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NBC News Gears Up for Podcast Push

Chuck Rosenberg is charting an unusual course for a TV-news outlet. NBC News will be ecstatic in coming days if Rosenberg’s conversations with newsmakers are heard but not seen.

A former U.S. Attorney and FBI Chief of Staff, Rosenberg these days is better known as a contributor for MSNBC. Starting today, he will add to the news outlet’s reporting in a unique way, with a ten-episode podcast called “The Oath” that features a series of deep conversations with top former U.S. law officials such as James Comey, Preet Bharara and Andrew McCabe, all about their personal histories and the influences that shaped their careers in law enforcement and the cases they pursued.

“This is for people who are interested in the news, but want to go deeper, people who want to understand what drives very difficult decision-making, people who want to learn,” says Rosenberg, who has carved out a profile on MSNBC during its coverage of the heightened news cycle around the Trump administration. Did Rosenberg exhaust his guest list? His response: “I have scores of people I’d like to talk to.”

So too does NBC News, and executives are convinced these days that podcasts represent a good means of doing just that. Not too long ago, the news unit largely relied on “showcasts” of MSNBC’s primetime programs to reach the podcast crowd. But there are new efforts ahead, says Steve Lickteig, executive producer of podcasts and audio for NBC News and MSNBC. Chuck Todd’s weekly podcast related to “Meet the Press” was recently revamped. The company plans to launch several new podcasts throughout 2019, including one that will eventually become a daily one focused on the 2020 election.

The move comes as many media companies are embracing podcasts. Spotify’s recent acquisition of Gimlet Media, a leading podcast producer, has accelerated the format, and market researchers expect older consumers to begin accepting the format as readily as the younger generations that already have. The New York Times Co. has the popular “The Daily” podcast, and ABC News has moved quickly into the arena, with offerings that include “Start Here,” a 20-minute look at the day’s news led by Brad Mielke and “The Investigation,” a look at the recent Special Counsel probe of Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. election.

Lickteig says executives will remain flexible about what might make for a good podcast project. “I don’t want to put ‘X number’ on it,” he says. “Let’s launch shows that make the most sense for us and roll it out in the way that makes the most sense. I don’t want to fall into the trap of ‘we will have six podcasts by the end of the year.’ We want to give ourselves room to pivot if something comes along that we didn’t think of.”

Executives have been encouraged by response to Rachel Maddow’s recent “Bag Man” podcast series as well as Chris Hayes’ “Why Is This Happening?”

The new audio programs typically need to spark more than 50,000 to 75,000 downloads to be considered viable, he says. “You’ve got to get to a level where you can sell advertising around it.”

Chuck Rosenberg says he brought the idea for “The Oath” to executives several months ago. “I’ve had about a year and a half with the network, which I have loved, but there are limits to what you can do on TV,” he says,. “You have limited time, and I get that. It’s not a complaint, but if you want to go deeper, you need another format.”

He says getting people like Comey and McCabe to come and talk to him was “actually really easy,” owing to his working relationships with many of them. “I asked, and they were very gracious. I’m not sure it will always be this easy.” If NBC News gives “The Oath” another swearing in, he’s sure to find out.

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