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Grow the pie: Podcast revenue seems to be growing fast enough for everyone to get a slice

EXPANDING PIE. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has released its second annual podcast revenue study, which gives us a clear baseline on the size of the podcast ad business. Here’s the big takeaway for those on the run:

  • The American podcast industry brought in an estimated $314 million in advertising revenue in 2017, up 86 percent from the $169 million reported the year before. It beat projections established in the previous revenue study, which predicted that the ad business would grow to around $220 million in 2017.
  • That’s a pretty huge jump for podcast advertising relative to itself, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: it’s still peanuts compared to other (far older and more consolidated) media industries. Commercial radio brought in $17.6 billion in advertising last year. That’s billion with a “b” and three more digits.
  • In any case, the study further predicts that podcast advertising will hit $659 million by 2020, which will still be a fraction of what commercial radio enjoyed in 2017.

Over at Recode, the dude Peter Kafka argues that the persistent minisculity of the podcast advertising business is actually a good thing. “One of the reasons podcasts are fun to listen to is because the podcast ad business is so tiny,” he writes. “Measuring podcast audiences is still a work in progress, and there’s no good way for advertisers to automate their ad buys across lots of podcasts if that changes, you may well see podcast advertising move much faster — but it also means podcast advertising will be more unpleasant.”

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I agree with this. Kafka articulated something I’ve been trying to say whenever I’ve written about the related issue of programmatic podcast advertising — but obviously, a whole lot better than I ever could — which is to essentially point out that rapid growth, as well as the implementation of technology and practices that push hard for rapid growth, often come at the expense of quality and general thoughtfulness of a space.

I’ve come to feel about podcasting the way I’ve long felt about a certain up-and-coming city in the American inter-mountain west (which will remain nameless for reasons that will become clear): I love it a whole ton, and I love that loads more people are beginning to love it too, but maybe we should start shit-talking the place before the tourists get here and drive the market out of whack.

Anyway, Kafka also made a parallel point about how it’s not hard to make a podcast, which (rightfully) sparked some grumbles in my inbox. Obviously, that’s not true — I see you, ESJ — but I think the more important point is how podcasting remains significantly cheaper to produce compared to movies, television shows, and even good chunks of commercial talk radio programming. At this point in time, anyway. Given the influx of celebrities into the space and the way talent contract sizes are going, we might have to adjust that analytical position in the not-so distant future.

Some other odds and ends:

  • Just a reminder that the study’s methodology relies on self-reported revenues from a collection of the bigger podcast companies in the space — referred to in the report as “largest podcast advertising revenue generators which are believed to make up a significant portion of the overall market,” emphasis believed — including Gimlet Media, Midroll Media, National Public Media, Panoply, HowStuffWorks, and WNYC Studios, among others.
  • Those companies also underwrote the study, which is a point that led the framing for some writeups the last time around but is, I’m told, a fairly normal arrangement for industry revenue studies like these.
  • Anyway, because the methodology relies on self-reported revenues from a collection of companies, it should be noted that the $314 million estimate is an extrapolation from the aggregate self-reported data. You can actually find the total self-reported revenue in the study document on page 6: $257.4 million in 2017.
  • One interesting thing that falls from the methodology is the extent to which the participating publishers are positioned as the majority of the industry — roughly 80 percent. Another interesting thing to note the significance of the remaining 20 percent: Can we perhaps read that as the rough sum value of independents?
  • Pre-produced ads make up a third of all ad types among the self-reporting companies. Host-read ads making up the dominant remainder.
  • Branded podcasts grew from 1.5 percent to 6.5 percent of all ad revenue between 2016 and 2017, displaying an increasing industry reliance on the hefty ad product.
  • Weirdly, the share of automatically inserted ads — i.e. dynamically inserted ads — as a delivery mechanism dropped from 56.4 percent to 41.7 percent between 2016 and 2017. I’m personally surprised by this, and will do some digging around on the issue.
  • Finally, 56 percent of captured advertising revenue was driven by three content genres: Arts & Entertainment (16.8 percent), Technology (14.6 percent), and News, Politics & Current Events (13.3 percent). Notably, True Crime comes in at 7.2 percent and Scripted Fiction at less than 1 percent. One way to read this is to see it as the spread of where advertisers are allocating their dollars by genre. The other way is to see it as the spread of genres present within the portfolios of those participating podcast publishers.

Again, you can find the report here.

Public improvements. Pew Research has started rolling out this year’s updates to its State of the News Media report, with its public broadcasting factsheet dropping on Wednesday.

Obviously, do check the thing out in full, but here’s the big story for me:

The factsheet describes a public radio system that appears to be holding steady — perhaps sustaining the so-called Trump Bump experienced during the 2016 presidential election cycle, and even incrementally growing its average total weekly listenership. It observes that “the top 20 NPR-affiliated public radio stations (by listenership) had on average a total weekly listenership of about 11 million in 2017, up from about 10 million in 2016.”

But note how this factoid primarily focuses on the top end of the system, which tweaks the central finding into a picture of how the most-listened stations in the country have become marginally more listened to.

The fact sheet widens its scope when it attends to the question of local public radio revenues, drawing data from Mark Fuerst’s Public Media Futures Forum initiative that displays aggregate revenues for 123 of the largest news-oriented public radio licensees. Those aggregate revenue levels largely remained flat between 2014 and 2016 at a little over $800 million. (There was no 2017 number.) But even that doesn’t improve the core framing problem: it’s a broader pool, but it’s still looking at the top end of the system. For context, there are over 900 NPR member stations in the US.

It’s productive to pair Pew’s factsheet with this Current writeup on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s latest “state of the system” analysis. According to that study, while the public radio system appears to be broadly enjoying an overall trend of growth, smaller stations continue to struggle financially compared to their larger peers. Not unlike the broader media industry (and the American economy writ large, I suppose), the system may well be growing, but the gains are being felt by fewer participants.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research fact sheet found that: “At the national level, NPR increased its total operating revenue in 2017 to $233 million, up 9% from 2016 levels. APM saw gains as well, rising 33% to about $168 million in total revenue for 2017. PRI’s total revenue, on the other hand, went down 17% year over year, amounting to $18 million in 2017.”

What’s the best word to describe a situation in which a smaller number of entities begins to represent bigger swathes of a system? It’s not quite centralization…nor is it distillation, either.

Anyway, I liked how Nieman Lab framed its analysis on the Pew fact sheet: “A year after Trump’s zero-budget threat, public broadcasting is…doing okay.” I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more threats before this administration is up.

My eyes will be kept peeled for the upcoming update to the audio and podcasting factsheet, which should come out at some point over the next few weeks. I’ll write it up here when that happens.

In other public radio news…

  • This MediaPost writeup might be framed around NPR podcast’s smart speaker futures, but I’m more interested in this finding: “According to [NPM president Gina] Garrubbo, few of NPR’s podcast listeners skip sponsored messaging. In fact, 85% of listeners would prefer to listen to sponsored content rather than pay for a commercial-free version. She also noted that NPR listeners will listen to a podcast for at least an hour, or even binge listen.”
  • “WBUR Announces Retirement Of ‘Only A Game’ Host Bill Littlefield.” (WBUR)
  • Leonard Lopate returns to public radio after WNYC firing. (Current)

Standing alone. Google is apparently working on its own dedicated podcast app for Android, according to a report by 9to5Google. The article goes on to say:

We can see that the Play Store listing of this app will likely act a bit like the Assistant and Google Lens listings in the Play Store, simply acting as a shortcut to open the functionality. While that app is not live yet, it should appear on the Play Store at this link when it goes live.

The sighting comes barely a month after Google discussed its efforts to increase podcast functionality on Android through a series of interviews on the branded podcast studio Pacific Content’s corporate blog, and a few weeks after the tech giant began pushing out the feature along with subsequent minor updates.

On the one hand, neat! On the other hand, it’s much ado about table stakes. Here’s how I’m reading the situation:

  • That Google is beginning to invest more resources into podcast distribution should be cause for some excitement, but I’d temper expectations. As we’ve learned from the early efforts of Spotify (and, hell, even Google Play Music), simply making something more available within an actively used platform isn’t any guarantee of greater usage. Presence needs to be followed by some amount of Push.
  • To that end, I believe the real question lies in whether this standalone podcast app will be bundled by default with any Android iterations moving forward. After all, a good chunk of the conventional understanding about why 2014 turned out to be a tipping point for the medium revolved around Apple’s decision to package its native Podcasts app with iOS 8. It’s the little things that mean a lot, you know?
  • I also remain curious about the extent to which Google Podcasts team lead Zack Reneau-Wedeen’s strategy to bump audio up into “first-class citizenry” within Google’s mobile search universe is built on sound theoretical foundations: that you can elevate audio within Google’s search architecture in the same way you can with text and video, both being primarily visual media.
  • Of course, this is the customary point in the analysis where I begin pointing towards smart speakers and voice assistants, and the broader voice-first computing future. Though I’d just say it out loud again anyway.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to hold court as the dominant podcast platform provider. During its WWDC developer conference last week, Cupertino announced that the Apple Podcasts inventory now boasts more than 550,000 active shows, nicely complementing its April disclosure that the platform has officially surpassed 50 billion all-time podcast streams and downloads.

The company also announced that its official Podcasts app will finally be made available for the Apple Watch as part of the upcoming watchOS 5 update, scheduled for the fall. I don’t personally own an Apple Watch — lord knows it’d absolutely ruin my capacity for eye contact — but the renewed prospect of even more frictionless podcast listening is…making me reconsider my position. I hope my family will understand.

Also, congrats to Stuff You Should Know, which was announced onstage during the podcast-specific session of WWDC to be the first show to officially cross the 500 million all-time stream and download mark on the Apple Podcasts platform. The flagship podcast of the HowStuffWorks network turned a decade old earlier this year.

Extra life. Audioboom has successfully raised £4.5 million (about $6 million) to keep the lights on, marking a return to business after a failed attempt to execute a “reverse takeover” of Triton Digital left the U.K.-based podcast company in a precarious financial position. Prior to this new funding round, the company was said to have enough working capital for only four weeks of operations.

Stuart Last, the company’s chief operating officer, tells me that the new funds come from a mixture of new and current investors. He argues that the money is not a stopgap measure. “This is investment that will accelerate the growth of Audioboom,” Last said. “While there were aspects of the Triton merger that made being part of a bigger corporate entity exciting and in some ways easier, we’ve always felt we could do this independently.” The identities of the new investors were not disclosed, but you can find the list of major shareholders here. (Note that investors with holdings under 3 percent are not listed.)

For all intents and purposes, the deal with the Los Angeles-based Triton Digital was supposed to result in what is essentially a merger, despite the “reverse takeover” labeling. If it had been successful, the move would have resulted in the formation of a new company that combined Audioboom’s advertising network and creative agency with Triton Digital’s audio analytics and ad-tech services. The deal fell through mid-May when equitable terms could not be negotiated. As CEO Robert Proctor told me at the time: “Investors and institutions were not convinced and as the deal terms flexed to try and accommodate all parties then the final terms on the table were just not attractive to myself, my board or the wider Audioboom shareholder base. So it just could not be sanctioned, I’m afraid.”

Audioboom experienced cashflow issues throughout the deal-making process and subsequent breakdown, leading them to fall behind on some important processes like partner payments — a development that has hurt their standing among some of their clients. Now that it’s solvent again, the company has crucial work to do. “Since we withdrew from that deal, we’ve taken some big steps to catch-up those payments and have more than 70 shows up to day and many more on payment plans,” Last told me. “So as the money comes in from this funding round it will be a high priority to get our partners fully paid — then we can regain their trust and become a proper partner again, helping them grow, reach new audience, taking their revenues to even higher places.”

Regaining trust may prove complicated for the company, especially given some of the messaging it has been putting out over the past few weeks. In the immediate wake of the deal collapse, Audioboom told Inside Radio that, as part of its efforts to control its financial situation, it would be looking to “attract ‘more commercially viable’ podcasts and trim smaller, unsustainable podcasts.” Some viewed the statement as an indication that the company would be throwing its smaller independent partners under the bus. Last tells me that’s not the case. “Yeah, so the reference to cutting smaller shows was actually about the natural end of some of our legacy radio relationships,” he said. “We hosted and distributed thousands of podcast channels for our radio partners globally — those channels took a lot of staffing and tech resource, but provided a very small part of our income.”

He added: “We are fully committed to working with podcasters at all levels.”

Catching up is one thing; growing is another. While Audioboom is thought of as a U.K. company, I’m told that around 90 percent of Audioboom’s business actually comes from the significantly more heated U.S. market, where it competes directly with other network-centric companies like Panoply, which has a strong parent company in Graham Holdings, and Cadence13, which sold a 45 percent stake to Entercom for $9.7 million last fall. Is $6 million enough for the company to both rebuild and compete in this environment?

Year over year. ICYMI, APM Reports’ In The Dark is currently in the midst of a spectacular sophomore season. And at this point of the season, seven episodes deep and about a month out from launch, the podcast appears to be outperforming its previous season.

Speaking last Friday, a spokesperson told me:

  • As of Monday afternoon, Season 2 has been downloaded over 4 million times. At this point last season, the download number was around 2.4 million.
  • I’m also told: “Season 1 just went over 12 million downloads, and it’s in the midst of a resurgence (for obvious reasons).”

American Public Media hosts its podcast programming with StreamGuys, which touts a platform that’s IAB and Podcast Working Group-approved. The big takeaway from this item should focus on the show’s improvement upon its own past performance, as making cross-show comparisons will prove to be complicated. At this moment, there isn’t a clean way to contextualize In The Dark’s performance against comparable podcasts, but here are two data points on similar shows that can help you map the state of the limited-run true crime podcast genre in mid 2018:

  • Atlanta Monster was downloaded over 20 million times across 12 episodes within its first three months of launch. Again, In The Dark S2 was downloaded almost 4 million times within its first month, and it’s currently still publishing.
  • Dirty John was reportedly downloaded more than 7 million times across its full six-episode run within its first month of launch. It’s worth noting that Dirty John dropped all of its episodes within the span of a week. In The Dark adheres to a conventional weekly publishing schedule.

The eighth installment of Madeleine Baran’s investigation drops today.

Career spotlight. And we’re back with this recurring feature! I’ll be doing these monthly instead of bi-weekly from now on. This week, I traded emails with Ryan Kailath, a public radio reporter who has served stints at a bunch of different places. (Though, I suppose, that’s how you’d typically describe a public radio reporter.) Let’s jump in:

Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

Kailath: Just take the cliché, bring it to life, and that’s me. I wanna work at This American Life.More concretely: The five-year goal was to become a full-time maker of high-quality ~~narrrative loongformm~~. I didn’t expect to get there overnight, so I’ve tried to chart a course that makes me better along the way. I’m almost four years on the path now and feeling good.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Kailath: With help from literally a million generous people, I caught some early breaks. My first audio story aired on The Heart, my first NPR story went (public radio) viral, I got an internship at Planet Money, a story on 99pi.After the internship, I wanted to report, to just have constant practice pitching and writing and interviewing and making tons of stuff day in and out. So I went the public radio route instead of assistant producer’s assistant somewhere in podcasting. Also I have a hangup — it tends to come with immigrant parents — about having “traditional” jobs and the attendant validation/permission and markers of success. But mainly I wanted to get radio buff.

So I’ve had three jobs now: daily talk show producer at KCRW, local news reporter at WWNO (New Orleans Public Radio), and Marketplace reporter, where I just wrapped up a yearlong contract.

Every job, I’ve chased good editors above all. It’s the key ingredient; I don’t know how else you get better. And when my editors are stretched thin, I’ve leaned on my peers. I have a crew of ~10 trusted radio friends who, whenever one of us needs an edit, or to talk through a pitch or we’re drowning in tape, we just throw up the bat signal and whoever’s available hops on a call to discuss. They save my life, like, once a week.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Kailath: As Marketplace wound down last month, I decided to give the dream a shot: go hard pitching longform to my favorite shows. I’ve spent three years in news mode, where the goals and milestones are pretty different from what I set out to do, and I think I’ve developed some tunnel vision.But I don’t know — opportunities have knocked, and it’s hard to sniff at a salary and benefits…we’ll see. Also, re: longform, I’m pretty scared of trying and failing, which is a distinct possibility. I have working hard on my side, but a lot of the longformers I admire are just more talented than me, I think.

At some point I think I’ll have to cut bait from public radio though; no amount of 4-minute news features will prepare me to do what TAL does. To do what they do, I have to practice doing what they do, somehow.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?
Kailath: I’m not sure I understand the question, but I feel incredibly lucky to have found this one. This is my second career; I was in tech (working for nonprofits and political orgs.) and switched to radio at age 31. I feel like I finally, finally found the thing I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m just so grateful. Not everyone gets to have that in life, so it’s humbling.
Hot Pod: How do you view the podcast industry at this point in time?

Kailath: I have a glib line about how I’m so f*cking sick of podcasts right now, which usually gets a laugh (occasionally a sob). But the truth is I’m still so excited by the good things. Chompers was so brilliant I’m overjoyed at the very thought of it. It’s the same feeling I got in my twenties when I’d find some band making what felt like an all-new kind of music. Sleepover and Scott Carrier and This is Love and so many others. I was giddy when they announced Wolverine.But you asked about the industry. It’s good. I’m glad it exists. I’m glad people are getting paid. I’m glad WNYC is paying interns (shout out Mickey Capper). And I’m glad for all the new shows — especially the ones that aren’t for me. Great! Let there be shows for everyone under the sun.

You know, in public radio, it’s like all the young guns are waiting for the old guard to step aside, so they can finally be in charge, finally make radio they way they think it should be made. In podcasting, nobody has to wait. For better or for worse : )

Thanks, buddy. You can find Ryan on Twitter here.

Bites:

  • Turns out that Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant’s ZigZag isn’t the only Civil-affiliated podcast. Last week saw the introduction of FAQ NYC, a weekly podcast that will “ask and answer thoughtful questions about how — and why — New York City works.” (Civil)
  • ESPN announced a partnership with the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) and the Made in NY Media Center to develop a pitch program around its 30 for 30 Podcasts. (Press release)
  • WNYC’s Women’s Podcast Festival is back in New York this November. Registration is now open. (WNYC Studios)
  • Very, very glad to see that Binge Mode Original Recipe is back in my feed! (The Ringer)
  • “In chronicling the disintegration of his own mental faculties, Dennis Miller has created a postmodern spectacle like no other. By collapsing every pop-culture item he misremembers into one all-encompassing Reference, which somehow refers to everything and nothing at once, Miller has created the greatest podcast of all time.” (The Outline)
  • “On the Radio, It’s Always Midnight.” (The Paris Review)
  • I’ve updated my “Best Podcasts of 2018 (So Far)” list with May entries. (Vulture)

Programmatic advertising is coming to audio. Should podcast producers embrace it or run for the hills?

THE RUNDOWN. Here are the three stories that most caught my eye while I was supposed to be on vacation:

  • May 11: The Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of Luminary Media, a new venture aiming to build a subscription service that’ll serve a “portfolio of premium podcasts” to subscribers. The company, which has offices in Chicago and New York, has raised $40 million from the New Enterprise Associates and other venture/”high-worth investors,” and has already approached networks like Wondery, PRX, HowStuffWorks, and Cadence13 to strike content deals. Luminary’s pitch to publishers currently includes guaranteed upfront revenue in exchange for rights.
  • May 15: Looks like Audioboom is in trouble. Over the past few months, the U.K. podcast company has been trying to pull off a “reverse takeover” of Triton Digital that would have resulted in the formation of a new entity combining the former’s podcast advertising network and creative agency with the latter’s digital audio analytics and advertising technology services. But Audioboom was unable to raise the funds needed to complete the process, and now it finds itself in a precarious financial position. The company has since secured more capital from an existing investor, the U.K. real estate entrepreneur Nick Candy, to stay afloat, and it’s working to control its financial situation — a process that would include trimming “smaller, unsustainable podcasts” and working on attracting “more commercially viable” ones in a bid to consolidate its audience base and reduce operating costs, according to Inside Radio.
  • May 24: Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reports that Spotify has agreed to pay Amy Schumer more than $1 million for a comedy podcast that she will host and produce. UTA brokered the deal, but I’ve been told by many who’ve done work with talent agencies (and many who haven’t) that bigger deal sizes exist — though no specific numbers were publicly disclosed. (Harrumph.) A few even speculated that the recent Stephen Dubner–Midroll Media deal, in particular, was likely much bigger. (However, it’s worth noting that Dubner has a substantial podcast track record, and the deal covers multiple projects.) Be that as it may, I’d argue this is a significant first on several fronts. It’s the first $1 million-plus podcast deal that’s out in the public; it’s the first $1 million-plus deal for a talent that hasn’t actually produced a podcast before; and it’s the first $1 million-plus podcast deal struck by a deep-pocketed platform company whose non-music audio operations are still very much nascent. Each of those things is significant by itself, but slapped together and mixed in a bowl, they give us an amorphous signal of a broader development: rising price baselines (and price expectations).

Programmatic, and progress. Google is officially getting involved with programmatic audio ads. Last week, the company announced that its DoubleClick product — you know, the giant advertising suite that’s among of the reasons Google is one of the two tech giants that collectively account for over 70 percent of all digital advertising in the U.S. — will now let marketers across the globe access programmatic ad inventory from Google Play Music, Spotify, SoundCloud, and TuneIn through its platform. (Access to Pandora is in the pipeline.) Here’s the blog post, and here’s the accompanying case study.

This development isn’t particularly relevant to the composition of the podcast industry at this point in time, but it will likely become more pertinent as (a) DoubleClick further refines its work in this area — its director of product management Payam Shodjai told AdExchanger that it’s still early days for the new feature, and that it’s really just a question of showing advertisers the “breadth of inventory available” — and (b) the audio platforms listed, especially Spotify and Pandora, become more prominent drivers of podcast consumption (should that ever happen). In any case, the timing of the announcement is conspiracy-theory–inducing, given its close proximity to Google’s confusing early messaging campaign around its podcast intentions on Android phones.

Over at Adweek, Panoply chief technology officer Jason Cox maintains that a deeper pool of programmatic audio ads is “great for everybody.” The article proceeds to note:

Panoply already has its own programmatic advertising technology, which it’s been building with Nielsen. Cox said said he’ll be watching to see what kind of creativity comes as a result of more supply and demand.

However, while opening up more inventory might create downward pressure on ad rates, Cox said media buyers will still have to think more about brand safety with audio ads just like they do with display and video.

“Some people think of programmatic as a dirty word, and programmatic has a lot to answer for in that sense,” he said. “But in on-demand audio, we don’t have to repeat the mistakes in the display world.”

If you’ve been reading me for awhile, you can probably guess my feelings on the matter: It’s complicated but generally uneasy, given the history of programmatic and its impact on the economics (and evolution) of internet advertising. And if you’ve been reading me deeply for a while now, you probably know that I’ve consistently received pushback for holding and expressing this uneasiness. Look, I might be naive, underinformed, and prone to tragic thinking, but I also know I’m being sold something. And the product Panoply is selling here is the aforementioned programmatic podcast advertising marketplace that it’s been building with Nielsen’s Data Management Platform audience segmentation tool since striking up a formal relationship with the information and measurement company last summer.

In any case, the push to programmatic is nearly inevitable. The technology offers a willing segment of the podcast industry — professionalizing and eager for more revenue as they are — the clearest pathway to inject more pace (or steroids?) into its advertising growth, simply because it’s the most obvious sledgehammer to pull from the toolbox that’s been used to build other internet things. Even if some publishers oppose it, enough others will embrace it. And competitively speaking, the choice for the former will ultimately come down to whether to get in the game in order to shape the outcome or to hold steady on a bet that the programmatic wave plays itself out into oblivion. This is all exacerbated by the fact that, at this point in time, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing alternative tool, innovation, or model that even comes close to matching the promise of programmatic podcast advertising germinating in the minds of certain podcast publishers. (Are we seeing the effects of what some have called “dumb money”? Very probably.)

Which brings us back to Cox’s Proposition: On-demand audio doesn’t have to repeat the mistakes of the display world. But what are the necessary conditions that we need to see from the marketplace providers to prevent the past from repeating itself? That, I imagine, is where the analysis should go next.

Meanwhile, Apple, which is still understood to drive the majority of all podcast consumption, is in the midst of a busy few weeks. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the tech giant is looking to expanding its digital advertising business, an area that hasn’t always been the cleanest for Apple. The development chiefly relates to its app-oriented advertising network, so there’s no clear pathway or linkage towards the podcast side of things, but eh, it’s worth keeping tabs on.

Also, WWDC week kicked off yesterday. I’m pre-writing this newsletter on Sunday, because I will be on a plane for the entirety of WWDC Day 1, so if anything big and podcast-specific was announced yesterday — I doubt it, but you never know — I’ll cover it here in the Nieman Lab column next week. [Editor’s note: There really wasn’t anything substantial.]

Doubling up. Today marks the release of a new audio project from Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier of the highly popular Crimetown podcast: The RFK Tapes, a serialized 10-part series covering the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, told through primary interviews and original audio from tapes kept by the LAPD for decades. The duo originally announced the project during last month’s Vulture Festival.

The RFK Tapes stands separate and apart from Crimetown, the duo’s organized-crime yarn-spinner produced in collaboration with Gimlet Media — which, by the way, will be back for a second season later this year. In an intriguing twist, the new project comes out of a partnership with Cadence13, the podcast network that notably works with Crooked Media on advertising and produces original programs like James Andrew Miller’s Origins.

Interesting move from Smerling and Stuart-Pontier.

Doubling down. In case you missed it, Note to Self’s Manoush Zomorodi and fellow WNYC senior staffer Jen Poyant recently left the public radio organization to form their own media studio, Stable Genius Productions, which is part of the blockchain-powered decentralized journalism marketplace project Civil. Their first show, the StartUp-esque ZigZag, rolls out on June 14 under the Radiotopia banner.

Zomorodi will also serve as a cohost on a new podcast from Medium (yep) that the company announced today. According to the official description, the project, called Medium Playback, will crib from the Modern Love Podcast’s structure and apply it to metered stories on the platform. Which is to say, Zomorodi and cohost Kara Brown will “read a recent metered story along with music and SFX” before doing a 10-minute Q&A with the author to “share the story behind the story.” The podcast will be available on Medium first, before going wide the next day.

Medium Playback launches June 13.

Speaking of WNYC… The station has officially announced the new shows in its summer slate:

  • American Fiasco, the previously unnamed World Cup-themed narrative collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett (who just became an American citizen, by the way, congrats!);
  • Aftereffect, an Audrey Quinn-led investigation into the 2016 police shooting of Arnaldo Rios Soto; and
  • The Realness, a Mogul-esque biographical series digging into the life of the rapper Prodigy.

WNYC Studios also recently forged a most interesting partnership with Night Vale Presents that sees the former reissuing the latter’s fairly avant-garde Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air). For what it’s worth, I really like this model. On one hand, it illustrates a bigger organization extracting value from the long tail of an independent project that’s been hustling out in the open for a while; on the other, it’s an arrangement that maintains the creator’s original position of independence. As clean a win-win as there can be, if it works.

One other thing: WNYC Studios has partnered with Whooshkaa to monetize its Australian podcast downloads. It seems that the peculiarly-named Whooshkaa is proving to be the go-to antipodal podcast revenue partner for American companies. In April, the outfit struck a similar monetization deal with Wondery.

Miscellaneous programming notes:

  • Cults, YouTube, and serialized audio narrative: Gizmodo is leaning into a sweet Venn Diagram with its latest foray into podcasting, called The Gateway.
  • Speaking of cults and serialized audio narrative, 30 for 30 Podcasts binge-dropped the Julia Lowrie Henderson-led Bikram two weeks ago. And it’s a doozy.
  • Maximum Fun is currently hard at work on its first scripted comedy narrative podcast. The show, Bubbles, will kick off its 8-episode first season on June 13. Meanwhile, iHeartMedia is developing a scripted podcast series of its own that will apparently target younger listeners.
  • Bring those takes to the grill: Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is back with its third season.
  • A quick shoutout to the CBC, whose excellent Sleepover with Sook-Yin Lee just returned with an ambitious new season.

TV Land. From a recent Variety writeup considering the humble but mighty TV podcast genre:

“Colony” executive producer Ryan Condal says that show’s official podcast came out of an abandoned idea for a televised after-show as a way to talk about the behind-the-scenes, too.

“A podcast is so much cheaper, and frankly, I think a better medium for the after-show,” he says. “We all travel around L.A., and we all sit in a lot of traffic and [a podcast is] a great way to pass the time. You may not have two hours of TV-watching time [for a show and after-show], but you have the time while commuting or walking the dog or exercising at the gym, and you can engage with the people who make the show. It’s the director’s commentary of the internet age.”

The “director’s commentary” analogy is one side of the TV podcast phenomenon, pertaining to the involvement of official TV studios in the medium. The other revolves around TV recap internet culture: While the genre remains very much alive in whatever the blogosphere has now become, its genes have definitely trickled down into podcasting.

Take the recent series finale of The Americans: I’m still rehydrating my eyes, and if this was a few years ago, my aching for post-televisual emotional processing would have spanned a few inadequate conversations with friends in my physical vicinity and then hours of refreshing search engines for verbose and often beautifully written recap posts from sites like Television Without Pity (R.I.P.) as well as writers like Alan Sepinwall and Joanna Robinson. Nowadays, I’m leaning more on TV recap podcasts from, well, anybody — I can’t get enough of it, no matter how variable the quality may actually be. (The same applies to my NBA viewing, by the way.) I still hit the recap blogs sometimes, which appear to have been absorbed into the major institutional architecture — Vulture does it, EW does it, even The New York Times does it — but I don’t know, I just feel better hearing someone talk her feelings out loud. TV recaps are partially forms of cultural therapy, and I prefer my therapy verbal.

Related:

  • “The TV-Recap Podcast That Got Me Through My Divorce.” Katherine Carlson for The Cut.
  • Keep your Peak Podcast takes: I don’t care what it means that even NBC is pooping out podcasts. They’re giving us The Good Place: The Podcast — and that. Is. My. JAM.
  • Shouts to Pineapple Street for producing an exceedingly clever branded podcast for Netflix. You Can’t Make This Up offers interviews with the creators behind some of the streaming service’s hit documentaries, including Wild Wild Country, The Keepers, and Evil Genius. But here’s the kicker: The interviewers have largely been drafted from a roster of well-known podcast hosts, including Kelly McEvers, Matt Bellassai, Lindsey Weber, and the Las Culturistas duo Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers. True-story docs, cult-hero podcast hosts, conversations: It’s a soup made to stick.

Elemental. Virginia Heffernan, writing for Wired, on the deep pleasures of accent-filled podcasts:

Some have suggested that podcasting and the true-crime genre — hugely popularly since Serial — are singularly well matched because the intimacy of a podcast works well to both touch and contain the vulnerability we all feel to violent crime.

Maybe. Or maybe when we tune in to chatty Alabamans, Bostonians, Baltimoreans, Californians, Corkonians, and Norwegians trying to sort out what the hell happened in their towns, we’re just listening to what we’ve always listened to through our headphones: music.

What’s wild about Heffernan’s thesis — which I completely agree with, by the way — is just how much it contrasts the “voice of God”/”public radio voice” paradigm of audio news delivery. The move was once to hitch hopes on a generic voice that was meant to be appealing to the masses. But maybe where we were always supposed to go next, in this place, is greater specificity.

Bites:

  • Pandora has completed its acquisition of audio ad tech company AdsWizz. (TechCrunch)
  • Digiday’s Max Willens with the jam: “‘A pain in the ass for users’: Subscription publishers wrestle with delivering exclusive audio.” Come for the technical gripes, stay for the heat from Slate’s Gabriel Roth.
  • Remember Zardulu, from that one great Reply All episode? You might want to check out the titular performance artist’s music collaboration with the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. (HuffPost)
  • Happy second birthday to The Ringer, whose podcast operations remain the most interesting to me — and the most pleasurable, personally speaking.
  • Sarah Larson’s latest: “Why ‘In the Dark’ May Be the Best Podcast of the Year.” (The New Yorker)

So why is a coalition of public radio giants buying a podcast app, exactly?

A MOST PECULIAR MACHINATION. The news was a long time coming. I’ve heard whispers of something like this since 2015, back when the rumors revolved around an internal WNYC strategy project with a curious codename: Pique. The initial story I heard spoke of a platform-oriented attempt to tackle the full stack of podcast problems, from discovery to distribution. Furthermore, the whispers say the move wasn’t meant to be limited to public radio: It would be for all podcasting, and it would be global. But the rumors came and went sporadically, and I was convinced at various points that it simply wouldn’t happen.

And then it did. The announcement dropped last Thursday with little public runup: a coalition of public radio organizations — NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ, and This American Life, which stands alone as a public benefit corporation — has acquired Pocket Casts, an Australian podcast app thought to be well liked among the podcasting community. A WNYC spokesperson later confirmed to me that the acquisition was indeed the result of the strategic work that the New York public radio station had been doing with Pique for several years now.

You can find relevant coverage at The Verge, NPR’s press room, and The Wall Street Journal, among numerous outlets that picked up the story. But here are the key details you should know:

  • Pocket Casts will operate as an independent company separate and apart from any of the organizations that are part of the joint acquisition. An NPR spokesperson told me that the company will not operate as a nonprofit.
  • The public radio coalition has brought in Owen Grovers, a former EVP and general manager at iHeartRadio and former VP of programming and marketing at Clear Channel, to serve as CEO of the new company.
  • The current Pocket Casts team will be maintained. Founders Philip Simpson and Russell Ivanovic will remain in leadership roles at the company.
  • The financial terms were not disclosed. It is perhaps useful to note that WNYC’s investment was partially made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the philanthropist Cynthia King Vance, the former chair of WNYC’s board of trustees.
  • Pocket Casts’ existing business model is based on a one-time $3.99 app purchase. But a spokesperson told me that the new leadership team “will assess the business and revenue model for Pocket Casts over the coming weeks, with the goal of ensuring the platform remains financially sustainable. Decisions about the fee model will be made as part of that process.”
  • Despite the review, the existing Pocket Casts leadership are promising a fundamental sameness (with more resources) despite the appointment of a former iHeartRadio exec as the new CEO, a new set of owners, and a rapidly shifting environment.
  • Here’s the view on the app’s market share based on Ben Mullin’s reporting at the Wall Street Journal: “Pocket Casts accounts for about 2% of the downloads and streams of podcasts, according to Podtrac. Both NPR and WNYC said that Pocket Casts accounted for a larger share of podcast listening than PodTrac’s estimates, but declined to provide specifics.” That’s an important datapoint to know if your theory of the acquisition involves the group intending to buy a bought-in listener base.

Much remains unclear, with the most pressing question being: What, exactly, is the long-term strategic vision here? Only two insights can be found in the press push, through the Wall Street Journal writeup:

  • WNYC chief digital officer Nathaniel Landau said that “the coalition of public media organizations wants to create a platform for independent creators to distribute and monetize their work, adding that they’re interested in applying the public radio membership model to podcasting writ large.”
  • NPR chief digital officer Thomas Hjelm: “We need multiple shots on goal to address this delivery/distribution/discovery challenge…and I see this as another shot on goal.”

Both responses amount to a fairly vague picture of what’s to come, one where future Pocket Casts could resemble anything from a pure vessel for experimentation to a utility platform like Patreon to even something that looks like Radiotopia. That vagueness has led to reservations from certain circles in the podcast community, an expression of anxiety aimed at many possible outcomes including: the implementation of intrusive user tracking into the app, the commandeering of Pocket Casts’ discovery portals to privilege public radio programming over others, and the market-distorting effects of an entity that consolidates the powers of a few pretty prominent podcast publishing entities.

These concerns have understandable roots, and I’d argue they can be furthered contextualized as extensions of a much broader anxiety: that the open publishing nature of podcasting is working on a definitive countdown clock, that we’re collectively drifting towards a closed platform-oriented podcast environment, that this move is a specific instance of some groups anticipating this future and taking a step to either hedge against its inevitability — or speed it along. Which is to say, there’s a palpable Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse vibe to all of this, accentuating a feeling that maybe some folks should start stocking canned goods in the bunker.

That feeling is further exacerbated by just how unconventional this acquisition appears to be. To begin with, you have the entire group acquisition structure, which likely has to do more with conveying the symbolism of cross-system collaboration than anything particularly practical. This stratagem, whatever it turns out to be, will live or die by its governance, something that grows exponentially more complex with every new organization involved in its direction. (Leadership from all four coalition organizations will sit on Pocket Casts’ board.) And then you have the jumble of all the other stuff: the fact that Pocket Casts will not operate as a nonprofit, that it will be led by a commercial radio veteran, that you’re getting assurances from all parties that nothing significant is going to change, even though the point, logically speaking, is to usher in some amount of significant change.

Anyway, we’re drifting into tinfoil-hat territory here. It’s helpful, then, that NPR’s press team offered to link me up with Thomas Hjelm to ask some questions. (Hjelm, by the way, was WNYC’s previous chief digital officer before moving to NPR in April 2016. The connection is not insignificant.)

The following interview was conducted over email, and I’m reproducing both questions and answers here straight from the thread. As such, my questions will appear super shaggy — I wrote them in a hurry on Friday afternoon. The replies came back midday Monday.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: So, really basic: What is the reasoning behind Pocket Casts? Why now? What changes in the market/market forces led to this decision?[/conl]

[conr]Thomas Hjelm: The partnership comprises four of the largest producers of podcasts in the market, and public radio as a whole continues to dominate the highest reaches of the podcast charts. That scale and impact puts us in a unique position to innovate and test new approaches to the discovery, delivery, distribution, and monetization of on-demand audio. Pocket Casts is one of the best and most popular apps on the market. Teaming up to acquire it, to support its founders and their team, gives us an excellent opportunity to advance that cause.

To put it another way, we want to help make podcast discovery a better experience for listeners and its delivery and distribution more valuable to podcast creators. With this partnership, we have the right combination of talents and assets to make the most of that opportunity.

The discussions that led to the acquisition started some time ago. It took time to find the right team and platform that would align with our goals and complement the other products in our collective portfolio, particularly NPR One. The Pocket Casts team not only had built a terrific product that engaged a large and passionate audience, but they shared our values and vision. We feel we’ve brought a very talented team into the extended family of public radio makers.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What is the long-term goal in acquiring Pocket Casts? Do you have a specific vision of what this platform will be two years from now, or is that vision still being worked out and processed?[/conl]

[conr]Hjelm: Pocket Casts certainly has a roadmap, which the leadership team is now refining. For now, while they’re doing that, I’ll emphasize two points. First, as excited and committed as we are to Pocket Casts, we also recognize that the world of audio is diverse. There is no one-size-fits-all listening experience. The audience is still growing and the technology evolving, we’re all experimenting and studying new behaviors of listening, and so we need to support products that expand our opportunities to learn and grow. Jake Shapiro of RadioPublic often talks about the need for “multiple shots on goal” as we explore this space. We fully respect and support that view.

Second, we’ll also look for ways in which the Pocket Casts team can work with their new cousins here in public radio, particularly the NPR One team, to develop and share new tools and technologies and techniques for engaging audiences. The spirit of this partnership is one of openness and mutual support.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: My immediate thought hearing about the acquisition was “Hulu, but for audio” — in that what we’ll end up seeing is a system-owned platform that provides a contained, public-radio–oriented podcast experience. Again, I think a lot is still up in the air, but is this possible future on the table?[/conl]

[conr]Hjelm: We are not building a public-radio–centric podcast platform. We are keeping Pocket Casts open and independent to create opportunities for producers — from within public radio and well beyond — to reach new audiences.

The value proposition of NPR One is tied more closely to public radio. It extends the brand, its content is sourced largely from NPR as well as member stations and other producers within or adjacent to the system, and it supports the public radio model by driving listeners and prospective donors to stations. Pocket Casts, by contrast, is and will remain an open platform, where you can find content from practically the entire universe of podcast producers. It’s a complement to NPR One, as well as to the many other apps that are supported and branded by public radio stations and producers.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: I presume there’s a lot of discussion and planning over the next few weeks about specific changes that will be made to how Pocket Casts works and its business model, but what can you say right now about what won’t change and what will? I’m thinking specifically about questions re: user tracking, in-app advertising, and podcast discovery/promotion through the app.[/conl]

[conr]Hjelm: Our first order of business is to preserve the superior UX that Pocket Casts users know and love. The app has been building a following for eight years, and one look at the ratings in the App Store or the activity on the Twitter feed confirms the continuing loyalty of that audience. Users are discriminating and they have other choices, so any discussion about evolving the product will start from there. Two areas we’re eager to explore are better tools for podcast creators to understand how their content is being consumed (so that they can better serve their audiences) and development of Pocket Casts on platforms beyond the smartphone. They launched a great Sonos app recently. It will be exciting to see where else they can go.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Why Pocket Casts and not, say, Podcast Addict? I read that part of the thinking around the acquisition involves some exploration of adapting public radio membership models for podcasting. In that case, why not RadioPublic, which more explicitly builds for those goals?[/conl]

[conr]Hjelm: We love this product. Pocket Casts is one of the best-designed, best-executed apps there is, and it’s long been on our radar. They’ve earned consistently high ratings in the App Store and Google Play, and they have a large and loyal audience. The Pocket Casts team has also innovated on new platforms that complement work that we at NPR and others in the system have been doing, like building a terrific Sonos app. They’re beginning to explore the voice-activation space, too.

Public radio has seen success in growing diverse revenue streams, and Pocket Casts will be eager to explore opportunities for membership and other revenue streams for all podcast creators. We’ll have more to say about the revenue model in the coming months, as the new leadership team gets into gear. But to the question of “why Pocket Casts,” it all starts with the team and the product and how it reaches and engages listeners. We feel we’re starting in a great place.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: So Pocket Casts will be run as a separate entity, but it won’t be a nonprofit. Will it be restructured as a public benefit corporation? And if it maintains its for-profit status, what does that allow Pocket Casts to do that you otherwise couldn’t?[/conl]

[conr]Hjelm: The audio marketplace is ultra-dynamic, and we want to enable the company to adapt to new opportunities, whether through new product features, audience development approaches, business strategies, or investments. The leadership team of Pocket Casts will assess the business and revenue model over the coming weeks, with the goal of growing the platform and ensuring it’s financially sustainable, while also adhering to our nonprofit mission.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Why Owen Grover?[/conl]

[conr]Hjelm: [WNYC CEO] Laura Walker and I have known Owen since 2011, when iHeartRadio first partnered with New York Public Radio to distribute the WNYC and WQXR streams to new audiences. Owen brings us a host of skills and strong instincts, particularly in audience and business development, yet at the same time he understands and respects the mission and culture of public radio. We also felt that his talents nicely complement those of Pocket Casts’ two co-founders, Philip Simpson and Russell Ivanovic, of whom we are also huge fans and supporters. They agreed with us. It’s a great combination.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Many thanks to Hjelm for the interview.

Run that plinking tune back. From southwestern Virginia public radio station WVTF, previewing a recent event at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech with Serial Productions’ Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder:

A third season of ‘Serial’ is now in the works, with a scheduled launch of this fall. Snyder didn’t disclose what it’s about, says there will be an entirely different structure to the story.

“We’re really proud of that, we’re really happy for it,” she said. “But if it weren’t us, it would have been someone else who paved the way of podcasting.”

Cool.

This week in the revolving door:

  • Amanda McCartney joins The New York Times’ advertising team in the newly created role of “Director, Audio & Podcasts,” where she will work to sell the organization’s growing audio advertising inventory and call on direct response podcast agencies. Previously, she was a sales director at the Slate Group, where she worked on podcast sales for Slate and Panoply — before the two divided up their sales structure — as well as branded podcasts.
  • Carrie Lieberman has moved to iHeartMedia to serve as its VP of podcast revenue strategy. Previously, she was First Look Media’s director of content distribution, licensing, and business development. Lieberman served in that role for two years, where her duties included overseeing the company’s podcast portfolio stretching from The Intercept to Topic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic. The view was a little different back in the summer of 2016, when I first started poking around on the podcast scene in the U.K. I wrote a short column on the subject then, finding the ecosystem there to be relatively underdeveloped on the consumption and advertising ends — a condition that, I thought, may have had something to do with the outsized shadow that the BBC casts over all things radio in the region.

I can’t quite tell if much has changed in U.K. podcasting writ large since then, but I can say that a good deal seems to be shifting at the BBC’s podcasting operations. In the past month alone, the BBC appointed its first commissioning editor for podcasts, Jason Phipps, and announced a partnership with Acast to monetize its podcast downloads outside of the U.K. (The latter is largely being read as a move to formalize a new revenue channel for the organization. Note that the BBC is funded in large part by annual licensing fees charged to U.K. citizens, with the rest being spread across public grants and various commercial services, among other things.)

These moves come on top of a new podcast strategy being implemented at the BBC — or, specifically, at the BBC World Service in English. The first indication of this new strategy surfaced during last summer’s RadioDays Europe conference in Copenhagen, when Jon Manel, the World Service’s first podcast editor, announced that the service would no longer use its podcast portfolio as a place for listeners to catch up on unaltered versions of existing radio programs. It was a tantalizing tidbit, but I wasn’t able to connect with Manel at the time to get a full view of what the organization was planning to do.

That changed last week, when we jumped on the phone to talk further about the BBC’s new podcast ambitions. A former investigative journalist who has been with the organization since 1994 — he tells me he was the first British broadcast journalist to report inside Guantanamo Bay — Manel was appointed as the World Service’s first podcast editor in early 2017. In our conversation, he was thoughtful and admirably judicious: There was much he wasn’t able to share at the moment, but he was more than willing to share what he could.

Manel begins with the past. Since 2004, the BBC’s practice has been to repackage all its radio programs into podcast form without any changes or edits to the experience. Some of these repackages, like Radio 4’s In Our Time and The Global News, did quite well (the latter reportedly brought in 11.3 million downloads in March), but most others, not so much. As previously mentioned, that practice has now been ended, and an effort is underway to cull those repackages down to a core group of performers, where they will be refined to work better as podcast experiences. It’s a familiar move, one that echoes a similar historical development at NPR.

But that’s mostly housekeeping. What new programming initiatives will Manel pursue, and what are his guiding principles? “We could just be making loads and loads of new podcasts and just throwing them out there, or we could make a small number and put a lot into that,” he said. “That’s my strategy: a smaller number of really thought-through, targeted podcast series.”

Manel’s efforts should be contextualized as part of a broader goal that’s been set by the BBC World Service: to expand its weekly audience by 10.7 million by 2020. And aside from commissioning podcast-first works that can broadly contribute to that goal, Manel also highlighted a parallel focus on reaching new audiences — or, as he puts it, “those who aren’t served as well by the BBC as we would like.”

That generally means young people and women, but it also means audiences from beyond the U.K.’s physical geography. “For me, the U.K. audience is very important for the World Service. But in terms of my goals, it’s looking beyond these shores and the rest of the world,” Manel said.

To illustrate this, Manel talked about a show his team is producing that’s specifically aimed at 18- to 24-year-old English speakers in India. He wasn’t able to say much about the project just yet, but he did note that it will feature “great stories which really matter to our target audience” and that it will be hosted by a popular Bollywood personality. That podcast is slated to drop sometime in the summer, and they are planning to carry out a marketing campaign that involves staging a number of live events at universities across India. “Podcasting in India exists, but it’s still pretty small,” he said. “You could say that they aren’t being well served by podcasting in general as well, so in a way we’re trying to give podcasting a good push in the region at the same time.”

It’s a shrewd move, and one that notably places direct bets on the strategic advantages podcasting can bring to a global organization like the BBC that linear broadcast channels cannot: namely, an internet-native capacity to be highly specific in identifying, serving, and developing a relationship with an audience without being bound to geographic and linear modes of consumption. A highly targeted initiative like this is made even more valuable by the fact that the BBC isn’t beholden to the same kinds of revenue pressures as for-profit podcast publishers or even American public radio, which relies on listener support funding that mostly comes after the organization has already delivered value. At the BBC, such programming experiments are, in a sense, “prepaid.” India is just the start, Manel tells me. He has some other ideas of things to try along these international lines, but he isn’t privy to share details about that at the moment.

The Indian podcast project strikes me as the most exciting of the BBC’s machinations, but attention should also be paid to the organization’s more conventional podcast efforts. You might’ve spotted Death in Ice Valley bouncing around the Apple Podcast charts recently, which is the BBC’s true crime podcast collaboration with the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. On its face, the show seems like a straightforward programming gambit that leans into a good deal of true crime podcasting’s genre conventions: a culturally-recognized cold case, a sense of participatory discovery, and so on.

But the podcast is also being used as a solid foundation for digital experiments. Manel tells me that Death in Ice Valley is already the BBC’s most successful podcast launch — though, again, he wasn’t able to publicly disclose numbers — but he also notes being impressed with the show’s efforts at creating a Facebook Group-led audience development campaign that loops listener suggestions back in to impact the show. It’s a move that’s been deployed elsewhere in podcast-land, but for a massive public broadcaster like the BBC, it’s a meaningful frontier.

Manel is currently preparing for a new commissioning round, where he will field ideas for the next podcasts to go under the BBC banner. I asked if he was looking for anything specific, or if there was anything in particular a potential proposal writer should be cognizant about. He tells me he has some guidance on what his team is looking for, but hesitates to state anything specific. He did say this, though: “Too often, I think there’s a danger that when there’s a really successful podcast out there, everyone tries to copy that.”

He adds: “When we first sat down with Death in Ice Valley, the team asked us: ‘What podcasts out there do you want us to base it on?’ And I said, ‘None, I want a podcast that isn’t like any other.'”

Some odds and ends:

  • The appointment of Jason Phipps won’t affect Manel’s purview. “He’s handling domestic BBC, I handle World Service in English,” Manel said.
  • As another testament to the BBC’s sprawling and complex organizational structure: Other departments, and other languages, are looking into modeling their own podcast efforts after what’s happening in World Service English. They will move at their own pace.
  • The BBC appears to still be feeling its way through how it’s going to deal with podcast advertising. Even with the Acast deal in place, some shows, like Death in Ice Valley, will not carry advertising, given its status as a co-production with NRK.

Bites:

  • Whipped up a “Best Podcasts of 2018 (So Far)” list last week. (Vulture) But let’s be real: The actual best podcast of the year so far is Wild Wild Country.
  • Macmillan Publishers and Grammar Girl have forged a partnership with Stitcher Premium that will bring the entire Grammar Girl catalog — 600-plus episodes strong — behind the paywall. The podcast will also release bonus episodes exclusive to the platform every month.
  • “Trader Joe’s podcast is weirdly popular on Apple right now.” (Fast Company) As always, Apple chart placement is not a direct indicator of popularity — but that said, the podcast did get enough activity to get up to the upper echelons. This anecdotal case study will likely power the branded podcast economy for several more moon cycles.
  • Bloomberg is launching a new podcast that’ll serve as a six-part in-depth investigation into the gender pay gap. (Trailer)
  • Local podcast watchers: Keep an eye on Best People, a new series about Illinois by a new nonprofit progressive news site called One Illinois. (Apple Podcasts)
  • “Podcast network Radiotopia is expanding its member-paid benefits.” (Digiday)
  • Cadence13 and Nielsen have a new study out on some aspects of the standard podcast listener’s purchase behavior. Probably something you’d want to check out if you sell podcast advertising for a living. (Medium)
  • Revisionist History is back for its third season on May 17. (Twitter)
  • Not directly related, but I found this very interesting: “Pandora Learns the Cost of Ads, and of Subscriptions.” (Wired)

Google wants to do for podcasts on Android what Apple did for podcasts on iOS

GOOGLY EYED. You might have already heard about Google’s new strategy around podcast servicing on Android devices — I briefly linked to it last week after my whole spiel on the Apple HomePod — that the search giant announced through the content marketing blog of Pacific Content, the Canadian branded podcast studio. The announcement was broken out into five parts, and if you haven’t read them already, you absolutely should. You can find the first entry here, and then work outward from there.

But if you need a TLDR: Google’s apparent mission statement is “to help double the amount of podcast listening in the world over the next couple years,” and by that they mean to do to the untapped masses of potential podcast-consuming Android users what Apple did to potential podcast-consuming iOS users back in 2015 when it started distributing the stuff through iTunes. Of course, Google will try to do so via the strength of its specific Googlean skill-sets. (Also worth noting: this is separate and apart from the podcast stuff on Google Play Music, which didn’t really seem like it amounted to much?)

FWIW, my gut reaction to the news is about the same as when I heard about Pandora wanting to “double down on podcasts,” which is “cool, cool, let me know how that goes.” Because, really, I could say something like “man, this is (maybe) totally going to change everything!”, but that wouldn’t be particularly useful, and by all means, whether everything changes or not, it’s still worth adhering to Google’s inclusion guidelines to gain whatever listenership will be driven by this initiative.

Anyway, there are a fair few elements to Google’s podcast strategy, but I’ve come to view its heartbeat according to these building blocks:

(1) Capture. The most immediate development is how Google has already begun listing podcast and audio episodes in search results at a level similar to text, video, and images within the Google app on Android devices. This is being referred to as an effort to make podcasts a “first-class citizen” within Google’s search architecture, and it’s also a move that widely expands Google’s presence as the top-of-the-funnel option for all future podcast/audio discovery pathways among potential casual listeners noodling around on their Android devices.

(2) Contain. But here’s the most notable development, IMHO: Podcast consumption and management can now be handled directly on the Android Google app, through a user experience that’s baked into the app environment itself called “Homebase.” Based on the posts, it’s sort of an app within the app, and the significance here is that listeners can theoretically discover, listen, and subscribe to podcasts within the same app experience.

This would presumably reduce the number of steps that many assume are major pain points preventing adoption. Previously, an Android user bumping into, say, Wooden Overcoats for the first time while tumbling down a search rabbit hole would have to figure out which third-party podcast app to download on the Google Play Store — or head over to Spotify, I guess — learn how to use that product, and then start habituating with said third-party app in order to formalize their relationship with the show. By sliding in as the listening layer itself, Google theoretically collapses the distance between the point of discovery and the point of listening. (Speaking of which: pour one out for third-party podcast apps that primarily made a living serving the previously underserved Android market. Godspeed, fellas.)

Interestingly, some of the write-ups around the announcement seem to possess an expectation that the podcast experience will likely be broken out into its own standalone app at some point in the future. I don’t know about whether that’s actually the case, but…isn’t the point to reduce the number of steps to begin with?

(3) Cover. And then there’s all the stuff about connecting and syncing all these podcast consuming experiences between Google’s Android app and the Google Assistant, the company’s Alexa competitor. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any period of time, you probably know what I’m going to say at this point: I think the potential here should be viewed less as a smart speaker thing and more as a voice-first computing thing, as the Google Assistant is likely going to be spread wide across a wide expanse of interfacing surface areas (cars, smart homes, dog collars, public restrooms, etc.)

I’ll show my bias here and say that the podcasting stuff here is a little less interesting to me than the notion of Google beginning to dabble with realizing a search engine for atomic units of audio experiences on an aurally-represented internet. Sure, we’re talking about podcasts now, but are we really only talking about podcasts with the kind of infrastructure that’s being built here? Come on, are you really going to use all that fire just to heat cans of soup? Get outta here.

A couple of other thoughts specific to podcast stuff:

(1) When I first started outlining this item, I had this whole bit reheating my skepticism about good search functionality being the answer to podcast discovery: I’m just iffy on the notion of a significant discovery pathway into podcasts that runs through subject- or topic-oriented searches.

But then I recalled that search is only part of the picture when it comes to Google these days, which now appears to hang on the twin principles of going “from search to suggest” and being “AI-first” as illustrated in this essay by Andre Saltz, which has been pretty helpful for me to think through these things. I’ve evoked it before in this column.

(2) As a veteran digital media executive recently told me: “There’s one fact of life that has remained constant — that someone is trying to game the system.” That person was talking to me for another story about another situation that I’ll publish next week, but it’s applicable here with whatever the audio SEO framework is going to look like, of course. On a related note, I’m looking forward to “What time is the Super Bowl?”, but for audio.

(3) Related to this idea of “gaming the system” is the heady, navel-gazing, but actually really interesting question of how platforms impact publishers and vice versa. Having a new system from which to extract value always offers new opportunities, but I think it’s an open question whether Google’s moves with search here will actually lead to better outcomes for the existing spread of publishers.

What’s less of an open question is the probability that we’ll see new kinds of publishers playing to the new system that Google’s endeavors here open up. Look, if I were an enterprising young person who wasn’t particularly romantic about the Way Audio Should Be Made, I’d be working hard to game the shit out of the system with new forms of content that’s sticky to its rules. (We already see versions of this enterprising spirit in the Apple Podcast charts with the spread of true crime podcasts.)

(4) Speaking of whether Google’s podcast endeavors will actually lead to better outcomes for existing podcast publishers, I’ve been hearing that the search giant has been in contact with some publishers over the past few months as it builds out its podcast features. Like many other configurations of such interfacing in the past (publishers and Facebook, publishers and Apple News, etc. etc.), I wouldn’t put too much stock in the…proposed symmetry of that relationship.

Alrighty, let’s move along.

Meanwhile, over on iOS. “Apple’s podcasts just topped 50 billion all-time downloads and streams,” reported Fast Company last week, highlighting a milestone for Apple’s long-documented history of intimacy with podcast-land.

In the piece, the benchmark came accompanied by data points that Apple has publicly provided in previous years:

  • In 2014, there were 7 billion podcast downloads.
  • In 2016, that number jumped to 10.5 billion.
  • In 2017, it jumped to 13.7 billion episode downloads and streams, across Podcasts and iTunes.
  • In March 2018, Apple Podcasts passed 50 billion all-time episode downloads and streams.

Note that the numbers for 2014, 2016, and 2017 all refer to downloads and streams that took place in that year, while the March 2018 data point refers to all-time numbers — which is to say, downloads and streams that took place since Apple began serving podcasts in 2005. (A pretty straightforward switch in framing, but one that tripped me up the first time I scanned the article. Which reminds me: I should schedule my annual vision exam soon.)

Strung together, these numbers paint a vivid picture of accelerating podcast activity across Apple platforms. But here’s what I find even more interesting: consider just how much of Apple’s all-time podcast download and streaming activity apparently took place between 2014 and now.

Now, we don’t have 2015 numbers, but let’s assume it’s somewhere in the midpoint between the 7 billion in 2014 and 10.5 billion in 2016: say, a conservative 8.5 billion. What we have, then, is a situation where 39.7 billion (7 + 8.5 + 10.5 + 13.7) out of Apple’s all-time 50 billion podcast downloads and streams took place between January 2014 and March 2018.

Which is to say, from these numbers, it seems that almost 80 percent of all podcast downloads and streams on Apple platforms took place over the past four years.

Let’s hold our horses for a hot second, run that statement back, and think this through. Shouts to RadioPublic’s Jake Shapiro for helping me kick up some much-needed caveats:

  • These numbers should not be taken to suggest that almost 80 percent of all podcast listening on Apple platforms took place over the past four years. As always, keep in mind that a podcast download is no direct indicator of actual listening; after all, an episode can be delivered but not literally consumed.
  • It’s also worth asking, in general, whether we can take Apple’s tracking of all-time podcast downloads and streams to be consistent all the way across time back to 2005 — that is, whether measurement of earlier numbers were processed with the same rigor as measurement of more contemporary numbers — and consider the possibility of earlier activity going untracked. I see no particular reason to suspect inconsistency, but the potential bears keeping in mind nonetheless. One can never be too careful.
  • Also, we don’t have much of a clear picture of actual Apple podcast activity for any of the years before 2014.

Even with these caveats in mind, I’m still comfortable with the original takeaway: that a considerable majority of Apple podcast activity took place over the past four years.

What is the significance of this? For one thing, it further solidifies 2014’s status as the crucial pivot point for the podcast ecosystem, resulting from a combination of Apple bundling the Podcast app into iOS by default and the catalyzing awareness-raising effects of Serial as a cultural phenomenon. For another, it gives us a sense of the pivot point’s scale.

Other than that…I dunno. Purely an academic observation, and it’s one I’m squirreling away if I ever get to write the Big Book on Podcasting.

The BBC partners with Acast for international monetization. The deal, announced Tuesday morning, will see the Swedish podcast technology company take the lead on generating revenue off the downloads that BBC podcasts are currently enjoying outside of the UK.

According to the press release, podcast episodes from the BBC are downloaded over 30 million times a month outside the UK. It’s unclear how much of that is within the United States, where podcast advertising is significantly more mature. The podcast portfolio for the big U.K. public service broadcast includes Radio 4’s In Our Time, repackages of the BBC World Service, The Assassination, and the recently released Death in Ice Valley, a true crime collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

The deal doesn’t cover every BBC podcast, however. A spokesperson told me that it only covers “most” of the organization’s English-language podcasts. Some will be excluded for either rights-related or specific editorial reasons. One example: the historical audio fiction epic Tumanbay. In September 2017, the BBC forged a deal with Panoply to bring Tumanbay to American earballs where the latter also serves as a co-producer of the project. That relationship still stands.

The BBC does not monetize its podcasts within the U.K.

On a related note: just a reminder that the BBC recently tapped Jason Phipps, previously head of audio at The Guardian, to be the organization’s podcast commissioner.

This week in #Brands. Squarespace, the ubiquitous podcast advertiser, is launching an extended campaign with Gimlet in the form of an American Idol/Project Greenlight-esque competition, Casting Call, a national talent-seeking endeavor in which the winner gets their own show on Gimlet. The process will be documented as a podcast (what else?) that will be released in September. Judges include Gimlet’s Nazanin Rafsanjani, the great Aminatou Sow, and Squarespace founder/CEO Anthony Casalena. Submissions are open starting today.

A little hokey, but I’ve always thought there should be more things like Radiotopia’s PodQuest and WNYC’s Podcast Accelerator. In any case, shrewd move from Gimlet to take lessons from those initiatives and build a whole revenue engine around it.

On a related note: Should the day come when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, pray it does not look like a brand.

The latest on WNYC’s inappropriate conduct imbroglio: An investigation by the law firm Proskauer Rose has apparently found “no evidence of systemic discrimination at the organization,” which is…peculiar. Here’s the WNYC News piece on the development, and further observations and analysis can be found in this 22-minute segment on the Brian Lehrer Show. Some of those observations can be found in this Twitter thread by WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz. You can read the actual report here.

WME adds PRX to its podcast client list. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the major talent agency will “work to expand the audio media nonprofit’s business in all areas, including film, television and books.” For the record, WME’s podcast clients include Crooked Media, Panoply Media, Freakonomics Radio’s Stephen Dubner, and Two Up Productions, among others. The agency was also involved in the negotiations around the Dirty John TV adaptations and, given the tentacular fortitude of its clientele reach, will likely continue to be involved in many, many more negotiations to come.

In case you need further context on how a talent agency like WME views the podcast space as a potential pool of assets, let me refer you back to my June 2017 interview with Ben Davis, an agent with the digital department at WME. A pertinent excerpt:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: Where do you think this relationship between talent agencies and the podcast industry is going?[/conl]

[conr]Ben Davis: I think talent agencies will play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem by:

  • Helping podcast creators cross IP over into other media (whether that is audiovisual, live or written).
  • Pairing creators with the right distribution partners, and negotiating the terms of the relationship.
  • Packaging creative elements (i.e. talent and writer) to create turnkey audio productions for distributors.

The space is changing so quickly, though, and my answer would have been different 6 months ago. So really, who knows?[/conr]

[storybreak]

Who knows, indeed. As a reminder, PRX is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that runs the indie podcast collective Radiotopia and provides various podcast support services to teams like The Moth and Night Vale Presents.

Bites

  • The New York Times is reportedly considering adapting The Daily and the Modern Love column for television. At the NewFronts presentation yesterday, COO Meredith Kopit Levien said “The Daily has more listeners than the weekday newspaper has ever had.” You sell those ads, people! (AdWeek)
  • ICYMI: Freakonomics Radio moves from WNYC Studios to Stitcher. (Press release)
  • Slate’s podcast project with its fantastic TV critic Willa Paskin, called Decoder Ring, is now live. (Slate)
  • Also live now: TED en Español. (Apple Podcasts)
  • The wave of Westworld podcasts is now back upon us. Let it consume you.
  • Heads up, antipodal Hot Pod readers: The third Audiocraft Podcast Festival will take place in Sydney in early June. (Media release)
  • Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine, not content with adapting a true crime podcast-centric novel for television, has launched an original podcast of its own, which is not a true crime podcast. (EW)

How do HomePod’s meh sales affect Apple’s place in the podcast ecosystem?

ATLANTA MONSTER NUMBERS. Despite how you may feel about the true-crime podcast collaboration between HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot — and from what I’ve been seeing, there are abundant feelings flying in all directions — the podcast is putting up considerable numbers for a limited-run series, according to data given to Fast Company.

At this point in time, we’re chiefly concerned about numbers. The article reports that “from January 5 to April 4, Atlanta Monster’s 12 episodes reached over 20 million downloads total (source: Podtrac).” Two points of context:

  • The download data window — from January 5 to April 4 — spans across the entire active run of the ten-part podcast. The podcast, which released episodes weekly, debuted on January 5 and dropped its final installment on March 23.
  • To break the data down into a baseline stat: across its active run, the podcast garnered slightly over half a million downloads per episode per month.

Over Twitter, Jason Hoch, head of new initiatives at HowStuffWorks, tells me that “a new episode would typically hit a half million downloads on its first or second day.” He also challenged the baseline stat, arguing that the podcast should be more appropriately viewed that as driving over 1 million downloads per episode in the first full month of that episode being available.

So do these numbers constitute a “runaway smash hit,” as Fast Company puts it? I generally try to hedge on hyperbole, and let’s remember that it’s hard to make concrete statements or comfortable apples-to-apples comparisons when assessing a show’s performance numbers.

But I will say that we have a decent prior, if we were so moved to attempt a comparison: the Los Angeles Times and Wondery’s true-crime bonanza Dirty John, which reportedly pulled in more than 7 million downloads in its first month, according to CJR. That podcast opted for a more aggressive rollout strategy, scattering its six-episode arc near daily across the span of a week, which means that across its active run and subsequent first month, Dirty John garnered slightly over a million downloads per episode per month.

Now, is this an appropriate way to compare two podcasts that operate within the same genre and are structured similarly? I’d say it’s the best we can do under the current limitations of podcast measurement and the lack of publicly available data for aspiring industry analysts. In any case, it’s yet another reflection of the convoluted hoops we need to jump through if any of us — producers, ad buyers, analysts, critics, so on — endeavor to get a clear sense on sizing for the purposes of strategy or further study.

Speaking of Wondery: The venture-backed Los Angeles podcast company recently struck up a number of partnerships to monetize the downloads it gets outside of the United States: DAX (Digital Audio Exchange) in the United Kingdom, Whooshka in Australia, and TPX in Canada. Here’s the press release.

For those unfamiliar: Most U.S. advertisers aren’t particularly interested in reaching audiences in, say, Japan. So you can make more money if you can find Japanese advertisers who are. After all, if this newsletter had a classified listing for a product that can only be shipped to American readers, there’s only so much the manufacturer can gain from having the ad spotted by an Australian Hot Pod reader (of which there are quite a few). It’s the little things that make a business, y’know?

Anyway, something else to note about Wondery: The company has launched paid premium listening program, Wondery+, where subscribers pay $7 a month for an ad-free listening experience and additional material. It’s less like Gimlet’s membership program, and more like PodcastOne’s premium tier.

Between the overseas monetization push and the new paid program, it seems like Wondery is making a hard run at expanding their revenue channels.

Homo podonomicus. This is one of those moments where I cosplay as an Edison Research blog. Last week saw the release of The Podcast Consumer 2018, the breakout report that Edison Research usually produces as a followup to its annual Infinite Dial study. As always, I encourage you to check out the report and watch the webinar in full, but here are three themes that most stood out to me:

(1) The deep gets deeper. An observation that’s long been made about podcasting is that people who like podcasts tend to really, really like podcasts. (Wistfully thumbs through my hundreds of podcast subscriptions, gazes at the tumbleweeds of decrepit earphones around me.) That seems to only be more true with the passing of time.

To wit:

  • Among weekly podcast consumers — the particularly engaged subset of listeners — the mean listening time is now 6 hours and 37 minutes, up from 5 hours, 7 minutes last year. In the webinar, Edison SVP Tom Webster suggested that this might have something to do with the rise of the daily podcast genre, which we can perhaps more broadly read as what happens when the supply-side delivers new innovative programming formats that helps broaden (and deepen) consumption behaviors. It’s an intriguing idea, but I suspect that I might have to do little more work on this hypothesis in the future.
  • A related stat that was previously mentioned but bears repeating: Among weekly podcast consumers, the average number of podcasts consumed per week is now 7, up from 5 last year.

(2) The pipeline. This slides tells a few stories:

Most importantly, it can be read as an illustration of the medium’s ability to attract, convert, and retain new listeners over time — particularly on its right side, which tells a story of the medium being moderately successful at converting new listeners into engaged weekly podcast consumers.

(3) A zero-sum game? Perhaps the most interesting idea raised in the webinar is the notion that podcasting may well be locked into a zero-sum competition with other audio sources for new listeners. This is premised on the fact that, based on Edison Research’s “Share of Ear” research, people spend an average of 4 hours every day listening to audio in general — a number that has stayed flat for several years now.

Which is to say: if we assume that the overall number of hours consumers will spend listening to audio will continue to stay the same, then podcasting, in its pursuit to grow, will have to convince these consumers to give up some of the time they’ve previously spent listening to say, terrestrial or internet radio.

And there is evidence that podcasting has been able to effectively take food off the plates of its peers: Edison Research has found that the medium has doubled its share of the average American listener’s audio diet over the past four years. This aggressive picture of expansion is further bolstered by what we know of the consumption veracity of those who become active podcast consumers. Edison Research has another stat backing this up: Among active podcast listeners, podcasting now makes up the majority of audio consumed on their smartphones (52 percent).

Of course, this configuration of a zero-sum competition may be rendered inapplicable if listeners were somehow convinced to increase their overall audio consumption hours. (I’m vaguely reminded of the slightly ridiculous but actually not-so-hyperbolic declaration by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings that the video streaming service’s true competition is sleep.) The obvious suspect to potentially lead such a structural change: the rise of the smart speaker, which is actually the rise of voice-first computing.

Twin arcs. Before I launch into my whole thing about smart speakers this week, let me single out these three data points from the Podcast Consumer 2018 report:

  • Over the years, the preferred listening method among monthly podcast consumers has shifted from the desktop to the mobile device. In 2018, 76 percent of monthly podcast consumers list smartphones as the device used most often for listening. which is up from 42 percent in 2013.
  • Active podcast consumers are more likely to own smart speakers than the general American population, and this trend has only grown over time. In 2017, 11 percent of monthly podcast consumers report being smart speaker owners, against 7 percent of the general population. In 2018, 30 percent of monthly podcast listeners own smart speakers, against 18 percent of the general population.
  • Intriguingly, among podcast listeners who own a smart speaker, only 25 percent of them use the device to listen to podcasts. In the webinar, Edison SVP Tom Webster delivered a succinct summary of why this may be a little disconcerting: “They have this device that we know increases overall audio consumption, but increasing the consumption of podcasts is a bit of an open question.”

So, to pull all of this together, we have a situation in which:

  • the current arc of podcast consumption seems distinctly tethered to the smartphone, and
  • we face a potential arc where podcast consumption and smart-speaker adoption never actually reconcile.

With these points, let’s raise the line of inquiry: What will be the thing that reconciles podcast consumption with smart speaker adoption? Is there any guarantee that such reconciliation will happen? And what does it mean if there isn’t?

I’m still processing, so I don’t have a clear grasp on a position just yet. But I am thinking about the HomePod.

The new new thing. I missed this development last week, but it’s a noteworthy one: Apple has reportedly lowered sales forecasts and manufacturing orders for the HomePod following what appears to be a slowdown in sales, according to a Bloomberg report.

The HomePod was supposed to be Apple’s triumphant entry into the rapidly expanding and increasingly competitive smart-speaker market, which is currently led in the United States by the Amazon Echo and, to a smaller extent, the Google Home. But it had to deal with playing intense catchup after officially rolling out in February (following delays). Meanwhile, Amazon’s Echo line has been out since November 2014, while the Google Home has been sold since October 2016. Apple ultimately opted for a strategy built around a significantly higher-end (and consequently pricier) product that emphasizes superior sound quality — in many ways a choice that’s consistent with the storied technology company’s approach in the past.

The state and future viability of the HomePod is a subject for the Apple-blog set, and I’ll leave the matter to them. But the HomePod’s fate is significant to our interests, given Apple’s vaunted position in the podcast publishing community. After all, one could argue, as I have, that the story of podcasting’s growth over the past decade is largely the story of specific choices made by Apple, from its inclusion of the format into the iTunes ecosystem to its default bundling of a dedicated podcast app with iOS. Furthermore, Apple continues to be a strong influence over industry fortunes and appearances, primarily through the curatorial power it expresses through the Apple Podcasts homepage as well as the extensively scrutinized (and often inadequately understood) charts system. (Remember: it’s a hotness meter, not a bigness meter.) All of which reflects just how much mainstream podcast consumption is still currently facilitated through Apple products in general — and Apple smartphones in specific.

We are fleshy human beings who need physical devices to consume media (for now, anyway), and it’s not necessarily a given that the smartphone will continue to persist in its current state of primary. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, but my personal suspicion is that a good chunk of the future of media consumption in general — pardon the overused concept construction — will involve smart speakers, and what smart speakers portend: voice-first computing, now masquerading around with the more innocuous label of “voice assistants.”

This is, I think, low-key the most interesting story to track in podcasting. If Apple has long been the structural proponent of podcasting’s history, and smart speakers are likely the structural facilitator of audio publishing’s future, what does it mean for podcast/audio publishers when Apple seems shaky in figuring out its place in the smart speaker future?

Further reading. This is the point where I customarily plug my previous columns on smart speakers and podcasting here, here, and here. And I quite liked this piece from Christina Bonnington, writing for Slate:

What happens next is up to Apple. It can open up HomePod to integration with third-party streaming music players — and improve Siri integration with those services — or it can keep the HomePod tightly locked into the iTunes and Apple Music ecosystem. While the iPod saw tremendous popularity in its heyday, it was a different time with far fewer players in the digital music space. Apple can’t ignore apps like Spotify and hope that its speaker will see the same level of success as its cheaper, more fully featured competitors. The HomePod needs to embrace today’s leading audio services rather than shut them out, or it’ll never grow beyond a niche product.

Related reading: Google product manager Zack Reneau-Wedeen talked to the Canadian branded-podcast studio Pacific Content’s content marketing blog about their efforts towards cultivating greater podcast listening within the Google ecosystem, which includes: a native listening experience within the Google Search app (something that’s been spotted since mid-March), meaningful integration with Google Assistant, and a goal of “getting to the point where twice as many people are listening to podcasts,” most of whome “are not going to be people who listen already today.”

This week, elsewhere. Over at Vulture, I reviewed Gimlet’s latest audio drama, Sandra. As a standalone experience, I thought it was interesting enough, but deeply incomplete. As an artifact of a much wider story about the life and times of the podcast industry, it’s wild!

I also wrote a behind-the-scenes look at The New York Times’ first serialized narrative podcast, Caliphate — which is absolutely amazing, by the way. Two quick things: (1) the series has a really strong opening, and it’s a little surprising how uncommon that is; and (2) it’s funny how the non-narrated format in nonfiction podcasts — that is, one where the entire experience is diegetic, contrasting the conventional structure where the host or storyteller speaking directly to the listener — remains relatively uncommon.

Introducing: Ask A Podcast Lawyer. I’ve been thinking about doing this one for a while now. As the podcast community continues to industrialize, I’ve been getting more reader questions that go beyond my technical expertise but are nonetheless important to tackle in some way or another.

So I figured, why not phone-a-technical-expert? Let me introduce you to Lindsay W. Bowen, a partner with Cowan, DeBates, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP (CDAS), who works on the firm’s podcasting group representing podcasters, networks, production companies, and advertisers in everything from acquisition and production legal to book and TV sales. Bowen was kind enough to agree to participate in this hare-brained idea.

Without further ado, here’s the first Ask a Podcast Lawyer question, which comes from an inquiry sent sometime last week:

Let’s say you’re a small podcast that has an advertising contract with a moderately big podcast network. You’re still in the middle of the contract, but the network has stopped paying you on time. Maybe the network hasn’t been paying you at all. What are your legal options?”

– Ernie Ford from Tennessee (not their real name, not their real state)

I’ll let Lindsay take it from here:

DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice, and there is no attorney-client relationship between Hot Pod readers and CDAS or any of its lawyers. Any individual matter depends on its unique set of facts and you should consult an attorney about yours. Also, the links are for illustration only, and we don’t endorse the sites or their content. Finally, this is written in an attempt to honor the house style of Hot Pod, which has got a little kick to its voice. Don’t judge me — I’m usually appropriately boring.

Dear Ernie,

TL;DR — Look at your contract and read the termination provision carefully. Also, look for an audit clause.

Sorry to hear you’re not being paid properly for loading your 16 tons. I’m sure you’ve written the network about this. If you haven’t — you should probably do it soon. You need to establish a written record now (and maybe there has been some dumb mistake or problem with the accounting people ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). If you can afford a little lawyer time, it’s best to get her input first, so you don’t write anything now that hurts your position later. And if you don’t get a response, she can follow up and ratchet up the pressure.

Because you’re a small podcast, there’s probably not enough money at issue to make litigation worth it. But look at the monetary requirements for small-claims court in the applicable state. It may still not be worth your time, but winning feels good.

The most cost-effective outcome might be finding another network. There are a lot of good guys in podcasting. But your contract’s termination provision might have restrictions that say under what circumstances you can and cannot end the relationship. Check to make you are not buying yourself a problem by trying to walk away when you don’t have the right. That being said, not getting paid at all will usually be a material breach that will allow you to “fire” the network.

PRO TIP: Many royalty or revenue share-based entertainment contracts have an audit provision that gives the artist/rightsholder/David Lee Roth the right, usually once a year, to hire an accountant to go to the company’s physical location and examine the books. Look for a fee-shifting clause — commonly, if there has been an underpayment of 5% or more, the company will have to pay your accountant. Everyone should negotiate to try for an audit provision with a such a clause. That way, even where the threat of litigation might be a bit of an unloaded gun, the prospect of an accountant nosing around — potentially on the company’s dime — will get that follow-up letter read by the right people and get you paid.

Cheers,

Lindsay

Bites:

  • Youth Radio, the award-winning Bay Area nonprofit that primarily works with young people from underprivileged communities, is developing a new magazine-style podcast that will both target and be produced by folks in their late teens/early twenties…and they’re looking a co-host. (Website)
  • “David Chang Partners With Bill Simmons for Ringer Podcast.” (Variety) Hit me with that Ugly Delicious action.
  • Detour, Andrew Mason’s augmented reality walking tour app, has sold its technology and content to Bose. According to a note the company sent out last night, the service will shut down after May 31 while Bose pursues new partners to host the Detour tours as part of its upcoming augmented reality platform.
  • “The next Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook will go to podcasters first, and you can listen in.” (Polygon) Really smart bit of community engagement — and targeted marketing!
  • Sarah Larson’s latest: “‘Trump, Inc.’: A True-Crime Podcast About The President’s Business Dealings.” (The New Yorker)
  • “Can a Woman’s Voice Ever Be Right?: From the Roman Forum to the 2016 campaign trail, anxiety over what women sound like is part of our cultural DNA.” (Jordan Kisner, writing for The Cut)
  • R.I.P., Carl Kasell. (NPR)

Phew, we’ve apparently solved 97% of the podcast measurement problem — everybody relax

MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?

“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.

Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):

In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.

Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.

The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.

That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.

Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.

Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.

Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.

Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.

The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?

The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.

Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:

We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.

Grab your space suits, fellas.

The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)

In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)

Public radio genes run deep.

Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.

Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.

It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)

In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”

When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:

Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.

In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.

While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.

A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”

I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.

Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.

The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)

Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.

When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.

I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]

[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.

On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.

Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)

Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.

Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.

I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.

But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”

This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.

Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.

The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.

I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.

One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.

I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.

Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.

On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.

Bites:

  • This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
  • WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
  • “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
  • American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
  • I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
  • Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
  • On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
  • “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

True podcast love, in all of us command: This is how Canada listens to podcasts

INFINITE DIAL CANADA. The Great North gets its own report from Edison Research and Triton Digital for the first time, and it’s long overdue. You can read the whole thing here, but I’m going to break out the most interesting data points with some comparisons to the U.S.:

Podcasting:

  • The share of Canadians that listened to podcasts within the last month — the key track I follow — is 28 percent, which is three percentage points higher than the U.S. Keep in mind of the absolutes: Canada’s population is a fraction of the United States’.
  • However, familiarity with the term “podcasting” is slightly lower: 61 percent of Canadians, three percentage points lower than the U.S.
  • For weekly Canadian podcast listeners, the average number of podcasts consumed per week is five. In the U.S., it’s seven.

Smart speakers:

  • Smart speaker ownership in Canada (8 percent) is less than half of that in the U.S. (17 percent).
  • This stands out to me: Canadian awareness of the Google Home (55 percent) is considerably higher than that of Amazon Alexa (46 percent). Among Americans, awareness of the Amazon Alexa is a whopping 70 percent over Google Home’s 56 percent.
  • This likely has to do with Google Home having a few months worth of a headstart over the Amazon Echo in Canada. Here are the ownership breakdowns: Among Canadians who own a smart speaker, 63 percent own Google Home but not Amazon Alexa, while 30 percent own an Alexa but not a Google Home. A meager 7 percent own both.

Audio brands:

This section is chock full of revealing little insights. Most notably:

  • Given that Pandora is not available in Canada, Spotify leads in most usage (26 percent) and awareness (64 percent). But it’s also remarkable to see just how much Apple Music gains in the Pandora vacuum: most used by 16 percent of Canadians versus 10 percent of Americans.
  • In the absence of Pandora, Stingray is ascendant, a testament to Canadian industry. (Most used audio brand among 14 percent of Canadians.)
  • iHeartRadio’s Canadian footprint isn’t nearly as strong as in the States. Awareness among Canadians is a mere 43 percent, down over 20 percentage points from its awareness level among Americans. Only 3 percent of Canadians listened through iHeartRadio in the past month, while the share of Americans is 11 percent.

One more thing: Note the relative absence of Amazon Music as a prominent audio brand in Canada (42 percent awareness, lumped in with “Others” in the most used audio brand survey), and, conversely, the relative strength of Google Play Music in the country (58 percent awareness, most used audio brand among 14 percent of Canadians).

I’d argue this is directly related to the shape of smart-speaker ownership in the country — where Google Homes are more dominant than Amazon Echos — and a further expression of how smart-speaker adoption drives listening behaviors towards the platforms that are bundled with them by default. To repeat my conclusion from the last time I wrote about this: “That’s the upside to the fight to figure out the ecosystem: to reap the benefits of becoming the default presence, brand, or experience on this rapidly-growing device category.”

Original-recipe radio:

From my writeup on the recent American Infinite Dial report: “The share of Americans aged 18-34 who don’t own a radio receiver in the home is now 50 percent. A decade ago, in 2008, that share was six percent.”

The situation is about the same in Canada. For Canadians in that age group, the share is 51 percent.

“Pandora CEO is doubling down on podcasts,” writes Yahoo Finance’s JP Mangalindan. The article contains the second public mention of Pandora CEO Roger Lynch’s intent to build the “Podcast Genome Project,” the on-demand audio equivalent of the personalization engine that it has built for music consumption. The first was this Variety article, published back in January.

From Mangalindan’s piece:

If Pandora pulls off its podcast ambitions, it would be a significant step for improving how people discover podcasts and how advertisers target a newer demographic via streamed content. As it currently stands, competitors like Apple Music and Spotify offer podcast charts to scroll through, but they’re not personalized to a person’s tastes.

“There’s nothing personal with that stuff,” Lynch explains. “It’s just what everybody else does. That’s what music was. You know to look at the Billboard chart. OK, what’s popular? And then Pandora came out and said we need discovery. That hasn’t happened yet in podcasts, but we’re going to make that happen.”

Yeah, okay. Let’s see what happens.

Reeling in. The New York Times announced last week that it is bringing Still Processing in-house. The conversational podcast hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris was previously produced by Pineapple Street Media, who delivered over 60 episodes across the last year and a half.

Still Processing will now be handled by Neena Pathak, who joins the Times from BuzzFeed. Pathak started work yesterday.

It’s worth noting that the Times still has two podcasts that aren’t produced in-house: Modern Love and Dear Sugars, both co-productions with the Boston public radio station WBUR.

The announcement also listed two other new hires: Jessica Cheung, who joins from NPR as an associate producer for The Daily, and Stella Tan, who started yesterday as a news assistant embedded in the audio team.

Another post-Feral Audio switch out: Doughboys, a former Feral Audio podcast, has joined the Headgum network instead of transitioning over to Starburns Audio. In case you haven’t been following this thread, here’s the background.

A curious development at Patreon. The membership platform company announced last week that it has added Goli Sheikholeslami, CEO of Chicago Public Media, to its board of directors. “At WBEZ, Goli has grown their membership over 30% during her tenure at the company,” Patreon CEO Jack Conte wrote in the post announcing the move. “I’m psyched to continue learning from her experience running media companies and building successful membership programs.”

Patreon primarily targets creators looking to develop direct relationships with their audiences and is a prominent option among independent podcasters looking to build out membership support structures within their business models. Notable users include Chapo Trap House, which pulls in over $97,000 a month through the platform; Last Podcast on the Left, almost $35,000 a month; and Jesse Brown’s Canadaland, over $20,000 a month.

The company isn’t without its operational controversies. In December, Patreon implemented a new payment model that some creators argued penalized smaller donations in favor of bigger ones. The change was later walked back.

Going for that Players’ Tribune money. There’s an interesting trend of podcast networks partnering up with professional athletes — ones who are still on active rosters and not, like, retired folks on the media circuit — which, on the one hand, is pretty attention-grabby, and on the other, kinda seems like a tricky media product to put together? It’s a rare media-savvy athlete that’s able to cross over from knowing how to play the media towards knowing how to play media.

Anyway, three examples of note in recent months:

Meanwhile, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant posted his fifth appearance on the Bill Simmons podcast a few weeks ago, and I gotta say: Semi-adversarial compositions make for good content, fellas.

This week in political podcasting. I completely missed both these cycles when they were happening, but in case it’s relevant to your interests:

  • There was an extended, public, podcast-centered beef between Vox’s Ezra Klein and Sam Harris, the famed atheist public intellectual and host of the Waking Up podcast. There’s a lot going on here, and if you’re interested, go here and here. But suffice it to say, political blog jousting has firmly migrated into podcasting…
  • …which was an idea that appeared in something the conservative columnist Matt Lewis wrote last week on the Kevin Williamson–Atlantic controversy, which apparently hit its climax via a podcast-related discovery.

Blog culture follows where the bloggers go, and the bloggers are here in podcast-land. And/or large media companies. People move, y’know?

Global. “In a world where about 6 billion people don’t speak English, we don’t want to treat language as a barrier for the stories our clients want to tell,” Martina Castro tells me. “Especially considering that podcasting is inherently a global and (mostly) free medium.”

Castro is the CEO of Adonde Media, a young globally-oriented podcast company that works with clients — which includes brands, traditional media companies, and eventually, she hopes, other podcast networks — to create audio shows that match with the language of their audiences. One of the original co-founders of Radio Ambulante, Castro started the company last year through Startup Chile, a seed accelerator created by the Chilean government housed in Santiago.

The way she tells it, Adonde Media comes out of her experiences getting to know the podcast community in Latin America since she moved to the region in 2015 after spending over a decade in American public radio. “It reminded me of what it was like for producers back in the U.S. before the Serial boom, or what it was like in the early years of Radio Ambulante, when we couldn’t yet prove there was a demand for what we wanted to create,” she said. “We saw then what is still true about the Spanish-speaking world — we not only want to hear more diverse and complex stories about ourselves, but we are also hungry to tell those stories.”

Her original pitch for Adonde Media was a company that focused on “bilingual” podcasts. The company’s first major client was Duolingo, the language-learning platform, which approached Castro just as she was starting her time at Startup Chile last year.

“They were looking for help in creating a podcast that would help their intermediate level Spanish-learners continue improving their comprehension skills and vocabulary,” Castro said. “The goal — as is with all of Duolingo’s products — was to make something entertaining that would make you almost forget you were learning.”

The end result was the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, a show built around personal essays that were delivered in Spanish but peppered with injections of English-language context. When asked, Duolingo reps declined to provide download numbers, but they replied: “We’ve been really happy with the performance of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast…we were thrilled to see it hit No. 1 overall and it remains in the Top 5 in the education category. More importantly, we’re getting great feedback from Duolingo users and podcast listeners.”

The reps added: “I’d say our first foray into podcasting has surpassed our expectations and we’re actively working on pre-production for season 2 now.”

With a successful project under its belt, Adonde Media had itself a solid start, but Castro eventually felt the need to re-articulate its value proposition. “We started out describing ourselves as a bilingual podcast production company, but I learned that this was a bit confusing to people. Some told me they weren’t sure if we were exclusively working on projects that involved two languages, or if I was translating podcasts,” she said. The solution involved a shift towards an idea of a “global” podcast — which, in turn, evokes a broader, more intriguing concept of a global podcast market.

With that reframing in mind, Castro tells me that her team, now 12 strong, has a couple of projects cooking in the oven. Most notably, the company is working with TED on their upcoming Spanish-language expansion podcast, TED en Español, which is set to launch in collaboration with Univision on April 26. They’re also working on a French pilot as well as their first original podcast.

“I can’t say much about those projects right now, but the goal is to launch the original podcast in the Fall,” Castro added.

On the challenges of developing non-English podcasts. Given the centrality of that question to Castro’s work with Adonde Media, I posed it to her in our email exchanges. And much like last week’s mini-profile on Lauren Shippen, Castro’s reply was lengthy and comprehensive, so I’m going to crib the same move and run the whole thing.

Here we go:

I am going to focus on Spanish-language, because that’s the sector I’m most familiar with at this point, but I think in all cases I’d say you need to start with creating amazing content. I see two problems: One, there aren’t enough high-quality podcasts to start. Second, for the ones that are pretty good, there’s no marketing or promotion so listeners can find them. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem: you need to create high-quality podcasts and give them a proper marketing budget for people to want to listen, but enough people need to listen before companies will invest the money necessary in making high-quality podcasts. But let’s back up even further — the word “podcast” is still not even understood in most parts of Latin America! This is a place where Apple has way less reach, so the term “pod” is just lost on them (I have landed on describing it as the Netflix of audio).

But there are promising signs. In just the last three years we have seen a lot more interest in podcasts from the Spanish-speaking world. BBVA, one of the largest banks in Spain, recently launched not one podcast, but a whole channel. Companies such as Claro and Telefónica are starting to sponsored podcasts in Argentina, and the launch of Slate’s gabfest in Español and of Spotify’s Viva Latino show that big players are interested in investing in podcasts in Spanish. There are also already branded podcasts in Spanish, notably No Ficción from Penguin Random House Books.

Also, the content is getting GOOD. In Chile, I’m a fan of Las Raras and Relato Nacional, both narrative journalism podcasts. Posta.fm and Lunfa in Argentina are rather well-established podcast networks, not to mention Podium in Spain which produces the hit podcast El Gran Apagón, a sci-fi fiction podcast that had 150,000 listens in its first month when it launched in 2016.

But I won’t lie, non-English podcasts still have a long way to go. Few of the producers I’ve met are making a living off of their podcast. And in terms of listeners, anecdotally, I can tell you that most podcast listeners whom I’ve met in Chile and Uruguay listen to podcasts in English. This was supported by the first collaborative audience survey of Spanish-language listeners that we conducted via Podcaster@s last year (EncuestaPod 2017) where we learned 47% of those surveyed listen to podcasts in English.

The best recipe for combating the chicken and egg problem is — and I’ll hit you with another cliché — a perfect storm of things coming together. We need a combination of growth in smartphone use (at 56%, Chile is leading the way for Latin America), cheaper streaming, better financed production of high-quality content, and big enough players entering the game to inject the necessary marketing dollars necessary to bring the term “podcast” into the Spanish lexicon. I actually don’t think we are too far from that.

Bites:

  • NPR creates two digital leadership roles, Current reports. The first is Kerry Lenahan, who joins as VP of product, and the second is Joel Sucherman, who is promoted to VP of new platform partnerships. (Current)
  • Staying in public radio, Seattle member station KUOW is reorganizing its drive-time staffing — which includes eliminating seven positions — to switch up the way it’s serving the time slot. There’s a lot going on in this report, including an internal memo stating that “NPR’s research has shown people are no longer relying on ‘Morning Edition’ for their first news in the morning” and pushback from NPR to that memo. (Current)
  • Fresh off the heels of launching its first audio drama, Marvel is reviving two of its old insider podcasts — This Week in Marvel and Women of Marvel — and rolling out a new one: Marvel’s Voices. (Newsarama)
  • On the adaptation beat: “Come Sunday,” a film adaptation of the 2005 This American Life episode “Heretic,” is hitting Netflix this Friday. The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen, Condola Rashad, and Lakeith Stanfield.
  • Smart-speaker watchers: Slate tech writer Will Oremus interviewed Al Lindsay, VP of Alexa Engine Software at Amazon, for his podcast recently. Lots of intriguing stuff in there. (Slate)
  • “Spotify’s first hardware device might be this music player for your car.” (The Verge) Apparently, the company has some sort of announcement event scheduled for April 24?
  • PRX’s Podcast Garage is working on crowdsourcing a list of Boston podcasts to promote local shows and introduce Boston listeners to new content. They’re calling it the Neighborhood Podcast List. Cool! (Podcast Garage)
  • “Podcasting’s New World: Groupies, Stage Fright and Sold-Out Shows.” (The Wall Street Journal)

[photocredit]Photo illustration of Pierre Eliot Trudeau wearing AirPods based on photo by Sherwood411 used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

NPR brags about its ratings (and its podcast-to-broadcast crossovers)

WONDERY RAISES $5 MILLION IN SERIES A. The round was led by Greycroft, Lerer Hippeau Ventures and Advancit Capital, with the participation of BAM Ventures, Watertower Ventures, BDMI, and Fox Networks Group. It’s worth a reminder that Hernan Lopez, Wondery’s CEO, is the former head of Fox International Channels, and Fox invested in the initial rollout of the company.

The Hollywood Reporter was given the exclusive. Note the following line: “Los Angeles-based Wondery has focused on building a pipeline of projects that can be adapted into film and television projects. It has optioned four of its series, including Sword and Scale and Tides of History, which are both set at Propagate Content.”

This makes explicit what has long been assumed about Wondery, and it is consistent with what appears to be an emerging content strategy for the company: rolling out anthology podcasts with broad themes (Business Wars, American History Tellers) that’s able to flexibly accommodate numerous stories to be tested for adaptation.

With this, Wondery joins Gimlet as two venture-backed content-first podcast companies whose growth propositions — at least, as articulated in their respective Series A fundraising rounds — are premised to some considerable degree on building dependable adaptation pipelines.

Does this suggest an environment in which intellectual property-development is a necessary key when it comes to unlocking further venture capital funding for production-oriented podcast companies? We’ll see.

On a related note: Lerer Hippeau and Advancit Capital also participated in the Series A funding round of Crypt TV, a digital network focused on developing horror and genre content. The Hollywood Reporter’s writeup notes that the company is looking at ways to brings its intellectual property to new formats, including podcasts.

Executive shuffle at Gimlet. For those keeping tabs:

  • Caitlin Kenney is Gimlet’s new vice president of programming, shifting away from her previous role as vice president of new show development. Kenney was one of Gimlet’s earliest hires, joining the company in April 2015. She was also an OG Planet Money producer during the early Alex Blumberg-Adam Davidson era.
  • Nazanin Rafsanjani is shifting away from her role as Creative Director at Gimlet Creative, the company’s branded content division, to take Kenney’s place as vice president of new show development. She begins the new role in two weeks.
  • Annie-Rose Strasser joins Rafsanjani’s team as the new director of partnerships, acquisitions, and internal development. She was previously an editor in the company.
  • The company will soon begin searching for a new creative director for Gimlet Creative. For now, Nicole Wong, a senior producer on the team, will serve as interim director.

These personnel shifts come as Gimlet rethinks its approach to new program development. An all-staff email circulated earlier this year emphasized a focus on “Fiction; Collaborations; and New Formats, like Chompers for Alexa.”

The company’s spring slate is due to be announced soon.

Night Vale Presents adds another show to its roster: Drew Ackerman’s Sleep with Me, the super-great, super-weird podcast designed to help lull listeners to sleep with surreal, semi-stream-of-consciousness stories. Sleep with Me was previously on Feral Audio before the network abruptly ceased operations in December following abuse claims levied at its founder, Dustin Marshall. Several podcasts from the network have since migrated over to Starburns Audio, which was formed by Feral Audio CEO Jason Smith in the wake of the controversy, but it appears here that Ackerman has chosen to do otherwise.

It’s a good fit. Night Vale Presents is doubling down on its eccentricities, and Sleep with Me most definitely falls well within that style. Groovy.

Pod-to-broad updates.

(1) Conservative enfant terrible Ben Shapiro is taking his podcast act to the established right-talk talk radio universe, where it will be repackaged into an hour-long format for the 5 p.m. slot in seven markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, and Atlanta. Westwood One is syndicating the program and announced that advertising time has been sold out. Broadcast began yesterday. Politico has the writeup.

According to Westwood One, the podcast version of The Ben Shapiro Show apparently brings in 15 million downloads per month. It publishes every weekday. For the record, Westwood One hosts their shows with Omny Studio, the Australian podcast platform company, which purports to conform to the IAB’s newest standards.

(2) The New York Times and American Public Media’s repackaging of The Daily for broadcast radio kicked off its run yesterday. Sixteen public radio stations have committed to the program, which will air after 4 p.m. ET.

Stations include KPCC in Los Angeles; WOSU in Columbus; KALW in San Francisco; KOPB in Portland, Ore.; KUOW in Seattle; and KOSU in Oklahoma City (Thunder up) — some of which, one might argue, are markets where The Daily’s reach as a podcast aren’t as strong.

You can find the full list in this press release.

(3) Last week, NPR released its latest ratings update, declaring that the organization has “maintained its highest ratings ever” — seemingly preserving the audience gains enjoyed during the particularly ear-grabbing 2016 presidential election.

In the press release touting the achievement, the public radio mothership also singled out its efforts in building podcast-to-broadcast crossovers. “Shows like Ask Me Another, TED Radio Hour, Invisibilia, and It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders were conceived as both podcasts and broadcast programs from the start,” the release wrote. That Invisibilia is mentioned here as being created with an eye towards broadcast from the start is…new to me. (Update: I was later told that this had been the plan all along, as evidenced in this press release from December 2014.)

Anyway, I dug around, and it seems NPR has only put out four press releases for ratings. Thought it might be interesting to break out two noteworthy categories:

Podcast

  • From March 28, 2018: “NPR’s monthly podcast audience continues to reach new heights with 20.4 million unique users and a staggering 103.1 million global unique streams and downloads. (Source: Splunk, NPR Podcast Logs.)” This is with 42 active programs.
  • From October 25, 2017: “NPR’s monthly podcast audience continues to reach new heights with 15.5 million unique users and 82 million downloads. (Source: Splunk.)” This is with 41 active programs.
  • From March 15, 2017: “NPR podcasts are heard by over 4 million listeners every week — that is a 47% increase compared to a year ago.” This is with 37 active programs.
  • From October 18, 2016: “In the month of September, NPR’s combined podcasts had 63 million unique downloads, nearly double its closest publisher.” The release does not mention how many podcasts were active in this period.

Total weekly listeners

  • From March 28, 2018: “According to Nielsen Audio Fall 2017 ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations is 37.7 million people.”
  • From October 25, 2017: “According to Nielsen Audio Spring 2017 ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations reached an all-time high of 37.7 million.”
  • From March 15, 2017: “According to Nielsen Audio ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations reached an all-time high of about 37.4 million in the fall of 2016 — a nearly 4 million person increase from the same period in 2015.”
  • From October 18, 2016: “The total weekly listeners for all NPR stations are about 36.6 million.”

The “nearly 4 million person increase” noted in the March 2017 release is interesting, and it reminds me to flag this episode of Current’s The Pub podcast from October 2016, which tries to unpack the organization’s ratings jump that took place around that period. The findings apparently came down to some mix of: “network-station collaborations to improve the content and promote it better; methodological changes to how Nielsen collects ratings data; and, of course, the most bonkers election in living memory.”

Oh boy, really went down a rabbit hole on that one.

Anyway, I think the most interesting — and most accurate, I’d argue — lens to read these three developments as a trend is how it depicts efforts by broadcast-oriented companies to capitalize on gains in on-demand audio for the purposes of reinforcing core broadcast operations and business models.

Is this “one step forward, two steps back” situation, or the dialectical outcome of how the innovation narrative typically works out over the long run?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Two opportunities for newcomers:

  • Spotify is doing something they’re calling the “Sound Up Bootcamp,” a weeklong all-expenses-paid intensive program targeting “aspiring female podcasters of color.” Ten applicants will be selected, and it will be held in New York City. Note: the program culminates in a pitch session, where three pitches will get to have their pilots funded up to $10,000. The workshop will be led by independent media consultants Rekha Murthy and Graham Griffith. You can find out more information here.
  • The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, together with the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, is gearing up for the second cycle of its Podcast Certificate Program. NYC MOME policy analyst Anna Bessendorf writes: “The Podcast Certificate Program is deeply committed to increasing the diversity and range of voices in the industry, which has been largely homogenous. The internships that have served as both training and access points for many members of the podcasting industry simply aren’t attainable or feasible for most people, and so we’re trying to fill these gaps in access with this program.” Applications open today, deadline April 12. More info here.

On the brink. The Bright Sessions hasn’t finished its run yet, but it’s already going out on a high note. The popular fiction podcast is in the middle of its final season, having announced a few weeks ago that it would be wrapping up after 56 episodes on June 13, but the production isn’t done flexing its muscles. Recently, it celebrated its 50th episode with a special musical edition. Fun!

Anyway, here’s the pitch for the unfamiliar: The Bright Sessions is a science-fiction podcast premised on recorded therapy sessions with people in possession of supernatural abilities. Vox.com’s Tanya Pai described it as a mix of “The X-Files and the HBO psychotherapy drama In Treatment,” which is pretty spot-on, given that the show makes its meal playing around with the found footage format (much favored by fiction podcasts over the past few years), conspiracy theory territory, and interesting character work. Anyway, I enjoy it, and it’s been really interesting to watch this small, scrappy show grow over time.

The podcast is the brainchild of Lauren Shippen, a Los Angeles-based writer, voice actor, and actress. In the classic way that these things go, she created The Bright Sessions in large part as a way to give herself her own shot. “I knew I wanted to make something for me and my friends to act in and I’d had this idea of a girl who time travels when she has panic attacks,” Shippen told me when we connected over email recently.

Her decision to build the project as a podcast had a lot to do with affordable autonomy and accessibility — Shippen talked about wanting to do all the pre- and post-production herself — but also, the format suited the story she wanted to tell. “Once I started thinking of this character, I realized that putting her in therapy would be the perfect way to tell her story and also take full advantage of the audio-only format,” she said. Plus, the commitment to audio means not having much need to worry about visual effects, which comes in pretty handy for a story packed with fantastical elements.

Shippen wrote the first nine scripts in the summer of 2015, and rolled out the first episode later that November. Initially working alone, she eventually pulled together a supporting team: sound producer Mischa Stanton, composer Evan Cunningham, graphic designer Anna Lore, and consultant Elizabeth Laird (who is also Shippen’s sister). The show is pure DIY, mostly recorded in bedroom closets and the occasional studio for big group scenes.

This is a glowing mini-profile, so you can probably tell what happens from here. Ten episodes turn into twenty, episodes turn into seasons, individual narratives turn into story arcs. And by this writing, The Bright Sessions has become an achievement by no small means. The podcast just crossed over the 9 million download mark off its shoestring budget. It’s being developed for television by Dark Horse Entertainment and UCP. And it’s led Shippen to a three-book publishing deal with Tor Teen, the MacMillan imprint.

Consider it an investment that’s paid off. The podcast was largely supported throughout its run by a mix of advertising and Patreon support, with the latter carrying most of the weight through the backing of more than 1,200 patrons. “All those funds enable me to pay everyone on the team, pay for equipment and whatever else we might need,” she told me. But Shippen didn’t draw any wages for herself until this final season, mostly relying on an at-home data entry job to pay the bills.

That said, even though she’s currently accrued a bunch of new opportunities, she remains uneasy about letting her data entry job go. “While I could now drop that and write full time, I think I still have the mentality of ‘this could all go away tomorrow,’ so it seems like asking for trouble to quit an easy, flexible side gig,” she said. “But with everything I’ve got coming in the next 10 months, I think I’ll probably be moving to full-time podcaster/author by the end of the year.”

And there’s a lot coming. There’s still a good deal left for Shippen to do with The Bright Sessions. Her team is working on nine bonus episodes and two spin-offs to be released over the next three years as a result of meeting their Patreon goals. There is also the matter of the television adaptation, which she’s working with veteran TV scribe Gabrielle Stanton to produce, and her publishing deal with Tor Teen, which has her writing three Bright Sessions novels for the YA market. “I’ve just turned in the first one to my editor and I’m so excited for people to read it,” she said. “I’ve been a big YA book reader my whole life — I still read mostly YA — so this part of my career has really been a dream come true.”

But she’s also working to expand her work with audio dramas. Shippen tells me that she’s also developing a few different projects separate and apart from The Bright Sessions. No official details just yet, though she did note that she hopes to release the first in mid-2019. “I absolutely adore working in audio fiction…there’s so much flexibility and creative freedom,” Shippen said. “Regardless of what happens in my career, I can’t think of a time when I’ll want to stop making audio fiction.”

Shippen on the state of audio drama. During our email exchange, I shot off a throwaway question to get her thoughts on how far fiction podcasting has come, and where it’s going. She sent back a great, lengthy response, and I’m just going to cede the floor here because there’s a lot packed into it and I don’t want to lose an inch of context.

Voila:

Audio dramas have had such a massive boom these past few years and I really hope that continues. I think it will. Especially now that big studios like Marvel are getting involved in audio fiction, I think we’ll start to see more and more big productions with famous actors.

That’s a bit of a double-edged sword in my opinion. On the one hand, I definitely ascribe to “rising tide lifts all boats” — if big studios make good shows that pull listeners into the medium, it’s good for all of us. On the other hand, I am a little wary about people using audio fiction as a place to make proofs of concept for TV or film. I think a lot of audio dramas will make amazing TV shows — I’ll certainly be the first one to tune in to the Night Vale Presents shows and I’m really excited about what we’re developing for a Bright Session TV show — but there’s a difference of intention. I certainly never intended for The Bright Sessions to exist in other mediums and, while I’m excited about the prospect of telling the story in different formats, the podcast is the podcast and can stand all on its own. I’ve heard a little bit of chatter in LA about how podcasts can be a great place to develop IP and I don’t love that. I’d rather people get into audio fiction because they appreciate the storytelling medium for what it is. The end goal should always be making a good audio drama and if other stuff comes along with that, great. But don’t make a podcast because you want to tell that story in another medium and podcasts are just less expensive. I want big studios to get involved in the medium, but I would be sad if their proofs of concept edged out all the amazing independent producing that’s going on.

All that said, I think there’s so much to be explored in audio fiction for both independent producers and big-budget studios. The medium has definitely been dominated by sci-fi and horror for a long time and there are so many other genres that could work really well in audio. We’re starting to see that already — 36 Questions and The Fall of the House of Sunshine have both proven, in very different ways, that a musical podcast can work. Steal the Stars showed me that audio can do sex and romance just as well as any other medium; Wooden Overcoats still makes me laugh more than most of the sitcoms on TV. There’s so much swinging for the fences that’s happening and that’s paying off and I hope that will continue.

I think the biggest shift I’ve seen is the move away from the found-footage format. The Bright Sessions starts this way and some of my favorite audio dramas have this conceit. And it absolutely works. But I think the podcast audience is a lot more willing to listen to a more traditional “radio play” format that we initially gave them credit for. I think we’ll continue to see found footage stuff because when it works, it really works, but that’s been the biggest storytelling shift I’ve noticed in the industry in the past three years.

As for what I’m hoping to see…I think there’s massive opportunity to tell an immersive, multimedia story with podcasting. Some of these things already exist — the app Zombies! Run!, Panoply’s The Walk. Both of these mix a story with a degree of listener participation and I think there’s so much room for that kind of stuff going forward. A choose-your-own-adventure podcast, a mystery podcast where you have to solve something to get the next episode, a drama in the vein of the Norwegian teen show Skam that uses social media to expand its world and story — I don’t know what it’s going to be, but there’s going to be an audio drama that gets the listener involved. There are so many Gen Z-ers who love audio dramas and those kids know how to use technology and multitask to a degree that even I, at the advanced age of 26, find mind-boggling. I know I’m biased because I love making content for young people, but I definitely don’t hear a lot in the industry about teens and podcasts. There’s a big wave of audio fiction for kids, which is awesome, but students 15-22 are super into audio drama and incredibly engaged. I personally would love to make more content for young people and integrating technology into it would be a very cool challenge.

Bites.

  • ICYMI: “New Trial Upheld for Adnan Syed of ‘Serial'” (The New York Times)
  • Amazon and Google have filed patent applications that “outline an array of possibilities for how devices like these could monitor more of what users say and do,” suggesting one way that the future of these smart speaker devices, which are closed ecosystems, could unfold. (The New York Times)
  • Shouts to The Ezra Klein Show for getting a recorded interview with Mark Zuckerberg, but man, those host-read ad breaks are soooo uncanny valley. (Vox)
  • The Atlantic adds a third show to its portfolio with the Derek Thompson-led Crazy/Genius, and brings in Katherine Wells as the publication’s first executive producer of audio. Wells was previously the executive producer of Gimlet’s Every Little Thing. (Press release)
  • Starting today, The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything podcast is switching from a biweekly to a weekly publishing schedule. This comes as the publication expands its audio team after securing support from a new sponsor: Accenture. (Show page)
  • Keep an eye on Spotify producing original audio shows: Last week, the streaming platform announced Déjà Vu, a new podcast in partnership with Genius. The two companies already collaborate on the former’s Behind the Lyrics feature. (Press release)

[photocredit]Photo of NPR West studio by The Mitziken Revolution under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Homepages may be dead, but are daily news podcasts the new front page?

Paywalls and prospects. I’ve always been curious about Stitcher Premium. There are several reasons for this. The first and most prominent is a matter of my inbox: over the past few months, I’ve seen an uptick in messages from creators asking about the pros and cons of working with the paywalled premium podcast platform. Some, I suspect, were driven to inquire by the presence of opportunity. Others, perhaps, were merely curious.

The second reason has to do with my ever-shifting feelings on the value of paywalls within the context of podcasting. I understand the strategic need for business model and product diversification over the long term. But I’ve always been skeptical about the upside for both listeners and creators. In terms of the former, I can’t get past the feeling that it’s incredibly difficult to get someone to pay for something that they can get free alternatives to. In terms of the latter, I tend to see it as a pathway with a high floor but low ceiling — which is to say, it’s a more stable deal, but the trade-off involves a hard limit in what you can get back.

The third reason is risk as it specifically pertains to Midroll. Indeed, the move to build a complementary non-advertising revenue stream is a smart one for the long term. But the short-term trade-off involves possibly incurring the distaste of Apple. The front editorial page of Apple remains valuable real estate for driving earballs, and it’s an open secret that access to said real estate is still very much a manual affair. It’s also been reported that Apple doesn’t really like it when publishers prioritize their own platforms and engage in acts of “windowing” — as in the case of Missing Richard Simmons, a Stitcher Premium collaboration, in which Apple abandoned marketing plans for that podcast after learning that it would be releasing episodes early on the paywalled Stitcher platform, according to Digiday. In my mind, any move to further expand Stitcher Premium’s power, then, is a move that brings the Stitcher-Apple relationship deeper into complication.

Anyway, back to the matter of my inbox. At some point over the past few months, I made a note to myself: once I get thirty inquiries on Stitcher Premium, I’ll hit up Midroll CEO Erik Diehn to lay out his thinking — and his pitch — on the service. It’s been thirty, so here’s a Q&A with Diehn.

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: I’ve been hearing that you guys have been more aggressive over the past few months in signing up new shows for Stitcher Premium. Is this true?[/conl]

[conr]Erik Diehn: I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but if investing in more great new original content, hiring staff to help connect with more content creators and more listeners, and ramping up on the product side to make a better experience is more aggressive, then I suppose we are!

In truth, we’ve been working for a while on our premium offering, and as with any product, those investments can take time to pay off. Even though we are ramping up, our efforts have really just been a continuous process of growth and improvement. We’ve been steadily adding users, and as the pool of subscribers has grown, so has the budget for Stitcher Premium content. It’s true that we are now at a point where we can undertake some very substantial content projects — e.g. Wolverine — so I can understand the perception that we’re suddenly upping the game. But the reality is that we’ve been pushing just as hard all along, and we’re finally hitting a scale where that’s becoming evident to a wider audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what, exactly, shows will be getting out of signing up to be distributed through Stitcher Premium? Let’s say I create a decently sized fiction podcast — what’s the incentive to go behind the paywall?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: I’d phrase it less as the benefits for “signing up” to be on Stitcher Premium and more like this: what are the benefits that a creator, podcaster or publisher can realize from working with Stitcher to develop a premium offering?

Broadly speaking, one very obvious benefit is adding a new revenue source — subscription revenue — that is both complementary to and reduces reliance on advertising. Diversification of revenue is happening throughout the media landscape, and podcasting is no exception. The boom-and-crash cycles of advertising (digital advertising in particular) make growing a sustainable career or business in media risky, and paid models absolutely help mitigate that risk. Creating a premium offering through us is increasingly a reliable and sustainable paid model for podcast talent.

Beyond that, the premium model enables content types that this industry sometimes struggles to successfully support through ad sales — for example, fiction. Short-run series have a very finite window in which to generate ad revenue, but as a paid product can have a long and venerable life as part of a premium catalog offering. Integrating ads into fiction content effectively can be a struggle; with a paid model, they’re not necessary. As a result, our growing pool of premium revenue actually allows creators to get paid to bring things to life that might have never seen the light of day (or at the very least, never earned a dollar otherwise).

Finally, a premium offering is a great way for shows and creators to deliver something extra to their most devoted fans, deepening engagement and giving fans a way to directly support their favorite shows. We’re not alone in doing this — Kickstarter, Patreon, and even public radio all thrive on this idea — but it’s especially effective in podcasting, where great shows earn outsized fan loyalty and affection.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Setting aside Wolverine, what would you say are the best examples of successful Stitcher Premium campaigns?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: This list has grown amazingly long; we have thousands of hours of original content available for Stitcher Premium now, and that’s before even considering the many thousands of hours of back catalog/archive content we have available. But if I had to pick a few:

  • WTF: As a launch partner and a pioneer in the paid archive model, this collaboration remains one of the best we’ve entered in to. We’re also pleased that it’s expanded beyond the untouched back catalog; “Lorne Stories” is a great example of how archive content can be repurposed into an original special in a compelling way that really adds value for listeners.
  • The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium: We took a big chance (at the time) on this epic comedic fiction series from Jemaine Clement, and it paid off fabulously. This show gave us a blueprint for what premium original content could be, and it sent a signal to listeners that we’d be raising the bar with what we do.
  • GWF, Bitch Sesh, and other shows with bonus episodes: We have a growing list of partner shows with highly, highly engaged audiences, and we’ve now demonstrated that an extra episode every couple of weeks can really deliver for both creator and fan. We also love that the exchange of value here isn’t limited to the bonus eps — all these fans get access to the full catalog of Stitcher Premium, so the reward they get for supporting their favorite show just grows in value every month.
  • Comedy albums (Comedy Central and AST Records): Early on, these provided a large chunk of the catalog value for our comedy-centric Howl subscribers, but they remain a valuable staple even as the audience expands into new genres. We wanted to make sure we launched with content that was a good value, so bringing in content that was already only available in a paid model was an excellent way to do this.
  • The Seth Morris Radio Project, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project Season 2, Hollywood Masterclass: We have produced so many really amazing and innovative shows for the Earwolf audience from our best Earwolf talent that it’s hard to list them all. We are at a point with Earwolf and comedy that I think we’re really fulfilling the promise of Premium, which is (as I noted earlier) helping creators get paid to bring amazing things to life that might otherwise have not happened.
  • The BBC: I love that we have the full The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy radio drama in Stitcher Premium. It was hard to find for a long time, and now we’re able to bring to a whole new generation of listeners.
  • Today, Explained, ad-free: I know we’re a partner in creating it, but I really enjoy this show. And I know we’re a major seller of advertising, but listening to shows ad-free can be a real joy in a world filled with commercial messages.

[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: I’m going to guess that you’re not able to publicly disclose the number of Premium subscribers. Can you gesture toward the broad size?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: That’s correct, I can’t disclose numbers. I can tell you that we’ve hit or exceeded our growth forecasts for two years now, and we are funding projects like Wolverine because we have an audience that’s grown large enough to support projects of that scope.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Could you talk about the standard deal that shows get if they sign onto Premium? Or does it differ drastically from show to show?[/conl]

[conr]Diehn: These do indeed differ drastically by show. Some deals have been fixed fee; some are based on a share of subscriber revenue. In some cases we’re acquiring IP; in others, we’re just licensing it. But we think that overall, the deals are fair for all sides and providing real value to creators.[/conr]

[conr]Hot Pod: Anything else you want to add?[/conr]

[conr]Diehn: In a nutshell, Stitcher Premium let us build a direct-to-consumer, paid subscription business that provides real revenue to creators (and, obviously, to Midroll). It provides an increasingly large ad-free offering for those who prefer to go ad-free, and it enables and allows new content types and genres at a higher level of support and production than might be possible otherwise.

In our mission to build the best place for podcasts, it’s important for both audiences and creators to really make this offering work, and we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.[/conr]

Tuesday morning news drop.

  • The BBC has announced that Jason Phipps, currently the head of audio at The Guardian, will be the organization’s first commissioning editor for podcasts. (Not an American!)
  • WNYC and PRI have announced that Tanzina Vega, reporter and columnist previously at CNN and The New York Times, will be the new host of The Takeaway starting May 7. Vega replaces John Hockenberry, who was accused of sexual harassment last December. Todd Zwillich had been serving as the interim host.

“The Daily is the new front page,” said Sam Dolnick, The New York Times’ assistant managing editor, in a speech last Friday during an event celebrating the podcast’s first year. It was a triumphant and somewhat straightforward affair, featuring a mix of Times folk, Daily superfans, and, of course, a number of podcast executives. The gathering also doubled as the pump-primer for the Times Audio team’s upcoming gamble: Caliphate, the limited-run series on the Islamic State hosted by Rukmini Callimachi, which will further serve as the Times’ first attempt at windowing. Subscribers will get the podcast early through the Times app at some point in April; everyone else will have to wait a few more weeks.

The notion of the daily news podcast as the new front page is an interesting one, especially when considered against the conventional wisdom that “the front page is dead” in the age of the social web, which was an argument beaten into me when I was first starting out in the media business, like, four years ago. (Feels like just yesterday, but also an eternity.) The dominance of the social web resulted in what you could describe as a furious atomization of media organizations to the point of non-identity. Within this environment, it’s hard for media entities to express their will as editors, as it’s hard to put your foot down and call something important when the sound of that foot-stepping is smothered by the editorial priorities of opaque, capricious, and vaguely pernicious social media algorithms.

You could argue that a good deal of the power underlying the daily news podcast, and The Daily in particular, comes from the way its structure reclaims the benefits of a holistic editorial identity. As a self-contained media bundle, the editorial team of any given daily news podcast still has the capacity to express judgment, discretion, direction. Within the relative linearity of a podcast episode, a “top story” is truly a top story, as it is fully backed by a consumption context in which the “top story” label means something. That meaning is derived from an established understanding of finitude and scarcity; there is only one story (or one small set of stories) we’re telling you today, and then it ends, because really it’s the biggest thing you need to know in a given morning, and everything else is rendered into something you have to fish out for yourself.

The Daily is paying off for the New York Times — someone was telling me that, beyond whatever advertising revenue it’s generating, the podcast is furthermore a strong piece of brand advertising for the organization. And sure enough, that’s going to have a ripple effect, in that we’re bound to see other companies to build stuff for the category. We already have a decently long list of other daily news podcast publishers: NPR’s Up First, Vox’s Today, Explained, BuzzFeed’s Reporting To You, The Outline World Dispatch.

But we will almost certainly see more in the months to come. ABC News just announced its own daily news podcast, “Start Here,” which will begin its run tomorrow, and from the sounds of the trailer, it sounds like it’s going to be “The Daily, but with these people instead of those people.” And I’ve heard of at least two more major media companies thinking seriously about commissioning their own takes on the genre.

It makes me wonder: what happens to the value of daily news podcasts when the space becomes saturated? I don’t know the answer to that. What happens when there is an abundance of front pages?

Significant digits. KPCC, the Los Angeles public radio station, closed out its first investigative podcast, Repeat, earlier this month, and as of Friday afternoon, the six-part limited-run series has reportedly brought in over 910,000 downloads. “I think we will be hitting that million download mark soon,” Arwen Nicks, senior producer of on-demand audio, told me.

That strikes me as a fairly successful podcast campaign, though it should be noted that KPCC is one of the biggest public radio stations in the country.

A couple of notes:

  • A decent comparison would probably be Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. According to this grantee information sheet, that show has brought in more than 1.2 million downloads since its release, making it “the most successful podcast MPR has produced.” However, this isn’t quite a good apples-to-apples comparison. 74 Seconds is an investigative podcast, conducted in semi-real time, that debuted last May and wrapped production in mid-August after 22 installments (not counting a trailer and “further listening” package that dropped in February).
  • “I don’t feel like I have enough data to know exactly what worked and what didn’t as far as getting the word out,” Nicks said, when asked about major learnings from the project. “But my advice for anyone who is trying to get listeners is to get your show featured on NPR One. That was a huge push for us.”
  • The team is currently working on KPCC’s next podcast project. It’s apparently top secret at this writing, with official details to be announced later.

For now, Nicks is no longer waking up in the middle of the night to check download numbers. She also notes that she’s rewatching ER, which she finds “really holds up.”

Speaking of investigative public radio podcasts…

  • In The Dark, American Public Radio’s really good series from 2015, is back with a different case for its second season on May 1. Mark your calendars.
  • Meanwhile, WHYY is bringing back Cosby Unraveled for its own second season, which will endeavor to “prepare listeners for Bill Cosby’s retrial set against the backdrop of the #MeToo moment.” Cosby’s first trial for sexual assault last summer ended in a retrial. That podcast will kick off tomorrow.

Binge notes.

  • Panoply will release its new serialized nonfiction narrative show, Empire on Blood, tomorrow. They’re doing the all episode-drop thing, which we should talk about at some point.
  • Speaking of binge-dropping: tomorrow also marks one year since the release of S-Town. Cheers to Brian Reed, who can be found most recently discussing North Korean walls on This American Life.

No, Gimlet isn’t actually interested in buying NPR One. Went back and forth on including this one, but I received enough messages on the matter that it warranted at least a mention. Let’s bust this out in bullets:

  • During a session at the RAIN Podcast Business Summit last week, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg was interviewed by Laura Correnti and Alexa Christon, hosts of the advertising industry podcast Adlandia.
  • Adlandia has this recurring feature called “Kill, Buy, DIY,” which is pretty much what you think it is: a game where guests are made to name advertising or marketing or media thing they’d…kill, buy, or DIY.
  • Anyway, Blumberg’s “Buy” was NPR One, because, well, the dude likes the app.
  • Of course, this being 2018, context takes a hit when something travels. This tweet led to these tweets, which led to folks texting me on a Thursday afternoon about “this Gimlet-NPR One thing,” which then led to you reading this sentence right now.

To put a lid on it, a spokesperson wrote when contacted: “Literally just a compliment to NPR One for being a great app. We, of course, have zero plans at all. It was a hypothetical game!”

So there’s that. That being said, there are kerfuffles, and then there are the conditions that fertilize the growth of kerfuffles in the first place. You could say that this peculiar incident tells us something about Gimlet’s complicated — some would say polarizing — profile in the podcast ecosystem as the big venture capital-backed demogorgon out for global dominance. But you could also say that it tells us something about the anxieties that pervade certain corners around what’s changing in the ecosystem. It’s a strange episode, though a perfectly telling one as well.

Anyway, I imagine the thing that Gimlet is really focused on this week is the premiere of Alex, Inc on ABC, which marks the first of the company’s adaptations to hit the market. That takes place on tomorrow night.

Also, take a gander at this line from a Washington Post article previewing the TV show: “The network, known for producing shows like Reply All and Crimetown, reports that its podcasts are downloaded more than 12 million times per month, and StartUp has ‘tens of millions’ of downloads on its own.” It’s unclear if that’s global or just within the US, but for comparison’s sake, WNYC Studios pulled in over 42 million global downloads in February across 50 shows, per Podtrac. Gimlet had 13 active shows, 5 dormant.

Demogorgon indeed.

Membership in the age of podcasts. So, there’s this thing called the Membership Puzzle Project, and it’s a research collaboration between the Dutch news site De Correspondent and New York University that’s working to pull together knowledge on how news organizations can best integrate membership strategies into their respective business models.

Last week, the project released a new report on how public radio — a system historically built on the strength of memberships carved out from its broadcast audiences — is grappling with the model as the world shifts towards digital modes of consumption.

The whole report is worth plumbing through, but I wanted to break out this chunk:

Podcasts have been successful partly because they offer a way to build new and deeper relationships with niche audiences. WFMU’s Ken Freedman explains: “I wouldn’t want to have a program about architecture on the air because it would turn off all the political people,” he says. “But if you do a podcast, you can work the Internet and find every last person on the face of the planet who is interested in architecture.” By taking advantage of on-demand behavior, public media organizations can create ongoing relationships with these niche audiences, in a new way.

But in the podcast world, the idea of the pledge drive simply doesn’t fit.

“No one would download it,” says Anne [O’Malley, WNYC’s VP of Membership].

Ken says he’s noticed a difference between loyalty to a podcast and loyalty to his station, although he doesn’t frame that difference as a bad thing. “One thing I started noticing about ten years ago: people would say ‘I love that podcast’ not ‘I love WFMU.’ They know of it [the station] because of a podcast. So there has been a huge upsurge in people who just know of us because of a particular program’s podcast.”

A few things:

    • As my buddies at Nieman Lab pointed out, there exists a counter-example: “Slate has experimented successfully with urging listeners to subscribe to Slate Plus within its own podcasts.” However, it’s worth noting that Slate’s strategy there is largely built around additional podcast content for paid members, which isn’t a move that’s all that present in the way public radio stations operate their membership models.
  • Better counter-examples can be found with the fine folks at Maximum Fun and Radiotopia. The former enjoyed a particularly successful drive last year, which I wrote about. That campaign, which took place over two weeks, led to the conversion of 24,181 new and upgrading members. Which is to say: ways to do it well have been done before.
  • Ken Freedman’s perspective here highlights, in precise terms, the audience relationship challenge that comes with the shift toward on-demand: as a publisher, you are now in a position where you can build niche programming that’s able to connect with people far beyond your geographic bounds and well within the depth of that niche’s community — but among the notable trade-offs here is a situation where the identity of a show supersedes the identity of the publisher. I’d argue that this likely shifts the psychology of the ask involved in any sort of pledge drive.

Bites.

  • New York Media has acquired Splitsider from The Awl Network (RIP). Splitsider has a great “This Week in Comedy Podcasts” column that I frequently skim, and I’m excited to see the feature pop up on Vulture. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Art19 now hosts podcasts from the following TV companies: NBC Sports, NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Entertainment, Bravo, Oxygen and SYFY.
  • Speaking of Bravo: Connie Britton has been cast in Bravo’s TV adaptation of the Los Angeles Times and Wondery’s Dirty John. (Vulture)
  • And speaking of Wondery: the Los Angeles-based podcast company has another collaboration with a Tronc-owned newspaper in the pipeline: Felonious Florida, with Broward County-area paper Sun Sentinel.
  • First Look Media has a new podcast out to pair with Intercepted: Deconstructed, with the British political journalist Mehdi Hasan.
  • Spotify has rolled out a voice-control feature. I’m not quite ready to say “Play God’s Plan” out loud in public, so you can keep it.

[photocredit]Photo by Holger Prothmann used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Enough with the “round-robin hot takes”: Techmeme tries a new kind of aggregation show

Infinite Dial 2018. In the run-up to every Infinite Dial  — the annual report from Edison Research and Triton Digital presenting what is, in my opinion, the definitive sizing on podcast listenership due to its assiduousness and the simple fact of its continuity — my stomach tends to produce a little knot. Part of writing this newsletter every week involves a suspension of disbelief, some taming of the nagging sense that all of this is so new, so strange, so tentative. Now, I’m not the kind of person who is certain of anything, from the shape of the world in five years to the muffin I’m planning to eat once this issue goes out, and so in the lead-up to the report, I often find myself prepared for a severe reality check.

Looks like those preparations weren’t necessary — at least not for another year. The numbers are in, and they continue to look good.

As always, you can study the report and watch the webinar for yourself. But here are the biggest things that stood out to me:

(1) Steady, unsexy growth continues

Will there ever be any other kind? The share of Americans who report listening to podcasts within the last month — which remains the key metric I track — is now 26 percent (73 million), up from 24 percent (67 million) the year before. To put it another way: a little more than a quarter of Americans can now broadly be considered active podcast listeners.

That said, it’s a smaller year-over-year growth than the preceding period. The jump in podcast listenership between 2018 and 2017 is only two percentage points (or 6 million Americans), which is a little less than the three-percentage-point gain (or 10 million Americans) between 2017 and 2016.

Is this deceleration noteworthy? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth taking a step back and contextualize within the bigger picture: between 2014 and 2018, monthly American podcast listenership has grown by a whopping 73 percent.

No matter how you cut it, we’ve come a long way.

(2) Depth and breadth

In the webinar, Edison Research SVP Tom Webster singled out the following data point as perhaps the most interesting in the entire deck: for weekly podcast listeners, the average number of podcasts consumed per week is now seven.

That’s up from the average number of five podcasts that was recorded in the previous two editions of the report. This is a pretty exciting finding, suggesting that not only are more Americans consuming podcasts, but more podcasts are being consumed. Which is to say: new listeners who are brought into the ecosystem are also being spread around.

Webster theorizes that this development could have something to do with the daily podcast genre that’s been growing over the past year or so. I agree with this assessment, but I’d broaden the theory: I think it’s also the effect of growing podcast operations that have been more aggressive in being present within the lives of their audiences. This includes hard daily news products like Up First and The Daily, yes, but also high-output shops like Crooked Media, whose prolific multi-show publishing schedule blankets the media diets (and private lives) of their target audiences. In my mind, these efforts stand in contrast to podcasts that publish with comparatively less urgency and are designed more as intermittent experiences of delight and engagement — narrative shows, in other words, that fit into lives more like a magazine or a novella.

It’s also worth considering how limited-run podcasts fit into this equation: S-Town, Dirty John, Heaven’s Gate, Atlanta Monster, etc. Given that the Infinite Dial report is largely a measure of perception, I wonder how these shows are understood as part of a basic listening diet?

(3) A problem of retention?

I’m still thinking about the conundrum articulated by Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content, the last time I wrote up the Infinite Dial. In a nutshell, he argues that the big metric to watch is the disparity between Americans who report ever having tried out a podcast and Americans who report being monthly podcast listeners — in other words, a measure of the medium’s ability to efficiently retain new listeners and expand its active consumer base.

Sticking with that concept, I thought it could be useful to break out the ratio of the share of Americans who’ve tried the medium (“Ever-Listened”) to the share of monthly American podcast listeners (“Monthly”) over the past few years:

(*reads basketball analytics once*)

From this breakdown, it’s noticeable that the retention ratio has more or less kept steady within a tight range over the past three years, aside from a drop-off between 2015 and 2016. This suggests an ecosystem that hasn’t really been able to improve upon its ability to proportionally retain new listeners despite the boom it’s experiencing. I’m curious to hear what you think about this framing, though, or if I’m using this statistic incorrectly.

Anyway, in that discussion with Nuzum, he speculated on why we’re seeing this:

When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to — or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Ah, the old twin-problems of programming and discovery.

So, in the past, I’ve consistently argued against putting much stock into viewing discovery as the defining challenge of the podcast ecosystem, and for putting more stock into the issue of developing more types of programming for more types of people. Of course, it’s not an either/or situation, and sure, you’re totally free and justified to continue touting discovery as the final frontier. But I’d also encourage further interrogation of that perspective: what are we really asking for when we ask for better podcast discovery? Are we extending hope for a more aggressive platform that ultimately centralizes all knowledge, awareness, and conduct of podcast products? And to what extent are gripes of podcast discovery actually gripes against the relatively unexplored art of podcast marketing?

Just a thought.

(4) Gains in the car

So, this is cool: as expressed in the webinar, 2018 marks the first time that podcasting overtook satellite radio in the car, 23 percent to 21 percent. Podcasting still comes behind online radio (28 percent), owned digital music (45 percent), CDs (49 percent), and that steady behemoth, AM/FM radio (82 percent).

(Indeed, the persistent prominence of CDs may be surprising to some. But I’ll have you know: I own a 2006 Subaru Forester with a barely attached door handle and an in-car entertainment system that barely features a screen, and I don’t have any plans to get a new car anytime soon. I keep things simple.)

In related news, the share of Americans with cars that feature in-dash information and entertainment systems is now 15 percent (or 42 million), up from 12 percent the year before.

Anyway, be sure to check out the slide in the report that tracks year-over-year changes for all these in-car audio source categories. Notice how podcasting, by growing from 19 percent in 2017 to 23 percent in 2018, represents the biggest jump across its largely flat or receding peers, and how these in-car podcasting gains track greater than podcasting’s overall growth. There is so much room for growth here, and I think it has everything to do with the friction of the in-dash entertainment user experience. Watch that scene closely.

(5) “What is the ceiling of podcast listenership?”

That Very Big question was posed during the presentation, and it’s absolutely worth unpacking. This year, the share of Americans who report being familiar with the term “podcasting” is 60 percent (or 168 million), which is a far cry from the years when this stat stayed flat — between 2009 and 2014, that share was trapped within 45 percent and 48 percent.

Edison Research made it a point to emphasize how this data point on term-familiarity is a reflection of awareness, not comprehension, and so even though a big share of Americans report having heard of the concept, it’s not any literal indication that they understand what it specifically means: the podcatchers, the RSS feeds, the distinction against streaming or broadcast radio, the amorphous and vibrant culture that has emerged from its component parts, and so on.

Which raises the question: what are we talking about when we talk about podcasting from a outward-facing perspective? What should we be talking about? Are we discussing a specific community or bundle of creators working within a particular paradigm of a shifting technological world, or are we referring more to a specific technology configuration of audio content distribution?

For what it’s worth, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve largely stacked my chips on the former — not only because I’ve found it infinitely more productive as a framework to ground my coverage in this newsletter, but also because it’s the creative community that matters. The structural world will continue to change in vast and peculiar ways; the people, not so much. I think this is only going to become more true as we move forward in time and continue to see other platforms, technical infrastructures, and distributional opportunities converge to further interact and impact the identity of the space: from external platforms like Spotify and Pandora to the ruthlessly political world of the in-car dashboard, from new apps portending new ways of doing things to voice-first computing (née smart speakers), from in-closet productions to corporate products. It’s all audio, but it’s an audio of change.

And so, I’m less curious about podcasting’s ceiling. As I’ve maintained before, I’m more curious about what we’re going to call it — and how we’re going to recognize it — in the years to come.

(6) Smart speaker ascendant

Speaking of smart speakers, they’ve totally arrived, having invaded the lives of Americans everywhere. Smart speaker ownership doubled over the last year, now at 18 percent (or 51 million). Notably, the report observed that “smart speaker adoption is growing at a faster rate than the early days of smartphones.” Some of this might be attributable to the fact that Americans are probably more comfortable these days allowing intimate personal devices from major technology companies into their private lives, having already done so multiple times over. But it probably has more to do with the smart speaker — as a vessel of voice assistants (or voice-first computing) — being a particularly sticky product in the broader culture.

One thing to note: there was some discussion about the curious growth of Amazon Music’s usage as an online audio brand — and how that indicates the strength of smart speakers in driving a certain of listening behavior. That’s the upside to the fight to figure out the ecosystem: to reap the benefits of becoming the default presence, brand, or experience on this rapidly-growing device category.

Side note: I can’t stop thinking about how Google Glass, in hindsight, is probably some sort of multiverse branching point. I wonder how that parallel universe looks like, and what that Nick Quah is doing right now.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • This one’s really cool: the share of American men who consider themselves monthly podcast listeners has stayed flat (27 percent), but the share of American women has increased year-over-year: 24 percent, up from 21 percent the year before.
  • The share of Americans aged 18-34 who don’t own a radio receiver in the home is now 50 percent. A decade ago, in 2008, that share was six percent.
  • Among Americans who have ever listened to a podcast, 80 percent report typically consuming most or the entirety of a given episode. That’s a little down from 85 percent last year. Y’all should square this against what you’ve been finding with the new Apple in-episode podcast analytics.
  • Only roughly one in five podcast listeners report speed-listening behaviors. Look, you’re just special.
  • NPR One’s brand awareness is flat at 20 percent, same as last year.
  • Also flat, interestingly enough: audiobook listening, which has hovered within 43 percent and 45 percent over the past four years. Shouts to Audible, one of podcasting’s blue chip advertisers.

Okay, time to get out of this thread, lest Hot Pod becomes an Edison Research blog.

Scenes from another report. While the Infinite Dial remains the industry’s gold standard report, I’m always hungry for more research. Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic’s creative marketing group, has commissioned an upcoming whitepaper that hopes to generate more insight into the behaviors and preferences of podcast listeners. In particular, the study hopes to contextualize their podcast consumption habits within their broader media diets.

The full report, which was conducted in partnership with the consumer intelligence firm Maru/Matchbox, will be released within the next few weeks, but in the meantime, here are some excerpts I found noteworthy from the early look that was given to me:

  • “Podcast listeners report listening to podcasts for 4.2 hours a week and listening to twelve different podcast episodes a month. 58 percent of listeners report that their podcast consumption has even increased in the past year. But, while we’re seeing podcasts outpacing other media in terms of growth, they’re not replacing other media. Most respondents are either increasing or keeping their time spent with other media flat.”
  • “58 percent of listeners said they’ve increased podcast listening in the past year, and are currently averaging 4.2 hours of listening each week. It’s the most year-over-year growth of any medium; by comparison, 44 percent of those surveyed said they are reading more digital news; 40 percent are watching more TV; and 38 percent are reading more magazines or newspapers.”

The report takes pains to emphasize the thesis that these data points represent a world in which podcasts are outpacing — but not replacing — other forms of media, like television or digital news. This is in keeping with one of the fundamental arguments about podcasts: that it is the perfect medium to fill “in-between times” like commutes, exercising, cooking, etc. I think the thesis is broadly true, but with one caveat: we shouldn’t forget that podcasting directly competes with other forms of “in-between time”-oriented content sources, like, say, AM/FM radio or maybe the social graces of your roommates.

Anyway, in addition to these findings, Atlantic Re:think’s report also touches upon the halo effects of podcast advertising and views towards branded podcasts. So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, keep your eyes peeled for the report when it pubs.

All the news that’s fit to serialize. New York Times Audio has announced its first serialized narrative nonfiction project: Caliphate, a limited-run documentary featuring the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi, the Times’ stellar foreign correspondent and in-house expert — probably the expert — on the Islamic State.

The press release describes the podcast as follows: “Recorded and produced over the past year, Caliphate follows Callimachi as she searches building after building in the city of Mosul, collecting thousands of pages of secret papers from al-Qaeda’s North African branch, showing how they governed and answering the disturbing question of their longevity.”

The podcast is slated to debut later this spring, and working on the project are: Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Andy Mills, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Lisa Tobin, and Samantha Henig.

Take note: subscribers to the New York Times will have early access to the audio documentary. A spokesperson confirmed to me that subscribers can cash in on the first-listen through the Times’ web and app platforms. This is the first time we’re seeing the Times audio team attempt a version of windowing that explicitly loops a podcast’s value proposition back into the organization’s broader subscription-first business strategy. The exact structure of the window — that is, how long before non-subscribers get to listen — remains unclear. I should also note that this technical gambit naturally extends from the Times’ recent move to ensure that it is able to directly distribute The Daily to listeners through its app.

I like this move, by the way, and here’s why I think it’s different from other windowing campaigns we’ve seen so far: the Times already has a strong subscriber base that’s scattered across a range of media and platforms. As such, Caliphate isn’t made to bear the burden of needing to drive new conversions and spark new lines of businesses to justify its investment. Furthermore, the fact that the Times’ subscriber base is already significant means the project doesn’t run the risk of artificially capping any potential momentum it might generate off the bat. This raises a broader question: are audio windowing strategies only unambiguously strong when its attached to a mature and developed subscriber base?

Anyway, for what it’s worth: this is the kind of show I was hoping to see from the Times the very second I heard they were assembling an audio team. Vast in ambition and consideration of the medium it will use, the project is poised to be a fine example of what we can get when a huge news organization leverages its resources to build a podcast-first news product — and not a product whose form or function is derivative of a separate broadcast or legacy infrastructure.

(TL;DR: The Times is coming for that Embedded money.)

Two more things:

  • Let me once again stan for Longform and re-up Rukmini Callimachi’s amazing two-part interview on that show. It’s one of my favorites from that podcast.
  • Song Exploder dropped a special episode last week breaking down The Daily’s theme song. I heard that Sam Dolnick, the Times’ assistant masthead editor and NYT Audio superfan, was partially responsible for this collaboration. Look, my favorite Song Exploders are theme song exploders, and you should probably pair this with Hrishikesh Hirway’s unpacking of the Reply All theme.

Okay. Now I’m going to break my daily news podcast moratorium to talk about Techmeme. Let’s go.

Rewrite this headline. Techmeme, the highly influential technology news aggregator read by everybody from Sundar Pichai to that dudebro who just launched an app, has rolled out a new daily podcast that, well, delivers you a snippy roundup of the day’s most important tech news.

The show is called Techmeme Ride Home, and each edition — which runs between fifteen and twenty minutes — drops every weekday at 5 p.m. ET in its bid to hit the evening commute. Producing and hosting the podcast is Brian McCullough, the creator of the Internet History Podcast and author of the upcoming book How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone.

As Peter Kafka points out over at Recode, Techmeme Ride Home marks a rare product extension for the famed tech aggregation site and its founder, Gabe Rivera. “I don’t know why Gabe hasn’t done many Techmeme extensions over the years,” McCullough wrote when we traded emails last week. “But as someone said on Twitter, he seems to have impeccable timing in terms of which trends to be a part of, and which to ignore forever. I do know this is something he had been thinking about doing for a while.”

On the face of it, the podcast seems to fall within the extensive tradition of tech podcasts designed to highlight and unpack the key technology developments of the moment: think Daily Tech News Show or the This Week in Tech (TWiT) network. But the way McCullough tells it, Techmeme Ride Home was designed less to compete with those podcasts and more to fashion something new out of the site’s core editorial value propositions. “The problem I was running into was that all the existing tech news roundups had the same formula: get 3-4 people at a table and get round-robin hot takes about the news of the week,” he explained. “It made no sense to just do another one of those.”

McCullough continued:

So, we both sort of brainstormed how to do it differently and we decided that Techmeme was good for two big use cases: quickly catching up on what was new in the world of tech; and — and I think this is crucial — giving the CONTEXT for what is going on… someone reported X, but someone else said Y about X, and someone else tweeted the real story about X. Here’s what it all means. So, our whole mission was to build off of Techmeme’s existing strengths: what did I miss, and what does it mean?

He also posed the question: “Though daily news wraps HAVE been done, has news aggregation been done in a major way in pods before?” It’s a pretty interesting query, but if pressed, I’m tempted to think that the answer is yes, very much so, but mostly because I think the chat-show model that we see with the aforementioned Daily Tech News Show and TWiT — along with stuff like the Slate Gabfests that operates within other various news genres — represents a form of aggregation in its own way.

But I get where McCullough’s coming from, and I have a sense that the kind of aggregation he’s raising is a matter of flash efficiency: an audio product that allows for quick downloads of the news. That, I believe, we’ve seen emerge with growing Alexa’s Flash Briefing content universe, and I suspect that’s the trend Gabe Rivera is tracking.

Before I switch gears, I just wanted to link to Charlie Warzel’s nifty profile on Rivera and Techmeme, which you can read on BuzzFeed.

Specific. McCullough was also eager to discuss what appears to be podcasting’s gradual introduction to day-parting, the broadcast programming practice of dividing the day into separate temporal parts whose audience profile possess different traits and needs.

I’m just going throw a chunk of what he wrote in here, because there’s a lot going on and McCullough was hyper-specific with his enthusiasm:

So, day-parting has been around since the 1920s because early on everybody realized that audiences have different expectations and different use cases for content at different times of the day. With podcasting, everyone fell in love with the time shifting aspect of the medium… But by focusing on that, producers ended up with a bias toward leisure listening (I’ll listen to this when I’m ready and want to chill out) and they forgot about the day-parting lesson of filling a listener’s need at a given time of day.

I fully credit The Daily for reminding everyone about this: oh, I can listen to a podcast in the morning and feel like I’m educated on the recent zeitgeist! We’re trying to do a similar thing (in the reverse commute time) but the Ride Home moniker is just a suggested use case. Really, if you wanted to save up a week’s worth of shows and binge on the weekend, clearly you can do that too. I do think producers will be thinking more about meeting needs around people’s lives as they go through their day. THIS is the pod I take the gym. THIS is the pod I listen to to fall asleep (those exist BTW, and I find them fascinating!).

Shouts to Drew Ackerman’s Sleep with Me, by the way.

Anyway, I think day-parting can be further situated within a broader trend of how daily podcast news products can further dig into use-case niches to trigger the next phase of evolution. Cutting deeper into temporal chunks is one way to do, but so is slicing the genre up based on regions and locales, as we can see with the case of KQED’s recently-launch The Bay and ongoing efforts like AL.com’s Down in Alabama with Ike Morgan.

There’s no telling where else it can go.

Bites.

  • Three updates from NPR: (1) Planet Money welcomes two new hosts: Sarah Gonzalez, formerly of WNYC, and Karen Duffin, formerly of This American Life; (2) Invisibilia is back with its fourth season; and (3) Hidden Brain celebrates its 100th episode.
  • I’m skipping SXSW this year — it’s been an exhausting few months — but I hear there’s a bunch of podcast stuff that’s going on in Austin, including a couple of live shows and some announcements. Apple’s Eddy Cue took the stage yesterday, but that didn’t really generate anything particularly interesting for us. Still, it’s always worth keeping an eye on Cupertino. When whales move, the tides shift, something something.
  • Incremental update on Spotify going public: the streaming platform is planning to begin listing shares on the week of April 2. (Bloomberg)
  • Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle media company, is testing the podcast waters, with Cadence13 providing support. (Apple Podcast)
  • Shannon Cason, the mind behind Homemade Stories, has a new show out with WBEZ: The Trouble. The podcast received some cross-promotional love from Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment. (Apple Podcast)
  • My reviews this week: West Cork from Audible, and from Marvel and Stitcher.