How NPR Hopes to Use a 10-Minute Morning News Podcast to Connect Digital and Terrestrial Audiences

Introducing Up First, with hosts David Greene, Steve Inskeep and Rachel Martin

Stephen Voss/NPR

There will be two concepts at play when NPR introduces Up First, NPR’s new 10-minute daily podcast from the Morning Edition team that debuts Wednesday. Morning Edition executive producer Sarah Gilbert calls it an “onramp to the day’s news,” a brief, easy way to both tune into and ease into the increasingly traffic-ridden daily highway that is the news. But it will also serve as a bridge between two NPR audiences that often exist in separate spheres, what Neal Carruth, NPR’s general manager of podcasts, describes as its “big, terrestrial audience and the younger, ever-growing on-demand audience.”

Up First: The Essential Morning News Podcast will exist in two spaces. It will be its own standalone, daily, and early, podcast in which Morning Edition hosts David Greene, Steve Inskeep and Rachel Martin, in rotating pairs, will discuss the two to three major stories of the day–or at least those that are the biggest as of 5 a.m. in our quickly shifting times. Those 10 minutes will also be the first thing listeners hear when they tune into Morning Edition at 5 a.m. ET. Gilbert calls the podcast a “fusion of the broadcast and on-demand worlds,” and because it exists in both those spheres, the tone is adapted accordingly.

“There’s kind of an interplay here,” says Carruth, “where we’re taking a lot of what we’ve learned in the on-demand space about being conversational and relatable and making connections with the audience and weaving it into the tapestry of the show.” That conversational nature is not a break from the style of Morning Edition, but a representation of where Gilbert has taken the show during her year and a half as EP. “We’ve been working really hard to make sure Morning Edition is as lively and as conversational and as accessible as possible to an audience that really I think in this day and age feels the need to have a trustworthy companion to a completely dizzying news scene,” she says.

Where there is talk of making things conversational and accessible, there is usually a young audience at whom that style is targeted. That certainly exists here, and the end goal of increasing its reach among that audience is conversion. “We believe one of the things we’re doing here is helping to create the audience of the future for the public radio system,” says Carruth. “We have some data from audience research we’ve done that shows us on-demand gives us the ability to connect with people who don’t know about public radio and then become very loyal after they develop new habits with some of our on-demand properties.”

But that’s not the only audience that matters to Bryan Moffett, COO of NPR corporate sponsorship arm National Public Media. “I also hope, and this is my own personal hope, that we can have a product that helps bring some of the radio-centric audience that has not gotten into on-demand into the on-demand world,” he says. “There are over fourteen and half million people listening to Morning Edition every week, and we know from our own research that only a small percentage of those are listening to our podcast–I think it’s well under half, so if we can help expose some of that radio listening audience to our on-demand, maybe we can get them into the fuller circle of NPR.”

With a new show comes new sponsorship opportunities, and when Up First debuts on Wednesday, it will do so with its first 10 weeks of sponsorship, on three 15-second spots per episode, sold out. “Overall, NPR has had an incredible few years with sponsors,” says National Public Media president and CEO Gina Garrubbo, explaining the immediate interest on the part of sponsors. “Our sponsors have really asked that we work with them as we launch new products on new platforms to create innovative new products or opportunities.”

Whether there will be more short-form podcasts in NPR’s future depends on how Up First goes. “We’re going to be paying a lot of attention to how this lands with various audiences and what the data tell us and make decisions about how to go forward based on all that,” says Carruth. “But there’s no doubt. It’s an exciting, active space, and we’re happy to be in it.”

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that only one version of the Up First podcast is posted each day and is not updated at 7 a.m. as previously written.