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 119, published May 9, 2017.
S-Town breaks 40 million downloads in its first month. That’s global downloads, by the way. I wrote up the milestone for Vulture, and to conjure a sense of the context, I hope you don’t mind me quoting myself:
It’s the biggest rollout a podcast has ever seen in the medium’s history, solidly beating the previous titleholder, Serial season two, which saw an average of 4 million downloads per episode in its first 30 days, according to the measurement firm Podtrac. (For more context, consider that the This American Life podcast, one of the biggest in the industry, is said to see about 2.5 million downloads a week.)
And in case you’re thinking growth rates, recall that the podcast (which dropped all seven of its episodes at once) enjoyed about 16 million downloads in its first week.
Something to consider: The big thought bubble I tried to inflate in the writeup is this idea that S-Town’s success suggests that the very young industry remains fairly malleable. Which is to say, because the ecosystem is still emergent — that is, comparatively unburdened with an extensive sense of its own creative and financial history — it remains relatively easy for bold, audacious experiments to make their way to market to test the limits of their opportunities, and there exists a sense that the medium’s audiences still have appetites that can tolerate, and maybe even expect, greater unconventionality. (An alternate, but not necessarily oppositional, argument is that a good story is a good story is a good story, and that experimentation imbues the product with a differentiating factor, and that the story of more established creative industries is largely a story of its history and accrued creative conservatism getting in their own ways.)
That said, it’s worth asking if S-Town’s success is unique to the conditions set up by its progenitor, This American Life. Over the decades that it’s been in business, that show has built out a considerable existing audience base across multiple channels, an extensive proven track record of quality across multiple shows (let us not forget Serial), and a strong brand presence that’s able to drive tangible impact should they set out to promote something new and unconventional. S-Town, then, can perhaps be described the beneficiary of long-cultivated advantages, which increased its chances at getting in front of enough people who were willing to try it out — and enjoy it.
Which brings us to an interesting question: Just how much does S-Town’s success actually tell us about the opportunities of the space as a whole? Or is it just a story that only tells us about the strength of This American Life and Serial Productions?
I think it’s pretty hard to parse out, but my instinct is to lean much more on the latter at the moment. There is just so much about that project that’s frankly unreplicable. That said, I will also say that when I’m trying to think through that broader question of the space’s opportunities as a whole, I find myself thinking more about Missing Richard Simmons. That show, in many ways, came out of nowhere, and it’s a particularly strange production at almost every level. It was a real-time mystery but also a biography but also a confessional but also a piece of celebrity media. It was an extravagant exercise in building a boat mid-sail. It held no prominent names on the creative team — both Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media, I’d argue, carry virtually no weight with general audiences — and the marketing push was light-to-moderate, at best. It lay on the subject, the celebrity Richard Simmons, to carry the bulk of the weight as the audience draw, and even then, the actual potential return of that celebrity was probably hard to estimate at the time of release.
But the show ended up being an undeniable hit despite all of that. On March 28, a little over a month after the show first debuted, First Look Media told me that the podcast had been downloaded on average more than 1 million times a week since its release, which a considerable feat that the show achieved with none of the advantages of This American Life that I previously mentioned. Missing Richard Simmons was the show, I think, that properly represented the opportunities of the space’s still-low barriers to entry, more so than S-Town.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been kicking around in my head. I reckon that this is a question we’ll continue to heavily parse over time.
Summer pre-preview. It’s pretty cold here on the East Coast — too cold — but the Gregorian calendar gonna calendar, which means summer is upon us, which means there’s a summer launch slate assembling on the horizon. I’ve got a summer preview piece coming up later this week that’ll be more comprehensive, but here are two things worth tracking in the meantime:
(1) We’re set to see a fair number of high-profile returns:
- Most notably, NPR’s Invisibilia — a near overnight success when it first debuted in January 2015 — returns with its third season on June 1.
- Malcolm Gladwell’s back at the mic. Revisionist History, Panoply’s big-swing project from last summer, will drop its sophomore season sometime in June.
- Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental audio drama, will resume its cliffhanger in mid-July.
(2) Kids, kids, kids. NPR’s prepping to launch Wow in The World, which it is billing as the first kids podcast in the organization’s 47-year history. It will be hosted by Guy Raz, who already double-duties for NPR as the host of the TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, together with Mindy Thomas. Raz and Thomas already collaborate on the Breakfast Blast Newscast, a SiriusXM show that’s also aimed at kids. According to the formal press release, the podcast will be produced by Tinkercast, a newly formed production company that focuses on family-friendly content, with NPR acting as distributor. Nieman Lab has a good writeup.
Wow in the World will premiere on May 15.
But NPR isn’t the only the public radio organization getting into the pre-pre-teen game. WNYC is apparently piloting its own kids-focused podcast with a live event at The Greene Space on May 20 and 21 — called “Friends for Now,” the podcast will be a trivia game show for kids hosted by comedian Jo Firestone. (Firestone, by the way, has a beloved WFMU radio program, “Dr. Gameshow,” that’s currently being adapted for podcasts under the Earwolf banner, or so I’m told. That’ll be out sometime this season too.)
Macmillan’s experimental imprint. Earlier this month, Tor Books, one of the largest publishers of scifi novels and a subsidiary of Macmillan, announced something called Tor Labs, which is being positioned a new fiction imprint with a twist.
The new venture will focus on “experimental approaches to genre publishing, beginning with original dramatic podcasts.” Its first podcast, Steal the Stars, will begin streaming this fall…Tor describes Steal the Stars as a “noir science fiction thriller” about two government employees guarding a crashed UFO.
This new initiative is interesting for two primary reasons:
- That first project, Steal the Stars, is being written by Mac Rogers, who wrote The Message and LifeAfter, the two branded podcast productions that came out of a partnership between Panoply and GE.
- After the podcast completes its run, the company will repackage the show as an audiobook and will also produce a printed novelization.
That second bit is really, really smart. It drastically expands the surface area of the project across multiple platforms (and therefore multiple markets), which further deepens the project’s ability to financially benefit from a single, core creative enterprise. I’m excited to see whether Tor Labs can pull this off — which is contingent, of course, on whether the podcast is actually any good — and if so, whether MacMillan can leverage its position to replicate that model across various other imprints and genres.
By the way, Tor Books’ parent company, Macmillan Publishing, is also the proprietor of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. You can find my writeup on that operation here.
A hotel partnership? PRX has struck up a “co-marketing” partnership with the Freepoint Hotel, a new establishment that just opened in Cambridge, Mass., that sees the company serving guests podcasts with “interesting, localized content.” Naturally, the content will be distributed via the RadioPublic app. The hotel has also commissioned an episode from Radiotopia’s The Memory Palace that will explore the history of the West Cambridge neighborhood. That episode will come out later this summer. (Memory Palace host Nate DiMeo, by the way, has already been doing similar topically-focused work in his recent gig as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence.)
It’s a fairly zany marketing initiative, one that definitely draws some influence from Detour, the guided walking tour app by Groupon founder Andrew Mason. But it’s pleasingly zany, the kind of weird that’s interesting to appraise and experience, and I hope to see more unconventional marketing tactics like this from other companies in the future.
Two dispatches from the live show circuit.
(1) HeadGum’s flagship show, the comedy advice show If I Were You hosted by HeadGum founders Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, is currently on its East Coast tour. I’m told that the podcast stages about 25 live shows a year, which accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the show’s total revenue.
“As a general note for HeadGum’s touring strategy, a number of shows on our network also do live shows, and we don’t take any of the revenue they make from touring,” said Whitney Simon, the company’s business development executive.
(2) Crimetown, the true crime Gimlet Media production hosted by The Jinx’s Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, is rounding out its inaugural season with a live show in Brooklyn this Thursday. The live show will feature some of the subjects documented throughout the season, which trained its focus on the history of organized crime and corruption in Providence, Rhode Island with a particular emphasis on the city’s, uh, “decorated” former mayor, Buddy Cianci.
“There are so many incredible stories we couldn’t include in each episode, and we wanted to give some of the people we interviewed another forum to talk about their experiences,” said Rob Szypko, the show’s digital editor.
When I asked him how Providence has received the show, he notes that it’s been pretty warm. “From January 1 to May 1 of this year, we’ve received the sixth most downloads from Rhode Island listeners out of all 50 states — which is pretty significant considering that Rhode Island is the 44th most populous state in the country,” he said, adding that local residents have also been considerably engaged with the podcast, sending in anonymous tips for the show’s weekly newsletter.
“We’re optimistic that we can take a version of this live show to Providence too,” Szypko adds.
Career spotlight. Over the past year or so, two things have become increasingly apparent to me: First, it feels like there are more young people than ever before trying to break into and build a career in radio and podcasting — which is great, and which is what we need. And second, there remains a dearth of accessible information about what it means to have a career and what, exactly, one looks like. That’s a not-so-great thing, IMHO, and I find myself fixated on this problem because it’s reminiscent of something I face in my own professional life (such as it is): I don’t have that many accessible models of living that could help me shape my own course, and that’s been a problem when it comes to appraising what’s possible. I think that general state is true for this space, and when it comes to the new generation of people trying to bring their potential into the community, that’s a problem for both those people and the community.
So I’m introducing a new recurring feature that’ll try to help in its own way, where I run some basic questions by podcast and radio folk of various stripes about their careers and how they learned to do what they do. I’ll be working to convey as wide a range of experiences and people as possible, and if I’m doing it right, we’ll all get a good sense on just how weird and scrappy and unstructured things can get.
First up: Clare Toeniskoetter, from APM’s Marketplace.
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]
[conr]Clare Toeniskoetter: I’m a podcast producer at Marketplace’s New York bureau. I produced two seasons of Codebreaker (check it out, we just won a Webby!), two seasons of Actuality, and now I’m piloting new shows with our growing on-demand team. I also produce Marketplace Tech a few times a month — that’s our daily tech show.
My workload changes, depending on the day: researching and pitching stories, engineering interviews, cutting tape, reporting, booking guests, writing scripts, scoring and sound designing, and recently co-hosting Facebook Live videos. My position was brand new when I started at Marketplace two years ago, so I was able to shape it so it includes a bit of everything.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Where did you start, and how did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Toeniskoetter: I didn’t grow up listening to any public radio — the Toeniskoetters were more of a ‘today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites’ radio family — but I was always interested in music, so I started hosting a freeform music show with WCBN at the University of Michigan. College radio was a gateway radio drug for me, and I soon started listening to public radio and podcasts. (I actually called my favorite podcasts “hot pods” early on, I have gchats as proof). It wasn’t until I drove through the night from Michigan to New York to volunteer at WFMU’s Radiovision conference that I realized I could have a career in public radio (which I almost didn’t go to — looking back at old emails, I didn’t want to miss a football game that weekend).
Back in Ann Arbor, I started interning for our NPR affiliate, Michigan Radio. I worked on a daily news magazine program, finding stories and booking guests, and eventually pitching and producing a new recurring segment. In 2014, I moved to New York for a part-time Radiolab internship and quickly started another part-time internship at Slate working on The Gist, all while working a bunch of Craigslist odd jobs to pay my rent. From there, I did temp work at WNYC and Panoply, and eventually found myself at Marketplace after replying to a two-line job posting email for a “six-month gig” as “a NY-based producer for two podcasts.” Six-plus-nineteen months later, I’m still at Marketplace producing podcasts.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you learn to do the job?[/conl]
[conr]Toeniskoetter: On the first day of my Michigan Radio internship, my manager lent me a copy of Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. I read it cover to cover, and ordered Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound and Radio: An Illustrated Guide. With my radio encyclopedia in place, I also listened to archived Third Coast conference sessions, read guides from Transom, and talked to other radio reporters and producers at our Detroit-based radio club. Despite all this, the early pieces I made lacked structure, pacing, and purpose, but I kept at it. Case in point, another gem copy-and-pasted from my old emails:
Me, to other Michigan Radio interns: Let’s make a podcast! I’ll borrow some equipment. Come over on Sunday to record.
Co-intern: Hey guys! What’s going on with a podcast? This sounds hilarious!
Me: I don’t think we really have a plan for it, we’re just going to see what we can create with microphones in front of us!
No, no one ever heard that podcast. That said, most of my learning was through doing. One of my internship managers told me to fake it till I make it, which, if you didn’t get from the “see what we can create” podcast, I definitely did. Eventually, the failure becomes adequacy, and the adequacy becomes improvement, and the improvement becomes success. And today I’m still pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and taking on new roles and responsibilities at Marketplace.[/conr]
You can find Clare on Twitter at @claretoenis.
- WNYC has announced the schedule for the third edition of Werk It, its annual festival for women in podcasting. The lineup looks pretty damn stellar, IMHO. (WNYC)
- Anybody else notice that First Look Media has switched out the branding of its podcasts? Missing Richard Simmons, Politically Re-Active, and Maeve in America are now all listed as podcasts from Topic, its “entertainment studio” whose actual machinations remains a mystery to me.
[photocredit]Photo of Careers board game by huppypie used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]