Apple Analytics: One Year Later

Seventeen months ago, at its annual developer conference WWDC, Apple announced that it would finally be launching something that many in the podcast industry have desired for a long time: better podcast analytics. Or, more accurately, better audience analytics from the historically impartial steward of the podcast ecosystem that’s still believed to facilitate the majority of all podcast listening. (For now, anyway.)

“It may look obscure,” tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber at the time, “But this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear.”

Apple’s new in-episode analytics rolled out that December, six months after the initial announcement. At multiple points during those opening months, I tried developing ongoing reporting projects to gauge how the new data impacted the podcast business. But those early inquiries were premature and produced nothing particularly useful. A really smart person would later advise me that these things, which are somewhat tantamount to culture shifts, take time, and I’d be better off waiting a year.

So. It’s been almost twelve full months. Did Apple’s new analytics fundamentally change anything for publishers and the podcast business? After checking in with over a dozen sources throughout various corners of the podcast ecosystem, there seems to be a general consensus around the answer: no, not really, but it has brought some positives.

Let’s pause briefly and recall why we’re here for a second. Here’s a reminder of the Big Picture, or a primer if you’re new to this world: the narrative of the podcast business has long been defined by its crude analytics relative to other digital media channels. Podcast advertising campaigns are still bought and sold on the basis of the download, a rudimentary metric that more effectively conveys whether an episode has been shipped off to a consumer’s listening app rather than whether that consumer actually heard the episode — and, therefore, the ad. Compared to a broader digital media environment in which audience behavior is measurable to the nanosecond and where close user targeting are table stakes for advertisers, the relatively crude podcast analytics universe is perceived to be virtually prehistoric. (Never mind, of course, the prevalence of ad fraud, the Google-Facebook-Amazon digital advertising oligopoly, and the undermining of user privacy that afflicts the broader modern digital media environment. Modernity remains desired, with all its attendant tumors.)

That perception of prehistoric-ism is a precarious problem, because the podcast industry, broadly speaking, covets brand advertising dollars, which promises greater growth (bigger amounts), stability (longer campaigns), and, in theory, power (growth + stability = more capacity to impose will, probably?).

Nowadays, brand advertisers are thought to be accustomed to the taste of granular analytics, whether to better prove campaign effectiveness or to give them stronger impressions of it, and conventional wisdom argues that they probably won’t fully commit advertising dollars to podcasting unless publishers are able to provide similar levels of measurement granularity — or, at the very least, something markedly better than the rudimentary analytics universe they have now.

The premise and promise of Apple Podcast’s upgraded analytics, therefore, is a straightforward one: it could take the podcast ecosystem a step closer towards an analytics universe that’s able to engender the same kind of confidence in advertisers as any other digital media channel, thus increasing the possibility of brand advertisers meaningfully committing more podcasting dollars.

Of course, there were accompanying concerns. Some worried the new analytics would reveal podcast consumption to be less engaged than it was previously thought to be, or that it would trigger an apocalyptic CPM-cratering scenario. Others thought the revelations from the new data would cause considerable shake-ups or resizing in the podcast industry, as some publishers learn they are simply not as big and healthy as they thought they were. Others still, like Edison’s Tom Webster, posited that Apple’s new podcast analytics could create a feedback loop in which publishers are more motivated to play towards Apple’s platform, thus further narrowing the community’s focus on the finite world of Apple Podcast users — what he called “the optimization trap.” Meanwhile, direct response advertisers, whose dollars have historically helped grown the podcast ecosystem without granular analytics, began expressing concerns about having to compete with brand advertising dollars in the future. (A totally understandable position.)

When the new analytics layer finally rolled out last December, the feature was described to be in its beta phase. And what it offered seemed incremental but nonetheless helpful: publishers could now see aggregate in-episode listening analytics, which meant that they could now know whether anybody made it to that third midroll or the late-game twist in the narrative. Put another way: the podcast episode, as distributed through Apple Podcasts, was no longer a “black box.” (Notably, user data was kept anonymized, true to Apple’s practices.) During those early months, the general response seemed largely hopeful.

As the months rolled on, the initial concerns didn’t come to pass. Podcast consumption turned out to be as engaged as everyone thought they would be. CPM rates didn’t crater, suggesting that this particular version of apocalypse isn’t nigh (for now, at least). There were eye-catching shake-ups in various corners of the community, but the impacts felt localized, and while the new analytics may have played some direct role in those shifts, they were more likely the results of broader trends. It remains unclear if Webster’s Optimization Trap ensnared any significant chunk of publishers, but whatever the case, the Apple Podcast platform continues to be gamed in other ways. Meanwhile, direct response advertisers are still expressing concerns about having to compete with brand advertising dollars, most recently at the last IAB podcast upfronts, according to this Digiday write-up.

But twelve months after the fact, the legacy and impact of Apple’s new analytics is still very much a work in progress: trending positive, but complicated. The data has certainly prove useful, helping some publishers to better understand things like unlistened downloads, ad skipping, and episode retention rates. But based on the exchanges I’ve had, the general feeling seems to be that the data hasn’t fundamentally changed podcasting’s prehistoric perception among advertisers. Many argued that as long as the podcast business remains pegged to the download, trouble is afoot.

This isn’t to say that publishers weren’t able to secure more brand advertisers over the past year. (As many were quick to assure me.) Rather, some sources argues that until measurement actually shifts away from the download, the podcast ecosystem will never structurally unlock brand advertising dollars. One posited the nature of this problem has only worsened over the past year, given the increase in participation from competing platforms — like Google, Pandora, iHeart, Spotify, and so on — that, with their respective user bases and expertise in data and targeting, could potentially end up assuming control as the gatekeeper between brand advertisers and podcast publishers should any of them gain traction proper against Apple.

Some argued that things can only really change if the industry is able to successfully shift its analytics paradigm towards a “true” listening metric — that is, a universe in which publishers can sell advertising based on actual consumption, not episode delivery. And while there is some optimism around NPR’s Remote Audio Data (RAD) initiative (which, I’m told, might finally be widely deployed in the coming months), the prevailing suspicion is the publisher-led shift won’t come quickly enough. “We’re still pretty far from where we need to be,” a podcast executive told me.

We remain in the universe of podcast downloads, though, and while we’re here: most people I spoke with believe that the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s podcast measurement standards was a lot more influential over the past year than the new Apple analytics. “IAB V2 created a more even playing field,” National Public Media’s Bryan Moffett said. “There’s a common definition of a download, and we can all speak the same language.” There continues to be some debate over the nuances of the standards, but the podcast industry appears to have broadly aligned with the IAB on download measurements, so at least that hurdle seems to have been cleared. (Previously, the concern was around a lack of proper apples-to-apples comparisons among podcast downloads.)

Still, as mentioned, there were some concrete ways in which Apple’s in-episode analytics have helped publishers. For one thing, the new data allowed teams to better capture, understand, and convey listener engagement, and that contribution shouldn’t be downplayed. “I think the greatest benefit is knowing that the vast majority of people aren’t skipping the ads on our shows — especially when the hosts do a really engaging job with their reads,” said Alyssa Martino, Macmillan’s associate director of podcasts. “It’s hard to connect that specifically to spends since our shows sell well, but it’s great to have the data now to back up what we’ve known and said anecdotally for years.”

The new data also helped some publishers to build and improve new advertising products. Dave Shaw, the executive producer of podcasts at POLITICO, told me that they’ve successfully sold post-roll ad slots on the POLITICO Playbook Audio Briefing after being able to show that listeners stick around to the end. Anna Phelan, the editorial program manager at TED, tells me that the new analytics have helped them evaluate longer ad experiences that they’ve been integrating into WorkLife with Adam Grant. “We didn’t know how listeners would respond to the length or content, but we felt confident enough in the appeal of the content to take the risk,” Phelan said. “The high consumption rates that we saw, with almost no drop-off during the ad break, reassured us that the approach resonates with our audience and gives us permission to continue to develop other formats in this style.”

There is another way in which Apple’s in-episode analytics unambiguously proved useful: as editorial data. Almost every publisher I contacted talked about how they’ve been able to learn about episodes and experiments that worked (and what didn’t), and how the data has helped them feel more confident when shifting around resources or making structural adjustment to shows (cutting or expanding publishing schedules, shortening or lengthening episodes).

Those editorial benefits are important, but ultimately, they’re secondary to our advertising concerns here. And on that front, a good deal (though not all) of the sources I spoke with generally want more from Apple. Some expressed frustration over what feels like slow product iteration on the part of Apple’s new analytics dashboard. “I know it’s still supposed to be a beta, but let’s go already!” one executive told me. Several advocated for Apple to make more data available through an API, so that publishers can more effectively integrate Apple Podcast listening data — which, despite Apple’s majority facilitation, only represents one chunk of a show’s overall audience at the end of the day — into their central measurement dashboards, thus helping them paint better pictures of their audiences for advertisers to peruse.

There is still, it seems, a long way to go. One year after Apple’s new in-episode analytics rolled out to the public, its impacts seems to be somewhat muted — or, at least, nowhere near as revolutionary as many were hoping. As such, there is a certain sameness to the way this year is ending compared to the way it began. Maybe these things take longer than a year, or maybe those changes need to take different shapes. In any case, if there is be some revolution, it isn’t quite here yet.

In the meantime, the podcast industry will continue to grow in the way that it’s always been growing.

Panoply’s Pinna might just be the first really interesting attempt to get people to pay for podcasts

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 136, published October 17, 2017.

60dB → Google. Google has acqui-hired the team behind 60dB, the personalized short-form audio app. The team, which goes by the name of Tiny Garage Labs, announced the move last Tuesday, and a Google representative confirmed the development to Business Insider. As part of this arrangement, the app will shut down on November 10.

The development originally surfaced in an unlisted Medium post that appeared to be prematurely published back on September 16. That post was eventually taken down, but you can check out screenshots of the draft here. Note the details that didn’t make it to the final announcement copy.

The acquisition sum was not publicly disclosed, and it is unclear from last week’s announcement where, exactly, the 60dB team will be situated within Google. (That unlisted Medium post, however, holds a clue, though no guarantees on its ultimate validity.) That said, I’m told that the editorial team — made up of three full-time staffers in Austin, San Francisco, and London, whose duties include production and the management of a network of freelancers — will indeed follow the rest of the company to the Googleplex.

Tiny Garage Labs’ pickup by Google takes place two years after its founding, and about a year after 60dB went live. The company was founded by two former Netflix executives, John Ciancutti and Steve McLendon, along with former Planet Money reporter Stephen Henn, who vociferously outlined his reasons for leaving the public radio system in a Medium post (what else?) published early 2016. “The biggest threat to NPR  —  and the 900+ member stations that are the life-blood of the public radio system  —  is that this big beautiful crazy system may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” Henn wrote. “I want to help.”

60dB’s original premise broadly echoes ideas of platforms past. Its aim is some combination of solving the inefficiencies ingrained in the traditional broadcast radio experience — if you’re hearing something that you don’t want, your moves are either to switch across a relatively limited selection of channels or wait for time to pass within the confines of a specific station — and the newer inefficiencies that have emerged from the theoretically infinite choice horizon introduced by the Internet, including breakdowns in discovery and curation. The nature of the solution is twofold: (1) to usher in an audio creation environment in which the atomic unit of content is not an individual episode (whose lengths, as any podcast listener can tell you, range widely) but a short, individual story piece; and (2) to match listeners with appropriate stories through “algorithmic personalization.” (Which reminds me: best to keep abreast of the various recent discussions, debates, and diatribes about the intersection of news and algorithms.) The theoretical upside for publishers is also familiar: in theory, these short-form audio pieces, should publishers choose to produce them, will (presumably) be consumed by more listeners as a result of these solved inefficiencies. As far as monetization goes, who knows. “Right now, we’re working on nailing the experience,” cofounder Ciancutti told me last November. “Monetization will come next.” Okay.

60dB poses a strikingly specific interpretation of the digital audio consumption future, one that doesn’t naturally follow from the current configuration of the on-demand audio ecosystem and requires the development of whole new systems and environments. Which, I suppose, is why Tiny Garage Labs ended up at Google two years in as opposed to sticking it out alone; it’s a big vision that requires big investment in big manual constructions, which I imagine isn’t very attractive to VC money. A considerable portion of the company’s content value proposition involve a hands-on, sprawling production of individual story units — led by the aforementioned three-person editorial team — by an array of manually facilitated publishing partners, ranging from Wired to The Atlantic, which is a workable but not terribly scalable system without either building out an internal editorial headcount or cultivating a client culture in which publishers shell out for their own internal short-form audio teams. Now that the team is heading to Google (nobody’s idea of an organization that’s accepting of manual labor) I’m hard pressed to think that the manual production portion of the process will last very long. (Perhaps it’s time to pay close attention to the text-to-speech category.)

In any case, all of this discussion is moot unless we know just how Tiny Garage Labs — with its short-form, algorithm thesis — will fit into Google’s apparatus. (If it gets slotted meaningfully into somewhere, of course. Google acqui-hires all the time, and sometimes those absorptions grow into something, like Songza becoming the template for Google Play Music, and sometimes they amount to not very much at all, like FeedBurner.) One emerging theory: 60dB seems like a good entry point for news distribution via the tech giant’s recently announced foray in the emerging smart speaker category, the vaguely IKEA-reminiscent Google Home line. Indeed, the Amazon Echo has been getting a lot of love from publishers playing around with daily briefing Alexa skills. In 60dB, Google now has their means to play catch-up, if indeed they want to catch up at all.

So, what does this acquisition mean for anybody other than Google and everybody who held equity in Tiny Garage Labs? Really, what does this mean for publishers? As always, it comes down to how you feel about dominant platforms, and in particular, how you feel about Google’s position as one of the two corporate octopi that make up the so-called duopoly. It also depends on your feelings about Google’s ever-evolving relationship with the media industry, which nowadays is being funneled through its various Google News divisions, and whether you’d be comfortable operating in an environment largely defined by a much larger entity whose motives are never quite aligned with yours, whose processes of learning might be destructive as much as (perhaps even more so than) it is constructive. This isn’t a moral calculus, mind you. It is a calculus of practicality.

Tiny Garage Labs starts work at Google this week.

Will people pay for podcasts? Maybe. How about children? “We were waiting until we had a project that really made sense for the business model,” Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers said, reflecting on a long-standing interest in the potential of paid podcasts. “The idea here, as with Netflix, is to sell something that simply couldn’t be found anywhere else.”

In this instance, that something is audio programming for children, which is the substance of the new paid listening service that Panoply announced a few weeks ago. The service is called Pinna, and for $7.99 a month (or $79.99 a year), parents can blanket their offspring with a variety of kid-oriented audio products, including podcasts and audiobooks. The service was first officially announced through a New York Times write-up in early October.

Pinna emerges as a fairly elegant solution to a key problem in the kids’ podcast category: that of its monetization. Under the current industry environment in which podcasts are principally ad-driven, the prospect of children’s programming has been limited by a general uneasiness about letting kids be an advertising target in the so-called intimate medium of podcasts. (The very nature of its effectiveness is also its downside). Interest in children’s podcast programming has surged over the past few months, with the industry seeing the emergence of a few notable initiatives to capitalize on it, including the formation of a loose collective known as Kids Listen and a foray into the genre by NPR, called Wow in the World, which is really an initiative driven by hosts Guy Raz (of TED Radio Hour and How I Built This fame, and a former Nieman fellow) and SiriusXM’s Mindy Thomas working through their own production company, Tinkercast. These efforts were great signals of intent and ambition, but these initiatives never quite appeared to meaningfully grapple with alternatives beyond assailing children (and their parents) with mattress ads.

Building a paid subscription service has always been an option on the table for anybody game to take it, of course. But that route requires not only significant resources but also a willingness to attend to an even bigger question, one constantly uttered around the industry: can you actually get people to pay for podcasts? Which is to say, can you start selling a media product that’s largely available to consumers for free, whose very origins are tethered in a tradition of free-ness? (Which is separate from the original question of Audible, as a culture and expectation of payment around audiobooks has been established since the very beginning.) And so here we are, with Panoply’s attempt to answer the twin questions of paid and children’s podcasting, which comes in the form of a service called Pinna, named after that weird dip in the outline of your ear. (Cute! Also, gross.)

Bowers pegged the origins of the project to a panel at WNYC Greene Space last February, when an attendee asked about the prospect of children’s programming. But the project only meaningfully began development about a year ago, when Panoply was able to get its parent company, Graham Holdings, on board with the idea. In January, the company hired Emily Shapiro, a veteran in children’s programming and the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, to lead the project, which was then almost entirely produced in-house. The hire was not made public. “We didn’t want to tip our hand,” Bowers said. (Classic.)

Pinna’s inventory is built on a mixture of licensed material, like stories from Rabbit Ears Entertainment (Panoply serves as its exclusive online distributor), and original content, like the new Gen-Z Media show The Ghost of Jessica Majors. I’m told that there’s no hard and fast ratio between licensed and original content, but the composition naturally favors acquired content at the moment. To describe the platform’s trajectory, Bowers once again evoked Netflix, pointing out how that service’s offerings started out with licensed content, before the data gathered — through the app’s own in-episode listening analytics capabilities, which Pinna will boast — allowed it to start making focused choices with original program development. (By the way, it’s probably worth noting that most of Pinna’s resources are allocated to original programming.)

It should be noted that Pinna content won’t exclusively live behind its paywall. If you were to wander around your nearest podcast app listings, you would find the Pinna podcast feed, which features many of Pinna’s original content for free, without ads, but those episodes won’t be available indefinitely. (Which is to say, it will be an ever-evolving feed.) The feed exists in part to serve as a customer acquisition funnel, but Bowers maintains that it’s also driven by a civic orientation. “The hope is to have the content be accessible to children from across the socioeconomic spectrum,” he explained. “This is something I wanted from the very beginning.”

Let’s see where this goes. It’s only been a few weeks, and I’ll swing back after a month or so — preferably having commandeered someone’s App Annie account — to check in on the early stages of the gambit.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

(1) So, Pinna isn’t the first example of an attempt to answer the question “Will people actually pay for podcasts?” (Which is a claim I’ve seen floating around, weirdly enough.) We have Audible, obviously, which still endeavors to build out an original content business on top of its primary audiobook-driven engine. And we also have Midroll’s own forays with the service formerly known as Howl, now genetically melded with Stitcher after Midroll’s parent company Scripps acquired the app from Deezer last summer. Midroll still seeks to build out a premium layer to that app configuration, primarily with its own adventures in windowing (as we saw with Missing Richard Simmons). With that in mind, I will say that Pinna strikes me as the first attempt at paid podcasting that’s strategically interesting. Audible and the Stitcher-Howl frankenstein both compete in the marketplace with inventory that’s virtually undifferentiated from much of what’s available for free over the open ecosystem. Pinna, for all that it is, is a reach toward an audience segment that hasn’t been properly cultivated among podcasts just yet, and offers products that still haven’t been “priced” as free within the ecosystem’s context. With that value prop in place, I think they have a good chance to extract at least some value.

(2) Speaking of which: why hasn’t Audible original content division made a play for the kids category? David Markowitz, a Hot Pod reader and audiobook production veteran, laid out a theory: “Audiobooks are the piece that gives [Audible] its value. Which is exactly why Audible doesn’t want to go there…they don’t want to fracture their audience,” the reader wrote in. “Kids audiobooks have never done well in Audible, though they do great in libraries. Parents love them. BUT within the Audible token system, a 15-minute kids’ book costs the same as a 14 hour sci-fi epic. So within that market, they’re stupidly overpriced.”

I asked Bowers for his thoughts. True to form, he avoided speculating much. “I’m surprised that they haven’t done it,” Bowers replied. “But I’m glad we got there first.” Sassy man.

(3) Additionally, Pinna is a notable example of a genre-specific listening app, a category that mirrors some of what we’re seeing in the OTT video sector (see AMC’s Shudder and the now-defunct Seeso.) Of course, Pinna isn’t the only effort in this category. Curious observers should check out an independent app called VSporto, which focuses on sports, and Laughable, which focuses on comedy content that more or less plays within Earwolf’s lane.

(4) One more: Pinna is the latest in what appears to be an increasingly sprawling set of businesses conducted under the Panoply banner, adding to a list that includes original content creation, ad sales, branded content production, and technology solutions (in the form of Megaphone). At what point is it diversification, and at what point is it madness?

No Pain is Novel. Ben Johnson, the former host of APM’s Marketplace Tech who recently moved over to WBUR, tweeted this at me a few days ago, probably in a moment of frustration as he develops a new show:

*flashes of domain-squatting trauma*

Holding position for new Apple analytics. The iOS 11 update kicked in while I was away, and while listeners have received a brand new re-designed Podcasts app (complete with new episode listing formats), the long-awaited in-episode analytics layer — previously pegged to the update — is still nowhere to be seen. I’m told that it will come later this year, even though there isn’t much year left.

Publishers, it seems, will have to keep holding their breath. “It’s like Waiting for Godot,” one executive said to me recently. In the meantime, you can check out (or re-read) my previous coverage on the matter here and here.

In other blasphemous news, I do find myself missing the Old Podcast App.

The Third Coast Festival announces its award winners. They include: Stitcher’s The Longest Shortest Time, Love+Radio, Youth Radio, Gimlet’s Heavyweight, Radio Ambulante, Radio Diaries, Serial Production’s S-Town, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, independent producer Laura Irving, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s PocketDocs, and  Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. Full descriptions here. Congrats to all!

The numbers. I’ve got some download numbers, and we’ll keep running them like baseball stats until the download paradigm stops being relevant.

  • Dirty John, the salacious true crime collaboration between LA Times and Wondery, has picked up some heat since launching in early October. It started the week with 4.4 million downloads across its six episode run (~733k per episode average). Bolstered in part by a big Apple Podcast feature banner splash, the show has held the top spot of the charts over the past two weeks.
  • Elsewhere, the Snap Judgment spin-off Spooked, broke a million downloads across five episodes (~200k per episode average) in its first month.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s successful regional true crime podcast, Breakdown, will soon welcome its fifth season, and it celebrates the new cycle by sending out a press release in which the paper claims the podcast has received over 8 million downloads across 36 episodes, four seasons, and two years

The last five weeks. A month and a week is both a lot of time and not a lot of time at all. It follows, then, that a lot can happen without very much actually happening at all. Such is the feeling of the past few days, a good portion of which I spent scanning my inbox, Pocket archives, and various source pools to get a sense of a macro-story that’s emerged over the Hot Pod Hiatus of Fall 2017. Alas, I could find no such organizing narrative, so forgive my lack of comprehensiveness as I list out a couple of narrative threads that stood out during the hiatus:

(1) The industry wasn’t done with fundraising. Both Acast and Anchor drummed up new pots of money in September ($19.5 million in Series B and $10 million in Series A, respectively). Meanwhile, Gimlet Media secured an additional $5 million from WPP, the global advertising giant, for its recent $15 million Series B round, which is being principally positioned as a sign of confidence from a major player in the advertising community.

(2) HowStuffWorks has officially spun off from its parent company, a digital advertising company called System1. Now operating as an independent entity, it will weather its newfound freedom with a $15 million Series A fundraising round led by the Raine Group (background here). This development comes shortly after the nearly two decade-old Atlanta podcast company noticeably dedicated some investment to building out a West Coast operation, one oriented around the stalwart comedy podcast genre. That Western Conference — it’s still very competitive.

(3) Crooked Media, the new-age progressive digital media company founded by former Obama staffers that’s been primarily operating as a podcast network, has officially expanded into blogging. Or digital text. Or whatever you wanna call it. In any case, the budding media empire has begun its inventory diversification, taking on a distinctly Ringer-esque quality. My buddies at Nieman Lab published a pretty good interview with the company’s new text editor-in-chief, Brian Beutler, who was swiped away from the New Republic.

(4) I’ve never received more texts, emails, messages — from podcast execs all the way to casual Hot Pod readers — for a single podcast news story than I did for that TMZ story on the controversy hitting PodcastOne founder and chairman Norm Pattiz, which came with the headline: “PodcastOne Founder Sued: ‘He Pulled a Gun to Intimidate Me Into Fudging Podcast Data.'” Tabloid headlines being tabloid headlines, it’s always worth clicking through and assessing the details, and it’s worth noting that Pattiz has publicly disputed the claims. I’ve mentioned this previously, but whatever the actual end result of this suit, this is ultimately the first public major numbers fudging scandal of the modern podcast era.

(5) WNYC recently staged the third edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. This year’s festivities marked the first time the event was held outside of New York. And from the wave of press coverage, it seems to have gone well. Vanity Fair’s write-up, in particular, is comprehensive and well worth your time.

(6) I enjoyed this report on “Voice AI” assembled and published by the BBC’s Trushar Barot, which gets us a little closer to systematically thinking about wherever the emerging smart speaker category — which is effectively a bridge — is apparently leading us toward. And speaking of the BBC and smart speakers, the British public broadcaster has been experimenting with an audio drama delivered through the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Meanwhile, the wireless speaker company (and prominent podcast advertiser) Sonos has decided to play ball with the Amazon Echo and Google Home in a most interesting manner: by playing the role of platform.

(7) Three public radio operatives — KPCC’s Kristen Muller, KQED’s Umbreen Bhatti, and NPR’s Liz Danzico — have been researching the potential effects of self-driving cars on public radio listenership, which you could reasonably extrapolate and apply to other kinds of non-music audio products. “It feels distant for people,” Muller told Nieman Lab on the issue. “But for Umbreen and me, it felt very much like a now question.” I tweeted the article out, and summarily received emails from a few readers arguing that optimism over self-driving cars is overblown, that the timeline for adoption is nowhere close to being “sooner than you think” in the way that Nieman Lab’s headline suggested. I’d argue the timeline isn’t the point. Much like the Really Big One, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the next five years or the next fifty; planning for large-scale impacts should start as soon as possible.

So those are seven stories that stood out to me. Two quick ones before I toss to the Bites: apparently Terry Gross is a Twitter lurker operating under a pseudonym (I KNEW IT), and I recently wrote a brief overview of the short history of podcasting for Wired.

Bites

  • Joel Meyer, one of the smartest and funniest operators in the industry, is heading to WNYC Studios, where he will serve as an executive producer. In doing so, he leaves WBEZ, where he held the title of Executive Producer of Talk Programming and Podcasts. Meyer is also a former Panoply staffer. He will work remotely from Chicago, and begins his tenure later this month.
  • Looks like Barstool Sports has broken into Podtrac’s Top Ten rankings, both on a network and show level. (As always, disclaimers apply.) On a related note, ESPN is apparently bringing Barstool’s Pardon My Take, itself a kind of ESPN spoof, to television. An ouroboros, a flat circle.
  • The Paragon Collective, the network behind the NoSleep podcast, gets a Fast Company profile. “I’m a TV writer so I’m very used to just writing for visuals. And so writing for an audio podcast, there’s no subtlety.” (Fast Company)
  • The television adaptation of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore has premiered on Amazon Prime Video. This isn’t the first podcast-to-TV launch ever, but I perceive Lore as the first in this buzzy wave of narrative television adaptations. Reviews are still coming in, trending positive, and I imagine I’ll get to it at some point despite the current state of Peak TV.
  • Bumped into this recently, and was impressed/amused: did you know that NPR has a branded podcast with Digiday’s native advertising team called The Podcast Payoff, which seeks to educate marketers about podcasts?
  • Radio Ambulante is holding a live storytelling event in New York on October 26, with proceeds being to support ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico. (Event link)
  • “The unlikely role of true crime podcasts in criminal justice reform.” (Quartz)
  • Not directly podcast-related, but measurement-related: “TV Industry Leaders Developing Purchase Measurement Plan for Advertisers.” Value narratives around established forms of advertising — it’s all socially constructed, y’know? (Variety)

Apple’s new analytics for podcasts mean a lot of change (some good, some inconvenient) is on the way

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 123, published June 13, 2017.

We’ve got a lot to talk about.

“It may look obscure,”tweeted Gimlet’s Matt Lieber, “but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear.” Lieber was talking about a major announcement that came out of the podcast session at WWDC, the Apple developer conference, which took place on Friday. It was a piece of business delivered with relatively little fanfare — par for the course, I think, with the nature of Apple’s historically chill relationship with podcasts —  and Lieber’s right. This is a very big deal, and a lot of change is on the way.

Here’s the headline: Apple is finally opening up in-episode analytics for podcasts. The data will be anonymized, consistent with Apple’s general stance on privacy, and the new analytics layer is scheduled to arrive with the iOS 11 update this fall. This means that podcast publishers will, at long last, receive data that tells them just how much of their episodes are actually being listening to — within the Apple Podcast app, at least, which is still largely understood to serve the majority of listening. (Estimates, however sampled, tend to range between 60 and 80 percent). Previously, podcast consumption was chiefly conceptualized based on downloads, a black box metric that’s criticized as lacking the level of granularity that are table stakes for advertisers buying on digital platforms in 2017. With this announcement, that measurement issue — long articulated as the defining problem of the medium — can finally be meaningfully interrogated, with many believing that the hurdle impeding advertisers from committing more dollars to the space can be thrown out the window.

But some are also arguing this change will bring a mixed bag of consequences, and in some ways, the new data puts the space at risk of snuffing out various dynamics that make it special. Which is to say, while there’s a hope that this will finally lead to podcasting realizing its full economic potential, the shadow of Web 2.0 looms large.

The WWDC session also contained a few other useful announcements, including a design overhaul for Podcasts app and new extensions to feed specifications that would give publishers more control over how they can present episodes within RSS feeds. Among other things, publishers will now have the ability to bundle episodes by season and signal which episodes are actual content versus extras like trailers. Noted Apple writer Jason Snell has a good rundown on this over at his blog, and you can check out the spec document here. And as I mentioned last week, this is probably what the redesign looks like, courtesy of this Reddit thread. (Once again, your mileage may vary with sourcing Reddit.)

But let’s get back to the analytics stuff. Since Friday’s announcement — which you can watch in full at this link, but only on the Safari browser, because Apple — there’s been a ton of writing appraising the matter, and in case you’d like a quick primer, I recommend this write-up by Recode’s Peter Kafka, which also contains screenshots of the upcoming analytics dashboard. (I’m going spelunking in some rabbit holes here, so a primer this is not.)

Here, we’ll attend to wonkier questions: What does this new analytics universe portend? How will the podcast business change? If so, who wins and who loses?

I wasn’t born a prophet, so I don’t know how exactly this will play out, but I do have some notes and assessments on a bunch of the key issues. This write-up is by no means comprehensive, and I’ll be exploring more questions in future issues as we deal with the consequences of announcements. For now, let’s jump in, and we’ll move through a bunch of topics.

Just double-checking: Is this really a big deal?

Yep, I’m pretty certain it’s massive, but it’s worth weighing the counter-argument. Even if Apple serves a majority of all listeners, the argument goes, it doesn’t account for the whole listening universe, and as such there might be muted effects to how this ends up moving the way business is being done. I’m not sure I’d buy much stock in that view: first, not only does most listening quantitatively happen on Apple, the company is qualitatively synonymous with the space. Second, there still doesn’t appear to be a strong alternative to Apple with a big enough consolidated market share that could meaningfully challenge (or avoid) the way Apple defines audience measurement. Which means that, in June 2017, it’s still feasible to think that whenever Apple says jump, most folks are still pretty much going to make like Durant.

How will the new analytics layer change the way we currently understand podcast audiences in the aggregate?

A couple of parts to this:

(1) Many believe that an ecosystem-wide audience resizing is in the cards. Because the vast majority of podcast audience appraisal is conducted based on downloads — and because we don’t actually know what happens to an episode after it’s downloaded — the way podcast audiences are represented, understood, and sold is almost certainly going to change. Just about everyone I spoke to frames this in terms of some form of downsizing, which makes intuitive sense, because there will always be some percentage of episodes being downloaded that are left unlistened (and ads left unserved). But the positive spin I’m given is that this change nevertheless comes with a higher level of accountability, and the gains in trust from advertisers will likely lead to much greater gains over the long term.

As Matt Turck, Panoply’s chief revenue officer, puts it, “I’m assuming we will see listener numbers fall short of download numbers; however, the benefit to making analytics far less mysterious should vastly outweigh the concern.”

(2) That said, there remains the possibility that the new in-episode analytics layer might reveal inconvenient truths about audience behavior. I’ve been told there are a few non-Apple tools and platforms (like Spotify and some third-party listening apps) with in-episode analytics already in the market, and while they only supporting a minority share of listening, the consumption data they’ve been collecting suggests there’s nothing especially revolutionary hiding in those new numbers.

Aaron Lammer, of Longform and Stoner, is one among the skeptical. “I would push back against the idea that there is some great insight lurking in these analytics,” he said when we chatted over Twitter. “As people who’ve set up elaborate app-based analytics hooks where you can track everything will tell you-there isn’t that much interesting… I’d rather look [at] it as standardization rather than revolutionary shift.”

That point on standardization, I think, is really important to file away in your head.

(3) Bryan Moffett, the COO of National Public Media, made a good observation on how the proliferation of dynamic ad insertion technology might mean the transition to an in-episode analytics world would still contain tricky imprecision.

To quote him in full:

A dynamic ad server will serve up many different versions of a single episode. They could vary in length by a few minutes or even more. For example, if one user gets an episode of TED Radio Hour with four dynamic :30 sponsorships and a :30 promotion block in its hour of content, but another user for some reason gets the same episode with just two :30 sponsors, the length difference is over a minute and the content is not aligned minute by minute for each episode.

Apple’s analytics rolls up all listening to a given episode and averages, so there is bound to be some imprecision. It’s not a lot, and it’s certainly a better world than the one we live in now.

It’s never easy shifting gears.

How will the podcast business be affected?

Time will tell, obviously. But here’s the range of the thinking out there:

(1) As I mentioned, there is a sense from some bigger publishers that this new analytics layer will finally allow them to kick open conversations that may meaningfully unlock long coveted brand advertising dollars. Contrary to direct response advertisers, whose intended outcomes (and measurement methodologies) additionally revolve around conversions off promo codes, brand advertisers are generally thought to require a higher level of trust in the impressions being reported back to them. Podcasting’s black-box download-oriented measurement universe has long been described as the primary hurdle preventing brand advertisers from allocating more dollars to the medium, and it is believed that Apple’s in-episode analytics are a significant first step forward in opening up conversations between brand advertisers and podcast publishers across the system (conversations that have to do with perception as much as actualities).

(2) But how does this development affect the direct response side of the podcast advertising business? There’s a general belief among the folks I’ve talked to that direct response advertisers, or performance-based advertisers, will likely be stable, though there appears to be suspicion that the new analytics layer presents yet another horizon of opportunities for those advertisers and their respective agencies to haggle more over prices. I’m also being told that there are expectations of some oncoming turbulence/fluctuations in price points, as those advertisers go through the process of figuring out how to integrate this new data layer into their current practices.

(3) There are two versions of the apocalyptic view on the business end. The first takes the shape of some worries about ad-skipping, and what the new analytics layer is going to reveal about the extent of this behavior. (For more background on this, read this Wall Street Journal from last summer). The end-times scenario is said to be one where it’s discovered that podcast ads are skipped over at such a volume and intensity as to kill their value. On this front, the responses seem to generally track along the built-in split between brand advertising and performance-based advertising; there is a sense that, even if there is a problem, it would mostly affect the former, while the latter would remain somewhat stable, because conversions are still taken to be more important than impressions. Again, the positive spin I’m served ties back to a sense of greater accountability that the new analytics layer brings into publisher-advertiser interactions: we’ll know who is actually providing value to advertisers, and we’ll know who isn’t doing so as much. As Midroll chief revenue officer Lex Friedman said, “Podcasters who are confident that people are listening to their ads should be very happy about this.”

The second apocalyptic argument presents a scenario where podcast CPMs plummet, ultimately leading to the collapse of the market. This view generally draws on a parallel between podcasts and what happened to blogs once the format started experiencing waves of ad tech development. Personally, I can’t quite see the specifics of how this move by Apple could bring those dynamics to podcasting just yet. My understanding of the plummeting blog CPMs pegs the phenomenon to the continuous structural devaluing of blog advertising real estate brought on emerging ad technologies that gave advertisers (and ad tech companies) unchecked leverage. And while I think the broader risk of podcasts possibly going down the road of blogs is absolutely real, I don’t have a sense that this new analytics layer alone automatically leads to a devaluing of podcast advertising real estate. If anything, Acast’s recent rollout of a programmatic podcast advertising product is more likely to incur those types of effects, should the tool ever get traction — this development from Apple strikes me as a step forward that’s small enough to stop short from these effects.

Who wins, who loses?

(1) Obviously, publishers who have made a practice of inflating download numbers will get checked — though the counterargument that all metrics, without active third-party verification, can be gamed over time is certainly a prudent one.

(2) An argument can be made that this system-wide shift to a new analytics standard would usher in a weeding-out period. Podcasts delivering strong ad value will get additional data to strengthen their appeal for more advertising dollars, and podcasts not doing so will be flushed out of the ad market. It would mean that high-performing podcasts would be in a better position to extract more value, while not-so-high-performing podcasts would have a harder time accessing advertising dollars.

(3) It should be considered that whatever audience readjustments happen will probably disproportionately and negatively impact smaller podcasters’ ability to derive advertising revenue. Which is to say, just as how every publisher experiences the turbulence of discovering that its meaningful listening audience size is probably going to be smaller than its downloads, smaller podcasts will be whipped around harder, and in some (if not most) cases, that could lead to those shows falling beneath a certain threshold for advertising consideration. That’s bad for podcasts with already relatively small but meaningfully engaged audiences. In these cases, there are presumably two available moves: first, lean deeper into a niche that maintains a specific appeal for relevant advertisers, and second, pursue other non-advertising revenue streams.

I suppose, generally speaking, it’s worth keeping in mind that advertisers need to be served value too, and also, advertising isn’t necessarily the only business model available to publishers.

Content considerations. Metrics and measurements have long informed the way programs are created, and we should probably expect to see the dynamic express itself further with the new analytics layer. A couple of threads to consider:

(1) Knowing just how much of episodes are being listened to presents a much better feedback loop to improve not just editorial products, but also advertising products. And there is also the likely effect that we’ll see the blossoming of new formats, genres, and show structures that come from playing toward what the new metrics tells us.

(2) On the flip side, there should also be room for the more general worry that we’re sliding into a world where metrics outweigh creative decisions. I think there’s always room for that concern, regardless of whatever metrics are available — there will, to some extent, always be operators looking to play to the numbers rather than actually use the numbers to make better work.

(3) I’m pretty drawn to the question, raised here on Twitter by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, of whether increased data granularity within a medium would lead to the detriment of experimentation within that medium. Instinctively, I feel as if there is some truth to this, but I also suspect experimentation has less to do with the available metric universe and more to do with the ways in which compensation is structured off those metrics. (A quick tangent: I also find myself wondering how “experimental” material is defined; personally, I tend to grade experimental-ness relative to however the medium currently behaves, and think experimental programming will exist in any format regardless of where it is in its life cycle. I think the more interesting question here is about the conditions under which “experimentation” can exist within high-budget and high-scale productions.)

I’m not even close to being done, but I’ll leave it here for now. Obviously, this enormous and complex development contains many, many layers, and I’ll continue to dig around and write about them in future issues. (I mean, that’s why Hot Pod exists, right?)

Here are some of the questions I’ll be thinking about:

  • To what extent will podcasting go down the road of blogs, and what does that even mean? And should podcasting end up experiencing those same dynamics, what are the differences based on audio as a media format?
  • How will the podcast industry change? Will the professionalizing publishers benefit as they hoped for? What will happen to smaller and indie podcasters?
  • How will podcasting change for audiences?
  • Will we see the industry create more jobs for producers, developers, and assorted media folk?
  • How will the development impact what I’ve described as the bifurcation of the space, with podcasts as extension-of-blogging on one side and podcasts as extension-of-radio on the other?

As for my own normative view on all of this, I’m still figuring it out. I do think that the podcast industry is indeed still comparatively tiny, as Recode’s Peter Kafka points out, with podcast ad spending projected to only be about $250 million this year. While it’s growing at a solid and steady rate, it’s still peanuts compared to where radio (about $14.1 billion) is today, and there’s more to be gained and lost from changing how business is being done today. And like Kafka, I do think change was going to happen no matter what.

Also, as I mentioned on Twitter, I find myself skeptical about the nostalgia and privileging of the status quo. But that’s a story for another day.

Roman Mars, Esquire. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Civics 101 has some new competition in the form of a somewhat surprising side project from the 99% Invisible chief: “What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law” is an explainer podcast that features Mars being taught the basics of constitutional law by UC Davis professor Elizabeth Joh based on ongoing developments in the current iteration of the White House. I’m told that the podcast is officially produced under the Radiotopia banner, which brings the number of Radiotopians with two podcasts up to two (the other is Hrishikesh Hirway, who makes both Song Exploder and the West Wing Weekly for the indie podcast collective). Mars’ new podcast comes mere days before the launch of another new Radiotopia podcast, Ear Hustle. That’s scheduled to roll out later this week.

Career spotlight. Spend enough time in the New York podcast scene — or any major city with a podcast scene, really — and you’re bound to bump into someone who came up through WNYC, which was once the city’s only major institution dealing with narrative radio. In this week’s Career Spotlight, we’re bumping into Leital Molad, who currently leads podcast development for the Pierre Omidyar-backed First Look Media.

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you do?[/conl]

[conr]Leital Molad: I’m the executive producer of podcasts at First Look Media. In a nutshell, I develop and produce podcasts for The Intercept (First Look’s investigative news site) and Topic (our entertainment studio). Right now we have two podcasts in production, Politically ReActive and Intercepted. I oversee those shows week to week, working with the producers, giving editorial notes, and liaising with our business team on the marketing side. The other big part of my job is taking pitches for new shows, creating pilots, and bringing projects to launch. Since I got to First Look last October, we launched three shows: Maeve in America, Intercepted and Missing Richard Simmons.[/conr]

[conl]HP: Where did you start, and how did you end up in this position?[/conl]

[conr]Molad: I started as an intern at WNYC in 2000. The next year I got a full time job as a production assistant for Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, and spent the next 15 years working on that show, ultimately running it as senior producer. My last year at WNYC I launched and EP’ed a health podcast, Only Human. I started thinking about my next career move and figured that this podcast renaissance was a great time to break out of my cozy public radio cocoon and try something new. So I took the leap and went to First Look — a media startup that was just getting into podcasting.[/conr]

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

[conr]Molad: WNYC was an amazing place to learn everything I know about radio and audio. I got to wear many hats, ranging from basic show production — booking guests, writing scripts, cutting tape — to reporting my own stories, producing documentaries, and running live events. And I learned a ton about launching new shows after working on Only Human, which has been very helpful in my new job. Also, having been in the trenches with audio production (which I love), I can be a better manager of producers and engineers. Getting new shows off the ground at a startup often means being able to jump in on production when needed, and that’s been invaluable.[/conr]

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

[conr]Molad: After college, I didn’t land on what I wanted to do until I was brainstorming with a family friend who offered to help with some career advice. He asked me, “If you could have anyone’s job, who would it be?” Right away I said, “Terry Gross.” He said, “Well, that’s what you need to do!” I had been a DJ at my college station and an avid listener of public radio, and those two things just clicked. I wasn’t sure how to become the next Terry Gross; eventually I figured I should go to journalism school. So I came to New York for grad school at NYU, and then, very luckily, landed the internship at Studio 360. My dream of hosting evolved into an appreciation and desire for producing, which I fell in love with.  Maybe I’ll still host a show some day, we’ll see!  (You know, they say anyone can start a podcast with a laptop and a microphone…)[/conr]

Molad adds that she’s on the lookout for more female voices, and that interested parties should get in touch. You can find Leital on Twitter at @leitalm.

Bites

  • ESPN has rolled out the podcast feed for its upcoming 30 for 30 audio adaptation. The first episode is set to drop on June 27. (website)
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is coming back on Thursday. (NY Times)
  • WBUR is launching a storytelling podcast aimed at kids. (WBUR)
  • Looks like the Chapo Trap House team has bagged themselves a book deal with the Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone Books. On a related note, I’m hearing that the podcast channel is increasingly fruitful prospecting ground for book publishers. (Twitter)

Decoding what makes a podcast a hit on the iTunes charts

Edison Research: Monthly podcast consumption surges. More than 1 in 5 Americans report having listened to a podcast within the past month, according to data teased in a new blog post by Edison Research. Specifically, 21 percent of Americans (an estimated 57 million) report having done so, representing a pretty significant jump from 2015, which saw 17 percent of surveyed Americans reporting that behavior. In 2014, that number was 15 percent, so growth seems to be accelerating.

Another sweet way to cut it: Monthly American podcast consumption grew about 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Don’t you just love stats?

It’s certainly an encouraging data point for all who are enthusiastic about podcasts as the future of radio/audio/blogging. And I’m certainly tempted to think that we’re finally seeing evidence of tangible widescale conversions from all the buzz and hype that podcasting enjoyed last year.

A plausible counterargument is as follows: Is this number a true reflection of solid, genuine, sustainable consumer acquisition (and retention) across the medium, or does it more represent a period where listeners are merely testing out the format? That question, to some extent, is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it’s a question with no meaningful immediate answer, because the process is still playing itself out. And second, the number itself is an influencing factor — as a positive public indicator that fuels for the industry’s vision and presentation of itself, one imagines that countless folks out to build new businesses within the medium will use this statistic in a pitch deck, playing out a fulfillment of their own prophecy.

Which is all to say: This data point is very good, and I’m going to call my mum and tell her I didn’t screw up my life joining this industry. Cool? Cool.

Anyway, Edison’s data point here is excerpted from the much larger Infinite Dial 2016 study, scheduled to be released later this week. The study comes out a partnership between Edison Research and Triton Digital, a digital audio technology and advertising company. I’ll write it up on next week’s Hot Pod.

Midroll tightens its brand. Scripps-owned Midroll Media is sunsetting its Wolfpop podcast network this week. Wolfpop was previously branded as Midroll’s pop culture-oriented owned-and-operated content arm curated by comedian Paul Scheer — as opposed the company’s flagship comedy-oriented Earwolf brand. (Yeah, it’s a little confusing, which is probably why we’re seeing this consolidation, I imagine).

Ten out of Wolfpop’s 13 podcasts will now live under the Earwolf umbrella. The three shows that will not continue their relationships with Midroll are Rotten Tomatoes, Picking Favorites, and Off Camera with Sam Jones. The company also announced that Hello From the Magic Tavern, a well loved and utterly weird podcast previously supported by the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, is joining the network.

Midroll chief content officer Chris Bannon made these announcements on the Earwolf forums yesterday, citing that “this change is a way for us to make Earwolf a bigger, better, and more inclusive network.”

I reached out to Bannon, who previously served as WNYC’s vice president of content development and production, and asked whether we’d be seeing any news programming coming out of Earwolf anytime soon. “I’ll certainly be taking a hard look at what we can contribute to our listeners’ needs for smart news programming,” he wrote back. “Right now, it feels as though many of the newsmakers are venturing pretty deeply into the comedy space, though. We will have announcements on the news front soon.”

Coy, Bannon. Very coy.

This development was foreshadowed by a job posting that the company put up last week, which contained the following self-description:

This group, led by our VP of Business Development, identifies and brings aboard great new podcasts and creators for all three of our major lines of business: Midroll, the leader in podcast ad sales; Earwolf, our owned & operated podcast network; and Howl, our premium audio subscription service.

In related Midroll news: the company has also hired Jenny Radelet, who previously served as executive media producer for the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 service, as the managing editor for Howl, the company’s subscription service. She started work yesterday.

Limited-run local journalism. This week, WNYC will kick off There Goes the Neighborhood, a limited-series podcast that’ll explore the topic of gentrification in Brooklyn. I personally get all my New York-related gentrification news from The Awl, but I’m intrigued to see that the show is produced in partnership with The Nation — another example of the swell of collaborations between audio companies and existing publications (see WBUR’s Modern Love, WNYC’s New Yorker Radio Hour, KPCC’s recently concluded The Awards Show Show, and the majority of Panoply’s operating model). The show will run for eight episodes and is hosted by Kai Wright, The Nation’s features editor.

There Goes the Neighborhood is notable to me for two reasons. First, it looks to be a strong piece of local journalism, something I don’t get to see very much of in Podcastland. Sure, it’s local to New York, perhaps the most saturated media market in the world, but still. Secondly, it’s the first major audio project that features the involvement of Rebecca Carroll, who joined WNYC last October as a producer of special projects about race in New York City.

“I’m here to generate ideas,” Carroll told me last Friday, when I asked about her role within the station. “We’re experiencing a moment right now in American culture where our most famous public intellectual is Ta-Nehisi Coates, where we have the #BlackLivesMatters movement, Black Twitter, and an election that comes down to the black vote. It’s a moment where blackness and black culture is being listened to, and my aim is to wrest that moment and harness it in a way that can be fanned back out into the most creative, innovative, interesting life-changing way.”

There Goes The Neighborhood is scheduled to debut tomorrow, March 9. A teaser for the show is up already.

An indie label comes alive. Night Vale Presents, the new indie podcast label — that’s what I’m calling it, guys, just roll with it, come on — founded by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast, is publishing its first title today. The show, Alice Isn’t Dead, is an audio drama written by Fink, and it’s scheduled to play out across 10 biweekly episodes.

Alice is, in a lot of ways, quintessential Night Vale. It shares its predecessor’s particular brand of creepiness — that is, juxtaposing the banal with thick, slabs of horror — and, like Night Vale, Alice displays Fink’s fascination with Americana. Where Night Vale is a love letter to small-town America, Alice is a meditation on the expansive, desolate imagery of the desert highways that make up the vast middle of the country. I’ve heard cuts of the first two episodes, and I really, really like ’em.

Night Vale Presents was conceived out a logistical necessity. Fink and Cranor had wanted to develop more projects beyond their core show, and built Night Vale Presents to be a framework that supports them. “We don’t have any plans to try to grow it into an empire or start taking tech funding or any of that,” Fink told me over email. “What we do hope to do is keep making new podcasts, both our own and works by other artists who haven’t worked in the podcast space before.”

On iTunes, part one. So, the most common inquiry I get from Hot Pod readers overwhelmingly comes in the form of a gripe: How, exactly, do the iTunes charts work? (The second most common inquiry, for the curious: How much does so-and-so make? That’s…I don’t know what to say about that. Leaving that for another day.)

It’s a question I try to stay away from, for a simple reason: I don’t think it’s something that should be fixated upon. Sure, 70 percent of podcast listening happens through iTunes or the native iOS Podcasts app (or so we’re told — it’s impossible to verify, frankly, given the immature state of podcast measurement). But there are many, many other avenues for podcast creators to reach potential new audiences that haven’t been adequately utilized, including basic stuff like search and social. And it benefits the medium as a whole if more creators leaned harder into non-iTunes avenues. Think about it: Attempts to convert audiences through the iTunes platform is a play to win already well worn, probably maxed-out podcast audiences, and if every podcast creator assumes a strategy with iTunes — the platform in general, the charts in specific — at the core, then every podcast creator is essentially competing for the very same pool of ears.

So that’s where my head was at. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there may something to be gained by really thinking through the theory and context of the iTunes charts, and asking the question: How do the charts shape the space? But in order to do that, I’d first have to try to understand how they work in the first place.

Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of weeks.

At this point, I’m going to lay down two core hypotheses, and I’m going to argue for their theoretical fidelity by disclosing that they’re informed by a combination of these things: a survey I recently ran among Hot Pod newsletter subscribers (I pulled 18 representative responses that you can view here), conversations with many, many, many podcast creators, stuff published by other podcast folks who have conferred with iTunes reps in the past, and drawing from my own experience with my old day-job employer. iTunes reps, understandably, declined to publicly comment.

My hypotheses are as follows:

1. The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on.

2. The charts are designed chiefly as a discovery tool, and it performs its duty by identifying and rewarding podcasts with a sense of momentum. Thus, what’s rewarded is relative positive change — getting an additional 1,000 interactions on top of a 10,000 interaction base (say, subscriptions) will send you up quicker than an additional 1,000 on top of 100,000. Again, this makes sense: If the charts were designed to display a power ranking of the most successful shows, then the Top 10 placements would simply never change, with the biggest shows standing to just keep getting bigger. And because iTunes is fully incentivized to provide a chart that, well, actually provides value to users to keep them on the platform, they’d need to rely on a discovery mechanism that allows for the top chart placements to constantly change. In a lot of ways, the charts are actually pretty democratic.

These two hypotheses don’t explain the charts in totality (nothing could, really, other than the algorithm-turned-sentient), but I believe them to be strong starting points to understand the charts. In sum: The charts are designed for discovery, but the engine they are built upon are iTunes interactions — and so podcasts move up because they engender more iTunes-driven subscriptions and downloads, because moving up is a form of reward. Once you settle into that, some things begin to make sense. It’s how you get a Disney enthusiast podcast in the top 5 between Serial and Alice Isn’t Dead — as it was positioned at 4 p.m. ET on March 4. It’s also how you get a parodic sports talk radio podcast sitting on the top spot in that same time period, even though it’s only loaded with a preview. (The prescriptive here is fairly clear: if you wanna play the charts game, optimize your marketing for iTunes interactions. Didn’t want to point it out, but what the hell I’ve already gone this far.)

And here’s where we get back to my original query: What effect does this particular chart system have on the podcasting space?

As my inbox suggests, it generates a lot of angst. I’d argue that feeling comes out of an interpretation that the iTunes podcast charts should serve as a mechanism that adequately signals or communicates a podcast’s value or worth. Which is an understandable interpretation to hold because (and here’s where I make a sweeping overgeneralization) charts are typically designed as tools to signal value.

And that’s the thing: That’s not what the iTunes charts is designed to do. It was designed to optimize for engagement on its platform, and not to provide a direct and clear representation of what’s valuable. (Although the rocketing up of a podcast on the charts does indicate a kind of value — it’s just we’re getting a proxy value.) But there’s a strong tendency to read iTunes as a prime arbiter of value because, well, we don’t have anything else.

Absent other means of context or evaluation, a singular chart of this nature leads to a muddled representation of the podcasting landscape, as it renders any act of interpreting relative value between podcasts almost impossible. And this provides a poor feedback loop for podcast creators, because a big part of understanding the health of your show is knowing how it stacks against other shows.

But here’s the other thing: I don’t perceive this as a story about the problem with iTunes — as far as I’m concerned, there is no problem with iTunes, because iTunes gotta iTunes. Rather, it’s a story about the medium’s larger problem of being to know itself, and the fact that the main way the industry does is dependent on a single, and incredible incomplete, point of view.

Okay, so I’m running out of space right now, and I wanted to talk about two more things: how the iTunes charts impact the relationship between podcast creators and advertisers, and what market opportunities are baked into situation. We’ll start with the former next week.

Relevant bits:

  • “How Politico’s ‘Off Message’ Podcast Is Rising Above Site’s Staff Departures.” A winning combination of strong booking…and loose lips. (The Wrap)
  • “No More Car Talk as WBEZ Turns More Airtime over to Podcasts.” Something’s going on at Ben Calhoun’s Navy Pier operation. (Chicago Magazine)
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Quah hobby horses: Recode is probably going to continue expanding their podcast offerings. I buzz with excitement. (CNN Money)
  • “Facebook Messenger Adds Music, Starting With Spotify’s Song Sharing.” All the potential around messaging that you’re already excited about, now with more audio! (TechCrunch)
  • Amazon rolls out two alternate versions of their Echo product, including a puck-sized model designed to latch onto non-Amazon speakers and turn them into voice-based gateways to the Internet. In case you’re new to this column, I’m personally very pro-Amazon Echo as far as its potential for non-visual — read: audio-oriented — computing. As a person who’s morbidly afraid of losing his eyesight, I’m all about that. (The Verge)

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More podcast news items! Also, a new membership model! Much excite!

What should an on-demand news podcast look like?

The Tow Center’s “Why Podcasting Matters.” And so there I was, once again, at The Greene Space, WNYC’s live events venue, for yet another podcast-related shindig. I’ve grown fond of the venue over the past year, come to appreciate cozy size, its glossy floors, its neon-shaded walls that never fail to evoke Miami Vice.

The shindig in question was a panel called “Why Podcasting Matters.” It was designed around the publication of a Tow Center Report, prepared by Vanessa Quirk, that serves as a pretty good primer for the podcast industry at the end of 2015. It was a fine gathering, but I was mildly bothered by the name of the panel, as one would imagine. Partially because it’s never a particularly encouraging sign for an industry to still have to explain itself, but mostly because its premise is remarkably mid-2000s. It’s like being asked to make the case why blogging matters, or why the digitalization of media matters. Like, how many different variations of the same argument must we make?

But I understand, begrudgingly, the continuing need to stick with introductions. After all, I’m told that it’s still very early days for podcasting (11 years now since it first gained some noticeable amount of traction; that’s one year older than the birth of YouTube). There is still a lot more pie to grow.

Anyway, the panel was made up of Sarah van Mosel (chief commercial officer, Acast), Andy Bowers (chief creative officer, Panoply), Matt Lieber (president, Gimlet Media), and Kerri Hoffman (chief operating officer, PRX), and it was moderated by Paula Szuchman (VP of on-demand content, WNYC). The panel was fine and interesting, ranging widely in subject from branded advertising to “where are you finding your next hit?” to children-targeted podcasts and the mortifying guilt of surrendering your child to the television.

You can find a recording of the event here, and you can read Quirk’s Tow Center report here.

But here are the two things that stood out to me as particularly interesting:

1. What is the nature of the news podcast? There was a point in the panel, somewhere during a discussion about whether podcasts can be seen as a viable supplement to broadcast radio, where the panelists broached the subject of the “news podcast” — what is it, what is its nature within an on-demand context, and where is it headed.

This is a fabulous question, and it’s something that I think about quite a lot. For the record, I think anything that’s broadcasted can be adequately adapted to the on-demand format. The only major exception (other than Brian Lehrer, I suppose) is an ongoing breaking news scenario, which is typically best served by a live news broadcast. This, I must say, is a grave exception. I felt the limitations of on-demand audio most acutely during the Paris terror attacks; I had spent much of that evening at work glued to my Twitter feed, and when I left for my commute home — a subway trip usually reserved for pre-loaded programming — I chose instead to walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge so I could keep tabs on the news broadcast over the WNYC streaming app. But then again, getting my live updates through the stream was in its own way suboptimal; important information about actual developments was relatively sparse, and the bulk of what I ended up consuming at the end was largely filler or recycled exposition. (Perhaps that’s the real value of a live news broadcast; not necessarily the advancements in what we know, but merely the ambient knowledge that a news team is observing, that the world is continuing to spin.)

It’s been a few months, and I’ve come to feel that this wasn’t an expression of on-demand audio’s limitations, but rather an example of the distribution channel not being utilized effectively enough with breaking news in mind. That’s because we are already seeing some really interesting experiments with news distribution using podcast feeds that, in their own ways, are bold attempts to grasp real-time service:

  • The most obvious example is the NPR Hourly News Summary. Here we have a really shrewd use of the feed, one that’s pegged to the hour and packaged in bite-sized pieces. You do get the sense that each package is dense with what you absolutely need to know at the top of a given hour. By the way, the feed occasionally pops up in the iTunes Top 200 Podcast Chart, for those interested in such things.
  • ICYMI, Serial has been rolling out short daily updates tracking the latest court hearing surrounding its season one subject, Adnan Syed. It’s absolutely fascinating, both in its substance and its structure, which is essentially Sarah Koenig giving a quick recap the development of the day.
  • The Serial mini-updates are reminiscent of a WBUR podcast that was rolled out last summer (with The Boston Globe) which tracked the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on an almost day-by-day basis. The podcast was called Finish Line: Inside the Boston Bombing Marathon, and it stretched the length of the trial. It was dense, sparsely composed, and utterly captivating in its specificities. These are reporters reporting, trading notes at the end of the day.

2. Gimlet’s Mix Week. The other most interesting bit of information that came out of the panel also happens to the one that’s most applicable to your organization, probably: This week, Gimlet is putting normal production operations on hold in favor of an internal exercise they’re calling Mix Week. “We’re breaking apart all the teams, they’re going to reform in new teams, and they’re going to be essentially given assignments for piloting,” Lieber explained. “There’s going to be a bunch of rules: No existing host can be the host of a pilot, pilots can only be hosted by non-hosts, and a bunch of other fun stuff.”

The idea is to create an experimental space to better facilitate creative collaborations across shows, a dynamic that might find difficulty emerging when a workplace — even one developed for creative and editorial purposes — naturally slips into a configuration that feels like an assembly line.

“We feel like we have a lot of ideas burbling in the building, and when you’re in the churn of getting shows out every week, you don’t always have the time to come up and be tested,” said Lieber.

Gimlet’s Mix Week reminds me of stories about an internal competition that WNYC held a few years ago. Described to me as “an internal bake-off,” that event was led by Chris Bannon, formerly WNYC’s VP of content development and production and now Midroll’s chief content officer, with support from a seven-person internal committee. The competition directly resulted in the creation of Death, Sex, and Money (all hail Anna Sale! Did you hear she’s moving to the West Coast?) and indirectly in the creation of TLDR, the On The Media spinoff whose hosts would eventually go on to launch Reply All at Gimlet. A source has told me that WNYC management sent out a note a few weeks ago announcing the return of the bake-off, which will now apparently take place every six months.

This is all a fine reminder of a simple fact: Magical things happen when you give the talented people you hire the opportunity to stretch their muscles, try different things, and prove themselves.

The hosting platform holding up Serial. So I was surprised to learn last week that Serial, the biggest and most downloaded podcast today — unless that’s changed over the past month, which I highly doubt — is not being hosted on Podtrac, which proudly put the show forward as a key client during the IAB’s Podcast Upfronts last year. Instead, ever since the start of the second season, the show has been hosted on an experimental new platform developed by PRX, the friendly neighborhood public media company that’s also responsible for Radiotopia, your friendly neighborhood hippie podcast commune.

The platform, which is called Dovetail and also supports the Radiotopia podcast family, is supposedly designed for podcasts with extremely large audiences in mind, as PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz told me over email. Interestingly, the platform is built to distribute both podcasts and broadcasts, a curious distinction that firmly differentiates it from the bevy of other hosting platforms that I’ve covered so far. There’s a lot more to Dovetail, I’m told, and you can read the totality of Kuklewicz’s extremely enthusiastic (and understandably pluggy) email in this Google Doc.

Public radio guidelines on podcast measurements. Last week, a group of North American public radio stations published a set of podcast measurement guidelines in a move to spur the industry to voluntarily adopt a standard. The publication was picked up by several publications — including Nieman Lab, of course — and on Friday, I put out my own two cents in an extra Hot Pod newsletter. In a nutshell: the guidelines were published as part of a move to inject more life into conversation happening within the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the industry association focused on digital media, which many major podcasting companies are hoping will serve as a reliable third-party arbiter of advertising standards in the emerging podcast industry.

You can read the extra newsletter, along with some pertinent reader responses, in this public Google Doc.

Google Play podcasts: They’re coming. Looks like you can’t have one streaming audio service without the other. Two weeks ago, Spotify indicated that it would finally be rolling out its long-awaited podcast feature (which, by the way, ended up being bundled together with video under an ecosystem labelled as “Shows”). According to its reported timeline, that rollout would have been completed across both iOS and Android platforms by the end of the last week. And now we’re hearing, perhaps accidentally, that Google Play Music’s own podcast rollout will take place by the end of February.

Here’s what we know, and how we know it:

  • Bill Simmons, the sports media personality and proprietor of the Bill Simmons Podcast Network (BSPN), tweeted out last Tuesday that his podcast “will be available on Google Play when GP launches its podcast platform later this month.” Simmons deleted the tweet shortly after, suggesting that the information wasn’t all that public just yet. The tweet was captured via screenshot by Droid-Life, an Android news site.
  • Parallel to this, several outlets — including Engadget, Ars Technica, and 9to5Google — have noted that some Google Play Music users are already seeing the podcast feature being supported on their app.
  • TechCrunch has confirmed that Google Play Music still has not officially launched podcast support, despite these podspottings.

That some Google Play Music users are seeing podcast support ahead of an official launch is not unusual; feature-testing among a small sample of live users is common practice, especially for big platforms that need initial data from the wild before a wider rollout.

Anyway, three things to consider:

  • The various write-ups describing the app’s intended podcast features — which note the inclusion of, among other things, podcast charts, a “featured” section, and an open inclusion policy — Google Play Music sounds strikingly similar in both policy and practice to the native iOS Podcasts app. From this, I suspect that the thinking is to do precisely for the Android ecosystem what the native iOS Podcasts app does in the Apple ecosystem, which has so far been a relatively untapped market. This leaves open the question of what Spotify’s strategy will adopt to approach the space. They presumably shouldn’t play in the same lane as the iOS Podcasts app or Google Play Music, but what options are they left with?
  • That Google Play Music will have its own podcast charts is exciting. The iTunes podcast charts have long been obsessed over by podcast producers everywhere, given its status as one of the sole public determinants of a podcast’s success in relation to others, for both creators and, unfortunately, the uninitiated press. However, how exactly the iTunes charts evaluate podcasts, both individually and in relation to each other, has long been mysterious, and the inclusion of a Google alternative would theoretically help producers better approximate the relative value of their podcasts — and, secondarily, challenge Apple’s passive dominance as the main value-attributor in the podcasting space. As of this writing, it doesn’t look like Spotify has its own charts feature.
  • The central question when it comes to these audio streaming services remains: Will their entrance into the podcast space actually move the needle? While it’s still extremely early, a few podcasters I’ve spoken with suggest that they’ve seen some encouraging signs. (No specific details were provided, unfortunately.)

Related bits:

  • I’ve really been digging Tumanbay, an extravagantly produced 10-part audio drama published by BBC Radio 4. Reminiscent of Game of Thrones — in terms of subject matter and political allegory, but not in adult-oriented excesses (how would you do that in audio anyway? that market remains open!) — it’s utterly fun and almost completely not cringeworthy, which I largely attribute to a finely-tuned modulation of the vocal performances. Highly recommended. Also, hat tip to Slate’s June Thomas, a native Britisher of fine Britishisms, for the fabulous hashtag #TotallyTumanbay. (BBC)
  • Have you seen the Art19 embeddable player? It looks pretty good. Two examples: one on Recode, one on Yahoo Sports.
  • How CNN and Washington Post are experimenting with voicemail for audio storytelling. (Journalism.co.uk)
  • Torey Malatia, CEO of Rhode Island Public Radio, explains his split with WBEZ. (Brown Daily Herald)
  • “Don’t ‘radiosplain’ and other ways to report on communities that aren’t your own.” (NPR Editorial Training)

Budweiser. Papa John’s. Gatorade. What a Sunday.

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which now features exclusive content! More pod news items! Also, stuff about what I had for lunch. Whatever, that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with.

What will we find out from the deeper podcast metrics everyone says they want?

“I always get kind of confused by the talk of how podcasts don’t have good data.” So says Roman Mars, steward of the great 99% Invisible and Radiotopia, on this week’s episode of Big Venture Capital Firm Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z podcast, which discusses the surge we’re currently seeing in podcasts. Mars’ point, which is well taken, is that podcast measurements via downloads are way better and significantly more precise than broadcast radio measurements and that, besides, the metrics we use to conduct transactions with advertisers come from a kind of shared fiction (a “lie”) anyway. Metrics, much like gender and time and the basis of life in liberal arts colleges, are a social construct.

Broadly, I absolutely agree with these points. And I suspect (though I have no way to prove this, so let’s just call this a strawman right out of the gate) that this perspective comes from a very legitimate skepticism (or perhaps fear) that our various pursuits to generate better, more granular data reporting on the way people listen to audio on the Internet are ill informed. It’s very possible that we would open the black box only to realize that most people don’t actually listen past the 10th minute for most shows — much like how most people don’t actually scroll past the first two paragraphs of meaty investigative long-form pieces, you know, the kind that takes down presidents and wins Pulitzers and gets synecdoched — and we consequently lose whatever clout, bargaining chip, or basis of reasoning in our dealings with the advertising community.

And I also suspect, with no proof yet again, that the bulk of us are ill prepared to rapidly rebuild that collective fiction to a workable place once it’s broken. If that’s the case, it must explain why it feels like everybody is squeezing as much juice as they can out of their oranges before the frost. (Holy crap, what a pretentious metaphor.) Many businesses, both good and not-so-good-but-still-businesses, have been built on the rudimentary metrics that podcasting as a medium has been able to provide so far. Much of that building must have taken a lot of hard, hard work, the kind of labor that I simply can’t begin to understand. It’s hard to truly understand the entrepreneur — particularly, the creative entrepreneur — unless you do it yourself, and so it’s hard to know the true emotional impact of such, er, disruption.

But on a conceptual level, I still believe that increasing the knowability of podcast consumption is an essential and worthwhile pursuit. Maybe it’s a function of my youth, arrogance, and/or relative lack of structural power in the space, but I believe that breaking apart the makeshift fundamentals of today’s podcasting business models will lead to better creative and revenue environments in the future. More granular data will lead to better editorial decisions and better, perhaps more meaningful advertising practices. It could perhaps even lead to better alternatives to advertising.

Right. That’s enough of me saying a lot without providing any evidence. Other things to note from the podcast (which you should listen to in full!):

  • The other guests were Ryan Hoover and Erik Torenberg of Product Hunt, the buzzy hot app-curating startup, which recently launched its podcast discovery vertical.
  • Super interesting tidbit: At around the 7:50 mark, Hoover made reference to a new Gimlet show in the pipeline that’s due to drop sometime by the end of this year: a podcast that recommends new podcasts. The jockeying for the center of the podcast universe continues. Of course, there have been attempts at a podcast (or radio show) like this in the recent past, but I’d be damned if I didn’t admit to being super excited.
  • Also interesting: The age-old question of “What’s the atomic unit of podcasts?” Mars appears to take the position that the unit is the show, while Product Hunt has clearly sided with the episode as the discrete unit. I can’t remember what I sided with back when I asked that question myself in this newsletter, but I’ve recently come to suspect that maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
  • The episode also gave reference to a framework that I’ve long loved when it comes to thinking about the current landscape of podcasting: that it’s remarkably analogous to the early days of blogging. Waiting for that Breitbart equivalent.

Sideways to “live journalism.” Bill Simmons made some news last week when he dished out some insight into the brouhaha behind his dismissal from ESPN, openly discussing the issue with guest Wesley Morris (formerly Simmons’ employee back at Grantland, and who recently left the site to be The New York Times’ critic-at-large — R.I.P., the great “Do You Like Prince Movies?” podcast). His comments proved to be harvestable material for the digital media mill, with organizations ranging from The Washington Post to Business Insider ((Congratulations on the acquisition! I think?)) crunching out posts delivering their own highlights, recaps, and takes on the podcast episode.

So the highlight I want to highlight in this state of affairs is not anything Simmons-related, but rather the fact that the podcast episode catalyzed several other pieces of media into existence. It underlined the fact that podcasts, or certain kinds of podcasts, at least, are themselves raw material for further reporting — a primary resource that seems underutilized by media institutions that actually have their own podcasts.

Let me put it this way: This Simmons situation highlights a manner in which podcasts can be more directly linked with more established digital media output that has yet to be adequately exploited. When wielded as an extension of journalistic institutions, podcasts (and live events) can themselves serve as raw material for use by reporters who focus on shortform blog posts and actively participate in instant recap culture. I think we saw a close-to-decent example of this with a recent episode of Recode Decode featuring an interview with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who disclosed some truly juicy numbers about the media company’s traffic proportions. Recode did a really good job getting more mileage out of that bit of news by reporting further and publishing an addendum on the actual post that originally housed the podcast episode, and we saw Business Insider doing its thing where it basically published a partial transcript of that moment in the interview.

It’s a win on a lot of levels. First, a good interview or audio report is an easy source for writers and reporters to report on, reflect on, and put up to feed the beast. Second, such posts increase the attention paid to the podcast — thus increasing the likelihood that the show would be tried out by a reader who wouldn’t typically dabble in the medium. And finally, moves like these help close the gap between audio and other kinds of digital output; they further extend the utility of the podcast as part of the institution’s overall reportage, as opposed to being a placid digest-as-distribution-play, brand-extension effort, or some wackadoo accessory to the larger operation.

Perhaps the parallel that comes closest to evoking what I’m trying to say with this is the curious manner in which The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg describes the paper’s conference initiatives. “It’s live journalism,” Duhigg has been quoted as saying.

All right. I think I’ve met my quote for ~~thought leadership~~ this week. Let’s get to some juicy announcements!

Serial to be adapted for TV. Right. So I remember reading this last week and immediately putting down my laptop and going straight to bed. But here are two things that makes this situation really interesting, per reporting over at Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter:

  • The people responsible for the adaptation are Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the insane duo that’s fashioned a fascinating and incredible career out of pulling off highly unlikely adaptations with verve. For reference, they were behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, both of which were not only box office hits but critically praised as well. (Their most recent project, the TV show The Last Man on Earth, didn’t quite reach the heights of their cinematic output, but you gotta give it to them for handling a really high concept.)
  • The adaptation concept positions it well for television. According to Deadline, “Miller and Lord will develop a cable series that would follow the making of the podcast as it follows a case.” Which makes it sound less like a miniseries adaptation and more like a straight-up season-long procedural.

Eh, why the hell not. Count me in the bag for this.

Speaking of Serial. Old news now, but in case you missed it, Maxim magazine put out the first report a few weeks ago that one of the new seasons in the podcast’s pipeline will revolve around Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who mysteriously went missing from his base when on duty in Afghanistan back in 2009. He was eventually found to be held captive by the Taliban, and was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2014. The Serial team has not confirmed this.

Not going to spend too much time on this, but I’ll just say: If it’s true, this is the best possible go at round two. The team at This American Life are often lauded for its capacity at storytelling, but it should never, ever be forgotten that they are also first-class journalists and documentarians — and they’re perhaps the best team to take on this subject with proper sensitivity and insight.

The release date for the next season has not been confirmed, but it could well drop as soon as a few weeks from now. For a better overview, check out the New York Times writeup.

Two new shows to check out:

Last Wednesday was International Podcast Day, apparently. And The New York Times wrote a little about it, with me and Gimlet’s Matt Lieber throwing out a couple of podcast recs. All hail Anna Sale, as usual.

Is this your first time reading Hot Pod? You can subscribe to the newsletter here, which mostly features irrelevant exclusive content (mostly different GIFs and stuff about what I had for lunch but whatever that’s the newsletter strategy I’m rolling with).

Podcast upfronts, 99% Invisible goes dynamic, and Freakonomics goes broadcast

The IAB podcast upfronts. WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space is a fun-sized studio at the bottom of the station’s building that has served as the home of many podcasting firsts. Located on an assuming corner somewhere south of West Village, the past few months alone has seen the space used for first WNYC Women’s Podcast Festival, the first live taping of BuzzFeed’s Another Round, and the first live meeting between NPR newscaster Lakshmi Singh and the infamous, and possibly cursed, “I Am Lakshmi Singh” hat.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the space served as the site for the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s first podcast upfront, which offered Big Advertising its first look at a relatively broad cross-section of what the sum of the nascent industry had to offer. (Side note: It’s important to note that this wasn’t the first podcast upfront ever — that honor goes to an April 2015 event held in the slightly more glamorous (Le) Poisson Rouge, a bar and concert hall located not too far away from the Greene Space, which was a more public radio-centric affair featuring presentations from WNYC, WBEZ, and NPR. That event principally extended the narrative of podcasting-as-nonfiction storytelling content.)

The IAB upfront last Thursday was a bit of chaotic affair. Within the span of three hours-plus-plus, the event juxtaposed presentations that didn’t really fit very well immediately next to each other. Companies like Panoply ((My benevolent employers, by the way — see my first Nieman Lab post for disclaimers.)) (with its talky content offerings aesthetically pegged to what one might call decorum) and Midroll (with its pop culture-driven content that gives rise to podcasting as an alternate-node for American comedy) against companies with broader plays like CBS’ Play.it network (which cultivates sounds reminiscent of traditional talk radio) and AdLarge (which offers Associated Press content in audio form and…something about EDM concerts that I’m still trying to grapple in my head). It closed with WNYC and NPR fielding the teams behind Invisibilia and Radiolab, who essentially performed a reprise of their presentation from the April 2015 upfront.

But while the event was a little whiplash-inducing, I thought it was a highly successful event for the community as a whole. The variety of companies that were brought on-stage collectively offered a broad range of content types — thus broadening the narrative of what podcasts are and what podcasts can be. As much as I absolutely enjoyed the original April upfront, I was bothered by how that event (and its importance of being the first of its kind) extended the view of the podcasting as principally the domain of highly-produced, narrative storytelling. (The overwhelming legacy of Serial, which is almost universally present in the first paragraph of just about every general-audience article written about podcasting, already skews the medium’s identity in this regard.)

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, because those are damn good shows that exhibit the best of what the format uniquely provides at this point in time. And of course, I completely understand what these public radio institutions are doing: They’re pushing their wares, building towards their own core competencies, and they also just happen to be the best game in town at the moment.

But it does set a tone for expectations among Big Advertising, especially now when the industry is in its formative stages. It cultivates certain norms, standards, and structures that could raise the barrier for other types or genres of podcasts to thrive.

So in that respect, I was really glad to see the almost anarchistic range of content offerings I saw on stage last week. And while not everything felt…particularly high-quality (to put it bluntly), it felt like a much needed correction to the industry’s larger narrative, which honestly makes me feel relieved.

Anyway. Here are some other tidbits from the event that struck me as interesting:

  • Midroll Media is now the company selling ads for Bill Simmons’ new podcast, which he’s making as part of his larger multimedia arrangement with HBO.
  • NPR reports having 77.6 million podcast downloads a month across all its shows.
  • This American Life sees 9.5 million podcast downloads a month, per PodTrac, which now pushes its identity as the company selling ads for This American Life and Serial.
  • Money quote from Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad during the presentation re: podcast advertising: “It is not yet a saturated space.”

Cool. Now here are some professional writeups of the event, from professional reporters:

  • “Here’s Why the IAB’s First Podcast Upfront Was Such a Hot Event for Marketers” (AdWeek)
  • “We Don’t Have to Follow Public-Radio Rules! Podcasters Play for Keeps at an Upfront” (Ad Age)
  • “Inside the first ever ‘Podcast Upfront'” (Fortune)

99% Invisible applies dynamic ad insertion on older episodes in iTunes. The highly popular design, architecture, and holy-shit-the-physical-human-built-world-is-awesome show has opened up its full catalog on iTunes for renewed consumption, with episodes older than 8 weeks apparently monetized by dynamic ad insertion. You can hear the new ad at the top of those older episodes. The execution didn’t go off without a hitch, however; for some 99PI subscribers, the opening up triggered a mass download of episodes. (So if you’re a podcaster going down that road in the future, or if you’re working on a platform designed to allow dynamic ad insertion, watch out for that.)

(And, unfortunately, 99PI head honcho Roman Mars also noted that posting the archives “cause[d] our iTunes ranking to plummet.”)

He talked about the move in a Facebook post, writing “it allows for the catalog to continue to generate revenue over time and keeps everything available and free for all…It’s dynamic. Wave of the future. I really want the first thing you hear to be “This is 99% Invisible…” so for all the diehard fans, that’s exactly what you’ll get.”

What a dawg. I’ll hopefully have more on this next week.

The Los Angeles Podcast Festival. So I’ve never been to L.A. — home of Hollywood, Snapchat, and animal fries (or so I’m told) — and I imagine it’s every inch the way it’s represented in BoJack Horseman, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, and the nightmares of Scriptnotes’ Craig Mazin and John August. But you’re in L.A., you should check out the fourth annual L.A. Podcast Festival that’s due to take place between September 18 and 20. By festival, the organizers primarily mean a “series of live shows,” with a lineup that includes Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy, the very useful Dinner Party Download, the excellent Mental Illness Happy Hour, the raucous My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and of course, WTF with Marc Maron.

Perhaps the most interesting thing with the way the festival is laid out has to with the sponsors. Audible has top billing here, securing an “Audible Presents” mention, while Squarespace has its name attached to something called a Podcast Lab. Familiar friends.

WNYC’s Freakonomics goes broadcast. The highly popular “let’s take this one way of thinking about things and apply the crap out of it to everything and make a show about it” podcast is no longer just a podcast. It’s now an hour-long weekly radio show to be aired on weekends beginning in October. Per the press release, Freakonomics “will join Radiolab, On the Media, and WNYC’s forthcoming collaboration with The New Yorker as national programs that WNYC will distribute independently to stations beginning this fall.”

“DISTRIBUTE INDEPENDENTLY.” Exciting times, fellow nerds. Exciting times.

Freakonomics is hosted by Stephen Dubner with Robert Krulwich-style constant appearances by Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago (a.k.a. the place where fun goes to die). Dubner, by the way, has a new show distributed by Midroll called Question of the Day, a three-times-a-week affair where he spitballs with Notable Podcaster James Altucher about, ah, stuff. That show shot up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes chart (for whatever that’s worth) upon its debut, and now has settled around No. 20 to 30 spot after three weeks. (Are you happy with the mention now, Lex Friedman? Are you happy?)

CJR’s “So You Want To Start A Podcast.” This article by the Columbia Journalism Review, about different strategies of podcast market entry, doubles as a rough rubric for podcasting business models. It isn’t comprehensive, as pointed out by the ensemble known as The Heard, who make the argument for a fifth model where smaller, disparate shows band together as a collective to pool resources.

What’s the difference between a network and a collective? Beats me. I tend to think of the split as divided by professionalism as well as formal, legal, and business structures. But that’s just me.

Kernel Magazine. The latest issue of Kernel Magazine, an “online tabloid magazine about technology” acquired by The Daily Dot last year, is centered on podcasts, and the spread of its articles touches upon a bunch of elements that I don’t typically cover in this newsletter. Definitely check out the whole issue, but the three that I’d single out are:

  • “How the growing Austin comedy scene is turning to podcasts” (Audra Schroeder)
  • “Why Howl could be much more than the ‘Netflix for podcasts'” (Patrick Caldwell)
  • “The unfortunate truth about the podcasting industry” (Joey Keeton)

Matt Lieber is everything. Submitted without comment.

Out on the Wire. Hey, podcast and radio fans. I highly recommend that y’all check out cartoonist and remarkable human being Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. It’s a lovely book that happens to be two things: (1) an educational and engaging dive into the creative process of the amazing teams behind shows like This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, and Snap Judgment, among others, and (2) a cultural artifact that documents and honors a set of players at the heart of this remarkable creative movement that’s giving radio/podcasting/on-demand audio/whatever the heck we’re going to call it its time in the mass spotlight. As much as I grumble about most of the attention going to this specific breed of audio creator, they truly are the people who drew me into this art form and industry in the first place — and to whom I owe a lot of my waking life.

Abel is also doubling down on her work with her own podcast, which seeks to extend the inquiry of her book by interviewing BAMF radio producers. Check it out.

“There’s a transaction cost associated with podcasts for every listener. It’s a commitment, a choice.” In case you missed this delicious Nieman Lab interview with Erik Diehn, Midroll Media’s chief biz dev guy, do yourself a favor and jump on it right now. By all means read the whole thing, but here are some choice morsels that stood out to me:

  • “Everyone would love to have YouTube-style metrics. But the measurement of podcasting is really not that much worse than any other medium; we just don’t have a single source that everyone endows with some sort of holy status.”
  • “So when people say, ‘We don’t know how many people listened all the way through to the last minute of this podcast,’ my feeling is, yeah, but we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago, when radio was based on the whims of a handful of people. We’re certainly getting better.”
  • “I’d also like to see the audiences grow and diversify. I think they already have, a lot. We’re getting a broadening of content and audience, but it needs to continue to grow.”

It makes so angry how good this Q&A is, it really does. Ugghhhhhhh.