Listen Like an Ombudsman

Editor’s note: We asked NPR’s founding ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, to share some thoughts after a lively discussion of native and host-read advertising on podcasts on the AIRdaily, AIR’s forum for independent producers. His essay, “Native Advertising in Public Radio Podcasting, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Talked to Like a Grown-up,” is the latest in our “Listen Like A …” series.


By Jeffrey Dvorkin

Photo of Jeffrey Dvorkin

It’s a dilemma. A real one.

On the one hand, we need to hear those magic words: “Support for …”

On the other hand — well, there is no other hand. The reality of modern media is that it’s tougher these days to find a way to monetize (AKA “make a buck”).

And for many in public radio there’s an uncomfortable feeling that even pubradio podcasting sounds more commercial than it should.

Podcasting is the latest media trend, but wait, wait! Don’t tell me! This time it looks like a success story, and public broadcasting seems to be in command. NPR, PRX, and WNYC are among the big players generating podcasts. Of the 240 million weekly radio listeners in America, 20 percent listen to a podcast at least once a month. In marketing terms, that’s gold, Jerry! Gold!

According to, seven of the top 10 podcasts are from public radio.  Ira Glass, the founder of the phenom, has been dubbed the “Podfather” for his digital midwifery with “This American Life” and “Serial.”

Not surprisingly, advertisers want in on this younger and hipper audience — 67 percent of podcast listeners are between 18 and 34 years old, according to a 2015 white paper from podcast advertising firm Midroll, and 62 percent of those listeners have a household income of $50,000 or more. And with that comes the intrusion of what has been dubbed “native advertising.”

Sounds original. Organic, even. Who could oppose that modifier?

Some of our print colleagues openly express dismay that the traditional separation of “church and state” in the newsrooms of the nation has been ignored in the rush to find that magic business solution that will restore all media to robust good financial health.

Alan Mutter, a media consultant and professor at the University of California at Berkeley says that advertisers need to make a better effort to help readers understand the differences. But of greater concern is a potential distrust of media in general whenever the boundaries between content and commercial is blurred.

Some journalists look at native advertising as an example of the decline of standards. In commercial broadcasting and in online content, videos are now being embedded with a level of storytelling sophistication that makes traditional journalism look decidedly pale in comparison.

Inevitably, John Oliver took the mass media to task with on the question of native advertising. It raises the question of the ethics of allowing what some of the old-fogey persuasion call “a crass and unwholesome intrusion into public radio podcasting.”

I admit to a certain amount of fogey-ness, but I also admire the way in which some podcasters are up front with listeners about the types of ads (they surely can’t really be called underwriting any longer) that are placed inside the podcast. In fact, the podcasts have become a kinds of “meta-radio” in which the podcaster interacts not only with the story, but with listeners and funders. We all get to be in on the joke.

It’s a new form of native advertising in a new form of audio. Very post-post-modern.

I see a couple of advantages to this approach.

First, unlike the venerable locomotives of public radio, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” where underwriting messages were always placed just before the top of the clock, podcasters are able and willing to slide the messages in where the listeners may not expect to hear them – i.e., in the middle of the podcast. Or even better, close to the top of the program.

This avoids the tendency of NPR listeners to switch away when the underwriting is aired, since it sends a message that the show is over, folks. Move along. Nothing more to hear.

At the same time, I’m hearing from some friends of public radio that they are worried the “purity” of public radio could be sullied by increased underwriting, even those as adept as the ones in podcasts.

Networks and stations may have the luxury of a staff announcer to read the underwriting. Not so with most podcasts, which exist with fewer resources. There may be a danger that the listener could confuse an ad (native or otherwise) as an endorsement by the podcaster.  I doubt it.

Podcasters can’t try to pretend that the underwriters are part of the story; public radio audiences are too smart and too skeptical for that.

Again, tone is everything. Being truthful with listeners about the need to put the “fun” in “fundraising” is frankly, refreshing. I liked the way Alex Blumberg admitted to the need for the message in his Startup podcast (at 10:40).

He imparts a “we are in this together” vibe and even plays a short clip from a prospective funder.  Nicely played, Alex.

And if it pays the freight, so much the better. I can live with that.

• Jeffrey Dvorkin is director of the news program at the University of Toronto, served as NPR’s first ombudsman, is a past president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and served as the executive director for ONO from 2009 to 2013. Follow him at @jdvorkin on Twitter.