Issue 279,  published October 20, 2020

The Cities We Became

David Plotz — the former CEO of Atlas Obscura, past editor-in-chief of Slate, and longtime co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest — is starting a new company, and it takes some explaining.

To begin with: the new venture is called City Cast, and Plotz explains that the fundamental idea is to build a for-profit network of daily local news podcasts in cities across the country. However, it quickly became apparent when we spoke over the phone last week that City Cast won’t just be a podcast company, as there are plans in place to launch daily newsletters to complement the core audio products. It also quickly became apparent that simply describing those core audio products as “local news podcasts” is somewhat insufficient, as there’s a good deal more to the pitch than that.

Yes, there will be news elements to the podcasts made under the City Cast banner, more so when/if they grow to a certain size and structural maturity. Yes, these shows will be produced in accordance with journalistic standards. But the underlying hypothesis driving the venture forward is an approach that explicitly foregrounds the strength of the personalities behind the mic. In other words, the personalities are the point for City Cast, and Plotz’s gambit is to develop a media company that elevates singular voices as a focal point for the civic shape of a given city.

“One of the more common traits you’d find across effective podcasts is the presence of vivid personalities who forge really strong emotional connections with people,” said Plotz. The way he sees it, there is a dimension to this quality that’s a bit of a throwback, as he argues that it was something that was also present among successful local media products back when local news industries were still vibrant.

“Think about how in a lot of cities, up until maybe thirty years ago, you’d easily find citywide figures who embodied the passion, enthusiasm, and anger of those cities,” said Plotz. “Sometimes they were newspaper columnists, sometimes they were TV hosts, but these were all folks who created a more impassioned and engaged citizenry through the power of their personality, fascinations, and interests.”

“These are people who believe that their city was the greatest city in the world and were quick to point out what’s fucked up about it,” he added, pointing to the heyday of Jimmy Breslin’s New York columns and the early stages of Oprah Winfrey’s career, back when she was the host of AM Chicago starting from the mid-eighties, as strong examples of this media archetype.

Plotz’s descriptions reminded me a little of the way in which Slate has built a daily news-ish podcast around Mike Pesca with The Gist, and how the general feel of that show —  sprawling, omnivorous, passionate — probably informs the notion of what an ideal City Cast podcast could sound like, albeit localized for a specific city. I also thought about another parallel media world that, in my mind, bore some resemblance to the personality-driven, perspective-shaping experience Plotz is hoping to foster: sports talk radio, where you’d get someone like Mike Francesca looming large over New York sports fandom for years.

Of course, there are limitations to describing City Cast as “sports talk radio, but for local civics,” but making that analogy nevertheless opens up new useful pathways into thinking about the venture: both provide a strong sense of shared communities, both speak in the language of passion and participation, and when successful, both can provide solid foundations for strong media businesses.

Speaking of which: Plotz tells me that he intends for a good deal of experimentation around the monetization side, and while it’s still very early in the exploration process, he has a rough feeling that City Cast’s business model will eventually be organized around some combination of advertising and subscriptions. In terms of advertising, the thinking seems to involve some amount of leaning on the ability of a network structure to generate sufficient economics for effective national campaign sales, along with some bundling with local targeted ads. And as far as subscription goes, any application is mostly speculative at this point, but Plotz seems to be responding to the general need for revenue diversification and building in buffers to accommodate for the volatility of advertising money.

Plotz will not be building City Cast by himself, having secured support from Graham Holdings, which will own the company. Graham Holdings is no stranger to podcasting and local media; you might know the corporation as the parent company of Megaphone (née Panoply), Pinna, and Slate (hence the relationship with Plotz). It also owns several local television stations through its Graham Media Group subsidiary, and of course, it used to be the home of The Washington Post, before it was sold off to Jeff Bezos. That Megaphone relationship will most definitely factor into City Cast’s technical stack, given the hosting platform’s emphasis on making podcasts more able to target listeners — in part, geographically — more effectively. (“The targeting aspect is just going to get so much better,” said Plotz. “They’ve got a good product, and it’s going to be really helpful for us.”)

For what it’s worth, I really like City Cast as an idea. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to long-time Hot Pod readers, seeing as how local podcasting and the on-going decline of local media are topics that I like to pick up from time to time. The problem of local media’s hollowing out and its ramifications really resonate with me personally: how the loss or weakening of those institutions in cities across America have largely resulted in those cities being less able to properly understand themselves, especially as they grapple with intense change; how their gutting by corporate vultures have directly contributed to a more fractured society and less democracy, period; and how the increasing national gaze of all news and media in this country has generally resulted in an acute political hobbyism syndrome where most people primarily operate consumers of politics as opposed to actual participants.

Much in the same way that a hammer sees everything as a nail, I have some hope that podcasting, as one of the lone growing media categories, can be weaponized in such a manner that’s able to lead to a new foundation for local media. That’s why I harbor some optimism around the NPR local-national bundle efforts — despite its ultimate dependence on the increasing nationalizing strength of NPR within the public radio system for this to really work, with all that entails — and, subsequently, why I also have some optimism around Plotz’s ambitions with City Cast.

That said, it’s all really early for City Cast, and there remains so much more for Plotz to figure out. He still has to actually go through the often rough process of getting from an idea to a working business: building an actual product, finding ways to identify and access the right audiences, spending marketing dollars, wrangling advertisers, and so on. It’s still an open question if this thing will even make it to a second or third year.

And then there are all the greater concerns that should be considered in a personality-driven business like this. I’m thinking, specifically, of what it means to hire a singular voice for a given city, and the complex burdens of working through representational politics associated with that choice. I’m also thinking about the challenges of building the right incentive structures to make those hires during a time where personality-minded media makers are increasingly seeing the merits of owning their own products and presences.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Plotz tells me that the plan is to launch in the winter and go from there. Right now, he’s just beginning to hire for a full staff, and he’s still assessing which cities to start out from — a decision that will almost certainly depend on the hosting talent he’s able to find — though DC is almost certainly on the list, given the fact that’s where he lives. (For what it’s worth, I believe he should skip the obvious media cities like New York and Los Angeles entirely. Go for a city like Denver, Austin, Phoenix, Providence, or Milwaukee. Hell, come to Boise, where I live.)

This is all very intriguing, and I wish him the best of luck. You can learn more about City Cast on its website, and through this Medium post from Plotz himself.

I run this thing.