Codebreaker: Cracking engagement for on-demand audio

The Codebreaker podcast logo--from Marketplace and Tech Insider

The Codebreaker podcast logo–from Marketplace and Tech Insider

You’ve seen them in the New York Times, you’ve probably heard the ubiquitous “Squarespace dot com slash X” advertisements, your parents and grandparents have probably asked you what they are and how to get them. At this point in the game, you could almost sell semi-ironic tee shirts that say “Listen to my podcast! Rate it on iTunes!” (Seriously though, would you?).

This doesn’t mean we’re in the on-demand audio future yet, or that we’re moving there as fast as it sometimes feels. I made a pilot episode of Codebreaker over two years ago. Last spring, I got some help in making a show that takes an unflinching look at technology while experimenting with audience engagement in some new and interesting ways. I am of course biased, but we’ve had some nice validation in the press: Wired, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Current, Ars Technica, AV Club, the list goes on. Even my hometown paper quoted my parents and my first real editor, who was nice enough to not talk about the time I got the name of the bass player in 30 Seconds to Mars wrong. Here’s an excerpt if you haven’t listened yet:

The show was a multi-layered experiment–one that I was really proud that the company I work for supported. Not only did we pre-produce the entire first season before launch, unveil it at a live event in New York (at New York Tech Meetup) and make some pretty production-heavy content with original reporting, we also had a fantastic digital partner with Tech Insider–the new science and tech vertical at Business Insider, where many of our stories are posted as web content.

As the first season of Codebreaker wrapped up over the Christmas holiday, I thought a lot about the feedback we received from a surprising number of listeners who cracked the codes hidden in each episode. People who didn’t want to wait for each weekly episode but instead wanted to binge-listen to the season, which is officially now a thing, had to crack our hidden codes. It was amazing to hear from the high school senior, the female IT lead, the Marine going back to college on the GI Bill, and other people in the US and beyond that went far beyond regular listeners to become Codebreakers. We even got our own subreddit! One guy actually wrote a computer program to help with one of the hidden codes:

When you’re building a new product, or making anything you want to be consumed, it’s really important to think about the audience you’re trying to reach. At APM, Marketplace’s parent company, one of the big goals is to reach “new audiences.” That’s a purposely vague goal, and public radio’s audience is pretty massive. But my industry’s biggest problem might be reaching younger audiences. I think that challenge is both about technology and content.

As someone who makes a show every day about how technology is changing the way we live, I’ve been blown away by how fast that change can happen. I’m a millennial who started in newspapers in 2003. In my career thus far, I’ve seen massive change in print media. I’ve also seen massive change in television. Because part of the job description for anyone who works in media is to follow trends and understand societal change as it is happening, conversations always occur long before the actual tipping point when it comes to revenue streams and consumption.

But in both media and technology, when it does come, it happens fast. Google bought YouTube in 2006. Netflix started streaming a year later–the same year Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. Eight years later, we’re about to see digital advertising surpass the juggernaut of television advertising–and a whole new generation of “cord nevers” won’t ever sign up for basic cable. What does all this mean? I think it means that we’re on the right track, but that there’s some time yet before massive change happens to public radio. I’m a fan of the scene in Margin Call that starts with “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.”

I’m not a cheater. And I don’t think my company is first when it comes to podcasting–not by a long shot. My hope is that Marketplace and APM is on a path to being smarter, and that Codebreaker’s experiments both in terms of content and delivery are part of that. Now…time to get working on season two.

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Hosting Marketplace Tech for American Public Media

The logo for Marketplace Tech/Marketplace Tech Report

OK, OK. It’s been a while, I know. But I’ve been busy. Mostly helping to produce, then expand, then step in as interim host for a national show on public radio called Marketplace Tech. If you’re a consistent public radio consumer, you’ve probably heard Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal, or the Marketplace Morning Report with David Brancaccio.

Part of the American Public Media stable of shows, the tech team’s mission is to “explore how technology is changing our lives and our society.” For me what that means is curating a great mix of content, from the biggest business of tech stories of the day to viral stuff, and curiosities you won’t easily find elsewhere. For our nearly 2 million listeners around the country, what we try and do is give them a daily dose of tech news that keeps them informed, inspired and determined to work on changing the world.

It’s a new adventure for me, to sit in the host’s chair. But I think it fits my skills and my path to this spot. If you want to reach me for the show, best way to do that is my email: I hope you’ll take a listen…and let me know what you think.

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Slate’s YouTube Channel: Can I write 150 Words That Matter?

It’s been a strange few years for me professionally. After nearly a decade reporting and editing for newspapers—a gig I mostly enjoyed despite the doom and gloom in an industry forever changed by the internet—I left to work in another “outdated” form of media: radio. At WNYC I ended up learning about more cutting edge digital journalism than ever before, and used those skills along some new radio chops to get a job at an online-only magazine. Now, I’m overseeing Slate News Channel, which is part of a cutting-edge partnership between Slate and the big bad(ass) Google.

The idea behind the channel is unique. Produce three videos every day, all under a minute long, that give you the most biggest news in three specific subjects: Politics, Tech, and Science. Editorial choice is heavily influenced by what’s trending every morning, but I also try and look forward on topics and even pick out bizarre stories that will hopefully catch wider attention with Slate’s help. We’re also doing longer form videos based on the magazine’s popular Explainer column.

I’m scripting or editing the scripts for all of this stuff, and with the help of an amazing team of video producers, we get the content we choose every morning up by the afternoon. By internet standards it’s not lightning speed. By video production standards it’s the speed of light. But can it matter to users? I’m having fun writing and editing this stuff, and I think it’s informative. The question we’re going to try and answer with our content, is whether we can provide something that users truly want to watch and will seek out.

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Frank Buckles and ‘The American Century’

A photo of Frank Buckles. Flickr user: JSF539 (Creative Commons)

Frank Buckles, the last (known) surviving American veteran of World War I, died this week at the age of 110. Beyond the impressive number of years logged on this world, Buckles also had a pretty amazing life story. Coming from modest beginnings in rural Oklahoma, he developed a tenacious attitude towards serving his country as a teenager, and was turned away several times before finally fudging his age to enlist. After military service he worked in the shipping industry, and during World War II, he was captured by the Japanese while traveling in the Philippines. He would be held in a prison came for three years before allied forces released him.

On Monday President Obama released a statement on Buckles’ death. In part the statement read, “Frank Buckles lived the American century.” As I heard it over the radio and read it online, that statement struck me.

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Do Not Start Fights With James Murphy

James Murphy of the group LCD Soundsystem. (Nasty Little Man Publicity)

You may notice that the attached photo features LCD Soundsystem‘s James Murphy in bare feet. Is this because he is trying to make a statement about the real vulnerability of guys who wear suits? Or because, perhaps, he had been wearing bright sneakers pre-photo shoot and wanted to avoid looking like Garrison Keillor?

No. I’m pretty sure James Murphy has his little piggies out because he is most comfortable this way, and because being barefoot makes things easier if he has to kick you in the face.

I know this because I interviewed Murphy a while back, as he prepared to tour in the U.S. on the excellent “Sound of Silver.” We talked about his bulldog, Petunia, about the ideas behind amusing, contagious and pugnacious songs like “North American Scum.” We also talked about one of Murphy’s obsessions outside of dance records: ultimate fighting.

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Distant Summer Memory: A Night On Waterpod

Sunset beyond Waterpod's geodesic dome..

I’m the kind of guy who dreads winter’s arrival, but eventually gets his boots and Sno-Seal out and starts to really enjoy the cold weather. There’s something about adapting to the seasons that after the initial shock, can be really comforting. I find it’s all about accessories. That wooly winter beanie that doesn’t leave my head; the simple pride in a pair of rugged gloves, or the ritual of strategic layering; they all make me feel like I’m a capable human who can use tools to defy or even embrace the weather, no matter how extreme.

Thinking about this the other day reminded me of a story I wrote about a very different kind of experience in adapting to the elements. Two summers ago I jumped a fence and spent a night with a group of artists, environmental designers, and other warm weather explorers all camping out on Waterpod, a flat barge that had been turned into a kind of mobile scientific sculpture dedicated to a post-apocalyptic idea of sustainable living. Here is my diary of the experience.

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Master Casts of Everything

This is a machine like the one I saw work at Salt Mastering in Brooklyn.

In January’s freezing cold, I went with friend and bandmate Alex to Greenpoint’s Salt Mastering, in the hopes of obtaining masters for a four-song EP Conversion Party plans to release in February. The process was surprisingly painless, and we left a few hours later, excited about the new space and organization audible in our recordings.

I’m not enough of an audio guy to tell you what mastering actually is in the digital age, or explain effectively how the sound changed, but there’s a lot more clarity and power in the music for some reason, and new order, as well, to the sounds coming out of the speakers. Almost as if a bunch of players finally moved into more clearly-assigned sonic spots, instead of projecting their noises from a tiny crowded stage. Needless to say we’re looking forward to having our new recording heard its finished form. All in good time.

Perhaps more interesting than the mastering itself however, was what happened afterward.

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