Democratizing podcasts, again. Call it pivot, call it a rebrand, call it Ziggy Stardust; whatever it is, Anchor is once again driving a new throng of headlines, this time due to its re-premiere as a one-stop shop for podcast publishers that don’t currently need sophisticated editing platforms like ProTools and Hindenburg or industrial-level hosting options like Art19 and Megaphone. In that sense, Anchor 3.0 theoretically situates itself as an entry-level competitor against a host of longtime stalwarts catering to various aspects of the podcasting stack, from Audacity to Libsyn. This makes for a considerable contrast to the company’s original short-form social audio premise that got it some buzz at SXSW in 2016.
You can read up on the full 3.0 feature suite here, but a couple of noteworthy things for our analytical purposes: Firstly, Anchor now features easy publishing to all major distribution points including, most notably, the relatively walled-off Spotify. (Previously, you’d have to go through a somewhat manual process to get a podcast listed on the Spotify platform.) Secondly, the platform now sports updated web and mobile creation tools, which keeps the beginner-friendly, on-the-fly editing dream alive. Thirdly, Anchor has a tool that’s meant to let publishers transfer their podcasts over from other hosting platforms pretty easily. This feature was originally rolled out last summer, and I’ll say now what I said then: It clarifies and further solidifies the competitive dynamic between Anchor and other hosting platforms.
Also, users get unlimited podcast hosting for free, which is interesting. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
It’s worth noting that the relaunch also comes with its own batch of publishing partners, including BuzzFeed News, RelayFM, The Outline, Cheddar, and Atlantic Records. You can guess the myriad strategic rationales for this. On the one hand, the presence of these publishers theoretically gives potential users more of a reason to download the app, use it as a listening tool, and potentially stay within the platform. Get that engine going, and it may well lead to a situation where other potential publishers see Anchor as a space with a solid built-in audience to tap into. On the other hand, it’s a signal for other publishers to take the platform seriously as an all-in-one publishing tool. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that gambit works.
Okay, back to the free hosting bit. The immediate question that this raises, of course, is monetization. All this stuff is great, but how will Anchor make money once it runs out of the $10 million in Series A funding it raised last September, and whatever fundraising rounds come after that? “Right now we’re focused on making products that empower creators, and part of our mission of democratizing audio is enabling podcasters to make a living,” Anchor CEO Michael Mignano wrote me. “There are a variety of monetization methods that have been proven to be successful in audio, and a number of ways this could be a valuable business, so as you can imagine, in the future, creator monetization will be a big priority for us.”
That’s vague, but I thought Mignano’s response to the same question over at The Verge holds more clues:
Mignano also spoke to how Anchor might eventually make money and said it won’t be off of creators. “We view creators having to pay for services as friction. Even $10 a month will stop an ambitious creator,” he said. Instead, the goal will be to help podcasters monetize their shows. That could be through pairing them with advertisers, or through enabling subscriptions or tip jars. “There are a bunch of proven models out there that you can imagine we’ll explore,” he said.
Which reminds me a little bit of Patreon. Maybe it’s time to brush up on readings about that company.
So, what’s the big picture here? A really smart person (whose identity I’ve unfortunately completely forgotten — my apologies to whoever you are) once told me that the principal puzzle of podcasting lies in the fact that because it has an extremely low barrier to entry, it has an extremely high barrier to scale. Anchor, with its tagline of being “the easiest way to make a podcast,” seems intent on further lubricating the former barrier. One wonders if the maximal outcome of this is the exacerbation of the latter.
Speaking of which, where are we with social audio? First of all, R.I.P. Bumpers. And second of all, I think it’s worth positing that the premise of building Twitters for Audio, Tumblrs for Audio, or Snapchats for Audio just isn’t working out, for reasons that I outlined in a few column from years ago: namely that, among other things, the relatively high-friction nature of listening compared to seeing cuts into the social velocity that functions as the principal engine governing the commercial success of social media platforms. I’ve also previously argued that resources and attention should instead be further concentrated on aspects more pertinent to the current podcast publishing infrastructure like improving measurement, developing better programming, building alternative monetization channels, and firming up relationships with the advertising community.
To some extent, I think we’re already seeing this shift happen, particularly with the wave of digital audio investments last September that saw a lot more money go into podcast-specific companies like Gimlet Media, Cadence13 née DGital Media, HowStuffWorks, Acast, and Art19 — in other words, ventures that work directly on expanding and improving positions within the current podcast architecture, culture, and market as opposed to ventures trying to create whole new digital audio behaviors and ecosystems within their platforms.
Anchor initially appeared to be the one exception in that fall 2017 wave, raising $10 million in a Series A round led by GV (née Google Ventures) to be the lone double-down on social audio. But with its 3.0 relaunch, Anchor doesn’t seem to be that exception any longer. While the platform still sports some social listening features, its rebooted core value proposition situates it well within the concerns of the overarching podcast universe.
Perhaps there’s room to restart the search for social audio in the future. I suspect the emerging smart speaker category might be a promising frontier for that kind of stuff. But for now, I’m bearish on the concept.
While we’re talking about podcast tech-ventures: On Monday, RadioPublic announced that Bose, the audio equipment corporation, is investing in the startup through its strategic investment arm, Bose Ventures. The specific amount wasn’t publicly disclosed, but the new investment adds to the $2.8 million that the Boston-based startup had raised as of last November. RadioPublic CEO Jake Shapiro tells me that, as a result of this development, a member of Bose’s venture group will join WGBH and The New York Times as having board observers.
The investment comes a few weeks after the launch of RadioPublic’s Paid Listen program, which aims to help smaller podcast publishers monetize their inventory.
Corporate art. It’s all so strange. Last Thursday saw the release of The Sauce, a branded podcast collaboration between McDonald’s (shouts to the Filet-O-Fish) and the creative agencies of two Fusion Media brands: The Onion and Gizmodo. The project is a tight three-part series that portends to be the inside story of that crazy, crazy incident last October, when the fast food corporation revived an old condiment — the Szechuan sauce, originally released in 1998 as a promotional tie-in to the release of Disney’s Mulan — as a spot promotional campaign looking to capitalize on an off-hand joke in the popular contemporary Adult Swim cartoon Rick and Morty. However, McDonald’s underestimated the unnaturally high volume of demand and administered a roll-out that ultimately led to mass fan disappointment which, in turn, led to unruly conditions in certain branches and an accompanying media firestorm.
The entire episode was horrifying and hilarious, infinitely surreal and yet completely unsurprising to anyone who’s paid a modicum of attention to 21st-century fan culture. Anyway, cut to the present, and McDonald’s has published a branded podcast to signal a mea culpa in the form of a follow-up: as a response to the supply misestimation last fall, the fast-food empire is shipping out 20 million packages of Szechuan sauce throughout the country, starting yesterday.
The Sauce is an utterly fascinating artifact. The show comes with the facetious billing of an “investigative series,” a tongue-in-cheek posture reminiscent of The Onion’s recent stab at lampooning the true crime podcast genre, A Very Fatal Murder. But despite its meta-context and the jokey billing, the podcast turns out to be a relatively straightforward experience: interview tape with McDonald’s executives feature heavily throughout the three episodes, and while there’s a minor subplot featuring a pair of fans, the branded podcast is fundamentally the presentation of McDonald’s internal corporate narrative throughout the sauce incident.
It’s a crafty bit of corporate message control (if anybody ends up listening to it, anyway), but what strikes me as really fascinating is how this story could — and should — have been an episode of a show like Planet Money. The complexity of supply chains, the hit-miss interaction between corporate marketing and genuine pop culture, the ensuing mania that hints at larger and darker truths about the first-world human in the 21st century; there is so much in that nexus that’s genuinely interesting to explore (yes, I’m a nerd), and here we have a situation where a corporation is attempting to trend toward those storytelling directions.
Of course, The Sauce doesn’t actually end up going particularly deep into any of those topics. Its aesthetic echoes of Planet Money, then, feel like the product of a creative mutation that never quite finished, ending up with a creature that exists well within the uncanny valley. It is nonetheless intermittently interesting, and the prospect of its potential interesting-ness leads me back to a question I’ve often wondered pertaining to the branded podcast: If this content category is going to compete for real estate in the Apple Podcast charts and directories, and if it ends up competing for stories as in the case of The Sauce, and if more and more podcast entrepreneurs lean on branded podcasts as a revenue engine, what should we expect from them, creatively speaking? What standards should listeners be placing on these corporations as sources of stories and narrative experiences? Taking the example of Gimlet Media: how should we critically pit Tinder’s DTR, a production of Gimlet Creative that folks seem to enjoy, against Reply All?
Anyway. Whatever questions there may be, I can’t say that The Sauce isn’t effective. Truth be told, I’m probably going to try and hit up a sauce packet later.
This week in hardware:
- Guess what? Spotify is reportedly moving to make its own hardware line. Early speculation suggests a probable foray into the budding smart speaker race, but there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence on the specific form the first product will take. Given Spotify’s recent machinations in the non-music programming category, this is worth paying some attention to.
- Meanwhile, in Cupertino: Apple is said to be planning significant upgrades to its wireless AirPod headphones. There’s some chatter about a water-resistant model, but the real prognostication of note is the prospect of a feature that lets users communicate with Apple’s Siri digital assistant through the AirPods without having to physically interact with the headphones. Listen, personally speaking, this is the feature I’ve been waiting for my whole listening life for. I have scars from treadmill incidents. Bloomberg has the story.
Freedom from. The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz flagged last week that the YouTuber Logan Paul — recently embroiled in an extremely disheartening controversy that you can read about here because I’m not going to recap it — is “spending less time” on YouTube and moving into podcasting. The development is presumably a response to YouTube’s decision to limit its relationship with Paul following the controversy. (Those limitations, however, appear to be in flux.)
This seems like yet another data point supporting the thesis that The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis extended last December: that podcasting is the new frontier for American media pariahs. Which, in my mind, is itself a particular expression of the much larger consequence of the overarching media ecosystem being broken down into a multiverse of fragmented, self-contained bubbles.
Notes on preservation. Someday, this will all end. Probably not literally (hopefully), but at some point, the way things work now won’t be the way things will work in the future, and there is no guarantee we’ll remember, or have ways to remember, the world as it is today.
Molly Schwartz is the studio manager at the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), a regional hub for libraries, archives, and museums in New York City and Westchester County. An archivist by training and a technologist, Schwartz thinks a lot about what we lose in a time when media technology moves really, really quickly. “I worry that we are witnessing a digital dark age, where we are creating new media formats faster than we are developing effective preservation methods,” she told me over email recently. “It’s possible that a lot of the content of our time will be lost.”
Schwartz, along with project co-leads Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie, is part of a new project that hopes to grapple with this issue within the context of podcasting. The project recently received $142,000 in grant funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and it has a couple of goals: to raise awareness around podcast preservation, to give people a clear set of guidelines for how to preserve podcasts, and to encourage activists to focus more on including digital audio in their collections. It will primarily take the form of a podcast about how to preserve podcasts, natch, one that falls from the growing tradition of the auto-documentary meta-pod that includes Megan Tan’s Millennial, Gimlet’s Startup, and Allison Behringer’s The Intern in its ranks.
Schwartz and her collaborators will also produce a zine-workbook that helps publishers keep track of their preservation steps, as well as in-person podcast preservation workshops at different venues around the country, including Third Coast in Chicago, the Podcast Garage in Allston, MA, and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke in North Carolina. You can read more about the project in this announcement post. “We want this to be as accessible as possible, so we’re trying to provide multiple ways to get at the content,” Schwartz said.
Allow me to show my cards here: I’ve always been aware of the importance of preservation and archival work, but I must admit I do not truly grasp it. I understand it in theory, but I have not internalized it. So I wanted to learn more from Schwartz, and as such, sent over some questions to get the low-down on the basics of the whole issue. She was more than generous with her time.
Here’s the Q&A, very lightly edited for flow:
[conl]Hot Pod: Could you illustrate to me why media — in this case, podcast — preservation is important?[/conl]
[conr]Molly Schwartz: We live in a time of media abundance. It’s like an embarrassment of riches. There are conflicting opinions about whether or not the information explosion ushered in by the digital technologies of the 20th century is a good thing, but value judgments are kind of beside the point. We need to be aware that, in the same way that new software and devices make it easier and faster to put content out there, new technology comes with corresponding updates and obsolescence that threaten the endurance of the content that flows across it.
Does the meaning of a podcast lie in the fact that I’m accessing it via an RSS feed that’s hosted by SoundCloud that I listen to on the podcast app on my iPhone? No. I listen to it for the human voices and stories, because it captures my imagination or teaches me new things or makes me feel more connected to other humans.
But, is my ability to access these stories dependent on all these pieces of technology working together? Absolutely. As soon as one piece breaks down — SoundCloud goes out of business, or Apple podcasts are replaced by a proprietary audio streaming service, or we all replace our iPhones with Google glasses, or whatever — then I might not be able access the audio stories I want to listen to. And as time goes on, it’s inevitable that pieces of the technology chain will break down. History has shown us this much. We are facing a magnetic media crisis where we are about to lose all the audio and video media that were recorded onto magnetic tape (audio cassettes, VHS’s, betacams, u-matic tapes, miniDVs, you name it). Born-digital audio, like podcasts, will face similar challenges.
People have put so much time and effort into crafting and sharing audio stories via podcasts. I’m hoping for a future in which we can reach back and find audio stories that we want to listen to, regardless of whether we are accessing them via some VR simulator or AI wetware embedded in our brains or vinyl records. Our archives and museums and libraries are full of books and movies and images from the past that add richness to our lives. Some of my favorite books are over 100 years old. Some of my favorite music is over 50 years old. I think it’s safe to say that 50 years from now, people will enjoy listening to podcasts that we’re creating now. That’s what we’re working for.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: According to your announcement post, it seems there exists a basic lack of preservation practices among most podcast publishers. Why do you think this is the case?[/conl]
[conr]Schwartz: I think there are a couple of factors playing into a lack of awareness about preservation, both among podcast publishers and in the general public. First, we live in a culture that fetishizes newness. We tend to prioritize new technologies and new projects over the maintenance of old ones. Most people aren’t thinking about media from an archival perspective. They are working on tight production schedules, and the priority is to get new pieces published rather than worry about how people will access their work 10 years from now.
Which brings me to my second point: the invisibility of archival work. A lot of people don’t know or think about archives — what their purpose is, who maintains them. Too frequently archival collections are literally stuck in the basement, and archivists are often the first to get fired during budget cuts. And this is partly the fault of archivists. We haven’t done enough effective outreach to help people understand what preservation practices look like and why they’re important. That’s part of the purpose of this project. To connect archivists and content creators, so that they can work together from the outset.
Archivists approach media with particular values. Values of authenticity, preservation, context, and long-term access. It’s not everybody’s job to care about these things or to know how the technical tools work, like Digital Asset Management systems, etc. But content creators should be aware that there are basic steps they can take to share their work with future generations. And if they have problems or questions, there are archivists out there who would be happy to help.
My third point relates to the nature of born-digital media. Podcasts are born-digital. They are recorded as digital audio files. People access them on digital audio players. I think there are a few misconceptions floating around about digital media. People seem to think that once things go online they somehow become ubiquitous. Podcasts feel like social media, like they’re everywhere because you can find them on many different podcatchers. But they all originate from one RSS feed, and if that feed goes down and the files aren’t backed up anywhere, then the content is lost. Or if the RSS feed goes down and the files are stored on someone’s local computer, then it’s not accessible to a wider public.
We’ve been conditioned by Google to think that things we want to find will be indexed and searchable, forever. Not everything is indexed. Not everything is searchable. Not everything is stored in a file format that will last. Not everything is stored on a platform that will last. The cheap cloud storage options — like Google Drive and Dropbox and Amazon Web Services — these are all commercial platforms. They will die if they become financially unsustainable. Do they provide guarantees that they will export your data if they go under? Or ensure fixity of your files over time? Probably not, because that’s not their mission. So we need to take the responsibility on ourselves to prioritize preservation if it’s something that matters to us.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Could you tell me about the other challenges that media preservation faces in general?[/conl]
[conr]Schwartz: Media preservation faces loads of challenges: software gets outdated, hardware becomes obsolete, files get disorganized, storage gets expensive (especially for uncompressed files), bits rot over time, files get corrupted. And these problems only crop up when people start prioritizing media preservation, which isn’t generally the case. I honestly think one of the biggest challenges is a lack of awareness. Many media organizations can’t afford, or don’t prioritize, having an archivist (or a team of archivists) on staff to focus on preservation. And media is increasingly created by independent producers and freelancers who don’t have an institution behind them to help provide preservation infrastructures.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Do you see this lack of practices present equally among independent publishers vs. bigger publishers? Or is it more lopsided in either direction?[/conl]
[conr]Schwartz: Podcasts are definitely at an advantage if they are associated with a larger network or institution. The publishers don’t have to be corporate. Public media has a long legacy of in-house archives. WNYC, for example, has an archives with archivists on staff who are responsible for the ingest, organization, preservation, and access databases of content created at WNYC. There are requirements to save records at organizations that are funded by the public.
I’m not sure that some of the corporate podcast networks, which are generally quite young, have many preservation practices in place. They are probably thinking about it as digital asset management, which is a huge chunk of preservation work. Sometimes people think about preservation in terms of preserving historic houses or something, but most digital preservation work isn’t about reconstructing damaged files. It’s doing the asset management work in advance to make sure all of your files are organized and well labeled. But this might not be a top priority at new podcast networks where they are just trying to get shows produced and out there.
For independent publishers, oftentimes people are just winging it and figuring out the technology as they go. They are focused on the content and the stories that they want to put out there, as they should be. We are trying to help make independent publishers aware of the tools available to them to incorporate preservation practices into their routine. I know this is challenging. I started a podcast a little over a year ago, and my own preservation practices are non-existent. That’s part of what inspired this project. I was thinking, if I’m a trained archivist and I’m not even putting my files in the Internet Archive, then how can we expect other people to do this? So this podcast will be documenting my own journey toward peak podcast preservation. And I want others to be able to follow along and fix their own preservation practices with me.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Let’s say we get to a point where podcast preservation practices are well-established and we have some sort of cultural institution that functions as the central point of such efforts. Is there a challenge of balancing between choosing what programs are “historically important” and not important enough? How have cultural heritage institutions grappled with this in the past?[/conl]
[conr]Schwartz: Yes, there’s always a point where institutions are making value judgments about what to save and what to get rid of. Preservation is expensive. Digital preservation is really expensive. And the ease of creating digital information has led to an information explosion, or overload. We don’t need to save every tweet or every email. A big part of an archivist’s job is weeding, or deciding what not to keep. So if cultural heritage institutions do start collecting podcasts on a wider scale, as I hope they will, they will need to make calls about what is important enough to put resources toward saving. That’s why collections policies are so important. Institutions need to decide what their purpose is and what’s in scope for them. Who is their audience? It’s a big responsibility that institutions have taken on, more or less successfully.
But we are taking more of a personal digital archiving approach here, i.e. helping people save their own things. This has become a trend where archivists teach people how to organize and preserve their own digital content, like digital photos, for example. Digital information is really complicated and people need some tools and techniques. We are looking more immediately at helping podcast creators at least gett their files saved in multiple locations, as uncompressed files, and with good metadata and labels. We hope that this has the effect that the historical record is more democratized, and not totally at the mercy of collecting institutions, who might prioritize more privileged, or visible, communities and their content. I like the idea of empowering people to decide what they would like to save and how they would like to be remembered.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod:Who is media preservation for?[/conl]
[conr]Schwartz: Media preservation is for everyone. At least, it’s preserved for anyone and everyone to access later on. There’s not a target audience. We can’t foresee how or why people will want to access podcasts, or data about podcasts, in the future. That’s kind of the beauty of it. Maybe a media scholar will want to do a cultural analysis of the switch to on-demand listening habits. Maybe the New Yorker will want to write an article about the true crime podcast phenomenon of 2016. Maybe someone will stumble upon Vicki Bennett and get inspired to make audio collages. Maybe someone’s grandchildren will want to hear the sound of their voice. If we don’t save the files with their corresponding metadata, then it’ll all be a moot point.[/conr]
Schwartz also gave some additional reading material in case you, like me, have some time to read on the train later:
- “The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation” (Meredith Broussard, The Atlantic)
- “The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation” (Trevor Owens) “Digital Art Storage” and “Art In the Age of Obsolescence” (Ben Fino-Radin)
- “The Afterlife Is Expensive for Digital Movies” (The New York Times)
- “Digital Preservation Essentials” (Textbook)
Build for a world without you, folks.
- On Monday, the CBC circulated a vague pre-announcement about an upcoming project it’s developing with The Heart’s Kaitlin Prest. The Heart, a show within the Radiotopia network, ended production in January. No concrete details on the new project just yet, though the CBC notes that more information will come out over the summer.
- Two public radio items that are joined at the hip: first, a consortium of public radio stations — including WNYC, WAMU, and KPCC — has acquired and plans to relaunch the local news organization Gothamist and some of its associated sites. (Wired) Second, Minnesota Public Radio is apparently in the venture capital game now. Its portfolio currently includes RadioPublic, interestingly enough. (TwinCities Business)
- An update on the investigation of harassment allegations at NPR: “Report Detailing Harassment At NPR Cites ‘High Level Of Distrust’ Of Management.”
- In case you didn’t hear, The Atlantic is on a hiring spree following Emerson Collective’s acquisition of major ownership over the magazine last summer. The expansion reportedly includes more positions for podcast producers, so watch out for that, job hunters. (NY Times)
- The independent film studio A24, whose voluminous output includes Lady Bird and Ex Machina, is rolling out a show of its own. I’ve got nothing much else to say on this, other than that it’s a convenient excuse for me to link to David Ehrlich’s great profile on the studio for Slate from 2015.
- Earwolf’s U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, which to this day remains extremely hard for me to explain succinctly to another human being, gets a follow-up: R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? (Indiewire)
[photocredit]Photo of the Internet Archive by Scott Beale used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]