“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point.
At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)
It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.
Over the weekend, The New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant who wrote the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer at The Awl — about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship dynamics define the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:
(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence on the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of the company’s operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus toward services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)
(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman writes. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”
The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.
That distinction is notable, because the article drew criticism from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally came from Marco Arment, the creator of the relatively well-known podcasting app Overcast and something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)
Writing on his blog, Arment expresses a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow their businesses, these agitating companies will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium. Apple would take control over a previously open ecosystem, and all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space. The medium would naturally shift to a state that shuts out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.
“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”
I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)
But frankly, I’m torn.
On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins and generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop). I’d like the industry to wield cultural influence and become capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — at least, it’s incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what the professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for.
I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.
At the same time, I have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll — will collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.
Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”
The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?
It’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.
But what the hell: you can’t make an omelet without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.
Two more quick things:
- The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: Late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that group was a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
- Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following: “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘Yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”
Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:
There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.
I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same — progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.
It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.
One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell-out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g., “six degrees” before Facebook), maybe six years later we should give Listen Log another go.
Designing an elections podcast for the non-wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a U.S. presidential election going on and it’s all been absolute bonkers.
A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the NPR Politics podcast, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast, Mic and The Economist’s Special Relationship, Slate’s longtime stalwart Political Gabfest and the topically driven Trumpcast, MTV News’ The Stakes, The New Republic’s “Primary Concerns, Vox’s The Weeds (occasionally; the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and so on.
(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because…well, it’s my job, for one thing, and also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)
Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.
I recently talked to Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:
On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show…we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”
On the structure of the show. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, ‘every episode we will have this kind of segment,’ or ‘every episode we will do a certain thing.’ And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”
On the relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things that have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”
On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that. People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”
On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate have their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project is that it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”
You can find the pod here.
Reservations over dynamic ad insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geotargeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.
To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.
It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.
But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.
I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, Mack Weldon’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:
- Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at thirty seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just thirty seconds or less.” (I imagine the thirty-second cap may differ from platform to platform and from show to show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)
- Secondly, Willardson touched upon the arbitrage value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — an appealing feature for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it five years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by five years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”
- Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in fifteen-second skip button, a thirty-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.
I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detract from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.
- The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity, and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this.
- Eleanor Kagan is BuzzFeed’s new director of audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
- Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s creative team.
- “From out of nowhere, the U.S. Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)
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