Over the last decade, public media organizations large and small have experimented with podcasting as a vehicle for producing in-depth audio journalism, as well as reaching new audiences and trying out new and creative ways of telling impactful stories. And lots of people are tuning in. According to the 2023 Spoken Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, when you divvy up the total time spent engaging with spoken word audio across different platforms, over one third is spent listening to podcasts. And according to a 2024 industry report, The Infinite Dial, year over year, more and more people across all age groups are listening to podcasts.

But despite this steady growth in podcast listenership, public media as well as corporate media outlets have been pulling back from podcasting because of financial pressures. In March 2023, for example, NPR, faced with a $30 million budget shortfall, canceled or scaled back production on several of its flagship podcasts, laying off production staff in the process. And it’s not just NPR. New York Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio and most recently Chicago Public Radio are among the stations that have slashed podcast production budgets, shuttered in-house podcasting units and canceled shows. Public media organizations are clearly rethinking where podcasting fits into their strategic priorities.

For New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR), an independently licensed $9 million medium-sized station tucked in the foothills of the White Mountains, podcasts have become an essential audience development tool and vehicle for disseminating impactful journalism. NHPR has been making waves in the podcasting space for some time and is often credited with punching above their weight. Their approach focuses on a limited number of podcasts produced by multi-purpose teams that generate impact, audience, and revenue, and yet are not expected to be financially self-sustaining.

Rebecca Lavoie is NHPR’s director of on-demand audio where she has a hand in editorial oversight as well as business and strategy for NHPR’s podcast portfolio. The station’s portfolio includes a mix of weekly ‘always-on’ shows as well as special limited-run investigative series like The 13th Step, which recently won a duPont-Columbia Silver Baton Award. 

Lavoie has worn many hats at NHPR for over a decade, and she has a unique perspective on the business of podcasting, in part because she has a tether to the commercial side of the industry, including hosting a podcast for Netflix and co-owning an independent podcast production company that produces the true crime review podcast, Crime Writers On

Greater Public reached out to Lavoie for her insights on NHPR’s strategic approach and how she thinks stations could potentially leverage podcasts as an audience development tool while also making them in a financially sustainable way. Here are some insights Lavoie shared from her podcasting playbook.

1. Don’t expect podcasts to be self-sustaining.

When it comes to growing revenue, podcasting has created a significant revenue bump for NHPR, particularly around podcast-attributable major gifts, according to Lavoie. And there’s also the earned income that comes from advertising revenue sold by SiriusXM, the station’s distribution and sales partner. Still, NHPR has never expected its podcasts to pay their own way – an expectation Lavoie finds baffling. 

“Our websites aren’t self-sustaining. Our political desks aren’t self-sustaining. We don’t launch a Spanish language news service saying, ‘When is this going to be self-sustaining?’ It’s really only this one kind of long-form journalism that’s being put in that box. And I’ve never understood that,” says Lavoie.

Whatever podcast-related revenue NHPR earns ultimately gets funneled to the station’s bottom line. “There’s no separate budget to fund the podcast team. We’re just FTEs in the organization. So my salary is being paid for from the same bucket line items as the news director’s salary. And everyone on my team is in the same bucket as a reporter’s salary,” says Lavoie. 

This ‘one-bucket’ approach reflects NHPR’s core philosophy that podcasting shouldn’t be siloed from the station’s newsroom operations. To that end, Lavoie seeks out opportunities for collaboration, such as inviting newsroom staff to participate in story edits, sharing back-office resources like transcription, and producing shorter radio feature versions of podcast episodes that air on NHPR’s news magazines.

2. Podcasts can be a valuable vehicle for audience growth and major gift revenue.

One question Lavoie gets asked a lot is this: Why would NHPR want to reach a national audience with its podcasts? Like why would NHPR have national ambitions in the first place? 

For Lavoie, a big driver is the chance to unlock new revenue opportunities, particularly with major donors, who Lavoie says are motivated to support public service and accountability journalism. The fact that the journalism is being transmitted in the form of a podcast is incidental; the selling point is the quality and impact of the content, as well as the fact that it’s reaching a wider swath of listeners beyond people who listen to public radio. 

When it comes to major donors, Lavoie says that NHPR has a compelling pitch about “Doing journalism that’s singular in the long form, that digs in, that holds people to account, and that tells a story about the environment in a way that’s engaging younger, more diverse audiences across the country.”

When you look at the analytics, NHPR’s podcasts draw niche and distinctive audiences beyond fans of public radio. For instance, their investigative limited-series podcast, Bear Brook, is beloved by Gen-X women who are true crime devotees. NHPR currently has two weekly narrative podcasts, Civics 101 and Outside/In. Civics 101 is popular with teachers and retired military while Outside/In’s audience skews a bit younger and male and attracts a sizable group of listeners from Oregon, a state known for outdoor spaces and recreation. From a marketing and branding perspective, NHPR isn’t trying to convert these listeners into superfans of the station. 

“We want people to know that we make great shows. But we’re not saying: Now you have to listen to NHPR the station and become a sustainer. And here’s how to enter our car raffle, even though you’re not eligible to win our car raffle because you don’t live in our listening area.”

Lavoie says there’s actually very little overlap between NHPR’s local radio-listening audience and its podcast audience. With a population of 1.4 million, New Hampshire is a small state, and so the potential for audience growth is inherently constrained. “We cannot reach scale here in New Hampshire. So I think a lot about the national audience,” says Lavoie. 

If stations have aspirations around attracting a big podcast audience, Lavoie says it’s okay if the local audience is small. “We think about our audience as being for the show and not the station,” she says.

3. Grow at a scale and pace that’s sustainable.

In 2018, NHPR released the investigative true crime podcast, Bear Brook, which became an instant hit that’s since been downloaded more than 30 million times. In the wake of this success, NHPR could have set its sights on another project with the aim of achieving similar downloads. Instead, they kept their ambitions in check. “One huge decision we made was not to scale up once we started seeing big audiences for our shows,” says Lavoie. “We very intentionally kept within our means as we were growing our audience and scaling up with infrastructure internally.” 

Scaling up at a doable pace has meant keeping production teams small and somewhat nimble. For instance, NHPR’s two weekly podcasts, Outside/In and Civics 101, are staffed by four people apiece. Those teams include people like Lavoie who wear other hats within the organization. On occasion, Lavoie will tap NHPR’s newsroom for help with an episode, which allows for cross-pollination.

Another dimension of scaling up is figuring out when to say no – whether it’s to new projects or to special events that aren’t a good use of staff time because they take people’s attention away from producing new episodes. “I am laser-focused on the goals of the shows, and the goals of the shows are to grow the audience and get more downloads,” says Lavoie. “And that’s a business goal of mine, because more downloads directly correlates to more ad revenue.” 

4. Challenge your assumptions about how ad spots should sound.

Because of FCC regulations, underwriting spots that air on non-commercial radio need to adhere to certain rules. For instance, they can’t include a call to action to buy something or promote a company’s goods and services.  

Even though podcasting ad spots aren’t subject to these FCC rules, public media has often followed them in the podcast space, and Lavoie thinks this is misguided, particularly when it comes to host-read ad spots, which command a higher rate, and which some advertising clients require.

“A mistake that we made for a long time that I hear other stations making is they think about the podcast listener the way they think about the terrestrial public radio listener,” says Lavoie. As she sees it, podcast listeners are accustomed to host-read ads, because that’s what’s typical in commercial podcasting, and listeners don’t distinguish between podcasts produced by public media versus a for-profit company. People like what they like, and they listen on that basis. “There’s no reason to leave money on the table because we’re differentiating ourselves in that way,” she says.

Lavoie says that podcast ad sales add up to “a very successful fund drive’s worth of revenue” for NHPR annually – so not exactly a small slice of the station’s overall revenue pie.

5. Reframe what it means to have a successful podcast.

If you’re a public media station that tried podcasting and pulled back because your station didn’t get hundreds of thousands if not millions of downloads, Lavoie cautions that you may be underestimating your own success. She says a podcast that has 5,000 downloads per episode would put you in the top 1 percent of podcasters. “How would you feel if you produced a weekly live show in a 5,000-person theater, and it was full every week? You’d be really excited and that would be considered a huge success, right?” 

Lavoie advises stations to rethink their assumptions about what success looks like. “In terrestrial radio, it would be a no-brainer to greenlight a newsroom project that could reach a pocket of five, ten or 15 thousand people. But when it comes to podcasting, we don’t think that’s enough,” she says. “The only reason this seems to be more difficult for people to grasp is because of the product itself and the platform. But that’s all it is. A podcast feed is a place to put things. It’s just like putting a news story on a website. It’s actually a very efficient and inexpensive platform for reaching a lot of people.” 

Looking out across a podcast landscape that’s floundering right now, Lavoie thinks this is a critical moment for public media to step up and lead. “There’s nobody better positioned to do it. We don’t need to be self-funding. Who better to make the kind of content that audiences want than us? We have the microphones, we have the people, we have the journalism. It’s such a no-brainer.” 

As Lavoie sees it, podcasting is no longer a new or innovative media frontier, and public media shouldn’t be thinking of it this way. Instead, stations can position podcasts as an extension of the high-quality journalism stations are already doing. “Because that’s what it actually is,” she says. 

Strategic, calculated, appropriately scaled podcasts can increase the community impact of a station’s journalism, attract new audiences, and serve as important revenue generators, especially among major donors. As terrestrial listening continues to decline, stations are seeking new strategies for reaching listeners and staying relevant. With podcast and on-demand listening on the rise, podcasts can be part of a thoughtful strategy for how public media evolves its impact into the future.