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Insider: October 17, 2019

- Follow-up to Microcasts and Podcast Playlists - Upfronts Season - Smart Speaker Agita... and more!

Follow-up on Microcasts. So, I’m really happy with how Cherie Hu’s piece on microcasts and the podcast playlist turned out in this week’s issue — check out her newsletter, like and subscribe, etc. etc. — but if there was a specific idea that I was particularly struck by, it was the following observation: “Podcast studios making their episodes shorter for podcast playlists is reminiscent of record labels releasing truncated ‘radio edits’ of songs to make them more suitable for FM airplay.”

More than a few readers latched onto that line as well, though perhaps for slightly different reasons than myself. Personally, I was mostly awe-struck with the elegance of the parallel: “microcasts” are absolutely like radio edits.

Or at least, they seem to be driven by the same motivations. Which is to say: it’s an effort to modify an existing work with the purpose of better fitting that work into a specific distribution context. It’s not exactly the same, of course, because the actual challenges are different, but the logic strikes me as very much there.

For radio programmers, the challenge comes from the assumption that radio listeners are thought (imprecisely or otherwise) to be prone to fiddling with the dial, and so the expressed solution is to keep the experience moving such that costs to stay (i.e. the consumption friction) will ultimately work out to be lower than the costs of surfing the dial. That translates to reworking longer songs into shorter cuts, such that the overall experience involves a good amount of variation and switching. (Don’t like what you’re hearing? Not to worry, this moment will be over soon.)

Meanwhile, for on-demand audio programmers, the challenge is wrapped around the problem of getting people to pick something up in the first place. There’s long been an argument — held by some podcast publishers more so than others — that podcast episodes, in general, tend to index a little too much on the longer side. (Lots of historical reasons for this which we won’t unpack today, but they span things like: holdover reflexes from building programs for the radio, the innate nature of certain genres, so on and so forth.) So the working theory here, in my reading, is the sense that episodes longer than, say, 15 minutes tend to register as pretty heavy loads for most potential listeners (and, in particular, potential casual listeners). And so the move to implement a “microcast” edit, or whatever you want to call them, is to reduce the feeling of that heavy load.

Which brings us to the idea that a couple of readers wrote in to establish: instead of making “microcast” edits of longer existing episodes, why not just default to making shorter episodes instead? You can expand this idea with a further conundrum: it’s an interesting question, particularly if more listeners end up consuming the microcast version versus the original cut of the episode, thus possibly identifying the former version as “main” iteration of the episode at the end of the day. (I imagine the music version of this discussion is probably already well-worn among actual music industry nerds for decades.)

My personal answer to the question is fairly straightforward: because the people who actually make those podcast episodes says so.

All this resurfaces an underlying tension, one that’s long been present but is probably going to ramp up as distribution platforms become more aggressively hands on with the whole “expanding listenership”/”improve discovery” problem: between the creator and the distributor, who will/should ultimately have more of a say in the final experience within the broader pursuit for greater listenership? (Specific extensions of that idea: as a distributor, can you structurally foster a certain kind of commoditization… while proclaiming to be artist-friendly? As a creator, can you lean deeper into personal idiosyncrasies… while decrying underwhelming discoverability?

Nuts to chew on. On a somewhat related note…

Upfront Season. In addition to the Vox Media-specific one we wrote about: the IAB upfronts are happening today, Endeavor Audio is holding one by themselves next Tuesday, and Barstool Sports held an overall digital upfront — i.e. not specific to audio — this past Tuesday. And in case you’re wondering, participants in the IAB upfronts include: Authentic, ESPN, iHeartMedia, Market Enginuity, Meredith, Midroll, NPR, Slate, WarnerMedia, Westwood One, WNYC.

Upfronts season means takes, and here’s one from Digiday: “While last year’s IAB Upfront presenters focused, for the first time, on measurement and targeting, the unofficial theme of this year’s podcasting is platforms. Whether that includes events on stage — Pandora is a first-time presenter this year — or gossip off it, podcasting appears to be going in the direction of every other digital media format: dominated by a handful of platforms, with smaller individual publishers and networks getting creative to fight over what’s left.”

Not really sure I buy this. To begin with, you have to assume:

  • The IAB legitimately sets the agenda for the relationship between podcast publishers and advertisers, and

  • More broadly, any platform that newly walks into podcasting distribution automatically gets to dictate its terms; plus

  • A critical mass of publishers will automatically go along with a new value-cratering ad paradigm.

For what it’s worth, here’s my gut feeling:

  • I really do think it remains to be seen whether platforms will, at least in the short- to medium-run, command the advertising narrative;

  • Podcast publishers, particularly those who’ve lived through the high ad-value context of the past few years, will necessarily accommodate the commoditization; and

  • The IAB Upfronts… probably won’t be that important going into the future, or at least, won’t have the de facto centrality as far as staging the podcast advertising conversation is concerned.

Upfront season also means a bunch of random announcements from a bunch of different directions to fulfill a bunch of different goals. Among them are content partnerships, as in the case of Wondery expanding its relationship with NBC News, and iHeartMedia throwing Hollywood figure after Hollywood figure at the wall — see: Will Ferrell, Shondaland — which also yields the further effect of sending non-celebrity and non-Hollywood podcast talent down into a pit of despair.

But there are also myriad ad tech announcements, like AdsWizz and Nielsen announcing new tools and clients for existing tools, respectively, which highlights a narrative thread that we — or at least, we here at Hot Pod, I’m sure some fo you already live and breathe this — will ave to pay more attention to as we move forward: what appears to be a race to push podcast monetization to become on par with the rest of digital monetization… which will likely bring significant (and some would say deleterious) effects onto podcasting as we know it. One particular iteration to pay close attention to: on-going efforts build out an ad exchange for podcasts, something we’re already seeing from Megaphone, Art19, and Triton, plus the pre-established platforms with pre-existing ad exchanges in place like Spotify and Pandora, among others.

Anyway, that’s all the notes I have on this for now.

Miscellaneous Notes.

(1) What a line, out of context: “A typical dopamine fast involves abstaining from electronic devices, the internet, books and magazines, sex and masturbation, food, music, podcasts and all other stimulants.” Crazier in context. The piece, “Are tech bros who ‘dopamine fast’ full of shit?”, is from Mel Magazine.

(2) I did an… interview? Conversation? something?… with the Columbia Journalism Review over something called Galley on Tuesday. Hit a bunch of things, but one thing I wanted to re-up (if you allow me the indulgence of quoting myself) is this part of the convo:

Q: On a somewhat brighter note, some people (and companies) seem to see smart assistants like Alexa and Google Home as a new potential distribution and consumption pattern for podcasts, and we’ve seen a bunch of deal-making in that area recently. Do you see that kind of thing as having a bright future, or is it going to be a case of hope eclipsing reality?

A: Lol. So, maybe I’m in the minority on this, but why would smart assistants/speakers be a brighter note? We’re talking about distribution platforms that are: (a) completely governed by one of these big tech companies that’s distorting the markets (economic and social) in the first place, (b) closed to the point that the smart speaker ecosystem being a series of Big Black Boxes, analytics-wise, and (c) listening to us and gathering behavioral data in ways we still don’t quite know yet?

For the record, I really am mystified by this.