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 136, published October 17, 2017.
60dB → Google. Google has acqui-hired the team behind 60dB, the personalized short-form audio app. The team, which goes by the name of Tiny Garage Labs, announced the move last Tuesday, and a Google representative confirmed the development to Business Insider. As part of this arrangement, the app will shut down on November 10.
The development originally surfaced in an unlisted Medium post that appeared to be prematurely published back on September 16. That post was eventually taken down, but you can check out screenshots of the draft here. Note the details that didn’t make it to the final announcement copy.
The acquisition sum was not publicly disclosed, and it is unclear from last week’s announcement where, exactly, the 60dB team will be situated within Google. (That unlisted Medium post, however, holds a clue, though no guarantees on its ultimate validity.) That said, I’m told that the editorial team — made up of three full-time staffers in Austin, San Francisco, and London, whose duties include production and the management of a network of freelancers — will indeed follow the rest of the company to the Googleplex.
Tiny Garage Labs’ pickup by Google takes place two years after its founding, and about a year after 60dB went live. The company was founded by two former Netflix executives, John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon, along with former Planet Money reporter Stephen Henn, who vociferously outlined his reasons for leaving the public radio system in a Medium post (what else?) published early 2016. “The biggest threat to NPR — and the 900+ member stations that are the life-blood of the public radio system — is that this big beautiful crazy system may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” Henn wrote. “I want to help.”
60dB’s original premise broadly echoes ideas of platforms past. Its aim is some combination of solving the inefficiencies ingrained in the traditional broadcast radio experience — if you’re hearing something that you don’t want, your moves are either to switch across a relatively limited selection of channels or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station — and the newer inefficiencies that have emerged from the theoretically infinite choice horizon introduced by the Internet, including breakdowns in discovery and curation. The nature of the solution is twofold: (1) to usher in an audio creation environment in which the atomic unit of content is not an individual episode (whose lengths, as any podcast listener can tell you, range widely) but a short, individual story piece; and (2) to match listeners with appropriate stories through “algorithmic personalization.” (Which reminds me: best to keep abreast of the various recent discussions, debates, and diatribes about the intersection of news and algorithms.) The theoretical upside for publishers is also familiar: in theory, these short-form audio pieces, should publishers choose to produce them, will (presumably) be consumed by more listeners as a result of these solved inefficiencies. As far as monetization goes, who knows. “Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience,” cofounder Ciancutti told me last November. “Monetization will come next.” Okay.
60dB poses a strikingly specific interpretation of the digital audio consumption future, one that doesn’t naturally follow from the current configuration of the on-demand audio ecosystem and requires the development of whole new systems and environments. Which, I suppose, is why Tiny Garage Labs ended up at Google two years in as opposed to sticking it out alone; it’s a big vision that requires big investment in big manual constructions, which I imagine isn’t very attractive to VC money. A considerable portion of the company’s content value proposition involve a hands-on, sprawling production of individual story units — led by the aforementioned three-person editorial team — by an array of manually facilitated publishing partners, ranging from Wired to The Atlantic, which is a workable but not terribly scalable system without either building out an internal editorial headcount or cultivating a client culture in which publishers shell out for their own internal short-form audio teams. Now that the team is heading to Google (nobody’s idea of an organization that’s accepting of manual labor) I’m hard pressed to think that the manual production portion of the process will last very long. (Perhaps it’s time to pay close attention to the text-to-speech category.)
In any case, all of this discussion is moot unless we know just how Tiny Garage Labs — with its short-form, algorithm thesis — will fit into Google’s apparatus. (If it gets slotted meaningfully into somewhere, of course. Google acqui-hires all the time, and sometimes those absorptions grow into something, like Songza becoming the template for Google Play Music, and sometimes they amount to not very much at all, like FeedBurner.) One emerging theory: 60dB seems like a good entry point for news distribution via the tech giant’s recently announced foray in the emerging smart speaker category, the vaguely IKEA-reminiscent Google Home line. Indeed, the Amazon Echo has been getting a lot of love from publishers playing around with daily briefing Alexa skills. In 60dB, Google now has their means to play catch-up, if indeed they want to catch up at all.
So, what does this acquisition mean for anybody other than Google and everybody who held equity in Tiny Garage Labs? Really, what does this mean for publishers? As always, it comes down to how you feel about dominant platforms, and in particular, how you feel about Google’s position as one of the two corporate octopi that make up the so-called duopoly. It also depends on your feelings about Google’s ever-evolving relationship with the media industry, which nowadays is being funneled through its various Google News divisions, and whether you’d be comfortable operating in an environment largely defined by a much larger entity whose motives are never quite aligned with yours, whose processes of learning might be destructive as much as (perhaps even more so than) it is constructive. This isn’t a moral calculus, mind you. It is a calculus of practicality.
Tiny Garage Labs starts work at Google this week.
Will people pay for podcasts? Maybe. How about children? “We were waiting until we had a project that really made sense for the business model,” Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers said, reflecting on a long-standing interest in the potential of paid podcasts. “The idea here, as with Netflix, is to sell something that simply couldn’t be found anywhere else.”
In this instance, that something is audio programming for children, which is the substance of the new paid listening service that Panoply announced a few weeks ago. The service is called Pinna, and for $7.99 a month (or $79.99 a year), parents can blanket their offspring with a variety of kid-oriented audio products, including podcasts and audiobooks. The service was first officially announced through a New York Times write-up in early October.
Pinna emerges as a fairly elegant solution to a key problem in the kids’ podcast category: that of its monetization. Under the current industry environment in which podcasts are principally ad-driven, the prospect of children’s programming has been limited by a general uneasiness about letting kids be an advertising target in the so-called intimate medium of podcasts. (The very nature of its effectiveness is also its downside). Interest in children’s podcast programming has surged over the past few months, with the industry seeing the emergence of a few notable initiatives to capitalize on it, including the formation of a loose collective known as Kids Listen and a foray into the genre by NPR, called Wow in the World, which is really an initiative driven by hosts Guy Raz (of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, and a former Nieman fellow) and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas working through their own production company, Tinkercast. These efforts were great signals of intent and ambition, but these initiatives never quite appeared to meaningfully grapple with alternatives beyond assailing children (and their parents) with mattress ads.
Building a paid subscription service has always been an option on the table for anybody game to take it, of course. But that route requires not only significant resources but also a willingness to attend to an even bigger question, one constantly uttered around the industry: can you actually get people to pay for podcasts? Which is to say, can you start selling a media product that’s largely available to consumers for free, whose very origins are tethered in a tradition of free-ness? (Which is separate from the original question of Audible, as a culture and expectation of payment around audiobooks has been established since the very beginning.) And so here we are, with Panoply’s attempt to answer the twin questions of paid and children’s podcasting, which comes in the form of a service called Pinna, named after that weird dip in the outline of your ear. (Cute! Also, gross.)
Bowers pegged the origins of the project to a panel at WNYC Greene Space last February, when an attendee asked about the prospect of children’s programming. But the project only meaningfully began development about a year ago, when Panoply was able to get its parent company, Graham Holdings, on board with the idea. In January, the company hired Emily Shapiro, a veteran in children’s programming and the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, to lead the project, which was then almost entirely produced in-house. The hire was not made public. “We didn’t want to tip our hand,” Bowers said. (Classic.)
Pinna’s inventory is built on a mixture of licensed material, like stories from Rabbit Ears Entertainment (Panoply serves as its exclusive online distributor), and original content, like the new Gen-Z Media show The Ghost of Jessica Majors. I’m told that there’s no hard and fast ratio between licensed and original content, but the composition naturally favors acquired content at the moment. To describe the platform’s trajectory, Bowers once again evoked Netflix, pointing out how that service’s offerings started out with licensed content, before the data gathered — through the app’s own in-episode listening analytics capabilities, which Pinna will boast — allowed it to start making focused choices with original program development. (By the way, it’s probably worth noting that most of Pinna’s resources are allocated to original programming.)
It should be noted that Pinna content won’t exclusively live behind its paywall. If you were to wander around your nearest podcast app listings, you would find the Pinna podcast feed, which features many of Pinna’s original content for free, without ads, but those episodes won’t be available indefinitely. (Which is to say, it will be an ever-evolving feed.) The feed exists in part to serve as a customer acquisition funnel, but Bowers maintains that it’s also driven by a civic orientation. “The hope is to have the content be accessible to children from across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he explained. “This is something I wanted from the very beginning.”
Let’s see where this goes. It’s only been a few weeks, and I’ll swing back after a month or so — preferably having commandeered someone’s App Annie account — to check in on the early stages of the gambit.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
(1) So, Pinna isn’t the first example of an attempt to answer the question “Will people actually pay for podcasts?” (Which is a claim I’ve seen floating around, weirdly enough.) We have Audible, obviously, which still endeavors to build out an original content business on top of its primary audiobook-driven engine. And we also have Midroll’s own forays with the service formerly known as Howl, now genetically melded with Stitcher after Midroll’s parent company Scripps acquired the app from Deezer last summer. Midroll still seeks to build out a premium layer to that app configuration, primarily with its own adventures in windowing (as we saw with Missing Richard Simmons). With that in mind, I will say that Pinna strikes me as the first attempt at paid podcasting that’s strategically interesting. Audible and the Stitcher-Howl frankenstein both compete in the marketplace with inventory that’s virtually undifferentiated from much of what’s available for free over the open ecosystem. Pinna, for all that it is, is a reach toward an audience segment that hasn’t been properly cultivated among podcasts just yet, and offers products that still haven’t been “priced” as free within the ecosystem’s context. With that value prop in place, I think they have a good chance to extract at least some value.
(2) Speaking of which: why hasn’t Audible original content division made a play for the kids category? David Markowitz, a Hot Pod reader and audiobook production veteran, laid out a theory: “Audiobooks are the piece that gives [Audible] its value. Which is exactly why Audible doesn’t want to go there…they don’t want to fracture their audience,” the reader wrote in. “Kids audiobooks have never done well in Audible, though they do great in libraries. Parents love them. BUT within the Audible token system, a 15-minute kids’ book costs the same as a 14 hour sci-fi epic. So within that market, they’re stupidly overpriced.”
I asked Bowers for his thoughts. True to form, he avoided speculating much. “I’m surprised that they haven’t done it,” Bowers replied. “But I’m glad we got there first.” Sassy man.
(3) Additionally, Pinna is a notable example of a genre-specific listening app, a category that mirrors some of what we’re seeing in the OTT video sector (see AMC’s Shudder and the now-defunct Seeso.) Of course, Pinna isn’t the only effort in this category. Curious observers should check out an independent app called VSporto, which focuses on sports, and Laughable, which focuses on comedy content that more or less plays within Earwolf’s lane.
(4) One more: Pinna is the latest in what appears to be an increasingly sprawling set of businesses conducted under the Panoply banner, adding to a list that includes original content creation, ad sales, branded content production, and technology solutions (in the form of Megaphone). At what point is it diversification, and at what point is it madness?
No Pain is Novel. Ben Johnson, the former host of APM’s Marketplace Tech who recently moved over to WBUR, tweeted this at me a few days ago, probably in a moment of frustration as he develops a new show:
Dear @nwquah can you investigate the podcast name gold rush that has created a world in which no name hasn’t been taken.
— Boo Brock Johnson (@TheBrockJohnson) October 13, 2017
*flashes of domain-squatting trauma*
Holding position for new Apple analytics. The iOS 11 update kicked in while I was away, and while listeners have received a brand new re-designed Podcasts app (complete with new episode listing formats), the long-awaited in-episode analytics layer — previously pegged to the update — is still nowhere to be seen. I’m told that it will come later this year, even though there isn’t much year left.
Publishers, it seems, will have to keep holding their breath. “It’s like Waiting for Godot,” one executive said to me recently. In the meantime, you can check out (or re-read) my previous coverage on the matter here and here.
In other blasphemous news, I do find myself missing the Old Podcast App.
The Third Coast Festival announces its award winners. They include: Stitcher’s The Longest Shortest Time, Love+Radio, Youth Radio, Gimlet’s Heavyweight, Radio Ambulante, Radio Diaries, Serial Production’s S-Town, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, independent producer Laura Irving, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s PocketDocs, and Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. Full descriptions here. Congrats to all!
The numbers. I’ve got some download numbers, and we’ll keep running them like baseball stats until the download paradigm stops being relevant.
- Dirty John, the salacious true crime collaboration between LA Times and Wondery, has picked up some heat since launching in early October. It started the week with 4.4 million downloads across its six episode run (~733k per episode average). Bolstered in part by a big Apple Podcast feature banner splash, the show has held the top spot of the charts over the past two weeks.
- Elsewhere, the Snap Judgment spin-off Spooked, broke a million downloads across five episodes (~200k per episode average) in its first month.
- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s successful regional true crime podcast, Breakdown, will soon welcome its fifth season, and it celebrates the new cycle by sending out a press release in which the paper claims the podcast has received over 8 million downloads across 36 episodes, four seasons, and two years
The last five weeks. A month and a week is both a lot of time and not a lot of time at all. It follows, then, that a lot can happen without very much actually happening at all. Such is the feeling of the past few days, a good portion of which I spent scanning my inbox, Pocket archives, and various source pools to get a sense of a macro-story that’s emerged over the Hot Pod Hiatus of Fall 2017. Alas, I could find no such organizing narrative, so forgive my lack of comprehensiveness as I list out a couple of narrative threads that stood out during the hiatus:
(1) The industry wasn’t done with fundraising. Both Acast and Anchor drummed up new pots of money in September ($19.5 million in Series B and $10 million in Series A, respectively). Meanwhile, Gimlet Media secured an additional $5 million from WPP, the global advertising giant, for its recent $15 million Series B round, which is being principally positioned as a sign of confidence from a major player in the advertising community.
(2) HowStuffWorks has officially spun off from its parent company, a digital advertising company called System1. Now operating as an independent entity, it will weather its newfound freedom with a $15 million Series A fundraising round led by the Raine Group (background here). This development comes shortly after the nearly two decade-old Atlanta podcast company noticeably dedicated some investment to building out a West Coast operation, one oriented around the stalwart comedy podcast genre. That Western Conference — it’s still very competitive.
(3) Crooked Media, the new-age progressive digital media company founded by former Obama staffers that’s been primarily operating as a podcast network, has officially expanded into blogging. Or digital text. Or whatever you wanna call it. In any case, the budding media empire has begun its inventory diversification, taking on a distinctly Ringer-esque quality. My buddies at Nieman Lab published a pretty good interview with the company’s new text editor-in-chief, Brian Beutler, who was swiped away from the New Republic.
(4) I’ve never received more texts, emails, messages — from podcast execs all the way to casual Hot Pod readers — for a single podcast news story than I did for that TMZ story on the controversy hitting PodcastOne founder and chairman Norm Pattiz, which came with the headline: “PodcastOne Founder Sued: ‘He Pulled a Gun to Intimidate Me Into Fudging Podcast Data.'” Tabloid headlines being tabloid headlines, it’s always worth clicking through and assessing the details, and it’s worth noting that Pattiz has publicly disputed the claims. I’ve mentioned this previously, but whatever the actual end result of this suit, this is ultimately the first public major numbers fudging scandal of the modern podcast era.
(5) WNYC recently staged the third edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. This year’s festivities marked the first time the event was held outside of New York. And from the wave of press coverage, it seems to have gone well. Vanity Fair’s write-up, in particular, is comprehensive and well worth your time.
(6) I enjoyed this report on “Voice AI” assembled and published by the BBC’s Trushar Barot, which gets us a little closer to systematically thinking about wherever the emerging smart speaker category — which is effectively a bridge — is apparently leading us toward. And speaking of the BBC and smart speakers, the British public broadcaster has been experimenting with an audio drama delivered through the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Meanwhile, the wireless speaker company (and prominent podcast advertiser) Sonos has decided to play ball with the Amazon Echo and Google Home in a most interesting manner: by playing the role of platform.
(7) Three public radio operatives — KPCC’s Kristen Muller, KQED’s Umbreen Bhatti, and NPR’s Liz Danzico — have been researching the potential effects of self-driving cars on public radio listenership, which you could reasonably extrapolate and apply to other kinds of non-music audio products. “It feels distant for people,” Muller told Nieman Lab on the issue. “But for Umbreen and me, it felt very much like a now question.” I tweeted the article out, and summarily received emails from a few readers arguing that optimism over self-driving cars is overblown, that the timeline for adoption is nowhere close to being “sooner than you think” in the way that Nieman Lab’s headline suggested. I’d argue the timeline isn’t the point. Much like the Really Big One, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the next five years or the next fifty; planning for large-scale impacts should start as soon as possible.
So those are seven stories that stood out to me. Two quick ones before I toss to the Bites: apparently Terry Gross is a Twitter lurker operating under a pseudonym (I KNEW IT), and I recently wrote a brief overview of the short history of podcasting for Wired.
- Joel Meyer, one of the smartest and funniest operators in the industry, is heading to WNYC Studios, where he will serve as an executive producer. In doing so, he leaves WBEZ, where he held the title of Executive Producer of Talk Programming and Podcasts. Meyer is also a former Panoply staffer. He will work remotely from Chicago, and begins his tenure later this month.
- Looks like Barstool Sports has broken into Podtrac’s Top Ten rankings, both on a network and show level. (As always, disclaimers apply.) On a related note, ESPN is apparently bringing Barstool’s Pardon My Take, itself a kind of ESPN spoof, to television. An ouroboros, a flat circle.
- The Paragon Collective, the network behind the NoSleep podcast, gets a Fast Company profile. “I’m a TV writer so I’m very used to just writing for visuals. And so writing for an audio podcast, there’s no subtlety.” (Fast Company)
- The television adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore has premiered on Amazon Prime Video. This isn’t the first podcast-to-TV launch ever, but I perceive Lore as the first in this buzzy wave of narrative television adaptations. Reviews are still coming in, trending positive, and I imagine I’ll get to it at some point despite the current state of Peak TV.
- Bumped into this recently, and was impressed/amused: did you know that NPR has a branded podcast with Digiday’s native advertising team called The Podcast Payoff, which seeks to educate marketers about podcasts?
- Radio Ambulante is holding a live storytelling event in New York on October 26, with proceeds being to support ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico. (Event link)
- “The unlikely role of true crime podcasts in criminal justice reform.” (Quartz)
- Not directly podcast-related, but measurement-related: “TV Industry Leaders Developing Purchase Measurement Plan for Advertisers.” Value narratives around established forms of advertising — it’s all socially constructed, y’know? (Variety)