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MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?
“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.
Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):
In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.
Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.
The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.
That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.
Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.
Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.
Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.
Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.
The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?
The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.
Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:
We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.
Grab your space suits, fellas.
The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)
In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)
Public radio genes run deep.
Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.
Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.
It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)
In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”
When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:
Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.
In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.
While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.
Tip of the hat, Louisville.
Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.
A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”
I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.
Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.
The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)
Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.
When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.
I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:
[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]
[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.
On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.
Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)
Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.
Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.
I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.
But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”
This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.
Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.
The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.
I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.
More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.
One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.
I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.
Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]
Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.
On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.
- This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
- WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
- “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
- American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
- I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
- Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
- On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
- “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.
[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Chomping at the bit. “Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network,” declared Jenny Wall, the company’s newly hired chief marketing officer, in a Fast Company piece in January. That identity refashioning is mostly tethered to Gimlet’s increasingly formalized dealings with Hollywood, but it’s beginning to rear its head in other intriguing ways as well.
Last Thursday, Gimlet announced its first offering for the Amazon Alexa platform: Chompers, a skill that takes the form of a twice-daily toothbrushing companion for young children. To produce the skill, the podcast company partnered with Volley, a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in building entertainment products for voice assistants. They’re also releasing Chompers as a vanilla podcast for those who have yet to join the smart speaker cult.
This is a shrewd piece of business for two reasons. The first is hunger: The kids, they really love those speaking computer tubes. According to Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, 88 percent of smart speaker owners whose households include children report that said children really, really enjoy Alexa. And while I’m not a fan of anecdotal evidence, I will say I’ve seen this myself and let me tell ya: The level of fervor is genuinely frightening. (Bigger picture: Health experts are apparently warily optimistic about the relationship between kids and smart speakers, though concerns about data privacy seem to be the more prominent thorn.)
The second reason is money: The first season of Chompers, we’re told, is sponsored by Oral-B and Crest Kids. With this move, Gimlet has made the choice to dive headfirst into the ethical hairiness of advertising to children, which is a can of worms commonly tossed about in discussions about kids podcasts. It’s also a notable attempt to grapple with an Alexa development environment that’s ambiguous about how it allows skill developers to monetize their efforts. More on that in a second.
The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin picked up the story, which you should totally check out in full, but there are three nuggets in there you shouldn’t miss:
- Gimlet has hired a voice director to lead further content development for voice assistants: Wilson Standish, formerly the director of innovation at the marketing agency Hearts & Science.
- (Brand) money moves: “In 2017, more than half of Gimlet Media’s ad revenue came from brand advertisers, according to Anna Sullivan, vice president of brand partnerships for the company. Ms. Sullivan added that the company’s brand advertising revenue grew 134 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.”
- Gimlet president Matt Lieber re-emphasized the company’s commitment to audio: “The way I think about Gimlet is that we’re trying to build a new kind of modern media company where everything begins in audio.”
The company continues to sprawl into a myriad of directions, and it occurs to me that Gimlet’s narrative these days has mostly been about its meta-show developments and much less about the actual shows themselves. Anyway, I think they’re due to announce a spring slate soon, so maybe we’ll start getting more of that too.
Okay, back to making money off Alexa. So it’s a complicated situation. Chompers emerges against an Alexa development environment that happens to ban all third-party ads (with some exceptions for music and flash briefing apps). It’s also an environment that seems to encourage advertisers and brands to directly create or commission skills themselves; a sort of Alexa-skill equivalent of the branded podcast. For further consideration of this, I highly recommend this Wired piece, “Amazon’s Alexa Wants You To Talk To Your Ads,” from December.
All of this amounts to a deeply uncertain context for audio publishers thinking about investing time and resources in creating a presence on the platform. Even if the smart speaker category feels really exciting in general, it’s incredibly hard for publishers to figure out a decent way to yield returns — a problem exacerbated by Amazon’s total and often opaque governance of the Alexa platform. It’s a familiar conundrum: You want to be a part of something on the up and up before you miss it, but what are you really getting if the nature of the thing is so capricious and beyond your control?
With Chompers, Gimlet appears to have figured out a loose workaround. Oral-B and Crest Kids are indeed sponsors, but according to Amazon’s rules, the Chompers skill can’t convey the sponsorship of the two brands at all. However, the usual ad spots will be present on the podcast version, which will receive the usual cross-promotion treatment across its show portfolio. A spokesperson further told me:
We are also including P&G in all our marketing materials, including social, promotional boxes/kits with Oral-B and Crest Kids products, an Echo Dot, etc. to pediatric dentists in NY SF LA and Seattle, celebs, press and parenting influencers, etc.
P&G, by the way, refers to Procter & Gamble, the multinational consumer goods corporation that owns both Oral-B and Crest. The move with promotional materials leans onto a larger marketing theory: By virtue of its relative monopoly over dental hygiene products, P&G will likely benefit from any broader lift in general toothbrushing practices — which, you know, is both terrifying in its expression of corporate monopoly and also a value-creation hypothesis I’d totally explore if I were said corporate monopoly.
Again, these feel like cobbled-together workarounds, and the larger problem of how one can derive meaningful revenue through voice assistant platforms remains very much up in the air. Two more things to that point:
- I’m tempted to think that what we’ll see over the long run with the Echo is a media ecosystem akin to YouTube: a closed, centralized platform that largely leads to the creation of a content type unique to itself. As such, if you’re a purveyor of fine podcast products, the choice of developing programming for Alexa is ultimately an optional one — but one that requires its own infrastructures, teams, and playbooks. Which is probably why Gimlet hiring a dedicated director of voice makes sense.
- There’s something about the current demographics of smart speaker users that makes me think it’s a good tool for audio publishers to deepen their relationship with superfans. Drawing from the various Smart Audio reports, these users are highly engaged, display increased audio consumption behaviors, and appear inclined to use the device as a mechanism to make purchases. Seems like a ripe constellation of traits for an audio publisher looking to build out a subscription or freemium model.
But yeah, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more unsettled I get. If I were a podcast publisher, I’d be incredibly wary of dedicating too much of myself to Alexa. I don’t know where this particular road goes, but it certainly reminds me of the many, many roads that have ended badly.
Chaser: Then again, maybe it’s not a good idea to build out a distribution presence on a sentient platform? “Amazon Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It’s ‘Bone Chillingly Creepy'” (BuzzFeed).
While we’re on the subject of kids podcasts: Gen-Z Media, which joined PRX’s portfolio of clients back in January, has announced a new slate of shows for the spring: The Mayan Crystal, Six Minutes, and a game show called Pants on Fire.
Of particular note is Gen-Z’s new website, dubbed Best Robot Ever, which functions as its new consumer-facing online home that also features programming from kids podcast publishers outside its network.
Clustering. Two months after wrapping Heaven’s Gate, Stitcher has rolled out another podcast that sticks with the theme of cults and cult-ish movements. The new show is called Dear Franklin Jones, and it’s by Jonathan Hirsch, most known for creating the independent podcast ARRVLS.
I liked the first episode enough (and loved the tinkly retro theme music), but what’s up with Stitcher and cults? This reminds me of the twin films phenomenon, except, of course, this isn’t an instance of semi-serendipitous cross-industry synchronicity, it’s just one publisher being fixated on a subject. Anyway, shouts to 1997, when Hollywood released both Volcano and Dante’s Peak within two months of each other, and to 1998, which saw Armageddon and Deep Impact come out within a similar chunk of time.
Anyway, I’d just like to flag that Dear Franklin Jones is another example of Stitcher working the windowing angle to drive more Stitcher Premium conversions through its original programming. The podcast debuted last week with new episodes weekly, but Jonesheads can access the whole run of episodes now if they signed up for Stitcher Premium.
For the record: I go back and forth debating the merits of windowing arrangements like this. I mean, I get it. By virtue of being a short-run series, Dear Franklin Jones is considerably harder to monetize than a longer-term recurring production, simply because there’s a much shorter runway to develop an active listenership and monetize the “head” of the production. As such, I completely empathize with the need to break out complementary channels for revenue.
But the tradeoff involves dampening the upside should it become a hit during its original run. The option to let listeners pay up and instantly access the rest of the show potentially diffuses the listenership and attention; you’d get two populations experiencing the show at different speeds, and are therefore less likely to participate in the same kinds of conversations. We see a version of this diffusion in the streaming vs. linear television context: Streaming platforms Netflix and Amazon Prime Video simply haven’t seemed capable of driving conversations with the same fervor and intensity that linear networks like HBO have consistently been able to do. I guess what I’m saying is: Scared money don’t make money, but I get it.
It’s a tough balance to strike, and I don’t envy podcast programming chiefs juggling the twin facts that (a) there seems to be genuine hunger for great, high-quality short-run podcasts and (b) they’re so much harder to monetize within the current system. And I imagine this will come to a head for Stitcher when the network rolls out its collaboration with Marvel, Wolverine: The Long Night. That show will debut exclusively on Stitcher Premium next Monday, before going wide in the fall.
The Big Listen ends. WAMU will cease production on the Lauren Ober-hosted broadcast about podcasts after “the program in its current format didn’t gain the traction with other NPR stations that we required to continue the investment in its weekly production,” the station announced Friday.
Keep an eye on Spotify. The Swedish music streaming service finally filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last week, and the big story thread is how it will pursue a relatively unconventional (and consequently riskier) route to do so. Recode has a helpful summary of the move — Theodore Schleifer writes: “There are no bankers that will underwrite the listing, meaning no one is trying to make a market for shares. There are no institutional investors who will get first dibs at their shares who could prop up Spotify’s value. And a lot of the rules that are meant to keep a stock from soaring or crashing are out the window” — and I also found Andrew Flanagan’s writeup over at NPR helpful to grasp the bigger picture.
You should check out Flanagan’s entire piece, but here’s the money:
Let’s take [Spotify CEO Daniel] Ek at his word here and assume he truly, deeply would like to pay creators as much as humanly possible, enough to survive on their creativity, while at the same time continue to operate a globally dominant technology company. To do that, Ek and Spotify may need to remove other players from the equation — or as he puts it, “break free of their medium’s constraints.” Ek isn’t talking about the constraints of human hearing or the constraints of creating beautiful and challenging sounds. He’s talking about the constraints represented by an industry of fiefdoms. It sounds as though he’d like the job of king.
So why should we care about Spotify again? As a reminder, the platform has made various attempts — albeit in the form of tentative minor experiments — to build out programming alternatives to its core music offering, a good chunk of which revolves around podcasts and non-music audio content. These attempts are ongoing, and to this date they have manifested themselves in a few different ways including: basic third-party podcast distribution (both through manual submission and through new partnerships with Anchor and Spreaker), original content creation (some of which are produced by podcast shops like Panoply and Transmitter), exclusive windowing arrangements (e.g. Gimlet Media with Mogul and WNYC Studios with 2 Dope Queens), and a new multimedia initiative called Spotlight.
According to the F-1, the music streaming platform boasts 159 million monthly users and 71 million paid Premium subscribers as of December 31st, 2017. The document also spotlight’s the company’s apparent emphasis on expanding “non-music content and user experience,” listed within the growth strategy section. Note the following disclosure:
There were a total of 348 million podcast listeners across all platforms worldwide at the end of 2016 and the number of podcast listeners increased to an estimated 484 million in 2017 according to Ovum, representing growth of 39% year-over-year. This engagement presents a significant opportunity for Spotify as we believe we have the ability to enhance the podcast User experience with a better product that is focused on discovery.
I’m not sure how Ovum, the business intelligence service referenced here, counts a “podcast listener,” but the growth rate is notable nonetheless. For what it’s worth, I’m a heavy user of Spotify for podcast listening, mostly because it works better with my data plan and I often spend huge chunks of the day without Wifi. Then again, I’m the guy that hits Chipotle before 11 a.m. to beat the lunch rush. Which is to say, I’m no indicator of anybody.
Related story: iHeartMedia is preparing to file for bankruptcy, Bloomberg reports.
Career Spotlight. We’re back at it again. This week, I traded emails with Vanessa Lowe, the creator of Nocturne, an independent podcast that’s part of The Heard collective. She’s based in Berkeley, California, which I hear has a hoppin’ radio scene these days.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Vanessa Lowe: I produce and host the podcast, Nocturne. I’m also a freelance radio producer and do occasional freelance sound editing for independent films. Most of what I’m doing these days is Nocturne, since it’s largely a one-person show. I do 99 percent of the research, interviewing, writing, music supervision, sound editing, mixing, and promotion.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]Lowe: My career has been less of an arc then a strange, but enjoyable, jagged line. I call myself a “dormant psychologist” because I have a doctorate in clinical psychology but haven’t done any work in that field for a long time. I also spent many years being a performing singer-songwriter-guitarist and released five albums.
In 2008, I produced my first longform radio documentary with no training or experience. That was great fun and the piece was actually aired by several public radio stations around the country. I learned two key things from that experience: I loved making audio stories, and I had a lot to learn. That led me to take a workshop on longform audio documentary production from Claire Schoen, a wonderful veteran radio producer in Berkeley. After the workshop, I became her intern, and eventually an associate producer on her multimedia project about rising sea levels. I worked on that project for two years while producing a couple more docs on my own and with collaborators. I grew more confident making audio, but soon grew tired of working for a year or more on one story. Podcasts were picking up at that point, and I got really excited about the idea of an ongoing project that would have variety and novelty by virtue of being composed of individual episodes. That excitement, combined with my curiosity and complicated relationship with the night, led to Nocturne.
I found learning opportunities everywhere. AIR hooked me up for a mentorship. I did the Transom Travelling Workshop on Catalina Island. Shortly after that, my partner, Kent Sparling, and I entered the KCRW 24-Hour Radio Race and ended up in the top ten (we called ourselves Sleep Mice). I became a founding member of The Heard shortly after starting Nocturne. The Heard is a collective of other indie podcasts, all sharing an ethos of wanting to build things that had unique voices as well as a desire to support and learn from each other.
Having come from the indie music world, I initially felt hesitant to bring on ads to Nocturne. It is first and foremost an artistic project with a distinctive emotional atmosphere. I was concerned that ads would diminish that. I tried to find other ways to support the show, but ultimately came to embrace the advertising model. However, I remain picky about what kinds of ads I do and the tone they take. This shift in mindset came in part from my experience at the first Werk It Festival in New York, where sage female producers spoke convincingly about the importance of placing financial value on your work. At this point, I work with a few different podcast ad companies.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Lowe: For some reason I’ve always had a hard time with the word “career,” maybe because I’ve rarely felt like an “expert.” I’m always acutely aware of everything there is to learn. But when I think about what career means for me, it has always involved doing something — or multiple things — that I love, feels valuable, and connects with other people in a meaningful way. Some of that has to do with lofty ideals, but honestly I think a lot of it has to do with only being able to sustain interest and motivation in things that really absorb me.
I often fall into the trap of undervaluing what I do from a financial perspective, though, because it feels like such a privilege to get to experience such joy. I’ve only just recently started calling Nocturne “my business.” I need to remind myself that work has value even if it’s really, really fun. But there’s always the fear that something that becomes a “business” will cease to be intrinsically pleasurable.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Lowe: When I moved into audio, I wanted to experiment with a different way of communicating ideas from what I’d done before. I didn’t really have a long game. I wanted to do good work in ways that fit who I am, allow for change and play, and hopefully even pay the bills. When I started Nocturne, I told myself I would do it for three years and then evaluate whether I wanted to continue. Nocturne just started it’s fourth year, and I don’t have any plans to stop.[/conr]
- Emilie Aries, cohost of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, has stepped down from the HowStuffWorks’ podcast after a year-long tenure and launched a new project: Bossed Up, a podcast that comes out of her award-winning career service and training company of the same name. Transmitter Media provided guidance on the project. This is the second instance of SYMNTY hosts leaving the show to start their projects in two years, the other being Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, who went on to start Unladylike.
- The team from CBC Original Podcasts reached out to flag a few updates: Its true crime show Someone Knows Something is now back with its fourth season, On Drugs returns for its second, and they welcomed a new show called Personal Best.
- ESPN has announced its third season of 30 for 30 Podcasts, which will mark a departure from its anthology structure to roll out a serialized story. The season will explore the “complicated world of Bikram Yoga — a community grappling with its own identity and survival in the wake of sexual assault allegations against its charismatic guru and founder.” The story is reported and produced by Julia Lowrie Henderson, who notably worked on the “Yankees Suck!” episode from the first season, and the whole season will drop at the same time on May 22.
- The music label Atlantic Records has launched its own in-house line of podcasts. (Variety) Agreed with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton’s take on the matter: “It is interesting to see a record company like Atlantic invest in podcasts, but what they really should do is a regular show with actual Atlantic music on it. Benefit from the fact that other podcasters don’t have a music library at their disposal!”
- The New York Times welcomes a new show: Charles Duhigg’s Change Agent. (Apple Podcasts)
- Sort of adaptation in the opposite direction: The Osbournes now have a podcast. (Apple Podcasts)
- “Branded Podcasts Are The Ads People Actually Want To Listen To.” (Fast Company)
- Wild: “An Artificial Intelligence is Generating an ‘Infinite’ Podcast.” (Motherboard)
- “Florida teacher ‘removed from classroom’ after alleged white-nationalist podcast.” (ABC News)
- Marc Maron is moving garages, marking an end of an era. The New York Times produced a lovely package memorializing the storied production space.
- Goodness, Sunday’s This American Life was stunning.
[photocredit]Photo by Sean Donohue used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
“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]
- 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.
First-tinkerer advantage. There should be little doubt over who will set the terms for voice-first computing in its early going, whether via smart speaker or whatever comes immediately after that. Barring the apocalypse (in which case, we’ll be doubting a great many other things), it’ll be some combination of Amazon, Google, and/or Apple, though it does seem Amazon’s formidable lead might render the latter two irrelevant for quite some while. There is, however, a followup question to ponder: Who will end up governing and facilitating the media pipes within that voice-first environment? Will it be Amazon itself, or some high-profile serf like Spotify or Pandora? Or will it be a whole new team altogether?
One such team hoping to claim the mantle is Subcast, a company founded by a group of former Medium operatives — Cara Meverden, CEO; Saul Carlin, president; and Daniel McCartney, CTO — who worked at the platisher back when it was still jonesing to build ever-lasting partnerships with premium publishers. Sensing opportunity, they’re now focused on developing listening experiences that bridge podcast publishers and the smart-speaker user base. The company officially launched in December, but the team has been working away at the problem since last April. They found the time to raise a seed round in-between.
So what, exactly, is that gap-bridging experience? The way Subcast sees it, the game is to figure out the sweet spot that lies somewhere between the on-demand (and active) nature of podcasts and the linear (and passive) nature of ye’ old radio — and, to some extent, reconcile the two paradigms. “We’ve historically seen this artificial split between podcasts and radio,” Carlin said. “What happens when those two modes of listening converge with voice?”
For now, Subcast has constructed its initial hypothesis around something that looks like a playlist as the atomic unit of the smart speaker audio experience — though, of course, it’s a playlist with some technical complexities. Each playlist, which they’re calling “stations,” is an automatically generated composition that pulls the latest episodes from curated podcast feeds. I’m told that stations pull directly from RSS feeds in a manner roughly indistinguishable from a podcatcher, which means downloads are counted and ad experiences are left intact. Subcast is manually curating feeds for now, often informing podcasts they’ve been selected only after they’ve been included.
Currently, each station exists as its own skill in the Alexa marketplace, and this configuration has the convenient advantage of making them somewhat easier for new Echo owners to bump into and try out. “Most people are finding them simply by going through the Alexa skill portal,” Meverden said. For now, stations are built around different topical focuses. There’s “Conservative Talk Radio,” “Bachelor Nation Radio,” and so on. One imagines that there are more station composition styles to discover beyond topicality, and Carlin tells me there are some designs to try out curatorial efforts from the Subcast-using community in the future. All of this is bolstered by an overarching enterprise to create a multi-modal listening experience; that is, a setup in which users can seamlessly transition their podcast consumption as they move between their smart speaker, car, and phone. Subcast is doing this primarily by producing companion apps for those other contexts — available now for iPhone and Android! etc. etc. — that are all linked by unique user IDs.
So, yeah, it’s all pretty nifty, though nothing particularly revolutionary, but that isn’t really the point. At least, not right now. Subcast’s fundamental gambit revolves around early rapid experimentation for the Alexa platform and the broader voice-first contexts, which are still prehistoric. It’s a shrewd way to get in front of the curve and to tether fortunes on the long-term growth of the smart-speaker category. For what it’s worth, the Subcast team is bullish on the prospect, and further emboldened by Amazon’s machinations at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. “They’re hiring like crazy — it goes well beyond Amazon products,” Carlin said. “It’s an Alexa Everywhere strategy that puts the platform into third-party hardware. They want people to see that it goes beyond smart speakers. Not just in the Echo, but also cars. Not just private spaces, but public.”
“It’s also the case with Google,” Meverden added. “They’re very much a part of this land grab.” And so, it seems, is Subcast.
Three more things:
- “One of the primary attributes of radio is that it’s everywhere,” Carlin asserted when we spoke over the phone last week. I’ve always been fascinated by that characterization, which is not uncommonly held. Indeed, it’s a strategic assumption commonly espoused and wielded by NPR, since perhaps forever. Carlin went on to connect the notion with the probable teleology of smart speakers — or voice-first computing, or whatever we’re calling these days — that they, too, will one day be everywhere. It is at that point that I’m struck by just how the asserted everywhere-ness of radio (and soon, voice) lays pretty well onto the insistent everything-ness of Amazon. It’s a techno-capitalist match made in heaven, and further suggestion that, indeed, at the end of the day, the Bezos comes for us all.
- This whole Subcast “linear vs. on-demand: what’s voice got to do with it” line of inquiry has got me thinking, somewhat tangentially, about the relative arbitrariness of delineating Podcastland based on its technical nature of being on-demand. The way the podcast ecosystem is hosted, delivered, and consumed will inevitably change at some point in the near future, evolving away from its RSS-oriented, smartphone-driven, and download-defined composition toward a future composition made up of god knows what. How then will we consider, appraise, and apply valuation onto it? It’s also worth noting the very same question can and should be applied to how the podcast industry today relates to the digital audio world that came before. In many ways, you could say that what the past ten years of podcast evolution have wrought is less a whole new category of media product, but a whole new community of media creators. To rephrase this paragraph as a clarifying question: What defines the industry/ecosystem — its structural characteristics, or the community that has identified into it?
- So I’m pretty certain this smart speaker business is going to be a thing. But I’ll admit that I personally have a complicated relationship with my own Echo device. To begin with, my wife makes me unplug it when I’m not being actively using it, because security anxieties, and it’s come to a point where I’m using it when I’m alone in the apartment working. Which is to say, it’s been more trouble than it’s worth. (Despite being relatively young, I am ruined by constant crouching over to plug/unplug.) Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a normal, representative human being, but I imagine this whole security bugaboo is actually going to become really, loudly prominent at some point…more so than it has up until now, anyway.
Let’s get out of my apartment and back to the news.
This week in platforms. Meanwhile, back in the contemporary media ecosystem…
(1) Two for Spotify:
- Last week, it announced the impending rollout of something called Spotlight, a new media format that layers minor visual elements on top of talk audio programming from partner publishers. Seems pretty Snapchat Stories-esque in structural positioning, early-Acast-esque in format experimentation. Initial publishers will include Gimlet Media (a pre-existing homie), BuzzFeed (“strategic changes“), Crooked Media, Refinery29, and Cheddar, among others. For what it’s worth, I don’t quite buy into the “Spotify v. Apple” or the “Spotify’s gambit to listeners away from Apple” narrative just yet. For one thing, there’s a whole universe of value in defining your own media format. For another, the overall pie could always get bigger.
- AdExchanger recently published an interview with the company’s global head of ads monetization Brian Benedik, who disclosed that it’s begun monetizing its original podcasts — though it’s selling direct for now — and that it’s seeing incoming interest from agencies and brands to play with its podcast inventory. Also: It’s working on “applying the recommendation engines” it has for music to podcasts. Which sounds vaguely similar to Pandora CEO Roger Lynch wanting to create the “Podcast Genome Project.” If you’ve got a hammer…
(2) And two for Apple:
- Cupertino is hiring a content producer for its Siri Audio News team, who will “be responsible for the health of the podcast and audio news catalogs and act as our front-line point of provider support.” The job position has the glamorous title of “digital supply chain, technical producer.” Here’s the relevant context, and here’s that job posting.
- This is interesting: “Today Apple launches Apple Music for Artists, a dashboard designed to provide acts with hundreds of data points giving deep analytical insight into their fans’ listening and buying habits.” Billboard has the exclusive.
Winter-bound. I’m not personally a Winter Olympics stan, but I do love me some athlete profile #content. NBC Sports, anticipating the voluminous needs of many sports-hungry Americans, has been prepping for battle to satisfy the masses across a wide variety of platforms. This year, those preparations will include podcasts, as NBC Sports announced this morning that it has partnered with Vox Media to produce “the official NBC Olympics Podcast” to cover the festivities. Called The Podium, the podcast will be published daily throughout the event starting February 8. A few things to note: The show will be recorded on-site in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang and will be executive produced by Vox Media audio head Nishat Kurwa.
I asked Vox Media whether it had any updates on the Sean Rameswaram daily explainer show, but no dice.
Relay FM outlook. The independent podcast network, led by the transatlantic duo Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett, had a pretty stellar 2017 that saw formidable gains across its portfolio of technology- and niche-oriented conversational programming. I’ve been tracking the network pretty closely since profiling them in the summer of 2016, and I recently thought to check in with Hurley, who was more than happy to discuss the past twelve months and share some numbers.
“In the past we have been pretty secretive with sharing too many hard numbers about the company,” he said. “But we are really proud of what we achieved in 2017, so we’re ready to open up a little more than we have before.” (An echo of Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s “happy numbers” quip from last week.)
Here are those digits:
- In 2017, Relay FM saw its revenue grow by 23 percent compared to the year before, beating its goal.
- The network enjoyed an average of 2 million downloads a month, which bundles up to about 24 million downloads for the whole year. That’s up from 18.3 million in 2016, and 12.4 million in 2015 (which was Relay FM’s first full calendar year of operation).
- If you’re crunching the numbers, it’s worth noting that RelayFM ended the year with 25 shows in active operation. The network launched four shows last year, three of which did not carry any advertising — they had planned for that — which means the revenue growth largely comes from increases in price and sell-throughs of existing inventory. For further context, the network launched in the summer of 2014 with five shows.
Hurley notes that Relay FM is sticking to a 20 percent revenue growth target for 2018, and that the network is already on track to beat it. New show launches are also on the docket, and I’m told the team intends to play around with new formats, configurations, and topic areas. To branch out, in other words, from the playbook that has served it so well.
“We feel pretty good about where we are, and we have a good runway to the year ahead,” Hurley said, when I asked about his perspective on the year ahead. “Of course, there’s always a worry that the bottom could fall out of the advertising market, but this doesn’t seem very likely, considering trends of the last few years. And we could lose our audiences somehow, but as long as we stay the course we’re on, that doesn’t seem likely either.” Relay FM will turn four years old in 2018 — a lifetime, in some circles — and across its existence, it’s established a strong operational foundation, figured out a formula that’s worked well for it, and slinked into each successive phase with confidence.
You could largely pin that confidence on the bullishness Hurley and Hackett feel about how podcast advertising has grown up to this point — and how they expect it change in the months to come. Hurley writes:
We have seen increased advertiser interest so far this year, and this is something that’s been scaling over time. I expect that in 2018 we will start to see even bigger companies try their hand at some branding campaigns, but I expect (especially for Relay FM) that our bread and butter will remain in the type of direct response advertising we are seeing right now.
I also expect to see a rise in more agencies trying to represent brands, attempting to sell spots to multiple podcast networks. We are seeing more and more companies that are trying to do this, but mostly they are attempting to represent the same advertisers we already work with. Podcasting is a hot commodity right now, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon, and if new agencies want to get off the ground, they need to branch out and try to convince more brands to give this a try.
I asked Hurley how he feels the industry has changed since he quit his job in 2014 to start the network, and more pointedly, whether it’s harder for independent podcast outfits to exist today. “There’s more of a focus on this industry than there has ever been,” Hurley said. This is, he goes on to note, a double-edged sword, and in his thinking, the increased attention has translated to more advertiser dollars and potential returns, but also a situation where the barriers to starting a sustainable podcast production business are greater than ever. “Trying to carve out your piece of that pie is getting harder as there are more people trying to grab it,” he said.
Hurley added: “We are established at this point, and luckily our path has ensured that we were there at just the right time…if we were starting out today I expect it would be harder for us.”
Joe Frank, the legendary radio producer-personality-artist, died last Monday at the age of 79. His considerable body of work — mind-bending, line-blurring, often surreal, always alluringly dark — deeply influenced a significant portion of the creative generations that currently define, challenge, and reshape radio aesthetics in this podcasting era. A small sample of those he influenced: Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Jonathan Goldstein, Glynn Washington, Kaitlin Prest, Andrea Silenzi, Joe Richman, and Scott Carrier, among so many others. Frank may have no heirs, as the writer Mark Oppenheimer observed in a recent profile, but his disciples are legion.
Do spend some time to sit down with that profile, by the way. The piece by Oppenheimer, who is also the host of Tablet’s Unorthodox podcast, went up on Slate last Friday, and it’s rich, fascinating, and lovely. It also doubles as the man’s final interviews before his death:
Frank was chagrined, even a little embarrassed, that he hadn’t made radio for the last couple of years. He knew that the podcast revolution is a big feast at a table he set. “There is something about all these podcasts, the kind of thing I think is, ‘They don’t even know that I started it! They don’t even know where this came from!'”
Again, don’t miss it. And when you’re done with the profile, here are some other things remembering Frank that you should check out:
- This On The Media segment, which brings on Oppenheimer to talk about the profile and later features Brooke Gladstone and Jad Abumrad listening to an old Frank piece.
- This note from Larry Josephson, a friend of Frank and president of The Radio Foundation.
- This remembrance at KCRW, where Frank spent the bulk of his career.
- This Fresh Air segment, which features a 1989 interview with Frank.
And then check out his website, where a good deal of his work can be found behind a paywall.
Career spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Whitney Simon, who covers business development — among many other responsibilities, I imagine — for the Los Angeles-based podcast network Headgum. I don’t think I’ve done one of these career spotlights with someone who’s working on the business side before. Given the general scope of interests in this newsletter, that’s pretty surprising to me. As an aside, I love spreadsheets.
Tell me about your current situation.
I’m currently the Business Development Executive at Headgum. Headgum was founded in 2015 by Jake Hurwitz, Amir Blumenfeld, and Marty Michael. I’ve been with them nearly two years now and was our first full-time employee.
In the big picture, Marty and I handle the business side of things. I spend most of my day selling advertisements against our show roster and investing in the client relations and brand partnerships that come along with that. I’m also responsible for our revenue tracking and financial analysis, running the invoicing and billing systems, and thinking strategically about our growth as a company. I transitioned into the biz dev role about a year ago and now manage our ad ops coordinator and any business interns we might have.
In addition, we’re constantly retooling the workflows and systems we use to better serve us, as Marty and I built them out ourselves. I’m grateful that the guys give me the freedom to really run with their vision in that sense. Because our staff is also still small, I get to dabble in a whole host of other things: UI design, talent acquisition, hiring practices, etc.
How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?
When I was in college, I went through the admissions process for Green Corps (the field school for community organizing). The process is fairly intensive because they, and more than 100 other environmental and social justice organizations in the US, are part of one umbrella organization: The Public Interest Network (TPIN). Many of those organizations attract attention from opposition research firms, so TPIN has built out a great internal recommendation program. As a result, my application landed on the desk of the team that manages the grants operations for the entire organization. They offered me a position post-graduation and, after spending a summer working in Montana, I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2015 to join TPIN’s central staff.
In my role at TPIN, I was managing the (c)(3) and (c)(4) grants operations for Environment America and Green Corps and then consulting on writing and edits for a number of other organizations. The job was fascinating and intensely stressful. No matter if you made a mistake or did your job perfectly, kids’ school lunches or statewide environmental protections were always on the line. We were working 14-hour days at the office and to combat the risk of burn-out, I started listening to podcasts on my commute to give me a jolt of energy and inspiration. A few months in, I ran into a health issue, which led me to then decide to leave the position.
I gave myself three weeks to apply to any job in LA that had ever interested me, and it was during this time I shot off an email to Headgum. After not getting a response, I tracked down Marty’s assistant at the time and cold-emailed her. It turned out they had no open positions, but she called me two weeks later when she left for a different job and brought me in to meet the team. And that’s how I quickly transitioned from a large bureaucratic and historic organization to an incredibly fast-paced, relatively new one.
What does a career mean to you, at this point?
Thinking of a career today, I’d like to be useful in the world. When I look at people whose careers really impress me, they tend to be those who pull others up with them, are generous with their time and resources, and are genuinely excited by and curious about their work. We live in a time of such political, economic, and environmental uncertainty and that certainly affects people’s professional lives by the day. I’m always blown away by people who choose to bring attention or comfort to those who feel alone, oppressed, and/or unseen in the world. It’s going to be fascinating, and hopefully only mildly horrifying, in fifty years to look back on this time in America’s history. I’ve also been inspired by the #MeToo movement, because it’s helping us start to contextualize career paths and professional success in a way we haven’t before, and I hope the push to complicate the notion of a good career continues. I’d be remiss not to mention the people of color, and women of color in particular, who’ve led the movement to drive these conversations powerfully forward and into the open for years.
Not to be too trite but a good friend of mine was killed while we were in college — he was in Egypt teaching English to little kids and was one of those people with the potential to change the world. When work gets really stressful, I try to keep in mind that life is short and work is work. I want to do something with my life that I’m proud of and hopefully make life better for some people along the way.
When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?
I found out fairly quickly that I like to be in a production role within a creative environment. On top of that, I love being able to think creatively within traditionally strict problems or environments. While my college was anti-vocational training, I’m grateful to professors who pushed me in the direction of applied studies. In general, I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which people move through the world. I toyed with going into architecture and urban design for a while, as well as into epidemiology or midwifery. I hope to always be able to draw a connection back to that sort of user-centered approach.
- Pineapple Street Media has hired away Jonathan Menjivar from This American Life. (Twitter)
- This week sees a special series from Death, Sex & Money in partnership with BuzzFeed News called Opportunity Cost, about tradeoffs and choices when it comes to money, status, and class. This is the shit DSM was made to do! Damn, I’m excited. (WNYC Studios)
- WBEZ unveiled the subject of its post-Oprah “Making” season: former President Barack Obama. Which is cool! They should’ve retained the “O” in the podcast art, though. #JustWhatIBeThinking. (WBEZ)
- Mozilla, which has been producing a pretty solid podcast for a piece of #brandedcontent with IRL, is currently two episodes deep into its second season. (Mozilla Blog)
- Too Beautiful To Live, the cult Seattle-based daily podcast now distributed by American Public Media, is turning 10 this year, and it celebrated by doing “a 24-hour, live-stream episode recorded on a party bus driving around the state of Washington” last Saturday. In other news, the line between genius and insanity is thin, and hinges on fuel efficiency. (APM Podcasts)
- I reviewed Tenderfoot and HowStuffWorks’ Atlanta Monster last week. (Vulture) Something I forgot to mention: The show has near minimal transitions into ad breaks, and the result is smack dab at the bottom of the uncanny valley, folks.
Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.
Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.
“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”
We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:
- Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
- Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
- December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
- Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.
(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)
But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)
Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.
Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.
2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.
One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.
Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.
Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:
- A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
- A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.
One imagines there will be more to come.
The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.
Some odds and ends:
- I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
- It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
- Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
- As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.
Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.
Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.
Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.
WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)
Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:
- WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
- Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
- Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
- WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.
This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.
“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”
Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.
This week in the revolving door:
- Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
- Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
- James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
- John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.
Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.
For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.
The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.
How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.
“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:
Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.
With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.
I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.
Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:
— Jason Hoch (@starexplorer) January 11, 2018
“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.
This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.
But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:
- It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
- I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
- One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.
- Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
- Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
- The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
- At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
- This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
- This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
- Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
- “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
- “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
- “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
- PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
- “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.
Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.
Just a heads up: I’m told that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) will indeed be publishing a 2018 update to its podcast advertising study, which means we’ll be able to get at least one contiguous read of the industry’s year-over-year ad revenue growth.
As a reminder, the IAB’s inaugural podcast advertising report, which dropped last summer, found that the industry brought in $119 million in 2016 and was projected to bring in $220 million by the end of 2017. We’ll see how that projection holds up.
And once again, the report’s methodology revolves around the study a bundle of major podcast publishers, which means that it’s not meant to be comprehensive but representative. Think a stock market index like, say, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (sorta), along with all the benefits and limitations of using that indicator to discern something about the overall stock market and economy.
Don’t rat me out, Alexa. The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is happening this week, and in the spirit of that fine mess, I thought it might be a good time to review what’s been going on with smart speakers. It’s the device, after all, that may prove to be a significant new frontier for on-demand audio consumption.
Smart speakers have become, perhaps improbably, one of the more prominent technology categories over the past few years. A recent report by Canalys, a research firm, found that the smart speaker has surpassed AR, VR, and wearables in market share, becoming the fastest growing consumer technology in recent times, according to a ZDNet write-up. Over 30 million smart speaker units — including the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and so on — were shipped worldwide last year, with 16.1 million units shipped in the fourth quarter alone. That trend of rapid growth is expected to continue this year, with Canalys projecting 70 percent year-over-year worldwide shipment growth totaling up to 56 million units by the end of 2018. (If you’re looking for further detail and context, this summary by The Guardian is pretty succinct.)
The Amazon Echo lies at the forefront of the category, with the Google Home serving as a fairly distant second. (Apple’s own entry, the HomePod, is scheduled to roll out sometime early this year, following delays.) Amazon’s lead on its competitors is said to be considerable, given its longer time in the market — the device rolled out in mid-2015 — and aggressive pace in terms of product iteration and distribution (Amazon Echoes next to the deli counter at Whole Foods, y’know?). But one should expect a fight from other tech giants, most notably Google, which is estimated to have sold at least 6.73 million units since its October launch, as they move to close the gap on this new front of computing while trying to keep newer competitors at bay. One expression of this: analysts have noted that both Amazon and Google engaged in deep price discounting over the holiday season in the run-up to the launch of the pricier Apple HomePod, which has resulted in the two companies losing money in the short term but creating a slightly less accommodating environment for Apple’s entry into the market, as Reuters reported.
And let us not forget what’s happening outside the probable Big Three: over the past few months, other hardware makers — including Roku, Samsung, Harman, LG, Sonos, and JBL — have put forward their own takes on the smart speaker category as well.
So, what does this all mean for podcasts, or on-demand audio content publishers more generally? A couple of thoughts:
- At this point in time, podcast consumption behavior can generally be broken down along two tracks: you have listening directly off traditional computers, and you have listening off mobile devices — smartphones, tablets, portable devices, etc. — with the smartphone, I believe, being the core distribution point in this track. This setup is reflected in Edison Research’s studies on device usage among podcast listeners, which has thus far expressed a trend in which listening has shifted away from desktop toward mobile over the years. The emergence of smart speakers introduces a third track into the mix, and how listening behavior gets reallocated between smartphones and smart speakers is going to be the dynamic to watch over time. Let’s see if podcast listening actually shifts toward smart speakers to the zero-sum detriment of smartphones (and desktop).
- Or perhaps there’s a more complex outcome: “podcast listening” doesn’t shift over, but non-music smart speaker audio content originates as a category of its own that locates “podcasting” as a specific phenomena within the Apple ecosystem. Should that be the case, we’re going to be awash with further taxonomical questions, which are both necessary and completely annoying.
- How will choices be made in this new smart speaker paradigm, and how will publishers express influence or jockey for attention in that new choice paradigm? I wrote about this line of inquiry last November, which came out of a reflection on Audioburst, a relatively new company that endeavors to be “Google, but for Audio,” and the “Search to Suggest” thesis for audio computing use.
- There’s a whole other side to this question of choice: how will these smart speakers choose to bring in and orient non-music audio content within the user experience? Based on what’s already been happening, it occurs to me that we’re going to see a dramatic reliance on platforms: not just Spotify, TuneIn, Pandora, and iHeartRadio (pending whatever’s going on with their counts, more on that later) as curation portals of podcast publishers spanning indies to major organizations, but also organizations big and prominent enough to develop their own apps for these devices, like NPR and The New York Times. Should “podcast listening” indeed spill into the smart speaker ecosystem, we’re bound to see this platform-conflict dynamic play itself out once again. Unless, of course, we see one such platform adopt a distinctly Apple-like, hands-off, semi-open middleman approach as we have historically seen between Apple, its iTunes architecture, and the early-to-mid stage podcast community.
- There is also, of course, the possibility that smart speaker operators will themselves make choices about primary content distribution. An example of this: Apple readying an audio news feature for its upcoming HomePod release that delivers content from the Washington Post by default — see: the power of defaults — though HomePod owners have the option to switch off to Fox News, CNN, or NPR.
This is all to say that it’s unclear to me whether the podcast medium’s relative openness will be retained should there be a considerable listening shift toward smart speakers. Just a thought.
One more thing: what’s wild about all of this is how much this echoes the dynamics, structures, and limitations that exists in the fight for the automobile media dashboard.
[insert super casual segue here]
They see me rollin’. This one’s a little late, but it’s worth tying into the previous item, given thematic linkage. At the end of December, General Motors announced that it was rolling out in-car podcast availability for some of its newer models, a fleet size that reportedly numbers around a million cars. This is slightly less noteworthy than it sounds.
To begin with: only a few podcast publishers were given the opportunity to develop their own apps for distribution content in these cars, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox Sports, and USA Today. These publisher-specific apps join an in-car media ecosystem that already includes more general audio distribution platforms like Spotify and iHeartRadio, many of which have steadily increased their own capacities as podcast distributors over the past few years. The question worth asking is whether this addition features a substantial step up for greater listening ease: after all, car owners could long consume podcasts during their drives if they were willing to fiddle around with various Bluetooth setups or mobile device platform integrations like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The automobile media dashboard is an overwhelming point of interest for audio publishers of all stripes, as it is a site that pits traditional broadcast airwaves against satellite radio against Internet radio streams against on-demand audio. But the fundamental dynamic of this conflict lies in how car media incumbents have long held a structural advantage due to the considerable amount of time it takes for car ownership to turn over, as well as the fact that the car is essentially a choke-point where consumer preferences over relatively minute design choices (like media options) are still superseded by preferences established in corporate relationships. As such, it is also a glacial, protracted fight, one that can be hard to keep track of but that portends considerable gains.
Then again, one could also argue that it’s a fight that might not end up meaning all that much at the end of the day, given the possibility of self-driving cars which, according to some, are coming faster than you think. (Knife-wielding robot dogs notwithstanding.) Oh well.
Some fun facts I found while I was poking around on this story: according to a 2016 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, American drivers spend an average of more than 17,600 minutes behind the wheel each year. This could be further contextualized within a broader trend of lengthening commute times; according to a Washington Post analysis of U.S. Census data, the average American commute increased by nearly 20 percent between 1980 and 2014.
Gimlet furthers its brand ambitions. Gimlet really wants to break out into something much bigger, huh? To that end, the Brooklyn-based podcast company has hired its first Chief Marketing Officer: Jenny Wall, who served as Hulu’s SVP and head of marketing for three years before exiting the streaming service last May.
At Hulu, Wall oversaw the launches of Hulu’s own original shows, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Difficult People, and Casual, in addition to the service’s commercial-free offering and Live TV bundle. She joined the company in 2014 from Netflix, where she built brand and promotional campaigns for its initial slate of original programming that includes House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the Arrested Development revival season.
Wall’s considerable expertise building campaigns around original programming for streaming platforms, as well as what appears to be a penchant for working at companies that aggressively grapple with rapidly evolving distribution, branding, and monetization models, make this hire an utterly compelling development. One imagines that she’ll bring her experiences to bear on Gimlet’s ambitions toward becoming the so-called “HBO of Audio” — oh, here’s another fun fact: earlier in her career, Wall worked on the famed “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” campaign — and, in the process, perhaps write the initial playbook for podcast companies looking to elevate beyond a scrappy, independent vibe into… well, something else entirely.
This recruitment comes about a month after Gimlet’s last round of high-level hire announcements. In December, the company brought on a new head of fiction, a new editor, and a new head of product.
While we’re talking prestige TV… This is podcast-adjacent, but whatever: Apple, in pursuit of a formidable TV strategy to measure up against Netflix and Hulu, is commissioning an original TV show based on Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel Are You Sleeping, which is about a true crime podcast gone viral. The novel is said to be conceptually interested in the country’s relationship with true crime and true crime podcasts, along with how public performances of journalism blur the lines of entertainment and ethics. On the one hand, you could say it’s a work of fiction that explores the complexities of podcast phenomena that extend from Serial to Missing Richard Simmons to Up and Vanished. But on the other hand, it sounds like an examination that could be broadened out and applied to so many other forms of journalism as well.
Anyway, some noteworthy details about the TV project: Octavia Spencer is set to star, Serial Productions’ Sarah Koenig is set to consult, and Reese Witherspoon is set to executive produce. This project further serves to grow Witherspoon’s footprint as a powerful Hollywood producer, a role that she has been cultivating through her production company Hello Sunshine. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Are You Sleeping is “the first development project to land at Apple, which previously commissioned three straight-to-series orders.” It’s also the second project between Witherspoon and Apple.
I haven’t read Are You Sleeping yet, but I suppose its existence — along with the constellations of ingredients that make up the TV project around it — could perhaps be interpreted as some further evidence toward the notion that true crime, as a genre, is truly podcasting’s beating, bloody heart. At least, at this point in time.
And a little bonus: Kathleen Barber was a guest on WAMU’s The Big Listen, the station’s podcast-broadcast about podcasts and beyond, back in September to talk about the book.
NPR outlook. “The thing that hovers over all of this is our desire for our audio to be everywhere,” Neal Carruth, the public radio mothership’s GM of podcasts, told me. “But also to have experiences be properly tailored for each of those new platforms.”
Yeah, yeah. I know. Look, I hear the complaints that I write too much about NPR. (And Gimlet, and Panoply, and Midroll, and The New York Times, and even Night Vale Presents, which is weird.) But come on. NPR is a distinctly complex problem to think through: how does the organization balance the responsibilities of serving a broader multi-sided system and weather a shifting environment that radically changes the terms of your original responsibilities while continuing to operate at the highest possible level? It’s fascinating!
Anyway, I recently spoke to Carruth about his view on NPR’s podcast division in the coming year, and from our conversation, it struck me that you could broadly organize the strategy into four discrete parts:
- Develop and launch new projects (though Carruth declined to say with any certainty what the volume and nature of those rollouts will look like this year);
- Continue supporting and expanding existing podcast properties;
- Experiment with new forms and distribution models, including over voice-activated platforms;
- Explore and operationalize new ways for individual member stations to extract value from successful podcast products.
You can see many of these goals at play in a few moves that NPR has been executing in and around the turn of the new year. They include:
(1) Wrapping up a podcast-fronted donation referral campaign, in which NPR podcasts were weaponized to urge listeners to contribute to their local radio stations — an initiative that more overtly reflects how the value of NPR’s podcast gains can trickle down to the rest of the system.
(2) Completing the full roll-out of the Planet Money spin-off known as The Indicator, which now publishes episodes daily with Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia on hosting duties.
(3) Expanding Embedded, its investigative podcast series, a move that includes Kelly McEvers stepping down as co-host on All Things Considered to focus on Embedded full-time, as well as growing the production team. “We’re still in the process of figuring out what Embedded 2.0 is going to look like,” Carruth said, adding that they’re looking to add managing producer and another producer to its ranks. “The hope is to create a premier platform for deep-dive, investigative storytelling.” I think we’ve seen a good bit of that evolution already. Last year, Embedded switched its format from the classic documentary anthology structure — with each episode covering a different story — into mini-season-long thematic dives, between its examination of police videos in February and the Trump universe in October, November, and a little more in the coming weeks.
All this raises the question: what, exactly, is NPR’s mandate for its podcast team? Sure, the public radio mothership has to keep pumping out programming and new projects — a major news organization, after all, is built on its consistency, presence, and industriousness — but are they also incentivized to, say, spawn blockbusters and create the next S-Town?
Carruth seems to lean away from that. “Obviously, you want shows to be successful and you want them to find their audience,” he said. “Success doesn’t necessarily mean a giant audience for every show. In some cases, we’re trying to find new audiences, whether it’s a younger segment or a more diverse segment. Sometimes it’s just a longer play that you need patience to see through to the benefits.” Invisibilia’s wildly successful and attention-grabbing debut season seems so long ago.
I suppose it’s worth remembering that the organization’s operational imperatives remain rooted in its defining condition: its relationship to the broader ecosystem of local public radio stations. To that end, NPR appears focused on ensuring that its podcasting gains can be systematically drawn and quartered for equitable value dispersion across that network. And they have been doing this: Carruth points to podcasts that were later adapted into full broadcast offerings for radio stations (It’s Been a Minute is a good example) and podcasts whose individual reports were later repackaged as segments for news magazines.
From this vantage point, all of NPR’s podcasting wins and wonder seem to fall from being able to satisfy that complex, multi-part structure in the steadiest way possible. Flashiness is harder to come by in this particular challenge, but perhaps succeeding stylishly isn’t exactly the point.
Speaking of The Indicator… This year will mark the tenth anniversary of Planet Money, which, as some might remember, originated from a reporting project developed during the Great Recession to accessibly explain just what the hell was happening to the world around us. That project, which was called “The Giant Pool of Money,” was produced by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson for This American Life, and its success spring-boarded the duo towards the creation of Planet Money at NPR. In those early days, the podcast published daily, and some of its episodes featured a much-beloved segment called “The Indicator.”
Blumberg and Davidson have since left Planet Money for other pursuits. (Blumberg, of course, went to found Gimlet Media, while Davidson now serves as a staff writer at The New Yorker.) Ten years on, and Planet Money is still delivering a steady stream of tightly produced explainers about the economy. The show has published well over 800 episodes, and its current hosting roster includes the talents of Ailsa Chang, Jacob Goldstein, Kenny Malone, Noel King, and Robert Smith, with managing producer Alex Goldmark leading the charge. Per NPR’s internal analytics tool Splunk, the podcast averages a weekly audience of 1 million users.
Spinning off The Indicator marks a rare structural innovation for the long-running operation, and its daily bite-sized format suggests a distinctly modern orientation, given the increasing preponderance of daily new podcasts. That said, Carruth doesn’t necessarily view The Indicator as part of that cohort. “We think of it more as a daily insight show,” he said. While editorially alive to the news cycle around it, The Indicator is said to gesture more toward the temporal sweet spot between newsiness and an evergreen disposition.
Anyway: Mazel tov, Planet Money!
What’s going on with Podtrac? This is a sticky one. Last Tuesday, the Australian radio analyst James Cridland published an article on his Podnews.net blog that investigated a curious question: “Is iHeartMedia really the leader in ‘snackable’ podcasts?” Podtrac, the podcast measurement company, had just added a new short-form category to its set of industry rankers, and iHeartMedia had, quite improbably, populated seven out of ten spots on the debut list.
Cridland’s examination ultimately found that iHeartMedia’s presence on Podtrac’s charts — not just its “snackable” category, but on all lists — had greatly benefited from a methodological discrepancy. “We’ve discovered that Podtrac’s measurement hasn’t been measuring listening, but something else entirely: the total pageviews for all of iHeartMedia’s 850 radio stations,” he wrote. The crux of the problem seems to hinge on iHeartMedia’s liberal use of embedded players throughout its considerable affiliate website ecosystem. Those players automatically pre-load audio files by default, and in doing so, inadvertently register as a count by Podtrac’s measurement system whether or not a real human actually clicks and listens. Cridland concludes, then, that it’s theoretically possible for podcasts to chart highly without actually being consumed, and that iHeartMedia’s podcast figures as a result are highly overstated. You should check out the post in full, as Cridland walks through the technical components of his examination.
Podtrac has since revised its rankings, removing iHeartMedia from the lists entirely. On its blog, the company briefly discussed the revision, noting that iHeartMedia’s use of preloads on its website players was inconsistent with IAB measurement guidelines.
“We were not aware of the pre-loading behavior of the iHeart affiliate site web players,” Velvet Beard, Podtrac’s VP of analytics, told me. “While we have had algorithms in place to identify anomalies in the download data we see, we have put into place new procedures including those to identify situations where an inordinate amount of traffic comes from websites which will alert us to this situation in the future.”
When I reached out to iHeartMedia SVP of podcasting Chris Peterson, he wrote: “We are working through with Podtrac what constitutes listening, because we have so many platforms and so many ways that listeners come to podcasts that other companies don’t have available. Given our audience size and unique platforms we need to determine with them the best way to fairly capture our total listening usage and ensure it fits their criteria.”
The two are currently assessing the situation, and how to move forward.
In October, Podtrac’s public publisher ranker listed iHeartMedia in the second spot under NPR, where the company was described to reach slightly under 9 million monthly unique U.S. listeners and over 33.5 million unique global downloads over a whopping 525 shows. It is unclear what iHeartMedia’s actual podcast reach will look like after accounting for the embedded player pre-loads.
A couple of things on this:
- This incident is pretty embarrassing for both companies, but particularly so for Podtrac. The company’s industry rankers have already long been the subject of skepticism — I wrote about the core problems when they first launched in 2016, which mostly had to do with their incomplete sampling of the industry as a whole, and expressed confusion over iHeartMedia’s improbable presence in the ranker back in November — but the fact that Podtrac missed what could be charitably phrased as an inadvertent gaming of its system raises questions over its technical acumen, particularly given its core work of verifying downloads in the space. Yikes.
- Podtrac’s rankers matter, whether we like it or not. Beyond the Apple Podcast charts, they remain one of the very few sources of public information and representation giving some semblance of shape to the podcast industry. They further serve as raw research material for newer or casual patrons of the space — be they listeners or advertisers — who hope to get a sense of its shape, size, and order. It’s also worth noting that high placement on the chart has historically served as ammunition for podcast publishers looking to seed press mentions. Case in point: in a November Axios article, iHeartMedia’s second spot placement on the Podtrac ranker was deployed as substantive detail in the company’s bid to be position its “Middle America”-facing original programming slate. Without the perceived credibility stemming from that Podtrac ranker placement, it’s debatable whether that story would have actually earned its newsworthiness.
- The core need remains the same: some service that helps publishers, advertisers, listeners, and beyond develop a better sense of whether a show or a network that says it’s big is actually what it says it is. In other words, we still very much have a need for a systemic check on potential misrepresentation, inadvertent or otherwise.
- Spotify has reportedly filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange, but is losing its chief content officer in the run-up (Bloomberg, Recode). The service also apparently has 70 million paid subscribers. (Twitter) What does Spotify going public mean? I found Lucas Shaw’s take in his Hollywood Torrent newsletter pretty useful.
- Over at the Financial Times, Shannon Bond’s latest looks at the children’s podcast market: “Podcasts for children boom but profits are still in their infancy.” (FT)
- This is wild: “The Weird World of Trump-Themed Podcasts.” (Politico Magazine)
- Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company is playing around with the possibility of distributing recordings of some performances through a podcast feed. (CBC)
- Later this year, Night Vale Presents expects to see the return of Alice Isn’t Dead (spring), Conversations with People Who Hate Me (spring), Within the Wires (fall), and The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air).
- Stitcher’s First Day Back is at work on its third season, but will be releasing a limited-run interview series called First Day Back Conversations.
- WNYC’s Nancy and Sooo Many White Guys will return for new seasons in the first half of the year.
- Just a quick plug for Boise State Public Radio getting on that Hearken train. I friggin’ love this city, and “Wanna Know About Idaho” is a gem.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 133, published August 22, 2017.
The daily show. If The New York Times’ The Daily and NPR’s Up First — taken collectively as, like, an index fund of the daily news podcast construct writ large — have taught us anything, it’s that there’s a market for such an audio product — at least for one that’s done smartly, thoroughly, and in a way that brings the weight of legendary newsrooms to bear.
The successes of these two operations have been nothing short of impressive. As you might remember from this Vanity Fair feature that dropped last month, The Daily is now averaging half a million downloads per day, a feat made even more remarkable given that the thing launched in February. As for Up First, NPR tells me that it’s reaching a weekly unique audience of almost a million users; that show launched in April. (The differences in metric might make an apples-to-apples comparison complicated for those interesting in doing so — but I think the victor is pretty clear.) Between the two shows — three if you count the offbeat entry from The Outline, but you shouldn’t, because it’s doing something completely different — you could argue that the daily news podcast space is more or less defined now, with the broad major players set well in place.
We’ll soon find out the extent to which that is true with a new entrant, one significantly different from the two incumbents in many key ways. Last week, I led the newsletter with word that Vox Media is working with Midroll Media to create a daily news podcast. That show will be supported by a six-person team, housed under the Vox.com banner, and will hopefully launch in early 2018. The search for the host and executive producer is on, with the job postings going up shortly after the initial news drop. (Here and here, if you’re wondering.)
I can’t say I’m surprised by the news. Vox Media has long exhibited a deep interest in the on-demand audio space, and the organization has proven to be consistently effective in its experimentation and increasingly formalized in its machinations: initially developing working relationships with multiple companies across the industry, deploying different arrangements for different podcasts between brands, eventually hiring an executive producer to oversee the entire operation, and finally inching towards consolidation. (Vox.com’s The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, whose productions were once handled by Panoply, were recently moved in-house.) This move to get into the daily news podcast fight seems a logical next step in Vox Media’s ambitions, even more so given the genre’s newfound prestige and rising prominence as the place to blaze some trails.
Where the Times and NPR are legacy entities with the weights and advantages of history behind them, Vox Media is young, emergent, and digitally native. Which, you know, kinda makes it unclear whether the latter will have any weight to bear or if this will be a pure deadlift. But then again, the critique against legacy entities has always been that they’re comparatively slow and lumbering. In any case, there’s a lot to consider with this bubbling development, and me, I’m mostly thinking about two things: time and talent.
Time. There’s something that the job description doesn’t note that I find eminently interesting: whether the podcast will cater to the morning or evening commute. This, in my mind, is the most interesting, if not the biggest, strategic question. My gut (which is by no means a reputable or scientific source) tells me that there’s some meaningful overlap in audience between The New York Times and Vox.com, and so I imagine if Vox were to pursue the morning news route they would be putting a good portion of their target audience in the position of having to choose between The Daily and its new audio product. Whether that outcome is suboptimal is worth weighing; on the one hand, Vox’s product starts off in a position of working to cull from the former’s base, and on the other hand, you might have a situation where Vox’s new product rubs up against the work of having to interrupt a habit that’s been cultivated as far back as possibly February.
One could assume the position that the daily-news-podcast-consuming audience — with its voracious appetite for news — would want more than one daily news podcast in their morning routine. But to play to that base is to set hard ceilings off the bat. Such a news consumer is a highly specific creature, the theoretical opposite of a general consumer — which is fine if that’s the intention, but there’s only so far you can go unless the broader strategy is to foster a new, bigger generation of news obsessive. (Again, if that’s the plan, fantastic.) Further, as a matter of programming, aiming to be the second in a morning rotation means having to prevent a sense of repetition.
But let’s say the strategic premise of developing another daily morning news podcast is to carve out a new audience, separate and apart from what’s already been built with The Daily and Up First. What competitive traits do you need to guarantee? You would, at the very least, require that your brand means something distinct (and perhaps meaningfully separate) from those of The New York Times and NPR, such that the brands do not overlap. (Is that possible, or even desirable? The question is worth entertaining.) You would also have to develop a mastery over podcast audience development channels that aren’t already over-exploited; would plastering house ads over Vox Media’s various brands be enough in forming a new base audience for the podcast?
Anyway, this is all a longwinded way of saying: At this moment, there’s more upside than downside to making a move for the evening commute. It’s a different kind of game, sure, but the end-of-the-work-day news roundup (the All Things Considered slot, essentially) is still unclaimed territory in podcast-land. (Though, I suppose, you’d still have to account for Slate’s The Gist, which can technically be sorted as a news podcast but is truly more of a magazine.)
Before I move on, there’s something else I’m wondering: Will the competitive environment of the daily morning news podcast function more like the morning TV arena — in that program-audience relationships are more or less exclusive and fixed — or will it be a little more fluid, like how multiple physical newspapers can fit into a morning media diet? I hope it’s more the former, and if so, someone better get moving on writing Top of the Morning, but for podcasts.
Talent. From the official job listing:
As we envision it, the host of this show will be the audience’s guide and champion — asking the questions they would ask, having the conversations they want to have, channeling the curiosity they feel. You are their smart, enthusiastic, skeptical friend — not their boring professor. To that end, we are relying on the host to have a strong point of view on the world, to see unusual angles and interesting stories everywhere, and to be genuinely, joyously interested in pretty much everything.
Big job, big ask, eh? My queries, right off the bat: Will Vox.com bring in a relatively experienced talent, perhaps from an established radio or podcast team, or will they elevate someone from in-house that may be less proven in front of the mic? (Or will they perhaps bring in an untested outsider with some measure of celebrity? Totally valid option, let’s be real.) Who will be the non-Ezra Klein sound of Vox.com, which is essentially what this amounts to?
Also, side question: How will they test the hire? The Daily’s Michael Barbaro, after all, was able to cut his teeth with the comparatively low stakes The Run-Up, and NPR never really had to deal with that question — after all, Up First was basically just a straightforward adaptation of the built-in Morning Edition operation, no talent testing required.
There’s so much potential here, and there’s a whole lot of room to assemble a really cool voice and vision with this gig. (And the opportunity for host-producer superteams! Man.) Anyway, I’m excited, obviously, I’ll be tracking this story closely. Who will be the anti-Barbaro? Send me your ideas, let’s place some bets, I’m all ears. (Speaking of which, the dude now has, like, two published appreciations: The New Yorker and BuzzFeed. This is getting out of control.)
More on Up First. In their response to my queries for the previous item, NPR also shared the following data points: A survey of Up First’s audience shows that 61 percent of its listeners are under 35, which is said to be younger than NPR’s overall podcast audience, and that 44 percent of the podcast’s listeners have never listened to Morning Edition. Further, 97 percent of the audience report that the podcast is “part of their morning routine” and 80 percent report that “they listen every day.”
Radiotopia’s Millennial has come to an end, creator Megan Tan announced in a final dispatch that dropped last Wednesday. The reason, we’re told, has to do a lot with the difficulty of sustainably maintaining the show’s unique diaristic format — Millennial is, was, for a long time, the first-person account of a life — and grappling with the podcast’s shifting identity when Tan made the decision to open the show up in scope after it was picked up by Radiotopia last May.
“Maintaining a memoir-style show is difficult,” she explained to me over email. “Even as Millennial transitioned from Season One’s linear narrative of my life to other people’s stories, we still had to tie each episode back to me personally. Finding ways to create a personal throughline to each episode with an emotional tie became taxing and wasn’t always possible…at a certain point, the more we problem-solved the production of the show, the more it felt like Millennial’s identity started to blur. When those two factors started to come to a head, it made sense for me to end the show.”
Millennial is the first Radiotopia show to officially cease production since the podcast collective’s launch in February 2014. The show’s closure also technically means that Tan is no longer with Radiotopia, though the possibility for future collaborations exists. As for what comes next, she tells me: “Being an independent podcaster in many ways is extremely lonely. My next steps are to find a team of people to work with and help contribute to a show. Right now, I’m casting a wide net and exploring a lot of different opportunities.”
Third Coast adds a new component to its programming. Tomorrow, the organization will announce a new public-facing live event series that will accompany its usual producer-focused conference. “The Fest,” as it’s called, will take place in Chicago, of course, and the programming slate will span across a two-week period in November. Its inaugural lineup will include live shows from Love+Radio, Re:sound, Reveal, and Longform, with more to come.
“To us, it’s the perfect scenario: A conference that hones producers’ talent alongside a public festival of live events, together making Chicago the epicenter of the audio storytelling world for two weeks in November,” the team tells me. “We’re excited to flex our Third Coast curatorial muscles to gather audiences for story-based podcasts that were nurtured over the years at our very own conference.”
The Fest’s website will launch tomorrow, so watch for that, and by the way, registration for this year’s conference opens today.
Alice Isn’t Dead gets adaptation deals. The Night Vale team is no stranger to book publishing, with two novels (Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, It Devours) and one episode collection (Mostly Void, Partially Stars) under their belt. Last week, they announced a new addition to their list of book projects: Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink’s creepy road-trip audio drama about a truck driver in search of her wife, will now be a novel as well. Fink notes that the book will feature a new story “built on the same bones,” and it’s scheduled to drop next fall. The audio drama is also getting a TV adaptation, which will be Night Vale Presents’ first. That project is being developed by Universal Cable Productions for USA Network, though no specific dates are attached to it just yet.
The steady drumbeat of podcast-to-TV adaptations rumbles on.
Gatekeepers, demographics, a production studio. “It’s not a democratic process at all,” wrote Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, CEO of the newly formed production company Lantigua Williams & Co., when I asked for her thoughts on whether the podcast industry has gatekeepers. “The major distributors make themselves de facto gatekeepers by selecting what they distribute…Big media companies with deep pockets also crowd the field by using their megaphones to promote passable content and drowns out new voices in the process.”
She continued: “So much of what is being created now is still geared to the standard media audience: a middle-class white person living in a suburb. That is the media consumer from the past, and creators — especially Latino and other people of color — must orient their work towards the audience of the future: an educated middle-class woman of color living in a midsize city. She’s the future.”
Lantigua-Williams is a 17-year media veteran, having operated as an editor, writer, and syndicated columnist for various organizations including The Atlantic and National Journal. Most recently, she served as the lead producer and editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, roles she held until June when she decided to leave and start her own venture. She describes Lantigua Williams & Co. as a production company, one that’s dedicated to “partner with people and organizations to produce work that has a clear social justice thread using radio, digital, and visual media.” Since launch, the company has assembled a solid initial string of clients, including: Latino USA, a project called Protégé Podcast (which examines people of color in corporate America), and various independent film projects.
I originally got in touch with Lantigua-Williams when she sent me a pitch arguing that “podcasts are the perfect medium for Latinos to truly break into media and forego the traditional loops associated with establishment media.” When I followed up, she provided a response worth running in full:
As with most worthwhile endeavors, a good podcast starts off as a good idea that sprouts at the intersection of knowledge and storytelling. You have to figure out something that is worth knowing and worth sharing and find the most compelling way to bring it to an audience that has too many choices.
Latinos, because of our long history in the U.S.; because of how vociferous we have been about asserting our right to belong here; because of the continuous flow of Latinos and our ideas into and throughout the country; because we are the youngest population cohort in the country (60,000 of us turn 18 every single month); and because we will constitute the largest group in the ascending brown majority, are largely defining what it will mean to be American in the next century and beyond. What we eat, the sports we love, how we worship, how we spend our trillion-dollar portion of the economy, and ultimately how we define our hyphenated identity creates the most fertile ground for creatives with vision to amplify their version of life as in the U.S. now.
And podcasts are among the most cost-efficient media forms right now. With less than $1,000 in equipment and some savvy social media marketing, a good idea can flourish, and an original voice can be amplified by the masses.
For too long, Latinos have followed a very traditional path to success, the original formula dictated by the myth of the American Dream: We go to school, get a job, and wait to be promoted. That formula is outdated and outmoded. Billenials (as bilingual Latino millennials have been dubbed by Univision) can leapfrog the usual gatekeepers by using their natural high tech-adoption rates, advanced social media skills, and cross-cultural knowledge to tell rich and necessary stories beyond the fight at the border.
For more information, you can hit up the Lantigua Williams & Co. website here.
Career Spotlight. Let’s say you’re a young person looking for professional purpose, some idea of a future, so what do you do? You move cities, get closer to the action, grab some people, take whatever opportunities cross you by: internships, fellowships, freelance jobs here, there, anywhere. You cobble together whatever you can into the shape of a thing that could hopefully pass as a career. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to work a third or fourth gig to pay the bills. But that’s only if you’re lucky. And you wonder: Where is this all going? What does this all lead to? The answer, maybe, is always the same: Who knows, we’ll see.
This week, I traded emails with Alice Wilder, a young producer from the South in her early 20s.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Alice Wilder: Currently I’m the podcast/video intern for FiveThirtyEight. Really, I’m the podcast intern. Right now, my manager Galen Druke is working on a miniseries for the site, so I’ve been focusing mostly on that (transcribing tape, assembling sessions, scheduling interviews etc). I also work on the weekly politics podcast.
[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc thus far look like?[/conl]
[conr]Wilder: I would not have any type of “career arc” if it wasn’t for Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge, who let some random college girl transcribe tape for Criminal. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that I actually enjoyed transcribing tape, but listening to Phoebe interview is a masterclass and it gave me a deeper understanding of each story we did. I still miss logging tape for Criminal.
Then I asked if I could be an intern, and made a promise to myself that I would not say no to anything they asked of me. Lauren, Phoebe, and Nadia Wilson (our new producer!) are the best people to work for, they did not restrict me to typical intern tasks and took my thoughts (and pitches!) seriously, which means a lot when you’re an intern.
I stayed at Criminal for two years (I did not spend much time on homework for those years). When I graduated from UNC (Go Heels!) I moved to New York to start my internship at FiveThirtyEight. I’ll be here until early September, when I’ll start interning for Planet Money. I’m also starting a weekly(ish) newsletter for interns in the media industry. We don’t have access to much institutional power and I want to help build a network for jobs and career resources.[/conr]
[conl]HP: Being pretty early on in your work life, how do you think about your next steps? What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]Wilder: To me, a career means having health insurance. I really, really want health insurance. My initial thought going into my senior year of college was that I want to make radio in the South. I have roots in North Carolina and Louisiana and want to hear stories that come from those regions. I’m in New York right now because that’s where podcast jobs are. Eventually I’ll find a way to move back south.[/conr]
[conl]HP: When you started out, what did you think wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]Wilder: LOL. I thought I was going to be a social worker. For all of high school and the first two years of college I was very involved in local activism and centered my identity around being a Teen Feminist. My 15-year-old self would be horrified that I didn’t participate in the Women’s March. But I couldn’t, because doing so violated my employer’s policies on political action. Instead I spent that time dogsitting for a family that was going to the march.
I wrote columns for my college paper for two years, and that involved writing about myself a lot. Right after I had a bad experience (intense street harassment, reporting sexual assault, etc) I would turn around and publish it for thousands of people to read. I (finally) realized that writing about something and sharing it with the world is not the same as actually processing it. So I stopped the column, did that processing, and used the platform I had built at the newspaper to tell other people’s stories.
The best lesson I learned about having a career in this field, I learned from Phoebe Judge. She gave a workshop at The Daily Tar Heel and told us that there’s not just one route to having a fulfilling career. You don’t have to major in journalism, intern for The Washington Post or NPR, and go straight to a big name publication after college. At the time, it felt like all my peers were taking that route and I felt like it was already too late for me. It was such a relief to hear that there are so many paths that can lead to a great career, and they don’t always involve having The New York Times on your resume by the time you turn 22.[/conr]
You can find Wilder on Twitter at @Alice_Wilder.
- “How public radio is using Amazon’s smart speakers.” (Current) Note that none of the three stations profiled in this piece “has had more than a few hundred unique listeners on the platform” and “St. Louis Public Radio saw about 6,000 plays on Alexa devices from some 500 unique customers from late January to mid-June.” Also, do pair this article with: “Why The Amazon Echo Show Won’t Bring Up Charlottesville (Or Bad News In General).” (Fast Company)
- TuneIn has raised $50 million to expand its programming portfolio, Bloomberg reports. “TuneIn will use the money to pay for rights to live sporting events and original programming like podcasts and music shows, which will help the company sign up more customers for a two-year-old subscription service.” (Bloomberg)
- This is curious, and generally consistent with RadioPublic’s principal thesis: the podcast playing platform is now “the only universal embed whitelisted on WordPress and Medium that works with any podcast hosting solution,” as CEO Jake Shapiro tells me. (WordPress Blog)
- Apple is moving its iTunes U collection, its audio-visual repository of free educational content, into the Podcasts ecosystem with the upcoming iTunes 12.7 update that will drop in September. A bit crowded in there, huh? Here’s the official statement on the matter, and here’s some analysis from MacStories. Fun fact: iTunes U is the old haunt of Steve Wilson, the former editorial gatekeeper for Apple Podcasts (now the division’s first marketing lead).
[photocredit]Photo of evening commute on Highway 85 in San Jose, California by Travis Wise used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 122, published June 6, 2017.
I sunk a lot of hours this weekend trying to write a column on “Peak Podcasting,” following some inspiration from a tweet by the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary — which speaks to a broad feeling that I’ve been seeing a lot of — but I’m going to postpone that discussion to next week. For now, let’s talk WWDC, Gimlet, and JSON.
How will we know when we hit peak podcast?— Lizzie O'Leary (@lizzieohreally) June 2, 2017
WWDC. The big Apple developer’s conference — which serves as a periodic hub for major product and upgrade announcements from the tech colossus — started in San Jose yesterday, and there are two big things you probably need to know.
(1) We’re getting a redesigned Podcasts app that’ll come with the announced iOS 11 update. Official details are scant at the moment, and while your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit, there are a couple of screenshots of the new app floating about from this thread, which also hint at potential upcoming livestreaming tool support. Meanwhile, on the WWDC schedule, there’s an Apple Podcasts session due to take place on Friday, and it notes in the description: “iOS 11 upgrades the Apple Podcasts app to support to new feed structures for serialized shows.” From screenshots coming out of Twitter, it looks as if this in part means bundling by season, and providing a little more control over how episodes are presented to listeners over the feed. (It’s the small stuff that goes a really long way.)
As a sidenote, it’s notable that these changes seem to be particularly focused on better serving serialized shows, to the point it even shows up in the official language. Such shows — like Serial, S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on — do tend to be the medium’s breakout hits, though they are merely one of many show structures that exist in the space. Anyway, there’s probably a lot more to come on this; I’ll be on the lookout.
The iOS 11 update is scheduled to drop sometime this fall, alongside the new iPhone.
(2) You might already be aware of this, given that it was the closer: Apple finally unveiled its own foray into smart speakers, which comes in the form of a bulbous appliance rather awkwardly called the HomePod. (Apropos of nothing, it might time to rename this newsletter. I’m taking suggestions.)
It goes without saying that Apple finally breaking into the smart speaker category — and bringing with it the full body of its media ecosystem — is a big, chunky story with a lot to parse out. Now, I’m no technology journalist, but I will say that I’m deeply curious to see how Apple’s move here will add competition to the market currently dominated by the Amazon Echo. Some indicators suggest that Amazon has built a pretty far lead in this category with its line of fairly affordable smart speakers, and given the fact that Apple’s HomePod is priced at $349 to start (for reference, the Echo Dot goes for about $50), it seems as if Apple will be sliding into the market on the luxury end and will at least initially play more toward its moneyed base, which was more or less what it did with the smartphone. While it’s understandable to replicate that move, it does mean that whatever improvements the smart speaker brings to the podcast listening experience — and whatever listening gains for publishers and podcasters might come from it — we’re probably not going to be seeing much of a substantial broadening of the active listening base from a demographic perspective, at least not initially. Indeed, if anything, we’re probably going to see a deepening within the category of audiences already predisposed to podcasts.
Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to think through the big picture here: The higher aspirational register for this emerging set of products is the seeding of an audio-first computing experience, one of the alternative beachfronts for the “ambient computing” version of the consumer tech future highlighted in Walt Mossberg’s final column. To play this out further, the long-term structural value that this potential shift brings is one that ultimately liberates the growth trajectory of on-demand audio content from being principally tethered to the mobile device toward a trajectory that extends across whatever vessels audio-first computing is going to be channeled through in the future.
All right, that’s a whole lot of horizon-staring chin-stroking, so let’s kick it back a notch and talk present-day industry scuttlebutt. (Read the Nieman Lab writeup if you’re looking for more keynote takeaways for publishers.)
Gimlet makes a curious acquisition. In what is probably a sign of the times, Gimlet announced this week that it’s bringing on a new show from outside its trendy Gowanus walls: The Pitch, which is basically Shark Tank but a podcast. The show is made and hosted by Josh Muccio, a Florida-based entrepreneur.
The Pitch was first published in 2015, when Muccio developed the show in partnership with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sheel Mohnot. The show was able to carve out a niche audience during its initial run, and as the story goes, after the first season, Muccio decided to take it in a different direction, redeveloping the concept and raising a small production team around the enterprise that included, among others, Devon Taylor, a freelancer who worked on Radiotopia’s Millennial.
Muccio shopped the second season around different networks — a common practice these days, in case you weren’t aware — before Gimlet ultimately moved to pick it up. That happened earlier this year, and I’m told that the acquisition process took about three weeks after Gimlet officially expressed interest in the project. As part of the deal, Muccio joined the company full time in early March, and Taylor, who by the way cofounded the now defunct podcast review site The Timbre (R.I.P.), was brought in full time as well.
The Pitch marks the first independent podcast that Gimlet has absorbed into its ranks, though it isn’t the company’s first acquisition. (The network brought over Science Vs, along with host Wendy Zukerman, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year.) In many ways, it’s a bit of an unexpected addition for the nearly three-year-old company, which has thus far built a strong reputation off a portfolio of highly produced, narrative-driven programming — you know, the kind of stuff you’d lump into a pile with This American Life and 99% Invisible. The Pitch feels considerably different from the rest of Gimlet’s portfolio…though, if pressed, I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. I quite enjoy the podcast, but I have a bit of trouble seeing how it fits into the Gimlet brand and house sound. And as I dig deeper into my gut reaction to the news, I can’t quite tell whether my response says more about my prejudices about reality programming — which I have a distinct palate for, by the way, one that I keep separate from the rest of my entertainment diet — or my own conceptions of what the Gimlet house style is supposed to be.
Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet, appears to hold a broader definition of that house style than I do. “I think it’s pretty consistent with our strategy,” he said when we spoke by phone Monday. Gimlet shows, according to Lieber, are largely defined by, among other things, a sense of curiosity, high production quality, and a strong point of view — all things, he argues, that The Pitch shares. Plus, the ambition of the whole reality programming dimension, and how it mingles with these core Gimlet principles, is a big part of what drew Gimlet to the project. “It combines the best of reality TV — that tension and excitement — and the best of narrative storytelling,” Lieber said. “Reality has always been a category we’ve been intrigued by. If you think about it, the first season of StartUp had some of those qualities.”
That StartUp connection, I think, is pretty meaningful. One way of reading the company’s history is to see it as having built an initial core audience off a show, StartUp, that appeals to those who are drawn to stories about entrepreneurship and technology. From this position, The Pitch, then, is an expansion of that genre offering within Gimlet’s portfolio, one that deepens the available product range for the entrepreneurship-oriented audience — and, subsequently, its extractable value for advertisers. Think about the kinds of people who listen to StartUp and podcasts about entrepreneurship, and then think about the types of advertisers who value that set of ears, and then think about capitalism and the resulting CPM rate. (Speaking of which, I’d love to tie NPR’s How I Built This into this somehow.)
One more thing before I move on. I was curious as to why Muccio decided to move onto a network, why he eschewed independence. Here’s his response:
1. The #1 way people find out about podcasts is on other podcasts. So the right network presents an opportunity for audience growth that would take years to build as an independent.
2. Advertising. Some networks have horrible CPMs and are known for really bad ads. But Gimlet is not one of them. They’re one of the best in the biz. If not the best. We sold our own ads for The Pitch. It’s really REALLY hard to do well. This wasn’t an area I was willing to compromise so I’m lucky to be joining a network that is really crushing it on the advertising front. Bottom line? Ads on The Pitch are higher quality and more profitable.
3. Focus and specialization. I wore all the hats as an independent producer. I did pretty damn well considering, but still you can only be so good at any one thing when you have 50 other things you also need to be good at. Joining a network has allowed me to focus on building a great show, refining my skills as a host and building a team that can carry the vision of the show with me. Ultimately building something with a team of amazing people is more fulfilling to me than building something in a silo.
The Pitch debuts under new management on June 14. There will also be a crossover episode with the StartUp podcast on that day.
Side note. Deadline reported a new development on the upcoming Homecoming TV adaptation: Julia Roberts is currently in talks for the lead role, which was played by Catherine Keener in the podcast. The project looks like it’s still in its pretty early stages, so fans shouldn’t get too attached to the prospect of an adaptation just yet.
A directory, a list, a market. “Podcast discovery is broken,” goes the familiar critique, the opening gambit of most product pitches that hit my inbox. And it was as true two or three years ago as it is now — though as longtime readers might know, I’m wont to think of it mostly as a secondary issue, not one that’s fatally prohibitive to the long-term fate of the space. I imagine some will disagree. In any case, I still read every email that hits my inbox on the matter.
The latest of such gambits is something called PodSearch, and there is some reason to pay attention here. A project of Patty and Dave Newmark, proprietors of Newmark Advertising and longtime audio advertising operatives with strong relationships on the advertising side of the industry, PodSearch boasts a premise that’s so straightforward as to be blunt: It’s the Yellow Pages, but for podcasts.
There isn’t a ton about PodSearch that’s interesting from a design perspective, particularly on the business-to-consumer side. A lot of its touted features — search, personalization, top-show categorizations — are table stakes as far as digital products in 2017 are concerned, and there are some things about the interface that create an unnecessarily high level of friction for potential users, like requiring visitors to make an account before being to actually use the platform.
I see the theoretical value of the product for consumers, of course. Having a consolidated point of reference for the whole space that’s marginally more organized than Apple Podcasts (née iTunes) is nice, though perhaps not quite the drop of water in the desert it’s made out to be, and I’m partial to the view that more competition on the directory and search portal-level is always good for podcast discovery. However, execution matters more than ideas, as the old adage goes, and there’s a long road ahead for PodSearch to make a good first impression. (And second, and third, and fourteenth.)
That said, here are two things to consider:
(1) PodSearch has potential to create genuine value for advertisers. In researching this story, a few people brought up the way in which it might quietly solve a discovery problem of another kind: Advertisers and agencies, I’m told, currently have to do a fair bit of manual digging around to generate a list of podcasts (and their respective contact information for sponsorship inquiries) to potentially buy spots off, and so a directory that’s able to provide an easily digestible serving of the menu on offer, with the relevant contact information, would be useful for this community. And given the Newmarks’ expertise and history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re able to create a decent market on the advertiser side of the equation.
(2) One way that PodSearch is interesting to me is how it can serve as a vessel to get the most utility out of search engines for its listed podcasts writ large. When I spoke with Dave last week, he spoke of a meaningful volume search queries for terms relating to podcasts on a general level — “What is a podcast?”, “How do I listen to one?”, and so on — and how there isn’t much incentive for individual publishers to aggressively capitalize on those generic paid search terms. And so, by assuming the position of a wholesale podcast directory, PodSearch is able to make those spends on behalf of publishers and extract value from those broad queries for its listing participants. There’s a lot of juice in this fruit, and I’m compelled to see if the utility here can be appropriately realized.
In sum, I really do think there’s a lot more value for PodSearch to pursue a more explicit business-to-business path than one that also tacks on a business-to-consumer dimension. Solving discovery for everyday users is a tough and deeply nuanced problem in 2017, and as far as digital media categories are concerned, we live in a world with high thresholds for user experience expectations — and it’s only going to get higher.
Two more things to mull over in your own assessment about the service:
- There’s a cost associated with listing on the directory ($9.99 a month, which might feel steep for most that are already paying comparable amounts for hosting), and a small cost for advertisers to access the aforementioned point-of-contact information ($19.99 a year). I’m told that the costs are to qualify leads on both sides, and I imagine it also generates revenue for the platform to keep the lights on, which is fair.
- The Newmarks are kicking off PodSearch with some major publisher partnerships already in the bag; in the press outreach email, I was informed that the company is fielding sales chiefs from National Public Media, Public Media Marketing, Midroll, and Panoply to talk on the record about the initiative. We’re talking institutional support here; let’s see how that shakes out.
Developments over at HowStuffWorks. Back in March, it was reported that Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, who founded the online curiosity Mental Floss back in 2001, were leaving the company to develop a new podcast for HowStuffWorks. That project is now public: it’s called Part Time Genius, and it appears to be some combination of game show and a piece of education media. In other words, the show sounds a lot like Stephen Dubner’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and it fits into HowStuffWorks’ wheelhouse pretty neatly.
Part Time Genius will launch with four full episodes in the feed. That happens on June 7.
Meanwhile, HowStuffWorks has also relaunched its popular Stuff Your Mom Never Told You podcast, almost half a year after the show’s previous hosts, Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, left the show to launch their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (You can find my story on that, which touches on questions of ownership and network arrangements, can be found here.) The new setup features Emilie Aries and Bridget Todd in the hosting seat, and they will be based in Washington, DC.
“Replacing a host or hosts is not easy, especially when you consider that so much of what makes podcasting great is the personal connection between listeners and the hosts,” wrote Jason Hoch, the chief content officer of HowStuffWorks, through a PR rep about the transition. “We really wanted to take our time finding new hosts that could continue on with the show’s message, but we also wanted to make sure we were pushing ourselves to continue to evolve the show. We felt from the get-go that it was better to take our time finding the absolute best hosts for the show instead of rushing into this.”
Hoch added: “For any podcast, it does take some time to settle into a rhythm and build chemistry between co-hosts, producers and listeners. But this is also what makes podcasting so special — it’s analogous to finding a new friend. It builds over time.”
An uptick in support for a new podcast delivery format. I don’t spend a ton of time digging into the technical and infrastructural end of podcasts, and I’d like to be clear here that I only have a pedestrian understanding of the issues. But a recent string of announcements have caught my eye: Over the past week or so, a few third-party podcast apps, including Breaker, Fireside, and Cast, have all added support for the JSON Feed format. JSON is a data-interchange format, a way in which computers exchange information with one another, and JSON Feed is an RSS-like feed format built on top of it. The trend was written up by noted technology writer John Gruber at his site Daring Fireball, which is how I initially bumped into the story.
As far as I can tell, there’s some philosophical significance here among technologists who are developing tools for the podcast space. But I wanted to get a broad sense of what it means for those outside that category of people, and so I reached out to Leah Culver and Erik Michaels-Ober of Breaker to help explain some things to me.
The main takeaway? It’s largely a matter of efficiency, as the argument goes.
“JSON is generally more compact than XML,” the team wrote back. (XML is the format that provides the foundation for RSS which, as you might know, is currently the primary format of the podcast space.) “All things being equal, the JSON Feed could be transferred between two computers 27% faster and the transmission costs would be 27% lower. In a competitive marketplace, these types of cost savings are typically distributed in one or more of three ways: (1) returned to consumers, in the form of lower prices, (2), returned to shareholders, in the form of a dividend, and (3) reinvested in the business. Each of these has either direct or indirect benefits to consumers and podcasters. Essentially, the argument here is that efficiency is an end in itself. There no reason for computers to communicate more verbosely when they could communicate more concisely.”
They added: “Beyond efficiency, there are no new capabilities unlocked by JSON Feed. If all goes according to plan for JSON Feed, consumers and podcasters won’t notice that anything has changed—other than the podcast services they use have become cheaper or better, due to improved resource utilization.”
So, what’s listed here is actually an abbreviated version of a much longer Q&A with Michaels-Ober and Culver, which gets fairly wonky and technical. You can find the full discussion in this Google Doc.
- NPR’s Invisibilia returned for its third season last week, and this time around it boasts a unifying season-wide structure: playfully tethered to the idea of a “concept album,” this chunk of episodes will all revolve around the theme of concepts. (NPR)
- Feral Audio, home of Harmontown, recently launched a comedy podcast focused entirely on stories and the happenings that go on in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. It’s a curious take on the whole locally-minded media thread; we’ll see if they actually harvest anything interesting out of the conceit. (Feral Audio)
- Kids Listen, the loose collective that advocates for children’s programming in the podcast space, has a website now. Watch the space for upcoming initiatives and roster expansions by the group. (Kids Listen)
- AudioBoom recently commissioned a study with Edison Research on listener demographics. It’s worth checking out in full, but here’s a data point that caught my eye: Only 22 percent of respondents reported that they currently have mail-order subscriptions to companies like Blue Apron, Birchbox, and Barkbox. That’s a lot lower than I would ordinarily think. (LinkedIn)
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a podcast now…and, uh, I didn’t think much of it. (WBEZ)
- Not directly podcast-related, but I loved reading this: “In well-mannered public radio, an airwaves war,” a story about WBUR and WGBH, which have struck up a fascinating coexistence in the public radio-friendly city of Boston. (The Boston Globe)
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.
- 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.