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City Cast to debut next month

I wrote about City Cast at length back in October, so I’m going to try to keep this one short. Or not.

As a refresher, City Cast is a forthcoming local news company founded by David Plotz and backed by Graham Holdings that’s set to primarily revolve around two types of media products: podcasts and newsletters. (Very du jour.) To the extent it can be efficiently summarized, the company has two big ideas. One is to build out a network of city-specific operations across the country, and the other is to have its city-specific podcasts and newsletters defined by the personalities behind the mic and keyboard. Think The Gist but for a specific city, or sports talk radio but for city civics, or perhaps something that isn’t quite a metaphor.

Anyway, the company announced its first two cities last week: Chicago and Denver.

The Chicago podcast will be hosted by Jacoby Cochran, a writer and educator based in the South Side whose work has been featured on The Moth, Snap Judgment, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. WBEZ veteran Carrie Shepherd will lead production on the podcast, and she’ll be supported by Simone Alicea, who joins from KNKX in Seattle. A newsletter writer for the city has yet to be hired.

Denver’s podcast will be hosted by Bree Davies, a local activist and multimedia journalist. Leading that production will be Paul Karolyi, an independent producer who previously worked at House of Pod, the Denver-area production space. The company has yet to hire the second producer for the podcast as well as the newsletter writer for the city.

From these team compositions, you should be able to get a sense of an operational template. Speaking over the phone yesterday, Plotz tells me that each city will feature one host, one lead producer, one junior producer, and a lone newsletter writer… at least for now. I imagine things may change as theory meets application.

There have also been two recent additions to City Cast HQ: Andi McDaniel, who joins as Chief Creative Officer, and Sarah Menendez, who joins as Project Manager. You can presumably intuit the nature of the former role: working to figure out the product experience, carve out an identity, establish a sense of something that works. The latter, meanwhile, is in the business of setting the company up to scale over time: implementing the right processes, game-planning out future needs, getting everyone coordinated. Given City Cast’s bigger aspirations of filling up the gaps left open by a crumbling local news industry, it’s in their interest to proactively plan for scaling up with pace and flexibility.

We are, of course, far from any reasonable point to assess whether the City Cast premise will succeed, but I wanted to know the most appropriate way to read the company moving forward to get a handle if the venture is working out. After all, any locally-oriented media company will be structurally disadvantaged when read within conventional digital rubrics, generally premised on the idea of collapsing geography.

I’m told some traditional metrics will matter: downloads, newsletter subscribers, return listens, open rates, and so on. At this primordial stage, though, the task is simply about getting from zero to one, which means an emphasis on growth, some semblance of product-market fit, and whether it’s becoming a daily habit for people — all approximate markers of whether communities actually want what City Cast is giving. Plotz draws attention to the amorphous sense of whether these podcasts will become “part of the conversation” of a city, which may well be something that’s difficult for someone on the outside looking in to adequately assess.

Relatedly, talk of revenue also feels premature at this point, though it’s certainly the layer I’m most interested in over the long run. Can’t save local news if you can’t save yourself and all that. “The next hire will probably be on the business side,” said Plotz. “Right now, we’re business-light, as we’re mostly focusing on the product. We’re certainly not going to wait around too much, but any monetization we do in the initial months will just be gravy.”

Both podcasts will launch sometime next month, with Chicago going first. The timeline for announcing the next city remains unclear.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the elephant in the room with McDaniel’s hiring. Last summer, McDaniel, formerly the Chief Content Officer at WAMU, had accepted a job as the chief executive of Chicago Public Media and was originally scheduled to step into the role in September, after her maternity leave. But in the time between, several news reports were published that raised concerns about the station, including from WAMU’s own DCist site. The stories run the gamut: a workplace culture that enabled bad behavior, a staff revolt, and the resignation of a general manager. These stories, in turn, raised additional questions about McDaniel’s time in WAMU management. In November, she withdrew from the Chicago Public Media job. It was said to be a mutually agreed-upon decision.

When I brought it up during our call yesterday, McDaniel approached the answer with tact and caution. This was understandable; it was among the first times she was speaking on the record about the matter. She focused her response on the new job, stating that she was excited to work in a company that carries many of the values rooted in public media, while acknowledging the complications and sensitivity of the WAMU-WBEZ situation. “What I feel is really important to convey is just how much respect I have for both those organizations and for public media overall,” she said.

Plotz vouched for McDaniel. “I talked to a lot of people in WAMU and did a fair amount of digging into the turmoil there,” he said. “And based on my conversations and research, I am 150% confident in Andi’s integrity, leadership ability, and commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

He added: “As far as I’m concerned, public media’s loss is City Cast’s gain.”