The Improbable Rise of the Daily News Podcast

Which brings us to Act 3: The Daily. The New York Times is a daily newspaper, so when it decided to build a flagship podcast, it pretty much had to come out daily. That was a smart financial decision: A regular show, even if it builds up slowly, has a very predictable listener base and therefore can bring in much more money from sponsors, week in and week out. The other sensible financial decision was to launch The Daily as a relatively lo-fi operation where the host, Michael Barbaro, would talk on the phone to a Times reporter about a story of the day. That was expensive, but not punishingly so.

That’s why The Daily started out sounding like most pre-Serial podcasts. But then it became a phenomenon, racking up millions of downloads. Before long it supplanted the front page of the newspaper as the most coveted spot for Times journalists to get their stories featured; it also started minting money. That enabled it to grow substantially in terms of staffing, resources, ambition, and gloss. At this point, it has become a high-prestige home for expensive daily mini-documentaries.

In recent weeks, The Daily announced that it was becoming a national radio show. In doing so, it proved that scale can generate millions of dollars in new revenue, as well as (potentially) a hugely valuable spot on the national FM radio dial. That radio slot, in turn, will do wonders not only for The New York Times’ income statement, but also for its standing as a national brand. To put it another way: The Daily’s radio show won’t just make money on its own right, it will sell subscriptions to the newspaper and the website while doing so.

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Finally we come to Act 4, Vox’s new podcast, Today Explained—a daily news podcast which has had ultrahigh production values from inception. Vox knew full well that putting together a polished, fresh news show every day is terrifyingly difficult and expensive. But it tried anyway and created, right off the bat, something funny, accessible, smart, and quirky, brimming with the sort of brio that used to be found only at the very highest echelons of public radio’s slippery pole.

That kind of up-front commitment, without any guarantee of popularity or commercial success, would have been unthinkable just a few months ago: It’s a big-money move that even Gimlet and The New York Times didn’t dare attempt—let alone public radio stations, which are by nature more fiscally cautious. The upside is enormous: One look at The Daily shows just how profitable Today Explained could, potentially, become. But to get that high potential return, Vox’s partner, Midroll, has to commit a huge up-front investment — while Vox needs to add significant headcount.

For-profit podcasting, then, is now matching and even eclipsing public radio in terms of ambition and budgets. It might have started out producing small indie movies, but now it’s regularly putting out serious blockbusters aimed at a mass audience. Public radio now needs to up its own game and rise to meet the challenge, even as podcasting itself is moving on to even greater things. Gimlet Media, for instance, its eyes set firmly on Hollywood, has already hired a former Netflix and Hulu executive as its CMO. (Its flagship podcast, Startup, is already being adapted as a TV series starring Zach Braff.) What began on the radio, and then moved to your podcasting app, might soon be appearing in more different venues than you ever imagined.

*Updated (3/7/2018) to include details of the financing of Today, Explained and Serial’s eventual profitability.

The Podcast Boom

Photograph by WIRED/Getty Images

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