Tracking: November 20, 2018

  • ICYMI: Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell’s new audio venture, Pushkin Industries, stepped into the open last week, and the company also announced a new Chief Marketing Officer: Heather Fain, a book publishing veteran.
  • Here’s an interesting personnel move: Jonathan Zenti, the creator of Meat (a finalist for Radiotopia’s PodQuest competition back in 2016), joins the podcast technology company VoxNest as Head of Content.
  • The fine folks at Edison Research and Triton Digital published an addendum to their Infinite Dial 2018 study that contains a breakdown of changes in monthly American podcast listenership by ethnicity between 2008 and 2018. It shows a medium that’s quietly grown in diversity. Here’s the corresponding blog post, and here’s the key slide:

 

  • I continue to be fascinated by the puzzle of smart speakers and news consumption, which doesn’t appear to be a behavior that’s growing proportionally with the rise in device adoption, according to a recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report. Nieman Lab has a great summary. The heart of the problem, it seems, is the black boxes of data: neither Amazon nor Google nor Apple were willing to share data or discuss how news is being consumed on their respective smart speaker devices. A tricky predicament, one that does not bode well for future smart speaker-news publisher relations, and also completely in keeping with tech-media industry dynamics that we’ve seen so far.
  • ESPN will apparently broadcast three hours worth of 30 for 30 Podcasts across its owned-radio stations around the country on Thanksgiving afternoon (1-4pm ET). As Planet Money’s Nick Fountain pointed out, this time-slot sets the sports doc podcast up against The Splendid Table’s live call-in show. A fight to the death, this.
  • WNYC Studios’ 2 Dope Queens ended its run last week with a final episode that featured an interview with Michelle Obama. By closing the podcast, the duo of Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson appears to have completed a full transitional arc: from live show to podcast to television.
  • Producers Eleanor McDowall and Heidi Pett are running a survey at the moment to crowdsource a rate card for audio production in the UK “to try and make pay more transparent”. If you work in the industry, fill it out here, and keep an eye on the UK Audio Network page for the results.

Can public radio powerhouse WNYC navigate a crisis of its own making?

“The Troubles.” We’re three months into New York Public Radio’s reckoning with sexual harassment and an organizational culture that allowed for bullying and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. (See here, here, and here.) And it’s far from over.

Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut (where the original John Hockenberry piece by journalist Suki Kim dropped on December 1), published a whopper Monday evening that provides one of the most detailed looks at the station’s troubling history with sexual harassment and where it stands today. There’s a lot packed into it, and the piece performs a wide range of functions, including, among others:

  • Vividly illustrating the toxic nature of the culture that the station has cultivated over the decades;
  • Capturing the historically persistent systematic failures of the station’s human resources infrastructure — along with its weaponization (“regarded by many as the organization’s spy and enforcer”);
  • Providing additional details on the behavior of Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz;
  • Filling in some of the blanks of what has been happening in the station over the past few months.

Kachka was also able to secure an interview CEO Laura Walker last week, and in doing so, creates a partial portrait of a station leader under heavy fire whose future remains deeply, utterly in question.

The piece is sprawling and remarkably dense, but also somewhat strange. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and the piece strikes me as a keyhole-sized window into the chaos gripping the institution in the current moment — there are dangling threads everywhere, and there are places where I’m not sure how they fit together. Anyway, go read the feature, which is illuminating, but here are some details you probably shouldn’t miss:

  • Here’s what Dean Cappello has apparently been up to following his demotion to an advisory role: “While Walker made sure to be omnipresent around the office, Cappello traveled to London. According to two sources, he was negotiating with the BBC on a partnership to build a morning news podcast to rival the current market leader, the Times’ The Daily.” Hmm.
  • Here’s Walker’s view of what happens next: “She described the future as a monumental but exciting challenge, and gave herself a window of roughly a year to produce results. In addition to [former NPR News executive editor Madhulika] Sikka’s work, Proskauer’s investigation, and several ‘working groups’ of employees, there was a forthcoming ‘integrated plan for change,’ based on a dissection of the workplace now being conducted pro bono by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group.” Not for nothing, though, it should be noted that Proskauer Rose, the law firm brought in to investigate the harassment complaint, is known for union-busting at universities and being on the other side of labor in the sports world.
  • And here’s the kicker: “Cappello’s demotion left many relieved, others even more frustrated that both he and Walker are still in the building. But one thing is true, everyone agrees: Walker is trying. ‘I think she wants to save the company and save herself,’ says one WNYC reporter. ‘But my colleagues and I feel like if it doesn’t truly change, we are out of here.'”

Pocket ecosystem. This morning, RadioPublic, the podcast listening platform and PRX spinoff, announced a new revenue initiative primarily aimed at smaller podcasts that haven’t yet developed a big enough audience to secure advertisers. RadioPublic is calling it the Paid Listen program, with a hook that involves the company guaranteeing payments to participating podcast publishers. Here’s how CEO Jake Shapiro describes the basic premise in an introductory blog post:

Podcasters make ad-free episodes available in their feeds, we place ads on our platform that bookend each episode, and we pay participating podcasters $20 for every thousand listens on the RadioPublic apps for iOS and Android.

Those ads will be produced in-house by RadioPublic itself for now — hence, publishers should note that they’ll lose that bit of creative control and experience contiguity, should they indeed be concerned about such things — and producers must first submit their podcasts for screening approval to participate in the program. It’s worth noting that the compensation program is limited to listens that take place on the RadioPublic mobile apps, not its embed players scattered across the internet.

In his blog post, Shapiro situates the Paid Listen program within the broader vision he holds for RadioPublic, one that sees advertising as one-of-many pathways for creator compensation that the platform will ultimately support. “Soon we will support listeners who prefer to pay podcasters directly instead of hearing an ad; brands who pay users to opt-in for more info; podcasters who invite their true fans to become paying members,” he writes. But those alternative models will come some other day; today, we’re given advertising, the tried-and-true and still-sexy business model that still drives the bulk of business in the podcast ecosystem.

Viewed from a distance, the Paid Listen program can be understood as another variation on your standard marketplace-building gambit deployed by advertising-oriented content platforms — see: YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, early Stitcher, etc. — where incentives are created to attract more creators onto the platform, after which their capacity to draw attention and generate sellable impressions are bundled as attention commodities and sold to advertisers. The nexus of content platforms and digital advertising has come under increasing criticism over the years (not to mention the platformization of everything in general, but that’s a whole other story), and so the distinct challenge for RadioPublic here is how the company will integrate its Paid Listen gambit into its orientation as a public benefit corporation and its stated goal to assist smaller publishers. That challenge gives rise to a broader philosophical question: Do differences in the social consequences of digital advertising and its resultant content/platform dynamics come down to details, and RadioPublic’s long-term commitments to those details — or are the outcomes ingrained purely in the structural arrangement, never to be overcome?

Whatever the answer to that question, it’s useful to read this initiative as the latest step in what may well end up being RadioPublic’s endgame: building a pocket ecosystem specifically for small, independent, and upstart creators in anticipation of a future in which that creator class will be pushed out of the current iteration of the podcast ecosystem by bigger, more organized, and typically deeper-pocketed publishers. It’s a pathway towards relevance that I’ve previously suspected we would see from the rising cohort of user-generated content-oriented apps like Anchor and Bumpers, but it seems that RadioPublic is, and has always been, much more aligned with this particular vision of the future.

The Hollywood hustle. A preamble: Last week, a reader wrote me a particularly profane note complaining about all the adaptation, IP-harvesting, and Hollywood/podcast baby-making stories I’ve been publishing for quite some time now. “Why should we care?” the note asked. “It doesn’t apply to 95% of us.” Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve received such a complaint on this subject. But this week, I figure I should just at least acknowledge the question, and make explicit what has been implicit all along: I cover it because it’s happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s likely going to impact the structures of money, power, and leverage that inform relationships throughout the podcast ecosystem. Which means that one way or another, it’s going to impact you, whether you like it or not — and whether you can see it or not, so you should probably be aware about it.

Anyway, here’s the news peg. Last week, Gimlet announced something that should surprise absolutely nobody: the formation of Gimlet Pictures, its official film and television unit. As Deadline emphasized, the new division will be led by Chris Giliberti, the Boston Consulting Group alum (and Forbes 30 Under 30 fella) who formerly held the amorphous “head of multiplatform” title. Giliberti originally joined the company in the summer of 2015 as chief of staff to Gimlet president Matt Lieber. His team includes Eli Horowitz, who initially joined the company as the head of its fiction division in the run-up to the launch of Homecoming, and another development executive who is yet to be hired, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Do read that THR piece on the matter, by the way, which also contains two noteworthy details:

  • Messaging from Lieber insisting that the company remains committed to being audio-first;
  • IMG Original Content, a division of WME, has hired Moses Soyoola, Panoply’s director business development and strategy, into its ranks.

That Gimlet moved to formalize its film and television unit isn’t particularly surprising; it is, after all, the logical end to much of what the company has been doing on the adaptation front. It’s also worth remembering that Gimlet’s adaptation pipeline — and the commoditization of its shows, episodes, and projects into intellectual property — was explicitly stated as one of its core growth pathways during its $15 million fundraising announcement last fall.

But what does putting up a shingle for a film and television development arm entail? What does having one actually mean? An industry insider tells me:

It’s all about what you do with it. The facade alone won’t open doors. Will you actually build out the resources and team? Will your deals be set up in such a way that you’re actually the production company and receiving real fees for it (a.k.a. will your agency do a good job). There is a layer of deals that are purely options and no real dollars come the way of the rights holders. They may look fancy but there is no serious financial value.

Gimlet’s announcement, together with the premiere of 2 Dope Queens’ standup specials on HBO over the weekend, kicked off a series of writeups formally documenting the ongoing podcast adaptation trend, from USA Today and Variety, along with the aforementioned Deadline and Hollywood Reporter pieces. Over at Vulture, I tried to contextualize this current wave of podcast adaptations within the sporadic podcast-to-TV attempts of the past.

On a related note: Chris Hardwick, the creator of the podcast-centric multimedia network Nerdist Industries, did not renew his contract with Legendary Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Legendary acquired the company in 2012. Instead, Hardwick has branched off and rebranded his flagship Nerdist podcast as ID10T, which will be the basis of his new media company of the same name. That said, he remains the CEO of Nerdist Industries, but will not be involved in the day-to-day. Cadence13, formerly known as DGital Media, will support the new show on ad sales, and as such it’ll be hosted in Art19.

A note on last week’s issue. I’d like to revise an element of the writing in last Tuesday’s profile of Macmillan podcasts: in my introductory paragraph that sought to quickly establish the origin myth of the QDT–Macmillan relationship, I regrettably glossed over QDT’s pre-Macmillan history and Mignon Fogarty’s work therein. By the time she struck a licensing deal with Macmillan, Fogarty had already formally founded QDT and developed it into what she describes as a “thriving podcast network” spanning six podcasts. She remains involved in some high-level QDT decision-making to this day. The way the paragraph was originally written implies that QDT did not exist before the Macmillan deal, and that is patently not the case.

On a related note: Tor Teen, a Macmillan imprint, has brokered a three-book publishing deal with Lauren Shippen adapting her fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions. Paste Magazine has the exclusive.

Making your own shots. “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” That’s how Robin Amer, the creator, host, and executive producer of The City, described her project in short-hand when she originally developed the concept for WNYC’s 2015 Podcast Accelerator. The City, described nowadays as a serialized longform investigative podcast exploring the “power structures of different American metropolises,” emerged as one of two winners of that accelerator competition, but WNYC Studios ultimately ended up passing on the project.

More than two years have elapsed since, and The City has now found a home in a unique situation: as the core of a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations. And last week, the podcast announced a number of key details: the first season will focus on the city of Chicago, the show is set to debut in the fall, and the project has pulled together a team of veteran journalists and public radio producers to build the show.

And what a team it is. Supporting Amer will be: reporter Wilson Sayre, formerly of WLRN; producer Jenny Casas, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and City Bureau; consulting composer and sound designer Hannis Brown, formerly of NYPR’s Meet the Composer; story editor Ben Austen, former editor at Harper’s Magazine and current contributor to the New York Times Magazine; and editor Sam Greenspan, formerly the managing producer at 99% Invisible.

The City’s road to the USA Today Network was an unconventional one. After learning that WNYC wouldn’t be picking up the show in August 2016, Amer secured help from a literary agent, Danielle Svetcov, with whom she started shopping the pilot episode around in November 2016. “I knew I needed a large institutional partner to produce the show,” Amer, who is the former deputy editor at the Chicago Reader and a former WBEZ producer, told me over email. “Long-form investigative reporting isn’t the kind of thing you can do by yourself, unfunded, on nights and weekends.”

The process involved preliminary conversations with more than a few of, as Amer puts it, “the usual podcasting suspects,” but she was eventually connected with the USA Today Network through John Barth, the managing director of PRX and a mentor of Amer, who introduced her to Liz Nelson, the network’s vice president of strategic content development and one of the people in charge of expanding the organization’s budding podcasting efforts. One thing led to another, and last summer, Gannett ultimately agreed to buy The City, acquiring its intellectual property, and bring Amer on an as employee to build and run the project.

“They completely bought into my vision for the show,” Amer said. “The network comprises 109 local news outlets all across the country in addition to USA Today, and is extremely committed to investigative reporting, so my vision of focusing on a different city every season not only made sense to them but was actually feasible.” When asked about the budget that the network is granting the project, Amer described it as “comparable to others that have been launched by major media organizations,” though no specific details were given. For the USA Today Network, The City represents a big swing in a larger push to expand its on-demand audio operation. The network hopes to grow its podcast portfolio to over 60 shows this year. (Which is, uh, wild.)

I’m told that the team is currently deep in the reporting process. “Now that our staff is on board, we’re resuming the reporting that I’ve been doing on and off for the last two years. We’ll be reporting through May, then in scripting and production mode through the summer,” Amer said. They are also laying the groundwork for the second season, which they hope to roll out in the spring of next year.

With a vision to build out a whole new platform for investigative reporting, The City could well emerge as the latest entry in a growing lineage of substantively journalistic podcasts like Reveal or In The Dark — or, as Amer hopes, the broader tradition of investigative narrative works spanning so many other mediums, like those of Errol Morris, Matthew Desmond, and as alluded to in The City’s original shorthand, David Simon. “If we’re successful, I hope it will be one more piece of proof that you can both tell a gripping story and have meaningful impact,” she said. “And hopefully that will spur other media outlets to invest in this kind of work.”

But for now, Amer has already carved out another kind of legacy: of pushing past closed doors with grit, and realizing new ways to raise a project.

On a vaguely related note, because Chicago: Ellen Mayer, a former engagement consultant at Hearken, has launched a new local podcast project called IlliNoise, which is dedicated to “answering your questions about the Illinois state government, how it works, and how it impacts your community.” Not to be confused with Illinoise, the second album in Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project — where the musician would’ve made 50 albums, each based on a different state — that he would dismiss in 2009 as “such a joke.” (Alas.)

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to make audio puns out of every state.

Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Jayson De Leon, one of those young, energetic whipper-snappers.

[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]

[conr]Jayson De Leon: Currently I’m a producer over at Slate where I primarily produce a show called Trumpcast. We started the show back in March 2016 with the idea of it being a short run thing about a fascinating campaign with the promise of doing the podcast until this was over and…well, this is still not over. We describe Trumpcast as being “quasi-daily” and have brought on two more hosts since the election who each bring their own expertise on the administration to the show (Jamelle Bouie and Virginia Heffernan).

In addition, I just finished a stint producing Family Ghosts over at Panoply alongside Sam Dingman (who hosts and created the show), Veralyn Williams (a fellow Slatester), Odelia Rubin (part of the Famoply), and Micaela Blei (The Moth). The show explores those stories you’ve always heard your family talk about, but never quite worked up the courage to look into. I think Sam put it beautifully in the second episode of the series, No Brown Spots: This is a show where “our goal is to turn burdens into talisman.” I love that line and have it pinned to a corkboard in my room. A second season of Family Ghosts is in the works.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]

[conr]De Leon: I went to the University of Central Florida and received my degree in economics. During my senior year, I had that moment of, “oh crap, I don’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life,” so I applied for this internship at Planet Money and got it. I started listening to Planet Money back in 2008 during the financial crisis. Orlando was in a lot of ways the epicenter of the housing crisis, and I was looking for a place to answer the questions I had about the unraveling of my family’s real estate business at the time. I was completely hooked by the pace and detail of the stories. And, to some degree, I think the early days of Planet Money have informed how I think about making a show like Trumpcast where the news changes minute to minute.

After my internship, I spent some time working as a freelancer. I was a huge Grantland fan (R.I.P.) and ended up getting connected to one of their contributors, Brian Koppelman, by sheer luck (I sent him a tweet). He had just started his own podcast on their network called The Moment and I helped produce that show for close to two years while working as Brian’s assistant on his Showtime TV series, “Billions,” which he created alongside his partner, David Levien. The Moment ended up moving to Slate in April 2015 and from there I met a ton of people who helped me land a bunch of work. I freelanced for a little over a year and worked on shows like Slate’s Working and Political Gabfest until I ultimately landed in Jacob Weisberg’s office (who runs The Slate Group) throwing around ideas for what Trumpcast could sound like alongside my then co-producer, Henry Molofsky.

TLDR — making a living doing audio feels like it required a bunch of breaks to go my way. As a former poker player, it feels like I’ve just caught a run of good cards and I’m just ecstatic to still be in the game.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]

[conr]De Leon: Great question, Quah! Hmmm…I never get to think about this. I guess to me a career allows you to enrich those parts of your life you’ve always wanted to enrich while at the same time allowing you to build an actual life for yourself. Only recently have I started to think about this as a “career.” Where I work allows me to try all sorts of new things with storytelling and there’s a certain level of relief that comes with knowing you have time to sit and really think about the best way to tell the story you want to tell or make the best version of the show you want to make. I’m finding that the stories come from a more generous rather than desperate place these days. Like anybody engaging in this medium, I’m just looking to make something that’s urgent, compelling, and feels worthwhile to me and the people listening.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]

[conr]De Leon: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I don’t think I’m more jealous of any other thing on Earth than people who play basketball professionally. Thinking about it is actually making me upset right now. I also thought I was going to be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter after spending four years training full-time. There was also a very good chance that if I didn’t get that Planet Money internship, I would’ve just stayed in Orlando and tried to make my life work over there. So no, when I started out in life, I never thought I wanted to tell stories, but I’m damn happy to find it when I did.

When I first started out playing in the audio space at Planet Money, I was a complete mess. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I tried to do everything. I went on a reporting trip with Zoe Chace which opened my eyes to speaking with people out in the world. Who knew you could do that for living? I pitched stories basically every week at the Planet Money edit meeting. Mainly because I’m very competitive, but also because it was kind of fun to hear why things don’t work.

Phia Bennin, who was producing over at Planet Money then, helped me with basically everything else while I was there — learning to track, edit, mix, etc., and I can’t thank her enough for that. I think I ultimately ended up producing out of necessity, because I really wanted to stay in New York and keep playing my hand in audio, but it’s just in the last year or so that it feels like I’ve been able to tell myself that this is probably what I’ll be doing with my days for years to come.[/conr]

Bites:

  • Pandora is reorganizing its business — which is to say, it’s downsizing and engaging in cost-saving measures while placing bets on new gambles, like ad tech and further expanding into non-music content. The music streaming company is also working to grow its Atlanta office, situated in “a region with lower costs than the company’s headquarters in Oakland.” What finagling! (Press release)
  • “Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market.” (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Amazon has acquired Pulse Labs, a startup that aims to help voice app developers “test out new apps on a target audience before publicly launching.” (Recode)
  • The Modern Love podcast celebrated its 100th episode last week. I asked the team to list out their favorite entries. (Vulture)
  • The Onion binge-dropped a six-part true-crime spoof yesterday, titled “A Very Fatal Murder.” (Website)
  • The ever-funny, always-delightful Glen Weldon with “The 6 Eminently Disprovable Rules For Roundtable Podcasting.” (NPR Monkey See)
  • Are you reading Caroline Crampton? You absolutely should.

These are the most important developments in the podcast business so far in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 135, published September 5, 2017.

Programming note! Ah yes, so we are in September! As you might already know, I’m taking a five-issue break from writing Hot Pod, starting next week and back on October 17, to do the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship in Cambridge (very on-brand, I’d say). But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Hot Pod #content will stop flowing, as I’ll be serving up bonus goodies here and there to those who read Hot Pod as a newsletter. (You can sign up to that here.)

But even as the newsletter churns out extra, the Hot Pod column as you know it will be on ice for a while. So, before the break and ahead of the third annual IAB Podcast Upfront happening later this week (also the NowHearThis Festival, I suppose), I figured this is probably a good time to take stock of the year in podcasting so far, which is, you know, quite a lot. In this issue, you’ll find top-level numbers, the six big things/trends/developments that stood out to me, thoughts about the three most interesting podcast companies, and some news hits before we break for a month and a half.

Let’s jump in.

The year so far. We begin by asking: Just how much has the industry grown over the past year? And do we have a better understanding of the space than we did before? I’ve been keeping these two digits pinned to my notebook:

  • Audience size: 67 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, up 21 percent from 57 million from the year before. The volume of growth between 2017 and 2016 is slightly less than the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which was a source of consternation among some in the podcast community at the time. But as I wrote back when the report first dropped: “We’re still talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much under-organized.” Those three things, by the way, have changed a little since I wrote that line. More on that in a bit.
  • Advertising: The industry is expected to top $220 million in podcast advertising revenue by the end of 2017, according to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study. The study is the first of its kind, a long-awaited official research effort into a pool of the biggest players in the space — which gives us a floor, at the very least — that’s a marked a step up from that methodologically-fuzzy Bridge Ratings report that’s been floating about the past few years. (Yeah, it’s all totally weird.) The IAB study was also able to give us some valuable historical context: 2016’s podcast ad revenue came in at $119 million, while 2015 came in at $69 million.

I’ll be thinking about how the industry moves forward based on three dimensions:

  • Growth — whether audiences and revenues will continue to grow, obviously;
  • Sustainability — whether companies will meaningfully diversify their revenue streams and whether the industry will see its activities and fortunes spread out across a wide number of companies; and
  • Refinement — whether the ecosystem will improve upon its various inefficiencies, from discovery to measurement to monetization.

Cool. So, with all that out of the way, let’s talk about six big things that’ve stood out to me since January.

[storybreak]

(1) Fundraising uptick. The summer closed with what might have been the loudest month in terms of significant investments in the podcast industry since…well, since I’ve started writing this newsletter in November 2014. August saw a total of four big investments in all (that were publicly disclosed, of course):

  • August 1: Gimlet Media announced a $15 million Series B funding round led by the New York-based Stripes Group, whose portfolio also includes Refinery29, eMarketer, and Blue Apron. Participants in the round also included Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Graham Holdings, Cross Culture Ventures, and Betaworks. Variety had the first writeup.
  • August 3: DGital Media (which would later rebrand as Cadence13) announced that Entercom, the fourth-largest radio broadcaster in the U.S., paid $9.7 million to buy 45 percent of the company. The arrangement was described as an “investment and a strategic partnership” in the press release, and Entercom also signed a “multi-year services agreement under which DGital will dedicate ‘significant resources’ to create on-demand audio content leveraging the broadcaster’s roster of local talent and relationships.”
  • August 23: Art19, the California-based podcast technology company, announced a $7.5 million Series A round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (BDMI) and DCM Ventures. Other investors in the round included United Talent Agency (!), Gallo Digital, angel investor Zach Coelius, and Array Ventures, according to the press release.
  • August 31: HowStuffWorks, the Atlanta-based veteran podcast company that’s been publishing for almost a decade across multiple parent corporations, announced that it will be spinning out as a new independent company with a $15 million Series A fund led by the Raine Group. Here’s TechCrunch with a writeup, which also includes a look at an executive reshuffle and marginal insight into expansion plans. The spinoff news comes not too long after the company announced a West Coast expansion, one that explicitly targets the comedy category.

First of all, mazel tov to all! But also: Why did all these investments come in at the same month? Also, why did it all come out in the time of year when many a venture capitalist is thought to be on vacation? Conal Byrne, HowStuffWork’s new incoming president, was game to put a positive spin on it, though he doesn’t quite answer the question. “The industry has finally hit the tipping point that investors have been waiting for,” he wrote, through a rep. “Validation of a big market opportunity.” That feeling is generally shared across other sources that I reached out to, though the timing thing remains a puzzle. (Herd mentality? An actual tipping point? Maybe a bit of both?) Nevertheless, there were several private expressions of relief that dollars are finally flowing.

One thing to observe from all this: These four investments are substantially different from the kinds of investments we’ve often seen in (and adjacent to) the podcast space up until this point. Much of the attention over the past few years has generally been on consumer-focused audio app and platform plays — Anchor, Bumpers, Otto Radio, 60dB, RadioPublic, and so on — which are, in other words, stuff that’s more conventionally known within the broader tech industry. But these recent investments — three straight-up media companies, one podcast technology infrastructure company — are specific to the needs, textures, and idiosyncrasies of the podcast ecosystem.

I like where this is going.

(2) Apple analytics. While the summer closed out with news of investments, the season kicked off with an Apple bombshell. During its WWDC conference back in June, the company’s podcast team announced that publishers will soon be provided with in-episode analytics — which is to say, publishers will soon be able to systematically go beyond the download and tell just how much of their episodes are actually being listened to on the aggregate. This is undeniably the most significant development to hit the podcast industry since…well, since Apple consolidated the disparate ecosystem by featuring podcasts in the iTunes architecture, breaking it out as a standalone app, and then eventually packaging the app with iOS by default.

My coverage on the matter was spread across three separate issues:

Nieman Lab also ran a useful piece from WAMU’s Gabe Bullard, who sought to project what might happen to podcasts by examining what happened to the radio industry when its ratings became more precise ten years ago. To sum: A fragmented world was revealed, genres died off, accuracy disputes emerged, and some who were thought to be big turned out not to be all that big after all. We’ll likely see the same kinds of effects ripple across the podcast industry, and as a result, we’ll probably see some recalibration of power and standing. We’re due for a moment of disruption, which is as much a period of potential as it is pitfall. (Chaos is a ladder, after all, as some dude once said.)

(3) More and more adaptations. To illustrate the prevalence of this trend, here’s a sample of just a few of noteworthy developments in this area over the past few months:

  • Gimlet Media articulating its intellectual property pipeline as a prominent talking point for press coverage around its recent fundraise, building on a steadily increasing track record of adaptations that include Homecoming and StartUp being adapted for television, along with the “Man of the People” episode on Reply All being adapted for film.
  • In August, HBO announced that it will be adapting WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens into a series of four hour-long specials.
  • Also in August, Universal Cable Productions announced that it was adapting Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead for the USA Network. Accompanying the news was word of a novel based on the podcast, to be published by Harper Perennial in 2018.
  • The TV adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, picked up by Amazon Studios, has an October release date and now, a trailer. A book adaptation is also in the works.
  • There remains scuttlebutt that First Look Media was shopping Missing Richard Simmons around as “potential source material for a TV series,” per a Hollywood Reporter article from April.

The prospect of adaptation is valuable for publishers in three key ways: (1) obviously, it represents a whole new potential revenue stream, (2) they’re good expressions of recognition by more established systems of media and publishing, and (3) each successfully executed adaptation is an audience development and marketing vessel for the original podcast as much as it is a standalone product.

That said, some attention should be paid as to whether these adaptations actually pay off. Remember, it took a while for comic books to rev up as hot sources of intellectual property for the more lucrative film industry, especially after an uneven string of performances in the ’90s and early 2000s. (But then again, the film industry did have a…challenging summer. But maybe that doesn’t really tell us anything?)

(4) On programming. It’s been kind of a strange year, at least for me. We’ve seen a heckuva lot more podcasts of increasing ambition, and we’ve seen some tremendous successes that have taken the medium to new heights. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the pace of successes has been somewhat uneven. Like there isn’t much certainty that the space as a whole can hold the public conversation for a sustained period of time.

In any case, the year in #content so far has been defined in my mind by two things:

  • Two unambiguous hits from early in the year that broke into the mainstream, First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons (debuted in February) and Serial Productions’ S-Town (debuted in March).
  • The rise of the daily news podcast, about which I’ve written a frightful amount over the past few months. But frankly, between The New York Times’ The Daily (debuted in February) and NPR’s Up First (debuted in April), I think it’s the most exciting front in the space in a long time. The category represents a whole bunch of things: Innovation! Ambition! Serious consideration of the medium that breaks from podcasting’s still governing skeuomorphisms with radio! And with Vox Media throwing its hat into the ring soon, I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up.

Two questions moving forward: (a) Where will the next hit come from? (b) Does my thesis from May — where I argued that the success of Missing Richard Simmons, taken in context of the success of S-Town, indicates that podcasting remains fairly accessible and meritocratic, which is to say that a good thing can stand out no matter of pedigree — still stand?

(5) More and more windowing. There’s been a noticeable increase in such shenanigans between publishers and non-Apple platforms, particularly in terms of promotional partnerships that sees the former giving “exclusive early drop” opportunities to the latter. Examples include:

  • First Look Media’s Missing Richard Simmons releasing episodes early (along with some bonus material) on Midroll Media’s Stitcher platform. Of course, that flow was ultimately interrupted due to some, uh, “extraneous circumstances” related to the meta-elements of the podcast by the end of the show’s run, but I heard the experiment paid off quite a bit for Stitcher. A Midroll rep told me that the partnership drove six times the usual number of daily new subscription signups during the show’s run.
  • Gimlet Media debuted its collaboration with the Loud Speakers Network, Mogul, on Spotify weeks before the podcast would eventually be distributed through the open ecosystem. The Brooklyn-based company later announced that its upcoming history podcast, Uncivil, will be windowed on TuneIn.
  • Speaking of TuneIn, the platform had previously tested out an exclusive distribution arrangement with The Ringer’s MLB Show at the start of baseball season.
  • And speaking of Spotify, the music streaming platform also developed a windowing relationship with WNYC, where the public radio station debuted the latest season of 2 Dope Queens earlier on Spotify.

Aside from Stitcher, it’s unclear to me whether such arrangements are paying off enough to establish this as a worthwhile strategy to be commonly implemented across the space. What is clear, however, is that such moves have not gone unnoticed by Apple, the long-time steward of the space.

And there were hints of blowback from Cupertino. As Digiday reported during the Missing Richard Simmons run:

According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmons until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said.

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

(6) Platform fluidity. Last March, reacting to the launch of Audible’s original programming slate, the introduction of Google Play Music’s podcast feature, and the continued rollout of Spotify’s video and podcast offerings, I argued that the word “podcast” will lose all of its original meaning by the end of that year. Which is to say, the concept will no longer be too tethered to its initial infrastructural connotations — RSS feeds, podcatchers, and so on — and that arguments over what’s a “podcast” and what’s not will be fully relegated into a game of pure semantics and ideological identities. Instead, the way we talk about all of this — the content, the technology, the audiences — will have shifted from a narrative about the clash between an incumbent and an insurgent (“the future of radio”) towards a clash between publishing factions defined by different formations of publishing communities (“a type/genre/kind of audio”).

(Man, I was so much less literal back then.)

I think there’s been a fair bit of evidence that precisely this has played out over the intervening year and a half, contributing to a space that feels a lot more…fluid, conceptually, than it once was.

Consider the following developments:

  • Spotify is producing original podcasts in addition to their overarching efforts to establish their platform as a meaningful alternative to Apple. (Or, internally, to establish podcasts as a meaningful addition to their raison d’etre of being a music consumption platform.) The company seems to be getting ready for another round of original podcast programming, according to Bloomberg, though it’s unclear how that’s been affected by the dismissal of Tom Calderone, its head of video and podcasting operations.
  • Audible and Stitcher Premium, both of which possess value propositions that are defined by a sense of exclusivity, have begun trickling shows out beyond their paywalls and into the open ecosystem.
  • Meanwhile, Google Play Music is making its own quiet excursion into original podcast programming.
  • iHeartRadio, a native of Internet radio (and progeny of old radio), is increasingly agitating to claim some portion of the podcast space. In the past year, the platform has established distribution relationships with Art19, Libsyn, and NPR member stations. It, too, dabbles with some original programming, branded and otherwise.
  • SiriusXM is quietly developing a podcast platform of their own by the name of Spoke.
  • And while we’re on the subject of apps, we’ve also seen increasing activity within the social audio app front. In particular, the Betaworks-backed Anchor — a contemporary of Bumpers — is increasingly deploying podcast nomenclature (and getting involved in the concerns of podcasts writ large) to describe itself, its machinations, and by extension, its value proposition. A prime example of this can be found in its latest audio-to-social video feature, which adapts the broader Audiogram initiative into its infrastructure.

One way to thread all of these developments together is to frame it all as the story of several non-Apple platforms slowly (and clumsily) encroaching on Apple’s position as a steward of the space with a relatively hands-off stance, maybe to one day capitalize on the various inefficiencies that have resulted from that stance.

Have we seen a meaningful alternative platform to Apple yet? It doesn’t seem like it, based on what I’ve seen. As it stands, Apple remains the primary firehose, and everyone else is still a tiny spigot by comparison. Nevertheless, the encroachment marches on.

(A quick side thought on the fate of user generated content-oriented apps: While it’s unclear what their precise value propositions are to bigger publishers, you could argue that they could collectively serve as a good next step for the species of smaller solo independent publishers that find themselves being pushed out by bigger, more organized, and typically moneyed publishers. I haven’t really thought this through just yet, but should Apple change its hands-off stance — and should Apple Podcasts’ facilitation of the space be diluted beyond some proportional tipping point — small and upstart creators would need a place to go.)

[storybreak]

So those are the six trends that’ve stood out to me. As a collective, I think they describe a space that has made meaningful gains where it counts (size, revenue, legitimacy, prestige, awareness, and so on), but as a result has become increasingly complex. That complexity can be destabilizing, and this story has a bigger potential curveball coming its way with the introduction of the new analytics layer in November. Rest assured: I’ll be back by then to cover all of that.

Before I move on to some quick news hits, I also want to quickly talk about the three companies in the industry that have most stood out to me over the past eight months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest — though they are quite successful and big — but rather, they’re the most interesting, and they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

The three most interesting podcast companies

HowStuffWorks. HWS is officially almost two decades old; its podcast business, headlined by Stuff You Should Know, is about half that. And yet the Atlanta-based company has, over the past year, operated with a verve of a much younger venture. It has aggressively hired new talent (working from a playbook that seems to be revolved around drafting established Internet media pioneers from the mid-aughts, including Cracked.com founder Jack O’Brien and Mental Floss’ Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur), expanded the geography of its operations, and spun out as a whole new independent entity with new funds. Can an older hand successfully retool itself for the future?

The Ringer. I happen to love The Ringer as a publication, but I also think the stuff that they’re doing with their podcast network is low-key revolutionary. It features rigorous experimentation (Binge Mode, of all things, is a triumph in concept and execution), a fluid use of their writers as valuable audio assets, and an approach that seems to have meaningfully integrated their audio division with the rest of the business. The Ringer isn’t for everybody, but when it’s yours, it’s really, really yours, and its podcast division is the purest expression of that fact.

That said, the fact that its ownership structure is a mystery makes the enterprise tricky to fully trust. We can’t quite know for sure how the company is doing, and as a result, we can’t assess for sure whether the model is financially successful — and therefore replicable — or not. Then again, The Ringer head Bill Simmons told Recode’s Peter Kafka back in February that they’re doing well, and the organization seems to be valuable enough for Vox Media to establish a technology and advertising relationship with in May, so hey, maybe something’s there.

The New York Times. When the Gray Lady originally announced that it was assembling a new podcast team last year, I imagined an outcome not unlike what we’ve seen with, say, Slate: a portfolio of subject-specific shows that export the feel and sensibility of its parent publisher, only tighter and more pristine. What ended up emerging was something more drastic, the creation of a whole new…let’s call it a franchise. (Or, heaven forbid, a #brand.) By the end of summer 2017, it’s not inaccurate to say as far as the Times’ audio machinations are concerned, you have The Daily, and you have everything else that orbits The Daily.

On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. That team has built a powerful machine, one that has equal capacity to break stories, deepen impact, and serve as a platform to launch complementary projects. But on the other hand, the problem with building a basketball team around a single player is the implosion that happens when that player gets injured, gets tangled up in controversy, or just gets old. This is a privileged problem, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless. What happens next will be fascinating to watch.

[storybreak]

Two stories on political podcasts.

(1) The genre is strong! Which is not entirely surprising, of course, given the current spirit of the times where politics and the media have definitively fused into one giant, amorphous, Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly-like blob. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr (formerly of Ad Age) has a piece up checking in on the growing category, and it contains two nifty data points for us: First, that the twelve-year-old Slate Political Gabfest “brought in about $1 million in revenue last year at a $25 CPM and an average download of a few hundred thousand per episode,” and second, that revenue for the political podcasts in Midroll Media’s portfolio “has doubled this year compared to 2016.”

(2) Vice News is the latest media org to engage with the “podcasts as left-wing political talk radio” angle, providing a broad accounting of the emerging phenomenon. Do pair that with the “alternative left wing media infrastructure” by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins from July, titled “How the Left Lost Its Mind.”

Kids podcasts make a marketing push. Drawing some inspiration from February’s #TryPod audience building campaign, a coalition of kids-oriented podcasts are attempting a similar cross-promotion scheme to spread their audiences around and generally bring more attention to the category. Participating shows include Brains On (APM), Wow in the World (NPR), Eleanor Amplified (WHYY), But Why (Vermont Public Radio), Tumble Science (Wondery), Circle Round (WBUR), Story Pirates, and The Longest Shortest Time (Stitcher).

I’m told that the coalition was formed organically, with NPR running point on the outreach to potential participants. This campaign is said not to be directly related to the Kids Listen collective, of which all of these podcasts are members.

As part of the effort, Brain On’s Molly Bloom will be producing a “bonus preview” episode that will feature highlights from participating shows. The preview will be distributed throughout the coalition’s podcast feeds in early October.

The campaign kicked off yesterday, and will run for 13 weeks.

Bites:

  • BlogTalkRadio and Spreaker have announced a merger. Note: “Shareholders from each of Spreaker and BlogTalkRadio will be making investments in support of the combined company’s growth plan, which will be rolled out over the next several months,” the press release states. Terms were not disclosed. (Press release)
  • Ben Johnson, host of APM’s Marketplace Tech and Codebreaker, is moving to WBUR to start a new project on “the vast/complex/rich community of the Interwebs.” Congrats on the move! (Twitter)
  • This is cool: “Welcome to Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin on Finding the Queerness in His Character.” (Slate)
  • KCRW is ending the broadcast run of its weekday talk show, “To The Point,” and will repackage it as a weekly podcast. Anomaly or trend? Let’s hope that we stick around long enough to find out. (Current)
  • Frontline, the investigative documentary series from PBS and WGBH, is rolling out a podcast with the legendary Jay Allison serving as senior editor and creative director. PRX serves as distributor. The show officially launches on September 14.
  • Now, I don’t usually derive much value from content marketing pieces, but this audioBoom writeup sees the digital advertising agency Ad Results claiming to “own” 40 percent of the podcast industry’s revenues. This isn’t too far-fetched, from what I’ve heard. (audioBoom)
  • Keep an eye on this: “Traditional Radio Faces a Grim Future, New Study Says.” (Variety)

Cool! Thanks for reading. See you in six weeks.

[photocredit]Photo by Gauthier Delecroix used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

The future of podcasting is strong, but the present needs to catch up

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 111, published March 14, 2017.

Infinite Dial 2017. The latest Edison Research report capturing the size of podcast listening audience is in, and growth continues to look pretty solid. However, just how we should feel about that growth appears to be a debated question among some pockets of the community — there were, to be sure, many observers who were expecting a greater acceleration in listeners following a year of solid media exposure to the medium, and they didn’t quite see that this year.

Before jumping into the numbers, some background: the Infinite Dial report comes from Edison Research in partnership with Triton Digital, and it examines consumer adoption of digital media with particular emphasis on audio. It’s also the most reputable independent study that has researched the state of podcast listenership since the medium’s inception, with data going back to 2006. The study is survey-driven, offering a complementary data source for an industry largely defined by a black box platform and which possibly looks to further fracture across several other black boxes as it moves into the future. Which is all to say, the study presents us with the closest, most trustworthy read of the actual market we’re dealing with.

You can check out the whole report on the Edison Research website, but here are my top-line takeaways:

(1) Steady, unsexy growth?

The share of Americans who report being monthly podcast listeners (the key metric in my mind) is now 24 percent (67 million), up from 21 percent (57 million) the year before. That’s a 14 percent (or 3 percentage point) growth year-over-year. The story is more dramatic if you take a longer view: Over the past two years, monthly podcast listening has grown by 40 percent.

However, the monthly podcast listening growth between 2017 and 2016 (3 percentage points) is a little less compared to the period immediately preceding it (4 percentage points off a smaller base), which has become a source of consternation among some in the podcast community. More than a few people have written me noting the disparity between the hype that we’ve been experiencing — about how 2016 was supposed to be “the year of podcasts” — and the steady, seemingly unsexy growth we’re seeing here.

I think the concern is fair, but I also think it comes from staring a little too closely. Two quick reality checks:

— We’re talking 10 million new Americans actively listening to a medium that (a) is still propped up by a barely evolved technological infrastructure, (b) has only seen a few instances of significant capital investment, and (c) still sees its industry power very much underorganized. That last thing was reflected, somewhat, in something that Tom Webster, Edison Research’s VP of strategy and marketing, said during the Infinite Dial webinar last week: “As I’ve maintained for a number of years now, there’s not really been a concerted industry to define and sell podcasting and talk about what it really means to the general public.”

— We’re also talking about solid, continuous growth following years of marginal gains (and a dip in 2013) in terms of active podcast listeners, and what are essentially years of non-movement in terms of podcast awareness. Between 2010 and 2013, podcast awareness hovered between 45 and 46 percent of Americans.

Which isn’t to say that continuous growth is inevitable in Podcastland, of course. Far from it. The industry has a crap ton of work to do, and the bulk of it should revolve around this next topic.

(2) The problem of programming

Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content — who often seeks to dissociate his work with the term “podcasting,” but we’ll sidestep that for now — sent me a few thoughts he had about the report over the weekend, and this point stood out to me in particular:

[One thing] I find significant, that no one is discussing — and is podcasting’s massive opportunity — is the disconnect between occasional users and regular users. To me, the fact that 40 percent of U.S. adults have tried podcasting, yet only half of them listen regularly, that’s astounding. Show me any other medium that has that gap. None. When people sample and don’t habituate, it speaks to interest that isn’t being met by the content that’s available today. There either isn’t enough variety of things for people to listen to — or there isn’t enough of what they like to meet their appetite. With 350,000 podcasts, that seems like a strange thing to say, but the simple truth is that potential listeners aren’t sticking with it — and there are only two potential reasons: not enough good stuff — or they simply can’t find it. Solving this could go as far as doubling the audience for podcasting.

In all, I see this year’s report as clear evidence that there is a lot of headroom left to go, but I think it’s time to stop blaming awareness as a core problem.

For reference, here are the data points that Nuzum was responding to:

  • 40 percent of Americans [112 million] report having ever tried listening to a podcast, up from 36 percent the year before.
  • Again, 24 percent of Americans report sticking around to becoming monthly podcast listeners.

Between the two potential reasons that Nuzum laid out to account for this disparity — programming and discovery — it does appear to me that the latter seems to get the bulk of the attention as the principal problem that the space needs to solve in order to realize this potential. The phrase “discovery is broken” certainly functions as the value proposition for a lot of innovation and strategic movement in the space: the initial entrances of Spotify and Google Play Music, the creation of apps like RadioPublic, the proliferation of various independent podcast curation newsletters floating in the ether, etc. (The phrase also serves as a go-to complaint from many publishers, but let’s ignore that for now.)

Frankly — and maybe it’s no act of bravery on my part now to express this when someone else has gone and said it — but I’ve never put much stock in the discovery thesis. It’s always occurred to me that discovery functions in the podcasting space along the same dynamics as the rest of the Internet: There is simply so much stuff out there that the problem isn’t the discovering an experience in and of itself — it’s discovering a worthwhile or meaningful experience within a universe of deeply suboptimal experiences. (Which isn’t unlike the experience of being alive.)

Thus, to speak personally for a second, my discovery of the things that I tend to stick with, both on the Internet and in podcasts, come from the same three broad avenues: (a) the thing earns its place in my attention sphere by bubbling up across my existing circuits, (b) I personally go out and dig for a specific thing through various search pathways, and (c) somebody personally recommended that thing to me. And all of those processes of discovery are driven, anchored, and defined by the nature of those things and whether they are actually things that I would sort into my life based on my consumptive predispositions. (Sorry for the many uses of the word “thing.”) Which is to say: No matter how much you try to fix discovery processes, the act of discovery necessarily breaks down when the things that people want don’t exist.

The problem of programming, then, should necessarily supersede the problem of discovery among any and all media entities that fundamentally struggle with the boundaries of their potential.

We see this idea express itself in another data point, and observation, raised during the Infinite Dial webinar last week. The presentation had highlighted the fact that podcast consumption among the oldest demographic (55-plus) is pretty low — making up only 12 percent of the American monthly podcast listening population, up from 11 percent last year — which is a finding that, as Edison Research’s Tom Webster pointed out during the presentation, is a little strange given the talk radio format’s general popularity among that age demographic. “Now, certainly, one growth area for podcasting is to continue developing content and to market to older Americans,” Webster said.

(That said, I suppose there’s a limitation to the depth of that theory, particularly when we examine an entity like, say, NPR, which is working hard to indoctrinate a generation of younger audiences into its listening universe while simultaneously functioning as a formidable power in podcasting.)

But that’s not to dispute Webster’s argument here, because its core idea is true, crucial, and worth fighting for at every turn. We need to be developing more types of programming for more types of people, shows that are of and for: more women, more people of color, more older people, more different kinds of communities, more nationalities, and so on.

All right, let’s move on.

(3) Depth of listening

This year’s report further underscores the idea that if you like podcasts, you probably really, really like podcasts. The key data points:

  • Podcast consumers listen to an average of five podcasts per week. And to break that out further: More than half of all podcast consumers listen to three or more podcasts per week, and over a fifth of podcast listeners listen to six or more per week.
  • The average number of podcasts that listeners subscribe to: 6.
  • Perhaps the most notable finding: 85 percent of podcast listeners say they tend to consume the majority or the entirety of the episode.

As Izzi Smith, NPR’s senior director of promotion and audience development, pointed out to me over Twitter, these are self-reported numbers and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

The move here, then, would be to compare that against the internal analytics findings of various podcast publishers who have the means of measuring the behaviors of their own listeners — and of course, mentally accounting for potential differences between the specific quirks of those publishers’ audiences and the more general aggregate behaviors of all audiences combined.

Of course, doing that comprehensively would take more time than I have right now, so I’ll leave you with two cases:

  • HowStuffWorks chief content officer Jason Hoch tells me that the Infinite Dial numbers were consistent with data pulled from a streaming partner. “We see ~50% do ‘half’ and 35-40% do all of an episode,” he tweeted.
  • Nick DePrey, NPR’s analytics manager, tells me that “NPR One data shows 65 percent of listeners hear more than half the audio and 46 percent hear the whole thing, but that’s only half the story. These broad averages conceal the most important factor: Length is everything in determining completion rates.” He went on to discuss the specific findings, which you can find on the Twitter thread.

Miscellaneous takeaways

  • Active podcast listeners still skew male.
  • The home is still the most common place for podcast listening.
  • It’s still early days for in-car podcast listening.

That’s all I got for now. The future looks strong, though it looks as if the present still needs to catch up. Again, you can find the whole Infinite Dial 2017 report on the Edison Research website — there is a ton of good stuff I didn’t touch here, so go check it out. The research team is scheduled to publish a report that digs even deeper into the podcast data sometime in May, so watch out for that.

Quick note on Missing Richard Simmons. The smash-hit, massively popular, [insert maximal adjective here] podcast is wrapping up its six-episode run next Wednesday, and soon, we’ll find out whether we’ll actually hear from the titular subject himself. But I was also curious about the show’s windowing arrangement with Stitcher, in which episodes were released a week early on Stitcher Premium, and whether it would still apply to the final episode, which I imagine would significantly deflate the momentum leading up to the big reveal.

Midroll, which owns Stitcher, tells me that the final episode will indeed be released early on Stitcher Premium, but instead of publishing tomorrow, the episode will come out next Monday — two days before everybody else gets it.

Cool. I’ll be listening. Also, it occurs to me that, among other accolades, Missing Richard Simmons stands out as being a podcast that has achieved considerable success — it has sat at the top of the iTunes charts for several weeks now (caveats on the significance of iTunes podcast chart placement applies) — without any promotional placement from iTunes itself. I can’t quite recall another example of a podcast for which this has been the case, and that’s super interesting, to say the least.

Two platforms, two pieces of news. So the first was the development I was referring to in the preamble of last week’s newsletter, and the second threw me for a loop.

(1) Google Play Music rolls out its own original podcast. City Soundtracks features biographical interviews with musicians about the elements — in particular, places — that shaped their aesthetic lives. The podcast is hosted, appropriately, by Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway, and Google Play Music contracted Pineapple Street Media to handle production. The show’s distribution isn’t exclusively limited to the Google Play Music app; it can also be found just about everywhere else, including iTunes. It is not, however, available on Spotify. The first three episodes were released last Wednesday, when the show was first officially announced.

(2) More windowing: WNYC will release the new season of 2 Dope Queens two weeks earlier on Spotify. This development comes on top of a more general partnership that’ll see more shows from WNYC Studios made available on the platform. Here’s the relevant portion of the press release:

Spotify and WNYC Studios, the premiere podcast and audio producer, today announced a partnership to showcase many of WNYC Studios’ top podcasts on the platform. The partnership includes a special two-week exclusive on Season 3 of WNYC Studios’ hit podcast 2 Dope Queens, premiering on March 21,  before it becomes available on other platforms.  All podcasts will be available to both free and premium users.

I’m still mulling over just what, exactly, these two developments tell us about the growing dynamic between the rise of various platforms and how content will flow through the podcast ecosystem in the near future, but I will admit that this move from Spotify — that is, carving out a windowing arrangement with a non-music oriented show — seemed a little confusing to me. I had originally interpreted the programming strategy for both Spotify and Google Play Music as instances in which these platforms were integrating shows that would vibe with their music-oriented user base. To me, that’s the focused, albeit more narrow, play. But this arrangement with 2 Dope Questions opens up that strategy a little bit, and gives the entire enterprise a little less definition than before. Will it pay off? Obviously, that’s the question everyone and their second cousin is asking.

Quick note from SXSW: ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast. The Jody Avirgan-led team produced a panel on Sunday about the upcoming audio iteration of ESPN’s (and Bill Simmons’) beloved sports documentary brand. A couple of details for those, like myself, keeping a close eye on the project: The podcast will be released in short batches, with the first five-episode season dropping sometime in June and another five-episode season dropping later in the fall. Episodes are within the classic 30-40 minute range, and the podcast will follow the film’s anthology format in that no two episodes cover the same story. The panel revealed two out of the five subjects from the podcast’s upcoming first season: One will tackle the first all-women relay trek to the North Pole that took place in 1997, and another will examine the curious case of Dan & Dave, the 1992 Reebok advertising campaign rolled out in the runup to the 1992 Olympics that focused on two decathletes. Rose Eveleth is leading the former story, while Andrew Mambo leads the latter.

And here’s a second mention of Hrishikesh Hirway in today’s newsletter: He’s handling the theme music. (Hirway has worked on the theme music for FiveThirtyEight’s podcast.) Ryan Ross Smith is scoring the individual episodes.

I’m super excited about this — the panel played two short clips from those episodes, and they sound really, really good. That’s a hopeful sign, as the team has a lot to push through. Beyond the basic requirements of producing a good show, the team has to balance between meeting the brand expectations while ensuring the episodes have standalone value for non-30 for 30 fans, weaving together stories that are appealing to both the sports literate and non-sports literate, and finding ways to push certain conventions of the audio documentary format without entirely losing the core audio documentary consumer.

Still tracking that West Virginia Public Broadcasting story…and it looks like the station is anticipating having to lay off 15 full-time staffers — more than 20 percent of its workforce — in preparation for cuts to its state funding as proposed by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, as Current reports. WVPB GM Scott Finn told the West Virginia House Finance Committee last Wednesday that, should the state funding cuts go through, it places West Virginia at risk of being the first state in the country to lose public broadcasting, according to West Virginia Metro News.

Gov. Justice’s proposition to eliminate state support for West Virginia Public Broadcasting was ostensibly to close a $500 million budget gap. Cutting WVPB from the budget would save a mere $4.5 million, and some have hinted at an alternative motivation for Justice to strike the state-supported journalism operation from the budget.

For those hoping to keep a close eye on the situation, WVPB has assembled a Facebook Page with updates and call-to-actions. (Hat tip to Joni Deutsch.)

One more thing. Just wanted to quickly shout-out The New York Times’ latest audio project, The EP. The podcast was produced in partnership with The New York Times Magazine for the latter’s second annual Music issue, which came out earlier this week, and the show is fascinating on a bunch of different levels: Its structure mimics the feel of a digital music album, each episode is bite-sized, each features a very tiny snippet of conversation with a critic about a specific song that nonetheless feels like the perfect capsule from a much longer discussion, and if you look down the feed’s release date column, you can see evidence of some sneaky CMS hijinks to create the track sequence.

And most importantly: The podcast is really, really good. It’s one of those projects that’s so good, so smart, and so…new that it makes me very, very angry. It’s gorgeous. Go listen to it. The EP was produced by the internal NYT audio team, which is led by Samantha Henig and Lisa Tobin.

Bites:

  • Essence magazine has its own podcast now, called Yes, Girl! The show debuted on March 9, and it appears that DGital Media is responsible for production. (Essence)
  • Sleep with Me, the sleeper-hit — heh, sorry — avant garde podcast by San Francisco-based Drew Ackerman designed to, well, amusingly help listeners drift off to bed, has been snagged up by the Feral Audio podcast network. (Press release)
  • BuzzFeed’s See Something Say Something, a show about being Muslim in America, is back with its second season. (BuzzFeed)
  • This is interesting: Detroit-based producer Zak Rosen has an independent project up that tells the story of a couple deciding whether or not to have children. Teaser’s up, the first ep drops Friday. (iTunes)
  • “Why the podcast boom has yet to hit Mexico — and why it needs to.” (Current)
  • I hear podcasting was a category on Jeopardy last night. Answers (questions?) included Keepin’ It 1600, Alec Baldwin, and Reply All.

[photocredit]Obligatory photo of a microphone by TVZ Design used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

播客增长劲头仍在, 内容与渠道之争是重要拐点

The Infinite Dial 是一份针对消费者数字媒介、尤其是音频媒介的使用情况研究报告,自 1998 年来持续以听众数据为依托进行独立研究。最新发布的 Infinite Dial 2017 显示,播 客听众的数量呈持续增长态势。然而,不少播客界人士对此并不满意,认为介于外部市场环 境,播客听众的增速应该远高于这个数字。

(1) 增速缓慢暴露行业短板

报告显示,2017 年全美播客的月活跃听众占到其覆盖听众的 24% (6700 万), 比去年同 期的 21% (5700 万)增长 14%。还有一个更亮眼的数字:过去两年间,全美播客的月活 跃收听人数增长了40%。

然而,今年来的增速趋缓似乎与前阵子备受吹捧的“播客元年”概念形成了强烈的反差。在 我看来,质疑情有可原,却也不宜操之过急:

— (a) 首先,播客背后的基础技术这么多年来就没有过突破性的飞跃; (b) 其次,针对播客的大笔投资 案例较为少见,资本对音频内容似乎不太感冒; (c) 第三, 整个播客行业的格局还十分混乱; 关于这一点, Edison Research 公司的战略和营销副总裁 Tom Webster 最近也表示:“这 么些年,播客业仍然没能形成一个组织良好的生态,甚至连‘播客’一词的定义都非常模糊, ‘播客如何做营销’、‘对大众的意义何在’等一系列问题也悬而未决。”

虽然用户基数仍在增长,但不容忽视的是,这些年来用户对这个领域的认知近乎停滞。从 2010 年到 2013 年,美国民众中,对“播客”有概念的群体比例一直在 45%-46%徘徊。 播客行业接下来何去何从,或许离不开以下几个探讨:

(2) 内容与渠道之争

难道认知度提高,播客就能突破目前的“平台期”了吗?显然并没有这么简单。

Eric Nuzum,亚马逊旗下有声读物平台 Audible 的原创内容高级副总裁,在报告发布后是 如此点评的:

“播客行业里有一个问题似乎被很多人忽视了,在我看来却蕴藏着巨大的潜 力,那就是“听过”和“常听”受众之间的断层 — 40%的美国人用过播客,固定的活跃听众却只占其中的一半多,这说明播客仍然存在不小的增长 潜力。当人们只是偶尔使用而没有形成习惯时,原因或许是内容本身不够吸 引人、种类不够多元。然而,这样的解释对于拥有 35 万个播客频道的美国 来说,实在有点说不过去。很多听众没有对播客形成依赖的事实只能证明: 要么内容不够好,要么就是听众没法找到自己喜欢的好内容。由此看来,播 客的发展空间还很大,但增长乏力不能怪在‘认知不够’身上。”

在 Eric Nuzum 提到的两个潜在原因—内容和渠道之间,多数人选择把注意力放在后者 身上。似乎,“能被大量用户发现”才是核心要务,Spotify 和 Google Play Music 的流量 入口、RadioPublic 等 App 的争夺战、各种独立播客的大量涌现都是佐证。

即便可能要站到大多数人的对立面,我仍然得说,自己从来没有觉得“被发现”有这么重要。 在这个内容极度冗余的时代,问题不在于如何让用户发现内容,而是如何让他们在鱼龙混杂 的内容中发现对自己真正有价值的那一部分。

就个人来说,我喜欢的播客节目、乃至任何互联网产品,通常来自于这三个渠道: (a) 在我关注的领域内自己出现,并引起我的注意; (b) 我出于兴趣去主动搜索; (c) 身边有朋友亲自推荐; 这些“发现”的过程都由产品本身的特性、所能提供的服务和我个人的消费喜好决定。也就 是说,无论你如何优化“发现”的过程,当人们无法在产品中找到自己想要的内容时,一切 都是白费。所以,“内容”应该取代“渠道”,成为那些想要尽快突破瓶颈的媒体们的发力重点。

相似的探讨也出现在了上周 Infinite Dial 2017 的网络研讨会上:数据显示,55 岁以上的 播客用户比例较低,只占全美月活跃用户的 12%。这个结论出乎了很多人意料,正如 Edison Research 的 Tom Webster 指出,毕竟谈话类广播节目理应是这个年龄段群体的菜。由此, 他提出播客出品方应该加强对中老年群体的推广营销。(在我看来,这样的推演逻辑是站不住脚的,就拿 NPR(全国公共广播电台)举例,作为音 频内容界实力元老,NPR 就一直以吸引更多年轻用户为战略目标。)

当然,我也并没有一票否决 Webster 的意思,中老年群体的确是播客的重要受众,但我们 仍应该针对不同的用户群体开发出更多元的节目:为女性、不同肤色、不同年龄段、不同社 区甚至不同国籍的听众定制专属他们的节目。

(3) 注意力经济时代

还有一个有趣的结论在今年的报告里被再次证实:如果你喜欢播客,那么你一定非常非常喜欢!来看数据:

  • 用户平均每周会收听 5 档播客节目,其中又有一大半听了 3 档以上,每周收 听 6 档以 上的比例超过二成
  • 用户在播客上的平均订阅节目数为 6 档
  • 还有一个重要发现,85%的用户说他们倾向于将自己订阅的广播节目从头到 尾全部听完

不过,NPR 用户推广部高级主管 Izzi Smith 在 Twitter 上也表示,调研数据以听众自己上 报为主,最终的数字可能存在一定的“水分”。

为了避免主观问卷调查可能带来的误差,我们或许得将这份报告的结果同各家媒体的内部用 户数据做个比较。当然,这就是一件工作量极大的事情了,在这里我只列举两家媒体的反馈:

还有一些零散的小发现:

  • 播客的活跃用户中,男性居多
  • 人们还是更愿意在家中收听播客节目
  • 车载播客的发展仍然处于初期阶段


媒体巨头跨界涌入, 大平台间内容流转加剧。 先来看两则最近的播客行业新闻:

1. Google Play Music 旗下播客 City Soundtracks。Google Play Music 的原创播客节目 City Soundtracks 是一档音乐家的人物访谈,由资深音乐节目主持人 Hrishikesh Hirway主持,对嘉宾的艺术风格和音乐流派进行溯源式的探 究。该节目不仅可以在 Google Play Music 找到,其他应用商城(包括 iTunes,但不包括 Spotify)也同步上线。前三集已于本月发布。

2. WNYC 与 Spotify 的跨界握手。WNYC(纽约公共广播电台)近期宣布,将提前两周在 Spotify 上独家播映最新一季的 2 Dope Queens,播客和音频界的领军者之间建立起了一种更常态化的合作关系。

从以上两个例子中或许可以预见,未来的播客行业生态将会呈现出更多变化,平台相继崛起、 内容加速流转、跨界频繁牵手。毕竟,Spotify 给一个非音乐类的节目开放流量入口还是有 些出乎我的意料。看来在精准服务音乐爱好者和开放生态之间,Spotify 这一次选择了后者, 效果如何,将是一个许多人拭目以待的问题。

除此之外,《纽约时报》最近推出了一档新的音频—The EP。该播客与《纽约时报杂志》 合作,在多方面有非凡表现:制式有点类似于电子音乐专辑,每个单集都短而精,节选了音 乐批评家们对歌曲的精彩点评等,在我看来非常新颖。

可以看出,尽管播客在美国早有良好的受众基础,在持续发展上却仍面临“动力不足”的问 题。当认清“受众认知”不是最大软肋之后,节目内容的精耕、渠道和入口效应的加强,就 成了竞争者们争取用户粘度的努力方向。毕竟,媒体巨头还在纷纷加入这场混战,播客行业 的巨大发展空间不容小觑。

Hot Pod: The three numbers that mark the state of podcasting in 2017

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 102, published January 10, 2016.

Digits to start the year. Is the podcast industry growing, and if so, how? I’m keeping these three numbers taped to the corner of my laptop as benchmarks to keep track:

  • Audience size: 57 million U.S. monthly listeners, according to Edison and Triton Digital’s annual Infinite Dial report, which gives the industry its clearest number to beat. The latest version of the report is expected to come out in early summer.
  • Advertising: More than $200 million projected for 2017, according to media research firm Bridge Ratings, which the industry seems to have coalesced around.
  • iTunes downloads and streams: More than 10 billion in 2016, which was up from more than 8 billion in 2015 and over 7 billion in 2014, according to a writeup by The Huffington Post.

Two quick news updates on Apple: The Apple podcasts team is apparently looking for someone to join their editorial team — also known as the people who looks after the iTunes front page.

In a related note, I’m hearing that Steve Wilson, who managed the editorial and partner relations team at iTunes and who was once described in The New York Times as Apple’s “de facto podcast gatekeeper,” has moved to the iTunes Marketing team to manage the podcast vertical. I believe it’s the first time the company is dedicating any marketing resources for podcasts.

The Keepin’ It 1600 team breaks off from The Ringer to start a new venture: Crooked Media, named after the standard Donald Trump pejorative. Its first product, a twice-a-week politics podcast called Pod Save America, rolled out Monday and quickly hit the top of the iTunes charts. For reference, Crooked Media is made up of former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. Dan Pfeiffer, who launched Keepin’ It 1600 with Favreau when it first debuted on The Ringer last summer, will continue his hosting duties in the new podcast, but he will not hold any stake in the new venture. The venture has plans to add more podcasts, video, editorial content, and “new voices” with a distinct emphasis on activism and political participation, according to its mission statement. There doesn’t appear to be any talk of external investment, with the team fully relying on ad revenues from Pod Save America for now.

DGital Media serves as Crooked Media’s partner in production and ad sales. This extends DGital Media’s already impressive portfolio of partners, which includes Recode, The Vertical’s podcast network, and Tony Kornheiser.

The Ringer CEO Bill Simmons is said to be supportive of the new venture, though one imagines the departure of Keepin’ It 1600, which grew incredibly popular during the 2016 election cycle, will leave quite a dent in monthly download totals for the website’s podcast network. However, given the network’s general culture that allows for continuous, iterative experimentation through its Channel 33 feed, they’re well positioned to fill the gap soon enough.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting to me: Crooked Media appears to be a stab at building out a new progressive counterpoint to conservative media, perhaps specifically its right-wing talk radio ecosystem, which has long been a curiously strong marriage of medium and ideological content with significant influence over American politics. It’s a curious thing that podcasting now offers Favreau & Co., insofar as they represent progressive politics, a potential site to match up against the conservative media-industrial complex; as I’ve noted in the past, the podcast medium does seem to feature an ideological spread that tends to lean liberal — even if it’s sticky business to characterize the politics of individual organizations. The theoretical question that occurred to me then, as it does now, is whether there is something about a medium’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports certain kinds of ideology. With this venture, we’ll have an opportunity to test the question a little further.

Related: Just re-upping this discussion from mid-November: Did the election podcast glut of 2016 fail its listeners?

Launches and returns for the year ahead. I was recently asked to write a preview of upcoming new podcasts for Vulture, and in the process of my outreach, I had a hard time getting concrete, specific release dates for upcoming launches. This, I think, says a fair bit about how the podcast industry, maturing as it is, still has ways to go in terms of developing a rhythm, cycle, and culture around show and season launches for its audience.

All right, here’s what I got so far beyond the stuff on the Vulture list:

  • Gimlet Media is keeping mum on new shows, but they have confirmed that Science Vs will return for its second season in March, while Heavyweight will drop its second season in September.
  • NPR’s vice president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann tells me that the public radio mothership will be launching several new podcasts and debuting new seasons of some of its most popular shows, including Embedded and Invisibilia. No specific dates, but Grundmann did mention that a three-episode Embedded miniseries will drop in March.
  • Night Vale Presents has confirmed that Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires will return sometime this year. They also note that the team behind Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is working on some new projects, which will be released throughout the year. And, as noted in Vulture, the company will be making its nonfiction debut at some point in the form of a collaboration with indie band The Mountain Goats.
  • The New York Times will roll out its latest podcast, Change Agent with Charles Duhigg — which sounds like a cross between an advice column, Oprah, and Malcolm Gladwell — sometime this spring. It’s also building a new show around Michael Barbaro, who hosts The Run-Up and has since moved into the audio team full-time. According to Politico, the Times is planning to expand its podcast roster from seven up to possibly twelve this year.
  • Radiotopia’s newest addition to its roster, Ear Hustle, is set to debut sometime this summer.
  • First Look Media tells me that they will be launching a weekly podcast for its flagship investigative news site, The Intercept, on January 26. The show will apparently be called “Intercepted.” There’s a joke in here somewhere, but we should move along.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to keep a page going for this, and will update as more information trickles out. Send me what you have.

Panoply kicked off the year with the launch of its first “imprint”: The Onward Project, a group of self-improvement podcasts curated by author Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the popular Happier podcast under the network’s banner. The imprint is currently made up of three shows: the aforementioned Happier; Radical Candor, a management-oriented show; and Side Hustle School, a daily show made up of bite-sized episodes that describe financially successful side projects. The Onward Project was first announced during last September’s IAB Podcast Upfront.

Call it an imprint, call it a subnetwork, call it whatever you want: The concept seems to be more of an innovation in audience development than anything else. “I’d say success looks like what we’re already seeing — a collection of podcasts in which each show brings in its host’s unique audience, which is then exposed to the other shows through tight cross-promotion,” Panoply chief creative officer Andy Bowers told me over email, when I asked about the thinking around the imprint. “With podcast discovery still such a vexing problem, we think the imprint offers listeners a simple answer to the question they’re always asking Gretchen: ‘I love your show — what else should I listen to?'”

We’re probably going to see Panoply develop more imprints in the near future, further establishing a structure that makes the company look more like a “meta-network” — or a network of networks — which is a form that was only hinted at by its previous strategy, where it partnered with other media organizations to develop multiple podcasts under their brands.

60dB hires Recode reporter, adding to its beefy editorial team. The short-form audio company has hired Liz Gannes, previously a reporter at the tech news site Recode, to join its editorial team. Gannes, a senior hire, rounds out a team that has thus far primarily drawn from public media. It includes: Daisy Rosario, who has worked on NPR’s Latino USA and WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens; Brenda Salinas, formerly at Latino USA and KUT Public Media; Hannah McBride, formerly at the Texas Observer and KUT Public Media; and Michael Simon Johnson, formerly at Latino USA.

So here’s what I’m thinking about: The editorial team apparently exists as an in-house team that works to produce audio stories with partner publications, often discussions about a written article that recently published, for distribution over its platform. (Is it too much of stretch to call it high-touch adaptation aggregation?) It’s a dramatically manual — and not to mention human — content acquisition process, and that’s a structure that does not scale cheaply, which I imagine presents a problem for a founding team mostly made up of former Netflix executives.

Two questions that frame my thinking on the company: Where is 60dB supposed to fall within the spectrum between a Netflix-like platform and an audio-first newsroom with an aggressive aggregation strategy? And to what extent do the partnerships that the company currently pursues make up the long-term content strategy, or do they merely serve as a stepping stone into purely original content?

Anyway, I hear that more 60dB news is due next week. Keep your earballs peeled.

Related: In other tech-ish news, it looks like Otto Radio, the car dashboard-oriented podcast curation platform that recently hammered down an integration with Uber, has secured a round of investment from Samsung. Note the language in the press release describing Otto Radio’s distribution targets: “connected and autonomous cars, smart audio devices and appliances, and key integrations with premium content providers.” Appliances? I guess with Amazon’s Alexa platform creeping into everything — which was one of the bigger takeaways from this year’s CES — we’re about that close to a world in which your refrigerator can blast out those sweet, sweet Terry Gross interviews.

Facebook Live Audio. Shortly before Christmas, Facebook announced the rollout of its latest Live-related feature, Live Audio, on its media blog. Key details to note:

  • The feature is in its testing phase, and its broadcasting use is limited to a few publishing partners for now. At launch, those partners include the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the London-based national talk radio station LBC, book publisher HarperCollins, and authors Adam Grant and Brit Bennett. It remains unclear whether those publishers are being paid for their partnership similar to the way that Facebook has been paying major media organizations like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, along with celebrities, to use the Live video feature.
  • The post notes that the feature will be made “more broadly available to publishers and people” over the next few months.
  • The launch of Live Audio is the latest in Facebook’s efforts to expand its Live initiative, which the company has been banking heavily on for the better part of the past year. It had launched Live 360 just the week before.
  • The pitch, as it has always been, primarily revolves around interactivity — which speaks directly to the “social audio” conversation carried by many in the radio and podcast industry (see This American Life’s Shortcut, WNYC’s Audiogram, and so on). The introductory post writes: “Just as with a live video on Facebook, listeners can discover live audio content in News Feed, ask questions and leave reactions in real time during the broadcast, and easily share with their friends.”

Right, so with all that out of the way: What does this mean for podcast publishers, and maybe even radio broadcasters? I haven’t quite developed a unified theory just yet, but I’ve been breaking the question down into two components.

First, it’s worth asking if Facebook Live Audio is compatible with much of what currently exists in the podcast (or radio) space. Facebook, as a digital environment, has always seemed to be structured such that only certain kinds of publishers — or “content creators” can “win.” More often than not, those are the publishers whose business or impact goals are functionally aligned with that of Facebook’s, and from everything that we’ve seen, read, and heard about the company, it seems pretty clear that Facebook’s primary goal is to drive up user numbers and, more importantly, user engagement, whose quantifiable attention are then sold to advertisers.

But that’s obvious; the question is, of course, how has the company preferred to generate those engagements? It’s one thing if Facebook’s underlying game plan here is to “replace” broadcast, be it television or radio. But it’s a whole other thing if the company is instead trying to build out and further define its own specific media ecosystem with dynamics, incentives, behaviors, and systems unique to itself — which is exactly what appears to be the case here.

So, what kind of audio content is likely to benefit from playing into Facebook Live Audio’s unique dynamics? Probably not the highly produced narrative stuff. Nor anything particularly long. Oddly enough, I have a somewhat strong feeling that many conversational podcasts could be much better suited for Facebook Live Audio than they ever were for the existing podcast infrastructure. But at the end of the day, what appears to be true for Facebook Live Video — and for most new social platforms — will probably be true for Facebook Live Audio: the kind of content it will favor is the type of content that’s native to the form. Everything else is either filler or a means to generate actionable data.

Second: The Facebook Live program displays high levels of volatility, both in terms of the program simply functioning as intended — see: miscalculated audience metrics, surging, lingering questions over Facebook’s role in digital governance and its relationship to the state — and, perhaps more crucially, in terms of the program’s underlying view of publishers and the actors of the wider media ecosystem.

The functional volatility alone should give some thinking about dedicating resources to building out a Facebook Live Audio strategy. But the greater pause should come from the second point on the program’s underlying position. Facebook’s general abstinence from making any concrete statement about its relationship to the media (and its potential identity as a “media company”) suggests a materialistic, neutralizing view that sees all actors on the platform as functionally and morally equal. Another way of putting this: The health of individual publishers, regardless of its size, hopes, dreams, and virtues, is a tertiary concern to the platform, as long as it is able to drive up the primal behavior it wants — its own definition of engagement.

It’s a toughie. On the one hand, you have a platform that theoretically connects you with various segmentations and iterations of the platform’s 1.79 billion monthly active users. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to get around the whole unfeeling, arbitrary-governing-structure thing. It’s up to you — depending on what your goals are, what relationship you want to have with your audience, your stomach for instability and risk — to decide if you want to live that Facebook Live Audio life.

None of this particularly new, by the way. But it’s still worth saying.

Bites:

  • Tamar Charney has been confirmed as NPR One’s managing editor, having assumed the role in an interim basis since Sara Sarasohn left the organization. Emily Barocas joins the team full-time as an associate producer to curate podcasts for the app. Nick DePrey, who has been supporting NPR One in his capacity as an “innovation accountant,” is now the digital programming analytics manager at NPR Digital Services. Elsewhere in the organization, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams has joined as the senior supervising producer and editor for Code Switch.
  • PRX has announced its first cohort for Project Catapult, its podcast training program aimed at local public radio stations. Also note: the organization has hired Enrico Benjamin, an Emmy award-winning producer, as the initiative’s project director. (PRX)
  • “Why branded podcasting could more than double in 2017.” (Digiday)
  • SiriusXM is now distributing WNYC Studios’ podcasts over its Insights channel. This continues an emerging trend that sees SiriusXM mining podcasts for quality inventory to build a content base beyond its Howard Stern-shaped engine: Last August, the company hammered down a partnership with The Vertical’s podcast network, and it has been distributing the Neil DeGrasse Tyson podcast Startalk since January 2015. (SiriusXM)
  • I’m hearing that the first round of judging for this year’s Webby Awards is underway. Several folks have also written me pointing out that the group of judges for the Podcast and Digital Audio category is pretty public-radio heavy — and not to mention, overwhelmingly white. (Webby Awards)
  • This is cool: Norway has become the first country to shut down its nationwide FM radio in favor of digital signals. (NPR)

This shortened version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

Hot Pod: Will the next wave of audio advertising make podcasts sound like (yuck) commercial radio?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue eighty-nine, published September 27, 2016.

Panoply opens a London office. The Slate Group’s audio arm announced yesterday that it was expanding into the good ol’ United Kingdom. Specifically, the company is opening a new production office in London that will “facilitate closer collaboration with U.K.-based audio talent.” Ryan Dilley, a BBC veteran, has been hired to lead the new operation.

Here’s the most straightforward way to think about this: Panoply intends to do in the U.K. whatever it does here, including original and partner programming, the cultivation of a U.K.-based network of talent, and the recruitment/aggregation of local podcasts into its network.

This move also puts Panoply in a good position to do two things: first, to grow a bigger advertising presence that would allow them to monetize U.K. listeners on their existing American shows (up until this point, it’s basically money that’s been left on the table), and second, to challenge digital audio companies with British operations that have spent the past few years making in-roads into the more lucrative U.S. market, like Audioboom and Acast.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer (and my old boss, by the way), told me that U.K. ad sales aren’t the primary motivation for this expansion. “This is about talent,” he wrote, adding that they have already been engaged with targeted U.K.-only ad sales using their new Megaphone platform. I was also told to expect Panoply’s first slate of U.K. programming to roll out early next year.

Speaking of which, I should consider opening up a Euro Hot Pod bureau.

Keep an eye on this: Nielsen is working on a software development kit (SDK) that will, among other things, cater to the measurement of podcasts, according to a report by Radio Ink. They’ve been testing the kits with ESPN, and the company is “working towards having a syndicated service out there in the marketplace sometime in 2017.”

An SDK-approach is one of a few ways to deal with the industry’s measurement gap. But Nielsen will face similar political problems of adoption that plague companies like Podtrac — although it is a neutral third party. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard skepticism over an SDK-approach from a number of execs in the space, so we’ll see where this goes.

Midroll’s live intent. The end of October will see the inaugural Now Hear This festival in Anaheim, Calif., which will mark Midroll’s first foray into Lollapalooza-style multi-partner live programming. Now Hear This is set to feature shows from both within the Midroll ecosystem — that is, the Earwolf network and its universe of third-party ad sales clients — and without, boasting shows like Radiotopia’s Criminal and NPR’s How I Built This on the lineup. (I’m told that most of these external partners are paid an upfront fee for participation; no revenue shares are involved.)

Midroll is not the first podcast company to organize such an event. Indeed, this past weekend saw the L.A. Podcast Festival, and the Vulture Festival this past May also included a solid block of live podcast tapings. But Now Hear This is notable in how it reflects Midroll’s ambitions to diversify its revenue base. When the company announced Lex Friedman as its new chief revenue officer earlier this month, an explicit mention of a deeper focus on live events in the press release caught my eye.

“We don’t expect that, in the near term, live events will be as big as ads or subscription,” Friedman said when we spoke over the phone yesterday. “But it’s another way for us to diversify, and it’s the closest thing we have to kick off a network effect.” Friedman tells me that a festival like Now Hear This not only brings in ticket sales and sponsorship revenue, but the live tapings create additional material that can be served in Howl, the company’s premium subscription play. (Speaking of sponsorship: Casper and Mack Weldon, both veteran podcast buyers, are sponsoring the festival, with live show ad-integrations that will go beyond on-stage host-reads. More sponsors are expected to be announced soon.)

Midroll intends to produce more live shows of individual Earwolf podcasts in 2017, and Friedman hopes to collaborate with his third-party ad sales clients on live events as well. It’s an ambitious vision, one that I assume is backed by a long E.W. Scripps runway.

“We’re building a media empire, Nick,” he said, before bursting into terrifying laughter.

There’s been a misunderstanding, asserted Art19 cofounder Sean Carr when we spoke over the phone last week. He tells me that too many people have been conflating dynamic ad insertion technology with an automatic flood of programmatic radio-style prerecorded ads. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, he argues, pointing out that many of today’s production conventions — the ones that contribute to the medium’s identity of “intimacy” — don’t actually have to change. “Most host-read ads are recorded separately from the conversation anyway, and edited in after the fact,” he added.

For the record, I’ve come to agree with Carr’s position. (That view has been fleshed out across previous Hot Pods.) But I’d say that the anxiety that drives this conflation remains very real, and that Carr felt the need to reach out on this suggests it remains top-of-mind among many emotionally invested the space. There is now, after all, very little that would structurally prevent the inflow of eardrum-assaulting radio-style ads — a state of affairs that could spoil the medium’s identity for listeners trying it out for the first time.

“That anxiety will probably go away with better data,” Carr said. I’m inclined to agree, though there will always be a gap between where we are right now and a place where we’re have that abundance of appropriate, agreed-upon data. Not for nothing, but transition periods almost always suck — whether we acknowledge that or not.

Anyway, Carr also tells me that his team is working on some research that he hopes will increase advertiser confidence. Watch out for them.

Some notes on the border between publishers and podcasts. Last week saw news that Actuality, the podcast collaboration between Quartz and APM’s Marketplace, is coming to a close. The show first launched last summer and ran for two seasons. According to a joint blog post, the podcast was cancelled due to a lack of sufficient interest. “We’d rather hit pause now and move on to other experiments,” wrote Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney and Marketplace VP/executive producer Deborah Clark. The podcast averaged 100,000 monthly downloads across the last three months of the show.

“After two seasons, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in podcasting, and produced some strong episodes,” Delaney told me over email last week. He added: “I doubt this will be the last podcast product that Quartz develops.”

APM, for their part, will continue their efforts in these cross-platform partnerships. “Though not all our new podcasts at either Marketplace or APM overall will be in partnership with others, I think many will,” Clark told me. “Our guiding principle is how do we serve our audience better and sometimes that’s best done with other strong partners.”

One such example is Codebreaker, its collaboration with Business Insider, which will drop its second season later this fall. Another project to watch: Historically Black, which is a collaboration between The Washington Post and APM Reports (American Public Media’s documentary unit), which dropped its first episode last Monday.

As one media company shelves its audio ambitions (for now), another finds its runway. Bloomberg Media, the business news behemoth, has found some joy in its on-demand audio operations over its past year of experimentation. Michael Shane, a Bloomberg operative who was recently promoted to the position of global head of digital innovation, told me last week that the company’s young podcast arm is now a seven-figure business.

Bloomberg’s on-demand audio offerings are chiefly made up of subject-specific shows built around key reporters in the newsroom. Examples include, but are not limited to: Odd Lots (finance, featuring Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway), Material World (retail broadly speaking, featuring Jenny Kaplan and Lindsey Rupp), and Game Plan (the workplace, featuring Rebecca Greenfield and Francesca Levy). The company is adding a tech podcast to its network next month, and is on the hunt for a San Francisco-based producer to handle duties on that show. (It’s worth noting that, shockingly, the team has only been composed of four producers up to this point. “It’s a lean team,” Shane said. “Which is great, because we like to do things profitably around here.”)

Shane’s team is also investigating potential collaborations with the company’s long-running 24-hour broadcast radio division. The most prominent example of this is Bloomberg Surveillance, a typically three-hour broadcast program that is being repackaged as highlights to serve podcast listeners. “It would be crazy of us to build a digital audio strategy that didn’t involve Bloomberg Radio,” Shane said. He also noted that Surveillance currently hits six-figure audiences per month, and that the show’s ad inventory has been sold out through 2017, with Bank of America as the sponsor.

When I asked about CPMs, Shane informs me that company sells at premium rates across all platforms — and that audio, certainly, is no exception. He also did pontificate, briefly, on the industry’s expectations of fallings CPMs as the basic ad formats get commoditized over the long run. “I spend a lot of time wondering: What’s next? What can Bloomberg offer [advertisers] around digital audio that’s more than an ad read?” Shane said.

“I heard someone say once that the business model for podcasts is to be beloved,” he continued. “As long as we can keep being audience-first and not squander that goodwill, this can be a great business for us over the long term.”

A sneak peek at RadioPublic. Jake Shapiro and the RadioPublic team have been keeping busy. After the crew of PRX alums announced their new venture earlier this summer, they’ve been hard at work on the listening app that will mark their first foray into product market. Shapiro was kind enough to invite me to take a look at a very basic prototype of the app. Some notes from our conversation:

  • The team intends to preserve and advance the medium’s open nature — which is to say, it will eschew a YouTube or Spotify-style closed ecosystem. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to do things,” Shapiro said, adding that the app’s experience will be built on top of open RSS feeds while being focused on serving listeners with a much better user experience than what exists now. That user experience is driven by a goal of “helping listeners make a more informed choice,” as Shapiro puts it.
  • While those ideas were understandable in the abstract, I had trouble visualizing the significance of the product even with the prototype in front of me. Shapiro provided an analogy to Flipboard, the social magazine app that, in many ways, serves as a user-friendly portal through which mobile users could manage their experience navigating the unruly web while respecting its open quality.
  • When I asked Shapiro about publisher outreach, he told me that, while the app is being built to provide value autonomously from any required publisher participation, the rise of dynamic ad insertion technology across an emerging class of hosting platforms necessitates some “technical handshakes” in order for both parties to properly benefit from the experience. Publishers are encouraged to get in touch.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the small team known as Tiny Garage Labs — founded by Planet Money alum Steve Henn along with former longtime Netflix operatives Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti — has been kicking up some noise as well. Last Thursday, Henn published a semi-manifesto and call-for-collaborators on Medium, and the team also scored a chunky Nieman Lab mini-profile that fleshes out their general product direction with 60dB, Tiny Garage Labs’ first market offering.

Here’s my read in a nutshell: It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to lump 60dB in with either your basic podcatcher play or a “Netflix for audio”-minded play like Midroll’s Howl. (In this case, it is prudent to not read too much into the team’s Netflix lineage.) Rather, given Tiny Garage Lab’s outsized focus on short-form audio — a perspective that views individual segments as the atomic unit of content, as opposed to the episode — 60dB would best be categorized against something like the Amazon Echo’s Flash Briefing experiments — which is to say, it is a wholly new, and entirely separate, product category.

ESPN Audio’s 30 for 30 team. Senior producer Jody Avirgan has announced the team that will take on the brand’s well-loved 30 for 30 adaptation into audio. They are: Rose Eveleth, of Flash Forward; Julia Henderson, formerly of WNYC’s Studio 360; Andrew Mambo, formerly of WNYC’s great Radio Rookies project; Katie McAuliffe, formerly of WNPR and a former ESPN music assistant; and Marcus Anderson, who comes in without a radio background (which is fantastic, IMHO).

Another quick ESPN-related tidbit, for those interested: According to an Awful Announcing blog post, “FiveThirtyEight podcasts across the board were downloaded over 7.8 million times in August alone, a 422 percent increase from February.”

Bites:

  • WNYC has had a busy week: it rolled out The United States of Anxiety, their second collaboration with The Nation (the first being the excellent There Goes the Neighborhood). The station also welcomed the second season of 2 Dope Queens. I’m told season one drew “millions of listens.”
  • Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez writes in to let me know that the network expects to hit 8 million downloads by the end of the month. The network is currently spread across 14 shows, with two originals. They’re hosted on the Art19 platform.
  • Radiotopia recruits The West Wing Weekly. The addition is said to allow the collective to “explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network.” (PRX)
  • Speaking of PRX, the company announced a new initiative last week called Project Catapult, where it will work with five chosen stations over a 20-week program to develop a sustainable local podcast strategy. (Current)
  • Have you checked out Audible’s Channels recently? The lineup now features what appears to be several new additions. Note, also, how the presentation flattens different content types, from original shows to comedy to article readouts. (Audible)
  • Speaking of article readouts, iTunes apparently is getting ready to promote a similar type of articles-read-aloud content. This is probably a nothingburger in terms of the larger questions of what this means for the podcast industry, a good chunk of which are crossing their fingers for access to their listening data, but hey, if you’re into Apple Kremlinology, this is a data point just for you. (TechCrunch)
  • An adapted version of the Politico Playbook, the political news website’s flagship newsletter, is now being distributed in audio form over the Amazon Echo’s Alexa platform. The audio version adopts the “90-second flash briefing” model, and drops daily starting yesterday. (Washingtonian)
  • Two reads for the public radio-oriented: “Great journalism alone won’t guarantee public radio’s survival” (Current) and “This American Fight” (Fast Company)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

Is $12-a-day a fair wage for New York’s many radio interns?

A living wage. Last week, a Change.org petition cycled around the Facebook feeds of public radio types asking New York Public Radio — the entity that runs WNYC, classical music station WQXR, and the events-oriented Greene Space — to pay its interns a living wage. The station currently pays interns a stipend of $12 a day, with the expectation of 2-5 days of work during the week. The petition hinges its argument on the station’s 2015 Diversity Statement, highlighting a contradiction: It’s harder to increase opportunities for training, education, and possible employment by communities that are traditionally underrepresented due to lack of means when compensation is that low in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

[Looks out apartment window, weeps softly.]

The petition was spearheaded by one Mickey Capper, a freelance radio producer based in D.C. Capper was most recently a production assistant on the Invisibilia team at NPR. He also cohosts the Tape podcast and is responsible for the Sidewalks audio experiment.

“I count a number of WNYC staffers as some of the most inspiring people I’ve met and worked with in radio. I know these are people who can teach interns a lot,” Capper said in a statement. “I hope New York Public Radio can pay their interns a living wage to make that valuable entry-level experience accessible to a wider range of people.”

NYPR has responded to the petition, with a spokesperson writing to Current: “We are currently engaged in a process of assessing how a paid internship might be structured and funded. NYPR is also fully invested in diversifying its workforce, and is in the process of creating a three-year Diversity and Inclusion strategic plan, of which paid internships would be one element.”

An internal email sent out by the organization’s HR department maintains that the issue is top of mind for the senior team as part of 2017 budget process, acknowledging that the challenge now is to locate the necessary funds to pay those wages.

Capper is due to present the petition at the next NYPR board of directors meeting, which will take place tomorrow. At this writing, the petition has gathered over 450 signatures.

Two things before moving on:

  • Full disclaimer: I signed the petition, and I’m unambiguously in support of raising the rate of compensation, for whatever that’s worth. Given WNYC’s outsized influence over labor opportunities for younger people in the radio space, the fact that I’ve consistently been told by former staffers that the station “practically runs on interns,” and that the newer podcast companies are still quite a bit away from being able to provide internships and learning opportunities at scale, this wage level feels incredibly absurd.
  • I had originally intended to spend some time this week writing about the current state of employment opportunities in the podcasting space. This took precedence.

Download literacy. Let’s talk download numbers — which is to say, let’s bash our heads against a wall! USA Today’s podcast network reportedly drummed up about 52.3 million “downloads or streams” in 2015, according to Digiday. As the lore goes, the network was only started 18 months ago, and today it boasts a whopping 22 shows on its roster. Some shows are super short daily digests, like 5 Things and Capital Download; some shows are more traditionally structured topical fare like Dad Rock (which I really like, by the way) and Tech Roundtable. The Digiday article goes on to say that the network’s podcasts average about 7 million listens per month, and that it’s on track to net about 84 million by the end of the year.

That’s a sizable number dump, and I think it’s important to go through the motions and state that those numbers mean very little by themselves. Given what we know about the industry’s problem with measurements (it’s all over the place), reporting across different platforms and recording methodologies (a “listen” on different platform means very different things), and metric standardization (there’s little to none/it’s complicated), it’s hard to tell whether:

  • All of USA Today’s reported downloads mean the same thing with respect to each other, or
  • Those reported downloads mean the same thing compared to the reporting provided by other podcasts, or
  • How the network distinguishes between downloads, listens, streams, or whatever.

But boy, 84 million listens by the end of the year sure does sound like a whopper, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not writing this story to merely complain and wiggle my arms — although I am complaining — but to identify and articulate the three red flags that stood out to me here. Maybe you’ll find them useful in your reading of the data, or maybe I’m just being grumpy. Whatever, I think download literacy is important.

  • USA Today’s network reportedly averages about 7 million listens (however defined) per month. Let’s think that through. The network is 22 podcasts strong, so if we break it down to how many “listens” an individual USA Today pod nets on a weekly basis, we’re talking about an average of about 79,500 listens per show per week. In contrast, the most recent episode of Earwolf’s new podcast Beautiful/Anonymous (which is absolutely fabulous, by the way) bagged 128,000 downloads within its first week — and that’s after an all-powerful bump from This American Life. Beyond that recent episode, the show appears to average around 95,000 downloads per episode within its first four weeks. That the average download volumes between the USA Today shows and Beautiful/Anonymous are within the same general area seems…oh I don’t know, it seems a little off to me. That’s not to say that it’s impossible — who knows, maybe there’s a monster hit show in there that carries the whole network on its back — it’s just really hard to tell what I’m looking at.
  • The Digiday article cited that the strength of the download numbers comes in spite of the fact that none of those podcasts has ever broken into the iTunes charts. Now, I’m the last person that would ever argue for the charts being any adequate indicator of download volume (see here, here, and here), and it might well be the case that USA Today’s podcasts were able to significant listenership outside iTunes and the podcasting app. But it’s a little hard to believe that when you square the network’s reported 7 million monthly listens against the fact that Apple platforms drive the majority of podcast listenership.
  • The purpose of focusing so much on download volume — aside from estimating the reach of your reporting/editorial so you may prognosticate about the impact your journalism/content is making — is, from a business perspective, to signal the advertiser-worthiness of a show or a network. So there’s something that should be said about the fact that only two of USA Today’s podcasts have featured sponsors. The podcast advertising market might still be relatively immature, but between the (now comically) routine patronage performed by Audible, Mailchimp, and Squarespace, good voluminous podcast inventory simply doesn’t just go unfilled.

What, exactly, is going on here? I think what we’re seeing is USA Today possibly interpreting downloads in a way that’s significantly more liberal than other podcasters and podcast networks. Which isn’t to say that there is any intent to mislead — I’m not in any position to accuse anybody of ad fraud or inflated numbers at this point in time. Rather, it just may well be the case that this is a situation of misinterpretation. Or maybe, indeed, the team over at USA Today has figured out some novel way of obtaining audiences, perhaps through another platform that portends a different kind of listening relationship. The fact of the matter is: We don’t know, and we’re presented with downloads that look the same as any other kind of download.

In any case, I’m just pushing for more clarity and specificity to what we talk about when we talk about podcast listenership data; to clearly articulate the value provided, to embrace whatever nuance may exist. We’re about a year and a half into this podcast-renaissance racket, but even with all this talk, a download still doesn’t necessarily mean a download, and an impression still doesn’t necessarily mean an impression.

(By the way, did you hear? There are no gods in digital media.)

Remember, folks: Ask more of your data, your platforms, your reporting, and your networks.

Anyway, I’ve sent USA Today a request asking whether we could go through those download numbers through their submission form, but at this writing, they haven’t gotten back to me yet.

Google Play Music finally launches its podcast feature. Five months after first announcing that it would be frolicking with the pods — and a solid month after a Bill Simmons-induced false alarm — Google Play Music now serves listeners podcasts on top of its core music offering, echoing a similar rollout that took place over at Spotify back in January. The feature, which went live yesterday, aims to “connect you with podcasts based on what you’re doing, how you’re feeling and what you’re interested in,” according to a post on the official Android blog.

That description of intent matches what Elias Roman, a product manager on the Google Play team, told me when we spoke back in November. Roman, who previously ran the music concierge app Songza before it was acquired by Google in the summer of 2014, explained Google Play Music’s approach as being built on the notion of introducing podcasts to non-podcast listeners who aren’t already looking for them. “I love the concierge format,” he told me. “It’s something that anticipates what you need and then serves it to you. Interviews and podcasts are a big leap into that direction.”

Is this an inflection point for podcasts? A premature question, truly. (Why did I even ask it?) I’ll be keeping my eye on this, which reminds me: Perhaps it’s about time I check in with how Spotify is doing.

“We are a huge part of the story”: Q&A with Night Vale’s Joseph Fink on independent podcasts. Here in Hot Pod, I pay a disproportionate amount of attention on the bigger institutions — the public radio stations, the Gimlets, the Midrolls — and I do that, I’d argue, for a fairly simple reason: The narrative hook I often seek when sourcing out stories is the measure in which a given entity or development may potentially influence the configuration of the larger podcast ecosystem. And more often than not, companies that command more money and labor and scale tend to fit that bill.

(I also have some quirks that dictate my coverage: I’m particularly emotionally invested in journalistically oriented media companies, for example. Also: The Ringer.)

But I am cognizant that there are tremendous limits to this approach, for placing too much attention on the bigger institutions runs the risk of unconsciously internalizing them — and, by extension, representing them — as proxies for that larger ecosystem, when in fact that’s not always the case. And for podcasting, this is particularly not the case, given the combination of the relative immaturity of the space and the formally organized companies within it.

Furthermore, as Welcome To Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink argues, independent podcasts (which is to say, podcasts produced outside the bigger companies) wield considerable influence over the aesthetics, current and future, of the medium.

Over email, Fink was kind enough to clue me in on his thinking about the state of indie pods.

Quah: So, I’m definitely guilty of spending a disproportionate amount of ink covering the bigger podcasting companies. Can you tell me how this affects the way we think about podcasts?

Fink: I think one of the defining features of podcasting as a medium currently is that it is still a remarkably open medium. The cost barrier to entry for decent sounding production is low and for the most part distribution is free and equal (more on that in a moment) to everyone. With Night Vale, we started out with a $65 USB mic and free audio editing software, and we were immediately playing in the same space and being distributed on the same channels as This American Life and the Adam Carolla Show. This makes podcasting remarkable in that it is possible to just have a really good idea and have that sometimes be enough. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved, but it still is a lot more open than any other form of media I can think of.

There is also the fact that podcasting is young enough that it is still possible to do something new with the format. It’s hard to find something to do with, say, a novel, that someone hasn’t done something at least pretty similar to. But with podcasting, it’s still possible to put out a show that is totally different than any other show out there. That’s a really exciting and rare position to be in as an artist.

But having the coverage focus in on big companies and especially existing large radio organizations, you are only looking at the podcasts that still work exactly like radio, and that almost entirely sound like radio. Which is to say, I think, that you are ignoring everything that makes podcasting interesting and different.

Quah: What are the major challenges that independent podcasts face?

Fink: While distribution is equal, obviously promotion and attention aren’t. Those of us making independent podcasts aren’t going to have our first episode placed as a segment of This American Life. We don’t have the name recognition where we can just name our show The [name of host] Show and make the icon a picture of our face.

We rely much more on the luck of word of mouth. The only thing you can do as an independent podcaster is consistently put out episodes you’re proud of, and hope that other people start enjoying them too.

We also have way less sway on the business side of things obviously. We don’t set CPM rates; we can’t bring new brands into the advertising side of things. We have to let the bigger players do that and then play by the rules they’re setting.

There is also just the frustration of trying to be part of the conversation. It’s easier to not cover independent podcasts, because we’re diverse and messy and there’s a lot of us, and NPR is happy to send you a press release. And so a lot of media just doesn’t talk about us. But we are a huge part of this story too.

Recently Alex Goldman of Reply All talked on twitter about how he sees what he does as “radio” because he thinks there’s no difference between podcasting and radio, and he hates the term “podcasting” anyway. I would say that’s (a) the point of view of someone who’s never stepped outside of the radio ecosystem and (b) someone who is failing to understand and respect the medium he’s working in. Podcasting is not radio, and the difference between the two lies with the indie podcasters and what we’re doing.

Quah: Tell me about the strengths of indies.

Fink: While we don’t have much say in the direction of how advertising will be sold and formatted, and we aren’t invited to the panel discussions about the future of the industry where people who have worked in radio their whole lives talk about what podcasting is, I think that on an artistic level, big podcast companies are more often chasing independents than the other way around.

Independent podcasting is more willing to try something completely new, and if it takes off, then the bigger companies swerve to try to catch up to that.

Which is to say that big media organization act a lot out of risk management. Independent podcasters have nothing to lose, so we’re willing to try anything.

I think along with pushing the big organizations forward artistically, we also show them there is business in places they wouldn’t necessarily have been willing to look on their own. I think it’s very likely that the huge success of The Read showed bigger podcast organizations that there was a huge market for podcasts in which black hosts talked about black issues in a funny, conversational way. I don’t know if BuzzFeed would have been willing to produce Another Round, or WNYC would have been willing to produce 2 Dope Queens without The Read having happened.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that Fink makes here — I believe our biggest disagreement would be over the magnitude of influence — but I think his overarching point is absolutely right: Independent podcasts do play a significant role in the aesthetic innovation we see in the space, and a lack of representation would be a disservice. And while the big institutions will never stop making up a considerable portion of what Hot Pod covers, I’ll be hustling to close the gap in my own coverage.

Bites:

  • For all you producers looking to kick butt, take names, make your mark: Third Coast Festival’s 2016 ShortDoc Challenge is now open! Deadline is May 17. (Third Coast)
  • “Left on the dial: With young people trading AM/FM for streaming, will radio find a home in your next car?” Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen considers where the relationship between the car and the radio will go. (Nieman Lab)
  • TV Land is adapting the Throwing Shade podcast into a late night TV show. (Entertainment Weekly)
  • “To Make Real Money, The Podcast Industry Needs to Stop Calling Them Podcasts.” (Hunter Walk)
  • “The Missing Piece in the ‘Podcast Revolution.'” (Postloudness, on Medium)
  • “How ‘Pistol Shrimps Radio’ Turned Calling Recreational Women’s Basketball Games Into an Essential Podcast.” (Splitsider)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. The original version has more news, analysis, material. And there’s more news briefs for paid members! Also, winter is coming.

How big are Audible’s ambitions in changing short-form audio? Really, really big

Audible launches Channels. If you’re reading this column at Nieman Lab, you probably already know the basics: Over the course of last week, Audible initiated the staggered rollout of a new feature called Channels, a portal through which the company now delivers what it’s calling “short-form listening experiences.” Right now, such short-form content on offer appears fairly limited, and a little strange: narrated reads of articles from newspapers like The Washington Post (natch) and The New York Times, some standup comedy recordings, and even a couple of meditation guides for the Headspace-inclined. (Nieman Lab, as usual, has a good breakdown on the details.)

There’s no mistaking what we’re seeing here: Audible has effectively changed its definition, almost overnight — it is no longer an audiobook company, but an audio content company, broadly speaking.

What we don’t see, however, is original podcast content. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any podcasts in there right now — some digging through the Channels library reveals episodes from established podcast brands like APM’s Marketplace and Risk! — but there doesn’t appear to be anything that’s specially commissioned or developed by the original content team over at Audible’s baroque New Jersey campus, anything that feels like the podcast-equivalent of Amazon Prime Video’s Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle. (More on that in a second.)

Channels has been a long time coming. Whispers of Audible developing their own content — along with a more general portent towards aggressively stretching beyond its audiobook offerings — first hit my radar when the company hired Eric Nuzum away from NPR, where he was vice president of programming, to serve as the company’s senior vice president of original content. That happened last May. Since then, the company has been steadily packing its original content team with a long line of strong producers with solid public radio lineages: Jesse Baker, Ellen Horne, Martha Little, Lina Misitzis, and John L. Myers, among others.

But with the new feature rolling out in what appears to be in restrained fashion, it appears that I’ll have to wait a little more to see how Audible really takes a swing at the podcast market — and what, exactly, the rest of us are in for.

Or, you know, I could lob some questions over at Nuzum himself.

Q&A with Eric Nuzum, Audible’s SVP of original content. Shortly after news of the rollout began to trickle out, I managed to corner Nuzum in the kitchen of a Flatiron District office building to ask a few questions. Here’s the interview, lightly edited and condensed.

Quah: There’s probably not much you can say, so let’s start with this: What can you tell me on the record?

Nuzum: It’s really exciting for people to see Channels, which is something that was being worked on for a long time way before I got to Audible. I would describe it as if you’ve just shown a house that’s empty — it doesn’t have any furniture, there’s nobody living in it — and it’s the very, very elemental foundation of what we plan to do. There are things there right now that we’re very proud of, but it’s a fraction of what we expect to be in that place over the next couple of months.

People will find some narrated licensed material, some comedy material — which is an area we’re going to go much larger in — some drama, some literature. There is very little original stuff in there right now, almost none…

Quah: And when can we expect the originals?

Nuzum: Later.

As we get into the summer, things will get clearer both in terms of what we’ve been working on and the scale of our ambition. And I will say that “scale of our ambition” has two possible meanings, both of which are correct. So, scale of ambition as in how many things we’re working on, and also in terms of what we’re doing.

Look, when I left NPR, everybody came up to me and said, “I want to see what shows you’re going to build, what podcasts you’re going at Audible.” And that’s the completely wrong question, and it never has been the question.

I’m not at Audible to build podcasts. I’m at Audible to start a revolution. In the way audio is produced, and in the way audio is distributed.

I look at some of things that frustrate people in the podcasting space, and I’m trying to solve them both for creators and for listeners. So it really is not a question of what shows we create. The question we ask is: What do people want to listen to? That gets into a whole broader category of types of content than what you typically hear from podcasts.

I’m actually of the belief that one of the reasons many people don’t listen to podcasts is because there aren’t podcasts people want to listen to. There’s no audio content that matches a broader section of interests. And so we’re trying to figure out some of that other space.

Quah: Are we going to see non-American audio programming in Channels soon?

Nuzum: We’re trying to get this right here [in the United States] first.

But one thing that we’ve learnt — which surprised me — is how un-parochial people are in content interest. There are people in other territories, countries, and areas of the world…There isn’t a linear line we see where American people are interested in American content and British people are interested in British content.

It’s always been about: Is this relevant and good to me? And if you hit that relevant bit and be good, the boundaries and borders completely open up. That’s caused us to take a much broader look at the world of content sourcing as well as who we’re working with and who we’re offering it to.

Quah: Do you look for pitches?

Nuzum: Yeah, we do. But I think that…so, one of the things that a lot of people have been confused by is what are our aspirations are. If you draw a Venn diagram between podcast and public radio and what Audible is doing, there’s a lot of crossover. But we’re doing a lot of stuff outside the crossover. There’s a lot of things that will feel and sound like podcasts, but there will be a lot of things that sound very different. We’ll make some big mistakes, but we’re trying to expand out the realm of what people think of when think of what short-form listening experiences can be.

It’s an intoxicating thing to say to people that we have the appetite and aspiration to do things that other people can’t do. One of the things that I always tell producers pitching me is that if you can imagine something being a podcast, it’s probably not a big enough idea for us. I think our risk tolerance is very high.

We’re at the point now where things are starting to come in, and we’re finishing things and stacking things up. And we’re rejecting a large number of things because they sound like they can be on NPR, because they sound like a podcast. It would be very easy just have everything sound like what you’d expect. We’re always pushing to go further — and sometimes we’ll get there, and sometimes we won’t.

If you’re giving us the same pitch that you’re giving to Gimlet or Midroll or whatever, we pass on almost all of those. But if someone has a crazy idea, or an amazing story, and they just don’t know how to get someone to back them…It’s got to be a big idea. We want big ideas.

So that’s that.

Mind you: It’s all sheer potential right now for Audible, and it remains to be seen how the company will ultimately change things up for the rest of us. We don’t know yet how it will affect the podcast industry, opportunities for creators, the producer labor market, and overall non-music audio consumption (what a clunky phrase! I wonder how Edison Research is going to deal with measurements). And we have yet to see whether it’ll result in a net positive for all digital audio businesses or, in a familiar eating of the industry, whether it’ll become the center of the universe or break up the ecosystem into a multiverse. And whether it will truly pull from the obvious advantages enjoyed by the company on paper: instant access to a large existing pool of subscribers, along with gobs and gobs of money and resources from a terrifyingly dominant company with tentacles that stretch into a murderer’s row of parallel industries.

It’s all potential right now. Which is fine; I’ll just leave my tinfoil hat on.

By the way, if you’re wondering: Audible members get full access to the new content libraries, while non-members are only provided with 30 minutes of free listening a week. Basic memberships go for $14.95 a month.

NPR, one more time. So here we are again. Sunday night treated us with a Slate cover story that rang ye olde “What’s the future of NPR?” bell, extending the conversation recently instigated by the NPR Memo kerfuffle well into its fourth week.

The article didn’t bring us anything particularly new, but it does do a pretty good job neatly summing up all the future of NPR talk. In case you’re short on time, here’s the back-of-the-flap version: Young pub radio listeners are shifting towards digital! NPR is still dependent on broadcast, because member stations! The podcasts are coming! Critics are all like “the NPR C-suite is too slow to innovate!” Jarl Mohn, NPR CEO, is all like “y’all don’t do news”! And so on, and so on.

All that stuff is still true. But as I enter the fourth week of watching the discussion play out around the ol’ social media watering hole and gossiping on this subject with many, many people — what else can I do? — I’m beginning to feel something of a tension. Eh, maybe I should’ve felt it a long time ago, but it hit me really hard this week.

It’s interesting, I think, to consider that much of the critique that we’re seeing — particularly those from Adam Davidson, whose writings and quotations powers much of the skepticism that appears in these Future of NPR pieces, including Slate’s — appears to be grounded in an outsized optimism for the swathe of new podcast companies that have emerged outside the public radio system.

But the fact of the matter is: We still don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. We don’t know if Gimlet or Panoply or Acast will grow, thrive, and blossom into influential businesses. Right now, they’re all oodles of potential, and as most of us know from decent first dates, potential is intoxicating. I guess my point is: It’s a little premature to turn the heat up on NPR from the outside with such vigor and optimism in the rise of the new. They still have a lot of work that they to do to justify all that chest-thumping.

Also: To critique NPR, and to be anxious about the fate of NPR, is to be invested in the outcome of high quality public-interest journalism delivered in the audio format. Which makes it further interesting that, given the intensity of some of these critiques, none of these buzzy, new audio-oriented organizations seem to be substantially investing in the production and delivery of news for the public interest — at least not at this point in time.

To be fair, it makes some strategic logic for these new audio companies to not deal in hard news. I was once told by a very smart person that if you’re looking to enter a market with strong incumbents, you probably want to compete orthogonally — which is to say, don’t take them head on, and own the spaces they’re not touching. For Gimlet, it’s a steady stream of highly-produced narrative podcasts that are not the bread and butter of NPR and public radio stations. And for Panoply (conjoined twin-company of Slate, and my former day-job employer — hi guys!), it’s a web of talking heads programming that prizes analysis driven by personality, a currency public radio doesn’t ordinarily trade in. Those strategies has given those companies a solid foothold in their respective businesses.

But we’re still stuck with the reality that none of those companies, or any of the new audio companies for that matter, are explicitly engaged in the extra hard business of hard news. And as a result, none of them will either cause direct competition for NPR, which may spur them into readjustment, or lay the foundation for themselves to become the proper replacement should the public radio mothership match these apocalyptical prognostications.

So the critique has bit of a…I don’t want to call it hypocrisy necessarily, because it’s not as simple or straightforward as that, but a misalignment. A fundamental weirdness.

Again, I want to be clear that NPR’s C-suite still has to take its shifting fundamentals seriously. The quotes coming out of Jarl Mohn so starkly echo the stuff legacy publications said of digital media companies two or three years ago — I mean, damn. But I’m just saying that if we’re going to play that game, the knife should cut both ways.

If we take a few steps back, what do we see? New companies aren’t investing in news, and old companies aren’t investing in digital. And there’s a story here that’s really worth some attention, one that’s illustrated quite well in the Slate piece:

We are, after all, bombarded by news constantly — on our computers, on our phones, on TV, from newspapers, from cable news networks, from our friends on social media. Against that backdrop, it seems like there’s a very real possibility that the medium in which NPR’s reporters work — not just terrestrial radio, but audio full stop — could simply lose its place as a news source in people’s lives.

To sum it all up, with prescriptions: On the one hand, sure, NPR and its wider network of member stations need to really move and get wise on life after broadcast. But on the other hand, critics from the side of the upstarts should really dial it down and start showing us something. Which is all to say: Y’all should to stop throwing so much shade at each other and start fighting the real battles that need to be fought.

Don’t cha know that the Bezos is coming for us all?

One more thing. I’ve increasingly gotten the sense that this entire discussion — interesting as it is — has a certain generational quality. So, I think it’s worth us keeping in mind that is, in a lot of ways, is a privileged discussion. A lot of this debate seems to be driven among men of a certain age, race, and class, and there are tons and tons of young producers, reporters, and upstarts who are just looking for a place to catch a break and hone their craft, and the fact of the matter is the constellation of career opportunities afforded by these new audio companies haven’t actually touched the bottom, most-needed rung that will determine the fate of the craft, at least based on the increasing number of conversations I’m having. (More on that next week.)

So, to all you young producers reading this: I see you.

All right, that’s all I got. I can’t squeeze out anything more — I need to preserve some brain juice to come up with some scheme to pay next month’s rent. Moving on.

Additional reading: Jay Rosen’s tweet string on the ideological dimension of this discussion. BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton taking the Slate article’s writer, Leon Neyfakh, up to task on his characterization of “low-touch productions.” Former public radio operative-turned-public digital intellectual Melody Kramer’s “Public media is not content or platform. It’s more than that.”

WNYC Studios rolls out a new launch. 2 Dope Queens, a new show from WNYC Studios featuring Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, debuted last week to a good amount of press, scoring writeups in Mashable, the Huffington Post, Tech Insider, and NBCNews.com. The show boasted strong positioning on the iTunes charts over the weekend, consistently occupying the top spot ahead of another newly launched public radio podcast, NPR’s Embedded — reflecting, perhaps, the two institutions’ mastery over iTunes as a marketing channel.

The release of 2 Dope Queens comes shortly after the launch of another WNYC Studios project, There Goes The Neighborhood, the limited-run series about gentrification in Brooklyn which premiered in early March. That we’ve been treated with two WNYC Studios launches within the span of a month suggests that we’re finally entering the first wave of projects coming out of the public radio station’s new podcast division since it was announced last October.

So what other shows should we be keeping an eye out for? According to the New York Times article covering the division’s launch back when it happened, we’re still due for a show with author Roxane Gay, a scripted fiction series with comedian Sara Schaefer, a Radiolab-spinoff that will focus on the Supreme Court, and a show that will come out of a partnership with Vice News.

Bits:

  • The second season of NPR’s highly successful Invisibilia podcast will drop in June. For those keeping tabs, last November the show added Hanna Rosin — of the Slate DoubleX Gabfest, and who you can also find in a recent Trumpcast episode — as the third cohost. (Twitter)
  • The lovely Radio Diaries, which is now a podcast distributed beneath the Radiotopia banner but was once a wee audio experiment, turned 20 years old last Friday. The team will be doing a bunch of things to celebrate the occasion over the next month, including releasing a story that’s been in development for over two years. So watch out for that. (Radio Diaries)
  • “Hear the Fear: The Rise of the Horror Podcast.” Couple of juicy numbers from this: the independent Lore podcast reportedly averages 385,000 downloads a week, while the beloved Black Tapes podcast scores about 200,000 a month. (The Atlantic)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here. The original version has more news, analysis, material. And there’s more news briefs for paid members! Also, how’re you doing?