” “Masterpiece,” “American Experience,” “Antiques Roadshow” and “Nova” have been national hits on PBS. WGBH’s radio presence exceeds its local boundaries with internationally-distributed programs such as “The World,” a daily news/current affairs program co-produced with Public Radio International and the BBC World Service. (Fun fact: The GBH stands for Great Blue Hill, home of WGBH’s first transmitter site in Milton, Mass.)

Now WGBH is pushing to hit above its weight in podcasting, too. To do so, the public broadcaster has launched original content podcasts that leverage its Frontline (“The Frontline Dispatch”) and Masterpiece (“Masterpiece Studio”) brands; plus podcasts based on local WGBH radio content such as “Boston Public Radio.”

“Our goal is to leverage the success we’ve had on TV and radio, and take it into the podcast space,” said Robert Kempf, vice president for digital services. At the same time, WGBH understands that podcasting is a unique medium with its own rules and requirements. So the content WGBH is developing for podcasts is focused on long-form storytelling, with a richer mix of music and sound effects than is generally found on radio.

PRX PARTNER

As a platform-agnostic public broadcaster, WGBH is willing to go wherever the audience is. This is why WGBH is taking podcasting so seriously, including partnering with the Public Radio Exchange and its app-based program distribution model, and in November announcing a strategic investment in podcast recommendation app RadioPublic.

“PRX is our podcast service and distribution partner,” said Kempf. “RadioPublic is a podcast curation app that will help attract listeners to our podcasts.”

Why invest in podcasting? The answer is to build audience for public media content, especially among relatively younger people.

“Podcasts listening is centered in the 25–45 age group, whereas our radio is more 35–60, and television is even older,” Kempf said. “The podcasting audience also tunes into podcasts for different reasons than people who tune into radio and TV. So offering podcasts doesn’t cannibalize WGBH’s audience base — it builds it.”

Podcasting is another way to attract money to WGBH, which largely survives on listener/viewer donations.

“Podcasting could attract young and new donors,” said Kempf. What remains to be seen is how to attract donations effectively over podcasts: Research shows that appeals made by podcasts hoists can be effective in encouraging donations by listeners.

BEYOND RECYCLING

The strategy of leveraging popular TV shows to attract listeners to podcasts is working. “The Frontline Dispatch” podcast’s first seasons, including a trailer and six podcasts, “got a million downloads,” said Kempf. Meanwhile, Masterpiece Studio “has had 100,000 to 300,000 downloads per episode, depending on the episode.”

“The Frontline Dispatch” leverages the TV show’s journalistic approach into podcasting. Meanwhile, Kempf describes “Masterpiece Studio” as a “fancast” designed to attract and hold listeners who are fans of the “Masterpiece” TV program. But despite their differences, neither “The Frontline Dispatch” and “Masterpiece Studio” are not recycled on-air TV content but completely new standalone programs.

“‘The Frontline Dispatch’ podcast offers original, unique investigative reporting that is not tied to the stories covered by the ‘Frontline’ TV series,” said Kempf. “Similarly, ‘Masterpiece Studio’ offers discussions on production of and content on ‘Masterpiece,’ but it is not the TV series repurposed for audio streaming.” WGBH is considering whether to offer podcasts tied to further hit TV shows such as “Nova” and “American Experience.”

WGBH’s other podcasts draw on the broadcaster’s radio programs; again, they aim to do much more than recycle what’s been transmitted on air. “We do stream content from our radio shows online, but we do not consider them to be podcasts,” Kempf said. “Podcasts are something else” — specifically, a form of thoughtful, in-depth, long-form audio programming able to tackle topics not usually heard on radio or TV.

Mindful that WGBH is not expert in this space, the broadcaster is hiring outside producers with podcasting experience from PRX and other sources to help create compelling content. “We are also using these podcasting experts to train our own staff,” said Kempf.

It remains to be seen how WGBH proceeds with podcasting in the immediate future. “We are admittedly late to the game,” said Kempf. But he expects podcasts to be a significant part of WGBH’s program mix in the years to come, and “an important contributor” in growing audiences and raising funds for all WGBH platforms.