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People, Politics and Podcasts with Guy Raz

Guy Raz (1996) joined NPR in 1997 as an intern, and since then he’s covered conflicts all over the world and created three NPR podcasts with millions of listeners.

As a news reporter Guy covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, and reported extensively on Israel-Palestine. Now, he’s the host, co-creator and editorial director of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, as well as Wow In The World, NPR’s first podcast for children. So what made him make the switch to podcasting? To understand that you have to go back to the beginning:

“I went into journalism, like most people go into journalism, to make the world a better place.  It is a profession that, in your mind, is designed to explain one part of the world to another part of the world in the hopes that those explanations will result in better understanding, a deeper more meaningful understanding of another culture or the reasons why someone is upset about something, and that’s really what motivated me in the beginning.”

Guy also expressed concern at watching American politics and media become more polarised, with serious anger being expressed at the Obama administration. The demands of the 24-hour news cycle on top of competitive market pressures meant journalists were being pushed into a fixed way of working that Guy found unsatisfying.  Wanting to make a different contribution, he turned to podcasts, then a relatively unknown technology.

“I was able to collaborate with TED to create a brand new programme for NPR. This happened about six years ago and I decided to leave the daily news to make this show. NPR decided we would launch this as a podcast first, because it’s very expensive to launch a radio show. Six years ago this was insane, most of my colleagues thought I was going into the wilderness to make this strange thing called a podcast that no one listens to. But it was an opportunity to talk about what it means to be human.”

The TED Radio Hour has certainly not led Guy into a wilderness; it now has millions of listeners around the world and covers topics like parenthood, work, stress, and racism, connecting with the experiences of people beyond the boundaries of age, gender, or nationality. And this, according to Guy, is what makes the podcasts so successful (Guy is the first person to have three podcasts in the top ten of Apple’s podcast list).

“They’re successful because they’re about us. They’re a reflection of the listeners. We’re complex people, we all experience anxiety and self-doubt. The shows are about human vulnerability and imperfections. They’re not designed to be polished visions of a phony world, they’re really designed to show you that even great successful entrepreneurs or brilliant scientists or writers, they all have moments of failure and doubt. That’s why I think they appeal to people. People recognise a part of themselves in the people I interview and the people I have on my shows.”

The technology of podcasting has opened up new possibilities, too. Unlike traditional radio there’s no set programming hours; you can listen to podcasts when and where you want. This results in a much more engaged audience, and exciting opportunities for NPR:

“Our discovery here at NPR was that this was an incredible opportunity and platform on which to experiment, to do things we couldn’t do on radio like make longer content or shorter content, be a little riskier with what we did. We didn’t have to worry too much about one size fits all, because we were making a show for the people who were choosing to listen to it.”

Available on radio and digital download, podcasts reach a wider range of audiences. Digital listeners are on average 27 years younger than radio listeners. In an era with a “tidal wave” of information supplied by devices, with few opportunities to really ‘unplug’, Guy – who never reads news online and doesn’t keep any social media apps on his phone – is keen to reach as many people as possible. And it’s important that legitimate news organisations with editors and an address, who can be held to account if they deviate from accurate information-sharing, continue to grow and reach these diverse audiences.

“They were designed and built to disseminate information to create more vibrant democracies. Democracy is under threat. Newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times have done excellent work in the past year at exposing corruption and misinformation but it’s not enough. We all have a role to play in uncovering falsehoods from our elected (and unelected) leaders.”

In an era with a “tidal wave” of information supplied by devices, with few opportunities to really ‘unplug’, Guy – who never reads news online and doesn’t keep any social media apps on his phone – is keen to reach as many people as possible with his podcasts.

“What I love about podcasting is it forces you to disengage from visual stimulation. It’s old fashioned – it’s going back to the radio of the 30s and 40s. I understand why people in the UK still like the Archers! American radio stopped doing that in the early 70s, and it’s coming back in digital form. All these audio dramas, podcasts, that’s the origins of audio! It all began as radio plays, with the screen in your mind. There’s so much research done into how the brain engages and creates new pathways when we read or when we listen, because we have to imagine what those things look like in our minds. That’s really cool. I’m really excited about podcasting, because people are watching television in their heads, and that helps you grow. To me there are a lot of encouraging signs about audio, and I hope that more people start to experience it, discover it, and engage with it.”

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