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Radio is seeing red – The Verge


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Hello! It’s been a bit since we checked in on the news. Today, I’ve got a look at the ongoing financial troubles at NPR member stations, the shutdown of Rooster Teeth, and the new season of Serial.

Woes mounting at NPR member stations: “Sponsorship dollars won’t return to previous levels.”

Two more public radio stations are discussing how they plan to get out of the red: Colorado Public Radio, which is adopting the “broadcast-to-podcast” strategy, and WBUR in Boston, which is appealing to listeners for donations before taking any next steps.

Colorado Public Radio laid off 15 members of its staff last week and closed its podcast-focused Audio Innovations Studio. Like at WNYC and NPR, CPR is focusing on news content that can easily adapt to broadcast and digital distribution.

Citing the same donor and sponsorship woes faced by the rest of the industry, CPR CEO Stewart Vanderwilt said that the cuts were necessary to put the station on better financial footing. In another move that sounds like WNYC deja vu, he said that what remains of the podcasting operation will focus on local news. Skye Pillsbury also reports that two producers will come on to support the newsroom.

“We are shifting our focus to news-based podcast products — and I would say at the intersection of news and long-form storytelling,” he said in an interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. “There’s a couple of reasons for that. One, it’s where we have a very specific strength. Two, we have a lot of the base material in original news that we’ve produced, which can then be used in a podcast or on-demand type project.”

WBUR in Boston may be on a similar path, but not before CEO Margaret Low appealed to listeners to help the station avoid cuts. “In the last five years, our annual on-air sponsorship income (underwriting) has dropped by more than 40 percent,” Low wrote in an open letter. “Sponsorship dollars won’t return to previous levels. These are not temporary ups and downs. They’re long-term shifts.” The next step, she said, could be pay freezes and layoffs.

It’s a stark message that (hopefully) drums up some dollars from dedicated listeners. But such contributions won’t address the main point she makes: the challenges faced by the audio industry are not all that distinct from what is happening to media on a broader scale. Instead of pointing to a skittish ad industry, she sees the problem as more systemic.

“The old economics of our business can no longer sustain us,” she wrote. “In the digital age, almost all that money now goes to the big platforms — like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Spotify. This is bad news for the news business and has created big gaps that can’t easily be filled.”

For-profit media companies have struggled to adapt to the new landscape, and public outlets are even more limited in how they can make up that revenue. I don’t have answers, but if you have thoughts on this, feel free to reach out. 

And, as ever, support your local public radio station! You could be as cool as me with my Brian Lehrer hat.

Rooster Teeth shuts down, podcast network up for sale

It’s another digital media shutdown, this time at the hands of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav. In addition to shelving movies to save on marketing costs, the company under his leadership has been selling off assets at a pace. Rooster Teeth is next on the list of properties to shut down, with the only component left standing (for now) being the podcast network.

Last week, Rooster Teeth general manager Jordan Levin emailed staff notifying them of the closure. “It’s with a heavy heart I announce that Rooster Teeth is shutting down due to challenges facing digital media resulting from fundamental shifts in consumer behavior and monetization across platforms, advertising, and patronage,” he said, according to a memo obtained by Variety. “The Roost Podcast Network will continue operating and fulfilling its obligations while WBD evaluates outside interest in acquiring this growing asset.” About 150 employees were laid off.

Rooster Teeth first made a name for itself in the early aughts as a pre-YouTube hub for web series like Red vs. Blue. But its podcasts, including H3 Podcast and Rooster Teeth Podcast, have proven to be a bigger draw in recent years. There is no news yet regarding a possible acquisition of the podcast network.

A new season of Serial is coming this month

Some news out of On Air Fest last week: Serial is returning on March 28th. Ten years after the hit podcast debuted, Serial will tackle the history of Guantanamo.

Serial host Sarah Koenig said at an OAF panel that she and her fellow producers have been working on how to tell this story for a decade. “Dana [Chivvis] and I tried for years to figure out how to make a story that captures what it’s really like there for the people caught inside this massive, flawed experiment — not just the prisoners, but also the staff who built it and ran it. For so long, all the best stories we heard were off the record. But now people are ready to talk,” she said.

Serial, which was developed as a spinoff of This American Life, was sold to The New York Times in 2020. Since its blockbuster debut, the show has published seasons telling the stories of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who was held captive by the Taliban and then charged with desertion, and of the ordinary events at a courthouse in Cleveland.



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