Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 126, published July 5, 2017.
Happy Wednesday, folks! Glad you’re back. We’re going to kick off the newsletter a little differently this week.
Two things to sink your teeth into. I’m a huge fan of Melody Joy Kramer, who has created an invaluable public body of work over the years that pushes forward the nexus of technology, media, and public service. Her professional resume is astounding — including tenures at WHYY’s Fresh Air, the U.S. government digital services agency 18F, and the Wikimedia Foundation, where she serves now [not to mention being a Nieman Visiting Fellow —Ed.] — but I mostly keep up with her work through the column she writes over at Poynter. Her columns are whip-smart and always interesting, generally propelled forward with a rat-tat-tat briskness that ties expansive spreads of ambitious, often surprisingly practical ideas into digestible bundles. If there’s a governing theme over her work, I think it’s a drive to continuously push against the way structures stifle solutions.
Anyway, Kramer’s last two columns touched upon topics that are directly relevant to some of things we focus on here in Hot Pod: podcast discovery, and NPR. Let’s start with the former.
Podcast discovery. I’ve squeezed a fair bit of juice out of last month’s WWDC news — first with a broad overview of its significance, then going over industry reactions, and then spotlighting how it might make things more difficult for independents and semi-pros — and much of that juice has almost exclusively focused on the dollars and cents of it all, attending to the question of how the new data universe will ultimately impact the way money can, and will, flow through the podcast ecosystem. In my mind, data and its relationship to monetization is one of the defining problems of this space, which is why I spent a substantial portion of the past few newsletters on it.
But I did so at the neglect of the aforementioned podcast discovery, which has long been articulated as the other defining problem of the space. Indeed, the opening up of in-episode analytics has the potential to allow new ways into solving the discovery. Kramer’s column from June 20, 2017 offers a list of potential ideas of what such approaches can look like. An excerpt:
- Show me podcast episodes that at least 80 percent of people have listened to all the way through
- Show me episodes that are under a certain amount of time that at least 80 percent of people have listened to all of the way through.
- Show me podcasts that are not published by a major distributor that meet any of the criteria listed above. (In other words, show me the undiscovered gems. This also is likely a way for distributors to find new content to distribute.)
Kramer also spins out potential discovery categories that aren’t necessarily tied to the new analytics:
- Show me every podcast that was listened to multiple times.
- Show me all podcasts that have fewer than 50 episodes and 100,000 listeners. (In other words, show me the series.)
All of this, of course, is contingent on the new Apple analytics layer being transmittable to third-party app developers. I’m not sure whether that’s in the cards just yet, but nevertheless, Kramer’s list is a nice refresher of the many ways that new and relevant podcasts can be communicated to audiences beyond the three (relatively crude) discovery channels currently favored by Apple: the editorial front page, the podcast charts, and god-awful search engine.
Something else that stood out to me from the same column:
There are hundreds of questions on Ask Metafilter, Quora, Ask Reddit, and The New York Times Podcast Club asking for suggestions or recommendations for podcasts about certain topics, or podcasts for certain times of day, or podcasts that will make the listener smarter — regardless of topic.
But even then, if you look through the answers, you’ll see that many answers mimic the top suggestions in iTunes, which remains the biggest discovery mechanism for podcasts — in other words, it’s hard to discover podcasts not tied to a major publisher or distributor because most people discover podcasts through the same mechanisms, which favor the same major publishers and distributors.
One way to look at this: ordinary people recommend podcasts from the biggest publishers, because the biggest publishers have the built-in ability of reaching more ordinary people. It’s an example of a cultivated advantage, a state where “winners” get to continue accruing the benefits of “winning” in the first place.
The problem, of course, lies in questions about mechanisms for under-established, newer, or naturally smaller podcasts to break through, and whether the increasing success of winners necessarily translates to a crowding out of everybody else.
Reinventing NPR. Kramer’s other column of interest, dated June 27, has to do with NPR and its relationship to the wider public radio ecosystem. A couple of weeks ago, Kramer had asked myself and Current’s Adam Ragusea to play “fantasy NPR” — which is to say, we were asked to think how NPR could be restructured to better bolster the broader network of local public radio stations. That request came before the curious announcement by NPR news chief Michael Oreskes at the recent Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI) conference about “plans to roll out a regional hub system,” which I wrote about last week. For what it’s worth, I’m still skeptical about those plans until we get to see actual policy details — including, and especially, how they’re going to pay for it, which I guess is the eternal question of all serious journalism, other than “pivot to video?” — but in any case, I remain somewhat hopeful about the announcement. To not be hopeful, I think, would be unproductive.
Anyway, you can go over the thought experiment yourself — and yes, you can certainly decry the folly of thought experiments, even though I think they’re intellectually useful — but I want to highlight a core question that animated my contribution to Kramer’s column: in the current state of affairs, does a stronger NPR come at the expense of the wider network of public radio stations? What evidence is there to suggest that what’s good for the public radio mothership is necessarily and instantly good for all public radio stations, and how do we square that evidence with stories about tensions between the two parties?
This line of inquiry have become increasingly prominent in my head as I write more stories about NPR (particularly about its successes), and as the shadow of local journalism’s continued debilitation looms ever larger, my understanding of the relationship between NPR and member stations has shifted a fair bit. It also brings additional weight to past episodes, like the great NPR Podcast Promotion Kerfuffle of March 2016. On the one hand, it’s a story about public radio stations holding the mothership back from innovating and going direct. But on the other hand, it’s a story of the mothership potentially going over the heads of the stations they are meant to serve, perhaps to their detriment. That tension carries increasingly grave stakes, and it suggests the necessity of some structural realignment to resolve that tension.
Just a thought.
(1) SAG-AFTRA union negotiations are going on over at NPR, and if you trust Adam Ragusea’s reporting on the matter, it ain’t looking pretty. Hopefully we won’t be forced into having to reconcile the feel-good aura of NPR with ugly labor disputes, as we had to with StoryCorps. Yikes.
(2) And while we’re on the general theme of public radio, remember all the stuff that’s been going on at West Virginia Public Broadcasting? The last time I wrote about it back in April, the state senate had put the station’s funding back on the chopping block. It looks as if the episode has concluded with a 22 percent (or nearly $1 million) reduction in state funding for the state’s public broadcasting system, resulting in five layoffs, according to the Charleston Gazette. While not quite the doomsday scenario it could’ve been, it’s an incredibly tough situation. WVPB is a fine station doing incredible work in a state that needs more, good local media. It’s also a station with great shows (shouts to Mountain Stage) and at least one up-and-coming young talent: shouts to Joni Deutsch, a truly impressive human who has been doing some tremendously smart work as host and interviewer on A Change of Tune.
WNYC is partnering with the Museum of Modern Art on a podcast. The project is called “A Piece of Work,” and it features Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson as host. There will be, as you’d expect, a bunch of famous guests scattered throughout the episodes, including Questlove, Hannibal Buress, and Tavi Gevinson. I wrote up the news for Vulture when it dropped last week, but I wanted to add something here: the station considers the show an editorial product that comes out of an editorial partnership with MoMA. Which is to say, this project does not mark the station’s first foray into branded content production — something that WNYC originally hinted at with a job posting that popped in late March. (I flagged it in the April 4, 2017 edition of Hot Pod.) That job posting is no longer active, but it did mention that the candidate’s focus “will be creating original podcasts and bringing to life other cross-platform productions on behalf of our sponsor partners.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for whether WNYC will, indeed, continue down the road with that initiative.
Anyway, it’s been an interesting few months for New York Public Radio. News of this collaboration with MoMA comes days after WNYC announced that it will no longer be picking up the tab for PRI’s Studio 360, which is moving to Slate. (Speaking of which, where will the interns go now?) That development itself comes not too long after the launch of Nancy, its latest podcast, which finally saw the light of day after an excessively lengthy development period. Add to that an exceptionally strong run by Anna Sale and the Death, Sex, and Money team — do not miss the ongoing student loan series — and you have what looks like a pretty solid podcast operation gaining some good momentum.
But does it fulfill the image painted by Columbia Journalism Review, which portrayed WNYC as leading public radio’s transition to public podcasting? Eh, we’ll see.
Meanwhile, in the Antipodes…Edison Research rolled out the Australian version of its highly useful Infinite Dial report last week. Here are the useful bits:
- 72 percent of Australians are familiar with podcasting (compared to 60 percent of the American population), and 29 percent of Australians have listened to a podcast, compared to 40 percent of Americans.
- 17 percent of Australians reported having listened to a podcast in the last month (compared to 24 percent of Americans), with 25-54 year olds making up the largest share of monthly podcast listeners.
I’ll spare you the Australian puns.
Misinformation and the walled-off nature of podcasts. From McKay Coppins’ look into the growing impact of the “alternative left-wing media”:
The nature of the medium — walled off from the web and unplugged from social media — means that even irresponsible podcasts are not innately integral to the spread of sketchy information on the left. Many of the most popular podcasts, including those from the mainstream Democrats of the Crooked Media empire, are careful with their evidence and claims, working to debunk conspiracy theories, and hosting guests with a variety of views. And the gleefully vulgar champions of the “dirtbag left” at Chapo Trap House make a point of mocking the Russia conspiracists. Above all, what they offer their stressed-out listeners is a sense of community (plus plenty of discount codes for Blue Apron and MeUndies).
I’m not sure I buy this, mostly because misinformation and reality-warping ideological fervor has jumped off from other mediums that can be considered “walled off” from social media. (The main example of this is the contemporary reality of right-wing talk radio — which has had a hand in cultivating politically-motivated falsehoods to be spread further throughout the media ecosystem in the past.) I think it’s more likely that the reason we don’t see these podcast spread sketchy liberal-leaning information is simply because the most important and impactful ones, namely Crooked Media and Chapo Trap House, are fairly responsible to begin with. Which is to say, I don’t think social media is the end-all and be-all of falsehood and misinformation, not even in 2017.
That said, I do agree with Coppins’ more general framing of this emerging left-wing podcast universe as something of a mirror-image to right-wing talk radio “in the early days,” drawing attention to the similar function that both play to essentially build out a space for their respective ideologically aligned audiences to feel out and process the news. If there’s a real danger that the emerging universe of walled-off podcasts pose, it’s in that similarity: Both infrastructures allow for some serious ideological isolation.
Disarray. You might’ve heard that MTV News has been rocked with layoffs and a much-mocked “pivot to video.” If not, SPIN Magazine — bless ’em for still riding hot — has got you covered. The podcast team was not exempt from the hit; Mukta Mohan, Michael Catano, and Kasia Mychajlowycz are among those who were let go, and that’s just those that work only on audio. (Let me know if I missed anybody and I’ll flag them on Twitter.) Pick ’em up.
I’ve been following the podcast operation there pretty closely since it rolled out their first slate of shows last April, and I count myself as a fan of everything they’ve been up to. The Stakes was often inspiringly ambitious, the move to produce Rookie Magazine’s podcast was savvy, and I’ll stand for more North Mollywood, and for more Alex Pappademas and Molly Lambert in general.
Do yourself a favor and check out The Turnaround, the limited-run project by Jesse Thorn — he of Maximum Fun fame — where Thorn talks shop with famous interviewers about interviewing. At this writing, there are four episodes up already (featuring Ira Glass, Susan Orlean, Marc Maron, and Audie Cornish), and I can’t quite overstate how great this project has shaped up to be. Here are two things about The Turnaround that makes it eminently valuable:
- I really, really appreciate how Thorn centralizes the shop talk on “moves” in the interviewer’s toolkit, and that level of technical focus is pretty hard to come by, I think.
- Something must be said about the way The Turnaround is designed and packaged as a focused educational resource, and how that is all incredibly valuable. I’m sure you can draw similar lessons from bits and pieces of conversation scattered through the archives of Longform, Fresh Air, and WTF with Maron, but to have it all in one place is super useful.
Check it out, especially if you interview folks for a living, or aspire to.
- A couple of hires for American Public Media: Rehman Tungekar and Parker Yesko join investigative unit APM Reports as associate producer and reporter/researcher respective, while Lizzie Jacobs joins The Mash-Up Americans.
- Edison Research and National Public Media released their full smart speaker report last Wednesday. You can find it here.
- The Houston Chronicle, a local newspaper that still derives the majority of its revenue from print ads, has four podcasts as “part of a strategy to build more niche audiences, turn them into loyalists and, eventually, digital subscribers.” (Poynter)
- Pretty cool: Your favorite podcasts, reimagined as books. (Co.Design)