NPR's new podcast boss on the competition, scouting talent and keeping his unfair advantage
NPR is serious about podcasting.
Carruth, who was previously supervising senior editor for the broadcaster's business desk, is preparing to oversee all six of NPR's "news podcasts" — "Planet Money," "Embedded," "Hidden Brain," "Code Switch," "Pop Culture Happy Hour" and "The NPR Politics Podcast." He will not oversee two of NPR's most popular podcasts, "Invisibilia" and "Ted Radio Hour," radio shows that already have their own production teams in place.
His promotion comes as the public radio broadcaster is trying to build its lead in a highly competitive medium. Although NPR got its start in podcasting a decade ago, the runaway success of "Serial," combined with the rise of mobile listening has turbocharged on-demand audio and jump-started the network's efforts.
In the last two years, NPR has launched several podcasts, including "Invisibilia," "Hidden Brain," "How I Built This," "Embedded," and it's got more in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, NPR is building out "Story Lab," a kind of skunkworks for innovation in audio storytelling. It's also taking pitches from the public in a bid to capitalize on the independent podcasting talent from across the United States.
But until Friday, NPR didn't have a single person overseeing NPR's podcasting push. In addition to making sure the existing podcasts are working well together, Carruth will lead the charge to develop new shows, help make them financially sustainable, scout new talent and generally keep NPR's podcasting ambitions afloat. It's a big job.
"It’s going to be helping them figure out where they want to be five months from now and a year from now," Carruth said.
Dealing with the competition will be a key part of the job. NPR has been a victim of its own success, spawning a generation of talented podcast producers from the ranks of public media. Carruth will be programming against many of his former colleagues, including Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media, 60dB's Steve Henn and Panoply's Andy Bowers. NPR has a lead on many of its rivals, but that's no guarantee of future success.
"There’s a lot of competition out there," Carruth said. "I don’t think we take our strength or position for granted at all. We have to work really hard and keep innovating and keep working really hard and find great ideas and great partners."
A linchpin of keeping up with the competition will be attracting great podcasters — and keeping the veterans that NPR already has. As venture capital money pours into podcasting startups, Carruth sees talent management as a key part of his job.
“I’ve seen up close the talent war that the podcasting boom has created," Carruth said. "And you’ve got to be really smart and you’ve got to be on offense. You’ve got to know who your most talented people are and keep them creatively fulfilled.”
NPR's competitions might have a narrower focus on podcasting, or millions in venture funding. But what they don't have, Carruth said, is NPR's massive newsgathering apparatus — an operation that spans 17 foreign bureaus, more than 900 of member stations and hundreds of journalists.
When asked what NPR's advantage over its competitors was, Carruth answered immediately.
“The answer to that is very clear to me," he said. "There’s really nothing like it in broadcasting and the strength of journalism in terms of our newsgathering."
Much of Carruth's new job will be figuring out how to leverage that sprawling footprint. But he'll also help bridge the divide between NPR's more traditional radio operation and the ever-evolving podcast space, helping come up with a set of best practices to fit a new medium. But he says he's the right person to lead change from within, having spent 17 years as a reporter, editor, producer and supervisor at NPR.
“All the various elements of my career path feed into everything I’m doing here. I’ve been an editor. I’ve been a producer. I’ve worked at a member station. And I don’t take any of that for granted, either.”
And he knows how much he doesn't know. That's why, before he makes big decisions about the broadcaster's direction, he's going to spend some time talking to his colleagues.
"I’ll probably be able to say a lot more about this in a few weeks once I’ve been on the job and have a new sense of interlocking parts.”