Is 'The Indicator' a good value?

I’m a huge fan of NPR’s Planet Money. I appreciate their ability to translate difficult economic topics into layman’s terms, and sound like they’re having fun doing so. It’s a consistently high-quality podcast and always captures my interest. Recently they started a new spin-off called the The Indicator. It’s a daily 10-minute appetizer about a topic related to current events in the news. The formats of The Indicator and Planet Money differ mostly in duration and frequency - the latter is about twice as long (roughly 20-25 minutes) and comes out only twice a week. I recently got to thinking about the motivation of utilizing a new podcast format in parallel with a successful existing podcast. I wondered if The Indicator provides the same value for both the listener and the podcast producer as Planet Money does.

Creating a daily podcast that requires story-based reporting for each show seems to require as much or more work than what’s needed for the longer, less-frequent Planet Money episodes. A good analogy might be the difference in surface friction coefficients when a mass is moving vs. when it is static. There is a higher amount of energy needed to start on the topic for a show - all the overhead, i.e. searching, defining, researching, obtaining contacts, etc. - than the energy required to dig deeper and expand for a longer episode format. Planet Money benefits from getting into the weeds with their stories, while The Indicator constantly needs to search for entertaining topics that can also be nicely wrapped with a bow within 10 minutes. Yes, NPR has other daily shows, but those are usually readings of current events and don’t fall into the type of journalism that Planet Money requires. The Indicator is tangentially related to current events, but the discussions are a derivative of daily happenings; the news of the day must be closely examined and sifted through to discover any economic relationships that exist.

There’s a myriad of reasons why Planet Money might have launched The Indicator. Maybe there’s a backlog of topics that were interesting but either too shallow to beget a full show or too detailed to cram into the usual 25-minute range. Maybe there’s an abundance of talent and some of the newcomers need some more at-bats. Maybe NPR is experimenting with a shorter episode format across their entire catalog and Planet Money is the guinea pig. My money is ultimately on the ability to get a higher return on advertisements packaged with these shorter format shows. I wanted to see if there was a meaningful difference in the time spent on advertising between the two show formats. Perhaps The Indicator allowed NPR to get a better return on advertising time than a longer show format like Planet Money. I used the latest five episodes to gather some data.

Planet Money

  Ad Time (s) Episode Time (s) % time on Ads
  99 1790 5.53
  61 1245 4.89
  63 1181 5.33
  100 1369 7.30
  100 1310 7.63
Total 423 6895 6.13

The Indicator

  Ad Time (s) Episode Time (s) % time on Ads
  32 594 5.39
  15 540 2.78
  33 487 6.78
  53 557 9.52
  35 571 6.13
Total 168 2749 6.11

This is actually surprising to me! My thought was that The Indicator’s shorter format was a clever way get a better return on advertising time per episode. By reducing the duration of an episode by more than the duration of an advertisement percentage-wise, the shorter episode format would give a larger amount of episode time to the revenue-generating ads and allow NPR to charge more. It looks like on average the proportional amount of time spent by the listener on advertisements is similar across both episode formats. This is a good deal for the listener, as the amount of content we can consume is higher without exchanging more of our time spent on things we don’t necessarily want to hear about.

In looking at this data, this still may be a good deal for NPR as well. Advertising time per week is 168 seconds for The Indicator and 169.2 for Planet Money (at a 2 episode per week pace) - pretty darn similar. They get to double the amount of potential advertising time consumed and also cast a wider net of potential audience, since some may appreciate the shorter format than the longer version, and vice versa. One other benefit is the reinforcement advertising premium NPR might charge potential advertisers. NPR can pitch that dedicated listeners will consume The Indicator every work day, and repeated advertisements on a smaller interval are likely able to command a premium price compared to advertisements that a potential listener will only consume intermittently throughout the week.

The Indicator seems like a good deal for both content producers and consumers. NPR gets to almost double its raw advertising-minute magnitude while listeners get to choose the format and content type they consume of a product. NPR gets to double-dip on a hungry-for-content audience while advertisers can benefit from reinforcement advertising via frequent podcast episodes. If the amount of work per time for the The Indicator is similar or less than Planet Money, NPR has found a clever way to increase revenue without over-saturating the market as the two products are different enough in format and content type.

As a consumer, the shows have been in line with the high quality expected by Planet Money listeners! It’s a welcomed entr’acte between episodes of the parent podcast. There’s certainly a place for shorter, shallower podcast formats. It allows listeners to explore more topics & be more flexible in consumption behaviors, benefits advertisers through reinforcement, and increases revenue realized by the content producer without negatively impacting other podcast lines.


Breakdown per episode

Planet Money:

  • #843: Swamp Gravy (May 25th, 2018):
    • 29:50 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 20 seconds, @ 0:00
    • Ad #2, 30 seconds, @ 4:10
    • Ad #3, 15 seconds, @ 4:42 (internal)
    • Ad #4, 20 seconds, @ 27:49
    • Ad #5, 14 seconds, @ 28:10
  • #643: The Taxi King (May 23rd, 2018):
    • 20:45 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 18 seconds, @ 0:00
    • Ad #2, 28 seconds, @ 5:04
    • Ad #3, 15 seconds, @ 5:35 (internal)
  • #842: Showdown at the WTO (May 18th, 2018):
    • 19:41 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 20 seconds, @ 0:00
    • Ad #2, 31 seconds, @ 3:23
    • Ad #3, 22 seconds, @ 13:30 (internal)
  • #696: Class Action (May 16th, 2018):
    • 22:49 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 20 seconds, @ 0:00
    • Ad #2, 28 seconds, @ 3:33
    • Ad #3, 21 seconds, @ 4:02 (internal)
    • Ad #4, 18 seconds, @ 19:12
    • Ad #5, 13 seconds, @ 19:31 (internal)
  • #841: The Land of Duty Free (May 11th, 2018):
    • 21:50 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 20 seconds, @ 0:00
    • Ad #2, 31 seconds, @ 2:52
    • Ad #3, 19 seconds, @ 3:23 (internal)
    • Ad #4, 15 seconds, @ 16:25
    • Ad #5, 15 seconds, @ 16:40 (internal)

The Indicator:

  • Earnings Calls Gone Wild (May 25th, 2018):
    • 9:54 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 15 seconds, @ 3:26
    • Ad #2, 17 seconds, @ 9:37
  • The Money Detectives (May 24th, 2018):
    • 9:00 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 15 seconds, @ 8:45 (internal)
  • Most Inane Deduction (May 23rd, 2018):
    • 8:07 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 18 seconds, @ 1:21
    • Ad #2, 15 seconds, @ 7:52
  • Women in Bondland (May 22nd, 2018):
    • 9:17 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 18 seconds, @ 1:24
    • Ad #2, 18 seconds, @ 8:42
    • Ad #3, 17 seconds, @ 9:00 (internal)
  • Stacey and Cardiff Take On The Commencement Speech (May 21st, 2018):
    • 9:31 total episode time
    • Ad #1, 17 seconds, @ 1:30
    • Ad #2, 18 seconds, @ 9:13