A MOST PECULIAR MACHINATION. The news was a long time coming. I’ve heard whispers of something like this since 2015, back when the rumors revolved around an internal WNYC strategy project with a curious codename: Pique. The initial story I heard spoke of a platform-oriented attempt to tackle the full stack of podcast problems, from discovery to distribution. Furthermore, the whispers say the move wasn’t meant to be limited to public radio: It would be for all podcasting, and it would be global. But the rumors came and went sporadically, and I was convinced at various points that it simply wouldn’t happen.
And then it did. The announcement dropped last Thursday with little public runup: a coalition of public radio organizations — NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ, and This American Life, which stands alone as a public benefit corporation — has acquired Pocket Casts, an Australian podcast app thought to be well liked among the podcasting community. A WNYC spokesperson later confirmed to me that the acquisition was indeed the result of the strategic work that the New York public radio station had been doing with Pique for several years now.
You can find relevant coverage at The Verge, NPR’s press room, and The Wall Street Journal, among numerous outlets that picked up the story. But here are the key details you should know:
- Pocket Casts will operate as an independent company separate and apart from any of the organizations that are part of the joint acquisition. An NPR spokesperson told me that the company will not operate as a nonprofit.
- The public radio coalition has brought in Owen Grovers, a former EVP and general manager at iHeartRadio and former VP of programming and marketing at Clear Channel, to serve as CEO of the new company.
- The current Pocket Casts team will be maintained. Founders Philip Simpson and Russell Ivanovic will remain in leadership roles at the company.
- The financial terms were not disclosed. It is perhaps useful to note that WNYC’s investment was partially made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the philanthropist Cynthia King Vance, the former chair of WNYC’s board of trustees.
- Pocket Casts’ existing business model is based on a one-time $3.99 app purchase. But a spokesperson told me that the new leadership team “will assess the business and revenue model for Pocket Casts over the coming weeks, with the goal of ensuring the platform remains financially sustainable. Decisions about the fee model will be made as part of that process.”
- Despite the review, the existing Pocket Casts leadership are promising a fundamental sameness (with more resources) despite the appointment of a former iHeartRadio exec as the new CEO, a new set of owners, and a rapidly shifting environment.
- Here’s the view on the app’s market share based on Ben Mullin’s reporting at the Wall Street Journal: “Pocket Casts accounts for about 2% of the downloads and streams of podcasts, according to Podtrac. Both NPR and WNYC said that Pocket Casts accounted for a larger share of podcast listening than PodTrac’s estimates, but declined to provide specifics.” That’s an important datapoint to know if your theory of the acquisition involves the group intending to buy a bought-in listener base.
Much remains unclear, with the most pressing question being: What, exactly, is the long-term strategic vision here? Only two insights can be found in the press push, through the Wall Street Journal writeup:
- WNYC chief digital officer Nathaniel Landau said that “the coalition of public media organizations wants to create a platform for independent creators to distribute and monetize their work, adding that they’re interested in applying the public radio membership model to podcasting writ large.”
- NPR chief digital officer Thomas Hjelm: “We need multiple shots on goal to address this delivery/distribution/discovery challenge…and I see this as another shot on goal.”
Both responses amount to a fairly vague picture of what’s to come, one where future Pocket Casts could resemble anything from a pure vessel for experimentation to a utility platform like Patreon to even something that looks like Radiotopia. That vagueness has led to reservations from certain circles in the podcast community, an expression of anxiety aimed at many possible outcomes including: the implementation of intrusive user tracking into the app, the commandeering of Pocket Casts’ discovery portals to privilege public radio programming over others, and the market-distorting effects of an entity that consolidates the powers of a few pretty prominent podcast publishing entities.
These concerns have understandable roots, and I’d argue they can be furthered contextualized as extensions of a much broader anxiety: that the open publishing nature of podcasting is working on a definitive countdown clock, that we’re collectively drifting towards a closed platform-oriented podcast environment, that this move is a specific instance of some groups anticipating this future and taking a step to either hedge against its inevitability — or speed it along. Which is to say, there’s a palpable Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse vibe to all of this, accentuating a feeling that maybe some folks should start stocking canned goods in the bunker.
That feeling is further exacerbated by just how unconventional this acquisition appears to be. To begin with, you have the entire group acquisition structure, which likely has to do more with conveying the symbolism of cross-system collaboration than anything particularly practical. This stratagem, whatever it turns out to be, will live or die by its governance, something that grows exponentially more complex with every new organization involved in its direction. (Leadership from all four coalition organizations will sit on Pocket Casts’ board.) And then you have the jumble of all the other stuff: the fact that Pocket Casts will not operate as a nonprofit, that it will be led by a commercial radio veteran, that you’re getting assurances from all parties that nothing significant is going to change, even though the point, logically speaking, is to usher in some amount of significant change.
Anyway, we’re drifting into tinfoil-hat territory here. It’s helpful, then, that NPR’s press team offered to link me up with Thomas Hjelm to ask some questions. (Hjelm, by the way, was WNYC’s previous chief digital officer before moving to NPR in April 2016. The connection is not insignificant.)
The following interview was conducted over email, and I’m reproducing both questions and answers here straight from the thread. As such, my questions will appear super shaggy — I wrote them in a hurry on Friday afternoon. The replies came back midday Monday.
Hot Pod: So, really basic: What is the reasoning behind Pocket Casts? Why now? What changes in the market/market forces led to this decision?
Thomas Hjelm: The partnership comprises four of the largest producers of podcasts in the market, and public radio as a whole continues to dominate the highest reaches of the podcast charts. That scale and impact puts us in a unique position to innovate and test new approaches to the discovery, delivery, distribution, and monetization of on-demand audio. Pocket Casts is one of the best and most popular apps on the market. Teaming up to acquire it, to support its founders and their team, gives us an excellent opportunity to advance that cause.
To put it another way, we want to help make podcast discovery a better experience for listeners and its delivery and distribution more valuable to podcast creators. With this partnership, we have the right combination of talents and assets to make the most of that opportunity.
The discussions that led to the acquisition started some time ago. It took time to find the right team and platform that would align with our goals and complement the other products in our collective portfolio, particularly NPR One. The Pocket Casts team not only had built a terrific product that engaged a large and passionate audience, but they shared our values and vision. We feel we’ve brought a very talented team into the extended family of public radio makers.
Hot Pod: What is the long-term goal in acquiring Pocket Casts? Do you have a specific vision of what this platform will be two years from now, or is that vision still being worked out and processed?
Hjelm: Pocket Casts certainly has a roadmap, which the leadership team is now refining. For now, while they’re doing that, I’ll emphasize two points. First, as excited and committed as we are to Pocket Casts, we also recognize that the world of audio is diverse. There is no one-size-fits-all listening experience. The audience is still growing and the technology evolving, we’re all experimenting and studying new behaviors of listening, and so we need to support products that expand our opportunities to learn and grow. Jake Shapiro of RadioPublic often talks about the need for “multiple shots on goal” as we explore this space. We fully respect and support that view.
Second, we’ll also look for ways in which the Pocket Casts team can work with their new cousins here in public radio, particularly the NPR One team, to develop and share new tools and technologies and techniques for engaging audiences. The spirit of this partnership is one of openness and mutual support.
Hot Pod: My immediate thought hearing about the acquisition was “Hulu, but for audio” — in that what we’ll end up seeing is a system-owned platform that provides a contained, public-radio–oriented podcast experience. Again, I think a lot is still up in the air, but is this possible future on the table?
Hjelm: We are not building a public-radio–centric podcast platform. We are keeping Pocket Casts open and independent to create opportunities for producers — from within public radio and well beyond — to reach new audiences.
The value proposition of NPR One is tied more closely to public radio. It extends the brand, its content is sourced largely from NPR as well as member stations and other producers within or adjacent to the system, and it supports the public radio model by driving listeners and prospective donors to stations. Pocket Casts, by contrast, is and will remain an open platform, where you can find content from practically the entire universe of podcast producers. It’s a complement to NPR One, as well as to the many other apps that are supported and branded by public radio stations and producers.
Hot Pod: I presume there’s a lot of discussion and planning over the next few weeks about specific changes that will be made to how Pocket Casts works and its business model, but what can you say right now about what won’t change and what will? I’m thinking specifically about questions re: user tracking, in-app advertising, and podcast discovery/promotion through the app.
Hjelm: Our first order of business is to preserve the superior UX that Pocket Casts users know and love. The app has been building a following for eight years, and one look at the ratings in the App Store or the activity on the Twitter feed confirms the continuing loyalty of that audience. Users are discriminating and they have other choices, so any discussion about evolving the product will start from there. Two areas we’re eager to explore are better tools for podcast creators to understand how their content is being consumed (so that they can better serve their audiences) and development of Pocket Casts on platforms beyond the smartphone. They launched a great Sonos app recently. It will be exciting to see where else they can go.
Hot Pod: Why Pocket Casts and not, say, Podcast Addict? I read that part of the thinking around the acquisition involves some exploration of adapting public radio membership models for podcasting. In that case, why not RadioPublic, which more explicitly builds for those goals?
Hjelm: We love this product. Pocket Casts is one of the best-designed, best-executed apps there is, and it’s long been on our radar. They’ve earned consistently high ratings in the App Store and Google Play, and they have a large and loyal audience. The Pocket Casts team has also innovated on new platforms that complement work that we at NPR and others in the system have been doing, like building a terrific Sonos app. They’re beginning to explore the voice-activation space, too.
Public radio has seen success in growing diverse revenue streams, and Pocket Casts will be eager to explore opportunities for membership and other revenue streams for all podcast creators. We’ll have more to say about the revenue model in the coming months, as the new leadership team gets into gear. But to the question of “why Pocket Casts,” it all starts with the team and the product and how it reaches and engages listeners. We feel we’re starting in a great place.
Hot Pod: So Pocket Casts will be run as a separate entity, but it won’t be a nonprofit. Will it be restructured as a public benefit corporation? And if it maintains its for-profit status, what does that allow Pocket Casts to do that you otherwise couldn’t?
Hjelm: The audio marketplace is ultra-dynamic, and we want to enable the company to adapt to new opportunities, whether through new product features, audience development approaches, business strategies, or investments. The leadership team of Pocket Casts will assess the business and revenue model over the coming weeks, with the goal of growing the platform and ensuring it’s financially sustainable, while also adhering to our nonprofit mission.
Hot Pod: Why Owen Grover?
Hjelm: [WNYC CEO] Laura Walker and I have known Owen since 2011, when iHeartRadio first partnered with New York Public Radio to distribute the WNYC and WQXR streams to new audiences. Owen brings us a host of skills and strong instincts, particularly in audience and business development, yet at the same time he understands and respects the mission and culture of public radio. We also felt that his talents nicely complement those of Pocket Casts’ two co-founders, Philip Simpson and Russell Ivanovic, of whom we are also huge fans and supporters. They agreed with us. It’s a great combination.
Many thanks to Hjelm for the interview.
Run that plinking tune back. From southwestern Virginia public radio station WVTF, previewing a recent event at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech with Serial Productions’ Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder:
A third season of ‘Serial’ is now in the works, with a scheduled launch of this fall. Snyder didn’t disclose what it’s about, says there will be an entirely different structure to the story.
“We’re really proud of that, we’re really happy for it,” she said. “But if it weren’t us, it would have been someone else who paved the way of podcasting.”
This week in the revolving door:
- Amanda McCartney joins The New York Times’ advertising team in the newly created role of “Director, Audio & Podcasts,” where she will work to sell the organization’s growing audio advertising inventory and call on direct response podcast agencies. Previously, she was a sales director at the Slate Group, where she worked on podcast sales for Slate and Panoply — before the two divided up their sales structure — as well as branded podcasts.
- Carrie Lieberman has moved to iHeartMedia to serve as its VP of podcast revenue strategy. Previously, she was First Look Media’s director of content distribution, licensing, and business development. Lieberman served in that role for two years, where her duties included overseeing the company’s podcast portfolio stretching from The Intercept to Topic.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic. The view was a little different back in the summer of 2016, when I first started poking around on the podcast scene in the U.K. I wrote a short column on the subject then, finding the ecosystem there to be relatively underdeveloped on the consumption and advertising ends — a condition that, I thought, may have had something to do with the outsized shadow that the BBC casts over all things radio in the region.
I can’t quite tell if much has changed in U.K. podcasting writ large since then, but I can say that a good deal seems to be shifting at the BBC’s podcasting operations. In the past month alone, the BBC appointed its first commissioning editor for podcasts, Jason Phipps, and announced a partnership with Acast to monetize its podcast downloads outside of the U.K. (The latter is largely being read as a move to formalize a new revenue channel for the organization. Note that the BBC is funded in large part by annual licensing fees charged to U.K. citizens, with the rest being spread across public grants and various commercial services, among other things.)
These moves come on top of a new podcast strategy being implemented at the BBC — or, specifically, at the BBC World Service in English. The first indication of this new strategy surfaced during last summer’s RadioDays Europe conference in Copenhagen, when Jon Manel, the World Service’s first podcast editor, announced that the service would no longer use its podcast portfolio as a place for listeners to catch up on unaltered versions of existing radio programs. It was a tantalizing tidbit, but I wasn’t able to connect with Manel at the time to get a full view of what the organization was planning to do.
That changed last week, when we jumped on the phone to talk further about the BBC’s new podcast ambitions. A former investigative journalist who has been with the organization since 1994 — he tells me he was the first British broadcast journalist to report inside Guantanamo Bay — Manel was appointed as the World Service’s first podcast editor in early 2017. In our conversation, he was thoughtful and admirably judicious: There was much he wasn’t able to share at the moment, but he was more than willing to share what he could.
Manel begins with the past. Since 2004, the BBC’s practice has been to repackage all its radio programs into podcast form without any changes or edits to the experience. Some of these repackages, like Radio 4’s In Our Time and The Global News, did quite well (the latter reportedly brought in 11.3 million downloads in March), but most others, not so much. As previously mentioned, that practice has now been ended, and an effort is underway to cull those repackages down to a core group of performers, where they will be refined to work better as podcast experiences. It’s a familiar move, one that echoes a similar historical development at NPR.
But that’s mostly housekeeping. What new programming initiatives will Manel pursue, and what are his guiding principles? “We could just be making loads and loads of new podcasts and just throwing them out there, or we could make a small number and put a lot into that,” he said. “That’s my strategy: a smaller number of really thought-through, targeted podcast series.”
Manel’s efforts should be contextualized as part of a broader goal that’s been set by the BBC World Service: to expand its weekly audience by 10.7 million by 2020. And aside from commissioning podcast-first works that can broadly contribute to that goal, Manel also highlighted a parallel focus on reaching new audiences — or, as he puts it, “those who aren’t served as well by the BBC as we would like.”
That generally means young people and women, but it also means audiences from beyond the U.K.’s physical geography. “For me, the U.K. audience is very important for the World Service. But in terms of my goals, it’s looking beyond these shores and the rest of the world,” Manel said.
To illustrate this, Manel talked about a show his team is producing that’s specifically aimed at 18- to 24-year-old English speakers in India. He wasn’t able to say much about the project just yet, but he did note that it will feature “great stories which really matter to our target audience” and that it will be hosted by a popular Bollywood personality. That podcast is slated to drop sometime in the summer, and they are planning to carry out a marketing campaign that involves staging a number of live events at universities across India. “Podcasting in India exists, but it’s still pretty small,” he said. “You could say that they aren’t being well served by podcasting in general as well, so in a way we’re trying to give podcasting a good push in the region at the same time.”
It’s a shrewd move, and one that notably places direct bets on the strategic advantages podcasting can bring to a global organization like the BBC that linear broadcast channels cannot: namely, an internet-native capacity to be highly specific in identifying, serving, and developing a relationship with an audience without being bound to geographic and linear modes of consumption. A highly targeted initiative like this is made even more valuable by the fact that the BBC isn’t beholden to the same kinds of revenue pressures as for-profit podcast publishers or even American public radio, which relies on listener support funding that mostly comes after the organization has already delivered value. At the BBC, such programming experiments are, in a sense, “prepaid.” India is just the start, Manel tells me. He has some other ideas of things to try along these international lines, but he isn’t privy to share details about that at the moment.
The Indian podcast project strikes me as the most exciting of the BBC’s machinations, but attention should also be paid to the organization’s more conventional podcast efforts. You might’ve spotted Death in Ice Valley bouncing around the Apple Podcast charts recently, which is the BBC’s true crime podcast collaboration with the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. On its face, the show seems like a straightforward programming gambit that leans into a good deal of true crime podcasting’s genre conventions: a culturally-recognized cold case, a sense of participatory discovery, and so on.
But the podcast is also being used as a solid foundation for digital experiments. Manel tells me that Death in Ice Valley is already the BBC’s most successful podcast launch — though, again, he wasn’t able to publicly disclose numbers — but he also notes being impressed with the show’s efforts at creating a Facebook Group-led audience development campaign that loops listener suggestions back in to impact the show. It’s a move that’s been deployed elsewhere in podcast-land, but for a massive public broadcaster like the BBC, it’s a meaningful frontier.
Manel is currently preparing for a new commissioning round, where he will field ideas for the next podcasts to go under the BBC banner. I asked if he was looking for anything specific, or if there was anything in particular a potential proposal writer should be cognizant about. He tells me he has some guidance on what his team is looking for, but hesitates to state anything specific. He did say this, though: “Too often, I think there’s a danger that when there’s a really successful podcast out there, everyone tries to copy that.”
He adds: “When we first sat down with Death in Ice Valley, the team asked us: ‘What podcasts out there do you want us to base it on?’ And I said, ‘None, I want a podcast that isn’t like any other.'”
Some odds and ends:
- The appointment of Jason Phipps won’t affect Manel’s purview. “He’s handling domestic BBC, I handle World Service in English,” Manel said.
- As another testament to the BBC’s sprawling and complex organizational structure: Other departments, and other languages, are looking into modeling their own podcast efforts after what’s happening in World Service English. They will move at their own pace.
- The BBC appears to still be feeling its way through how it’s going to deal with podcast advertising. Even with the Acast deal in place, some shows, like Death in Ice Valley, will not carry advertising, given its status as a co-production with NRK.
- Whipped up a “Best Podcasts of 2018 (So Far)” list last week. (Vulture) But let’s be real: The actual best podcast of the year so far is Wild Wild Country.
- Macmillan Publishers and Grammar Girl have forged a partnership with Stitcher Premium that will bring the entire Grammar Girl catalog — 600-plus episodes strong — behind the paywall. The podcast will also release bonus episodes exclusive to the platform every month.
- “Trader Joe’s podcast is weirdly popular on Apple right now.” (Fast Company) As always, Apple chart placement is not a direct indicator of popularity — but that said, the podcast did get enough activity to get up to the upper echelons. This anecdotal case study will likely power the branded podcast economy for several more moon cycles.
- Bloomberg is launching a new podcast that’ll serve as a six-part in-depth investigation into the gender pay gap. (Trailer)
- Local podcast watchers: Keep an eye on Best People, a new series about Illinois by a new nonprofit progressive news site called One Illinois. (Apple Podcasts)
- “Podcast network Radiotopia is expanding its member-paid benefits.” (Digiday)
- Cadence13 and Nielsen have a new study out on some aspects of the standard podcast listener’s purchase behavior. Probably something you’d want to check out if you sell podcast advertising for a living. (Medium)
- Revisionist History is back for its third season on May 17. (Twitter)
- Not directly related, but I found this very interesting: “Pandora Learns the Cost of Ads, and of Subscriptions.” (Wired)