Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2019

Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Communication

Advisor

Michael J. Socolow

Second Committee Member

Judith Rosenbaum

Third Committee Member

Holly E. Schreiber

Abstract

Podcasting is both a disruption and an opportunity for public radio. It’s disruptive in that it marks a shift in how public radio organizations connect with listeners, who increasingly seek on-demand content. For traditional broadcast outlets like public radio this has raised a host of questions around how to allocate resources and deal with new workflow and labor demands in the digital age. It also has exacerbated ever-present commercial pressures in public media. As for opportunities, podcasting is a platform for public radio to reach new listeners, elevate underrepresented voices, and experiment with new sounds and storytelling techniques. It also offers the opportunity to attract new sources of revenue, though that also plays into the commercial tensions.

This thesis explores these themes in an effort to shed light on how public radio is adapting to the growing audience for podcasts. It seeks to illuminate two interrelated questions prompted by the public discourse over podcasting in public radio: How did commercial imperatives get embedded into these conversations? And, in what ways are public radio organizations managing the disruptions and opportunities presented by podcasting? It is a descriptive, critical, and cultural analysis, grounded in political economy of communication theory.

The findings suggest that the commercial pressures on public radio organizations as they integrate podcasting into the work they produce are the result of historical, political, economic, and social structures. Specifically, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 created a regulatory system in the United States that privileges a highly commercialized and privatized media. That Act and similar policies are informed by neoliberalism—the belief that free markets and free trade are the most efficient systems for promoting individual and social welfare. This thesis shows how neoliberal ideology has become so prevalent in society that well-known public radio producers and podcasters like Ira Glass and Alex Blumberg regularly employ its rhetoric, heightening commercial tensions. Yet, through qualitative interviews with individuals working in public radio, this research also shows that many stations are still figuring out how to meet the growing demand for podcasts. As they do so, the new medium has become a place to experiment with different narrative styles, to foster collaboration between stations and outside of public radio, and to provide a public service to both local and national audiences.

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