WONDERY RAISES $5 MILLION IN SERIES A. The round was led by Greycroft, Lerer Hippeau Ventures and Advancit Capital, with the participation of BAM Ventures, Watertower Ventures, BDMI, and Fox Networks Group. It’s worth a reminder that Hernan Lopez, Wondery’s CEO, is the former head of Fox International Channels, and Fox invested in the initial rollout of the company.
The Hollywood Reporter was given the exclusive. Note the following line: “Los Angeles-based Wondery has focused on building a pipeline of projects that can be adapted into film and television projects. It has optioned four of its series, including Sword and Scale and Tides of History, which are both set at Propagate Content.”
This makes explicit what has long been assumed about Wondery, and it is consistent with what appears to be an emerging content strategy for the company: rolling out anthology podcasts with broad themes (Business Wars, American History Tellers) that’s able to flexibly accommodate numerous stories to be tested for adaptation.
With this, Wondery joins Gimlet as two venture-backed content-first podcast companies whose growth propositions — at least, as articulated in their respective Series A fundraising rounds — are premised to some considerable degree on building dependable adaptation pipelines.
Does this suggest an environment in which intellectual property-development is a necessary key when it comes to unlocking further venture capital funding for production-oriented podcast companies? We’ll see.
On a related note: Lerer Hippeau and Advancit Capital also participated in the Series A funding round of Crypt TV, a digital network focused on developing horror and genre content. The Hollywood Reporter’s writeup notes that the company is looking at ways to brings its intellectual property to new formats, including podcasts.
Executive shuffle at Gimlet. For those keeping tabs:
- Caitlin Kenney is Gimlet’s new vice president of programming, shifting away from her previous role as vice president of new show development. Kenney was one of Gimlet’s earliest hires, joining the company in April 2015. She was also an OG Planet Money producer during the early Alex Blumberg-Adam Davidson era.
- Nazanin Rafsanjani is shifting away from her role as Creative Director at Gimlet Creative, the company’s branded content division, to take Kenney’s place as vice president of new show development. She begins the new role in two weeks.
- Annie-Rose Strasser joins Rafsanjani’s team as the new director of partnerships, acquisitions, and internal development. She was previously an editor in the company.
- The company will soon begin searching for a new creative director for Gimlet Creative. For now, Nicole Wong, a senior producer on the team, will serve as interim director.
These personnel shifts come as Gimlet rethinks its approach to new program development. An all-staff email circulated earlier this year emphasized a focus on “Fiction; Collaborations; and New Formats, like Chompers for Alexa.”
The company’s spring slate is due to be announced soon.
Night Vale Presents adds another show to its roster: Drew Ackerman’s Sleep with Me, the super-great, super-weird podcast designed to help lull listeners to sleep with surreal, semi-stream-of-consciousness stories. Sleep with Me was previously on Feral Audio before the network abruptly ceased operations in December following abuse claims levied at its founder, Dustin Marshall. Several podcasts from the network have since migrated over to Starburns Audio, which was formed by Feral Audio CEO Jason Smith in the wake of the controversy, but it appears here that Ackerman has chosen to do otherwise.
It’s a good fit. Night Vale Presents is doubling down on its eccentricities, and Sleep with Me most definitely falls well within that style. Groovy.
(1) Conservative enfant terrible Ben Shapiro is taking his podcast act to the established right-talk talk radio universe, where it will be repackaged into an hour-long format for the 5 p.m. slot in seven markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, and Atlanta. Westwood One is syndicating the program and announced that advertising time has been sold out. Broadcast began yesterday. Politico has the writeup.
According to Westwood One, the podcast version of The Ben Shapiro Show apparently brings in 15 million downloads per month. It publishes every weekday. For the record, Westwood One hosts their shows with Omny Studio, the Australian podcast platform company, which purports to conform to the IAB’s newest standards.
(2) The New York Times and American Public Media’s repackaging of The Daily for broadcast radio kicked off its run yesterday. Sixteen public radio stations have committed to the program, which will air after 4 p.m. ET.
Stations include KPCC in Los Angeles; WOSU in Columbus; KALW in San Francisco; KOPB in Portland, Ore.; KUOW in Seattle; and KOSU in Oklahoma City (Thunder up) — some of which, one might argue, are markets where The Daily’s reach as a podcast aren’t as strong.
You can find the full list in this press release.
(3) Last week, NPR released its latest ratings update, declaring that the organization has “maintained its highest ratings ever” — seemingly preserving the audience gains enjoyed during the particularly ear-grabbing 2016 presidential election.
In the press release touting the achievement, the public radio mothership also singled out its efforts in building podcast-to-broadcast crossovers. “Shows like Ask Me Another, TED Radio Hour, Invisibilia, and It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders were conceived as both podcasts and broadcast programs from the start,” the release wrote. That Invisibilia is mentioned here as being created with an eye towards broadcast from the start is…new to me. (Update: I was later told that this had been the plan all along, as evidenced in this press release from December 2014.)
Anyway, I dug around, and it seems NPR has only put out four press releases for ratings. Thought it might be interesting to break out two noteworthy categories:
- From March 28, 2018: “NPR’s monthly podcast audience continues to reach new heights with 20.4 million unique users and a staggering 103.1 million global unique streams and downloads. (Source: Splunk, NPR Podcast Logs.)” This is with 42 active programs.
- From October 25, 2017: “NPR’s monthly podcast audience continues to reach new heights with 15.5 million unique users and 82 million downloads. (Source: Splunk.)” This is with 41 active programs.
- From March 15, 2017: “NPR podcasts are heard by over 4 million listeners every week — that is a 47% increase compared to a year ago.” This is with 37 active programs.
- From October 18, 2016: “In the month of September, NPR’s combined podcasts had 63 million unique downloads, nearly double its closest publisher.” The release does not mention how many podcasts were active in this period.
Total weekly listeners
- From March 28, 2018: “According to Nielsen Audio Fall 2017 ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations is 37.7 million people.”
- From October 25, 2017: “According to Nielsen Audio Spring 2017 ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations reached an all-time high of 37.7 million.”
- From March 15, 2017: “According to Nielsen Audio ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations reached an all-time high of about 37.4 million in the fall of 2016 — a nearly 4 million person increase from the same period in 2015.”
- From October 18, 2016: “The total weekly listeners for all NPR stations are about 36.6 million.”
The “nearly 4 million person increase” noted in the March 2017 release is interesting, and it reminds me to flag this episode of Current’s The Pub podcast from October 2016, which tries to unpack the organization’s ratings jump that took place around that period. The findings apparently came down to some mix of: “network-station collaborations to improve the content and promote it better; methodological changes to how Nielsen collects ratings data; and, of course, the most bonkers election in living memory.”
Oh boy, really went down a rabbit hole on that one.
Anyway, I think the most interesting — and most accurate, I’d argue — lens to read these three developments as a trend is how it depicts efforts by broadcast-oriented companies to capitalize on gains in on-demand audio for the purposes of reinforcing core broadcast operations and business models.
Is this “one step forward, two steps back” situation, or the dialectical outcome of how the innovation narrative typically works out over the long run?
Two opportunities for newcomers:
- Spotify is doing something they’re calling the “Sound Up Bootcamp,” a weeklong all-expenses-paid intensive program targeting “aspiring female podcasters of color.” Ten applicants will be selected, and it will be held in New York City. Note: the program culminates in a pitch session, where three pitches will get to have their pilots funded up to $10,000. The workshop will be led by independent media consultants Rekha Murthy and Graham Griffith. You can find out more information here.
- The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, together with the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, is gearing up for the second cycle of its Podcast Certificate Program. NYC MOME policy analyst Anna Bessendorf writes: “The Podcast Certificate Program is deeply committed to increasing the diversity and range of voices in the industry, which has been largely homogenous. The internships that have served as both training and access points for many members of the podcasting industry simply aren’t attainable or feasible for most people, and so we’re trying to fill these gaps in access with this program.” Applications open today, deadline April 12. More info here.
On the brink. The Bright Sessions hasn’t finished its run yet, but it’s already going out on a high note. The popular fiction podcast is in the middle of its final season, having announced a few weeks ago that it would be wrapping up after 56 episodes on June 13, but the production isn’t done flexing its muscles. Recently, it celebrated its 50th episode with a special musical edition. Fun!
Anyway, here’s the pitch for the unfamiliar: The Bright Sessions is a science-fiction podcast premised on recorded therapy sessions with people in possession of supernatural abilities. Vox.com’s Tanya Pai described it as a mix of “The X-Files and the HBO psychotherapy drama In Treatment,” which is pretty spot-on, given that the show makes its meal playing around with the found footage format (much favored by fiction podcasts over the past few years), conspiracy theory territory, and interesting character work. Anyway, I enjoy it, and it’s been really interesting to watch this small, scrappy show grow over time.
The podcast is the brainchild of Lauren Shippen, a Los Angeles-based writer, voice actor, and actress. In the classic way that these things go, she created The Bright Sessions in large part as a way to give herself her own shot. “I knew I wanted to make something for me and my friends to act in and I’d had this idea of a girl who time travels when she has panic attacks,” Shippen told me when we connected over email recently.
Her decision to build the project as a podcast had a lot to do with affordable autonomy and accessibility — Shippen talked about wanting to do all the pre- and post-production herself — but also, the format suited the story she wanted to tell. “Once I started thinking of this character, I realized that putting her in therapy would be the perfect way to tell her story and also take full advantage of the audio-only format,” she said. Plus, the commitment to audio means not having much need to worry about visual effects, which comes in pretty handy for a story packed with fantastical elements.
Shippen wrote the first nine scripts in the summer of 2015, and rolled out the first episode later that November. Initially working alone, she eventually pulled together a supporting team: sound producer Mischa Stanton, composer Evan Cunningham, graphic designer Anna Lore, and consultant Elizabeth Laird (who is also Shippen’s sister). The show is pure DIY, mostly recorded in bedroom closets and the occasional studio for big group scenes.
This is a glowing mini-profile, so you can probably tell what happens from here. Ten episodes turn into twenty, episodes turn into seasons, individual narratives turn into story arcs. And by this writing, The Bright Sessions has become an achievement by no small means. The podcast just crossed over the 9 million download mark off its shoestring budget. It’s being developed for television by Dark Horse Entertainment and UCP. And it’s led Shippen to a three-book publishing deal with Tor Teen, the MacMillan imprint.
Consider it an investment that’s paid off. The podcast was largely supported throughout its run by a mix of advertising and Patreon support, with the latter carrying most of the weight through the backing of more than 1,200 patrons. “All those funds enable me to pay everyone on the team, pay for equipment and whatever else we might need,” she told me. But Shippen didn’t draw any wages for herself until this final season, mostly relying on an at-home data entry job to pay the bills.
That said, even though she’s currently accrued a bunch of new opportunities, she remains uneasy about letting her data entry job go. “While I could now drop that and write full time, I think I still have the mentality of ‘this could all go away tomorrow,’ so it seems like asking for trouble to quit an easy, flexible side gig,” she said. “But with everything I’ve got coming in the next 10 months, I think I’ll probably be moving to full-time podcaster/author by the end of the year.”
And there’s a lot coming. There’s still a good deal left for Shippen to do with The Bright Sessions. Her team is working on nine bonus episodes and two spin-offs to be released over the next three years as a result of meeting their Patreon goals. There is also the matter of the television adaptation, which she’s working with veteran TV scribe Gabrielle Stanton to produce, and her publishing deal with Tor Teen, which has her writing three Bright Sessions novels for the YA market. “I’ve just turned in the first one to my editor and I’m so excited for people to read it,” she said. “I’ve been a big YA book reader my whole life — I still read mostly YA — so this part of my career has really been a dream come true.”
But she’s also working to expand her work with audio dramas. Shippen tells me that she’s also developing a few different projects separate and apart from The Bright Sessions. No official details just yet, though she did note that she hopes to release the first in mid-2019. “I absolutely adore working in audio fiction…there’s so much flexibility and creative freedom,” Shippen said. “Regardless of what happens in my career, I can’t think of a time when I’ll want to stop making audio fiction.”
Shippen on the state of audio drama. During our email exchange, I shot off a throwaway question to get her thoughts on how far fiction podcasting has come, and where it’s going. She sent back a great, lengthy response, and I’m just going to cede the floor here because there’s a lot packed into it and I don’t want to lose an inch of context.
Audio dramas have had such a massive boom these past few years and I really hope that continues. I think it will. Especially now that big studios like Marvel are getting involved in audio fiction, I think we’ll start to see more and more big productions with famous actors.
That’s a bit of a double-edged sword in my opinion. On the one hand, I definitely ascribe to “rising tide lifts all boats” — if big studios make good shows that pull listeners into the medium, it’s good for all of us. On the other hand, I am a little wary about people using audio fiction as a place to make proofs of concept for TV or film. I think a lot of audio dramas will make amazing TV shows — I’ll certainly be the first one to tune in to the Night Vale Presents shows and I’m really excited about what we’re developing for a Bright Session TV show — but there’s a difference of intention. I certainly never intended for The Bright Sessions to exist in other mediums and, while I’m excited about the prospect of telling the story in different formats, the podcast is the podcast and can stand all on its own. I’ve heard a little bit of chatter in LA about how podcasts can be a great place to develop IP and I don’t love that. I’d rather people get into audio fiction because they appreciate the storytelling medium for what it is. The end goal should always be making a good audio drama and if other stuff comes along with that, great. But don’t make a podcast because you want to tell that story in another medium and podcasts are just less expensive. I want big studios to get involved in the medium, but I would be sad if their proofs of concept edged out all the amazing independent producing that’s going on.
All that said, I think there’s so much to be explored in audio fiction for both independent producers and big-budget studios. The medium has definitely been dominated by sci-fi and horror for a long time and there are so many other genres that could work really well in audio. We’re starting to see that already — 36 Questions and The Fall of the House of Sunshine have both proven, in very different ways, that a musical podcast can work. Steal the Stars showed me that audio can do sex and romance just as well as any other medium; Wooden Overcoats still makes me laugh more than most of the sitcoms on TV. There’s so much swinging for the fences that’s happening and that’s paying off and I hope that will continue.
I think the biggest shift I’ve seen is the move away from the found-footage format. The Bright Sessions starts this way and some of my favorite audio dramas have this conceit. And it absolutely works. But I think the podcast audience is a lot more willing to listen to a more traditional “radio play” format that we initially gave them credit for. I think we’ll continue to see found footage stuff because when it works, it really works, but that’s been the biggest storytelling shift I’ve noticed in the industry in the past three years.
As for what I’m hoping to see…I think there’s massive opportunity to tell an immersive, multimedia story with podcasting. Some of these things already exist — the app Zombies! Run!, Panoply’s The Walk. Both of these mix a story with a degree of listener participation and I think there’s so much room for that kind of stuff going forward. A choose-your-own-adventure podcast, a mystery podcast where you have to solve something to get the next episode, a drama in the vein of the Norwegian teen show Skam that uses social media to expand its world and story — I don’t know what it’s going to be, but there’s going to be an audio drama that gets the listener involved. There are so many Gen Z-ers who love audio dramas and those kids know how to use technology and multitask to a degree that even I, at the advanced age of 26, find mind-boggling. I know I’m biased because I love making content for young people, but I definitely don’t hear a lot in the industry about teens and podcasts. There’s a big wave of audio fiction for kids, which is awesome, but students 15-22 are super into audio drama and incredibly engaged. I personally would love to make more content for young people and integrating technology into it would be a very cool challenge.
- ICYMI: “New Trial Upheld for Adnan Syed of ‘Serial'” (The New York Times)
- Amazon and Google have filed patent applications that “outline an array of possibilities for how devices like these could monitor more of what users say and do,” suggesting one way that the future of these smart speaker devices, which are closed ecosystems, could unfold. (The New York Times)
- Shouts to The Ezra Klein Show for getting a recorded interview with Mark Zuckerberg, but man, those host-read ad breaks are soooo uncanny valley. (Vox)
- The Atlantic adds a third show to its portfolio with the Derek Thompson-led Crazy/Genius, and brings in Katherine Wells as the publication’s first executive producer of audio. Wells was previously the executive producer of Gimlet’s Every Little Thing. (Press release)
- Starting today, The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything podcast is switching from a biweekly to a weekly publishing schedule. This comes as the publication expands its audio team after securing support from a new sponsor: Accenture. (Show page)
- Keep an eye on Spotify producing original audio shows: Last week, the streaming platform announced Déjà Vu, a new podcast in partnership with Genius. The two companies already collaborate on the former’s Behind the Lyrics feature. (Press release)
[photocredit]Photo of NPR West studio by The Mitziken Revolution under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]