First-tinkerer advantage. There should be little doubt over who will set the terms for voice-first computing in its early going, whether via smart speaker or whatever comes immediately after that. Barring the apocalypse (in which case, we’ll be doubting a great many other things), it’ll be some combination of Amazon, Google, and/or Apple, though it does seem Amazon’s formidable lead might render the latter two irrelevant for quite some while. There is, however, a followup question to ponder: Who will end up governing and facilitating the media pipes within that voice-first environment? Will it be Amazon itself, or some high-profile serf like Spotify or Pandora? Or will it be a whole new team altogether?
One such team hoping to claim the mantle is Subcast, a company founded by a group of former Medium operatives — Cara Meverden, CEO; Saul Carlin, president; and Daniel McCartney, CTO — who worked at the platisher back when it was still jonesing to build ever-lasting partnerships with premium publishers. Sensing opportunity, they’re now focused on developing listening experiences that bridge podcast publishers and the smart-speaker user base. The company officially launched in December, but the team has been working away at the problem since last April. They found the time to raise a seed round in-between.
So what, exactly, is that gap-bridging experience? The way Subcast sees it, the game is to figure out the sweet spot that lies somewhere between the on-demand (and active) nature of podcasts and the linear (and passive) nature of ye’ old radio — and, to some extent, reconcile the two paradigms. “We’ve historically seen this artificial split between podcasts and radio,” Carlin said. “What happens when those two modes of listening converge with voice?”
For now, Subcast has constructed its initial hypothesis around something that looks like a playlist as the atomic unit of the smart speaker audio experience — though, of course, it’s a playlist with some technical complexities. Each playlist, which they’re calling “stations,” is an automatically generated composition that pulls the latest episodes from curated podcast feeds. I’m told that stations pull directly from RSS feeds in a manner roughly indistinguishable from a podcatcher, which means downloads are counted and ad experiences are left intact. Subcast is manually curating feeds for now, often informing podcasts they’ve been selected only after they’ve been included.
Currently, each station exists as its own skill in the Alexa marketplace, and this configuration has the convenient advantage of making them somewhat easier for new Echo owners to bump into and try out. “Most people are finding them simply by going through the Alexa skill portal,” Meverden said. For now, stations are built around different topical focuses. There’s “Conservative Talk Radio,” “Bachelor Nation Radio,” and so on. One imagines that there are more station composition styles to discover beyond topicality, and Carlin tells me there are some designs to try out curatorial efforts from the Subcast-using community in the future. All of this is bolstered by an overarching enterprise to create a multi-modal listening experience; that is, a setup in which users can seamlessly transition their podcast consumption as they move between their smart speaker, car, and phone. Subcast is doing this primarily by producing companion apps for those other contexts — available now for iPhone and Android! etc. etc. — that are all linked by unique user IDs.
So, yeah, it’s all pretty nifty, though nothing particularly revolutionary, but that isn’t really the point. At least, not right now. Subcast’s fundamental gambit revolves around early rapid experimentation for the Alexa platform and the broader voice-first contexts, which are still prehistoric. It’s a shrewd way to get in front of the curve and to tether fortunes on the long-term growth of the smart-speaker category. For what it’s worth, the Subcast team is bullish on the prospect, and further emboldened by Amazon’s machinations at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. “They’re hiring like crazy — it goes well beyond Amazon products,” Carlin said. “It’s an Alexa Everywhere strategy that puts the platform into third-party hardware. They want people to see that it goes beyond smart speakers. Not just in the Echo, but also cars. Not just private spaces, but public.”
“It’s also the case with Google,” Meverden added. “They’re very much a part of this land grab.” And so, it seems, is Subcast.
Three more things:
- “One of the primary attributes of radio is that it’s everywhere,” Carlin asserted when we spoke over the phone last week. I’ve always been fascinated by that characterization, which is not uncommonly held. Indeed, it’s a strategic assumption commonly espoused and wielded by NPR, since perhaps forever. Carlin went on to connect the notion with the probable teleology of smart speakers — or voice-first computing, or whatever we’re calling these days — that they, too, will one day be everywhere. It is at that point that I’m struck by just how the asserted everywhere-ness of radio (and soon, voice) lays pretty well onto the insistent everything-ness of Amazon. It’s a techno-capitalist match made in heaven, and further suggestion that, indeed, at the end of the day, the Bezos comes for us all.
- This whole Subcast “linear vs. on-demand: what’s voice got to do with it” line of inquiry has got me thinking, somewhat tangentially, about the relative arbitrariness of delineating Podcastland based on its technical nature of being on-demand. The way the podcast ecosystem is hosted, delivered, and consumed will inevitably change at some point in the near future, evolving away from its RSS-oriented, smartphone-driven, and download-defined composition toward a future composition made up of god knows what. How then will we consider, appraise, and apply valuation onto it? It’s also worth noting the very same question can and should be applied to how the podcast industry today relates to the digital audio world that came before. In many ways, you could say that what the past ten years of podcast evolution have wrought is less a whole new category of media product, but a whole new community of media creators. To rephrase this paragraph as a clarifying question: What defines the industry/ecosystem — its structural characteristics, or the community that has identified into it?
- So I’m pretty certain this smart speaker business is going to be a thing. But I’ll admit that I personally have a complicated relationship with my own Echo device. To begin with, my wife makes me unplug it when I’m not being actively using it, because security anxieties, and it’s come to a point where I’m using it when I’m alone in the apartment working. Which is to say, it’s been more trouble than it’s worth. (Despite being relatively young, I am ruined by constant crouching over to plug/unplug.) Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a normal, representative human being, but I imagine this whole security bugaboo is actually going to become really, loudly prominent at some point…more so than it has up until now, anyway.
Let’s get out of my apartment and back to the news.
This week in platforms. Meanwhile, back in the contemporary media ecosystem…
(1) Two for Spotify:
- Last week, it announced the impending rollout of something called Spotlight, a new media format that layers minor visual elements on top of talk audio programming from partner publishers. Seems pretty Snapchat Stories-esque in structural positioning, early-Acast-esque in format experimentation. Initial publishers will include Gimlet Media (a pre-existing homie), BuzzFeed (“strategic changes“), Crooked Media, Refinery29, and Cheddar, among others. For what it’s worth, I don’t quite buy into the “Spotify v. Apple” or the “Spotify’s gambit to listeners away from Apple” narrative just yet. For one thing, there’s a whole universe of value in defining your own media format. For another, the overall pie could always get bigger.
- AdExchanger recently published an interview with the company’s global head of ads monetization Brian Benedik, who disclosed that it’s begun monetizing its original podcasts — though it’s selling direct for now — and that it’s seeing incoming interest from agencies and brands to play with its podcast inventory. Also: It’s working on “applying the recommendation engines” it has for music to podcasts. Which sounds vaguely similar to Pandora CEO Roger Lynch wanting to create the “Podcast Genome Project.” If you’ve got a hammer…
(2) And two for Apple:
- Cupertino is hiring a content producer for its Siri Audio News team, who will “be responsible for the health of the podcast and audio news catalogs and act as our front-line point of provider support.” The job position has the glamorous title of “digital supply chain, technical producer.” Here’s the relevant context, and here’s that job posting.
- This is interesting: “Today Apple launches Apple Music for Artists, a dashboard designed to provide acts with hundreds of data points giving deep analytical insight into their fans’ listening and buying habits.” Billboard has the exclusive.
Winter-bound. I’m not personally a Winter Olympics stan, but I do love me some athlete profile #content. NBC Sports, anticipating the voluminous needs of many sports-hungry Americans, has been prepping for battle to satisfy the masses across a wide variety of platforms. This year, those preparations will include podcasts, as NBC Sports announced this morning that it has partnered with Vox Media to produce “the official NBC Olympics Podcast” to cover the festivities. Called The Podium, the podcast will be published daily throughout the event starting February 8. A few things to note: The show will be recorded on-site in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang and will be executive produced by Vox Media audio head Nishat Kurwa.
I asked Vox Media whether it had any updates on the Sean Rameswaram daily explainer show, but no dice.
Relay FM outlook. The independent podcast network, led by the transatlantic duo Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett, had a pretty stellar 2017 that saw formidable gains across its portfolio of technology- and niche-oriented conversational programming. I’ve been tracking the network pretty closely since profiling them in the summer of 2016, and I recently thought to check in with Hurley, who was more than happy to discuss the past twelve months and share some numbers.
“In the past we have been pretty secretive with sharing too many hard numbers about the company,” he said. “But we are really proud of what we achieved in 2017, so we’re ready to open up a little more than we have before.” (An echo of Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s “happy numbers” quip from last week.)
Here are those digits:
- In 2017, Relay FM saw its revenue grow by 23 percent compared to the year before, beating its goal.
- The network enjoyed an average of 2 million downloads a month, which bundles up to about 24 million downloads for the whole year. That’s up from 18.3 million in 2016, and 12.4 million in 2015 (which was Relay FM’s first full calendar year of operation).
- If you’re crunching the numbers, it’s worth noting that RelayFM ended the year with 25 shows in active operation. The network launched four shows last year, three of which did not carry any advertising — they had planned for that — which means the revenue growth largely comes from increases in price and sell-throughs of existing inventory. For further context, the network launched in the summer of 2014 with five shows.
Hurley notes that Relay FM is sticking to a 20 percent revenue growth target for 2018, and that the network is already on track to beat it. New show launches are also on the docket, and I’m told the team intends to play around with new formats, configurations, and topic areas. To branch out, in other words, from the playbook that has served it so well.
“We feel pretty good about where we are, and we have a good runway to the year ahead,” Hurley said, when I asked about his perspective on the year ahead. “Of course, there’s always a worry that the bottom could fall out of the advertising market, but this doesn’t seem very likely, considering trends of the last few years. And we could lose our audiences somehow, but as long as we stay the course we’re on, that doesn’t seem likely either.” Relay FM will turn four years old in 2018 — a lifetime, in some circles — and across its existence, it’s established a strong operational foundation, figured out a formula that’s worked well for it, and slinked into each successive phase with confidence.
You could largely pin that confidence on the bullishness Hurley and Hackett feel about how podcast advertising has grown up to this point — and how they expect it change in the months to come. Hurley writes:
We have seen increased advertiser interest so far this year, and this is something that’s been scaling over time. I expect that in 2018 we will start to see even bigger companies try their hand at some branding campaigns, but I expect (especially for Relay FM) that our bread and butter will remain in the type of direct response advertising we are seeing right now.
I also expect to see a rise in more agencies trying to represent brands, attempting to sell spots to multiple podcast networks. We are seeing more and more companies that are trying to do this, but mostly they are attempting to represent the same advertisers we already work with. Podcasting is a hot commodity right now, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon, and if new agencies want to get off the ground, they need to branch out and try to convince more brands to give this a try.
I asked Hurley how he feels the industry has changed since he quit his job in 2014 to start the network, and more pointedly, whether it’s harder for independent podcast outfits to exist today. “There’s more of a focus on this industry than there has ever been,” Hurley said. This is, he goes on to note, a double-edged sword, and in his thinking, the increased attention has translated to more advertiser dollars and potential returns, but also a situation where the barriers to starting a sustainable podcast production business are greater than ever. “Trying to carve out your piece of that pie is getting harder as there are more people trying to grab it,” he said.
Hurley added: “We are established at this point, and luckily our path has ensured that we were there at just the right time…if we were starting out today I expect it would be harder for us.”
Joe Frank, the legendary radio producer-personality-artist, died last Monday at the age of 79. His considerable body of work — mind-bending, line-blurring, often surreal, always alluringly dark — deeply influenced a significant portion of the creative generations that currently define, challenge, and reshape radio aesthetics in this podcasting era. A small sample of those he influenced: Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Jonathan Goldstein, Glynn Washington, Kaitlin Prest, Andrea Silenzi, Joe Richman, and Scott Carrier, among so many others. Frank may have no heirs, as the writer Mark Oppenheimer observed in a recent profile, but his disciples are legion.
Do spend some time to sit down with that profile, by the way. The piece by Oppenheimer, who is also the host of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast, went up on Slate last Friday, and it’s rich, fascinating, and lovely. It also doubles as the man’s final interviews before his death:
Frank was chagrined, even a little embarrassed, that he hadn’t made radio for the last couple of years. He knew that the podcast revolution is a big feast at a table he set. “There is something about all these podcasts, the kind of thing I think is, ‘They don’t even know that I started it! They don’t even know where this came from!'”
Again, don’t miss it. And when you’re done with the profile, here are some other things remembering Frank that you should check out:
- This On The Media segment, which brings on Oppenheimer to talk about the profile and later features Brooke Gladstone and Jad Abumrad listening to an old Frank piece.
- This note from Larry Josephson, a friend of Frank and president of The Radio Foundation.
- This remembrance at KCRW, where Frank spent the bulk of his career.
- This Fresh Air segment, which features a 1989 interview with Frank.
And then check out his website, where a good deal of his work can be found behind a paywall.
Career spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Whitney Simon, who covers business development — among many other responsibilities, I imagine — for the Los Angeles-based podcast network Headgum. I don’t think I’ve done one of these career spotlights with someone who’s working on the business side before. Given the general scope of interests in this newsletter, that’s pretty surprising to me. As an aside, I love spreadsheets.
Tell me about your current situation.
I’m currently the Business Development Executive at Headgum. Headgum was founded in 2015 by Jake Hurwitz, Amir Blumenfeld, and Marty Michael. I’ve been with them nearly two years now and was our first full-time employee.
In the big picture, Marty and I handle the business side of things. I spend most of my day selling advertisements against our show roster and investing in the client relations and brand partnerships that come along with that. I’m also responsible for our revenue tracking and financial analysis, running the invoicing and billing systems, and thinking strategically about our growth as a company. I transitioned into the biz dev role about a year ago and now manage our ad ops coordinator and any business interns we might have.
In addition, we’re constantly retooling the workflows and systems we use to better serve us, as Marty and I built them out ourselves. I’m grateful that the guys give me the freedom to really run with their vision in that sense. Because our staff is also still small, I get to dabble in a whole host of other things: UI design, talent acquisition, hiring practices, etc.
How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?
When I was in college, I went through the admissions process for Green Corps (the field school for community organizing). The process is fairly intensive because they, and more than 100 other environmental and social justice organizations in the US, are part of one umbrella organization: The Public Interest Network (TPIN). Many of those organizations attract attention from opposition research firms, so TPIN has built out a great internal recommendation program. As a result, my application landed on the desk of the team that manages the grants operations for the entire organization. They offered me a position post-graduation and, after spending a summer working in Montana, I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2015 to join TPIN’s central staff.
In my role at TPIN, I was managing the (c)(3) and (c)(4) grants operations for Environment America and Green Corps and then consulting on writing and edits for a number of other organizations. The job was fascinating and intensely stressful. No matter if you made a mistake or did your job perfectly, kids’ school lunches or statewide environmental protections were always on the line. We were working 14-hour days at the office and to combat the risk of burn-out, I started listening to podcasts on my commute to give me a jolt of energy and inspiration. A few months in, I ran into a health issue, which led me to then decide to leave the position.
I gave myself three weeks to apply to any job in LA that had ever interested me, and it was during this time I shot off an email to Headgum. After not getting a response, I tracked down Marty’s assistant at the time and cold-emailed her. It turned out they had no open positions, but she called me two weeks later when she left for a different job and brought me in to meet the team. And that’s how I quickly transitioned from a large bureaucratic and historic organization to an incredibly fast-paced, relatively new one.
What does a career mean to you, at this point?
Thinking of a career today, I’d like to be useful in the world. When I look at people whose careers really impress me, they tend to be those who pull others up with them, are generous with their time and resources, and are genuinely excited by and curious about their work. We live in a time of such political, economic, and environmental uncertainty and that certainly affects people’s professional lives by the day. I’m always blown away by people who choose to bring attention or comfort to those who feel alone, oppressed, and/or unseen in the world. It’s going to be fascinating, and hopefully only mildly horrifying, in fifty years to look back on this time in America’s history. I’ve also been inspired by the #MeToo movement, because it’s helping us start to contextualize career paths and professional success in a way we haven’t before, and I hope the push to complicate the notion of a good career continues. I’d be remiss not to mention the people of color, and women of color in particular, who’ve led the movement to drive these conversations powerfully forward and into the open for years.
Not to be too trite but a good friend of mine was killed while we were in college — he was in Egypt teaching English to little kids and was one of those people with the potential to change the world. When work gets really stressful, I try to keep in mind that life is short and work is work. I want to do something with my life that I’m proud of and hopefully make life better for some people along the way.
When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?
I found out fairly quickly that I like to be in a production role within a creative environment. On top of that, I love being able to think creatively within traditionally strict problems or environments. While my college was anti-vocational training, I’m grateful to professors who pushed me in the direction of applied studies. In general, I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which people move through the world. I toyed with going into architecture and urban design for a while, as well as into epidemiology or midwifery. I hope to always be able to draw a connection back to that sort of user-centered approach.
- Pineapple Street Media has hired away Jonathan Menjivar from This American Life. (Twitter)
- This week sees a special series from Death, Sex & Money in partnership with BuzzFeed News called Opportunity Cost, about tradeoffs and choices when it comes to money, status, and class. This is the shit DSM was made to do! Damn, I’m excited. (WNYC Studios)
- WBEZ unveiled the subject of its post-Oprah “Making” season: former President Barack Obama. Which is cool! They should’ve retained the “O” in the podcast art, though. #JustWhatIBeThinking. (WBEZ)
- Mozilla, which has been producing a pretty solid podcast for a piece of #brandedcontent with IRL, is currently two episodes deep into its second season. (Mozilla Blog)
- Too Beautiful To Live, the cult Seattle-based daily podcast now distributed by American Public Media, is turning 10 this year, and it celebrated by doing “a 24-hour, live-stream episode recorded on a party bus driving around the state of Washington” last Saturday. In other news, the line between genius and insanity is thin, and hinges on fuel efficiency. (APM Podcasts)
- I reviewed Tenderfoot and HowStuffWorks’ Atlanta Monster last week. (Vulture) Something I forgot to mention: The show has near minimal transitions into ad breaks, and the result is smack dab at the bottom of the uncanny valley, folks.