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How alt.NPR's experimentation shaped the early podcasting landscape starting in 2005

A collage of the 13 alt.NPR podcasts.
Shirley Liu
A collage of the 13 alt.NPR podcasts.

Launched on Nov. 8, 2005, alt.NPR was a brand of early NPR podcasts characterized by experimentation and innovation. Read about alt.NPR's impact on podcasting, and listen to select stories.

It has been less than two decades since NPR debuted its first podcast directory, in August 2005. Since then, the podcasting landscape has seen significant improvements and innovations. One of these early innovations was alt.NPR.

Nearly forgotten today, alt.NPR was a brand of early NPR podcasts that launched on Nov. 8, 2005. It helped build the foundation for NPR's most successful podcasts today.

An audio logo that played at the beginning of early alt.NPR podcasts. It was created by Robert Holt, a former co-host of alt.NPR podcast Press Start.

When NPR debuted podcasts, the offerings consisted primarily of broadcast excerpts culled from NPR itself, member stations and other providers. alt.NPR was one of NPR's first efforts to create original content specifically for the podcasting medium. It was a place for experimentation and innovation, allowing those who wouldn't normally be on the radio to host and produce their own content.

alt.NPR provided a space for NPR employees to create content without having to worry about whether it would be palatable to a wide radio audience. Mike Pesca, the host of the early alt.NPR offering On Gambling With Mike Pesca, was the first NPR reporter to host their own podcast. Other alt.NPR podcasts hosted by NPR employees include gaming podcast Press Start with Kyle Orland, Ralph Cooper and Robert Holt; music storytelling podcast Club Awesome! with Taylor Orci; and advice show What Would Rob Do? with Rob Sachs.

The hosts of alt.NPR podcasts weren't limited to NPR employees. Along with On Gambling, PRX's YouthCast and Groove Salad's Taste of the Week with SomaFM founder Rusty Hodge were among the first three alt.NPR podcasts.

Although Tamara Keith is currently a White House correspondent for NPR, as well as a co-host for The NPR Politics Podcast, she wasn't an NPR employee when she hosted the alt.NPR podcast B-Side Radio. For Keith, who was used to the impartiality of broadcast radio journalism, B-Side Radio gave her an opportunity to deliver stories in a more human, conversational way. She continues to prioritize humanity and approachability as part of her work on The NPR Politics Podcast.

Two notable alt.NPR podcasts are Love + Radio and Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything, both of which eventually became a part of PRX's Radiotopia on Feb. 4, 2014, and are still ongoing today.

Other alt.NPR podcasts include one of NPR's first Spanish-language podcasts, Radio Juventud with Youth Radio; Brini Maxwell's Hints for Gracious Living with drag personality Brini Maxwell; Alan Baker's winemaking podcast Ratcast: Wine Tales From the Cellar Rat; and the Poetry Foundation's Poetry off the Shelf with Curtis Fox.

Unlike most NPR broadcast pieces, alt.NPR podcasts were not tied to specific subjects, production styles, update frequency or length. Rather, alt.NPR took a more flexible approach to audio production, following the axiom, "If it sounds good, it is good."

Although it was a challenge to adopt the new medium of podcasting, with those challenges came lessons in innovation.

For instance, a few alt.NPR shows recorded on video-call platforms like Skype rather than in a studio. Cooper explained that when Press Start began recording remotely, it was one of the first podcasts to be doing so. According to Eric Nuzum, who was director of programming and acquisitions at NPR from 2004 to 2011, it was practically "heresy" in 2005 to record a piece remotely. In today's age of Zoom, recording through a video call feels like a perfectly viable alternative to recording in a studio.

"Podcasting was not just a revolution in distribution," Nuzum said. "It was a revolution in the way you could make things."

Nuzum was deeply involved in advocating for and developing NPR's early podcasts, including those in the alt.NPR brand. For him, the most important lesson from alt.NPR was on how to produce content that is new and unconventional without violating any existing rules.

"alt.NPR taught us how to not just produce things one way, and that you could do things in your own way and it would still be NPR. It would still have the same ethos and feel and vibe," Nuzum said.

"I think it [alt.NPR] helped NPR understand that you could take chances on this kind of thing," Holt said. In addition to co-hosting Press Start, Holt helped create the back-end infrastructure for podcast distribution at NPR, and he composed and performed the first audio logos for both general NPR podcasts and alt.NPR podcasts.

Orland, of Press Start, described podcasts back then as "the Wild West." Not only was it difficult to access podcasts — Apple Podcasts wouldn't come pre-installed on iOS devices until 2014, meaning listeners had to go on their computers and download the episodes from a podcast's RSS feed — but there wasn't quite the booming industry and demand for podcasts that there is now.

The most recently updated alt.NPR podcast released its last episode on May 31, 2012. In October 2013, NPR began cutting its podcast offerings down from the hundreds to around 30. alt.NPR was a product of its time — a time when podcasting was unfamiliar and risky and required a lot of experimentation to figure out. According to Nuzum, as podcasting evolved, NPR podcasts "needed to stop being the experiment and start being the main thing." So, gone was the alt.NPR brand, and in came the more tightly streamlined podcast directory that NPR currently offers.

Although alt.NPR is rarely remembered now, podcasting would not be what it is today without the leap of faith that NPR took when it started distributing made-for-podcast alt.NPR content in 2005. If you'd like to learn more about these early podcasts, below are some selected alt.NPR podcast episodes. A few were recommended by the former hosts themselves.

Happy listening! Even though these episodes are over a decade old, we hope you give them a chance — after all, NPR did.

Each episode of B-Side Radio threaded together several stories under a common theme, with host Tamara Keith narrating as she embarked on a related adventure. This episode features Keith at a family game center with her brother as she introduces stories about family.

Club Awesome! host Taylor Orci interviewed guests on the narratives and memories that they associate with certain songs. In this episode, Orci interviews writer and producer Nihar Patel on his adolescent fascination with NWA.

On Press Start, Ralph Cooper, Robert Holt and Kyle Orland discuss different aspects of gaming. When the Wii came out in 2006, the Press Start hosts were tapped as experts to demonstrate and explain the new console on Morning Edition and Weekend Edition.

Radio Juventud was one of the first Spanish-language podcasts at NPR. A production of Youth Radio, Radio Juventud was a space for perspectives, creative works, music and opinions from Spanish-speaking youth.

alt.NPR prompted the need for creative production methods. To record the lifestyle podcast Brini Maxwell's Hints for Gracious Living, NPR would bring drag queen and host Brini Maxwell into the New York City bureau late at night when no one else was around.

Love + Radio had six episodes before alt.NPR picked it up. According to producer Nick van der Kolk, alt.NPR helped the podcast reach new audiences. Love + Radio eventually became a part of PRX's Radiotopia and is still releasing episodes today.

Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything is another successful, ongoing podcast that became a part of PRX's Radiotopia after leaving NPR. Like Love + Radio, the show features a mix of interviews, journalism, and the occasional fictional segment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shirley Liu
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