Digits to start the year. As always, we begin with the question: is the industry growing, and if so, how? Here are two numbers I’m using to keep track:
- Audience: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. That’s up from 57 million in 2016, and if you want to go further back, up from 32 million in 2013, the year before the iOS 8 rollout and Serial.
- Advertising: The industry was projected to beat $220 million in advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to a mid-year IAB study that drew on data from 20 relatively big participating podcast publishers. (Which is to say, the number is best read as a floor.) That projection is up from the $119 million in ad revenue that those 20 publishers collectively posted in 2016. What’s significant about this information, compared to last year, is that we’re no longer depending on projections by Bridge Ratings, whose methodology remains opaque even if the industry did mildly coalesce around its predictions
Something else worth noting: at the end of 2016, Apple disclosed that its iTunes platform delivered over 10 billion streams and downloads that year, up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and more than 7 billion in 2014. The company did not publicly disclose a 2017 number last month, so far that I could tell. It did, however, announce that Fresh Air remained the most downloaded podcast in the ecosystem. Congrats!
And speaking of Apple…
Apple Podcast Analytics are now live. Oh look, it finally happened! A little over a week before Christmas, no less. On December 14, 2017, Cupertino finally rolled out its long-awaited in-episode podcast analytics feature that allows publishers to learn just how much of their episodes are being consumed — at least, off the Apple Podcast app. While in-episode listening data has long been provided by a number of third-party apps, this is the first time publishers will receive that information from the Apple Podcast app, which is believed to drive the majority of all podcast listening.
The new feature is listed as still being in its beta phase, and it takes the shape of a visual dashboard displaying in-episode aggregate completion and drop-off rates. This essentially means you can now find out if anybody made it to that third midroll (whoops) or the late-game twist in the narrative (yikes) or if folks are generally opting to skip cold opens (oof). The prominence of ad-skipping, a potential podcast advertising bogeyman, can now also be identified through the new dashboard. True to Apple’s practices, user data is anonymized.
I’ve been yammering on about the significance of this development since the feature was first announced at Apple’s WWDC conference back in June (see here, here, and here). So I won’t repeat myself too much other than to say that this new information layer will likely have far-reaching consequences, from advertising transactions to editorial decision-making over time. You can read my Vulture write-up on the matter if you’re looking for a little more discussion on that, and if you don’t publish podcasts but are nonetheless curious about what the dashboard looks like, the write-ups from Recode and Techcrunch have pretty good screenshots.
Obviously, I’ll be closely watching this story indefinitely.
Some things I’ll be tracking this year.
- When will we see stronger pushes into podcasting from Apple’s platform competitors — specifically, Spotify, Pandora, and Google — and how will those efforts look?
- In early December, Digiday reported that some publishers have been running into speedbumps integrating dynamic ad insertion, leaving the podcast ad product “stubbornly old-fashioned” as a whole. Will publishers be able to carry the ball forward this year? And on a related note, we’re bound to see someone have a proper go at programmatic podcast advertising. How will this change the value narrative of podcast advertising?
- Despite Podtrac’s (hitherto sole) efforts at providing an industry ranker, I haven’t found it terribly useful when it comes to developing a greater sense of scale, order, and hierarchy in the podcast ecosystem. Will we see improvements to the system (the new “snackable” list is no step up)? And will we see more efforts at a reliable chart system from another source?
- Tons of shows are getting adaptation deals, and lots of folks want ’em. Who’s next?
- Keeping a close eye on this Midroll–Marvel Wolverine fiction podcast project. (Brendan Baker is directing!) It’s an intriguing arrangement, and we’ll see if adaptations in the other direction pay off proportionally.
- And while we’re on the subject of shows, it looks like we’re kicking off the year with Atlanta Monster, the true crime collaboration between Tenderfoot (Up and Vanished) and HowStuffWorks.
- As always, what’s the next big thing — show, company, technology — going to be?
Cool. Let’s move on to this week’s stories.
Feral Audio is shutting down following an abuse accusation against its founder. Founder Dustin Marshall announced the move on Christmas Day in a personal Tumblr post responding to an accusation of emotional abuse from an ex-girlfriend. This is a really messy, complicated, and at times troubling story that’s still very much in flux, touching upon issues of mental health and addiction. I wrote up that part of the context elsewhere, should you wish to read further. Marshall noted that he is shuttering the company at the start of the new year in order to seek treatment. “To Feral Audio artists, after six years, I can no longer have the pressure of running a company, continue this lifestyle and be mentally healthy,” he writes. Later in the post, he graphically laments the state of the industry. “Podcasting is now invaded by ‘the industry,'” Marshall wrote. “The same one systematically raping and pillaging no matter how high you climb their hill. and honestly, even trying to compete with the machiavellian shit in podcasting right now would drive a sane person mad.”
What will become of Feral Audio’s full roster remains to be seen. The day after Marshall’s post, Starburns Industries, the Burbank production company with which Feral Audio has had a long operating relationship, announced that it was launching a new venture, SBI: Audio, that will serve as the new home for at least some Feral Audio shows including Harmontown, Duncan Trussell’s Family Hour, and Dumb People Town. But not every podcast will carry over. Sleep with Me, which joined the network in early 2017, has already decided to go fully independent, while other shows, like Doughboys, have signaled that they are currently reviewing options.
Feral Audio was originally founded in 2012 as a podcast collective driven by a belief in complete creator ownership and direct listener support. (Tagline: “Fiercely Independent Podcasts.”) By the end of 2015, steps were taken to transition Feral toward a “profit sharing small business,” and the group began to integrate other revenue channels, like advertising and affiliate links, into its mix. It incorporated as a network in 2016, solidifying its partnership with Starburns Industries and bringing on new key people. (Jason Smith, first brought on as EVP of sales and services, now serves as Feral Audio’s CEO.) Later, in November 2016, the company formalized its relationship with Art19, the podcast technology company, to improve its advertising capabilities. Throughout that time, Feral Audio bore the ups and down of your typical Los Angeles comedy-oriented podcast shop. Notably, the network served as the launch site for the much-beloved My Favorite Murder podcast, which it ended up losing to Midroll last September, as well as the home of Dan Harmon and Jeff Davis’ Harmontown. Feral Audio had capped off 2017 by continuing to launch new shows — like Los Feliz and Launch Left — while competing against an increasingly crowded Los Angeles scene that includes the aforementioned Midroll (which had long expanded toward the East Coast), Maximum Fun, Headgum, and HowStuffWorks’ emerging West Coast arm.
Despite the troubling circumstances of its founder and its end, the Feral Audio vision — to foster a model of greater artist control — is one that remains salient in the podcast industry. “Sorry to see Feral’s vision ending, but I understand and support the decision,” Maximum Fun founder Jesse Thorn tweeted. He added: “Holler if you’re looking for a new fierce, independent home.”
WNYC’s culture continues to draw scrutiny. Things continue to look tough for the storied New York public radio station. Since the last newsletter, WNYC dismissed Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz for misconduct, held a partially public board meeting that went sideways, and drew a medley of critical headlines. (“How New York Public Radio is dodging accountability for its sexual harassment problem,” “Listeners vent rage as WNYC trustees shut out public,” “WNYC supporters waver amid harassment crisis.”)
On December 23, The New York Times published its own overview of the situation, portraying an organization that has struggled to adapt its culture and processes to keep up with its rapid growth over the past two decades. And what considerable growth it has seen: according to the report, in 1995, the station had a weekly audience of 1 million, under a hundred staffers, and brought in $11.8 million in annual fundraising. Last year, it had a monthly audience of 26 million, more than 600 staffers — it is unclear if this number includes its long-utilized secondary system of perma-lancers, interns, and freelancers — and brought in $52 million in annual fundraising.
But there’s a sharper question to be asked of this interpretation: it’s one thing where breakdowns in culture (and worse) are the inadvertent results of unchecked growth; it’s a whole other thing if that growth was achieved as the direct result of such a culture. Closely related as they may seem, the two things are not the same, and both pose different questions of retribution and consequences.
Moving into the new year, three questions remain about WNYC: How will Laura Walker and Dean Cappello — the primary leadership structure articulated in the piece — weather the fallout? Will the station see material backlash from the donating public in the next pledge drive campaign? And what specific steps will the station take to fix its culture problem from top to bottom?
Something else that I’m thinking about with this story: Before the break, Mary Wilson, current producer at Slate’s The Gist, made a crucial point over Twitter about a key condition that allowed this watershed moment to emerge. ((Note: This sentence originally said, incorrectly, that Wilson is a former WNYC staffer.)) “Without the podcasting boom, the great reckoning at @WNYC & NYPR does not happen. Podcasting blew open the market and gave women with stories to tell someplace else to go to work. Now you can speak up without ending your career,” she wrote.
I suspect this is true for both WNYC and the broader public radio ecosystem more generally.
PodcastOne’s Norm Pattiz continues to be mired in controversy. “UC Regent Norman Pattiz, dogged by fallout over sexually inappropriate comments, to retire,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The comments in question refers to an incident last year in which Pattiz, the founder and chairman of PodcastOne, made inappropriate remarks to comedian Heather McDonald, whose show was hosted on the network, during a taping. The show, Juicy Scoop, has since moved to Wondery, and Pattiz has apologized for the comments. Pattiz maintains that his decision is not related to the calls for resignation he’s been receiving from the UC student body.
This isn’t the only controversy that’s been plaguing the PodcastOne founder: in September, he was sued for brandishing a gun on a former employee. The employee also alleges that he was told to inflate download numbers. Pattiz has disputed that claim.
Pattiz, who also founded the radio network Westwood One, stepped down as PodcastOne’s CEO in the summer of 2016. Jim Berk, former head of the film production company Participant Media, has since taken over the role.
Another Round will no longer be a BuzzFeed show. The wildly popular podcast hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu is parting ways with BuzzFeed “due to strategic changes” at the company. The show announced the development through its social accounts on December 20, 2017. Another Round has been part of BuzzFeed since its in-house launch in March 2015, and has been steadily publishing under the banner even after Nigatu left the company in May 2016 to wrote for The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert.
“We were surprised and initially disappointed to hear of these changes, but fortunately, we were offered ownership of the show,” they wrote. The duo accepted the offer, but the show will be taking a break. Clayton remains a staffer at BuzzFeed.
It is unclear at this time how the aforementioned “strategic changes” will affect the rest of the BuzzFeed Audio team, currently led by Eleanor Kagan. BuzzFeed ended 2017 on a pretty rocky note, laying off roughly 100 employees on the company’s U.S. sales and marketing sides, along with a few employees in its UK news and business teams. That news came shortly after The Wall Street Journal announced that the company was “on track to miss its revenue target for this year by a significant amount.”
This week in corporate podcasting.
- Nintendo relaunches its beloved Nintendo Power magazine as a podcast. There’s a pretty good discussion on the significance and history of the magazine — a triumph of what is now known as “content marketing” — in this Complex article, along with Blake J. Harris’s book The Console Wars, a relevant excerpt of which you can find in this archived Grantland post.
- Netflix releases a companion podcast to Wormwood, its original six-part documentary series from Errol Morris, with the involvement of Pineapple Street. This is the latest in a growing genre of officially sanctioned companion TV podcasts, and it’s not the first such Netflix project: Previously, the streaming service partnered with Panoply Custom for a podcast companion to Making a Murderer.
This week in NPR watch:
- Israel Smith, NPR’s director of programming, is moving to WBEZ to serve as the Chicago public radio station’s managing director of programming and audience development. Smith joined NPR in 2012.
- Planet Money’s recently launched spinoff, The Indicator, is shifting toward a daily production schedule starting today.
- Mary Louise Kelly is succeeding Robert Siegel as host of the public radio mothership’s flagship program All Things Considered, starting January 17. Kelly was recently in the spotlight for being the reporter who grilled NPR CEO Jarl Mohn on-air after the sexual harassment allegations against then-VP of News Michael Oreskes.
- On a related note, Kelly McEvers, who was a cohost on All Things Considered, is stepping from that position to focus more on her investigative podcast series, Embedded. More on that next week.
- Jarl Mohn, who went on medical leave shortly after the Oreskes allegations first broke, is set to return to work sometime mid-month, according to Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources newsletter. COO Loren Mayor had been handling his duties.
Over the holidays, the podcast and radio community lost two of its greats. Reggie Ossé — better known as Combat Jack — died last month from complications due to colon cancer. A former attorney for Def Jam, Ossé was more recently known for his work as the host of the pioneering hip-hop interview podcast The Combat Jack Show, the cofounder of the Loud Speakers Network, and the host of Mogul.
Loud Speaker CEO Chris Morrow was kind enough to send over some words on his late friend and business partner.
Reggie Ossé’s The Combat Jack Show was the first great hip-hop podcast. To borrow from the critic Dave Marsh’s description of the Rolling Stones as the greatest rock group of all time, “This is not legend. It is fact.”
Reggie came to podcasting in middle age, having walked away from a successful and groundbreaking career as an attorney representing rappers and hip-hop producers. Burnt out by the backbiting and egos of the music business, he’d reinvented himself as a content creator, first as a blogger, and then later as a podcaster, under the nom de plume Combat Jack.
Reggie began The Combat Jack Show in 2010, a time when the “powers that be” in hip-hop views on podcasts ran from indifference to disdain. Podcasts were only for white people. Or aspiring radio hosts who weren’t “good enough” to make it on terrestrial. Podcasts would never resonate with a hip-hop audience.
Reggie shattered those myths and out of their shards built a brilliant mosaic of hip-hop history lessons, barbershop banter, intellectual jousting, black nationalism, and on-air therapy. In theory the episodes were centered around interviews with hip-hop personalities, but the stories from Reggie’s own eventful life were what always made them so riveting and relatable. Reggie had grown up in Crown Heights in the 70s, studied fine arts at Cornell University, graduated from Georgetown Law, danced the night away on acid-laced punch at the Paradise Garage, befriended Keith Haring, made a cameo in an iconic hip-hop video while working at Def Jam (that’s him at the 3:29 mark of the “Gas Face” video) , shopped Jay-Z’s first record deal, ran with Puffy during the latter’s hedonistic heyday, and raised four beautiful children. It seemed he had experienced it all. He could talk about almost anything with almost anyone.
In the studio, Reggie created an atmosphere of trust, authenticity, empathy, and humor that would often force normally reticent rappers to drop their masks and reveal a bit of their true selves. As an interviewer, Reggie was equal to a Marc Maron or Barbara Walters, while remaining 100 percent black and all the way hip-hop.
Take his legendary episode with the hip-hop entrepreneur Dame Dash. Even if you’re not a hip-hop fan, it’s a riveting interview. After it dropped, there were several TV platforms furious Dame hadn’t given them the interview instead. But if he had, it just wouldn’t have been the same. Only Combat Jack could have gotten that interview from Dame. And only on a podcast.
As Questlove wrote after Reggie’s passing, “Dude. #CombatJack’s Dame Dash vs Just Blaze episodes was a game changer for me…..Ive NEVER religiously listened to a podcast before….Seriously it’s like when you hear an MC and that inspires you to be one. That’s what his show meant to me.”
Reggie was indeed a game changer. In 2012, he and I founded the Loud Speakers Podcast Network, with the hopes of bringing new voices, especially those of people of color, to the podcastsphere. Reggie’s example would help pave the way for successful Loud Speakers shows like The Read, Friend Zone, The Brilliant Idiots, and Tax Season, which in turn would further open up podcasting to new hosts, audiences and possibilities.
As more and more podcasters began riding the wave Reggie created, he shifted gears for a final time. The Combat Jack Show was raw and unpredictable, but Mogul, the award-winning podcast he did in collaboration with Gimlet, showed he was just as comfortable — and potent — in a scripted environment. There’s no doubt in the coming years that Mogul will be credited with having ushered in a second, more polished, wave of hip-hop podcasting.
Mogul made several Best of 2017 lists, including The New Yorker’s, Entertainment Weekly’s, and The Atlantic’s. By the time they were released, Reggie was already deep in the midst of his short but courageous battle with stage 4 colon cancer. Celebration was impossible. But even in the midst of so much pain, I’m sure Reggie loved that the world was starting to recognize what I’d already known for a while: Reggie Ossé was a giant of podcasting.
More than audience size, accolades, or even money, Reggie’s goal in podcasting was always to advance hip-hop. To, as he loved to say, “raise the bar” of a culture he’d grown up in and championed into middle age.
Reggie’s death is still too raw to try to put in any sort of perspective. I’m heartbroken I won’t be able to hear the projects he had planned next. But I’m comforted that I, as well as the legion of fans he left behind, will be able to experience his warmth, wisdom, humor and passion for life in the work he left behind.
Last month also saw the loss of the Australian producer Jesse Cox, who died from a rare cancer. Cox spent four years as a staffer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where he hosted Radiotonic, cohosted Long Story Short, and created This is About. A winner of the silver prize at the Third Coast Festival in 2014, he had recently moved to Audible’s Australian branch, where he served as head of content.
Career Spotlight. To kick off the new year, this week’s interview features Andrew Mambo, who works on one of my favorite new shows, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast.
Tell me about your current situation.
I’m a producer/reporter for ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, where I work with a talented team to tell great stories that happen to be about sports. We launched the podcast in the summer of 2017 and just wrapped up our second season a few weeks ago, where I oversaw production on two episodes: No Rules: The Birth of UFC and Madden’s Game. And in our first season I reported on two really amazing stories: The Fighter Inside and The Trials of Dan and Dave.
So now I’m working on a couple stories for future seasons of the podcast. My day to day is focussed on research but soon I’ll be going back into interviewing and cutting tape. I can’t say much about the stories I’m working on but I can say I’m ‘pumped’ about what we have coming up (that might make more sense toward the fall of 2018 or maybe not and it’s a bad pun about what I’m working on).
How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?
I fell in love with radio and storytelling while at college in Montreal, first on campus stations and then at various local stations, but it was all on a volunteer basis. I never really thought working in radio was something I could make a career out of. But when I finished my masters in the UK, I landed a reporting gig at 1Xtra, a BBC digital radio station. I still remember how elated I was when I got that first paycheck. I was getting paid to do something I had loved doing for years for free and it made me realize that my work had value.
Long story short, I had to return to Canada and after a few months I took a detour and went to Zambia for a year to volunteer doing HIV/AIDS prevention education for young people. But that volunteer gig turned into six years living in four different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa working for the United Nations. While most of my work with the UN was focussed on program management, I figured out ways to bring my photography and writing skills into my daily job to tell the stories of the young people who were benefitting from the projects we worked on.
While overseas, I met my eventual wife and when she got a job in New York I followed her there and did some consultancy work with the UN. I was getting more into doing photography and that led to another change when an opportunity came up to work on a documentary film about the Battle of Gettysburg, aptly titled The Gettysburg Story. As with most documentary films, it was a small crew, so I got a chance to do almost everything at one point or another.
While I was working on the film I was keeping an eye out for other opportunities and got connected with Radio Rookies at WNYC, who do incredible work helping young people report stories that are important to them. I was a big fan of their work and when an opportunity came up I started out as a freelancer and then got a full-time position. My colleagues were amazing to work with and I learned a lot from them, but I also learned plenty from the young people we worked with, mainly about patience, building trust, and Snapchat filters.
Sports has always been something I’m passionate about and I’m a big fan of the 30 for 30 films, so when an opportunity came around to be part of the team that was starting up a 30 for 30 podcast, I met with Jody Avirgan, the podcast’s host and senior producer, and was excited to be a part of it. The past year has been an amazing ride. We’re thrilled with the response to the podcast so far, and with two seasons already under our belt, I’m excited about what we have coming up.
What does a career mean to you, at this point?
At this point I’ve been on such a meandering road that I don’t tend to think of myself as having a career in any traditional sense where you specialize in one field and make that your life’s work. I really enjoy storytelling, both as a consumer and creator, so I hope that I can continue to do that as long as possible, but that can take many different forms.
When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?
I knew I wanted to tell stories, but I didn’t think anyone would pay me to do it, so for awhile I was actually thinking I would be a civil servant or teacher. I mean, I always thought I would be doing storytelling in either radio or film, but I just thought I would be doing it on the side for fun.
Have a great start to the year, everybody. Drive safe now.