April 20, 2017
How New Hampshire Public Radio Created a Podcast About Civics That People Want to Listen to
In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States.
That approach has proven to be pretty successful: since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)
The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections.
“Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,’” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”
“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.
As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (Emoluments, The Office of Scheduling and Advance, Gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (Calling Your Congressperson, Impeachment, The Nuclear Codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:
How has the show evolved over the past four months?
Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.
After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way.
Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions.
So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.
Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?
Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.
My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams.
In 2018 I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan.
Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So, check back in with me. Hoping I’ll have good news.
As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early stories and experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience.
So, the question became: is the podcast the show?
In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.
One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something.
So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.
This Q&A was republished with permission. It was originally published on Nieman Lab and Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts with thoughtful news and analysis on the emerging on-demand audio industry.
Nicholas Quah is a consultant for Democracy Fund researching local news podcasts and their business models. Quah is the founder of Hot Pod, a weekly newsletter about podcasts that is syndicated on Nieman Lab. His work largely focuses on the professionalization of the podcast and on-demand audio industry as well as its potential for public radio and non-audio native media companies. Quah will be a Visiting Knight Nieman Fellow this summer. Previously, he led audience development efforts at Panoply. Follow Quah on Twitter @nwquah.