NPR, WNYC, and Slate Explain Why They Are Betting on Live Events

Earlier this month, the NPR Politics Podcast hosted a live show in Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theater, and Slate’s Trumpcast did a live recording in D.C.’s Hamilton Hotel. Last year, Radiotopia hosted a live event featuring nearly all their shows in Los Angeles. In 2013, Radiolab brought a full-on stage production on the road, touring 21 cities around the country. In the last few years, podcast festivals, where a large group of podcasts put on live events, have significantly grown in popularity.

More and more, podcasts are reaching beyond headphones to engage their audiences. As podcasts have become more prominent, so too have live podcasts. In live tapings, podcasters forgo their ability to edit and control the environment in exchange for a live audience.

Of course, recording live is still standard practice in radio audio. This is sometimes painfully obvious when even seasoned radio veterans, like Diane Rehm, make embarrassing mistakes on-air. Or when an audience is not cooperative, such as when the Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! audience revealed an answer to one of the show’s contestants.

So why would podcasts give up their editing advantage and open themselves to the perils of a live show?

Podcasts too have been doing live events for some time. However, the people who create these live events maintain that they bring something extra to podcast listeners.

“[Live podcast events] are definitely becoming more and more popular,” said Faith Smith, executive producer of Slate Live, in an interview with MediaFile. “Slate’s been doing it since 2009, longer than most. And they’ve just always been popular. Podcasting is such an intimate experience – you listen to the same people week after week or day after day and you tend to feel a connection, so people love the opportunity to see them live.”

Jessica Goldstein, director of events and strategic initiatives at NPR, agrees that live audio events bring something special to the audience. “[Audiences] are seeking community. To bring this intimate audio experience to a live audience is something that there is a desire for and we are happy to be doing that,” said Goldstein. “It gives them an opportunity to see the talent they are listening to and to feel like they are part of this greater community.”

Dean Cappello, WNYC’s executive vice president & chief content officer, feels that live shows benefit content producers. Live shows give them direct, immediate feedback that they can then use to develop better future content.

One hurdle to putting on live audio shows is convincing audiences to pay to watch a production they typically listen to for free. Smith and Goldstein believe that audiences’ desire for a sense of community is strong enough that it’s often unnecessary to add many bells and whistles. Smith commented “I don’t think live audiences pay for the production value, I think they pay for the experience. So our most successful shows are like the Gabfest, where it’s just three people talking, and we don’t veer to far from that.”

WNYC, NPR’s New York City-based member station, takes a different approach. Cappello sees live audience events and standard podcast productions as different beasts.

“When we entered the era of this kind of deep, personal brand that people identify with in a different way than they react to the radio, we started to see that when you develop a property that there are three possibilities,” said Capello. “One is the on-demand piece of it, or the podcast piece of it, secondly is radio, and the third one is live events.”

Cappello also encourages WNYC to make uniquely formatted live shows. “To me the Achilles heel of live events is that everybody kind of has the same format for doing them,” he said. “And while that’s great for your passionate fans to come see you, I don’t know that it really leverages the possibilities of live events.”

These differing approaches can lead to very different live productions. While these news organizations have put on consistently successful live shows, Slate and NPR shows tend to be more subdued and WNYC productions are more likely to be extravaganzas. Slate’s Political Gabfest and Cultural Gabfest shows are little more than the hosts sitting on a stage and conducting a typical show, often with audience questions at the end. NPR’s Politics Podcast follows a similar format for its live shows. On the other hand, WNYC properties, such as RadioLab, are more likely to create live spectacles, like the much-touted Apocalyptical show. Of course, NPR puts on some shows with bells and whistles, like an Embedded live show last fall, and WNYC produces several lower-key shows, like live versions of Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin.

Interestingly, all of the producers who spoke to MediaFile emphasized that almost all their live shows, regardless of style, sell out.

However, different types of live events, and different types of podcasts, present varied production challenges. Translating live events for the podcast audience can be difficult on both the technical and content sides of production. All live shows must make audio quality trade-offs if they will be broadcasted via podcast or radio. It’s easier to control audio quality when recording in a studio than in a concert hall or book store. Goldstein, from NPR, notes that NPR quality standards mean that different audio preparation is needed for live shows. She notes, “When possible we bring in our audio engineers involved with the audio production [for air] to [the event venue] because, though there is a great audio engineer in the physical space, they are thinking about the experience for people in the audience and not about recorded audio.” Simpler shows seem to have an advantage on this front. Smith explained that Slate’s straightforward live show format makes it easier to record shows for podcasts.

Producers also have to be aware of how live show content may translate to the listening audience. Cappello, who oversees some elaborate WNYC live productions, is keenly aware of this. In fact, he is skeptical that all live shows should be repackaged as podcasts.

“You have to recognize that doing a live show is not the same as doing a podcast,” Capello told MediaFile. “You shouldn’t walk into another medium and think I’ll just do what I [normally] do… I think what people often [think is], ‘if we’re going to go do a big live event and that’s going to take a lot of time and energy from us, then we just have to sort of take it at wholesale and make it into a podcast.’”

“Those shows generally don’t work as well because they’re not aimed at the radio audience,” Capello added.

This may be why some of WNYC’s live shows, when published on podcast platforms, are significantly edited. The video of RadioLab’s Apocalyptical show is over two hours. The podcast version is less than an hour and a half. 2 Dope Queens, another WYNC production that always records in front of a live audience, has live shows that can run over two hours, with podcasts that rarely exceed an hour.

However, even straightforward interview or roundtable shows must consider how live shows translate to podcast listeners. Goldstein noted that, to prepare for turning a live show into a podcast, “The questions are thought out differently and we need to make sure it flows in a way that makes sense for a podcast.”

Another challenge for producers is deciding which shows should put on live events. Goldstein emphasized that NPR considers all its content as potential live shows, saying that “as we increase the content properties that we have, we see opportunities for us to be out there and engage with our audiences.” But that does not mean that every podcast can have a live show. Goldstein continued, “[choosing content for live shows] depends on the show when deciding which content we want to bring on the road. It’s easier for some of our shows than others. The Politics Podcast team are really excited to engage with communities around the country but, they’re also on the daily news grind and it’s challenging for them to divert.” She also noted that it is easier to justify doing a live show if it can be easily turned into a podcast. That way, the content production team does not have to divide their time and resources between a live show and their typical weekly production – they’re one in the same.

Cappello also spoke to this challenge, explaining that developing elaborate live shows requires the show in question to have a robust production team. “You can’t go big on [producing live shows], without affecting the other stuff. And I can imagine, kind of like Ira Glass, [host of This American Life] you get to a certain point where you have a show format that really works for you where you can run in parallel. So, Ira can be out on the road doing various [live] shows and the show can continue to crank, and then he plugs in where he’s at.” Cappello acknowledges that this robustness is difficult for shows to achieve.

However, the uptick in live audio shows may indicate that shows are trying to develop such a robustness. Though most podcasts are unable to do live tours, all the producers who spoke to MediaFile indicated this was something they intended to do in the future. Currently, most live podcast shows are coastal, though a few, such as RadioLab and Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, have toured around the country. One benefit of podcasts is their wide audience reach; shows have fans across the country and the world. Live shows drastically limit the audience reach and most shows are not yet able to engage with their diverse audiences in varying locales.

Live audio shows offer producers some big trade-offs. They sacrifice some audio-quality, content control, and audience scope. However, they gain more direct engagement with their audiences. Based on the number of live shows cropping up, it must be worth it.

Brett Maney contributed reporting.

Update: This report has been corrected to reflect that Jessica Goldstein’s title is director of events and strategic initiatives at NPR, not senior supervising producer of NPR Music and director of live events at NPR, as previously reported.

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