LONGEST SHORTEST WHY. Andrea Silenzi, creator of Panoply cult favorite Why Oh Why, is moving to Midroll to take over as the new host of Hillary Frank’s beloved parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. The change will kick in at the start of next year.
Frank has hosted The Longest Shortest Time since creating the show in 2010; it was housed in WNYC for a good stretch before moving over to Midroll in late 2015. (Following a later Midroll brand reorganization, The Longest Shortest Time would eventually be categorized under the Stitcher banner.) With Silenzi taking over hosting duties, Frank will move on to a new role as the show’s executive producer, where she will continue to work on the production and provide strategic guidance.
This development is the culmination of a long-running creative relationship between Frank and Silenzi. “So much of my work is influenced by Hillary Frank it’s embarrassing,” Silenzi said. “When I created my first online audio portfolio, there’s a telling hand-drawn tomato in the corner. Little plagiarist! After relaunching Why Oh Why with Panoply last year, I was given the incredible opportunity to hire Hillary as our show’s editor. Working with her to host Longest Shortest Time next year feels like the next logical step in our creative collaborations. I can’t wait to hear what we’ll make together.”
For Frank, the move also provides an opportunity to take on a broader view of her work with the show. “In our new roles, we’ll have the chance to invigorate the show with stories and questions and experiences that I’ve already been through, but are fresh and new for her,” she said. “This move will allow me to do many of the things I love — big-picture vision stuff, editing Andrea — and will add room for developing other projects, some that are already in motion (LST’s Weird Parenting Wins book) and some that I’m looking into. I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead and I’ll be sharing more on all of that down the road.”
What happens to Why Oh Why remains unclear. Silenzi first started the show as an independent project prior her to time working at The Slate Group (where she first served as the originating producer for The Gist), and Why Oh Why was formally brought into the Panoply network only last fall. Will Midroll eventually move to acquire the show, or will the podcast stay where it is? “You’ll have to ask Panoply,” replied a Midroll spokesperson. Silenzi declined to provide much clarity on her current employer. “I can only speak for myself, not the plans of Stitcher or Panoply, but even though ‘taking a break’ typically means ‘breaking up’ in relationship-speak, I can completely see myself getting back together with Why Oh Why in the future.”
“After 3.5+ years with The Slate Group, I couldn’t be leaving on better terms with Panoply,” she added. Silenzi will see out the rest of Why Oh Why’s run through the end of the year.
Another thing to consider: Silenzi’s appointment marks a pretty experimental turn for the show. Can The Longest Shortest Time, an affectingly personal parenting podcast, be effectively hosted by someone who isn’t actually a parent? As a childless twenty-something who consumes an inordinate amount of parenting content, I’m especially curious to see how this turns out.
I asked Midroll for more insight into their angle on this whole business. Chris Bannon, the company’s chief content officer, offered: “I’ve loved working with Hillary ever since she landed at WNYC, and one of my greatest pleasures has been watching her enlarge her conception of both the show and her role. With Andrea’s arrival as host, Hillary has a huge opportunity to grow LST (Andrea is a superb reporter and host, and she’ll bring in a bunch of new listeners, I’m betting). Everybody wins, Nick!”
Host–show fluidity. The Silenzi-Frank switcharoo is additionally interesting for prompting questions about where the power and identity of a production are rooted between a show and its creative lead. This isn’t just a fanciful theoretical inquiry; it presents material challenges for networks that are looking to acquire, invest in, and develop shows over long periods of time. Consider the operational reality that it’s much harder to build a show from the ground up — to figure out its personality in the market, to acquire a core listener base, to establish basic familiarities with advertising partners — than it is to adjust a show mid-flight. Then consider the ever-present threat of talent burnout or growing indifference (one is reminded of this writeup on Jad Abumrad’s sabbatical), which is an element that hasn’t quite made itself known so explicitly in this space so far, given that the stakes have hitherto been pretty low.
But the stakes are picking up, and networks will eventually find themselves in more situations where, should they encounter talent burning out or just wanting to work on something else for a while, they will have to choose either to retire an established show-in-progress, along with its preexisting identity and listener base and advertising relationships, or scout for a new voice to lead the production. On a sheer which-is-less-daunting basis, the choice would clearly be to try for the latter first every time.
Of course, the risk of simply plugging in a new lead is creative abomination, or worse: the over-projection of corporate utilitarianism. There’s something deeply uncanny for long-time listeners to be served the corpse of an old loved thing being animated by a newly installed face. But show host readjustments don’t have to be that morbid. They can, and should, instead be opportunities for excitement! Indeed, imagining a world of different show-host matchups is pretty intoxicating. What would, for example, Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s Love + Radio look like? Or Zoe Chace’s Embedded? Or Anna Sales’ Heavyweight?
Imagining those combinations bring us closer to what I think is the most interesting question of this whole business: when does a show transcend its creator? And how does a show develop an identity separate from the person who created it? Will we ever find out what’s on the dark side of the moon? I’ll come down from my high now.
The Oprah effect? If you compulsively thumb the Apple Podcast charts (as I do), you probably already know that Oprah Winfrey — media mogul, force of nature, subject of what is low-key the best podcast of late 2016 — has a show that’s been consistently floating around the top for a while now.
(You might also know that the podcast is essentially an RSS feed comprised of audio repackages of her Super Soul Sunday TV programming, which, you know, is one way of pumping stuff out for earballs. Side note: the equivalent product would be, say, repackaging selected Terry Gross interviews as transcripts to be bundled together and sold as books. It’s a great additional revenue stream for Terry Gross, her hypothetical book publisher, and her fans, but a flanking competitor for book-native authors. But we’re not here to talk about that.)
Anyway, Adweek published a writeup last week about how the podcast sold out all of its 2017 advertising slots really, really quickly.
In an experiment gone right, Winfrey and the team at the Oprah Winfrey Network decided to transform her Super Soul Sunday TV programming into a podcast called Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. The podcast launched on Aug. 7 and had no ads or partners until the show collaborated with Midroll Media in late October…So when Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations decided to open its doors to advertisers, advertising slots for most of the fourth quarter of 2017 sold out in about 24 hours.
The article goes on to quote Midroll’s head of sales, Korri Kolesa, touting an interpretation of this development’s significance for the medium:
Oprah’s show marks a big, pivotal moment for podcast advertising… On both the content and the advertising side of things, this is a spectacular entry point for brands that were waiting to align with something they’re comfortable with.
A couple of things:
- Midroll’s flex here is pretty remarkable. That the Oprah pod could only tap advertising dollars after getting hooked up to Midroll’s sales infrastructure — following two months or so of sitting dormant — and then did so in such rapid fashion suggests a few things about podcast advertising in late 2017: (a) there remains considerably high friction for advertisers to test the medium and for publishers to create attractive ad products on their own, (b) sufficient expertise and advertiser trust appears clustered among a small set of companies, and (c) Midroll is a particularly strong member in that set of companies.
- That said, this success anecdote only tells us something about Midroll’s capacity to secure new ad dollars for products with big-ticket names attached to them. It’s unclear to me, at this point of time, how these focus and incentive impact Midroll’s service to smaller, independent operations — the type of show often thought to be a good chunk of the company’s bread-and-butter before its 2016 acquisition by EW Scripps.
- It’s worth asking whether this story actually tells us more about Oprah than it does about Midroll. Viewed from that angle, there’s nothing particularly special about what happened here: Oprah, after all, is an unstoppable brand presence, and it may very well be the case that any media product developed with the OWN name would sell out no matter the container when plugged into the right sales infrastructure.
- If we assume that Kolesa is correct and that this marks some turning point for more big brand advertisers to jump into the medium, it remains to be seen whether those dollars will trickle down and out to the rest of the space. Several future scenarios are possible: (a) those dollars are kept within Midroll’s podcasts, (b) those dollars are kept within Oprah podcasts, or (c) those dollars are kept within celebrity podcasts.
The past year has seen a considerable influx of celebrity power into podcasting, and while that is most definitely beneficial for the growth of the overall pie, it’s also worth asking: what proportion of podcast industry growth in 2017 is driven by celebrity programming? And to what extent is it driven by talent native to the industry itself?
This, I think, is one of the more pressing lines of inquiry to watch moving forward.
No stranger. Last week, Radiotopia announced that Lea Thau’s Strangers, one of its founding members, is leaving the independent podcast collective at the end of the year to…well, be further independent, I guess? “I’m so deeply grateful for everything Radiotopia has brought me,” Thau wrote in the corresponding announcement post. “I love this network, what it stands for and the people in it. I’m also excited about my new chapter, and I want the fans to feel both of those truths in a real way.”
Taken at face value, it’s a curious development. Radiotopia’s entire reason for being, at least in my read of them, is to develop and maintain a whole new system that’s primarily geared towards supporting independent podcast creators. And from what I’ve heard, this includes, among other things: leaving member talent to fully own their intellectual property (a relatively uncommon stance), providing them with full creative freedom and high-touch access to really deep editorial support (though, by virtue of the network’s size, not a lot of production capital), and setting them up with the standard revenue share system you’d get just about anywhere else. The combination of those three things amounts to a pretty sweet deal for shows already on the up and up that are looking to outsource some processes, like advertising sales and technology support, but on the whole want to maintain firm creative control.
I can’t help but feel that there’s missing from the story here. Or maybe there isn’t, and this is just one of those natural departures that come out from a relationship organically fading away in the way that so many relationships do. In any case, this is Radiotopia’s second departure from the roster this year. In August, Megan Tan’s Millennial came to a close, citing creative burnout.
Radiotopia declined to provide further comment.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Something tells me we’re not done with this story yet.
Speaking of which…
Marking reality. Tamar Charney, NPR One’s managing editor, wrote me yesterday to flag something her team is beginning to do with the platform:
I was reading Hot Pod this morning and realized I should have let you know what we are up to in light of the podcasts that blend fiction and nonfiction. This week, we are going to start flagging podcast content that plays in the NPR One flow: if it is fictional or blends fiction and nonfiction. Polybius Conspiracy being the most well-known example and the one the prompted us to do this, but there seem to be more fiction podcasts masquerading behind documentary style storytelling. It’s like War of the Worlds is new again! But we want to make sure we are not adding to false narratives and fake news, by being clear about what is entertainment and what is journalism.
The Hot Pod in question was last week’s issue, which contained an item (“Bait and switch”) where I went over the way The Polybius Conspiracy — the most recent series in Radiotopia’s Showcase initiative — blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction even in its public presentation, which ultimately caused some listeners and reviewers, including myself, to erroneously approach the show as straightforward documentary.
(It should be further noted that the blurring could be read as not even being that extensive, as Night Vale’s Joseph Fink pointed out to me over Twitter. “I figured out it was fictional after first ep through literally one google search. So if journalists thought non-fiction, that feels like on them for not doing basic research, not on show for having framing device,” he wrote. Whatever the magnitude, I’ll nonetheless continue to cop to the screw-up on my end.)
Anyway. I, for one, greatly welcome the feature. I’m glad for any help I can get keeping a grip on reality.
Certified. Fresh off being (self-)declared the podcast capital of the world, the city of New York is taking another step in tightening its relationship with the industry. The Made in NY Media Center by IFP is launching the city’s first podcast production certification program, one that aims to be helpful in alleviating the industry’s flow of battle-tested talent. You can find more information about the program here. It is set to kick off in the new year.
Pass it on. It seems the fine folks over at Gastropod — who, by the way, I wrote a bit about in my recent Vulture piece on food podcasts — have been experimenting with a nifty audience development gambit.
As co-host Nicola Twilley writes me:
Instead of a pledge drive or a fundraising drive, we’re doing a share-athon. It came out of the finding from our listener survey that a really large chunk of our listeners found us from a recommendation from a friend/family. We decided to see whether we could incentivize that with a share-athon: prizes for referring 5 or more listeners. Figuring out how to actually make it work is a whole challenge in itself, but it’s up and running and we’re seeing the early results, tweaking as we go along…
We launched it a couple of weeks ago but it was slow to get off the ground at first — I think because we made it too complicated. We were looking for proof of subscription, which is basically impossible anyway, so we’re doing it on a trust basis now, and people are getting into it. We need to be doing a social media push around it, but it’s just the two of us and we have to get the episodes out too, so ….
I think there are probably all sorts of ways to improve on this — we were initially imagining a podcast Ponzi scheme, where by recruiting people you unlock additional layers of merchandise, etc. etc. — but we decided simplicity was best for this first year.
In some ways, you could read this as a take on The Skimm’s ambassador program, which I hear has proven to be an effective tactic in the past, except with eyes for a potential Ponzi scheme. You could also sketch connections between this and the #TryPod campaign from February, except that that coalition effort didn’t involve a material incentive structure.
People, they want the merch.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this, and will check back once the final numbers are tallied.
Notes from North of the Border, part two. It appears that my timing for this Canadian series was unexpectedly good. Last Tuesday, a more detailed version of the Canadian podcast listener report by Ulster Media/Globe and Mail was publicly released. You can find it here. It gets pretty hairy, and has some stats on smart speaker usage in the country.
Indian & Cowboy. Throughout the conversations I’ve had trying to get a sense of the Canadian scene, one independent operation — outside of Canadaland, which possesses a more complex profile in the country — kept surfacing as a source of hope: Indian & Cowboy, a member-supported media network committed to telling Indigenous stories, of which podcasts are a core part of the operations. Founded in 2014 by Canadian comedian Ryan McMahon, the network produces six in-house podcasts while serving as a distribution point for a few other shows with overlaps in editorial focus. “We are slowly making our transformation from simple podcast network to a media platform,” McMahon said.
The long-term goal, McMahon notes, is to build the company into an incubator for podcasts, journalism, film, and television projects by Indigenous makers. “We’re creating an ‘Indigenous Vice’ that scales and allows Indigenous Peoples around the world to tell their stories, their way, without intervention from Hollywood or other systems that have spoken for us and about us for far too long,” he said. “The truth is, at the top of the game, Indigenous Peoples are NEVER in the room. Look at the newest NPR diversity report — we are virtually invisible in our homelands. This is unconscionable in 2017, that we in North America just don’t bother to consider our perspective, our lives, our experiences.”
The company remains very small, running off shoestring resources and a small team of people. I’m told that it currently receives support from 223 paid members through Patreon, and that its site averages slightly under 17,000 unique visits.
McMahon promises that advances are on the way. Indian & Cowboy started working with an outside public affairs firm, MediaStyle, for assistance with a strategic plan, and it’s pursuing potential investment. “In the new year, people won’t recognize us as we have some very exciting news coming down the pipe,” he said.
Of the Canadian industry, McMahon suspects that the country’s lack of ready foundation support plays a considerable role in the industry’s relative quietness. “I think the Canadian podcasting space is similar to the U.S. space in terms of the goals — tell good, original stories with unique voices,” he said. “[But] at the top of the game, the big U.S. podcast networks have built successful models with the help of places like the Knight Foundation and other support like it. We can’t do that here in Canada — there are laws in place here that prohibit foundations and charities and the types of donations they can make.”
- Politico’s Morning Media newsletter yesterday had a useful juxtaposition of Crooked Media and Ben Shapiro’s podcast presences, working off two separate New York Times profiles: Pod Save America reportedly averages “1.5 million listeners per show,” while the conservative Ben Shapiro Show is downloaded “10 million times every month.” Note how the two data points are working on different scales, and that a unique listener is not the same as a single download.
- While we’re on the subject of Ben Shapiro, I’d like to re-up Will Sommer’s guest Hot Pod piece that ran while I was off on sabbatical.
- And while I’m cribbing from Politico’s newsletter, here’s something else they spotted: Cristian Farias, More Perfect’s legal editor, is joining the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute as a writer-in-residence.
- Reality TV personality Stassi Schroeder “loses [podcast] advertisers after allegedly criticizing #metoo campaign.” (NY Daily News) If you, like me, were wondering who exactly this person is, fear not: this is why Who? Weekly exists.
- This is interesting: the latest addition to The Ringer’s podcast network is a show by Philadelphia 76er JJ Redick. He previously had a show with Uninterrupted Media. (The Ringer)
- Still keeping an eye on the smart speaker beat: “Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo.” (Bloomberg)