Slate Editor David Plotz Reveals Podcasting Strategy

Slate editor David Plotz says he’s “bullish” on the future of podcasting. He explains why, discusses the path to hiring a top public radio talent, and gives a glimpse at Slate’s upcoming podcast plans on the newest episode of Earwolf’s The Wolf Den.

According to host Jeff Ullrich, this episode, #54, marks a “a bit of a relaunch of the show” which will have a sharper focus on the business of podcasting and digital media as a whole, as well as the future of these media. Ullrich is CEO and founder of Midroll Media and Earwolf.

Along with its successful online magazine, Slate has made a significant investment in podcasting that is paying off. In fact, none other than Stephen Colbert says that everybody should listen to the Slate Political Gabfest, the eight year-old weekly podcast hosted by Plotz, along with John Dickerson and Emily Bazelon.

In his Wolf Den interview, Plotz says that Slate first got into audio through a partnership with NPR to produce a daily radio show. Although he says that the show, Day to Day, eventually “withered,” executive producer Andy Bowers encouraged the company to get into podcasting. Slate’s first program debuted in 2005.

While Slate’s podcast audience of “a couple hundred thousand” listeners is small compared to its total readership of about 30 million, he says those listeners are quite significant.

Plotz learned that, “our podcast listeners are the best fans Slate has. They’re the most devoted. They are the most willing to pay for things. They’ll spend time with us. They want to come to events, and we want more of [these fans].” That’s why Slate has plans to grow its podcasting line-up this year.

“The biggest thing that we’re doing,” Plotz explains, “is that we’ve hired Mike Pesca, who was NPR’s sports reporter. He’s been a panelist on our sports show [Hang Up and Listen] for years, but we’ve hired him full-time to launch a daily news interview show.” That podcast is set to launch in April.

But, how does Slate get one of public radio’s top talents into full-time podcasting?

“He is just so smart, so funny, so quick, so agile in every way,” Plotz says. “He deserves his own show. And NPR–for whatever insane reason–hadn’t given him his own show. So, we were like, ‘God, we’ll do it, and let’s do it through a podcast.’” But they still had to bring Pesca on board.

It turns out that, “NPR gave us a gift,” as Plotz puts it. The network did a round of buyouts in 2013, making “very attractive” offers to long-time employees. “We started talking with [Pesca],” he recalls. They asked him, “Are you going to take the buyout? What would happen if you took the buyout?”

On Slate’s side, Plotz says, “the thing that allowed us to do it is that we had a strong enough year financially in 2013 for us to say that we should invest more.” So the stars aligned to let Slate hire Pesca.

There are even more podcasts in the works for Slate. “We’re also launching a weekly business podcast that’s going to be hosted by [financial journalist] Felix Salmon, who is fantastically talented,” Plotz says. Additionally, “we’re probably going to do a couple of different tech podcasts, but they haven’t really been shaped.”

Also joining the Slate staff is Mike Vuolo, who previously served as a contract producer. He produces Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language which Plotz says “has been a big hit for us.” Vuolo will be on hand to produce other shows, too.

The last big reveal is that Slate is finally giving a podcast to its most popular feature. “We’re going to launch a Dear Prudence podcast,” Plotz announces. “I think it will happen in 2014.”

He observes that “once you become a podcast listener, you become a crazily addicted
podcast listener.” This leads Plotz to say, “podcasting is definitely growing.”

He follows up, “It’s clear there is this core of podcast listeners who are listening, and listening more, and that it’s successful, and you can build a real business off of it. Whether we’re able to add quickly to that audience is another question.”

Still, Plotz explains that the reason why “I’m bullish about the ultimate outcome” for podcasting, “is the emotional connection you make with the podcaster. It’s not really content. It’s much more emotion.”

He concludes, “That’s why I’m heartened.”

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