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Google Podcast Creators Program: Interview with PRX’s Kerri Hoffman and Google’s Zack Reneau-Wedeen

This interview was conducted at the Third Coast International Podcast Festival, on October 5, 2018. It was originally linked to in the October 9, 2018 edition of Hot Pod.


Q: Since announcing the program, how has the response been so far?

A: In 24 hours, we’ve gotten applications from India, the UK, Trinidad, Tobago, Canada, France, Costa Rica, Slovakia, Australia, Mexico and Spain.

Q: What’s the selection process like?

A: We have an advisory committee — so we’ll be building that out, and then depending on how many applications we get, we’ll probably do thumbs up thumbs down, and then we’ll winnow that down and then we’ll get the advisory council to really weigh in when we get closer.

Q: How many people are you looking to select?

A: Your team can be one to three people and then we’ll take six teams for each cohort, so that’s roughly 18 to 20 people in each training session, and the training sessions are 20 weeks long. Not 20 straight weeks: they go home, they make stuff, they come back. And besides the advisory council, we’ll also have a number of mentors, we’ll do virtual office hours. PRX has been doing training program like these for a while, so [we’ll do that and] we’ll just keep perfecting it.

Q: Why focus on training rather than funding?

A: The training fills the skills gap that’s preventing podcasting from ever being diverse. We have to fill that. PRX is a non-profit organisation: we’re not trying to look for hits, we’re trying to grow the ecosystem, and that means whenever we train people, it’s good for everybody whether those people go and get jobs at another podcast company. It’s good for Apple, it’s good for Google, so that’s kind of why.

Q: What are the outcomes you are hoping for?

A: We’re asking people to commit. It can’t be that I’m doing this training to make an episode — they’ve got to commit to something so that that can be a model and an inspiration, because that’s how it works. People hear something and they think ‘I can do that’, that’s how you build those blocks. That’s one aspect of it. We also hope to tell the stories of these teams throughout to keep getting people involved, like ‘I missed the deadline for this first one, but I’m gonna do the second one,’ so we can keep inspiring people to get involved and spread the word. Even just standing here,  people are handing me their business cards to be mentors and trainers, and that’s kind of awesome. Especially people who want to see podcasting get more diverse, they might not be diverse themselves but they can volunteer and help that way.

Q: How much of this will rely on unpaid labour, from people giving up their time to participate and be mentors?

A: Not exactly. We will pay trainers — people who are volunteering to mentor — and we’re also giving participants a stipend so they can take the time out of their lives to participate. That’s a very important ingredient. We can’t ask people to take 20 weeks out of their lives to make a podcast unless we’re willing to offset some of their costs. This can’t be done on favours. It has to be done with intent. The reason why it’s a 20 week training program and not a week long program is because it takes a while to get good, and when you have a training program that long with a lot of mentors, you also create another side objective if creating a professional network for everyone who is participating. When we did this in public radio, the bonds that get created through these things are really strong, and they look out for each other and they solve problems together.


Q: How does this initiative fit into Google’s podcast efforts?

A: We had this idea, within the last couple of years, to really start doubling down on podcasts, because we think podcasts are growing awesomely and are just super important. As we were building the app, we noticed that podcasts are really applicable to all types of audiences from all around the world and all different types of backgrounds, but also at the same time when you look at the creation side there are a lot of imbalances. Just to give an example from the US: in the top 100 podcasts usually only about a quarter are hosted by women, usually even fewer by people of colour, and there are a variety of other imbalances too in terms of worldwide podcasts tend to be from western, more urban areas.

Our goal is to help double worldwide podcast listening, and we want to bring tens or hundreds of thousands of more people into the fold as podcast listeners, but we know that the product that resonates so powerfully with so many people needs to become even more diverse, needs to have an even wider array of voices there to really resonate for the next ten million or one hundred million people who start listening to podcasts. And so that was kind of the reason why we had the idea for the Google Podcast Creator Program, and then the next step was just figuring out how to get it done in a way that made sense, that allowed more podcasters to feel empowered, and gain the skills they need to make their podcast, but also to showcase the work they’re doing to inspire people throughout the industry, and while we’re doing that to create more educational artifacts to help other people who might not be a part of the program still benefit from it and so that’s why we also have those other two pieces of the program, including the podcast 101 videos, which will be translated to begin with into Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Arabic.

Q: Can you give me an idea how many people at Google are working on podcasts and this initiative?

A: We have a bunch of different positions, but our engineering team is sort of spread throughout the world. Right now, our first team — that I started working with about three years ago and is in charge of our back-end — they’re in Zurich. Then we have a client team that works on our Android app as well as other surfaces that we support that is headquartered in Beijing, but also [has a presence[ in Mountain View. So we have people in all those offices working on podcasts form an engineering perspective, and then also folks in Mountain View working on other parts of the operation and also in New York. I’m based in Cambridge, Mass, so we have a lot of interesting meeting times, but it works out really well. And I think ends up with us bringing a lot of different perspectives to the table.

Q: What does growing podcast listening do for Google’s business?

A: The first thing that I noticed when I joined Google Search was that I love listening to podcasts, I love watching movies, I like reading books, and I liked to watch TV shows, and we have a great experience on search for TV, movies and books, but on podcasts we didn’t really have an understanding of this data. Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information, make it universally accessible and useful. And more and more, a lot of that information, a lot of those stories, a lot of the most creative content out there is actually being held in podcasts, and especially over the past five years and even before that, it’s just exploded in terms of the number and quality of amazing podcasts. So the same way that Google wants to make sure you can find that TV show that you want and watch it, we also want to help you find that podcast that you would love.

Q: So it improves your product?

A: It make Google better, and also right now the other big piece is Android, which is why we’ve started out with the Android Google Podcasts app, which right now there are two billion people with Android phones, but only a very small percent are listening to podcasts. So we’re really encouraged by the download stats that we see and the engagement stats that we see in places like India and Brazil, where there are tons of people who are consuming tons of media in different forms but maybe not podcasts so much so far, but there’s a lot of grassroots efforts to get it off the ground, because it’s an awesome technology and really democratises storytelling in a new way, so we just want to help bring that to as many people as possible and help all the awesome creators out there find the audience and the great people out there who want to find stories find the creator that’s right for them.

Q: What’s the end result you’re wanting from the program?

A: It really is those three pillars Kerri mentioned: we want to empower a group of people to learn how to be a great podcaster, and tell great stories to an audience, that is right for them. We want to showcase that work to inspire people who are thinking about getting into podcasting, and also people who are more entrenched in the industry who maybe want to have an idea on the pulse, like what are the new ideas coming to the fore. And then we also want to educate people who maybe didn’t get to participate in the program directly but who can still benefit directly from a lot of the learnings that are going on, starting with those podcasting 101 videos, so seeing a number of great stories come through the program, people have lower barriers to entry for podcasting, showcasing that, and then educating other people would be a great outcome.

Q: So, Google has a lot of money. Why the decision to focus on training like this, rather than giving out grants directly to creators?

A: The number one thing I would say is that: we really want to form a model that can scale. So that’s why the empower[ment] piece is so important. The showcase and education pieces are areas where we think Google can do a great job, because we have reach. You know, we don’t just want the stories that come out of this to be the end of it. We want people to be inspired around the world, people to be educated on how to make podcasts. That’s why we decided to team up with PRX who will lead the program and execute the program. When it comes to the editorial side of things they have full control and working with an independent advisory committee, they’re selecting it right now, so we just wanted to make sure that’s something we can lean on an expert like PRX, where our expertise is more on the technological side, and getting the word out and helping educate people side.

Editor’s Note: I’ll just toss in one more question that I asked when I wrote the story up for Hot Pod Insider, because it’s probably useful to gather it all in one place.

Q: How would you respond to a possible wariness I might have towards what feels like a big corporation attempting to co-opt the language and goodwill of diversification effort in a bid to market its Google Podcast product? (Particularly given the fact that Google isn’t… particularly diverse in the first place?)

A: It’s a fair question. While there’s still a lot of progress for us to make as a company, as you note, that’s exactly why we believe this program is important. The podcast industry is just getting started, and because of this, it’s an ideal time to put initiatives in place which will help make sure future growth better reflects our world, and the people who will be listening to that new content.

We’re committed to working on this problem and continuing to improve over time. This is a big part of why we chose PRX to lead the program, alongside a committee of advisors from various backgrounds and geographies. PRX has a long history of helping promote underrepresented voices, and we’re looking forward to learning from them.