NEW YORK – NBC News is making an ambitious push into the podcast market, with audio series on conspiracy theories, the British royalty and legacy of Title IX in scholastic athletics planned in the next few months.
Bonus episodes of two popular recent podcasts, “Southlake” and the “Dateline” spinoff “The Thing About Pam,” are also being released in early March.
NBC News was tied for 11th in Edison Research's list of top podcast networks by reach, the only company that is known primarily as a television news broadcaster in the company's top 18. NBC News said the audience for its podcasts in 2021 grew by 19% over the year before.
“One of our biggest priorities continues to be generating original, distinctive reporting and pushing out across a variety of platforms,” said NBC News President Noah Oppenheim. “Podcasts are a new format for us to play in, but it’s rooted in the same fundamentals that drive all of our work.”
NBC’s podcast unit began with two people in 2018 and now has more than a dozen people devoted to the form. It was a key moment when one of the network's most popular personalities, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, delivered the podcast “Bag Man” about former Vice President Spiro Agnew, which is now being made into a movie.
Maddow is currently on hiatus from her daily MSNBC show, in part to work on another podcast. Neither she nor Oppenheim would reveal what it’s about. (Maddow is expected to appear on MSNBC during coverage of major events.)
“Southlake” is touted as an example of how NBC used its experience as a news division to create a podcast. The series about a Texas community’s debates over the teaching of racial issues in public schools began when one of the network’s regional reporters, Mike Hixenbaugh, noted what was going on there and produced a digital feature about it. He teamed with correspondent Antonia Hylton to turn it into a podcast.
The more reporters NBC has embedded in communities, the better the chance it has to find such stories, Oppenheim said.
“People like the investigations,” said Madeleine Haeringer, an NBC News senior vice president in charge of the podcast unit. “They like to be in a story as it unfolds.”
One well-received series, “American Radical,” featured MSNBC anchor Ayman Mohyeldin returning to his hometown to report on a woman who had become radicalized politically.
Not every television story adapts itself well to the podcast format, since they take time and considerable reporting to develop characters and include twists and turns enough to sustain the interest of listeners. NBC has brought on people experienced in the format for its unit, Haeringer said.
NBC News' success in podcasting is driven primarily by “Dateline NBC," which it has cleverly positioned into a brand of its own with true crime projects, said James Cridland, editor of the trade publication Podnews. In Edison Research's list of the top 50 podcasts of last year, “Dateline NBC” and “The Rachel Maddow Show” are NBC's two entries.
“Much of NBC's podcast output is reheated TV shows,” Cridland said. But with research showing young audiences attracted to audio formats, it's a strategic move to aggressively get into the podcast business, he said.
Podcasts are also an incubator for ideas that could be translated elsewhere, he said. In addition to the upcoming “Bag Man” movie, NBC is turning the story in “The Thing About Pam” into an entertainment series starring Renee Zellweger.
As a new format, podcasts are wide open to companies of all sorts. Spotify is a big player in the industry, as are other large audio-based companies like iHeartRadio and SXM Media. There are those who focus primarily on podcasts, like Wondery and Kast Media, corporate behemoths like Disney and ViacomCBS, and those known best in other mediums, like NPR and The New York Times.
Oppenheim called it a “nascent” business and would not discuss what podcasting has meant for NBC News’ bottom line.
Reporter Brandy Zadrozny is behind “Truthers,” the upcoming podcast on internet conspiracy theories, and U.S. Olympic sabre fencer Ibtijah Muhammad reports on the history of Title IX and the idea of equal sports opportunities both sexes.
“Dateline NBC” reporter Keith Morrison is also working on a new podcast, while MSNBC's Chris Hayes' podcast, “Why is This Happening,” will have episodes on money, entertainment and friendship, NBC said.
This story corrects word in Oppenheim’s quote from ‘property’ to ‘reporting’ and notes that ‘Southlake’ began as a digital feature, instead of a film.