Current's The Pub

Current's biweekly podcast about news and trends in public and nonprofit media.
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May 22, 2018

Podcasts are a nearly perfect vehicle for narrative storytelling. The episodic nature, the way each chapter is delivered to the listener’s personal device, the inherent intimacy of audio, advertisers’ interests in reaching a connected audience over several episodes, and the human nature for hearing and sharing stories all make the platform ideal for delivering narratives.

But narratives are hard to find in news. We may call everything we file a “story,” but it’s rare that a school board meeting or anything else that happens day in and day out will have the type of beginning-middle-end arc that makes for a great story.

And when you’re tasked with reporting the news, but your heart — and the audience — wants narrative … what do you do? You can’t try to put an arc on a story that doesn’t have one — that would change the nature of the story. It’s narrative bias. But it’s unlikely you can just pass on covering stories that don’t have a rising action and resolution.

This episode is all about balance. First, consultant Judith Smelser, who has written on narrative bias in public media, talks about dealing with narrative dreams in a daily news world. Great stories and good news coverage are not mutually exclusive, but getting it all done means making some hard choices.

And Stephen George of Louisville Public Media talks about The Pope’s Long Con, a short-run podcast series that just won a Peabody. George shares how he knew his team had a story fit for a series and how they got it done without giving up on their local news mission.

“We needed, and got, the absolute buy-in from our entire newsroom on this project,” George said. “That is a big part of this that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. We had to have a situation where every reporter in the newsroom was willing to step up and cover an extra event for the day’s news or pitch in and help their colleague out on this or that or the other, or delay some other thing they were working on to help out with this.”

Apr 5, 2018

If a major issue is affecting your community, chances are its impact reaches beyond your town line. That’s especially true of the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania, where the drug overdose rate is more than twice the national average. Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf even issued a disaster declaration for Pennsylvania’s “heroin and opioid epidemic.”

Public television stations there are responding by collaborating on focused coverage of the crisis. The stations are working together to produce a series they call “Battling Opioids.”

The collaboration kicked off last month, and has already yielded cooperation from state agencies and won the support of Gov. Wolf.

On The Pub, I talk with Kathleen Pavelko, president and CEO of WITF in Harrisburg; David Solomon, EP at WQED in Pittsburgh; and Tom Currá, president and CEO of WVIA in Pittston.

Please subscribe to The Pub in iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a rating and a comment! That will help boost our search results and allow people to find the show more easily.

We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me on Twitter, email Digital Editor Mike Janssen or contact Current by email or on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Nov 20, 2017

Should a journalist take to the mic to share a personal story? The short answer: Maybe.

Whether you’re a news host who wonders how much to reveal about yourself in your interview questions or an independent podcast producer hoping to mine your family history for material, you’ll want to tell your own story in a way that also serves your audience.

We talk about what happens when a journalist tells a personal story with Sally Herships, the producer behind “As Many Leaves.” Produced for BBC Radio 4, the documentary tells the story of being unexpectedly left by her husband. Herships and Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions gave a presentation at the Third Coast International Audio Festival about the process of making the story.

Oct 31, 2017
What is a public media station online? In many cases, its identity is its call letters followed by dot-org. But why? On-air, most stations are a mix of national, international and local programming. So why make the only digital home for those stories share a brand with something that many people in the market think of only as a source for NPR, BBC or PBS programming?
"There's no website in the world that will solve every problem for every person," says WHYY digital product manager Rebecca Smith. 
Seven years ago, WHYY decided to offer its audience different websites for different purposes: The station put its local news under the URL But this month, they consolidated it back under Why? That's what we explore in this episode of "The Pub," with Smith and Gabriel Coan, WHYY's VP of digital strategies and services. 
And in the Opening Shot, a question about geography, and what we get wrong when we create names to put on a map. Where is this "Trump Country" that we've been hearing about for two years? Is it near Flyover Country? Does it share a border with the Old, Weird America? In light of Brian Mann and Ken Stern's debate in these pages, guest host Gabe Bullard gets out the atlas and points out that maybe "here" and "there" really aren't that far apart.
Oct 16, 2017

You got promoted! Great. Now what? Years of journalism training haven’t necessarily prepared you for the art of managing people. You might even find yourself supervising your peers. Before you know it, you stop getting those invitations to happy hour. You are the boss.

Judith Smelser and Michael Marcotte have seen this scenario and many, many others. Both are consultants and former news directors who train public media managers around the country. On this episode of The Pub, we talk about how a new manager learns to be the boss.

Smelser and Marcotte have tips on everything from time management to planning for crisis coverage, all while dealing with challenging personality types in the newsroom. Spoiler: Reporters are difficult to manage.

Also on the show: Is public media taking the right kinds of risks?

Oct 2, 2017

A radio reporter who recently accepted a new job paid for the move by launching a GoFundMe campaign — and not for the first time.

Should public media be offering more help to its greener employees to avoid creating a class barrier? On this episode of The Pub, we talk to the people most affected by these decisions: the employees.


Also, how you can donate to help get Puerto Rico's public media stations back on the air.

Sep 18, 2017

Digital producers on public radio talk shows have found many ways to reconcile the difference between a show that's supposed to be appointment listening and a platform that's always available. In this episode of The Pub, we look at a few of those techniques with guest host Gabe Bullard, senior digital producer for the show "1A."

Some producers use digital tools — social networks (of course), Hearken, text messages — to bring listeners into the planning process and shape their shows. Others treat the web as a place to put translations of shows — articles, lists and explainers that make sense online and are fueled by the conversations a show creates. Some producers see digital platforms as fan service more than editorial tools. And at least one show is using its online audience to dig so deep into topics, scientists are asking to see the results.

When there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything, how can a producer choose what’s right for their show? That’s what we get into on this episode of The Pub.

Sep 5, 2017

Jesse Thorn is an accomplished guy — he’s the host of NPR’s Bullseye and proprietor of the Maximum Fun podcast network. And yet, he feels a little insecure about having never attended journalism school.

So this summer, Thorn organized his own journalism academy of sorts and let everyone else listen in. He’s just completed the 15-episode run of his podcast miniseries The Turnaround, a show co-presented with Columbia Journalism Review in which Thorn interviews various legendary interviewers about interviewing, including such public media luminaries as Terry Gross, Brooke Gladstone, Audie Cornish, Ray Suarez, Anna Sale and Ira Glass.

“My goal was to learn tips and tricks,” Thorn told me on The Pub. “What I learned was that you cannot be anything other than yourself.”

On this week’s episode, Thorn reflects on what he got out of interviewing his interviewing heroes. Plus, the question of what public media should become in the next 50 years leads me down a reporting rabbit hole where I try to quantify just how much money public broadcasting stations are worth. (It turns out it’s way less than I thought.)

Aug 7, 2017

A radio show/podcast about what’s going on in podcasting? The Big Listen from WAMU and NPR is one part “best of podcasting” compilation show, one part industry-insider talk show, and a thousand parts Lauren Ober, its charismatic and affable host.

This week, on my show about other people’s shows, Ober talks about everything she’s learned from making her show about other people’s shows. (Everybody got that?)

Also this week, three simple words that will help you answer most questions you have about using copyrighted music in your programs.


Jul 24, 2017

Half a century after public television made children’s programming one of its core missions, public radio is finally getting into the game with kids’ podcasts like NPR’s "Wow in the World," MPR/KPCC’s "Brains On!" and VPR’s "But Why." Lindsay Patterson, a host and advocate of kids'podcasts, says there remains an enormous amount of room in the market for new children’s shows, and she has practical tips for producers.

Also on this week’s show, the inescapable reason why all opinion journalists, host Adam Ragusea included, end up sucking after a while. And on a related note: The Pub is looking for a new host/producer!

May 19, 2017

Surely one of the most effective arguments against the continued taxpayer support of public media is that public media serves a socioeconomically elite audience. What’s the point of subsidizing media for rich people who should be able to pay for what they want themselves?

There are any number of initiatives in the public media system to reach low-income people who currently aren’t listening, watching or reading, but former Michigan Radio reporter Sarah Alvarez is skeptical about them.

“I hear a lot more about projects to basically sell the same product to a slightly different group of people,” she told me on The Pub. “I think if you really want to serve a low-income audience, you might have to change your product, and I don’t know how willing folks are to do that.”

Now, Alvarez is running a new journalism nonprofit in Detroit called Outlier Media, which doesn’t publish traditional reports to any kind of traditional platform. Rather, Alvarez offers renters in Detroit actionable information about their properties texted right to their phones. It’s one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how public-service journalists can adapt their core products for new audiences and platforms.

Also on the show: Trint founder Jeff Kofman on why his web-based automatic audio-transcription service costs what it does; a good lesson I learned about how to not write something racially insensitive; and Current boss Julie Drizin on why is getting a paywall.

May 4, 2017

Public media has an obsession lately with a certain word. As Only A Game senior producer Karen Given observes in this week’s episode of The Pub, “Just say the word ‘narrative’ and program directors and editors suddenly start paying attention. Everyone wants narrative. But what the f*** is it? I mean, we all use the word, but what does it even mean?”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had the same question. All of the hottest shows — in particular those like This American Life and Snap Judgment that seem to transfer especially well from public radio to the podcasting market — feature what is often called “narrative storytelling.” And yet most people, when pressed, probably couldn’t explain the difference between “narrative storytelling” and any other method by which reporters and producers craft stories.

On this week’s episode, Given consults with TAL producer Sean Cole, among other sources, and finally comes up with a satisfying definition of “narrative,” though her journey there is surprisingly perilous and she is forever transformed by an experience that also hints at universal themes about life. (Am I doing narrative right?)

Also on the show, Niala Boodhoo celebrates the first anniversary of her new daily talk show, Illinois Public Media’s The 21st, and she shares her philosophy on how to make an interesting, inclusive local talk show in the 21st century (yes, that’s partly where the name comes from).

Apr 21, 2017

The $1.9 billion that noncommercial stations won in the auction isn’t enough to transform the entire public media system, but it will absolutely transform the handful of stations lucky enough to have held valuable spectrum in crowded markets.


On this episode, we’ll talk about where the money is going and where it should be going with a station CEO who won big, Current’s Dru Sefton and Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who has a strong message for stations that, unlike his, have just received an unprecedented windfall.

Apr 6, 2017

You could not make up a better cautionary tale about the hazards of universities controlling public broadcasters than the story of Jacqui Helbert’s firing.

The head PR flack for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fired Helbert last month from her reporting job at WUTC, the university’s NPR station. That a flack had the power to fire a journalist is ethically troubling all by itself. Add to that the element of state legislators who control the university’s purse strings complaining about her work, and you have perfect storm of conflicting interests.

This week’s episode of The Pub is partially an adaptation of an article I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review. We revisit what was arguably the first high-profile case of interference with public media content (1980’s “Death of a Princess” controversy), get some dish from a WUTC insider, and discuss better ways to run a university station with Judith SmelserTed Krichels and others.

Mar 24, 2017

So what would actually happen if Republicans in Washington defunded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? On this week’s show, we try to get the most detailed picture possible of what would actually happen if the Trump administration’s stated goal of totally defunding CPB becomes a reality this year.

We also consider one argument as to why the CPB should be defunded that has been articulated in recent days by an unlikely source: sitting CPB board member Howard Husock. He comes back to The Pub to discuss his Washington Post op-ed “Public broadcasting shouldn’t get a handout from taxpayers anymore.” (For what it’s worth, Husock didn’t write the headline.)

Plus, host Adam Ragusea consults with a Senate procedure expert and a lobbyist for public media organizations who used to be a Hill staffer about how likely it is that the CPB will really get the ax anytime soon.

Mar 10, 2017

Four times during the last week of February, ThinkProgress LGBT editor Zack Ford wrote, NPR “reported on LGBT issues in ways that elevate anti-LGBT positions and normalize discrimination against LGBT people.”

I know some serious anti-LGBT people who would have a real belly laugh at the idea that “Nitwit Progressive Radio” is anti-queer. Nonetheless, Ford’s article struck a nerve with many public media people who read and debated it in a couple secret Facebook groups.

One piece Ford objected to was an episode of WAMU’s 1A, in which three guests arguing that trans people should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice were balanced with a lone dissenter. Ford didn’t think the latter guest should’ve been allowed on at all.

In my conversation with Ford, I asked him: If polls say half of Americans still think trans people should have to use the bathroom corresponding to their sex assigned at birth, isn’t one-guest-of-four the least representation they should get?

“I don’t really care if NPR comes off as politically biased one way or the other, because what I care about is that people’s lives are on the line, and that the truth is on the line,” he said. “And giving someone a platform to reinforce fears that aren’t based on facts is irresponsible.”

Not a bad argument, I thought. This week on The Pub, Ford and I hash out one of the most pressing journalism questions of our time: How do we represent views that we may find reprehensible and/or irrational?

Also on the show, Norwegian public broadcasting comes up with THE GREATEST IDEA EVER. I talk with Ståle Grut and Marius Arnesen of NRKbeta about their new system in which online readers must take a quiz to prove they’ve actually finished the article before commenting. (If you want that for your site, download their WordPress plugin on GitHub.)


Feb 23, 2017

When normal people quit their jobs in dramatic fashion, they flip tables, spit in the soup and storm out the door. Public radio people write earnest Medium posts.

That’s what Steve Henn did a year ago when he quit his job covering Silicon Valley for NPR; he wrote about his concern that public radio “may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” adding, “I want to help.”

If Henn is right, help has arrived in the form of 60 dB, the app he’s created with his partners — two former Netflix guys. It resembles NPR One, in that it serves up a curated stream of spoken audio in response to user preferences and behavior, but it differs most significantly in that it focuses on short-form pieces.

60 dB also draws from a much wider pool of content, some of which sounds decidedly un-pubradio.

“I think there’s an appetite for intelligent conversations and reporting on a variety of topics that don’t just appeal to the core NPR audience,” Henn says on this week’s episode of The Pub.

Also on the show, host Adam Ragusea offers a review of what he thinks are the three best new services for recording high-quality audio interviews over the internet. None of them is, by itself, the answer we’ve all been waiting for. But ipDTL, Zencastr and Ringr each have their uses.

Feb 2, 2017

Lewis Wallace says he’ll “cop to clickbait” on the headline that marked the beginning of the end of his reporting job at Marketplace — “Objectivity is dead and I’m ok with it.”

But he was shocked that his bosses found the actual content of the essay — a not especially edgy or unusual meditation on the evolving nature of journalistic standards — to be so objectionable as to immediately suspend him after he posted it last Wednesday.

They also ordered him to take down the post, which he did. And when he put it back up Saturday in direct defiance, he had to know what was coming next; Marketplace chief Deborah Clark fired him Monday.

Wallace declined a modest severance offer in order to preserve his legal right to talk about what happened, and this week he brings his story to The Pub.

Also on the show this week, NPR’s dilemma about whether to use the L-word or the F-word in reference to President Trump (or rather, his statements), and one station news director’s dilemma over a T-shirt printed with words that shouldn’t be political but are.

Jan 18, 2017

Should public media’s role on the internet be to make content for commercial platforms? Or should public media try to be the platform?

The new RadioPublic mobile app is an attempt to do the latter.

Last spring, Public Radio Exchange’s Jake Shapiro spun off from the organization he helped found in 2003 and started a new public benefit corporation “to build a mobile listening platform that makes listening to podcasts as simple as radio,” as set out in PRX’s announcement at the time.

Well, now that platform is here. This week — as The Pub returns from hiatus — we take RadioPublic for a test drive with Shapiro and Matt MacDonald, RP’s chief product officer, and we talk about why they felt they had to leave the non-profit world in order to create it.

Also this week, host Adam Ragusea uses the very silly new podcast he and his friend made about Billy Joel to make a vaguely serious point about how and when to insert clips into talk shows.

Dec 19, 2016

Host Adam Ragusea explains why there hasn't been a new episode of The Pub for a few weeks and previews what's coming up after the holidays.

Dec 3, 2016

Does an interview with a founder of the "alt-right" movement on public media give a platform to hate? Or is it shining a disinfecting light on a movement that has multiplied in the shadows?

Public media veteran Rekha Murthy says public media do need to do stories about “alt-right” figures who now have a seat in the incoming Trump administration, but some probably shouldn’t get a full-on interview.

This week on The Pub, we contemplate public media’s proper role in the coming Trump presidency. Host Adam Ragusea offers a counter-argument to a policy of replacing the term “alt-right” with “white nationalism” 

Also, Andrew Ramsammy lays out a vision for how public broadcasters should value and pursue diversity in the Trump era. Ramsammy has recently founded a consultancy focusing on diversity in public media. We ask him: Who does public media need to try to include now? The people who elected Trump, or the people imperiled by his policies and rhetoric?

Nov 19, 2016

In this episode of The Pub, we hear three talks from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, featuring Jay Allison, Jenna Weiss-Berman, and host Adam Ragusea.

Nov 18, 2016

In this episode of The Pub, we hear three talks from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, featuring Jay Allison, Jenna Weiss-Berman and host Adam Ragusea.

Nov 14, 2016

What are the best practices for recording a podcast or radio show in front of a live audience? We recorded a podcast in front of a live audience to find out. This live episode of The Pub about how to do live episodes (a new height of meta-ness) was recorded at the Public Media Institute’s Co-Prosperity Sphere at the Public Media Millennials Facebook group Third Coast after-party in Chicago, organized by host Adam Ragusea and Colorado Public Radio’s Stephanie Wolf.

Nov 5, 2016

Why did McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc leave more than $200 million of her wealth to NPR and not a cent to PBS? Because no one at PBS returned a phone call. That’s one of the revelations reported by longtime public radio journalist Lisa Napoli in her new book, "Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald's Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away."

Also on The Pub this week, we continue our conversation with UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh about whether journalists are at all different from regular people in the eyes of the law, apropos of a prosecutor’s attempt to charge "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman in connection to her Dakota Access Pipeline reporting.

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