Podcasts and Brands: 5 Questions With Gina Garrubbo on NPR

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NPR podcasts November 2016

“It’s unbelievable. It’s boom time. It’s a bubble!” That is how podcast star and This American Life creator Ira Glass described the podcast market at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference. By one count, nearly one-fifth of US adults under the age of 50 listens to a podcast every month. But Glass was talking not just about the popularity of podcasts but also the rush to monetize the platform by sponsors hoping to reach all those engaged ears.

One leader in podcasts is National Public Radio. NPR listening this year is up 26% this year, and while some of that is due to the political season, NPR reports that its increase (43%) trumps that of its commercial radio peers (up 19%). In October alone, NPR podcasts were downloaded over 72 million times, more than twice the number of its closest competitor. NPR also maintains strict guardrails on podcast sponsorship, including specific specs and requirements of NPR talent doing the messaging.

brandchannel spoke about the state of podcasting at NPR from an audience and marketer’s point of view—including its beefed up NPR Story Lab platform—with Gina Garrubbo, President and CEO of National Public Media, the sales arm of NPR which oversees sponsorships and brand partnerships.

brandchannel: NPR has excelled at podcasting from the outset, but now other media brands including Slate and The New Yorker are catching up. How does NPR keep its edge and differentiate itself?

Gina Garrubbo, President and CEO of National Public Media (NPM)
Gina Garrubbo, President and CEO of National Public Media (NPM)

Gina Garrubbo (right): NPR’s editorial excellence and its experience in audio storytelling is unparalleled. This is why each new podcast that NPR creates quickly makes it to the top ten in the iTunes podcast chart and why NPR is consistently the top publisher in Podtrac.

Other media organizations are joining this new golden age of audio, and that is great for listeners. But NPR has the advantage of a newsroom full of journalists and expert audio producers.

Anya Grundmann, who heads the programming division, has unleashed a torrent of creativity within the organization. Neal Carruth, who has just been named general manager of podcasts, brings almost two decades of audio journalism, editorial leadership and production experience to his role. Their whole team is constantly experimenting and creating the best audio storytelling on all platforms.

Through the newly-launched NPR Story Lab, NPR is inviting innovation in storytelling from its Member stations, independent producers and even looking beyond the public media system. Listeners can be confident that there will be some great new podcasts coming for NPR.

BC: Sponsored podcasts are huge, of course, and NPR podcasts are some of the strongest properties in podcasting. How do you balance the desire for sponsorship with public radio’s “advertising-free” promise?

Garrubbo: From a sponsorship point of view, more high-quality podcasts available to listeners and sponsors helps fuel the growth of podcasting as a medium. We continue to innovate our sponsorship products. Our offerings are competitive with what we are seeing from other publishers. Most importantly, they have been carefully designed for the podcast platform and as a result, resonate with our audience; 82% of NPR podcast users take action in response to a sponsor messages they hear in an NPR podcast.

NPR enjoys a unique relationship with its audience, in as much as they are not only listeners, but oftentimes donors to public media. The “halo effect” that NPR sponsors get for supporting NPR is amazing across NPR’s platforms. As a result, sponsors don’t need to “sell” to the NPR audience, but rather inform them in a smart, clear manner.

NPR has less clutter, fewer sponsor messages, no political advertising and less promotional messages than other media properties, so our audience is less likely to tune out a sponsor’s message. Year after year, our research shows not only is there a positive “halo” effect for NPR’s sponsors, but the majority of listeners take action as a result of hearing a sponsor message.

BC: You were at Discovery, Hearst, Oxygen and BlogHer—among others—before moving to National Public Media. How does National Public Media differ from those other media brands?

Garrubbo: As the exclusive sales organization for NPR and as representative for NPR and PBS Members stations and digital properties, National Public Media provides vital support for the public media ecosystem. And like other media brands I have been lucky enough to work with, when your work is connected to a greater mission your coworkers love being a part of the organization, which makes NPM a great place to be.

Because NPR and PBS have a rich journalistic heritage and commitment to creating a more informed public, there is a greater sense of responsibility to both the Member stations and the listening public. At NPM, we carry that responsibility over to our sponsorship efforts.

BlogHer was similar inasmuch as it enabled voices to be heard that might otherwise not be. Also, their audience is a community of like-minded individuals who care about the world around them. We worked with BlogHer advertisers to make sure that their brand messages were not full of promotion and hyperbole, something NPR and PBS have done for years. I feel strongly that this sends a message of respect to the audience, who in turn appreciate the sponsor for it.

BC: How do you see audio evolving as a platform, and what excites you?

Garrubbo: I think the biggest transformation happening right now is the growing abundance of high-quality, on-demand audio, and the increased ways users can access it. We talk a lot about the abundance of content, but on the user side, ubiquitous broadband and the ability to access on-demand audio via a multitude of apps means it’s easier than ever to find something you want to hear, when you want to hear it.

Platforms like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, both of which prominently feature NPR content, take that even further by removing almost all barriers between finding and listening. You just need to say “Play Planet Money.” The convergence of those two things is creating a perfect storm for on-demand audio.

BC: What are your favorite podcasts?

Garrubbo: I love Guy Raz’s new NPR podcast, How I Built This, as well as Fresh Air and The Moth, all of which I can stream on NPR One. It’s a great app for podcast fans – you can select from NPR titles as well as non-NPR podcasts from public radio stations, PRX and beyond.


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