Ever since RadioPublic — the podcast discovery and recommendation app from PRX — launched last year, there has been a lot of buzz about one particular feature: “Ask a Librarian.” This part of the app connects you with an actual person who curates new shows for you to try. Ma’ayan Plaut is one of the librarians who interacts with users each week, providing personalized recommendations based on their preferences.

 

In your own words, what is a podcast librarian?

A Podcast Librarian is your guide to getting you to listen to something great. As RadioPublic’s Podcast Librarian, I research, curate, and recommend shows to new and long-time listeners through individual requests and in the Explore section of the RadioPublic app.

If we may be so bold, what are your qualifications?

My primary qualification is boldness 😉 But really: a long-standing appreciation for organization, a background in strategy, content, and marketing, and a deep love for podcasts.

I found my way to RadioPublic after a connection-driven crowdsourced metadata listening project called The Pod Party, where I curated episodes for a small group of avid listeners in order to connect episodes across shows with more information that initially provided by the creator. The proposed role of Podcast Librarian was a timely expression of how both RadioPublic and I were thinking about listeners and podcast content, so of course I said yes to this never-yet-seen-before job. My librarian father was thrilled, as was I, a long-time library kid.

Anecdotally, it seems like most people still get podcast recommendations from people rather than in-app discovery. In your opinion, what is it about having a human recommend something that is so compelling?

Having been on both sides of recommendations both in person and person-to-person through another medium (Twitter, blogs, email, etc.) I’d characterize it as a few things:

  • Credibility by commitment. When someone is excited about something they love, it’s a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) endorsement that it’s probably awesome and worth your time. With a limited amount of time I have to listen, I want to make sure my time is respected as well as well-spent, and if they’ve already spent their time there and think it should be passed along, that’s a good sign.
  • Humans are complex, as are podcasts. The person doing the recommending and the person taking the recommendation are both more than what they listen to: they are multifaceted, interesting, curious people, who learn, think, and do things differently from each other. Whatever they bring to the table as a human (and not just a listener) is a significant part of the recommendation process, as the shows they’re recommending are also created by multifaceted, interesting, and curious people.
  • People are relatable. Personally, I’m more likely to understand my friend’s tastes AND they know me already, so it jump-starts the trust that’s implicit when a show is speaking directly to you through your headphones or speakers.
  • The tools aren’t terrific. Having spent more time as a listener of podcasts than a person who worked directly with them, it’s incredibly difficult to assure that you’re finding something good to listen to without just taking the leap and pressing play. When the tech gets me down, I’d prefer to go to a human first.

Since many of the recommendations I make aren’t happening in real time (though I wish they were! It’s very fun!), I aim to bring the same excitement, curiosity, care, and a love of listening to my responses to people who write to the Podcast Librarian.

Where do you start when you get a new inquiry? Briefly walk us through the process of trying to assess someone’s tastes based on a brief collection of their likes and dislikes.

When you submit a librarian request via the RadioPublic app, there’s two required questions and one optional question to set me on the right track to finding you the right podcast. The first two questions ask about what kind of listening experience you’d like to have and your familiarity with podcasts, and the optional question allows you to tell us anything else that you think would be helpful in making a better recommendation. With this last query, some people tell us their interests (I’d like history and politics, please!), their stage of life (I’m a grad student commuting a few hours a week and need something to accompany me on the road), their favorite shows (I love This American Life and 2 Dope Queens), or some kind of stipulation around content or time (I’d like clean episodes in the sub-45 minute range; I recently found a show that makes me think about race and class differently and I’d like more shows that’ll do the same).

Since the idea of asking an unknown human for a listening recommendation is pretty new, we’ve found that a lot of people don’t go beyond those two required questions, which means I usually pull from a pool of shows I think are worth a listen (what you receive, of course, will be based on how you answered those initial questions). If you’ve chosen to tell us more about who you are or what you like, that’ll send me into our ever-growing list of shows we’ve found for other listeners – likely the largest database of personal podcast recommendations out there – or into a series of searches across podcast aggregators.

What tools do you use to uncover great new listens for people who write to you?

This has shifted somewhat since the Podcast Librarian role came to be last fall, since I immediately needed to familiarize myself with a broad swath of shows. I primarily used a range of existing podcast directories that covered a lot of shows and categorizations within to start acclimating myself to the ways in which shows are connected to each other, including Audiosear.ch and Instantwatcher’s Podcast search. At this point, all those early days of research and recommendations have set us up right, since our database of hand-selected shows aligned with demographics cover many of the basic requests we receive day to day.

Finally, a sincere shoutout and heartfelt thank you to every podcast recommendation newsletter I’ve read over the last two years (at least a dozen at this point) – you made my job possible in the early days, since you introduced me to so many shows I’d never heard of before but now enjoy and recommend with great frequency. (If you want a taste of what they love, several of those folks have created recommended listening lists with RadioPublic: John Dodig, Sara Weber, AudioTeller, Podcasts for Parents, Audible Feast, and The Bello Collective.)

What’s one weird or most delightful podcast you’ve discovered in the process of finding recommendations for RadioPublic users?

Oh, there are so so many. My favorites are usually niche, usually things you wouldn’t immediately think would have a podcast. It’s probably a three-way tie for the following:

  • What the Cluck?! – a podcast about raising chickens. I’m delighted by how many requests I’ve received for farming and gardening podcasts, so this find has been useful multiple times.
  • I Love Queso So Much – reviewing the quesos of Austin, Texas. This was a completely accidental find while looking for love and romance podcasts.
  • The Purrcast – short and ambient recordings of different cats purring. Someone asked for cat podcasts, I found cat podcasts. Me-ow.

How do you personally discover new podcasts?

Interestingly enough, it’s still very much through word-of-mouth since I talk to a lot of people who listen to a lot of things (if you’re willing to include email newsletters as word of mouth, which I do). I also scan some usual places: top charts, Twitter, general headlines from people who write about audio and podcasting.

I’m also not above structured randomness: sometimes I’ll type two letters into a search bar and see what comes up. I’ve found one or two interesting shows that way!

What do you enjoy about finding recommendations for people?

I’m driven by the idea that there’s a podcast out there for everyone.

For new listeners, having your first listening experience be a really good one (either a really good show or a really good fit for your interests, or both) is incredibly motivating. I love being a part of someone’s first listening experience, and treat these requests as an enthusiastic tour guide.

For long-time listeners, providing something new and different is my mantra. I love finding things someone wouldn’t have found on their own, and I treat these requests as more of a matchmaker. Based on what a listener has shared with me, whether it be a cross-section of shows or interests, I’m trying to find something that’ll fit into what they already have, knowing full and well that there’s only so much time in the day and a show has to be a really good fit for it to become a regular in their rotation. I’ve a fondness for independent shows, things made with love and passion but don’t necessarily have the network to reach everyone, and those are the gems I’m really excited to find and share.

Are there any plans in the works for refining and/or expanding this feature?

Definitely. One person can only do so much one-on-one recommending, and there is a limit to how many I can get to in the course of a day or week. The more requests I work through, the better it gets: for every set of overlapping interests or overlapping podcasts someone tells me they’re interested in, I’m surfacing new shows and new ways of categorization and organization.

We’re keen to continue building our amazing community of listeners and curators who love recommending great shows, too – especially folks who are sports fans, news junkies, comedy hounds, or into a particular niche like software development or urban agriculture. I encourage people to use our podcast playlists feature to make those recommendations, and then tweet at us to show us what you’ve selected. And who knows, maybe some of those folks will become the next wave of podcast librarians! Everyone’s individual tastes, and in particular, niches of interest, are exactly the kind of listening recommendations that I’ve been asking for and making online and in person for years, and I’m excited to hear what you’re hearing, too.