IN PLAY. The hope had always been for more. Or, at least, for another.
On Tuesday, Google officially launched its standalone podcast app for Android. As of right now, it is available for download in the Google Play store. This was well expected, given the steady drumbeat of preview posts that Google had collaborated with the branded podcast studio Pacific Content to produce and publish. Those write-ups laid out how the search giant viewed its place in the audio universe, how it might contribute to the easing of its frictions, and how it might move to own a piece of the whole thing. And then there was the matter of last week’s code sighting, which suggested the prospect of a standalone podcast app in addition to the core audio search features that Google was apparently baking into its main Android search app. That suggestion turned out to be signal, as a standalone app is precisely what we were given.
The Problem had always been clearly understood, but it never felt as if anyone had found a way to get out of it. Podcasting had long been a ward of Apple, which historically stood as some sort of impartial steward. The space grew and flourished in large part because of a string of Apple decisions: inclusion into iTunes, breaking out as a standalone app, bundling with iOS by default. But, as has long been documented, the relationship between Apple and the ecosystem it helped foster is a complicated one. Some argue that Apple should get more involved with discovery, analytics, and monetization. Others believe Apple already wields too much power. This split in opinion broadly tracks alongside a split in communities; it is an expression of ideological tensions between those who function as independents and those who pursue empire. (I have also heard this tension framed as actually being between those who had power in the past and those who want power in the future. Whatever the case may be, have sympathy for those caught in between.) All throughout these debates, Apple’s commitment to being an impartial steward mostly never wavered, save for one exception: the introduction of in-episode analytics in the waning days of 2017. For many, this was a step in the right direction. But some, if not many, wanted so much more. Despite the incremental progression, the entire episode only further clarified the nature of the status quo: podcasting is Apple’s world, podcast publishers just live in it. Whatever progress these publishers want to make for themselves, they would have to make it on terms set, directly and indirectly, by the things Apple will and will not do.
Google, in theory, offers an alternative to this reality. The supposed argument is a diplomatic one: this wouldn’t be a case of Google eating Apple’s lunch, but rather a move to unlock the previously underserved Android market, which would give podcast publishers a path to building meaningful relationships with the other half of U.S. smartphone owners and the vast majority of smartphone owners in the world. Android owners had previously been served by a collection of third-party apps — Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Podcast Addict, Overcast, and so on — all of which were able to claim their own relatively modest fiefdoms within the expansive Android universe. It was a fragmented state, and so the opportunity here would be a push for unification… or consolidation (likely at the expense of these third-party solutions, but that’s another matter.)
Of course, this is all not as simple as it sounds. And it’s not as if Google hasn’t been here before. Google had another standalone podcast app not too long ago, Google Listen, an experimental product launched in the summer of 2009. Google Listen was eventually shuttered in 2012 on the reasoning that there were other, better podcast apps out there, as the search giant told Android Central at the time. But that was two years before the beginning of the so-called Podcast Boom, and quite some time before we’d come to know what we know now. In late 2015, Google added podcasts to Google Play Music, which was an attempt to fit the media category into the Concierge system the company had gained through the acquisition of Songza. It was an intriguing idea, but it didn’t end up moving the Android podcast needle very much.
Tuesday’s standalone podcast app has significant differences that separate then from now, we’re told. These features will include, but are not limited to:
- Greatly decreasing the friction from search results to an actual mobile listening experiencing, thus operationalizing searches as a true top of the funnel;
- AI-assisted features like quick transcription, greater in-episode searchability, automatic visual subtitling across multiple languages, and content-indexing, which will presumably give audiences more control over the judgment and navigating of a listening experience (and, also presumably, put some speech-to-text transcription companies out of business);
- Cross-device syncing, which allows users to easily transition between listening on a smartphone or through a smart speaker;
- Direct monetization features, like the possibility of a “donate” button.
It remains to be seen whether these features will be enough to convert large volumes of podcast-curious Android users into an actual podcast listeners. For what it’s worth, I think they could be helpful in getting more pedestrians to at least try the damn thing. But I also think that Google will need the cooperation of publishers to do some of the awareness-raising work for them. Then again, if there was ever a time to get a critical mass of publishers to split focus between Apple and an alternative, this moment would be it.
Something else that remains to be seen: how the Google Podcast app’s new features, if effective in capturing listeners, will shift the value narrative of podcasting — that is, the way we understand how a listener relates to a podcast, and thus how podcast impressions are sold to advertisers. After all, much of its contemporary value is based around the idea of podcasts being an “intent-driven” medium — which is to say, it’s pretty damn hard to listen to a podcast, so the kinds of folks who listen to them regularly must really love the thing enough to walk on coals. Google’s new AI-assisted features are designed to cut down the necessity of that intensity. As a result, we’re in for a shift in how we understand, and articulate, the Average Podcast Listener. That’s going to cause some considerable reformulation of how the industry works. It’s also going to shift the nature of who has the real power, and who will set the terms of what podcast publishers can and cannot do.
All of which leads us to the real question: what happens once you get what you’ve always hoped for?
One more thing: In addition to the app, Google has also announced that it is “partnering with the podcast industry on a program to increase the diversity of voices and remove barriers to podcasting.” It seems reminiscent of Spotify’s recent effort at creating a podcast bootcamp aimed at women of color. More information is due late this summer.
Chris Hardwick accused of emotional and sexual abuse. The allegations against the prominent podcaster and Nerdist Industries founder were made by an ex-girlfriend, the actress and model Chloe Dysktra, in a Medium essay published last Thursday. Hardwick wasn’t named in the essay, but he issued a statement to Deadline on Friday denying the allegations.
Various companies that work and have worked with Hardwick have distanced themselves from the presenter. They include Legendary Entertainment, AMC, NBC, and San Diego Comic-Con, among others.
Hardwick launched the Nerdist podcast in 2010, and formed Nerdist Industries in early 2012. Later that year, the company was acquired by Legendary Entertainment. The New York Times profiled him in April 2016. Hardwick left Nerdist Industries this past February, taking the flagship Nerdist podcast with him and subsequently rebranding it as ID10T.
Cadence13 serves as the ad sales partner on the podcast. When contacted yesterday, a spokesperson told me: “Cadence13 serves as a third-party sales representative to Chris Hardwick’s podcast show ID10T. We are currently assessing the situation as we take these allegations very seriously.”
WNYC’s Dean Cappello has left the public radio organization, a little over six months since The Cut published the journalist Suki Kim’s exposé of former Takeaway host John Hockenberry and the station. The report, which drew from Kim’s own experience with Hockenberry as well as the experiences of many others, accused him of sexual harassment and toxic workplace conduct. Cappello, who was the station’s chief content officer when the story broke, was one of the primary targets of criticism during the ensuing fallout, given his role in creating and overseeing The Takeaway as well as his general management of the organization’s controversial culture in the subsequent years. Once widely viewed as CEO Laura Walker’s top lieutenant, he was demoted to an advisory role in January. Cappello had been with the station for over two decades.
As Current noted, WNYC did not provide a specific reason for his departure. On Twitter, WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz highlighted: “Cappello’s departure underscores the fact that the only people held to account (publicly, at least) were on air talent, not executives.”
Marritz added: “Questions I asked today of WNYC: was it Cappello’s decision to leave? Did he get severance? Does he have an NDA? No answers.”
The global scene. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report last week, and the study contains a ton of noteworthy podcast-specific findings. Even cooler: its survey of audio and podcasting spanned 22 nations, which gives us a good comparative look across countries.
From the report, here are some key data points on podcast usage across countries:
- The top three countries with the highest proportions of surveyed respondents who indicated having accessed a podcast in the past month were all in Asia: South Korea (58 percent), Hong Kong (55 percent), and Taiwan (47 percent). The report suggested that this is likely tied to those countries having stronger smartphone penetrations together with “high levels of social sharing.” Not quite sure about the latter, but the former sure sounds right.
- Here are the rates for the three countries most covered in this newsletter: the U.S. (33 percent), Australia (33 percent), and the UK (18 percent).
- On the question of the UK’s relatively low usage rate — which is consistent with other Northern European countries — the report’s authors speculate: “Surprisingly, podcasts seem to be least accessed in North European countries with a strong audio tradition such as Finland (24 percent), Germany (22 percent), the UK (18 percent), and the Netherlands (18 percent). This may be because popular public broadcasters have little incentive to undermine their linear radio listening by producing or promoting podcasts.”
- The authors also suspect: “On the other hand, there may also problems of definition with the term podcast not equally understood across countries. In the UK, for example, much listening comes via the popular BBC iPlayer radio app but on-demand streams and downloads accessed this way are not labelled specifically as podcasts and may not be understood as such in surveys such as ours.” I’m curious if this can also be applied to the inverse; that is, on the three Asian countries with the highest rates of podcast usage.
And here are some other standout findings from the report’s audio-podcast breakout:
- News podcasts popular among younger listeners. “Just under half of under 35s are using news-related podcasts, which is almost certainly far more of this group than listen to traditional radio news.”
- Brief case study: Turkey. “We also asked about podcasts in Turkey, where we poll using an urban sample. Here we find more than two-thirds of this group using podcasts monthly, partly as a result of improving connectivity and ubiquitous smartphone use amongst the urban population. A number of the most popular podcasts are in English with the BBC’s Global News topping the iTunes chart.”
- Concluding note. “Critically, the demographics of podcasting are explosive. The younger generation is embracing content at a time and in a format that works for them — a trend that looks unlikely to be reversed any time soon.”
With this, I know the next story I’m digging into: what’s going on in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan? Is the picture painted in the report as straightforward as it appears to be? Will this be my opportunity to finally visit Taiwan? Oh boy oh boy.
Meanwhile, across the channel. How about a quick look at what’s going on over in France, whose podcast access rate was pegged at 28 percent in the Digital News Report? “The French media landscape is pretty dire those days,” Charlotte Pudlowski, a Paris-based media entrepreneur, tells me. “Two magazines that launched with big ambitions and a big press coverage died this year, after only a few months of existence. The French version of BuzzFeed just shut down.”
But, she added, it looks as if on-demand audio represents one of the few bright spots for the French media industry. Pudlowski cited a recent market study published by Audible and the Parisian research firm OpinionWay, which gives shape to a French podcast listening demographic that’s increasingly drawing the attention of local advertisers in addition to the usual suspects like the aforementioned Audible and an expansionary Casper. The data points sound familiar:
- More than 40 percent of French people say they listen to podcasts;
- Of these 40 percent, more than 50 percent are highly educated and work high-paying jobs;
- French podcast listeners skew young, with 52 percent between the ages of 18 and 24.
Young, highly-educated, and well-paid — not unlike the audience demographic profile you’d get from the American podcast listening audience. (Though, as recently pointed out in the most recent Infinite Dial presentation by Edison Research, the American podcast listenership is slowly beginning to resemble the general American population.)
Sure, it’s a sales pitch. After all, Pudlowski is the co-founder of a new Parisian podcast studio called Louie Media, which specializes in narrative podcasts. But Pudlowski felt strong enough in the opportunity to strike out on her own and form this venture, and Louie Media has found enough work these days to sufficiently validate her claim.
The last time I traded notes with Pudlowski was back in the summer of 2016. At the time, she was working at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine (she describes it as the “French version of Slate, but independent economically”), and she had just launched a podcast for the site called Transfert, which has grown to average about 350,000 listens a month. After spending a year as the site’s editor-in-chief, Pudlowski decided to break off and follow through with her work in audio. In November, she formed Louie Media with Mélissa Bounoua, old college friend and her deputy editor at Slate France.
The podcast studio is currently built on three revenue channels:
- Advertising-supported original work, which includes a recently launched narrative podcast called Entre that has booked Audible as a sponsor;
- Co-productions, which see the studio producing podcasts for other media companies like Madame Figaro, a leading women’s magazine in France, and Slate France; and of course,
- Branded podcasts, including a recent campaign with Birchbox France.
Again, a good deal of similarity can be gleaned with what we see in the States. This, I should add, extends to the studio’s major hurdles, which also include concerns with measurement and analytics as well as the general need to explain the quirks of a new medium. “The challenge lies both in the lack of precise figures and the earliness of the market in France,” Pudlowski wrote me. “We still have to [explain to] a lot of advertisers what podcasts are.”
Related reading. From a March press release by AdsWizz, announcing a partnership with the French advertising agency NextRegie:
“Programmatic buying is the wave of the future, and we are eager to move into the future with AdsWizz and make our premium podcast inventory available to advertisers,” said Pierre-Henry Medan, general ganager of NextRegie. “Podcast listening has been growing rapidly in France, Europe, and all over the world, and we are very excited to enable advertisers to communicate on our brands through this new format.”
On voice. These three pieces caught my attention this week, and when grouped together in one place, they collectively paint a really interesting picture.
First of all, Amazon is pushing the Echo into France, which means that it has to build out a voice interaction system in French. From Wired:
When you think about what it takes to launch Alexa in France, start with the basics. There’s the language, obviously. But unpack that: French is complex, both linguistically and societally. It has formal and informal address. It demands of its speakers euphony, harmonious and seamless transitions between words to maintain an almost musical cadence. And as you might expect from a country with nearly 70 million inhabitants, a multitude of regional accents inform pronunciations.
Modeling for one language is hard. (Hell, it’s hard enough to write good dialogue in English.) Adapting across different languages is a whole other challenge altogether.
Next, Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser (which, by the way, is my internet vessel of choice), is reportedly working on a voice-controlled browser called Scout. From CNET:
The nonprofit revealed the Scout project in an agenda item for an all-hands meeting taking place this week in San Francisco. “With the Scout app, we start to explore browsing and consuming content with voice,” Mozilla said. A sample command shows how it might work: “Hey Scout, read me the article about polar bears.”
And finally, here’s Ian Bogost, the academic and game designer, writing for The Atlantic about the experience and significance of the AirPods:
After an hour with the AirPods in, listening to music and making a few calls while working, I lose the sensation that they occupy my auricle anymore. But unlike the corded buds, there’s no need to untether myself from the phone when I get up to do something else…I am connected to the phone, and therefore the world, without being tethered to it directly.
This makes the AirPods more than just a wireless headset; it puts the device squarely in the domain of voice assistants and devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Even as augmented and virtual reality promise to immerse users in space and information, speech offers a simpler answer that is no less science-fictional: Being able to talk at a computer and have it respond. Echo does so in the room, Siri on your phone, and AirPods right inside your skull.
Looking forward to a world where my wife and I no longer ignore each other at the dinner table as we fiddle with our phones, but where we fearfully keep our conversation down to the dimmest whisper lest we mistakenly wake the myriad smart devices lining the walls. At least it brings us closer together.
- Cannes Lions, the annual glitzy advertising festival, is happening this week, and I hear there are a couple of podcast shops in attendance. So watch out for possible stories coming out from that.
- Welcome to Night Vale has announced dates for its 2018–2019 world tour, which will take the podcast’s live show performance across 44 cities in nine countries. On a related note, the show turned six last Tuesday. Congrats! (Website)
- WAMU is launching something called The Pod Shop, “a three-month initiative that will train, support and promote local podcast producers.” Up to five people will be selected to participate, and they’ll get mentorship as well as a $2,500 funding award. (Website)
- “The podcasters who want you to stop listening.” (The Ringer) I’m here for all the Drew Ackerman love.
- Desus and Mero are heading to Showtime. Avail yourself of this fine profile. (The Brand is Strong)
- Afropop Worldwide has launched the third season of its Closeup podcast, which delivers “ten- to twenty-minute episodes that tell intimate stories about a musician or a moment in time and explore genres of music and social justice issues from Africa and the diaspora.” (Website)
- “Remember Pandora Radio? Recently logging on to my old Pandora account felt like meeting a former self.” (BuzzFeed Reader)
- I think I missed this earlier, but the trailer for Amy Schumer’s big $1 million+ Spotify podcast dropped not too long ago. (Apple Podcasts)
- Know what? You should be reading Andrew Liptak’s Pod Hunters column over at The Verge. His latest: “The witch who came in from the cold.”
- My latest for Vulture: In The Dark, season 2. (Madeleine Baran is a boss)
- Not directly related, but worth chewing over: “Why you can’t really trust negative online reviews.” (New York Times)