David Plotz talks City Cast, his upcoming network of city-specific, personality-driven podcasts
The veteran journalist is among a new wave of entrepreneurs lured to local media by opportunity, passion, and a distinct lack of competition.
|Mark Stenberg||Nov 4, 2020||6|
A song to read by: “Rolled Up,” by Benny Sings, Mac DeMarco
What I’m reading: “Billion Dollar Loser,” by Reeves Wiedeman
Podcasts: Coming to a city near you?
If the last decade has witnessed the hollowing-out of local news media, with newspapers and their staff shrinking, consolidating, and closing en masse, a new wave of media entrepreneurs have their sights set on reversing that trend.
David Plotz, a seasoned journalist and the former CEO of Atlas Obscura and editor-in-chief of Slate, is a prime candidate for spearheading this revitalization. On Oct. 20, he announced via Twitter that he was launching City Cast, “network of daily, local news podcasts in cities around the country.”
Plotz, as fate would have it, knows a thing or two about podcasts. He has hosted Slate’s “Political Gabfest” podcast for more than 14 years, a position that has allowed him to track the rise of podcasting as a medium from its infancy to its full-blown boom. His experience as an executive, a journalist, and an editor-in-chief also make him uniquely positioned to understand the economics, opportunities, and pain points of the media world.
On top of his accolades, Plotz also brings a zeal for city-specific personality to his new venture. He has no intention of parachuting into cities and offering alien analysis, but instead aims to provide a platform for a passionate team of local journalists to explore, celebrate, criticize, and enrich the cities they represent.
As for the specifics, Plotz has urged patience. City Cast plans to open in three cities this winter, one of which will be Washington D.C., where Plotz lives. The podcast network is actively hiring and taking suggestions for the other two locations.
If a sustainable model for city-specific podcasting exists, Plotz hopes to find it, perfect it, and then replicate it in cities across the country. By doing so, he believes, he and his team add a depth of identity, a richness in culture, and a heightened sense of pride to the cities they report on.
Name: David Plotz
Title: CEO of City Cast
This interview has been edited for clarity.
So how did the idea for CityCast come about?
There are now podcasts in every place that traditional audio used to be, except in local news. There are good reasons for this, but one is: Nobody has tried to build it.
It stands to reason that, just as there are these economically successful, beloved models in national news, sports, music, and true crime, there should be a model for local news that makes sense.
So me and Tim O'Shaughnessy, the CEO of Graham Holdings, started to talk about this some months ago, thinking about what that model would look like. We realized that a daily podcast for a city, combined with a daily newsletter, could be pretty potent — particularly if the podcast was less of a straight-up newscast and focused more on what podcasts do so well, which is channel passion and curiosity and enthusiasm.
So what we’re seeking is to find hosts who are true lovers of their city — people who really feel so strongly about their city, and speak so beautifully about their city — to be a voice for it and to build that human connection that podcasts are so good at.
In my experience, when an idea feels this obvious — how do we not have city-based podcasts at this point? — it’s often an indication that the idea is brilliant, or that it’s brilliant but the business model doesn’t work. Which is the case here?
I think this model used to exist, but then it stopped. Maybe 50 years ago, there were people who embodied their cities — some were newspaper columnists, Oprah Winfrey is a great example.
These people saw themselves as both the city’s greatest ambassador and its greatest critic. They were people who loved their city so much that they couldn’t sit silent when there was something wrong with it.
For a number of reasons, primarily the weak model of local media, that person has vanished. I think podcasts are the perfect vehicle for bringing it back.
In addition to the podcast, City Cast will also include a daily newsletter, a space where there is some budding competition. Axios is expanding, and I’ve written about two other models, 6AM City and WhereBy.Us.
In this kind of ecosystem, are you in competition with these networks? Are we witnessing a local-media land-grab, where the race is on to set up in as many cities as possible?
I think there's more than enough space. Cities are where the big issues of American life are being fought out.
Because of the pandemic, because of the massive economic crisis and what it has inflicted on local governments, because of the mass movement for racial justice that we've seen this summer, there is a kind of ferment in cities, and people are clamoring for a way to understand that.
Everyone’s trying to guess which three cities will host the first City Cast podcasts. You have more or less said that one will be Washington D.C., but what about the other two? Nick Quah recently suggested that mid-sized cities would be a good fit.
Nick’s point about mid-sized cities, especially mid-sized cities that have really grown a lot, makes a lot of sense.
Austin, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise: These are rapidly growing cities that don’t have rich, long-lasting media traditions, and I think there is an opportunity for somebody to help them understand themselves.
We also want to experiment with different-sized cities: some larger, some mid-size, and some smaller ones.
What will the relationship look like between City Cast and the local publishers? For instance, if you launch in Austin, will you be collaborating with the Austin-American Statesman, competing with them for scoops, or borrowing from their reporting?
I really believe in the ecosystem model for media. No single entity fills all the needs, and especially at the local level, people need different things at different moments.
Our belief is that there’s an explanatory, exhortative, community-building element that is missing in media, and that’s the role we want to fill.
For that to work, we need a media ecosystem that is already alive, creative, and boisterous. So I don’t know if we’ll partner, in an official way, with The Texas Tribune or the Austin-American Statesman, but I can imagine us highlighting their work, celebrating their reporters, and featuring their journalists as guests and commentators.
What sort of subject matter will the podcast cover? Mostly civic material, or cultural coverage? What will that breakdown look like?
We want to talk about the thing that people care most about in that city on that day. Some days it will be obvious: a crime or a political candidate. Other days it will be an amazing work of art or an incredible chef reimagining the food of the city.
This is not something that is just for news junkies; it’s for people who are curious about their cities.
6AM City and WhereBy.Us offer two different models for how city-based media can evolve: The 6AM City model, which is mostly templated, can expand into new cities quickly. The WhereBy.Us model is more idiosyncratic, but that makes expansion challenging. Where does City Cast fall between those two models?
More toward the WhereBy.Us model, though we do hope to template certain elements. For instance, we want to have some consistency of voice and format so that we don’t have a 45-minute rant in one city and a 12-minute interview in another. We also have to have some economies of scale, like centralized editing, to make the whole thing make sense economically.
But cities are different, and our hosts will be different. I expect that a host in City X might be obsessive over something that a host in City Y won’t give a fig about, and that alone will make them different.
In terms of revenue, I’m guessing: large-scale advertisers, local advertisers, some sort of subscription or membership, and at some point revenue and merchandise. Is that missing anything?
That’s all correct, though I think we’re leaning toward calling them subscriptions, not memberships. It can be a little potato-potato, though.
It’s my belief that, in the long run, this will be most successful with a format where listeners provide the bulk of the revenue.
Some good readin’
— This amazing profile of Moxie Marlinspike, the techno-anarchist behind the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal. Bonus points because it is written by the most literary of all tech writers, Anna Wiener. (The New Yorker)
— I will admit that I will read every profile of Jack Dorsey that I come across, and I love each more than the last. (The Wall Street Journal)
— Speaking of Jack Dorsey, his former partner in crime Ev Williams, now the maestro of Medium, drops some pearls in conversation with The Information’s Jessica Lessin. (The Information)
— The Wall Street Journal is having intergenerational newsroom conflicts! Stars, they’re just like us! (BuzzFeed News)
— I have seen the future, and in it The Strokes dressed just like they dressed 20 years ago, and it was good. (GQ)