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The time had come: Glass had little choice but to podcast

Originally published in Current, Nov. 6, 2006
By Mike Janssen

Pent-up demand helped This American Life jump to the top of the iTunes charts last month when the show finally debuted in podcast form Oct. 16 [2006].

The popular show from Chicago Public Radio is a relative latecomer to the podcast scene. Listeners were agitating for a podcast, says Ira Glass, host and executive producer. So were friends of the show’s staffers. But the last straw came when show’s producers were getting pestered by their parents.

“If podcasting is that big,” Glass says, “we need to podcast.”
The show seems like a natural fit for podcasting. Both podcast users and the show’s listeners skew younger than public radio’s core audience, and TAL attracts the kind of rabid fans who would hate to miss an installment because a radio wasn’t within earshot.

TAL had offered free streams of the show on its site, but those could be heard only on a computer connected to the Internet. For people who wanted to download a file for their audio players, the show sold episodes through Audible.com.

Devotees of the show sent e-mails to Chicago Public Radio requesting a podcast, griped about the lack of one in blogs, and went so far as to create their own “unofficial” podcasts by linking to hidden MP3 files on TAL’s servers — until show staffers politely asked them to stop.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the podcast drew more than 122,000 downloads in its first week and almost 138,000 the second week, leading the “Top Podcasts” listings in Apple’s iTunes Store.

The barrier to podcasting for years was the longstanding Audible deal. The vendor sold episodes of TAL for $3.95 a pop, barring the show from offering free downloads. Audible once had an on-demand distribution deal with NPR as well, but the network ended it last year as it readied its own extensive slate of podcasts.

TAL’s contract with the audio vendor came up for renewal at the end of August. But unlike NPR, the show did not break away from Audible entirely. Under the new deal, listeners will be able to download TAL episodes as free podcasts for a week after airing. After that point, episodes can be bought for 95 cents from Audible or Apple’s iTunes Music Store.
The lower price was agreed upon in part because listeners had criticized the previous price of $3.95 an episode, which was higher than the cost of TV shows at the iTunes store. Audible also plans to improve the audio quality, another source of complaints, Glass says.

Neither TAL nor Audible know how much revenue  to expect from archive sales, but Glass says his show wasn’t earning

much from Audible anyway. The company gave TAL advances each year of roughly $30,000, though last year the advance exceeded $100,000 as the company saw a surge of new subscribers downloading TAL episodes.

This year, TAL agreed to accept an advance of just $1 from Audible. “As a public broadcaster, my main goal is not to make money but to make stuff that people hear,” Glass says.
Offering a podcast also helps to position TAL as it heads toward the debut of its TV show on Showtime early next year, says Daniel Ash, Chicago Public Radio’s v.p. of strategic communications. Viewers may discover the show on cable, he says, and “migrating them to the radio program is much easier when you have something available for free.”

Another motivating factor, Glass admits, was the podcasting popularity of Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!, a Chicago Public Radio co-production whose staffers share a friendly rivalry with their TAL counterparts.

“We read in the New York Times that Wait Wait had a quarter-million people listening to its podcast,” Glass says. “That really was like waving a red cape in front of my staff.” 

Web page posted Nov. 21, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

PBS added iTunes to download vendors for seven shows, mostly at $1.99 per episode.

LINKS

This American Life's podcast page with links for users of iTunes and other podcast software

Audible Inc. sells downloaded episodes of This American Life for 95 cents each, or $19.95 for all of 2005.

iTunes has a standing page for This American Life podcasts.

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