In the capital of venture capital, investors aren’t the only ones taking risks

A Bay Area TV station bets on a pitch that’s close to home

When you give your bosses a new idea, it’s always nice to get a fast yes. But the answer Scott McGrew got from his bosses for his new idea came almost too fast.

“They loved it,” he says. “I was surprised at how quickly they said yes. That’s always a little intimidating when you come to the boss and she says ‘Yes, go do it.’ Oh crap, now I have to do it!”

“It” was a podcast featuring in-depth interviews with Silicon Valley investors — a logical move for McGrew, who’s been covering business and technology for NBC’s San Jose-based station KNTV, cleverly branded as “NBC Bay Area,” for 20 years. And “they” were news director Stephanie Adrouny and head of digital Sara Bueno. To get ready for his pitch late last year, McGrew bought a used Tascam audio recorder on eBay for $75 and cobbled together a DIY “pilot” from interviews he’d already done for his weekly Sunday-morning TV show about “the Valley,” Press:Here.

McGrew’s timing was perfect, and not just because podcasts are all the rage. Adrouny and Bueno were looking for projects for a small digital innovation team they were assembling in the time-honored way we all know so well: carefully moving “heads” around the newsroom. “The people on the desk are so consumed with feeding the beast, that to pull people off to produce a podcast is asking for failure,” says Bueno. “We built this team to make things that are native to the digital platforms.” Bueno cites our Lab colleague Frank Mungeam’s metaphor of the “Zodiac” project — the speedy, agile and flexible boat that zips away from the lumbering mother ship.

The new issue of New York magazine covers the podcast craze.

So the Sand Hill Road podcast zipped away this winter, named for the Palo Alto address that’s become synonymous with the Valley’s venture capital scene, with digital producer Sean Myers making sure it sounds anything but DIY.

Sand Hill Road is almost through its first ten-episode “season.” Each week, McGrew sits down for an informal conversation with a prominent investor, such as the so-called “Godfather of Silicon Valley” John Hennessy, now chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet; billionaire Tim Draper, who bets McGrew on the future of bitcoin; or Ann Miura-Ko, who’s been called “the most powerful woman in startups” and is hoping to see her early investment in the ride-sharing company Lyft pay off big-time in an imminent IPO.

It helps that McGrew is a natural — “Scott sounds great, his voice is perfect for it,” says Bueno — with a loose conversational style. News directors always tell young reporters to “be yourself,’ says McGrew, but “maybe you can only be yourself when you’ve got 30 years in the business.”

The podcast format helps too. McGrew says that when people come on TV, there are “a lot of lights and a lot of robotic cameras moving back and forth. You’re thinking about your talking points, where do I look. With no camera, you’re going to be far more relaxed, and the conversation will go places no one expected it to.” As for the host himself, “I”m more loosey-goosey because I’m not on TV either.”

Scott McGrew, host of Sand Hill Road podcast.

McGrew may be loosey-goosey, but the episodes are tight. Bueno quotes one of Adrouny’s maxims: “Earn every second.” And the self-deprecating McGrew agrees. “You have a format that lets you go as long as you want. Don’t.”

McGrew has other tips for stations that may be considering a dive into the crowded podcast pool. “Get the equipment and try it out,” he says. “The barrier to entry is practically zero.” Silicon Valley is admittedly a unique place, but McGrew urges news directors to find reporters like him who are passionate about some specific subject that’s also important to the local audience — college football, or city government, or education. “I’m talking to a relatively small demographic,” says McGrew. “Not everyone is interested in venture capital in Silicon Valley, but that demographic is very interested.”

The station’s sales team is counting on that as it hits the street to find advertisers and sponsors for season two of Sand Hill Road, coming as soon as McGrew and Myer get enough episodes in the can. For NBC Bay Area, competing in a tough market where television viewing levels are notoriously low, getting digital right and getting paid for it are critical priorities.

No one knows that better than Bueno. “We’re reaching audiences that have little to no interest in watching local television news. So how are we getting news and information to them in new ways? That’s the Holy Grail right now.”

That’s a challenge for any local TV newsroom, no matter how far you are from Sand Hill Road.

Do you have adventures in podcasting or other new program projects to share? Email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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