The Leff Exchange podcast: A conversation with David Plotz, CEO of City Cast

Podcasts are relatively new, but the Slate Political Gabfestendorsed by Stephen Colbert and others—has been a mainstay on the airwaves for 15 years. We sat down with Gabfest host David Plotz—CEO of City Cast and former editor-in-chief of Slate magazine and CEO of Atlas Obscura—to find out what makes podcasts work. In the following conversation, David discusses podcasting, the fate of local journalism, and what about the future of media energizes him.

Alia Samhat: So David, thank you for joining us today. Tell me about your new company. What is City Cast?

David Plotz: City Cast is going to be a national network of daily local podcasts and newsletters focused on the cities where they are. So we’ve launched in Denver and Chicago a daily morning podcast about the cities’ news and a daily morning newsletter that tries to keep people informed and give them things that they can do and have them be a better Chicagoan or Denverite.

The podcast, I think, is the really new piece here. There have not been a lot of daily local news podcasts, and there haven’t been a lot of local podcasts at all. It’s a tricky business to monetize, but we think that there’s an opportunity because podcasts are the best medium for helping people connect to other people and connect to something. It’s a fantastic emotional medium. And we also think that a network where you have podcasts in city, after city, after city makes the business more feasible than if you just tried to do this in one city with one radio station or with one newspaper.

Alia: Tell me a little bit about the cities that you’ve chosen to launch in. I’m local to Chicago; I just listened to the City Cast Chicago today. We cover everything from the filet mignon hotdog to where to sign up for parks. So talk to me about why you chose the cities you did and what that rollout looks like from here.

David: So we chose our two launch cities, Denver and Chicago, for a few reasons: one, cities with super strong identities and a very powerful sense of who they are. A lot of conflict and tension—political tension, tension about economics, tension about development—a lot of cultural vitality; they’re both great food cities; they’re great cultural cities; they’re both filled with activities; there’s always something to encourage people to go do. And they both have a lot of talent, so for our first shows, we really wanted to make sure that we got super talented people because these are the only two first cities we’re going to have. So, we wanted to make sure that the hosts that we had there and the producers we had were the best we could find, and both Chicago and Denver had lots of talent. We’re going to expand though, so we will add two cities this summer, and, if the business makes sense and if we are experiencing growth, we’re going to add lots of cities.

And we’re going to look for cities where there’s some talent, where there is a strong identity, and also that over-index for podcasts listening. So Denver, in particular, is a city where lots of people listen to podcasts, and Chicago a little bit less so, but still Chicago is such a big city. And I think in the future, we’re going to use those metrics to help narrow down what cities will work. But it’s our belief that if we build it right that this could be a network that could be in a hundred US cities.

Alia: You mentioned this kind of filling the gap in local media. Talk to me about your take on the state of local journalism right now and what you’d like to see from City Cast and possibly other institutions as well.

David: Local journalism is really in a very interesting place right now; it’s in huge amount of ferment. And I will say that City Cast, itself, I don’t think is the solution to the crisis of local journalism. We are too small; we don’t have newsrooms, for example. We’re making podcasts and daily podcasts, but we don’t have a team of reporters who are doing the accountability journalism that cities really need.

So we have to go into an ecosystem where there already is journalism, and our goal is to highlight the best of that journalism and to make people care more about it. I think that podcasting is a kind of mediocre informational medium. It is not great if you wanted to learn about the city budget; a podcast would be a terrible way to learn about the city budget because I would start to say“The city spent $63 million on buses and $47 million on road repair and $147 million on…” And you’d be like, “Wait, how much did they spend on buses?” Because it’s like—it’s gone. It’s voice; it’s gone.

And so it’s not a good way to get information that you can then follow and process. But what podcasting is amazing at is making you care about something, feel a human connection. The human voice is designed to create warmth and intimacy and connection. And so that’s what we think—that our podcasts are designed to solve the problem of making people care more about what’s going on in their city rather than being the prime source of information. We think the prime source of information is still going to come from newspapers, television, digital startups—and we will help amplify that work.

But local journalism overall—I think what we’ve seen is this situation where we have some tremendously successful models of new media or old media that have adapted, and obviously The New York Times is the premier example. And then there are other things like specialty places like Gimlet in the podcasting space, NPR in general. But at the local level, it is so hard to sustain a real business anymore because the primary sources of revenue, namely local advertising and local subscriptions, have been absolutely hammered and hollowed out and taken away.

And so what we’ve seen is this bloodletting of local newspapers, in particular, but also local radio and local TV have gotten worse and weaker. What’s exciting is that there’s this new ecosystem of mostly not-for-profit, digital, localized news hubs—and you can think of in Denver, where we are, there’s Denverite. There’s Block Club Chicago or The TRiiBE in Chicago. And there’s THE CITY in New York. There’s DCist in Washington. And sometimes these things are associated with a larger media outlet like the local public radio station.

And these local digital start-ups are great, and they have a lot of energy behind them, and they have truly passionate people working for them and are doing excellent accountability journalism. Most of them are not economically viable on their own; they either need a larger entity like a public radio station to support them, or they need a foundation support or a billionaire to own them. And also similarly with local newspapers we see, again, like with the current situation with the Chicago Tribune in this purgatory where—is it going to be owned by Alton Capital? Is it going to be owned by some benevolent billionaire? It’s a very tough place to be. And I don’t think there’s an easy solution to the economic problem—that these philanthropically driven news outlets are great.

We’re all competing, again, for a relatively small number of people who are willing to pay for news, and there’s a relatively small number of advertisers, and Google and Facebook, as much reported, have done such a good job of swallowing all the localized ad revenue that exists or all the media ad revenue growth that exists. And so it’s hard; it’s a hard situation.

Alia: Yeah, I was going to bring up the Tribune before you did as you were talking. I thought that’s an example right there. Like you say, it’s a niche audience who—you max out on the number of people who are paying for this. Are there any business models that you find interesting or see where media is headed?

David: Well, I think one of the things that’s really unfortunate is the nationalization of news. The New York Times is fantastic. I love The New York Times. I pay a boatload of money for The New York Times every year. I don’t even know how much I’m paying for it. It used to be your local newspaper came, and it had all these sections—it had a sports section; it had a cooking section; it had a travel section if it was a reasonably sized newspaper; it had a book review section; it had a jobs and classified section; it had a real estate section. And most of the sections had local advertising. They had local advertising, and the Metro section might be not be enough to get you to subscribe to the newspaper, but the Metro section plus the comics plus the sports section—those three things together add up and made it. And now the local newspapers just can’t do that, in part because you can get so much other stuff for free online. And the only places that can do that bundled menu of stuff are The New York Times, which has the crossword that people are willing to pay for.

No one pays for the Chicago Tribune crossword; they pay for The New York Times crossword, whether they live in Chicago or New York or DC. No one pays for the Los Angeles Times food section; they pay for New York Times Cooking—and so this nationalization is really troublesome for local places. It’s hard to see how the kind of full-service-menu local newspaper survives. I think what I’m excited about are these scrappy digital efforts like The TRiiBE, like Block Club Chicago in Chicago. I’m really excited by the energy of the public radio ecosystem and their efforts, and I think that public radio stations around the country—the best of them have really done something special in connecting with it.

They have communities, and they built communities. Now, have they connected to younger audiences yet? Not so well, but in a place like DC where you have the public radio station that owns DCist, which is the local, scrappy, digital start-up, they’re grabbing the younger audiences in, too. I’m not super optimistic about—everyone’s all “Substack this, Substack that.” I’m not really super optimistic about Substack as a solution for local journalism because it’s so individual and idiosyncratic, and actually what it does is it sucks money that people could have spent in a more generalized digital experience and just puts it in one person’s pocket.

And I think that is not good for a local model; it’s not necessarily great, even though I certainly pay for Substacks. I’m excited that the philanthropic ecosystem to support a lot of this local journalism has become excellent. So there’s the American Journalism Project, which has this fund that is supporting a dozen, maybe two dozen, local digital newsrooms around the country, including in places that are real news deserts. There’s the partnership that just bought those papers in Colorado. There’s basically a fund to buy a bunch of local newspapers and put them under in non-profit status and run them collectively. And I think that’s really exciting. So I think the funding capacity and the expertise at the funding level is pretty high, and that gives me courage, it gives me heart.

Alia: Yeah, I wanted to get your thoughts on Substack. I know that’s a hot topic to say the least.

David: I think it’s a pretty small number of people who are supporting a lot of media. I don’t think it’s the case that it’s 70 million people are each paying for one subscription. I think it’s that 10 million people are each paying for seven subscriptions to things. And so the group of people who are the paid, dedicated media consumers are pretty small, and they tend to subscribe to a lot of things or invest their time and energy into a lot of different things.

And then the majority of people are kind of casual flyby consumers who don’t really pay attention to where things are from and aren’t violently attached to anything. So, I think our core audience is going to come from that group of dedicated people. And hopefully in our case, it will come from people who are really passionate to know more about their city, and care more about their city, and feel a deeper connection to it. So Chicago is a Metro area of nine million people; I don’t think it’s three million people who are our potential audience. I think it’s probably our potential audience is more like 300,000 people. But if you can get an audience of 300,000 people or 150,000 people who are really passionate about your city and passionate about the place, you’re in great shape with the scale that we have.

So it’s going to be tricky, and I hope all of your listeners who are in Chicago or Denver immediately go and subscribe to City Cast Chicago and City Cast Denver so they can get a chance to connect more deeply with their city.

Alia: I hope they do too. I mean, if nothing else they’ve got to listen to Jacoby Cochran; he’s a great host.

David: Jacoby is a really special person; he’s going to be a superstar.

Alia: Can we take a step way back? I want to know about launching Slate’s podcast business. I mean, you just said—podcasting is hard. It seems like you led the charge there. Can you talk a bit about when you started it, when you thought they were taking off—that whole rollout basically?

David: The podcast business at Slate has been going since the word podcast was coined. Slate started podcasting in 2005 at the urging of Andy Bowers who was an NPR person who Slate had hired to work on a radio show. Slate had a radio partnership with NPR, and on the side, Andy said, “There’s this cool new form—RSS, audio RSS. We should try it.” And so he invented this podcasting form for Slate and encouraged us to play around with it.

He recognized early on, like this was a new medium, and it looked and behaved in a different way than radio, and we were going to play around with it in a different way. And so from the earliest days, me and a couple of colleagues—Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson—started doing a political talk show, a weekly political talk show called the Slate Political Gabfest, which we started in 2005.

We did it from a closet; it was incredibly casual. We assumed no one was listening, so we acted like no one was listening. And we just talked across each other. There was a telephone in the room, and occasionally people would randomly dial that telephone for trying to reach someone at Slate, and we would pick that up, and our conversation with the person who called would end up in the podcast. It was extremely loose and extremely casual and conversational, and it became a huge hit in the early days because it was a recognition that the kind of Olympian attitude that most journalists had and that radio had, like the Voice of God kind of quality of radio, was not going to work in podcasting. Podcasting was a conversational, intimate space.

So Slate leaned into doing a whole bunch of conversational podcasts, and as the editor—I was, I guess, the deputy editor at the start but then as the editor—we bet the farm on it and quickly realized that even though the numbers of people listening were relatively much smaller than the total digital audience, that the people who are listening to podcasts were the best audience; they were super attentive. So even if the Political Gabfest had 250,000 listeners compared to Slate having 25 million readers, those 250,000 listeners—they were an elite kind of listener; they tended to be really smart and really plugged in. Like Stephen Colbert became a huge fan of our show.

They were just more devoted, more passionate. They would follow; they would pay attention. And so for me, the moment that I realized it, I was in Columbia, Missouri, because Slate had won some journalism award, and I’d gone to Columbia to accept a journalism award. I was walking down the street, and I was talking to a person who was hosting me there. And walking the other direction, someone came, and I have a kind of loud voice. And this person stopped and said, “I’m listening to you right now.”

And it was this sense like, “Oh, you just don’t even know where it’s going or know if anyone’s paying attention, but actually someone has it right in their head.” And then for Obama’s inauguration, we decided to do a live show around the time of Obama’s inauguration in 2009, so this is several years after we did the podcast. And no one was doing live podcasts at the time—like nobody; it was not a form. And we just thought, “We’ll just tape a podcast in front of an audience.” And someone offered us a theater. And so we just thought, “OK, we’ll announce it.”

And we got something like 2,500 ticket requests for this show. And we’re like, “Oh, these are people who are willing to like schlep, go wait in line to go watch us tape a podcast.” And that was a recognition that it is a deeply human, intimate connection that you make with it.

Alia: You get drawn into the conversation. That’s the thing I like about it the most. It’s like, let’s listen to these three smart people—sometimes their guests—have a conversation, and that’s the best part about it.

David: I would like someone to write about this. I think the three-person conversational podcast—there’s a bewitching magic about it because I think what it feels like, as somebody who listens to those three-person podcasts and also hosts one, is it feels like you are sitting at a table, a four-person table, and you’re the fourth person at the table with these three people, and you’re kind of part of a conversation, even though you can’t really talk back, but that it’s that level of intimacy and that level of connection. It’s like a dinner party, a really small, intimate dinner party, and that’s why people feel such closeness to the hosts of the podcasts that they love.

Alia: You’ve touched on this, but in your years in media, what continues to surprise you? As you’ve led a number of organizations as an editor, as a journalist, what surprises you? What energizes you?

David: I think what’s amazing and what has me really excited, and Substack is an incarnation of this, and City Cast is an incarnation of this, is for about 50 years—so, the whole period from the birth of radio until the birth of the internet—news media was pretty static. Cable news came along, but basically it was print newspapers, radio, and network television, and then local news—and all very formatted.

I think that what’s been amazing about digital—it’s like, there’s been a lot of failures in digital, huge failures and huge wastes of money and silly things that have happened. But the kind of creativity that exists and the flexibility, whether it’s something like Morning Brew, a newsletter startup, whether it’s something like a Gimlet or like a City Cast—like trying to do something in audio that no one has ever done before. Whether it’s people doing TikTok journalism effectively; it is so incredibly exciting.

And the barriers to entry are very low, and the creativity is super high. A lot of these things we haven’t figured out business models for and probably never will, and that is sad, but it’s amazing. Like my last company, Atlas Obscura—it was a media company, but it was also a local events company, and it was an international travel company. And the ways that people are mixing things and creating delicious, complicated stews of media—I think are glorious. And really, like the short supply is time because things don’t get enough time to survive, and the short supply is management expertise—people who can run things in a sustainable way.

But if we can get those two things worked out, I just feel like it’s an amazing time to be a news consumer and an amazing time if you want to start something and try something new. It is not an amazing time if you work for a newspaper or a local TV station or a local radio station; then, it is a harder time.

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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