Phoebe Lett is a self-proclaimed podcast nerd. She tries to listen to two to three new podcasts every single day, keeping a list of them in a notebook. She jots down short reactions and summaries for each, and stars the ones that make her want to try another episode or recommend it to someone else.
Phoebe isn’t just a dedicated hobbyist; she’s one of three moderators of the recently-launched New York Times Podcast Club Facebook group. The Facebook group started a few months ago when Samantha Henig, the Times’s editorial director for audio, approached Phoebe about creating a virtual version of their in-real-life podcast club, one that would be open to the public and a place to foster conversation and connection among podcast enthusiasts of all types. But how to create a social media community that achieved the best of their weekly in-person gatherings?
A platform for community
“There’s a gap in media coverage of podcasts,” Phoebe told me. “Our goal for the group was to provide a place for public discussion about this form of media. The first step was thinking through what kind of group we wanted.”
Working with Michael Gold, who is on the Times’s social team, they considered their options for a Facebook group. (“Facebook was always going to be our platform. The lack of anonymity and self-representation was important for having honest and respectful conversations.”) Eventually they decided on a closed group, meaning that any Facebook user can see that the group exists, but can’t find out what happens within the group unless they’re a member. “We’re certainly not the only podcast group; there are ones for creators or fans of specific shows. What I like about these communities is that they thrive and become their own living entities.”
Every day Phoebe goes through the join requests for the group — usually 50 to 100 on a slow day, and sometimes as many as 500 or more if they get a shout out in a newsletter, on a podcast, or on Twitter. As of this writing, the group has over 18,000 members and continues to see active growth. But her primary role is to build engagement and user-generated activity.
Phoebe tries to imbue the spirit and discourse of the in real life podcast club into the virtual space, prompting group members to debate rich topics, like the ethics of Missing Richard Simmons and S-Town, or how a criminal case is covered in shows like 74 Seconds or Cosby Unraveled. She rarely promotes New York Times content, limiting the occasional post about their audio work on days designated for self-promotion. “We’re not trying to advertise our own products,” she explained, “we’re trying to build a community.”
Group discussion about a single episode (much like a book club) is a recurring feature of the Podcast Club. However, while members of the IRL podcast club listen to one pick and then meet on Fridays for a half hour of discussion, that format didn’t translate to the online space. “We couldn’t ask everyone to be quiet until the ‘discussion’ on Friday,” Phoebe explained, “that wouldn’t be practical or fun. So we had to tweak our approach.”
Instead, the group listening element of the online club is rolled out over the course of a week. On Monday, Sam Henig posts the pick of the week and asks for first impressions. For each day of the rest of the week, Phoebe posts a new question to prompt different angles for discussion. On Friday, she’ll post a survey for people to give a final verdict on the episode by sharing whether they plan to subscribe, try another episode, stop at one, or didn’t give it a go this week, (members can explain their vote if they so choose). After the discussion is over, she’ll post an image with the cover art of the show and a summary of links of the discussion from the week prior, for new members of the group or people who want to go back to see how we discussed a past show.
In addition to discussion around a designated episode, user-generated threads drive a huge amount of group engagement. There are four typical post types:
- Requests for suggestions (“I want a podcast about veganism”).
- Recommendations (“This podcast is great, and here’s why”).
- Opinions (“Here’s what I think, and why”).
- Sharing external links related to podcasts (for example, an NPR article about an opioid that was covered in an episode of Embedded that the group discussed).
All posts are approved by Phoebe, and part of her job is to make sure there are a variety of post types coming out each day and throughout the week. She spends a couple of hours doing this throughout the course of the day, alternating member posts with her own questions and surveys. “I try to keep my personal opinions from impacting the discussion one way or another. It’s more about prompting interesting and meaningful discussions. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t have to post prompts at all, and that’s all coming from the users — those tend to see way more engagement and are a sign the ecosystem is strong enough to thrive on its own energy.”
Many Podcast Club members are fans and power listeners, but there are a lot of podcast creators as well. Phoebe and the other moderators knew that creators would want to talk about their own work, but didn’t want that to dominate the content. To prevent this, Phoebe invented “self-promotion Saturdays” as a dedicated time for people to share their own work. Somewhat to her surprise, members have respected this rule — and the threads have driven more discovery and awareness. “I’ve listened to many of our group members’ podcasts, and I know that people who want to add more shows to their repertoire check in on Saturdays to find new things to listen to.”
A platform for media literacy
The Podcast Club isn’t just about stimulating thoughtful discussion — it also has a broader purpose. Phoebe said, “I see teaching media literacy as part of my goal for this group. You learn how to talk critically about TV with other people who watch and write about TV, and it’s the same with movies. There really isn’t that economy yet for podcast critique, but we’re on the cusp of it.” The Podcast Club contributes to media literacy partially by expanding awareness and understanding of podcasts beyond the biggest shows, and partially by prompting members to think critically about the medium through thoughtful disagreement.
For example, a few weeks ago Phoebe paired an episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class with an episode of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace that both covered the same topic — the story of Robert Smalls, an escaped enslaved person who went on to become a member of congress. The pairing was effective in part because it forced people to articulate what they liked or disliked about these very different podcasts. Phoebe has herself experienced the value of this firsthand: “At first I loved Missing Richard Simmons and hated S-Town. But by the time we’d finished talking about it in the Facebook group, after really thinking about both shows, my position on each had switched completely.”
For listeners, thinking about a podcast critically informs their ability to find new shows they’ll love. For creators, understanding what works for listeners can guide editorial strategy and choices. These complementary interests overlap in online events hosted within the group, such as Q&A sessions with producers Tobin Low and Kathy Tu of WNYC’s Nancy, and Briana Breen and Brendan Baker of Radiotopia’s Love + Radio. Behind-the-scenes content has been consistently exciting to members, and Phoebe and the other moderators plan to continue to incorporate interactive elements like these in the future, including (they hope) Facebook Live interviews.
Facebook groups is a serviceable platform, but isn’t ideally suited to the needs of the virtual Podcast Club in a few important ways. For example, the limitations of the search feature (which won’t deliver results unless the search terms appear in the original posting, as opposed to a reply) prove frustrating for surfacing older content. There are also no analytics available, leaving the moderators to anecdotally gauge the different types of users and success of different types of content. The New York Times has talked with Facebook about possible improvements, and hopes to see some changes in the future that will provide this important functionality.
Meanwhile, there is the very real challenge of how to cover (and keep up with) the ever-growing number of podcasts.
Even as there are more and more shows to listen to (over 400,000 are in the iTunes store, according to a recent presentation by Apple), there remains a general lack of coverage about them from large media organizations. Phoebe sees plenty of opportunities to change this. In the future, she’d like to develop more New York Times content related to podcasts — perhaps something similar to “Watching,” their platform for TV and movies, to tell people what’s new and notable or what to listen to.
In the meantime, the Facebook group is an incredible opportunity for passive market research for anyone building audio content or products. While the Podcast Club is primarily a platform for community engagement, a place where people can come to learn about and discuss podcasts, it offers insights that could, in the future, inform the Times’s editorial strategy for their own audio projects. “By seeing how people respond to and engage with different types of content, of course we see broader trends and takeaways — there is a hydra of ideas here, and so many different places where the Times’s reporting is already happening that we could build into our audio efforts.”