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NPR names new podcast chief as network seeks to regain footing

NPR names veteran audio executive Collin Campbell as its new podcast chief amid strong headwinds in the industry.
Drew Angerer
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NPR names veteran audio executive Collin Campbell as its new podcast chief amid strong headwinds in the industry.

NPR named veteran audio executive Collin Campbell as its new podcast chief on Thursday as part of an effort to stabilize its role as a key player in the increasingly crowded field.

"People who are looking for news and information on topics are just facing a really confusing mix," Campbell said in an interview ahead of the announcement. "You can't sort between the output of a group of journalists that have the goods and have the boots on the ground, and a bunch of people [simply] talking about it. We have to really look at ways to stand out and show what we do and how we do it."

The appointment underscores the moment as one of rapid shifts among the network's executive ranks and heightened competition for both podcast listeners and advertisers. NPR has been an innovative force in podcasting but has seen its leading status ebb with a flurry of entrants into the industry.

"I think media with a sense of mission will prevail," Campbell added.

Campbell promised that he'd build upon the public radio network's journalistic strengths, seek opportunities to forge stronger connections with listeners to increase audiences and financial support, and leverage the reporting and insights of its hundreds of local member stations.

Campbell was selected by NPR's acting chief content officer, Edith Chapin, after a national search. He will start next month.

Chapin was traveling for work and unavailable for an interview for this story. In a statement announcing the appointment, she said, "Podcasting is a natural way for NPR to tell stories with depth and character in addition to explanatory journalism. Collin brings the mix of journalism and podcasting experience that will build on NPR's groundbreaking work with podcasts and refine our work for the ever changing media landscape."

More than 26 million people listen to NPR's 156 million downloads each month. This year, the network has bolstered its offerings with Trump's Trials and State of the World. The daily news podcast Up First has registered seventh on Apple's list of top podcasts for 2023 and ninth on Spotify's list of U.S. podcasts.

NPR looks to rebuild after layoffs

After projecting a steep revenue shortfall, NPR embarked on layoffs comprising nearly 10 percent of its workforce earlier this year. It eliminated four podcasts, including the groundbreaking show Invisibilia and other acclaimed series.

In summer 2022, the network transformed its long-form but only periodic narrative series, Embedded, into a regular franchise encompassing much of NPR's enterprise podcast work as a way of ensuring listeners developed a habit of downloading episodes. Outside analysts had questioned why it did not do so much sooner.

Campbell's predecessor, NPR programming executive Anya Grundmann, is departing NPR at the end of this year, though the job has been refashioned. It no longer includes the portfolio of NPR Music.

In her nearly three decades-long career, Grundmann was heralded for a series of innovations. But she was not able to position NPR to deal with the dual onslaught of intensified competition and a steep decline in advertising dollars due to fears of a recession that has not, to date, arrived.

"Podcasts are a platform for journalism, just like the radio"

"It surprised me to see NPR so visibly pull out of the narrative podcast space," said Rebecca Lavoie, director of podcasts and on demand audio at New Hampshire Public Radio. "While it's true that serialized, long-form journalism may be the most difficult to monetize through traditional advertising, making journalism with the explicit intent to monetize has never been the public radio model.

"Podcasts are a platform for journalism," she wrote, "just like the radio, just like the web, just like any other platform where some stories work better than others, both in terms of format and the audiences they will reach."

Campbell's position, technically senior vice president for podcasting strategy and franchise development, will report to a new chief content officer, a dormant position recently revived by NPR CEO John Lansing.

Chapin holds the content job temporarily and is also the network's chief news executive. The network put the search for a permanent chief content officer on hold after Lansing announced he will retire early next year. NPR board chair Jennifer Ferro, the chief executive of KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., wrote in a memo to staff that the board expects to vote on a new CEO in mid-January.

Other top executives also have recently departed or are leaving soon, including NPR's chief operating officer and top human resources executive.

Building a career in commercial and public media

Campbell arrives from Gimlet, a disruptive entrant in the podcasting field initially led by innovators from public radio. There, he was the executive editor for new show development.

Gimlet was one of a series of new, for-profit entrants to the field of podcasting with a public radio feel, in part by hiring public radio veterans away from NPR and major stations. Others who have found a foothold in podcasting following this strategy include the New York Times, Pineapple Street Studios, Vox Media, and Audible.

NPR won a Pulitzer Prize for audio with member stations WABE and KCUR in 2021; Gimlet was awarded one earlier this year.

Yet it could not escape layoffs: Spotify, which acquired Gimlet in 2019, has just slashed jobs throughout its podcast holdings to address a sharp drop in advertising revenue.

"I've seen boom, I have seen bust," Campbell said. "The last year, particularly for me, it's been really hard, you know, to go from winning the Pulitzer Prize in audio to being dismantled three months later. To have a pretty incredible workforce sent packing was just devastating to watch."

Commercial pressures, public radio imperatives

Commercial podcasters, analysts say, are under pressure to produce more content quickly and cheaply. How NPR responds to similar pressures will determine its future.

"We're now in a long overdue period of economic rationalization," Vulture and New York Magazine podcast critic Nick Quah wrote in a comment emailed for this story. (The two outlets are owned by Vox Media.) "But that warrants refinement, not retreat. The way NPR has handled its cuts, and communicated those cuts, feels like a thorough retreat."

Campbell has roots in the public radio world, though not NPR itself. He previously worked at New York Public Radio, LAist (Southern California Public Radio) and the streaming service Audible, which is owned by Amazon. At New York Public Radio, he helped create two national radio shows that also became notable podcasts, The Takeaway (canceled earlier this year) and Freakonomics Radio.

Both stations - among the most significant in the public radio system - have laid off staff this year, following a collapse in sponsorship revenues. Other outlets that had moved into audio, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Vox Media have also deeply cut back staff.

"This economic moment in the industry has created an incredible opportunity for public media," Lavoie wrote. "Because we don't face the same kinds of pressures that commercial outlets do – a point we repeatedly make during our station fund drives – we can and should be grabbing this opportunity with every resource we can muster. Some stations are doing exactly that. NPR should do the same."

iHeartRadio has generated hundreds of podcasts simply by converting its radio shows into episodes. Other entrants in podcasting have focused on celebrity-driven vehicles or chat-driven shows on politics and wellness - often with investments that could not be recouped.

Campbell argued that NPR has the opportunity to build greater audiences and increase paying subscribers through new ventures offering bonus episodes on Apple and other streaming services.

"We've had an assault on the truth for the last seven years straight, if not longer," Campbell said. "We're going to come out the other end of that with people needing news and information and a sense of credibility. And I don't think NPR has ever wavered from that.

"I think it's an extraordinary strength. And I'm betting on the world coming our way."

Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR Deputy Business Editor Emily Kopp. In keeping with NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate officials or news executives reviewed this article before it was posted.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.