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Audio Ethics: Native ads & podcasts

A photo collage of Megan Kamerick, Whitney Jones, and Barrett Golding

Editor’s note: Curtis Fox, the godfather of podcasting, posted a conundrum on the AIRdaily, the gathering place and roundtable where AIR’s network of producers shares gigs, advice, and conversation about working as independents in public media.

“What happens if Goldman Sachs wants [a podcast host] to shill enthusiastically for their great humanitarianism and MailChimp has already blown through its ad budget?”

Here, with the authors’ permission, are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation that followed. NPR’s first ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, weighed in with an essay for our “Listen Like A …” series.

CURTIS FOX (host, “Poetry Off the Shelf”): Back before podcasts, when many of us were laboring away in the salt mines of public radio, there was a clear line between editorial content and advertising. A non-editorial voice would read the “underwriting,” listeners would groan and say public radio was going to hell, and life went on. This was the way it was done for years on NPR and on most stations. Talent didn’t read ad copy. 

I’m sure others on this list will be able to fill in the details of what happened next, but I think it went more or less like this. The hosts of franchise shows like “Car Talk” and “This American Life” started reading ad copy. The “Car Talk” guys pumped a few products, without much enthusiasm, as I remember; Ira Glass mentioned a sponsor at the end of a show, maybe added a line or two about the product, and left it at that. 

Fast forward to our era of podcasting. NPR and most public radio shows and podcasts seem to be maintaining the old editorial firewall. Hosts still don’t read copy, as far as I can tell. But in many of the podcasts that have spun out and away from public radio (Slate’s lineup, Gimlet, Radiotopia, etc.) it’s a whole new ballgame. The hosts not only read ad copy, they gush about the product. 

In general, I’m OK with this. I’ve read my own share of ads. I don’t mind hearing Alex Blumberg’s clever interactions with MailChimp (and I’ve learned a thing or two from this approach). I’m OK with Roman Mars waxing enthusiastic for Audible. 

I’m OK with it because I think Audible and MailChimp offer pretty good products, and they’re not contrary to my values or the values of these show. But as podcasts move into the mainstream, and competition for advertising dollars increases among podcasters, what’s going to happen? 

My fear is that we podcasters are setting ourselves up for trouble. Advertisers are starting to expect genuine enthusiasm from podcast hosts for their products and their company, and if they don’t get it they’ll move on. 

What happens if Goldman Sachs wants you to shill enthusiastically for their great humanitarianism and MailChimp has already blown through its ad budget? What happens if Shell wants you to gush about the wonders of petroleum and Audible isn’t interested in your audience? 

Frankly, I’d be happy if Goldman Sachs wanted to sponsor a podcast I produced if they paid a lot of money. I just wouldn’t want it to be in my voice, so listeners would implicitly understand that I was just doing it to make money and not endorsing the company. But with the model that’s emerging — host enthusiasm! — we may be painting ourselves into a very uncomfortable corner. 

I haven’t seen this discussed before. Thoughts? 

 

JAY ALLISON (founder of Transom.org, and PRX; host of “The Moth Radio Hour”): I’m glad you brought this up, Curtis, because it’s been nagging at me for a while. 

Interweaving host identity and product sales is nothing new in commercial radio; it’s just the way it’s done. But there has been, as you say, a pretty solid wall between the two in public media. 

I’m utterly sympathetic to the podcast hosts and entrepreneurs trying to negotiate this terrain, but I confess to feeling uncomfortable hearing them in this role, since I’m counting on them for something else. It messes with their identities. 

Like you, I read underwriting copy too, like for “The Moth Radio Hour.” I’m not opposed to the idea of giving credit to supporters of the work. It may be a little different than the new wave of podcasting underwriting, though (and this is maybe a subtle distinction), because it’s Jay’s Voice reading it, not exactly Jay. There’s no first-person connection or fun production or trying to make it a great spot. Plus, I’m the producer, the backstage guy, which feels different too. Still … subtle, and straddling the wall. 

I’ve always felt underwriters were there to support our mission and our skills, not use our skills for their own benefit. Perhaps that’s one distinction marking this change. 

There’s a corollary issue too when we depend mainly on underwriting to do our work, i.e. what happens when certain important subjects can’t attract underwriters — things that are sad, difficult, controversial, unpopular, etc.? 

All these things are embraced by the mission of public media, but what happens as we increasingly make niche shows that depend on companies, corporations, and sales to survive? I realize podcasting is a different world, but at this moment, most of the best podcasting talent was schooled in the craft and mission of public broadcasting. That’s one reason it’s so great. The producers and hosts have human-scale sensibilities and are honest and real and, well, good-hearted. Those sorts of values came out of public media — although it’s a shame that public media is not as supportive as it could be, which is one reason it’s necessary now to go outside it.  

 

JONATHAN MILLER (Executive director, Homeland Productions): Seems to me there are legal, journalistic, and creative aspects to it.

The FCC is strict about what can be broadcast on noncommercial radio stations, although in practice there’s some room for interpretation; anyway, the big distinction is between promotion and acknowledgment. So listeners to public radio are used to a certain type of carefully lawyered language and phrasing, even if it often feels like it has crossed the promotion/acknowledgment line. (I’m among Curtis’ groaners in that regard.) Those sort-of-but-not-technically-ads have become part of the public radio brand.

As for who reads them, I assume NPR’s own internal rules make it so a strange near-robotic voice intones the underwriting credits during daily news shows. That’s a journalistic decision, not a legal one. But hosts of other pubradio shows do, of course, read underwriting credits, often without the slightest hint of irony (although I’ll always remember Ira Glass’ excruciating reading of the Reputation.com credit during the Mike Daisy retraction show).

Podcasts aren’t governed by FCC rules about public broadcasting. Nor are they covered by a news organization’s internal rules about editorial firewalls unless they choose to be. Nor are nonprofits (like those that make up the Radiotopia group) prohibited by the IRS from selling ads, as long as the revenues support the work and aren’t distributed as profit.

So podcasts can run ads at will, with no worries about line-crossing, and anyone can read them. It then becomes a question of how the podcast wants to relate to its audience, and how noncommercial and public-radio-y it wants to sound.

For me as a listener, having the host of a journalistic, fact-based podcast read an ad does undermine the host’s (and therefore the show’s) credibility. Hearing someone else read the ads, or hearing ads produced by the advertiser, is, after you get used to it, not so troubling (especially because with podcasts you can fast-forward). 

In a way it’s cleaner; you don’t distrust the Kremlin reporting in your favorite newspaper because there’s a vodka ad right next to it. And although I’m very much a noncommercial, public-radio-y type of guy, I’m kind of thrilled that terrific audio work is finding ways to support itself beyond donations and foundation grants.

 

WHITNEY JONES (co-creator, “Pitch” podcast): I feel pulled in so many different directions on this right now. On the one hand, there is my deeply emotional dislike and mistrust of advertising. I’m uncomfortable with some of the things I hear even on podcasts I love listening to and make liberal use of the forward :15 button. But then I take a look at my own podcast, “Pitch,” which is totally independent and to this point has been ad-free and realize that we’ve been losing money on it in a pretty unsustainable way for an entire year now. I don’t know how to best reconcile these things.

Part of my discomfort with podcast ads is reflective of my general discomfort with all native advertising. I think I agree that in the context of a podcast people recognize them as ads, but I would argue that even when they are recognized as paid advertisements, native ads still cut into the credibility of the show/host/producer and, to the extent that the “excited host” becomes the expectation, the credibility of the medium. I cringe when I see places like Midroll saying things like: “Podcast ads are read by hosts, as part of the natural flow of their shows. That makes them true native ads. Listeners pay attention to podcast ads because they are informative and entertaining. The best hosts inflect ad reads with personality and style.” 

So, I have some questions I’ve been wrestling with. Jay said: “…underwriters were there to support our mission and our skills, not to use our skills for their own benefit.” If we grant permission for an underwriter/advertiser to use our skills for their own benefit are we selling out our listeners (CPM rates seem to me to be putting a very specific price on our listeners)? Also, what about the ethics of selling ads based on CPMs (monetizing listenership) and then asking those same listeners for money through crowd-funding campaigns? I’m certainly not looking to call anybody out, but I’m wondering if there’s anyone that can speak to both reading ads on their podcast and using crowd-funding as another element of funding a show. How did you feel about it? Am I seeing an ethical quandary where there isn’t one?

 

CURTIS FOX: Thanks for everyone’s comments. An interesting problem, and probably a good one to have, all considered. 

It occurs to me that one of the problems with advertising and podcasts — and one reason advertisers want shameless host enthusiasm — is that the alternatives suck. Why would an advertiser want someone just reading ad copy? That’s boring. Also, for the companies that want to advertise on public-radio-type podcasts, the sound and style of ads you hear on commercial radio probably aren’t appealing, and they’d clash with the content in unfavorable ways. 

I sense a business opportunity here. What we need are producers who are paid to craft good ads that would fit well within a range of podcasts, which could then avoid the trap of over-involving hosts in presenting ads. 

The public radio model of underwriting credits just isn’t going to do it for these companies, I don’t think. 

Audible, Stamps.com, Squarespace — you know who you are — I am available! I will make very good ads for you for specific podcasts that will bring people to your products and maintain the integrity of these shows. Call me. 

(I am expensive, however! Maybe the market is not yet mature enough for this sort of thing, but I suspect that will change.) 

 

MARJORIE VAN HALTEREN (creator/host of “That Tuesday” podcast): What an interesting thread. I am one of those podcast listeners that regularly take down several a week — and also lived through the development of public radio starting in the early 80’s – and am VERY pub-media-oriented — BUT have not been unhappy about hearing about sponsors from the podcasters because I felt that the podcaster was being empowered and these companies were bold products that the talent appreciated (Marc Maron talking about Adam and Eve — I could tolerate it! Squarespace? I tried it out myself. “I USE Squarespace.”) 

However, what a great point — how long will this last? How far does ingenuineness take you when you venture in this direction? Think of the early days of TV — “you can trust your car to the man that wears the star” — “soap operas” — this is imprinted in American Broadcast history from the get-go, the U.S. being one of the few countries in the world that began largely as a commercial activity. 

The debate goes on all over again. Plus ça change. 

Yep, I’m also a podcaster. Of course I am. Nobody pays me. My capital is my skill in making it myself, and all the years I spent doing what I did. I do act as a partner with artists, groups and institutions. I choose them. I work in two languages — hoping to add more. 

I do exchanges — my podcast features audio art, sound poetry, experimental music that fits in there. We collaborate. Or — you listen to mine, I’ll listen to yours. There aren’t that many podcasts in my area, so I’m interested in knowing about others. I’m happy to cross-promote if they resonate. 

Yep. That’s a commercial for www.thattuesday.com. 1,500 big listens and counting. Very slowly. 

Thanks for the great thread. I will continue to listen to at least 5-6 podcasts a week, to download, click like (or as we say over here “liker”) and enjoy the ads as they stay heartfelt and grateful. Then …? People have to live.

 

BARRETT GOLDING (creator of “Hearing Voices,” lead developer for the Transom Online Workshop): There are indeed two business models behind much of broadcasting: Commercial market-economy advertisement sales, and non-commercial “listener-supported” contributions. 

The latter usually has two facets: Selling underwriting messages — which can be much like commercial ads, except, per FCC-regs, w/o “superlatives” and “comparisons,” and direct fundraising appeals to listeners, known popularly as “begathons” (MarkK’s “begging model”).

Podcasts give producers a chance to experiment w/ both the market and listener-support economies. “StartUp” brought podcasts into the VC/investor world, and managed to make ads almost as entertaining as the show itself. Radiotopia successfully “off-aired” the direct appeal into Kickstarter — reducing the showtime needed for fundraising. And “Serial” essentially imported pubradio’s direct appeal into the podcast to raise funds for their second season. 

None have yet proven a sustainable business model — more time is needed for that proof. But all are bringing more money into indie audio, and creating great programming. I think their experiments, no matter what form/economy they take, help us all ply our trade.

 

DAN EPSTEIN (voiceover artist): Perhaps we should go back to the frenemies discussion from Third Coast (“Audio Ethics: Are You Fooling Listeners?”). Regardless of whether a producer’s background or current setting is public or commercial media, I think one question we might want to be looking at is: for a podcast with embedded commercials delivered by the hosts/producers, what is the reasonable expectation that listeners have regarding the relationship between the hosts/producers and the product and/or advertiser? Will they believe the hosts/producers are users of the product, that their endorsement is sincere? Or does the audience assume nothing in particular about the relationship and just say, yeah, the host is doing a commercial and I know it’s a commercial and I don’t care? 

As with the Third Coast-inspired discussion, I don’t think there’s one answer here. But it’s something podcast producers certainly need to think about as they’re lining up advertisers and determining how they’re going to produce and integrate the spots in their program. 

  

RICH HALTEN (creator of “Inside the Masterpiece” podcast): Well, Dan, I think it would work much as it does in commercial radio where host-read spots usually work only if the host is on board with endorsing the product. Common example: a car maker or dealer. Host gets a “loaner” of the latest model, drives it everyday and is able to pretty much ad-lib 60 seconds of endorsement rather than reading a sheet of straight copy or copy points.

Whatever the sponsor — a restaurant, jeweler, computer store, etc. on the local level — on-air personalities become familiar with the product or service so they can deliver a believable, personalized message. If they don’t believe in it, they’d better be darn good actors or the pitch just won’t ring true. And the more clout (i.e., ratings) these personalities have, the more they can simply reject a potential sponsor for whatever reason.

Podcast sponsor arrangements should work pretty much the same, especially because most hosts/producers have control over their show, IMO. Pre-produced spots inserted into the show by a podcast network — that’s a different story.

 

BETSY O’DONOVAN (AIR editor and digital strategist): Hey, guys, I’ve been stashing things for a reading list about native advertising and ethics that seems relevant here. 

Most of it is printcentric, and obviously some of the peculiarities of audio (and print) mean that this is a conversation that needs to be made new all the time. Still, there are useful lessons. 

If you’re interested in further reading: 

Like it or not, native advertising is squarely inside the big news tent | Josh Benton for NiemanLab 

The newsonomics of Talking Points Memo’s native advertising shift | Ken Doctor for Nieman Lab (I always love Doctor on economics) 

“And Now, a Word Against Our Sponsor” | Jack Shafer for Reuters Blog 

Native Advertising and Ethics | Dorian Benkoil for The Newspaper Association of America (Part of a much longer exploration of the hows/whys of native ads) 

What journalists need to know about ‘content marketing’ | Shane Snow for Poynter (Primer on how to handle brand content) 

Survey: Readers Feel Deceived by Branded Content | Sam Kirkland for Poynter (This, I think, is quite a difference between print/web and podcast audiences.) 

The line between journalism and ads: Popular blogger, website editor debate ethics of sponsored content | The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas 

• Thoughts about the SPJ’s Code of Professional Conduct | Julanne Hohbach: “Given its structure of short, to-the-point guidelines, the Ethics Code may not be the ideal place to do this. But I would appreciate it if SPJ would weigh in on the subjects of: 1) social media (should you friend sources on Facebook, most notably — it’s a big divide between younger and mid-career journalists), and 2) so-called “native advertising.” This issue of what used to be called “advertorial” content is only growing, and some publications are blurring the lines between real and paid content in an age of sinking traditional ad revenue by not labeling this content as clearly as they should. The Web is making the issue worse (or at least murkier) because journalists often don’t control websites, and sales managers and digital departments often are not labeling this native advertising as such. This means readers are getting caught in the middle, and publications’ integrity could become an issue.” 

• And, for fun, John Oliver’s take on native ads

 

MEGAN KAMERICK (AIR’s Entrepreneurial Fellowship Program 2015; host/producer for New Mexico PBS): As one who has often talked about the lack of women’s voices in media and in op-eds and punditry, I’m happy to weigh in. I’ve been fascinated by the discussion and I, too, worry about crossing editorial and ad/underwriting boundaries. I had a publisher back in my print days who wanted the sections I edited to have a big “sponsored by” banner ad across the top and they would also get space for a column. I think it’s telling that they couldn’t sell that package because — hello — no one is fooled. They said I would have editorial control over the column. I said, “I don’t care what they write. They can say our paper sucks. But you are putting ‘paid advertisement’ at the top.”

I wasn’t popular.

I posted a copy of the SPJ Code of Ethics on wall next to my desk with this part highlighted: 

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.

and refused to take it down when asked. It’s one reason I finally left.

Now, this is 10 to 12 years ago and as we can see, native advertising is much much more prevalent. I will just offer this one thought to chew on (upon?):

Once you lose your integrity, you never get it back. And it doesn’t matter if you didn’t really do anything bad. It’s all about your audience’s perception. Perception is reality.

 

MARJORIE VAN HALTEREN: Has anyone thought that the great thing about podcasting that it CAN be a chance to be unfettered by formats? Or do some people want to impose rules so they can extend formatting into something that can be very…whatever you can make it. I personally am surprised at how the success of certain podcasts and radio shows focusing on stories (and I don’t mean fiction though I enjoy The Moth Jay, and the New Yorker podcast, Curtis) seems to inspire so many creative people to do exactly the same thing.Just don’t get that. Break free! 

But I enjoy so many of them, too. But still I long for something other. 

I’m a little disappointed by some of the tone in this discussion, too … um … I DO know that pubiic, or non-commercial, broadcasting started before the 1980s? I was talking post the Public Broadcasting Act of the ’70s. Not only do I own a rare copy of the three-volume Barnouw opus about the history of broadcasting, the Golden Web, but I’ve read it!! Because I teach broadcast history. 

Nice piece about Neil Postman on Salon. Yep. Orwell was right. 

 

ELLEN BERKOVITCH (founder, Adobe Airstream and its podcast): I want to add a point of view to this discussion. Six years ago I founded an online art magazine and, as I began to grow “viewership,” expanded it into a small podcast. The podcast required learning new skills, buying new gear, developing a new section of my online magazine’s website. It also required sponsorship because like the rest of the enterprise, it was being run as a business (funded in its seed stage by a second mortgage on my house) with an editor and four-six regular writers/contributors who helped us grow in our first three years from 0 to 16k unique visitors a month. Small potatoes by comparison to The Moth, Serial, 99% Invisible, etc. But respectable for the niche of contemporary arts editorial and critical programming. 

I can say without reservation that this discussion is an important one but also slightly headache-producing in that, for anyone who is an independent publisher with wages to pay, producing “journalism” and paying loan debt require getting dirty in the commercial or advertising side. (Meant without prejudice.) 

My “brand” journalism experience is a little bit unlike what I see referenced here. In the case of our niche, presenting contemporary arts organizations are being told more and more they need to engage audiences after the live visit to the exhibition is over. But they don’t have the chops to make media. They need producers. Our sponsors have included Minneapolis Institute of Arts, SITE Santa Fe, others, who have engaged our professional services as podcast producers to interview (independently) their audiences, timed with events at their institutions. It’s a condition of our doing so that we retain independence in interviewing and editing. It’s also a reality that we are in effect “plugging” the art show which feeds us. 

What concerns me in specific lately is the frequent uneasy feeling I have that perhaps I need to duck my head and call myself something other than a journalist, since I began engaging in the business side. 

I have my biases, too. I object strongly when nonprofit entities cite themselves as “entrepreneurial” because frankly, there is a very big, palpable difference between running a nonprofit and running a business. 

What seems unshakeable is how continually we make value judgments on one another. My experience has indeed changed me. But I want to belong to my old club, too. 

What tends to get omitted from some of these discussions which I hope will proliferate, given how fascinating they are, is the fact that underneath the what-should-we-be-doing-instead question is the fact that as the world has changed, and we are inventing rules of survival, the ambition to thrive persists. Perhaps it just bears reiterating that we’re working to thrive because the listener or the reader votes. However, they, in a distinct way from advertisers, have been almost fully trained that good content is free, and their ability to curate their own channels unlimited. Until somebody can hitch that reality to journalists’ and producers’ need to be paid, there will likely be messy compromises visible and audible, daily. 

 

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE (creator, “The Broad Experience” podcast): Well said, Ellen.  

From my perspective, I don’t have a problem reading the sponsor announcements on my show, or at least I haven’t so far. I’ve had about 6-8 different sponsors for The Broad Experience at this point and when I have actually used the product (Squarespace) or am a fan of the sponsor (Financial Times) I say so. With other sponsorships, I’m reading some copy they’ve given me, occasionally making tweaks so it sounds natural and not ridiculous. I often cut some of the more over-the-top copy and no sponsor has objected. 

I need to earn money from my show and I don’t feel dirty doing it — yet. The question that niggles at me occasionally is what would happen if, say, a big bank decided they wanted to sponsor the show? I have disseminated sponsorship proposals to some famous banks. No one’s said yes so far, but given these companies have tons of money and many want to at least be seen to be doing something positive for women (my show is about women in the workplace), I don’t rule it out. But what if I got my money and then Bank X was caught up in a sexual harassment case or something else I wanted to report on for the podcast? That would be tricky. I have made clear to every other sponsor where I sign a contract that I have editorial control, but I have never yet been in a situation where I’m faced with a huge brand that would be less than pleased if I began to report on their alleged misdemeanors while they were sponsoring me. Maybe I’ll never have to worry about it.  

In short, thus far I have no problem being a host who reads sponsor announcements when I feel positive about the product. I always make it clear that this is sponsorship material people are hearing. There are few ways to make money in podcasting but this is an obvious one. Yes, the sponsorship relationship can potentially be problematic and involve moral quandaries. This entire area is still evolving and I’ll continue to follow and take part in it with great interest.