NPR Attracts Younger Audiences With Podcasts Like ‘Hidden Brain,’ ‘Embedded’

In addition to driving a connection with younger users, podcasts such as “Hidden Brain,” “Invisibilia,” and “Embedded” are pushing NPR’s corporate sponsorship revenue to record levels. The public radio powerhouse generated more than $10 million from podcasts in its latest fiscal year, more than double what it earned in 2015, and added 2 million users to its listening base between September and October.

Just as television grapples with the shift to an on-demand culture, so too is radio embracing the fact that audiences want to access programming whenever, wherever, and on whichever device they want. Appointment listening, like appointment viewing, is a thing of the past for a certain generation.

NPR has been podcasting for more than a decade, but the pace of growth slackened roughly five years ago. It rebounded two years ago, as “Serial,” the acclaimed true-crime series from “This American Life,” captured the zeitgeist.

“It’s become more of a mainstream experience,” says Anya Grundmann, NPR’s VP of programming and audience development. “It’s been really exciting to ride the wave and invest more in this area.”

What’s heartening is that rather than cannibalizing the NPR audience, podcasting appears to be helping it overall. The broadcast audience on NPR’s 264 member stations grew 11% last year, and now reaches nearly 29 million people a week. Demographically, there are distinctions between the audiences: Sixty percent of podcast users are under 35, while 52% of NPR’s broadcast audience is between 25 and 54.

“There’s been a real renaissance in spoken-word audio,” says Gina Garrubbo, president and CEO of National Public Media, a division of NPR. “People are buzzing about our podcasts. There has been a flood of new shows that appeal to diverse tastes but that are based on that NPR heritage of great reporting and storytelling.”

Advertisers also appear to be responding. Messages to listeners tend to be shorter and more targeted on podcasts, NPR executives say, and that may make them more impactful. Mattress company Casper, website creator Squarespace, and grocery service Blue Apron are among advertisers embracing podcasting spots. There’s overlap, as well: More than 40% of broadcast sponsors also back podcasts.

“It’s a very lean-forward messaging,” says Bryan Moffett, COO of National Public Media.  “Everybody has taken the approach of not being too crass or commercial. They’re more conversational.”

The loose format of podcasting also has an impact on the way journalists tell stories. “Embedded,” for instance, which “takes a story from the news and goes deep,” serves almost as a reporter’s audio diary.

“They’re looking into topics more experientially,” says Grundmann. “Ten years ago that was kind of a no-no. But that’s what audiences are connecting with, and we feel it’s helping them understand the stories better. We’re taking them on a journey, but we’re not compromising our journalistic integrity.”

Correction: A print version of this article incorrectly stated that NPR produces “Serial.”

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