Oh, The Places I’ll Go (And The things I’ll Buy)!

I had a conversation recently with a friend that went something like this:

Me: Yeah, so I’m going to this podcast taping tonight. I’m really excited.

Friend: Podcast taping?

Me: Yep. It’s the Slate Political Gabfest. They’re doing a live show in D.C.

Friend: Oh. So, you mean, you’re watching people talk to each other?

Me: Uh, yeah. I know, it doesn’t sound very fun. But I love this show. I really want to see what the people look like in person and check out the dynamics among the three of them. There’s this weird relationship between the host, who’s kind of a bully, and this uber-smart-but-sometimes-deferential lawyer-journalist. And then there’s the poll-reading political wonk who’s always playing the middle. They all have their own roles and…

I can only imagine my friend had completely turned me out by this point. I didn’t make a very good sell about going to a live taping of what amounts to a weekly taped radio show. I didn’t really mention the perks: that at this live event the podcasters take questions from the audience. Or that David, Emily and John (I’m on a first-name basis even though I’ve never met them) offer to meet guests at a bar before taping the show (I’ve never taken them up on the offer).

And I certainly didn’t mention that the event costs $10 or $25. Or that I came really, really close to buying a Slate Gabfest t-shirt last time and will probably pull the trigger the next time the show comes to town.

So, yeah, I’m a Slate Gabfest groupie. I’m not alone. The Columbia Journalism Review ran a piece last year about how engaging Slate’s political talk show is and how well they engage the audience. It’s not just the political show that I’ve seen live — last year I attended a live D.C. taping of Hang Up and Listen, Slate’s smart, measured sports talk show. We even sang a Washington Senators song with a live accordion.

I don’t just go to shows. I buy stuff from the hosts when they ask me to — like a book from one of the Political Gabfest’s hosts that I bought largely out of a sense of solidarity.

When I’m not buying stuff when asked or paying to hear the hosts speak, I’m waiting for iTunes to deliver the next show. I know exactly when they come: Monday night for Hang Up, Tuesday night for Slate’s Culture Gabfest and Thursday night (or sometimes Friday morning) for the Political Gabfest. I get impatient if the shows are posted late.

All of this leads to the question: If I’m waiting for iTunes to feed me a new show, if I’m willing to shell out money to watch people talk, if I’m happy to buy T-Shirts and sing the praise of a weekly radio show on Twitter, why doesn’t every news outlet do one of these live shows?

Some possible reasons:

— It takes quite a time investment (planning meetings, research, occasional guest booking and, of course,taping and editing), and news outlets are already operating at far less than full staff with reporters being asked to tweet, live blog and update often online.

— It takes quite an investment in resources. Cheap audio equipment is easy to find — but state-of-the-art stuff that makes you actually sound good is expensive. Then there’s travel costs (if people are taking their show on the road), and paying producers and finding some place to host the show.

— It’s actually not that easy to find three or four people with really good chemistry to come together and make mundane topics fun. I’ve taped podcasts in the past and I can say from experience that rapport is probably the single most important thing to doing a podcast — particularly if you are taping it live in front of people. You have to have a theatrical element to it, and that can be hard to pull off.

Still, there are quite a few clear benefits to having live events — all of which have something to do with audience engagement.

— Actual face time with readers is invaluable — a chance to hear what people think of the show, what questions they want answered, how they think about the topics you are writing about. You can do surveys or read comment sections or converse through social media, but live, human contact would seem to be the gold standard in engagement.

— You are rewarding your most loyal fans. Let’s face it, it takes a really devoted fan to attend a live podcast taping. But these are the people that news outlets can lean on to pass along links to their friends, retweet articles and generally promote the site. Research I’ve done about nonprofit news outlets and audience engagement points to the idea that the people who attend events are likely to already be highly engaged and also likely to donate. Why not cater to this crowd?

— It’s a great way to reach readers who might otherwise feel left out of the conversation. People not on the coasts can easily feel this way, but when a podcast show comes to town (as Slate’s Gabfest does often with the Midwest) I’d imagine readers from outside major media centers feel more connected.

I’ll end with a few unanswered questions — ones that I would like to investigate in the future.

— Are live events money makers or money losers?

— Are people who attend events more likely to spend more time following a news site after seeing a live taping? Are they more engaged in other ways?

— How often does mingling at live events result in new sources or ideas for the journalists involved?

Food for thought. But I’ve gotta run…the Culture Gabfest should be popping into my iTunes any minute now.