Will people listen to a podcast about international news? With Rough Translation, NPR is giving it a try
"The word 'international' can often connote broccoli."
Gregory Warner doesn't like to use the "I" word.
"I've had a love-hate affair with the word 'international," said Warner, who until recently was NPR's East Africa Correspondent, based in Nairobi. "...The word 'international' can often connote broccoli."
Warner doesn't think that's fair. And, like a parent determined to make broccoli more palatable by slathering it in cheddar cheese, he thinks he's come up with an enticing way to serve up news about the world to NPR listeners.
Rough Translation, NPR's new podcast, takes topics familiar to Americans — romantic love, misinformation, changing technology — and puts them in surprising international contexts: flirting coaches in Berlin. Fake news in Ukraine. Racial injustice in Brazil. With Warner as guide, Rough Translation aims to take listeners around the world while keeping one foot planted firmly on familiar ground.
The first seven-episode season is the result of experimentation at NPR's Storytelling Lab, a sort of skunkworks to test out ideas for creative audio projects. As the podcasting business grows, and companies like Panoply, Gimlet and Pineapple Street Media chip away at the burgeoning market, NPR has struck back with podcasts including Invisibilia, Up First, How I Built This and Wow In The World. Their podcasts frequently top the (somewhat ambiguous) iTunes charts; Rough Translation is currently sitting at No. 2.
Whether it's podcasts or print, international news is always a harder sell. But if any news organization can pull off an international podcast, it might well be NPR. The public radio network has 17 bureaus in major cities outside the United States, including Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro and Cairo. It's not just that NPR is saving on airplane and hotel fare, Warner said. The most important thing about having journalists stationed abroad is that NPR doesn't have to parachute in and brush up on the local scene every time it does a story overseas.
"The cost of airfare is not the main cost," Warner said. "The main cost is time. A lot of the podcasts, like This American Life and Radiolab, there's a concern about traveling before you know what the story's going to be."
Part of the challenge of Rough Translation is immersing listeners in the culture of another country while preserving the feeling of discovery that travelers experience, Warner said. Listeners want to hear from people who are knowledgeable about the region. But they don't want to lose the experience of traveling in a place and not knowing what's going on. And it's important to preserve the sound of a different country, too.
"If this podcast sounds like it was made in New York, that's a total failure," Warner said.
NPR and Warner are betting that now is the right time to watch the show, in part because international news has recently affected the United States. Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election, for instance, and the populism that swept the United States has also sprouted in the U.K., France and Germany.
"We're in a period where — as much as we are focused on our own country and all the dramatic events in the United States — there is an awareness, this year, that we are buffeted by the events that other people are experiencing all over the world."
You can listen to the first two episodes of "Rough Translation" here.