As we drag our stiff, tired bodies into the new year and deeper into what will undoubtedly be the most exhausting presidential election cycle of all time — until the next one — one should probably expect some deck-shuffling on the part of news orgs, and in particular their respective audio teams, as they continue to ramp up coverage.
On that note, I figured I should read out to Irene Noguchi, who recently joined Politico after two years of heading up Vox’s Today, Explained, for one of these features. She was kind enough to oblige, talking Etch A Sketches, daily news pod saturation, and pasta-making grannies.
Hot Pod: Tell me about your situation.
Irene Noguchi: After two years leading Today, Explained, Vox’s daily news podcast, I’m starting as the Head of Audio at Politico, right in time for the 2020 election. I will be overseeing Politico’s podcasts and leading the company’s focus on making original short-form content for smart speakers through the Google News Initiative.
Basically, “hey, Google” means more “hey, Politico” this year!
HP: How did you get to this point?
Noguchi: My career hasn’t been a straight line… it’s more Etch A Sketch. I went from newspapers, to radio, to law, back to radio, and then to podcasts.
The highlights: started off with the high school paper, followed by college internships at NPR, the Washington Post, and PBS NewsHour. Cue hiring freeze. Went to law school, became a corporate lawyer, but after mass layoffs, I said “Screw it, let’s do what I love,” which meant a move back to Seattle, interning for free, working part-time jobs, and living off the McDonald’s 99-cent menu.
Landed my first full-time NPR producer gig in Vegas — right at the bottom of the recession, when breadwinners with two homes and a boat now stood in line for food stamps. (You don’t understand the true impact of a recession until you see it up close every day, and see how it tears people down.)
Fast forward a few years: produced live shows at KQED in San Francisco, covering everything from Uber’s scandals to catastrophic fires to Trump’s election. Everyone was hungry to get into podcasts, and The Daily was the hot new show. So when Vox wanted to start a daily news podcast, I wanted in. Host Sean Rameswaram and I hired our team in DC and launched Today, Explained at the speed of a bullet train. It’s been one of the all-time greatest rides of my career so far.
Two years later, Politico came knocking. I was ready for a change. And here I am.
HP: What does a career mean to you?
Noguchi: Being open to change. When I started interning at NPR in 2002, “success” was making it to the mothership — i.e. NPR in DC — and reporting on overseas coups and pasta-making grannies. Now “success” is apparently selling your podcast company to Spotify for ~$230 million.
The space is constantly changing. Apple and Spotify are preparing to lock heads, Spotify and Luminary are courting Hollywood, Sony’s pushing in. The lines between radio and podcasting and Netflix and music streaming keep blurring. So if you’re a creative moving up, it’s not just about content anymore. You’ve got to learn business and everything in between, and be open to adaptation. Because the space — and your goals — will look remarkably different in five years.
HP: Tell me about your experience establishing a daily podcast. What were your biggest takeaways?
Noguchi: I think companies don’t realize how much people people and resources it takes to put out a high-quality daily pod… and the high risk of burnout. I worked with six incredibly talented host/engineer/producers who worked their butts off, and it was still an intensive sprint each day. The space is getting very saturated, and people will only tolerate so many dailies in their queue. Vox and a handful of others were lucky they entered the space early, while listeners were still forming their daily habits.
I suspect more newsrooms will shift toward short-form readers like Tech Meme Ride Home, Daily 202, and Politico Playbook: low production, low cost, key niche info.
Oh, and hire the right people. I lucked out big time with Sean, Efim Shaprio, Brigid McCarthy, Noam Hassenfeld, Amina Al-Sadi, Haleema Shah, and (previously) Luke Vander Ploeg. You need people who can laugh during stressful times and pour their hearts into the creative side.
HP: Could you talk a bit more about what’s going to happen at Politico?
Noguchi: I want to (1) focus on audio that plays to Politico’s strengths (e.g. insider politics, energy/healthcare/foreign policy, access to candidates and conventions). We’re at the start of one of the most consequential election years in history, and Politico will be at the forefront.
And (2) continue my predecessor Dave Shaw’s game plan of building out a sustainable sponsor-supported business model. [Nick’s note: Shaw recently joined The Daily as its first DC staffer.] We’ll be experimenting with shorter-form content and adapt along the way.
HP: What are you listening to these days?
Noguchi: A few buckets:
Recode Media to keep up with the changes in my field.
The Guilty Feminist because Deborah Frances-White is hilarious and has figured out the live show model.
Now and then I revisit episodes that make me cry, like Miki Meek’s “Really Long Distance” about a phone booth where Japanese can talk to loved ones they lost in the tsunami or Heavyweight’s “Uncle’s Keeper” or “My So-Called Lungs” from Radio Diaries. It’s good to remember quality storytelling and why we got into this in the first place.
You can find Noguchi on Twitter here.