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‘The Daily’ Host, Producer on How It Became the New York Times’ Podcast Hit

Three years ago, Michael Barbaro was a reporter on The New York Times politics desk who had no experience with radio or podcasting. Now he’s the face — and voice — of what has become a fast-growing vector for the Gray Lady’s digital future.

About 2 million listeners per day tune in to the Barbaro-hosted “The Daily,” which was the No. 1 downloaded U.S. podcast for June, according to industry tracker Podtrac. The show delves into a single news topic each day, with Barbaro interviewing different Times reporters. Recent episodes have covered Jeffrey Epstein’s death, the election of Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister and India’s crackdown in Kashmir.

The Daily” was born out of a twice-weekly podcast Barbaro hosted for the 2016 election called “The Run-Up.” The traction that show received led the Times to believe there was an audience for a broader, daily podcast — but the team was unsure how it would play. “The thought was, who’s going to listen to a daily news podcast?” recalls Barbaro.

From the very beginning, the strategy was to produce a show that was around 20 minutes long so it would fit into people’s daily routines. When “The Daily” launched in early 2017, most narrative podcasts ran 45-60 minutes. “We didn’t want people to think, ‘No, I’ll save it for the weekend,’” says Lisa Tobin, executive producer and editor for audio at the Times, who came from public radio station WBUR in Boston. “If you have a mounting stack of New Yorkers, you feel defeated by it.”

Also spurring the move: The paper watched for years as public radio and TV shows borrowed New York Times reporters for commentary, “when we had them in the newsroom that whole time,” says Barbaro.

For the second quarter of 2019, The New York Times Co.’s digital advertising grew by nearly 14%, with CEO Mark Thompson specifically citing strong performance in direct sales for “The Daily.” In addition, the podcast spawned development of “The Weekly,” a TV show that premiered in June on FX and Hulu, which boosted the Times’ digital revenue.

What’s significant about “The Daily” is that more than half its listeners are people who don’t regularly subscribe to or read the Times, according to Stephanie Preiss, executive director of TV and audio. Nor is the podcast eating into time spent with the Times’ website. In fact, it’s driving listeners to read more content. “It’s reaching the next generation of smart, curious people,” Preiss says, adding, “Over 100 million monthly radio listeners are up for grabs to turn into podcast listeners.”

Barbaro had to learn a new set of skills in moving from print journo to podcast host, including how to coach other Times reporters telling audio stories to set a scene and sustain a dramatic arc. “I had to learn to ask questions differently. The questions are what propel the whole interview,” he says. Barbaro already had a slow, deliberate way of speaking, which was a natural fit for “The Daily.” He attributes that to one of his grandfathers scolding him when he was a kid for using verbal tics (e.g., “you know”) to fill space.

Barbaro thinks the podcast format helps build trust with an audience in a way that straight text simply can’t. “The medium is so intimate,” he says. It’s a key point as the Times and other news organizations deal with a president who reflexively cries “fake news” about their reporting.

With the rise of “The Daily,” Barbaro’s personal life hit the gossip pages after he separated from his husband and started dating Tobin last year. The publicity hasn’t been a big distraction, he says: “I think it comes with the territory.” As for whether he’s inked a long-term contract with the Times now that he’s the company’s podcasting star, Barbaro won’t say. “I feel very loved and appreciated by the Times for the work I do,” he says.

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