The How, When, and Why of Rebroadcasts

Image: Spotify for Podcasters
Image: Spotify for Podcasters

There are benefits for both you and your listeners when you mine your back catalog.

Reruns have always been a cyclical staple of broadcast TV, but it may not be totally obvious how or why a rebroadcast would be useful for a podcaster or their audience. Since podcasts are delivered on demand, and most shows' archives are readily available wherever they're distributed, your listeners can always search and listen to your old episodes anytime they want to. And yet, podcasters actively choose to rebroadcast episodes all the time.

That’s because, as Freakonomics Radio's Stephen Dubner, points out, there’s value in consistently putting out a new product, even if it’s recycled. “When I first started podcasting with WNYC, I thought it was a ridiculous idea to put out a ‘rebroadcast’ of a digital product that anyone could already access at any time," Dubner admits, "but WNYC believed—correctly, I’ve come to think—that if you have a steady relationship with a listener, it’s good to show up every week with something worthwhile.”

Getting away without going away

The biggest appeal of rebroadcasting content is to lighten the production load. That’s what Sarah Enni was looking for as December 2019 approached and her small but mighty team wanted some extra time off. So five years after launching First Draft with Sarah Enni, she ran her first-ever rebroadcast.

“I was looking to get us a break. We publish every week, and it can be a lot, especially over Christmas break,” Enni says. But, she adds, “I didn't want to just drop the ball on a week and disappear on my listeners.”

Enni reached out to some fellow podcasters and asked if rebroadcasts dinged their listening metrics or drew blowback from fans. Assured neither were the case, she forged ahead and replayed an old episode long considered a personal and fan favorite, "Integrating All Your Selves with Libba Bray." She believes the show, which aired on December 24, performed about as well as anything else she could have dropped on Christmas Eve.

As it turns out, holidays are an ideal time to rebroadcast, and not only because the audience may be more forgiving of hosts taking some personal time. Perennial rebroadcasts can spark heightened audience engagement, potentially becoming a cherished holiday tradition that still entertains after countless plays, similar to how many people sit down for It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, or The Santaland Diaries every single December.

Kevin Allison has been delivering his show, RISK!, for more than a decade, and he includes a rebroadcast segment every week. And, he adds, “around Christmastime and Halloween, people don't mind us rerunning some of our favorite holiday-related stories, even if they're just a year old. In the spirit of that time of year, they like revisiting those classics.”

Plenty of shows may lend themselves to specific times of year—Dubner says he recently rebroadcast “The Zero-Minutes Workout” with New Year’s resolutions in mind. But there’s no need to limit rebroadcasts to seasonal celebrations. Enni considers the experiment a success and is figuring it into her vacation plans for the summer.

“Consistency has been the No. 1 thing I've seen results from,” Enni says. “I'm not interested in ever going dark again if I can help it, because I think that hurts more than anything else.”

A quick edit makes for a great refresh

Before scheduling a rebroadcast, Dubner’s team will do a quick fact-check, looking specifically to refresh the affiliations of his guests. They also might trim or expand some sections as needed. For her first rebroadcast, Enni took time to recut two old episodes into a single show, and she upgraded the audio quality. Both podcasters say they specify that the show is a rerun in the episode description.

Allison, meanwhile, goes one step further. He’s spun off the rebroadcasts into a separate vertical altogether, with his show feed pushing out a rerun packaged as RISK! Classic Singles every Thursday. Twice a year, he’ll swap his regular new show with a Best of RISK! episode that compiles his favorite segments from the past six months. He’s found these compilations are a great entry for newcomers to his show.

The constant focus on rebroadcasts has streamlined his production process considerably, yet Allison still takes time to pay close attention to whatever material he’s selected.

“You have to listen closely to what you're rebroadcasting, even if you think you remember it well,” Allison says. “I've made this mistake often. I choose a story, remember it being great, but I've forgotten that the storyteller made a [bad] joke in the middle of the story.”

The update: a winning hybrid of old and new

So it's clear that rebroadcasting old shows is a great option for relieving the pressure of your production schedule or highlighting old gems—but their utility extends beyond that. Many podcasters actively prioritize updating older content when current events have made the substance relevant again. These shows may require a substantial amount of new work to contextualize or supplement the original material.

For Joe Richman, creator and executive producer of Radio Diaries, these types of refreshes are an essential component of what his program offers. “It has always been part of the DNA that we will revisit people over the years if we can,” Richman says. “There are certain stories that look completely different when the news changes.”

Richman launched Radio Diaries in 1996 on public radio stations; in 2013 he began releasing podcasts of the show. Entering a new format with a voluminous back catalog created a perfect laboratory for his team to remix content, which it does with some frequency, and often artistically.

The recent episode “My So-Called Lungs” featured first-person audio recordings created by a now-deceased young woman who had cystic fibrosis, bookended with new material. Richman introduced the woman, who died 17 years ago, and concluded with news of a potential medical breakthrough in cystic fibrosis treatment, as well as a present-day interview with the woman’s mother.

“Our stories are pretty evergreen," Richman says. "They take a long time to produce. They’re longform projects. My favorite thing is when these projects, whatever they’re about … can all of a sudden say something about the moment that we’re living in.”

Another recent episode, “The Teenage Diaries,” has been updated a few times over the years. Inspired by the Up film series, Richman periodically reunites with people he first met when they were teenagers in the 1990s. New episodes update listeners on the subjects’ progression through life; Richman edits the episodes to insert new interviews next to old raw tape and outtakes.

Dubner also liberally updates previously broadcast material. Recently, Freakonomics released "Why Is This Man Running for President?", an updated profile of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang that centers on a year-old interview Yang gave to this show. The reasons for a sequel were obvious. Yang had risen from virtual anonymity to a widely known contender, and the long-awaited presidential primaries were kicking off. Dubner also suspected there was a good chance they could convince him to sit for another interview even though he was in the thick of campaigning. Another well-timed update, "How the San Francisco 49ers Stopped Being Losers," focused on the resurgence of the Bay Area team, and included old and new comments from many of the 49ers' core leaders. It was released shortly before the Super Bowl.

“Our deep-dive episode with them was [originally released] before the 2018 season—but when the team makes the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, there’s obviously a lot of interest in revisiting how they got there,” Dubner says.

—Zach Brooke