Radio Is the Rage in Science Storytelling

I got back to wet and chilly Boston Sunday night after a mind-blowing weekend in Phoenix attending Newsgeist, the future-of-news unconference sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation. At events like this, there's often admiring buzz around a recent project, product, or company that's seen as the potential model and savior for journalism. Back in 2010, at the first iteration of the conference, all the talk was about mobile reading apps like Instapaper and Flipboard.

So, what was hot this year at Newsgeist? Believe it or not, it was Serial, the new podcast from the team behind This American Life at WBEZ in Chicago.

Over and over again, Newsgeist attendees—and we're talking about 160 of the country's most daring thinkers about the overlap between technology and journalism—said they were completely hooked on Serial, a true-crime story spread across a nine-episode season.

Everyone seemed a little surprised and bemused by the idea that podcasting, which enjoyed an early surge in 2004-2005 but never seemed to spread beyond a community of early adopters, now seems to be the medium of choice for immersive, long-form storytelling. Conference attendees gushed about how audio is more "intimate" than other media and how it's even more visual, in a way, than video or television, since listeners have to paint the accompanying images in their heads.

I've talked before about how radio is the new Netflix and podcasts make great binge-listening material. With the fundraising success of recent infrastructure-building efforts in the world of story-driven audio such as Radiotopia, it feels like we're finally reaching the moment when millions of people (many of whom, like myself, don't even own a radio) are starting to discover and appreciate podcasting as a vehicle for all sorts of non-fiction storytelling, including science and technology stories.

The flagship podcast in the Radiotopia network, Roman Mars' fantastic architecture and design show 99% Invisible, started off as a project of San Francisco public radio station KALW, and WBEZ's Serial is podcast-only; it never airs on the radio. These feel like signs that the broadcast-focused public radio industry is waking up to the idea that they can go straight to listeners, bypassing the tyranny of the broadcast clock (and, not incidentally, the FCC).

And now WNYC, one of the country's best-funded and most influential public broadcasting stations, is beefing up its health reporting unit and, according to Columbia Journalism Review contributor Anna Leigh Clark, preparing to launch a podcast on "healthy living and wellness, healthcare economics and policy, and medical science and discovery."

That's great news. I spoke with Clark for her story, which rightly frames WNYC's project in the context of mainstream media outlets' disastrous ongoing retreat from dedicated support for science, medical, environmental, and technology coverage. To combat that trend in their own newsroom, Clark reports, WNYC looked to philanthropic support; the new health-podcasting effort will be funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It's a great example of the types of creative partnerships that will be needed to support media innovation in the future. But news producers and other content creators, including science and technology journalists, probably need to think even more broadly about how to find the money to support their work. Clark quoted me on that:

Even if the partnerships work perfectly, Wade Roush believes it wouldn’t be a good idea to depend entirely on philanthropists. “Foundations can’t do this job by themselves,” he said, adding that he wants to see more entrepreneurial imagination in the search for additional revenue sources. Among the possibilities he suggested: live events with charged admission, corporate sponsorships, and “maybe connect directly with readers to get them to pay for some of it.”

Hybrid media-and-events companies like my own alma mater Xconomy have amply demonstrated that, as Jeff Jarvis argued at Newsgeist, journalism is really about building relationships—between reporters and sources, between reporters and their readers, and among readers themselves. Radiotopia's wildly successful $620,000 Kickstarter campaign is a sign that media consumers will pay podcast creators directly to keep whispering into their ears. Some attendees at Newsgeist—well, me, actually—floated the concept of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms as replacements for the universally despised public-radio pledge break, and one of the first steps toward a world of post-broadcast public media. If WNYC's new health reporting unit comes up with something really cool, I'll be among the first to donate to it.

It's a time of tumult and retrenchment in the news business—but storytelling will survive, as it always has. And this time, we can expect a boost from technologies like podcasting and crowdfunding and the new forms of distribution and commerce they're enabling.


Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist