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.

About Ben

Ben Brock Johnson is a print, radio, and new media journalist working in New York City.
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One Response to Codebreaker: Cracking engagement for on-demand audio

  1. jake3_14 says:

    Code Breaker’s content was interesting, but I detested the theme of the season. Just like its counterpart of the first season, it was simplistic and aimed at the “National Enquirer” reader, not an NPR listener. If “Will it Save Us” was truly your question, Levar Burton answered that in ep. 2 of the new season, and you should have stopped podcasting the shows after that.

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