Issue 218,  published July 17, 2019

California Dreamin’

This morning, Southern California Public Radio of supposedly sleepy Pasadena — one of the two major public radio stations serving Los Angeles (excluding KUSC), the other being Santa Monica’s KCRW — announced the launch of a new podcast division called LAist Studios, which the organization bills as “a new podcast development and production studio dedicated to expanding upon the storytelling capabilities of SCPR.” I suppose you could describe the division as, roughly speaking, the West Coast equivalent of WNYC Studios… or more precisely, an evolution of whatever WNYC Studios is supposed to be at this point in time.

The association between those two public radio podcast businesses isn’t exactly superficial, as there exists a connective issue between the two institutions. LAist Studios is the first major initiative rolled out by Herb Scannell, who took up the position of SCPR’s new President and CEO back in January. A veteran media exec who has led companies like Nickelodeon and BBC Worldwide America (among many others), Scannell was also the chair of New York Public Radio’s board of trustees between 2009 and 2013. One imagines that New York Public Radio’s various podcast adventures are informative for this new Californian operation.

Funding for the division largely comes from a $1.5 million donation by Gordon Crawford, the influential investment fund manager, and his wife Donna Crawford, supplemented by a portion of the direct support dollars that come from the station’s listener base. Kristen Muller, SCPR’s Chief Content Officer, will oversee LAist Studios’ day-to-day operations, while Arwen Champion Nicks will be the steward of production. The organization has also brought on Angela Bromstad, previously the President of Primetime Entertainment at NBC and Universal Television Studios, to act as senior advisor and oversee development.

For the curious, like myself: the decision not to name the division after KPCC, the organization’s broadcast brand, but instead after LAist, the digital local news brand SCPR acquired last February, came out from a sense of aligning the new podcast business with what is perceived to be LAist’s younger, more culture content-oriented demographic. “Different brands have different kinds of permissions,” Scannell offered by way of explanation, which I find pretty interesting.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here. I should note, at this juncture, that this announcement isn’t particularly surprising to me. I visited the station a few months ago to broadly talk about podcast stuff, and it seemed apparent then that the executive team was actively exploring the possibility of standing up some sort of formal podcast operation. To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. By that time, KPCC had already rolled out The Big One, which went to find some success, and they were preparing to launch Misha Euceph’s Tell Them, I Am. At best, I figured, they would probably do what most other public radio stations have done: play it safe, keep podcast activities relatively contained, and not break those operations out as a separate formal line of business. Conservative bet-hedging, in other words, and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that public radio organizations as a corporate species tend to play things safe.

That, it turns out, is not necessarily the case with SCPR.

“The question we were exploring was, ‘Is it worth doubling down on podcasts?’, and my gut feeling was ‘yes,’” Scannell told me when we spoke over the phone last Friday. That feeling, he further explained, was in part informed by the realities of running a competitive public radio station in the modern era. “Just being a radio station these days isn’t enough any more,” he added. “You have to diversify the experiences you’re putting out, and podcasting is one of those experiences. We believe we can use the podcast platform to open the aperture of public radio.”

Scannell tells me that the goal with LAist Studios is to build out a business that can sustain its costs and its ambitions. “Ultimately, we want to generate revenues that will allow us to keep churning out projects we want to make,” he said. “We want to be in a place where we have a constant flow of podcasts that are creatively-inspired and mission-supported, and that have a bit of variety. We want a business that has breadth and depth beyond just an advertising model, one that’s able to feed our platform and to complement platforms we aren’t on yet.”

To that end, the studio is pursuing a creative strategy built around three content buckets. The first revolves around projects that will build upon the work and reporting constantly being produced by LAist’s existing digital news operation, which seems like smart table stakes stuff.

The second bucket is broadly described as “stories inspired by the Los Angeles conversation.” Ostensibly, this is the locally-focused lane, though the notion of “local” when it comes to a globally attention-grabbing city has its particular complexities and connotations. “The world’s always had a fascination with LA — you know, the image of shades and palm trees and glamor and glitz — but the LA that’s really fascinating is the LA that’s the majority-minority city, not of tomorrow but of today,” said Scannel. “Capturing those voices is crucial to the way we think about the ‘LA Conversation.’”

The third, and final, bucket is described on paper as “narrative fiction or factual narratives,” but seems to basically be short-hand for the ambitious, buzzy, often limited-run serialized narrative series that tend to drive conversation, rocket up the podcast charts, and get optioned for television and movies. It is in this lane, presumably, where LAist Studios will lean heavily on its proximity to the many media and entertainment companies in Los Angeles, but it’s probably also the one that’s the most competitive, both within and beyond city limits.

At present, there isn’t a ton of details about projects currently in development, though I’m told we should expect at least one to drop by the end of this year. The division’s plan for now, it seems, is to prepare for the first quarter of 2020, and a good chunk of that process will involve taking pitches for potential additions to the pipeline. So, if you’re in the process of shopping around a project that might pair well with one of LAist Studios’ three editorial buckets, you should probably send them a note.

Lots of interesting things happening out West. For what it’s worth, I’m filing this story away as yet another data point in my “podcasting’s center of gravity is increasingly swinging out to Los Angeles” folder. Just don’t tell the podcast capital of the world. (On an unrelated note: did you know Pasadena is home to a portal to hell?)