Could Google’s new podcast app change the way we understand the Average Podcast Listener?

IN PLAY. The hope had always been for more. Or, at least, for another.

On Tuesday, Google officially launched its standalone podcast app for Android. As of right now, it is available for download in the Google Play store. This was well expected, given the steady drumbeat of preview posts that Google had collaborated with the branded podcast studio Pacific Content to produce and publish. Those write-ups laid out how the search giant viewed its place in the audio universe, how it might contribute to the easing of its frictions, and how it might move to own a piece of the whole thing. And then there was the matter of last week’s code sighting, which suggested the prospect of a standalone podcast app in addition to the core audio search features that Google was apparently baking into its main Android search app. That suggestion turned out to be signal, as a standalone app is precisely what we were given.

The Problem had always been clearly understood, but it never felt as if anyone had found a way to get out of it. Podcasting had long been a ward of Apple, which historically stood as some sort of impartial steward. The space grew and flourished in large part because of a string of Apple decisions: inclusion into iTunes, breaking out as a standalone app, bundling with iOS by default. But, as has long been documented, the relationship between Apple and the ecosystem it helped foster is a complicated one. Some argue that Apple should get more involved with discovery, analytics, and monetization. Others believe Apple already wields too much power. This split in opinion broadly tracks alongside a split in communities; it is an expression of ideological tensions between those who function as independents and those who pursue empire. (I have also heard this tension framed as actually being between those who had power in the past and those who want power in the future. Whatever the case may be, have sympathy for those caught in between.) All throughout these debates, Apple’s commitment to being an impartial steward mostly never wavered, save for one exception: the introduction of in-episode analytics in the waning days of 2017. For many, this was a step in the right direction. But some, if not many, wanted so much more. Despite the incremental progression, the entire episode only further clarified the nature of the status quo: podcasting is Apple’s world, podcast publishers just live in it. Whatever progress these publishers want to make for themselves, they would have to make it on terms set, directly and indirectly, by the things Apple will and will not do.

Google, in theory, offers an alternative to this reality. The supposed argument is a diplomatic one: this wouldn’t be a case of Google eating Apple’s lunch, but rather a move to unlock the previously underserved Android market, which would give podcast publishers a path to building meaningful relationships with the other half of U.S. smartphone owners and the vast majority of smartphone owners in the world. Android owners had previously been served by a collection of third-party apps — Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Podcast Addict, Overcast, and so on — all of which were able to claim their own relatively modest fiefdoms within the expansive Android universe. It was a fragmented state, and so the opportunity here would be a push for unification… or consolidation (likely at the expense of these third-party solutions, but that’s another matter.)

Of course, this is all not as simple as it sounds. And it’s not as if Google hasn’t been here before. Google had another standalone podcast app not too long ago, Google Listen, an experimental product launched in the summer of 2009. Google Listen was eventually shuttered in 2012 on the reasoning that there were other, better podcast apps out there, as the search giant told Android Central at the time. But that was two years before the beginning of the so-called Podcast Boom, and quite some time before we’d come to know what we know now. In late 2015, Google added podcasts to Google Play Music, which was an attempt to fit the media category into the Concierge system the company had gained through the acquisition of Songza. It was an intriguing idea, but it didn’t end up moving the Android podcast needle very much.

Tuesday’s standalone podcast app has significant differences that separate then from now, we’re told. These features will include, but are not limited to:

  • Greatly decreasing the friction from search results to an actual mobile listening experiencing, thus operationalizing searches as a true top of the funnel;
  • AI-assisted features like quick transcription, greater in-episode searchability, automatic visual subtitling across multiple languages, and content-indexing, which will presumably give audiences more control over the judgment and navigating of a listening experience (and, also presumably, put some speech-to-text transcription companies out of business);
  • Cross-device syncing, which allows users to easily transition between listening on a smartphone or through a smart speaker;
  • Direct monetization features, like the possibility of a “donate” button.

It remains to be seen whether these features will be enough to convert large volumes of podcast-curious Android users into an actual podcast listeners. For what it’s worth, I think they could be helpful in getting more pedestrians to at least try the damn thing. But I also think that Google will need the cooperation of publishers to do some of the awareness-raising work for them. Then again, if there was ever a time to get a critical mass of publishers to split focus between Apple and an alternative, this moment would be it.

Something else that remains to be seen: how the Google Podcast app’s new features, if effective in capturing listeners, will shift the value narrative of podcasting — that is, the way we understand how a listener relates to a podcast, and thus how podcast impressions are sold to advertisers. After all, much of its contemporary value is based around the idea of podcasts being an “intent-driven” medium — which is to say, it’s pretty damn hard to listen to a podcast, so the kinds of folks who listen to them regularly must really love the thing enough to walk on coals. Google’s new AI-assisted features are designed to cut down the necessity of that intensity. As a result, we’re in for a shift in how we understand, and articulate, the Average Podcast Listener. That’s going to cause some considerable reformulation of how the industry works. It’s also going to shift the nature of who has the real power, and who will set the terms of what podcast publishers can and cannot do.

All of which leads us to the real question: what happens once you get what you’ve always hoped for?

One more thing: In addition to the app, Google has also announced that it is “partnering with the podcast industry on a program to increase the diversity of voices and remove barriers to podcasting.” It seems reminiscent of Spotify’s recent effort at creating a podcast bootcamp aimed at women of color. More information is due late this summer.

Chris Hardwick accused of emotional and sexual abuse. The allegations against the prominent podcaster and Nerdist Industries founder were made by an ex-girlfriend, the actress and model Chloe Dysktra, in a Medium essay published last Thursday. Hardwick wasn’t named in the essay, but he issued a statement to Deadline on Friday denying the allegations.

Various companies that work and have worked with Hardwick have distanced themselves from the presenter. They include Legendary Entertainment, AMC, NBC, and San Diego Comic-Con, among others.

Hardwick launched the Nerdist podcast in 2010, and formed Nerdist Industries in early 2012. Later that year, the company was acquired by Legendary Entertainment. The New York Times profiled him in April 2016. Hardwick left Nerdist Industries this past February, taking the flagship Nerdist podcast with him and subsequently rebranding it as ID10T.

Cadence13 serves as the ad sales partner on the podcast. When contacted yesterday, a spokesperson told me: “Cadence13 serves as a third-party sales representative to Chris Hardwick’s podcast show ID10T. We are currently assessing the situation as we take these allegations very seriously.”

WNYC’s Dean Cappello has left the public radio organization, a little over six months since The Cut published the journalist Suki Kim’s exposé of former Takeaway host John Hockenberry and the station. The report, which drew from Kim’s own experience with Hockenberry as well as the experiences of many others, accused him of sexual harassment and toxic workplace conduct. Cappello, who was the station’s chief content officer when the story broke, was one of the primary targets of criticism during the ensuing fallout, given his role in creating and overseeing The Takeaway as well as his general management of the organization’s controversial culture in the subsequent years. Once widely viewed as CEO Laura Walker’s top lieutenant, he was demoted to an advisory role in January. Cappello had been with the station for over two decades.

As Current noted, WNYC did not provide a specific reason for his departure. On Twitter, WNYC reporter Ilya Marritz highlighted: “Cappello’s departure underscores the fact that the only people held to account (publicly, at least) were on air talent, not executives.”

Marritz added: “Questions I asked today of WNYC: was it Cappello’s decision to leave? Did he get severance? Does he have an NDA? No answers.”

The global scene. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report last week, and the study contains a ton of noteworthy podcast-specific findings. Even cooler: its survey of audio and podcasting spanned 22 nations, which gives us a good comparative look across countries.

From the report, here are some key data points on podcast usage across countries:

  • The top three countries with the highest proportions of surveyed respondents who indicated having accessed a podcast in the past month were all in Asia: South Korea (58 percent), Hong Kong (55 percent), and Taiwan (47 percent). The report suggested that this is likely tied to those countries having stronger smartphone penetrations together with “high levels of social sharing.” Not quite sure about the latter, but the former sure sounds right.
  • Here are the rates for the three countries most covered in this newsletter: the U.S. (33 percent), Australia (33 percent), and the UK (18 percent).
  • On the question of the UK’s relatively low usage rate — which is consistent with other Northern European countries — the report’s authors speculate: “Surprisingly, podcasts seem to be least accessed in North European countries with a strong audio tradition such as Finland (24 percent), Germany (22 percent), the UK (18 percent), and the Netherlands (18 percent). This may be because popular public broadcasters have little incentive to undermine their linear radio listening by producing or promoting podcasts.”
  • The authors also suspect: “On the other hand, there may also problems of definition with the term podcast not equally understood across countries. In the UK, for example, much listening comes via the popular BBC iPlayer radio app but on-demand streams and downloads accessed this way are not labelled specifically as podcasts and may not be understood as such in surveys such as ours.” I’m curious if this can also be applied to the inverse; that is, on the three Asian countries with the highest rates of podcast usage.

And here are some other standout findings from the report’s audio-podcast breakout:

  • News podcasts popular among younger listeners. “Just under half of under 35s are using news-related podcasts, which is almost certainly far more of this group than listen to traditional radio news.”
  • Brief case study: Turkey. “We also asked about podcasts in Turkey, where we poll using an urban sample. Here we find more than two-thirds of this group using podcasts monthly, partly as a result of improving connectivity and ubiquitous smartphone use amongst the urban population. A number of the most popular podcasts are in English with the BBC’s Global News topping the iTunes chart.”
  • Concluding note. “Critically, the demographics of podcasting are explosive. The younger generation is embracing content at a time and in a format that works for them — a trend that looks unlikely to be reversed any time soon.”

Yo, I’m just aggregating at this point. You can read the whole audio/podcast breakout here, and you can find the full Digital News Report here.

With this, I know the next story I’m digging into: what’s going on in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan? Is the picture painted in the report as straightforward as it appears to be? Will this be my opportunity to finally visit Taiwan? Oh boy oh boy.

Meanwhile, across the channel. How about a quick look at what’s going on over in France, whose podcast access rate was pegged at 28 percent in the Digital News Report? “The French media landscape is pretty dire those days,” Charlotte Pudlowski, a Paris-based media entrepreneur, tells me. “Two magazines that launched with big ambitions and a big press coverage died this year, after only a few months of existence. The French version of BuzzFeed just shut down.”

Oh.

But, she added, it looks as if on-demand audio represents one of the few bright spots for the French media industry. Pudlowski cited a recent market study published by Audible and the Parisian research firm OpinionWay, which gives shape to a French podcast listening demographic that’s increasingly drawing the attention of local advertisers in addition to the usual suspects like the aforementioned Audible and an expansionary Casper. The data points sound familiar:

  • More than 40 percent of French people say they listen to podcasts;
  • Of these 40 percent, more than 50 percent are highly educated and work high-paying jobs;
  • French podcast listeners skew young, with 52 percent between the ages of 18 and 24.

Young, highly-educated, and well-paid — not unlike the audience demographic profile you’d get from the American podcast listening audience. (Though, as recently pointed out in the most recent Infinite Dial presentation by Edison Research, the American podcast listenership is slowly beginning to resemble the general American population.)

Sure, it’s a sales pitch. After all, Pudlowski is the co-founder of a new Parisian podcast studio called Louie Media, which specializes in narrative podcasts. But Pudlowski felt strong enough in the opportunity to strike out on her own and form this venture, and Louie Media has found enough work these days to sufficiently validate her claim.

The last time I traded notes with Pudlowski was back in the summer of 2016. At the time, she was working at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine (she describes it as the “French version of Slate, but independent economically”), and she had just launched a podcast for the site called Transfert, which has grown to average about 350,000 listens a month. After spending a year as the site’s editor-in-chief, Pudlowski decided to break off and follow through with her work in audio. In November, she formed Louie Media with Mélissa Bounoua, old college friend and her deputy editor at Slate France.

The podcast studio is currently built on three revenue channels:

  • Advertising-supported original work, which includes a recently launched narrative podcast called Entre that has booked Audible as a sponsor;
  • Co-productions, which see the studio producing podcasts for other media companies like Madame Figaro, a leading women’s magazine in France, and Slate France; and of course,
  • Branded podcasts, including a recent campaign with Birchbox France.

Again, a good deal of similarity can be gleaned with what we see in the States. This, I should add, extends to the studio’s major hurdles, which also include concerns with measurement and analytics as well as the general need to explain the quirks of a new medium. “The challenge lies both in the lack of precise figures and the earliness of the market in France,”  Pudlowski wrote me. “We still have to [explain to] a lot of advertisers what podcasts are.”

Related reading. From a March press release by AdsWizz, announcing a partnership with the French advertising agency NextRegie:

“Programmatic buying is the wave of the future, and we are eager to move into the future with AdsWizz and make our premium podcast inventory available to advertisers,” said Pierre-Henry Medan, general ganager of NextRegie. “Podcast listening has been growing rapidly in France, Europe, and all over the world, and we are very excited to enable advertisers to communicate on our brands through this new format.”

Hmm.

On voice. These three pieces caught my attention this week, and when grouped together in one place, they collectively paint a really interesting picture.

First of all, Amazon is pushing the Echo into France, which means that it has to build out a voice interaction system in French. From Wired:

When you think about what it takes to launch Alexa in France, start with the basics. There’s the language, obviously. But unpack that: French is complex, both linguistically and societally. It has formal and informal address. It demands of its speakers euphony, harmonious and seamless transitions between words to maintain an almost musical cadence. And as you might expect from a country with nearly 70 million inhabitants, a multitude of regional accents inform pronunciations.

Modeling for one language is hard. (Hell, it’s hard enough to write good dialogue in English.) Adapting across different languages is a whole other challenge altogether.

Next, Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser (which, by the way, is my internet vessel of choice), is reportedly working on a voice-controlled browser called Scout. From CNET:

The nonprofit revealed the Scout project in an agenda item for an all-hands meeting taking place this week in San Francisco. “With the Scout app, we start to explore browsing and consuming content with voice,” Mozilla said. A sample command shows how it might work: “Hey Scout, read me the article about polar bears.”

Not to be confused with the other voice-first project called Scout FM, previously known as Subcast, which I wrote about in January. What’s with the affinity for the word “scout”? Weird.

And finally, here’s Ian Bogost, the academic and game designer, writing for The Atlantic about the experience and significance of the AirPods:

After an hour with the AirPods in, listening to music and making a few calls while working, I lose the sensation that they occupy my auricle anymore. But unlike the corded buds, there’s no need to untether myself from the phone when I get up to do something else…I am connected to the phone, and therefore the world, without being tethered to it directly.

This makes the AirPods more than just a wireless headset; it puts the device squarely in the domain of voice assistants and devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Even as augmented and virtual reality promise to immerse users in space and information, speech offers a simpler answer that is no less science-fictional: Being able to talk at a computer and have it respond. Echo does so in the room, Siri on your phone, and AirPods right inside your skull.

Looking forward to a world where my wife and I no longer ignore each other at the dinner table as we fiddle with our phones, but where we fearfully keep our conversation down to the dimmest whisper lest we mistakenly wake the myriad smart devices lining the walls. At least it brings us closer together.

Bites

  • Cannes Lions, the annual glitzy advertising festival, is happening this week, and I hear there are a couple of podcast shops in attendance. So watch out for possible stories coming out from that.
  • Welcome to Night Vale has announced dates for its 2018–2019 world tour, which will take the podcast’s live show performance across 44 cities in nine countries. On a related note, the show turned six last Tuesday. Congrats! (Website)
  • WAMU is launching something called The Pod Shop, “a three-month initiative that will train, support and promote local podcast producers.” Up to five people will be selected to participate, and they’ll get mentorship as well as a $2,500 funding award. (Website)
  • “The podcasters who want you to stop listening.” (The Ringer) I’m here for all the Drew Ackerman love.
  • Desus and Mero are heading to Showtime. Avail yourself of this fine profile. (The Brand is Strong)
  • Afropop Worldwide has launched the third season of its Closeup podcast, which delivers “ten- to twenty-minute episodes that tell intimate stories about a musician or a moment in time and explore genres of music and social justice issues from Africa and the diaspora.” (Website)
  • “Remember Pandora Radio? Recently logging on to my old Pandora account felt like meeting a former self.” (BuzzFeed Reader)
  • I think I missed this earlier, but the trailer for Amy Schumer’s big $1 million+ Spotify podcast dropped not too long ago. (Apple Podcasts)
  • Know what? You should be reading Andrew Liptak’s Pod Hunters column over at The Verge. His latest: “The witch who came in from the cold.
  • My latest for Vulture: In The Dark, season 2. (Madeleine Baran is a boss)
  • Not directly related, but worth chewing over: “Why you can’t really trust negative online reviews.” (New York Times)

Alexa, can you get my kid to brush his teeth? (Oh, and Alexa? How exactly can I make money with you?)

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.

[storybreak]

[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]

[storybreak]

Bites:

  • 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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

Subcast wants to bring podcast publishers and smart-speaker users together

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:

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.

Bites:

  • 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.

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

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

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

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

Let’s jump in.

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

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

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

I like where this is going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awkward! Also, perturbing.

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

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

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

Consider the following developments:

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

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

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

The three most interesting podcast companies

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

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

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

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

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

[storybreak]

Two stories on political podcasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

How will we know when we’ve hit Peak Podcast? And are we there yet?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 127, published July 11, 2017.

The IAB has announced the lineup for its third-annual podcast upfront, and it boasts some changes. Gimlet, Public Media Marketing, and iHeartRadio are added to the mix, while CBS and AdLarge appear to be sitting this one out. This year’s festivities will take place on September 7 at Time Inc.’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium in New York. As you might recall, I wasn’t much of a fan of last year’s proceedings. Details here.

Gimlet’s diversity report. The company revisited the issue in a recent AMA-style episode of StartUp — after its first dive into the topic back in December 2015 — and the big picture is more or less what you’d expect: still not great, but better than the last time. Poynter has a good summary of the segment, and I’d like to state here that it’s interesting how you can basically evaluate the company based on two public fronts: There are the numbers, and there’s the way Alex Blumberg, as CEO and narrator and one of the producers of the episode (presumably), talks about the numbers. For what it’s worth, I’m still mulling over what both things tell us about how the company thinks about diversity, and the extent to which we can productively regard them as adequate or insufficient. The reality is what it is — imperfect. But more importantly, do we trust the process?

Notably, Gimlet followed up the segment with a more productive move: They posted the hard numbers and statistics on the company website. It gives us specific insight into how the company thinks about diversity in policy and on paper at this point in time. And so we’re able to go a little deeper beyond “still not great, but improving”; indeed, Gimlet’s makeup is still fairly homogenous in that the staff remains heavily white, and though it does appear that the company’s breakdown skews more female, front-of-mic talent still skews white and male. (For a company in the content business, that front-of-mic representation really matters.) The numbers also let us see how they track the metric, and there’s room to take some issue here: personally, I’ve always found that broadly tying the classical demographics — male and female, different census categories of ethnicities, and so on — is incredibly limiting, given the shifting, intersectional, and multi-dimensional nature of power positions and many permutations of diversity that fall from it. For what it’s worth, the company acknowledges that in the segment (and further, when we spoke about it over the phone), and again, the question remains whether you, personally, trust the process.

In any case, credit should be given where due: Thanks to Gimlet, we now have a public baseline for the rest of the private podcast industry. The public posting of the report is good practice for an ecosystem frequently criticized for being overwhelming white and male, and I highly encourage other companies to conduct similar publicly-available reports on their own operations. I will, for what it’s worth, be poking around to check on whether other companies will be doing so.

What happened the last time. Nieman Lab ran this great piece by Gabe Bullard last week: “Here’s what happened the last time audio producers got better data,” which sought to tell the story of broadcast radio when it experienced its own step-up in metrics to say something about what’s going to happen to podcasts. There’s not much in here that hasn’t already been talked through in previous Hot Pod issues (show resizing, over-emphasis on metrics concerns, and so on), but it’s still cool to see the story from the other side.

That said, it’s worth pointing out two governing themes that loom large over these narratives about data. On the one hand, there’s a general feeling of anxiety over the change it brings; on the other hand, there’s a specific concern about opening the system up to being deleteriously gamed. I don’t think much of either theme. Change is a constant, as they say, and the podcast ecosystem in its current state is already well gamed on its own terms. We see this even in something like the widespread presence of the true crime genre and the cottage industry of podcasts about Serial, and in the many ways the Apple podcast charts have been worked. Further, the gaming of systems is a constant through human endeavor, one imagines. We already see that with Spotify and television ratings, though you can’t quite make the argument that it significantly compromises the business of music or television. The bigger story, I think, should be less about the changing systems and more about building structures of collective responsibility around those systems; less about how the system shifts, and more about what we should be doing in response.

SoundCloud is laying off 40 percent of its workforce, the company announced in a blog post last Thursday. The cuts are apparently a defensive move to maintain its independence in the face of an increasingly difficult online music market, as The New York Times notes. The company provided assurances that it will remain in business, but whether that’s really the case for the platform remains to be seen. In the meantime, it might be a prudent move for publishers using SoundCloud as their primary hosting platform — of which there are many, from small independents to the Loud Speakers Network — to consider contingencies.

Career Spotlight. There are freelancers, and then there are podcast showrunners. This week, I had the pleasure of running this Q&A with Gina Delvac, the L.A.-based producer who quarterbacks the popular Call Your Girlfriend podcast.

[storybreak]

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

[conr]Gina Delvac: I’m a podcast showrunner. Like the creative-meets-editorial-meets-business role that many TV show creators play, I work with brilliant hosts to make podcasts that best showcase their talents and interests.

The two shows I’m most focused on right now are:

  • Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast Aminatou Sow, Ann Friedman, and I created in 2014. We explore the news and pop culture and our periods, and Amina and Ann have really intimate, smart, and fun weekly conversations along the way. A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
  • And Pitch Makeover, a project hosted and conceived by Natalia Oberti Noguera and which launched in May. Styled like a fashion makeover, Natalia offers targeted and insightful feedback to startup founders about their 60-second business pitches. If you love tech but are feeling rightly sick about its culture of discrimination and harassment, you might find a little glimmer of hope between Natalia’s infectious energy and our slate of women and nonbinary founders.

In the day-to-day, that includes a little bit of everything for Call Your Girlfriend: high-level editorial, editing, and mixing, and a bunch of meetings and admin on the business side, too. For Pitch Makeover, I work closely with Natalia to record and edit each episode. (I’ve even co-hosted).[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you get to this point? What does your career arc look like — where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]

[conr]Delvac: It started with bankruptcy. Okay, not mine. I was working as a paralegal at a legal aid clinic in 2008, fresh out of college and watching the economy collapsing. What I was reading in The New York Times didn’t square with what my bankruptcy clients described on a daily basis: thousands of dollars of credit issued to people living on SSI. Utility shutoffs that jeopardized the housing of single moms. The transference of debt from one collector to the next to the next.

When This American Life did their Giant Pool of Money story, I remember I was wandering down Benjamin Franklin Parkway (yes, toward the Rocky steps), listening to this podcast that was finally, finally explaining what the hell was going on. And it did it in a way that connected Wall Streeters to young college grads like me to my clients who were living in poverty. Of course, this essential style of documentary but accessible reporting became Planet Money.

It took me a while to discover who these public radio producer people were and what they actually did, so when I moved home in Los Angeles in 2009, I started interning at KPCC, which I did for 18 months, something I was able to do thanks only to my mom letting me live in her basement (literally) in exchange for paying the gas bill.

Once I had some basic editorial chops and booking experience, I started down the freelance public radio path that so many producers have trodden. Picking up days when I could, taking the longest stints, trying to learn as much as possible and work on different types of shows, including Marketplace, where I really cut my teeth as a journalist and producer.

My first real podcasting job was working with tech investor Jason Calacanis on his long-running show This Week in Startups. There, I learned the startup beat, got to interact with a totally different kind of superfan, and saw the insane drive and energy that so many entrepreneurs have. During that time, Aminatou and Ann and I started talking more seriously about Call Your Girlfriend. Being around founders all the time definitely made it seem like a no-brainer to quit my day job and get way more serious about my passion project.

It would be easy to pretend here that Call Your Girlfriend was an instant success and money-maker. While we found an audience early on, we didn’t turn a profit for over a year and all worked multiple jobs throughout. We love making the show but no one counts on it like a fulltime job. (More on this in our Businesswoman Special episode).[/conr]

[conl]HP: How did you learn to do the job that you do today?[/conl]

[conr]Delvac: After benefiting from the wisdom of so many people at KPCC (notably my bosses Linda Othenin-Girard and Kristen Muller and my then-fellow-interns Lauren Osen and Arwen Nicks) I got a chance to start filling in at Marketplace.

What began as a two week “we’ll try you out, kid” fill-in run, turned into months of steady freelance work. Megan Larson (now at KPCC), Sitara Nieves, and Kai Ryssdal took insane chances on the weird skits I wrote and field production ideas I pitched while I was still so green. They also taught me how to edit with a reliable and steady ear on a fierce deadline.

Later, I got a chance to work on the beginnings of the Wealth and Poverty Desk, and then its first standalone podcast, The Uncertain Hour, hosted by Krissy Clark. As a listener, Krissy is one of my favorite reporters. Getting to explore how welfare gets (de)funded — and who gets those funds — was a major highlight of 2016.

Aminatou and Ann have taught me pretty much everything else I know: how to break the established rules; how being your specific you — IRL and on a podcast — can be a path to personal fulfillment and success; and how to have fun and hold yourself accountable to your ideals and goals at the same time. I truly cannot say enough about my work wives.[/conr]

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

[conr]Delvac: I didn’t — and still don’t — know what I want to be when I grow up.[/conr]

[storybreak]

You can find Gina on Twitter at @gdelvac. As usual, you can find older Career Spotlights here.

Peak Podcast, considered. “How will we know when we hit peak podcast?” tweeted the esteemed Lizzie O’Leary of APM’s Marketplace early last month. Now, I can’t remember what exactly I was doing when I saw the tweet — which is true for most tweets I peruse — but wherever I was, the question, and the concept, stuck with me. Perhaps my interest in the issue went way too far, and maybe I’ve ultimately misjudged the original intent of the question. But regardless, I’ve been mulling over this question for weeks now.

To be sure, the number of podcasts active in the market today is massive, and it continues to balloon every day. The prospect of saturation has crossed my mind more than a few times across this newsletter’s nearly three-year lifespan, as it seems to be with many others in the industry: listeners, observers, critics, producers. Insofar as I understand it, there’s a general anxiety that the ever-increasing abundance of podcast supply may well lead to some fundamental breakdown in the podcast industry’s form and future potential. The idea of “peak podcasts” tastes a little funny on the tongue, but the idea nonetheless holds great theoretical ramifications, and it’s worth attention.

With that in mind, I’m spending this week over-thinking the issue of “Peak Podcast” to death. My thinking is a little scattered, and I have some conclusions scattered about — to which I expect reasonable disagreement — but I believe the thought process is more important than the final assembly.

Grab your helmets. We’re going down a rabbit hole.

I.

We have, thankfully, some numbers to work with. I doubt we’ll ever be able get a hyper-accurate read of the actual number of podcasts that exist — who really knows anything, truly? — but Apple stats are nevertheless a good place to start. A presentation from the PMDMC conference last week contains a solid overview of the numbers; here’s the deck, but these are the two important points:

  • Approximately 400,000 podcasts are listed in the Apple Podcasts store, of which only 75 percent are actively publishing. For what it’s worth, that’s up from 250,000 in mid-2013, according to Macworld. (Note the interesting byline.)
  • Only an estimated 1 percent of those shows have more than 50,000 downloads per episode, defined within a 30-day window.

Those two data points lets us cut the world in a few different ways. If you accept 50,000 downloads as the threshold for a competitive podcast, then you have a situation where only about 4,000 podcasts are worth accounting for. But if you choose to place more emphasis on the publishing side than the consumption side, then you’re seeing a world in which 300,000 podcasts are actively in the market competing with each other for a slowly but steadily growing pool of ears.

Those numbers seem huge, but are they harmfully huge? Comparisons with other media formats might be useful for perspective, though such comparisons need to be structurally appropriate. Further, there’s room to debate over how you’d structurally categorize podcasts. To what extent is it a deep-dive activity, similar to a movie, or an in-between activity, similar to music or magazines?

In any case, some numbers to consider: In 2016, there were an estimated 729 movies released in theaters, while there were an estimated 455 scripted shows aired on TV — just scripted, not including news, live sports, and some reality programming. If you trust numbers from Statista, you can consider that there were over 7,000 magazine titles in circulation in 2015, and if you want to really get way out there, there is a measure noting that there are over 1.2 billion websites currently in existence. Indeed, such comparisons are tricky, and it’s little hard to see what specific lesson can be drawn from the perspective here.

Nevertheless, we still have 300,000 — or 4,000, depending on how you want to cut it — podcasts competing for your patronage: while you’re in the subway, doing laundry, driving your car, preparing dinner, walking the dog. It’s also worth recognizing that the number refers to actively publishing podcasts; which is to say, we’re framing our analysis here around the medium’s “head,” looking at the potential of consumers taking in new episodes being published in a given week, or a moment in time. It behooves us to additionally reckon with the vastly abundant backlog of listening that make up long-tail of the medium as a whole.

Now, if you take all of those pieces of information, it does start feeling like a medium that’s bursting at the seams.

But to what extent is this a bad thing?

II.

I reckon the answer differs depending on who’s asking. More competition might feel bad for some publishers — it’s harder to jockey into a listener’s rotation and for the attention of advertisers — but it’s generally good for audiences, medium fatigue aside. That said, it’s complicated for ad buyers, because on one hand, you have better potential for targeting specific audiences based on show specificities, but on the other hand, it’s more difficult to efficiently survey the landscape and make appropriate buying choices. It opens up possibilities for developers, who might pursue attempts to develop solutions for discovery or programmatic advertising, but be wary: Successes in those pursuits might yield overarching negative effects: a victorious discovery platform might end up consolidating too much power, and poorly regulated programmatic podcast advertising might compromise CPM rates.

(Alas, the world is complex, and hard.)

But in my mind, that’s all peaceful conduct; preoccupations and expressions of a functioning system at work. And at this point in time, I’m inclined to see a state of abundant supply — and ever-increasing competition — as something that’s good in the long run. What we should be watching for are specific conditions, or events, accompanying these supply increases that could lead to meaningful system-wide failures. Off the top of my head, here are two such possibilities:

  • If the listening audience does not grow commensurate with the supply — or, specifically, if the growing supply does not effectively drive more audience growth for the system as a whole. (Recall the Edison Research numbers: 67 million monthly active listeners in 2016, up 40 percent over the last two years.)
  • If investment into the supply growth drastically outpaces the growth in audiences. It’s hard to tell the spread at this point in time, but I think it’s still fair to think that a good deal of supply growth is probably made up of relatively low-cost operations, keeping the ratio within reasonable bounds.

A quick aside: I think it’s also worth noting that a state of overabundance is inherent to the technology. Overabundance is podcasting’s state of nature, as it were. The entire notion behind podcasting is based on the medium’s democratization audio publishing and distribution. Everybody can make a show, and that’s the point. (That’s a little different from the idea that “everybody can get an audience” — and even more different from the notion “everybody should get an audience” — which are things I’ve seen conflated from time to time.)

Which is all to say the following: I don’t think we’re currently in a situation where the increasing abundance of podcasts is fundamentally compromising the structural integrity of the space. (Yet. Check back in a year. Maybe a month.) But Peak Podcasting or not, the space will continue to get more and more packed, and that will yield its own noteworthy market effects. What will we see there?

III.

A few thoughts on what happens:

  • I think it’s just as likely that the more crowding that happens, the more granular reorganization we’ll see. Which is to say, we’ll start seeing real discernment and differences: less a conversation about “podcasts,” but conversations about “narrative podcasts” and “talk podcasts” and “dudes-around-mics-in-a-basement podcasts,” all of which contain their own individual concerns about maturing and saturating their respective audiences.
  • The ongoing crowding will force changes in the usual way of doing things. The most prominent example would be in any reliances on Apple for marketing support. As the number of new podcasts continues to balloon, one imagines that particular channel will become even more difficult to explore.
  • The minimum bar for quality and/or differentiation will continue to rise, which is probably good for audiences.
  • Abundance generally makes it harder to stand out. A few things will likely fall from this: Branding become even more important, marketing costs will go up (therefore reducing the accessibility of the space to some extent), and established names will disproportionately benefit. We already see all of these dynamics, to some extent.
  • Will people grow tired of podcasts? That’s a misleading question. Podcasts, like film and television and books, are merely vessels for stories: Should they grow tired, what’s actually driving the exhaustion would be a sameness in the kinds of stories being told, the types of people telling the stories, and the ways the stories and experiences are constructed.

All right, that’s enough of that.

Bites:

[photocredit]Original photo of Nevado Ojos del Salado on the Argentina-Chile border by Mariano Mantel used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

播客增长劲头仍在, 内容与渠道之争是重要拐点

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

(1) 增速缓慢暴露行业短板

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

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

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

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

(2) 内容与渠道之争

难道认知度提高,播客就能突破目前的“平台期”了吗?显然并没有这么简单。

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(3) 注意力经济时代

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

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

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

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

还有一些零散的小发现:

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


媒体巨头跨界涌入, 大平台间内容流转加剧。 先来看两则最近的播客行业新闻:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

Hot Pod: Should Apple become a more useful middleman for the podcast industry — and if so, how?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-seven, published November 29, 2016.

Ken Doctor on the role Apple should play. The media analyst made an appearance on the latest episode of The Wolf Den, Midroll’s pretty handy content marketing podcast-slash-guide to the industry, to discuss his spectacular series on the podcasting boom that recently ran on Nieman Lab.

Of particular note is his take on Apple, which came up at around the 16:45 mark:

What I would like to see is [Apple] not get into the middle of things where they actually overwhelm all the smaller companies that are in it…The money looks like it’s going to be mainly advertising and less listener payment, and that’s not a field they’re very good at. They’ve proven that they’re not a very good advertising company. And that’s a good reason for them not to get into it: [there’s] not a lot of money in it right now, and they’d need big hits…

If their role could be the providing of information and data in a Switzerland-kind of way for the industry, given that 60 percent or so of all the listening comes through Apple devices, and maybe get paid a little to do that — but to do that in a way that is non-competitive — that might be their best role for the industry. It will support their core businesses, which is selling hardware and software, but not put them in direct competition and snuff out the creativity and imagination that’s in the industry.

Doctor’s position here — for Apple to become more involved as an information and data provider, and not as some sort of involved content distributor — is more or less the position favored by most in the industry at this point in time. It’s a highly specific vision of Apple’s role in the podcast space that requires a delicate balance, one that was largely reflected in the agitation aggregately portrayed in that semi-controversial New York Times article back in May. (A controversy, by the way, that now seems driven by fears that drawing attention to the problem would trigger an unpredictable action from Apple, and not based on any vision of the future articulated by anybody interviewed.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely second Doctor’s position here, both for the positives — yes, it would be very nice for all of us to get better access to actionable data that could yield greater audience insight (preferably in such a way that isn’t particularly invasive) and foster greater intangible confidence in the medium from the advertising community — as well as for the severity of its negatives.

The darkest timeline. Now, I’m not an Apple kremlinologist — I’ll leave that to the vast blog ecosystem dedicated to Apple coverage — and so I can’t, of course, personally predict with any confidence how the company is thinking about its podcast strategy (or even whether it’s thinking about it with any seriousness at all). My gut reaction, and I know I’m not the only person who suspects this, is that podcast money is still very much chump change, and that any attempt to step in as a layer that takes off a percentage of the entire space would still amount to what is essentially a rounding error for the company. (Recall that the current valuation of the podcast industry’s ad spend is only so much — for 2016, ZenithOptimedia projected $35.1 million back in March, while others have so far estimated it to be as high as $167 million — while digital music revenue is pegged to be about $2.66 billion this year, radio ad spend was $17.5 billion in 2015, and Apple’s App Store revenue was estimated to be about $6.4 billion in 2015.)

However, if I were to imagine a possible world in which they’d try to do something at this specific point in time, I’d figure that the guiding incentive would not be to capitalize on peeling a layer off revenues in the space as it is, but to instead become an underlying condition of how future business is conducted in the space. Which is to say that, in such a scenario, Apple would want to position itself in a way that’s similar to how, say, Art19 or Panoply would want their respective platforms to be the de facto podcast hosting solution, or how Stripe is becoming increasingly synonymous with internet payments.

What does that mean, precisely? Whatever it is, it’ll probably feature the company offering podcasters — and in particular, big podcast publishers, who are incentivized to persist in the long term — solutions, expertise, and/or access to something those podcasters themselves do not have and experience high barriers of entry to obtain. As Doctor noted, that probably isn’t going to be ad sales, since the company has historically proven itself to not be great at that. What does that leave us with? Audience development? Maybe payments? And where does that leave Apple: a strategy of exclusives, like their pursuits with Apple Music, or maybe direct payment/patronage tools, coopting the role that Patreon would play?

Anyway, that’s what I’m batting around in my head. In any case, at this point I’ll say that if Apple were ever to make a move, I suspect the very first people outside of Cupertino to find out are probably the bigger podcast publishers, so keep an eye on them. In the meantime, consider investing in building out a promotion strategy and infrastructure where iTunes — and maybe even a network — isn’t at the center, but one channel of many. Hey, it can be done. I mean, look at Chapo Trap House. (I guess?)

Two more things from the Ken Doctor interview. Do check out that Wolf Den episode — the full conversation is really, really good — but there are two additional topics that you should keep in mind:

1. On the potential of FCC regulation over podcasts (something that the medium has, up until this point, not experienced), which Doctor discusses at about the 33:00 mark:

I think there will probably be efforts, and now, given different kinds of politicization, there may be more efforts. What I’ve seen over 20 years is that essentially the law and regulatory practice has been absolutely flummoxed by digital media…The FCC and the FTC have not figured out how to deal with this. Even antitrust law has not figured out how to deal with it. I don’t think that’s going to change.

I would hope that your industry…will take that lead and make your own rules that are ethical and that are transparent to the public. And to get ahead of it, and try to avoid government regulation which is as likely to be misguided as it is to be well-guided.

2. The role podcasts can play for local media and local news was also discussed, and you can hear that chunk of the discussion at around the 38:30 mark.

“Efficiency trumps all things, in general,” said Erik Diehn, CEO of Midroll, when we spoke over the phone recently. “There are many more advertisers in the space relative to a few years ago, and they’re increasingly looking for scale. If you’re an advertiser, you can cobble a few shows together, or you can choose instead to buy one big show…That’s just where we’re at. It’s the same thing on YouTube. Ditto a few years ago with blogs. We’re at a point of bifurcation: You’re going to see more larger shows absorbing a lot more dollars…including brand dollars, that weren’t there before.”

Diehn notes that there is a very specific form of exception to this, pointing to the podcast Spilled Milk as a case study. “They aren’t huge, but they sell out because they’ve been around for a while, they have a good audience, and they do food,” he explains. “Some people will buy even at that smaller scale. If you’re going to be a commercially successful podcast at this point, you got to have a differentiated or notable product.”

I spoke with Diehn, by the way, to balance out the interviews I did for last week’s item on independent podcasts.

Digiday has a pretty interesting snapshot on the U.K. digital audio landscape, drawing from a report by U.K.-based Radio Joint Audience Research that groups together streaming platforms, digital radio, and podcasts. Expected findings apply: a preference by younger demographics, a steady growth rate (a reported double-digit growth every six months), and persisting fragmentation when it comes to centralized measurement.

As with my own reporting, the article notes that there exists a general sense that digital audio in the U.K. still “lags” behind the U.S. — though I should note that, among podcast companies specifically, there are a few entities putting in a fair bit of effort developing a connected presence on both fronts. (See: Audioboom and Acast’s long-running incursion into the U.S., Panoply’s recently-established outpost in the U.K..)

Anyway, check out the Digiday article in full. There’s some additional findings on specific company strategies that are also pretty cool.

An unexpected pleasure. I was catching up on Life After, GE Podcast Theater’s followup to The Message, over the weekend, and I was struck by just how positively I reacted to the show’s complete lack of advertising breaks. No preroll, no midroll, no clunky sponsorship messaging — there were simply no disruptions in the show’s contiguous experience that added onto the suspension of disbelief already being demanded by the story. The show felt more immersive as a result, washing over my earballs so much more smoothly. Heck, I swear it made me like the show more than I naturally would have, and frankly, I can’t tell if the season is any good or whether I’m just happy there are no ads. (For what it’s worth, I quite like the season.)

And yes, the irony of Life After being one gigantic piece of advertising isn’t lost on me.

Also not lost on me: the fact that my overwhelmingly positive response says a whole lot more about the state of normal podcasts than it does about branded podcasts as a, um, thing (genre?). Advertising is a tax, the price we pay for a piece of media that we didn’t pay for out of our pockets. The role of publishers, by and large, is to mitigate the burden of that tax as it is suffered by audiences; in an ideal world, publishers could even turn that tax into an additional value.

The experience of Life After brings into acute focus just how much that tax has accumulated over the past year, and just how much they’ve congealed into fatigue. (For me, at least.) Granted, I’m an edge case — I spend inhumane chunks of my days consuming podcasts, and perhaps it was only a matter of time that I’d grow blind (deaf?) to advertising in my exorbitantly high levels of podcast consumption. But I’m struck, at this moment, by the extent to which I’ve been bearing with podcast ads — and I’m saying this as a person who actually believes in advertising. The flipside to this is just how little podcast advertising I actually notice, how rarely I encounter host-reads that fill me with any memorable feelings at all.

There is, of course, a limit to which my personal experience says anything about everything else, but all of this does make me wonder how, in the midst of an expanding inflow of advertising money, the podcast industry en masse is readying itself to figure out how to preserve the medium’s intimacy — to capitalize on the fresh start it offers for digital media — while scaling up its advertising infrastructure to accommodate that money.

For those keeping close watch on Audible Channels: The number of Amazon Prime members is now estimated to be 49.5 million across the US, up 23 percent from last year, according to a report by financial services firm Cowen & Co., as cited by Barron’s.

Recall that Audible’s parent company Amazon started bundling Channels content with its Prime membership program back in September. Previously, Channels was only available to paying Audible subscribers and as a standalone paid subscription feature, priced at $4.96 per month or $60 per year. Also recall the larger strategy for Amazon with Channels: Its existence theoretically increases the value of Prime and Audible memberships, thus increasing the friction for cancellation for current members and increasing the pull for new subscribers. That allows for a programming strategy that favors hyper-targeting, which means that Audible doesn’t have to always program for the broadest possible audience. This should be nothing new for longtime Hot Pod readers, but I’d going to keep hammering on it because I believe it’s key to reading that company.

Bites:

  • Hot Pod reader Charles Wiltgen has made pretty handy tool: the Podcast Validator, which helps assess whether your RSS feed is good to go. A little bit goes a long way for that additional peace of mind. (Podbase)
  • The Providence Journal reviews Gimlet’s Crimetown, whose first season focuses on organized crime in Providence. An entertaining artifact. (The Providence Journal)
  • If you’re keeping an eye on what comes next for the CBC’s role in Canada, do yourself a favor and check out the latest episode of Canadaland. (Canadaland)
  • “A Podcast of Their Own for Women in Music.” (The Atlantic)
  • “On the Need for Queer Podcasts.” (LA Review of Books)
  • Profile on Revolver’s Wrongful Conviction podcast. (New York)
  • This week in Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: “Now even your headphones can spy on you.” (Wired)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but I’m reading: “How Silicon Valley Passed on Conservative Media” (The Information)

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.