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Guy Raz to step away from TED Radio Hour, plus Star Power and Pods

This came in just before the long weekend: Guy Raz, the wildly industrious purveyor of wonder and enthusiasm, will be stepping away from the TED Radio Hour as host and editorial director at the end of this year. In a statement, NPR, which co-produces the popular “podcast about ideas” with TED, announced that they will soon be kicking off a national search — “looking inside NPR and across the media landscape” — for a new host. The show is said to be one of NPR’s most downloaded podcasts, and it is currently being distributed over broadcast by more than 600 public radio stations. Raz will continue working with NPR on How I Built This and Wow in the World.

I reckon Raz is probably one of the few battle-tested talents in this business. By which I mean, he’s one of the very few people who has a track record of driving audiences for new podcast projects, again and again. He’s had an interesting path: now 44, he spent most of his professional career at NPR, where he started out as an intern on All Things Considered and rose up through the ranks over the next two decades, with pit stops as a correspondent for CNN and as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. In 2013, he became the host and editorial director of the TED Radio Hour, which would become the starting point for Raz’s adventures in empire building. He would go on to launch two other projects, How I Built This, the wildly popular business interview podcast, and Wow In The World, NPR’s first foray into kids’ programming. Last year, he was attached to a Spotify exclusive project, a music interview show called The Rewind.

If we’re keeping on brand with TED, one big idea this makes me think about: have we had a proper conversation about star power in podcasting yet? Specifically, “star power” as the show development mechanism where a particular talent, native to podcasting, can be plopped into a project and have the name currency of that talent actually mean something on a material audience conversion level. I think we’ve seen this very rarely so far; the most recent example I can think of 99% Invisible’s Avery Trufelman being recruited to host a new Vox Media property, Nice Try!: Utopia. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have rushed to check it out if Trufelman wasn’t attached to the project.

Anyway, it feels like star power in podcasting has largely interpreted so far as an importing strategy, i.e. “let’s pay celebrity so-and-so with not that experience behind the mic a million dollars to make a podcast, maybe attract their fans.” With few exceptions — the Conan O’Brien crossover, in particular, turned out pretty well — I don’t think that has really worked out. I’m fairly convinced there’s more value to be found cultivating that currency within the community.

On a related note, here’s a thought exercise: if you were made to construct list of podcast talents you would feel comfortable betting a good portion for your personal bank account on, how long would that list be? I mean, don’t actually bet your life savings on podcasting, of course, but hypothetically? Me, I think I have… fifteen, maybe sixteen people? Six, if we’re talking about people who aren’t already making gobs of money?

Anyway, more power to Raz, who will presumably use his newly freed-up time to make even more podcasts. And for what it’s worth, I hope NPR documents its search for a new TED Radio Hour host. This is the stuff of reality programming.