Producers take podcast covering marketing innovations to pubradio distribution

By Iulia Gheorghiu

Ad man and podcaster Mike O’Toole has teamed up with veteran pubradio producer Jim Russell to adapt a narrative-focused business podcast into a public radio series.

The show, The Unconventionals, features long-form interviews with executives who run startup companies or established businesses that have adopted game-changing tactics for marketing to younger consumers.

O'Toole, right,  interviews author and online marketing expert Ann Handley for one of his earlier podcasts. (Photo: PJA)

O’Toole, right, interviews author and online marketing expert Ann Handley for an earlier podcast. (Photo: PJA)

O’Toole, host and president of PJA Marketing + Advertising, seeks guests who fit a certain profile — entrepreneurs whose innovative business models disrupt those of their competitors. He aims to highlight undertold stories in business and marketing, looking beyond companies such as Apple, whose narratives have been “told to death.”

During the podcast’s first two seasons, O’Toole interviewed Michael Dubin, c.e.o. of Dollar Shave Club, a web-based company that sells personal care products for men through a subscription-based business model, and Geoff Cottrill of Converse, which refashioned its brand with hip sensibilities by investing in Rubber Tracks, a recording studio that provides free studio time to musicians.

O’Toole began podcasting 15 years ago with This Week in Social Media, which was later revamped to focus on news about the field of marketing under the title This Week in Digital Media. The podcast was reintroduced last year as The Unconventionals, a half-hour distributed online through PJA Radio. Season two is also offered through Public Radio Exchange.

After talking with program directors at various pubcasting stations about his interest in creating a radio program from the podcast, O’Toole sought out Russell, an independent producer and programming consultant, in January 2013.

Russell, a creator and former executive producer of American Public Media’s flagship business show Marketplace, found affinities in the tone and editorial approach adopted by The Unconventionals.  “This program is irreverent and looks at people who are irreverent and even sometimes contrary,” he said. It follows “an entrepreneurial way of thinking.”

Peter Maerz of Miami’s WLRN, one of six stations that will pilot the show, also sees parallels with Marketplace: “The similarity is a positive one. The show is produced for the layperson, not just for a business junkie.”

Wanted: Co-production partner

O’Toole produces the podcast through PJA Radio, an independent arm of PJA Advertising, his mid-sized marketing company with offices in San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass. The companies operate separately, according to O’Toole, but both share a focus on innovation in corporate marketing.

The synergies between the radio show and O’Toole’s primary business aren’t apparent to listeners — at least one program director signed on for the pilot without knowing of O’Toole’s dual roles as host and head of an advertising firm. But Russell and O’Toole are working to address any doubts about its integrity by seeking an editorial partner that can produce the show to journalistic standards. They’re specifically looking for a larger station with the editorial capacity to co-produce the show.

The ideal partner, O’Toole said, will have “real experience in producing and launching a show” with “editorial independence and credibility.”

PJA Radio already has an academic sponsor for The Unconventionals, the Center on Global Brand Leadership within Columbia University’s Business school. The center focuses “not only on the changing global nature of brands,” O’Toole said, “but how technology innovations change brands.” The center’s founder and executive director is David Rogers, an expert on digital strategy and branding who has appeared on Marketplace, CNN and CNBC.

Since they began talking six months ago, Russell and O’Toole have agreed on several format changes for The Unconventionals: expanding the range of interviews and other content, restructuring the show as a magazine and extending the length to an hour. They also tapped Los Angeles–based Creative Media to market the broadcast to radio stations.

Although the radio broadcast is still a work in progress, The Unconventionals has already developed multimedia elements that help to expand its reach to digital audiences. A series of short videos, produced as promos for the podcasts, have helped to build the show’s social media presence on Facebook and YouTube.

Each of the videos have generated more than 1,000 views and helped to bring new listeners to the podcast, according to O’Toole. “We have seen the short-form videos really expand the reach of the show,” he said. “Video just generally is far more engaging than any other platforms online.”

O’Toole also has built a digital audience through his blog on Forbes.com, which focuses on companies featured on The Unconventionals podcasts. During the podcast’s second season, it attracted an average audience of more than 2,000 readers per post, according to O’Toole.

So far, five stations in addition to WLRN have agreed to air the pilot episode of The Unconventionals, solicit listener feedback and advise producers on additional refinements, according to Russell. They are KUOW in Seattle; WFAE in Charlotte, N.C.; WEKU in Lexington, Ky.; North Dakota’s Prairie Public Broadcasting; and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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