Subscribe to Hot Pod Insider to read on.
Over the summer, the podcast hosting platform (formerly, the social audio company) found itself embroiled in some controversy due to its terms of service, which some in the podcast community interpreted as giving the company overly broad powers over what it can do with podcast episodes hosted on the platform. The chunk in question was the section labeled “License Grant,” which Andrew Orr, writing for Mac Observer, argued as meaning: “Anchor can do whatever it wants with your podcasts, and can also transfer those rights to ‘other companies, organizations, or individuals’ it chooses to work with.” Anchor denied the intent, and issued some amendment to the terms of service at the time to reflect that. But, as a few continued to argue at the time, those immediate changes might not have been enough.
Today, the company is hoping to further rectify all that by rolling out a whole new terms of service. CEO Mike Mignano also published a blog post outlining the new terms. You can find that post here.
Meanwhile, I sent over a few queries to get some more context on how the company got to this point, and here’s what I got back:
What, exactly, are the main changes attached to these new terms of service?
Most of what we did here was make the terms easier to read. We realized a lot of the confusion stemmed from legal language that could have been interpreted in a variety of ways, so we wanted to make sure anyone can read these and understand exactly what they can do with their content (and most importantly, be sure they understand that podcasters retain ownership over everything they create on Anchor).
The biggest changes narrow down the specifics of the license grant, both for Anchor and for fellow users on the platform. We’ve removed some unnecessary language, such as the right for Anchor and others to create “derivative works” of user content. We also specified exactly how users can interact with each other’s content—for example, they can listen to and share anyone’s episodes, but they can only use other people’s content in their own podcast if the it was created collaboratively (such as with our Voice Messages and Record with Friends features).
What led to the original terms of service that troubled some in the podcast community?
We wrote the original terms of service when Anchor was a social audio platform geared for interactivity and collaboration with audio. Once we launched Anchor as an end-to-end podcasting platform, the wide range of provisions that our terms of service covered was broader than what the platform needed, in order to let users create, distribute, and monetize audio. As our product evolved, it was time for our terms to evolve as well.
Announced yesterday, the investment sees the parent of WordPress joins a collection of strategic investors that includes The New York Times, Bose Corporation, WGBH, and American Public Media, and deepens a relationship that started last year when the company made RadioPublic’s embed player available on all WordPress sites, as noted in the corresponding press release.
The investment sum was not publicly disclosed.
This development comes as a few competing next-generation podcast apps announced alternative monetization features for publishing users and partners:
- Last Monday, Breaker, the Y Combinator-accelerated podcast app, rolled out a new monetization feature called “Upstream” that lets its publishing users create paid or “premium” content tiers.
- Last Thursday, Anchor, the Betaworks-backed podcast app, launched a new feature of its own called “Listener Support” that lets its publishing users set up direct recurring payment arrangements with their listeners.
In addition, Patreon, the membership support platform of choice for a number of independent podcast publishers, announced last Wednesday that it has acquired Memberful, a smaller platform specializing in white-label membership services. (Disclaimer: I use Memberful to run my own paid tier, Hot Pod Insider.)
RadioPublic has operated its own alternative monetization play, an advertising marketplace geared towards smaller publishers called “Paid Listens,” since February.
Subscribe to Hot Pod Insider to read on.
WILD WILD COUNTRY. If I had a dime for every time someone made a reference to podcasting, the podcast industry, and/or podcast metrics being the “Wild West,” well…I wouldn’t have enough dimes to retire, exactly, but I’d certainly have enough to buy a few Happy Meals. The latest such reference comes from AdWeek, whose podcast industry write-up bears the title “Podcast metrics are still the Wild West — but networks are moving to change that.” It’s a fairly standard check-in for the Way Things Are Right Now, albeit with a pretty concise spotlight on the 24-hour window download count measure that governs the current iteration of the IAB standard.
But the article also features two other things that I think are worth further unpacking. The first is the focus on Wondery being “one of the first commercial podcasting companies to adopt these standards, hoping other networks and publishers will follow suit, and many have already partially opted in.” It’s probably useful to note that the list of publishers already compliant with the IAB standards — and a quick reminder that we’re talking about the latest iteration of the standards, known as V2 — includes but is not limited to: HowStuffWorks, PRX, the Turner Podcast Network, and ESPN. I’ve spoken with several other publishers that have long been actively working to shift over by the end of the year, following some period of technical recalibrations and testing.
It’s also worth remembering that, when assessing the state of standardization, a publisher can only be IAB-compliant if its shows are hosted on a platform that’s capable of supporting the IAB’s 24-hour window requirements. Those platforms include, but not are limited to, Megaphone, Streamguys, and Whooshkaa. Art19 tells me that its 24-hour filtering window measurement option is very close to the IAB V2 standard, and that it’s in the final stages of preparing for certification.
All of which is to say that a lot of this is already on the way, and that the reason standardization hasn’t been fully achieved just yet has more to do with technical particularities than a lack of political will. Like most complex things, it just takes time.
The second thing that needs unpacking is a little more delicate, and that’s the actual nature of reservations about the IAB standards. In the AdWeek write-up, it’s largely characterized as a kind of fear of pulling off the band-aid; that is, trepidation over the short-term losses despite the upside of long-term gains. But according to some podcasters, particularly independents, it’s not the immediate pains that creates anxiety. It’s the concern of whether the IAB actually got it right with this iteration of the standard.
“My frustration is why it wasn’t right the first time,” Dallas Taylor, a sound designer and the creator of the beloved independent podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, told me. “When everyone first migrated to IAB, it was a 30- to 40-percent decline. I was fine with that for the sake of better numbers. Then, it’s like…oopsie…here comes another 20- to 25-percent drop on V2 from the same organization. What are V3 and V4 going to look like?”
Taylor also pointed out that highly produced shows — independent and otherwise — will be disproportionately affected by the revenue shifts that follow downward adjustments of listener numbers. As much as a drop in revenue from, say, $130,000 to $100,000 hurts the bottom line of quick-turnaround chat or interview shows, it materially hurts more for more intensive productions that need every dollar to pay editors, sound designers, composers and others to actually put together an episode. “It makes it harder for highly produced shows to break in,” said Taylor. “The staples will remain, but shows like mine need a loooong runway of time in order to build a big enough audience to break even and become profitable.”
He added: “IAB V2 needs to be right. We can’t keep getting a 20- to 30-percent drop in numbers every six months. Just make it right, and we’ll all move forward and adapt. I’d rather the numbers be ultra-conservative than leave any room for doubt.”
Again, to be clear about the focus: no one is against better numbers. It’s just that the shifts affect some more than others, and the hope is that any subsequent rollout will be handled with care.
Crowd-centered. RadioPublic, the listening platform led by former PRX CEO Jake Shapiro, is generally eager to play around with the possibilities of how things are and could be, and the startup’s latest experiment is no different. Last week, RadioPublic launched an equity crowdfunding campaign that lets everyday users and audiences invest small amounts — from $50 to a maximum of about $100,000 — into the venture. As of Monday morning, the company had raised almost $60,000 from 53 backers, well over its $25,000 minimum goal. The campaign is managed over a new investment platform called Republic.
I asked Shapiro what, exactly, is motivating the initiative. Is this an active component of its fundraising operations, or is it more of a community-building campaign? “Definitely more the latter, but the former is potentially really good for us too,” he wrote back. “[It’s] just hard to predict success, so only made sense to do it without counting on that. But yes, if we can knock it out of the park, having $1M of crowd financing gives us more options/capacity for our roadmap and ambitions, is a good signal for other investors we’re always talking to, and creates an army of incentivized investor/ambassadors along the way.”
RadioPublic was founded in the summer of 2016 as a public benefit corporation, and has since raised over $3 million from investors that include The New York Times, WGBH, Bose, and Andrew Mason (of Groupon and Descript fame). The company’s Republic campaign page publicly lists a number of active performance data points, including:
- The platform achieved 600,000 monthly active users within 12 months;
- The Paid Listens program, which helps smaller podcasts monetize, currently boasts around 600 participants; and
- Users average 72 minutes of listening a day.
It’s a cool fundraising experiment, but it’s also a cool look into the guts of what’s going on with RadioPublic. The listening platform is up against a competitive environment that’s changed substantially over the past few months, particularly with Google rolling out a standalone Podcast app and a consortium of public radio stations acquiring the Australian podcast app known as Pocket Casts. Can RadioPublic figure out a clear way forward to carve out a place among the podcast consumption apps? Or it is poised to become something else entirely?
Your rights and Anchor. How does that saying go? “If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product?” Whatever the phrase, that’s the specter conjured by the Mac Observer blog with respect to Anchor, the once-buzzy social audio app turned next-generation podcast hosting platform. In a post published on June 20, Mac Observer’s Andrew Orr drew attention to a chunk of Anchor’s Terms of Service that seems to give the company overly broad powers over what it can do with podcast episodes hosted on the platform.
Here’s the part excerpted in the article, under the section “License Grant”:
By submitting User Content through the Services, you hereby do and shall grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully paid, sublicensable and transferable license to use, edit, modify (including the right to create derivative works of), aggregate, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, perform, and otherwise fully exploit the User Content in connection with the operation of the the Services, the promotion, advertising or marketing of the Services, or any other purposes.
“This means that Anchor can do whatever it wants with your podcasts, and can also transfer those rights to ‘other companies, organizations, or individuals’ it chooses to work with,” Orr wrote. “Now to be fair, T&C like that aren’t uncommon. Other companies like Google and Facebook own the rights to pretty much anything you upload to their servers. But unless you’re a professional photographer, uploading photos isn’t the same as uploading and making a living off of podcasting. Just be aware of what you sign up for.”
Wow, @anchor's terms in regards to user content is absolutely 100 percent unacceptable. You post a show and they suddenly get the right to creative derivative works? Among other horrible things you should never agree to.
— Justin McLachlan (@justinmclachlan) June 19, 2018
Anchor modified the section on June 21, adding the line “You retain all of your ownership rights in your User Content” at the top of the paragraph and removing the “irrevocable” aspect of the license that users granted the company by accepting the terms. The modified version nonetheless maintains the company’s right to create derivative works of content hosted on the platform.
You can view the latest version of the Terms of Service here, and you can view the prior version on the Wayback Machine (saved on May 16). Michael Mignano, Anchor’s CEO, also replied to McLachlan’s tweet with a thread explaining the changes and clarifications made to the Terms of Service.
When reached for comment, Anchor responded with this statement:
Anchor users always have, and always will, own the content they create on our platform. At Anchor our mission is to democratize audio, and in service of this mission we have reimagined podcasting from the ground up to give creators powerful, easy-to-use tools that make it easier than ever before for anyone to make a high quality podcast — from first time creators to seasoned pros.
Anchor is not a traditional podcasting company. Nothing like it exists to date. We’re breaking down barriers for audio — allowing people to create together and use content in new and interesting ways. Creators give us a license for the content created on our platform in order to power features we believe should be available to everyone. Simply put, this license allows us to distribute your podcast as far and wide as we can and innovate on features that don’t exist on other platforms.
A creator-first mentality is at the core of Anchor’s values, and we listen closely to our community in order to serve their needs. To clarify and reaffirm our commitment to creators owning the content they create on our platform, we have adjusted the language of our terms of service to indicate when and how a creator can terminate the license they agree to when using Anchor. To be absolutely clear — the license is not in any way intended to take ownership of a creator’s content. Any claims that Anchor is attempting to misuse creators’ work are patently false. Our aim is to make podcasting as easy, accessible, and fun as possible for everyone and we hope folks will give Anchor a try.
But those adjustments might not be enough. As McLachlan told me:
I still think the license grants far too many rights that the company simply doesn’t need. Particularly for something like what I do, which is mostly episodic fiction. The derivative rights the company still takes (and oddly seems to grant to other users immediately on account creation) aren’t constrained. Those rights in a content-rich creation like a podcast are really important to hold onto free and unencumbered, especially if, like me, you view podcasting as more than a hobby.
I just point to what Adobe does. That’s clean, clear license grant that makes it clear the company only needs the rights to operate its services and its software. They don’t take derivative rights. That’s the standard Anchor should just, honestly, copy.
Agent acquisition. CAA, one of the major Hollywood talent agencies (FWIW, I found this THR guide super-handy), has hired Josh Lindgren to be a part of its touring department, where he will work on expanding the agency’s portfolio of touring podcast properties, Billboard reports. Lindgren joins CAA after spending almost ten years at the Billions Corporation, the nearly three-decade-old touring agency with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, and Nashville, where he repped shows like Hello from the Magic Tavern, Radiotopia Live, and The Flop House.
I spoke with Lindgren about his work back in July 2017. “Unlike advertising, live revenue is not as directly related to download numbers as you might think,” he told me. “I know podcasts that can outsell artists with ten times their download numbers. It all comes down to your relationship with the audience that you have, and establishing a reputation for delivering great live shows.”
This is a really smart hire by CAA. In Lindgren, the agency has brought in somebody that not only has considerable experience with the nuts-and-bolts of producing and staging live podcast events, they also have somebody who is keenly aware of the specific upsides, limitations, and quirks of the growing podcast revenue channel. I’m a fan of this.
Blockchain…? So there’s this thing called Civil, and it’s working to build a “decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism” using blockchain technology — that is, the tech behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and… experiments, I suppose you call them, like Cryptokitties. And I’m bringing it up because, as part of its efforts to build newsrooms on the technology, it’s included two podcast-oriented projects: Stable Genius Productions’ ZigZag, which is also affiliated with Radiotopia, and FAQ NYC, a Hearken-esque “How Does New York Work?” production.
I am, of course, intrigued by the hope and hook of it all. I’ve followed Civil somewhat since its introduction — unsurprisingly, I highly recommend these Nieman Lab posts for background reading: one, two, three — and I totally vibe with much of what’s on paper: Civil’s goal to promote a “more ethical and sustainable model for journalism,” to pull the news ecosystem away from attention-based incentives, to build a system that protects the independent storage and distribution of information. Again, I’m super down with all these goals. I’d just like to have a better handle on how the thing actually works.
At this point, I should show my cards: I have a fairly limited understanding of the blockchain. This isn’t for lack of trying — though it’s entirely possible I haven’t tried hard enough — as I’ve spent some time sorting through blog posts, sitting down with whitepapers, listening to podcasts like Coin Talk and Ledger Cast, and hell, even rewatching that one Silicon Valley episode where they whip up their own cryptocurrency. Even after all that, I feel like I still have a tenuous grasp on the core concepts of how the thing actually works, and how that applies to news, information, and media. I also think it doesn’t really help that much of the material seems to emphasize why the blockchain is good as opposed to how it functions on a technical level; the seemingly disproportionately emphasis on the former is the very aspect that gives the whole thing a slightly….Soylent vibe. I mean, sure, this technology may well take us somewhere, but I tend to like my revolutions with a side of doubt.
Anyway, this is a newsletter about podcasts, so let’s loop back to a relevant question: how does Civil’s blockchain technology specifically interact with audio? In other words, how does the technology’s application change the way an audio venture can work? Megan Libby, Civil’s brand marketer, was kind enough to help me walk through the questions.
Hot Pod: Could you briefly tell me how, exactly, Civil liberate participating media projects from the needs of traffic and advertising? Like, how does it provide a new business model?
Megan Libby: Civil runs on a token economy that facilitates direct relationships between journalists and citizens on the blockchain. It’s this element that allows Civil to eliminate the needs of advertisers and third-party publishers; journalists use tokens to access publishing rights on Civil’s platform, and citizens use these tokens to moderate behavior on the platform (CVL tokens are voting stakes in determining whether a Newsroom should be allowed to publish on Civil or not, among other utilities). This process is outlined more clearly in Civil’s Constitution, which is a good “rules of the road” outline for publishing on Civil — and is kept in balance by the Civil Foundation (led by former NPR’s CEO, Vivian Schiller). This is the new operating model to which we are referring: One that makes newsmakers accountable to their readership alone.HP: So, there are a couple of podcast operations that’s part of Civil. What does that mean? Are they hosted on Civil platforms? Is there an audio-specific iteration of Civil?Libby: Civil is the publishing platform that allows Newsrooms — like podcasts, or digital publications — to live on the Civil Registry alongside other Newsrooms. More specifically, Civil is the underlying protocol of the publishing platform; it is this protocol that enforces Civil’s community standards of journalism. When launched, each Newsroom will have its own website, business model and team that it will be responsible for overseeing. There is not an audio-specific iteration of Civil. We’re working on native podcast support, but that won’t be live at launch.
Which is to say: there isn’t a direct relationship between audio and the blockchain at this point in time, but there may be soon enough. For now, though, the way ZigZag has structured its operations is pretty illuminating. When I spoke with Stable Genius Productions founders Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant last week, they described something that feels like a classic multi-platform situation. Indeed, the podcast exists and operates through traditional means — it is distributed through RSS feeds and monetized via podcast advertising managed by Radiotopia — but it will also feature a textual element that lives on the blockchain, where it will participate in the whatever the new business model over there will look like.
Libby’s explanation was fairly helpful for me to marginally better understand how Civil’s technology is supposed to create a new incentive structure — though, I’ll admit, this is going to be one of those things that I’m just going to have to see in action before fully understanding it. Nevertheless, the back-and-forth has also further clarified how I should think about the blockchain’s relationship to contemporary media operations: like television adaptations and podcasting, it is yet another platform to invest in, to watch closely, and to hold at arm’s length until the foundations of the thing reveal its full shape.
Unboxed. Loot Crate, the subscription box service that specializes in fandom merchandise, has been a direct response advertiser in podcasting for a good while now, which means that it’s been at the forefront of the way podcast advertising has grown and changed over the past few years. In that vein, I thought it could be pretty useful — or, at least, fairly interesting — to check in with the company and get a sense of how it’s thinking about the space these days.
So, I sent over some questions, and Andrea Carter, who manages marketing and partnerships at Loot Crate, was kind enough to return them with some rapid-fire responses:
Hot Pod: Tell me about Loot Crate, and what you do at the company.Andrea Carter: I’m the marketing & partnerships manager at Loot Crate, the #1 fan subscription service in the market. Loot Crate takes your favorite fandoms and turns it into a monthly mystery box — it’s the best surprise you know is coming. I’ve been with the organization since 2015 and am currently working remotely in Denver. I’ve overseen podcast marketing since 2016 and have been obsessed ever since.
HP: What shows does Loot Crate advertise on?Carter: Since Loot Crate covers just about everything you could possibly be a fan of, we have worked with an incredibly diverse roster of shows. Big shows like Joe Rogan all the way down to small indie darlings like This is Rad. Primarily we like to be on geeky shows and comedy shows.HP: How do you find new podcasts to advertise on?Carter: I’ll actually go through Reddit pages of shows that do well for us — I’ve found some great gems by going through The Weekly Planet’s Reddit page in the past. There’s almost always a subreddit thread of fans talking about other shows that they love. Trust the fans!HP: In your mind, what are the biggest misconceptions that podcast publishers have about advertisers?Carter: Perhaps that it isn’t as big as it truly is. Podcast customers are loyal and incredible and so much mightier than people realize. It may seem in the shadows of digital/social marketing, but at this point it truly is one of the most authentic channels to sell in.HP:: How do you measure the success of your ad buys?Carter: Carefully.
No, but for real — we track via both vanity URLs and promo codes and I’ll go through results for both for as accurate an average as possible. Since podcasts aren’t a click-through channel, I’ll also include multipliers to account for customers who have heard about Loot Crate but haven’t used a URL or promo code. Those multipliers are based on survey results when our Looters say they heard about Loot Crate on podcasts.
HP: How has your approach to podcast advertising changed over time?Carter: We’ve been able to take risks on new shows and more interesting partnerships since starting up podcast advertising. In 2016/2017 we were trying new shows every month for about 6 to 8 weeks to reach new audiences. In 2018, we’ve taken podcasts down a bit to focus on launches of new products, but I’d love to see what’s in store for the back end of 2018 and into 2019.HP: It’s been about six months since Apple rolled out in-episode analytics. How has that affected the way you approach campaigns?Carter: I have been keeping the same analytics strategy for our records, but the Apple analytics are fascinating and something I’ve been following. I’d love to see what this looks like in another six months when groups are taking lots of data into account.HP: How do you view the IAB metric standardization issue?Carter: The IAB info doesn’t affect me in my world too much, but I’m curious to see what happens next.HP:: What are you thinking about these days?Carter: Justice. Also, the Planet Broadcasting team! I’ve been working with the absolutely brilliant Claire Tonti in doing some sales and advocacy for the shows. Adore them, adore their team, all about it. Same with Allyson [Marino] at Lipstick & Vinyl. Absolutely brilliant, wonderful, powerful and so excited to see what’s next (and happy to connect anyone as needed for additional info!).
Big thanks to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions.
- Quick revolving door item: WNYC’s Jim Lally has moved to Market Enginuity, where he will serve as SVP of national podcast and broadcast sales. At New York Public Radio, he was the senior director of national sponsorship. As a reminder, Market Enginuity handles advertising sales for PRX. (LinkedIn)
- The Austin Film Festival has announced the return of its Fiction Podcast Script Competition. The judges for this year’s iteration includes The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen, Panoply’s John Dryden, and Studio 360’s Jocelyn Gonzales. Deadline for entries is July 6. (Website)
- Food 4 Thot’s Tommy Pico is rolling out a new interview podcast next month: Junk, which will feature Pico interviewing literary and cultural luminaries about a keepsake, souvenir, or random bauble they’ve held onto over the years.
- “How BBC Stories experiments with audio to reach younger audiences.” (Digiday)
- ICYMI: “UTA and Cadence13 launch Ramble Podcast Network for Digital Stars.” (Deadline)
- “The New York Times agreed not to use on-the-record audio for The Daily after the White House objected.” (HuffPost)
- Speaking of which: my latest review looks at Caliphate. (Vulture)
- Not directly podcast-related, but thought this was super interesting: “It Was an Ad? So What. It’s Still Art.” (NY Times)
MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?
“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.
Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):
In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.
Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.
The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.
That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.
Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.
Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.
Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.
Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.
The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?
The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.
Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:
We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.
Grab your space suits, fellas.
The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)
In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)
Public radio genes run deep.
Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.
Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.
It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)
In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”
When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:
Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.
In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.
While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.
Tip of the hat, Louisville.
Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.
A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”
I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.
Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.
The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)
Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.
When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.
I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:
[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]
[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.
On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.
Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)
Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.
Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.
I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.
But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”
This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.
Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.
The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.
I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.
More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]
[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.
One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.
I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.
Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]
Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.
On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.
- This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
- WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
- “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
- American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
- I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
- Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
- On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
- “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.
[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]
“The Troubles.” We’re three months into New York Public Radio’s reckoning with sexual harassment and an organizational culture that allowed for bullying and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. (See here, here, and here.) And it’s far from over.
Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut (where the original John Hockenberry piece by journalist Suki Kim dropped on December 1), published a whopper Monday evening that provides one of the most detailed looks at the station’s troubling history with sexual harassment and where it stands today. There’s a lot packed into it, and the piece performs a wide range of functions, including, among others:
- Vividly illustrating the toxic nature of the culture that the station has cultivated over the decades;
- Capturing the historically persistent systematic failures of the station’s human resources infrastructure — along with its weaponization (“regarded by many as the organization’s spy and enforcer”);
- Providing additional details on the behavior of Hockenberry, Leonard Lopate, and Jonathan Schwartz;
- Filling in some of the blanks of what has been happening in the station over the past few months.
Kachka was also able to secure an interview CEO Laura Walker last week, and in doing so, creates a partial portrait of a station leader under heavy fire whose future remains deeply, utterly in question.
The piece is sprawling and remarkably dense, but also somewhat strange. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and the piece strikes me as a keyhole-sized window into the chaos gripping the institution in the current moment — there are dangling threads everywhere, and there are places where I’m not sure how they fit together. Anyway, go read the feature, which is illuminating, but here are some details you probably shouldn’t miss:
- Here’s what Dean Cappello has apparently been up to following his demotion to an advisory role: “While Walker made sure to be omnipresent around the office, Cappello traveled to London. According to two sources, he was negotiating with the BBC on a partnership to build a morning news podcast to rival the current market leader, the Times’ The Daily.” Hmm.
- Here’s Walker’s view of what happens next: “She described the future as a monumental but exciting challenge, and gave herself a window of roughly a year to produce results. In addition to [former NPR News executive editor Madhulika] Sikka’s work, Proskauer’s investigation, and several ‘working groups’ of employees, there was a forthcoming ‘integrated plan for change,’ based on a dissection of the workplace now being conducted pro bono by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group.” Not for nothing, though, it should be noted that Proskauer Rose, the law firm brought in to investigate the harassment complaint, is known for union-busting at universities and being on the other side of labor in the sports world.
- And here’s the kicker: “Cappello’s demotion left many relieved, others even more frustrated that both he and Walker are still in the building. But one thing is true, everyone agrees: Walker is trying. ‘I think she wants to save the company and save herself,’ says one WNYC reporter. ‘But my colleagues and I feel like if it doesn’t truly change, we are out of here.'”
Pocket ecosystem. This morning, RadioPublic, the podcast listening platform and PRX spinoff, announced a new revenue initiative primarily aimed at smaller podcasts that haven’t yet developed a big enough audience to secure advertisers. RadioPublic is calling it the Paid Listen program, with a hook that involves the company guaranteeing payments to participating podcast publishers. Here’s how CEO Jake Shapiro describes the basic premise in an introductory blog post:
Podcasters make ad-free episodes available in their feeds, we place ads on our platform that bookend each episode, and we pay participating podcasters $20 for every thousand listens on the RadioPublic apps for iOS and Android.
Those ads will be produced in-house by RadioPublic itself for now — hence, publishers should note that they’ll lose that bit of creative control and experience contiguity, should they indeed be concerned about such things — and producers must first submit their podcasts for screening approval to participate in the program. It’s worth noting that the compensation program is limited to listens that take place on the RadioPublic mobile apps, not its embed players scattered across the internet.
In his blog post, Shapiro situates the Paid Listen program within the broader vision he holds for RadioPublic, one that sees advertising as one-of-many pathways for creator compensation that the platform will ultimately support. “Soon we will support listeners who prefer to pay podcasters directly instead of hearing an ad; brands who pay users to opt-in for more info; podcasters who invite their true fans to become paying members,” he writes. But those alternative models will come some other day; today, we’re given advertising, the tried-and-true and still-sexy business model that still drives the bulk of business in the podcast ecosystem.
Viewed from a distance, the Paid Listen program can be understood as another variation on your standard marketplace-building gambit deployed by advertising-oriented content platforms — see: YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, early Stitcher, etc. — where incentives are created to attract more creators onto the platform, after which their capacity to draw attention and generate sellable impressions are bundled as attention commodities and sold to advertisers. The nexus of content platforms and digital advertising has come under increasing criticism over the years (not to mention the platformization of everything in general, but that’s a whole other story), and so the distinct challenge for RadioPublic here is how the company will integrate its Paid Listen gambit into its orientation as a public benefit corporation and its stated goal to assist smaller publishers. That challenge gives rise to a broader philosophical question: Do differences in the social consequences of digital advertising and its resultant content/platform dynamics come down to details, and RadioPublic’s long-term commitments to those details — or are the outcomes ingrained purely in the structural arrangement, never to be overcome?
Whatever the answer to that question, it’s useful to read this initiative as the latest step in what may well end up being RadioPublic’s endgame: building a pocket ecosystem specifically for small, independent, and upstart creators in anticipation of a future in which that creator class will be pushed out of the current iteration of the podcast ecosystem by bigger, more organized, and typically deeper-pocketed publishers. It’s a pathway towards relevance that I’ve previously suspected we would see from the rising cohort of user-generated content-oriented apps like Anchor and Bumpers, but it seems that RadioPublic is, and has always been, much more aligned with this particular vision of the future.
The Hollywood hustle. A preamble: Last week, a reader wrote me a particularly profane note complaining about all the adaptation, IP-harvesting, and Hollywood/podcast baby-making stories I’ve been publishing for quite some time now. “Why should we care?” the note asked. “It doesn’t apply to 95% of us.” Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve received such a complaint on this subject. But this week, I figure I should just at least acknowledge the question, and make explicit what has been implicit all along: I cover it because it’s happening, and it’s going to keep happening, and it’s likely going to impact the structures of money, power, and leverage that inform relationships throughout the podcast ecosystem. Which means that one way or another, it’s going to impact you, whether you like it or not — and whether you can see it or not, so you should probably be aware about it.
Anyway, here’s the news peg. Last week, Gimlet announced something that should surprise absolutely nobody: the formation of Gimlet Pictures, its official film and television unit. As Deadline emphasized, the new division will be led by Chris Giliberti, the Boston Consulting Group alum (and Forbes 30 Under 30 fella) who formerly held the amorphous “head of multiplatform” title. Giliberti originally joined the company in the summer of 2015 as chief of staff to Gimlet president Matt Lieber. His team includes Eli Horowitz, who initially joined the company as the head of its fiction division in the run-up to the launch of Homecoming, and another development executive who is yet to be hired, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Do read that THR piece on the matter, by the way, which also contains two noteworthy details:
- Messaging from Lieber insisting that the company remains committed to being audio-first;
- IMG Original Content, a division of WME, has hired Moses Soyoola, Panoply’s director business development and strategy, into its ranks.
That Gimlet moved to formalize its film and television unit isn’t particularly surprising; it is, after all, the logical end to much of what the company has been doing on the adaptation front. It’s also worth remembering that Gimlet’s adaptation pipeline — and the commoditization of its shows, episodes, and projects into intellectual property — was explicitly stated as one of its core growth pathways during its $15 million fundraising announcement last fall.
But what does putting up a shingle for a film and television development arm entail? What does having one actually mean? An industry insider tells me:
It’s all about what you do with it. The facade alone won’t open doors. Will you actually build out the resources and team? Will your deals be set up in such a way that you’re actually the production company and receiving real fees for it (a.k.a. will your agency do a good job). There is a layer of deals that are purely options and no real dollars come the way of the rights holders. They may look fancy but there is no serious financial value.
Gimlet’s announcement, together with the premiere of 2 Dope Queens’ standup specials on HBO over the weekend, kicked off a series of writeups formally documenting the ongoing podcast adaptation trend, from USA Today and Variety, along with the aforementioned Deadline and Hollywood Reporter pieces. Over at Vulture, I tried to contextualize this current wave of podcast adaptations within the sporadic podcast-to-TV attempts of the past.
On a related note: Chris Hardwick, the creator of the podcast-centric multimedia network Nerdist Industries, did not renew his contract with Legendary Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Legendary acquired the company in 2012. Instead, Hardwick has branched off and rebranded his flagship Nerdist podcast as ID10T, which will be the basis of his new media company of the same name. That said, he remains the CEO of Nerdist Industries, but will not be involved in the day-to-day. Cadence13, formerly known as DGital Media, will support the new show on ad sales, and as such it’ll be hosted in Art19.
A note on last week’s issue. I’d like to revise an element of the writing in last Tuesday’s profile of Macmillan podcasts: in my introductory paragraph that sought to quickly establish the origin myth of the QDT–Macmillan relationship, I regrettably glossed over QDT’s pre-Macmillan history and Mignon Fogarty’s work therein. By the time she struck a licensing deal with Macmillan, Fogarty had already formally founded QDT and developed it into what she describes as a “thriving podcast network” spanning six podcasts. She remains involved in some high-level QDT decision-making to this day. The way the paragraph was originally written implies that QDT did not exist before the Macmillan deal, and that is patently not the case.
On a related note: Tor Teen, a Macmillan imprint, has brokered a three-book publishing deal with Lauren Shippen adapting her fiction podcast, The Bright Sessions. Paste Magazine has the exclusive.
Making your own shots. “If The Wire or Treme were a podcast and all the stories were true, this is what you’d get.” That’s how Robin Amer, the creator, host, and executive producer of The City, described her project in short-hand when she originally developed the concept for WNYC’s 2015 Podcast Accelerator. The City, described nowadays as a serialized longform investigative podcast exploring the “power structures of different American metropolises,” emerged as one of two winners of that accelerator competition, but WNYC Studios ultimately ended up passing on the project.
More than two years have elapsed since, and The City has now found a home in a unique situation: as the core of a big podcasting gambit by the USA Today Network, the Gannett-owned media group uniting USA Today and a wide array of local news operations. And last week, the podcast announced a number of key details: the first season will focus on the city of Chicago, the show is set to debut in the fall, and the project has pulled together a team of veteran journalists and public radio producers to build the show.
And what a team it is. Supporting Amer will be: reporter Wilson Sayre, formerly of WLRN; producer Jenny Casas, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and City Bureau; consulting composer and sound designer Hannis Brown, formerly of NYPR’s Meet the Composer; story editor Ben Austen, former editor at Harper’s Magazine and current contributor to the New York Times Magazine; and editor Sam Greenspan, formerly the managing producer at 99% Invisible.
The City’s road to the USA Today Network was an unconventional one. After learning that WNYC wouldn’t be picking up the show in August 2016, Amer secured help from a literary agent, Danielle Svetcov, with whom she started shopping the pilot episode around in November 2016. “I knew I needed a large institutional partner to produce the show,” Amer, who is the former deputy editor at the Chicago Reader and a former WBEZ producer, told me over email. “Long-form investigative reporting isn’t the kind of thing you can do by yourself, unfunded, on nights and weekends.”
The process involved preliminary conversations with more than a few of, as Amer puts it, “the usual podcasting suspects,” but she was eventually connected with the USA Today Network through John Barth, the managing director of PRX and a mentor of Amer, who introduced her to Liz Nelson, the network’s vice president of strategic content development and one of the people in charge of expanding the organization’s budding podcasting efforts. One thing led to another, and last summer, Gannett ultimately agreed to buy The City, acquiring its intellectual property, and bring Amer on an as employee to build and run the project.
“They completely bought into my vision for the show,” Amer said. “The network comprises 109 local news outlets all across the country in addition to USA Today, and is extremely committed to investigative reporting, so my vision of focusing on a different city every season not only made sense to them but was actually feasible.” When asked about the budget that the network is granting the project, Amer described it as “comparable to others that have been launched by major media organizations,” though no specific details were given. For the USA Today Network, The City represents a big swing in a larger push to expand its on-demand audio operation. The network hopes to grow its podcast portfolio to over 60 shows this year. (Which is, uh, wild.)
I’m told that the team is currently deep in the reporting process. “Now that our staff is on board, we’re resuming the reporting that I’ve been doing on and off for the last two years. We’ll be reporting through May, then in scripting and production mode through the summer,” Amer said. They are also laying the groundwork for the second season, which they hope to roll out in the spring of next year.
With a vision to build out a whole new platform for investigative reporting, The City could well emerge as the latest entry in a growing lineage of substantively journalistic podcasts like Reveal or In The Dark — or, as Amer hopes, the broader tradition of investigative narrative works spanning so many other mediums, like those of Errol Morris, Matthew Desmond, and as alluded to in The City’s original shorthand, David Simon. “If we’re successful, I hope it will be one more piece of proof that you can both tell a gripping story and have meaningful impact,” she said. “And hopefully that will spur other media outlets to invest in this kind of work.”
But for now, Amer has already carved out another kind of legacy: of pushing past closed doors with grit, and realizing new ways to raise a project.
On a vaguely related note, because Chicago: Ellen Mayer, a former engagement consultant at Hearken, has launched a new local podcast project called IlliNoise, which is dedicated to “answering your questions about the Illinois state government, how it works, and how it impacts your community.” Not to be confused with Illinoise, the second album in Sufjan Stevens’ 50 States project — where the musician would’ve made 50 albums, each based on a different state — that he would dismiss in 2009 as “such a joke.” (Alas.)
Now if you excuse me, I’m going to make audio puns out of every state.
Career Spotlight. This week, I traded emails with Jayson De Leon, one of those young, energetic whipper-snappers.
[conl]Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.[/conl]
[conr]Jayson De Leon: Currently I’m a producer over at Slate where I primarily produce a show called Trumpcast. We started the show back in March 2016 with the idea of it being a short run thing about a fascinating campaign with the promise of doing the podcast until this was over and…well, this is still not over. We describe Trumpcast as being “quasi-daily” and have brought on two more hosts since the election who each bring their own expertise on the administration to the show (Jamelle Bouie and Virginia Heffernan).
In addition, I just finished a stint producing Family Ghosts over at Panoply alongside Sam Dingman (who hosts and created the show), Veralyn Williams (a fellow Slatester), Odelia Rubin (part of the Famoply), and Micaela Blei (The Moth). The show explores those stories you’ve always heard your family talk about, but never quite worked up the courage to look into. I think Sam put it beautifully in the second episode of the series, No Brown Spots: This is a show where “our goal is to turn burdens into talisman.” I love that line and have it pinned to a corkboard in my room. A second season of Family Ghosts is in the works.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?[/conl]
[conr]De Leon: I went to the University of Central Florida and received my degree in economics. During my senior year, I had that moment of, “oh crap, I don’t want to work in a bank for the rest of my life,” so I applied for this internship at Planet Money and got it. I started listening to Planet Money back in 2008 during the financial crisis. Orlando was in a lot of ways the epicenter of the housing crisis, and I was looking for a place to answer the questions I had about the unraveling of my family’s real estate business at the time. I was completely hooked by the pace and detail of the stories. And, to some degree, I think the early days of Planet Money have informed how I think about making a show like Trumpcast where the news changes minute to minute.
After my internship, I spent some time working as a freelancer. I was a huge Grantland fan (R.I.P.) and ended up getting connected to one of their contributors, Brian Koppelman, by sheer luck (I sent him a tweet). He had just started his own podcast on their network called The Moment and I helped produce that show for close to two years while working as Brian’s assistant on his Showtime TV series, “Billions,” which he created alongside his partner, David Levien. The Moment ended up moving to Slate in April 2015 and from there I met a ton of people who helped me land a bunch of work. I freelanced for a little over a year and worked on shows like Slate’s Working and Political Gabfest until I ultimately landed in Jacob Weisberg’s office (who runs The Slate Group) throwing around ideas for what Trumpcast could sound like alongside my then co-producer, Henry Molofsky.
TLDR — making a living doing audio feels like it required a bunch of breaks to go my way. As a former poker player, it feels like I’ve just caught a run of good cards and I’m just ecstatic to still be in the game.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you, at this point?[/conl]
[conr]De Leon: Great question, Quah! Hmmm…I never get to think about this. I guess to me a career allows you to enrich those parts of your life you’ve always wanted to enrich while at the same time allowing you to build an actual life for yourself. Only recently have I started to think about this as a “career.” Where I work allows me to try all sorts of new things with storytelling and there’s a certain level of relief that comes with knowing you have time to sit and really think about the best way to tell the story you want to tell or make the best version of the show you want to make. I’m finding that the stories come from a more generous rather than desperate place these days. Like anybody engaging in this medium, I’m just looking to make something that’s urgent, compelling, and feels worthwhile to me and the people listening.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?[/conl]
[conr]De Leon: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional basketball player. I don’t think I’m more jealous of any other thing on Earth than people who play basketball professionally. Thinking about it is actually making me upset right now. I also thought I was going to be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter after spending four years training full-time. There was also a very good chance that if I didn’t get that Planet Money internship, I would’ve just stayed in Orlando and tried to make my life work over there. So no, when I started out in life, I never thought I wanted to tell stories, but I’m damn happy to find it when I did.
When I first started out playing in the audio space at Planet Money, I was a complete mess. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I tried to do everything. I went on a reporting trip with Zoe Chace which opened my eyes to speaking with people out in the world. Who knew you could do that for living? I pitched stories basically every week at the Planet Money edit meeting. Mainly because I’m very competitive, but also because it was kind of fun to hear why things don’t work.
Phia Bennin, who was producing over at Planet Money then, helped me with basically everything else while I was there — learning to track, edit, mix, etc., and I can’t thank her enough for that. I think I ultimately ended up producing out of necessity, because I really wanted to stay in New York and keep playing my hand in audio, but it’s just in the last year or so that it feels like I’ve been able to tell myself that this is probably what I’ll be doing with my days for years to come.[/conr]
- Pandora is reorganizing its business — which is to say, it’s downsizing and engaging in cost-saving measures while placing bets on new gambles, like ad tech and further expanding into non-music content. The music streaming company is also working to grow its Atlanta office, situated in “a region with lower costs than the company’s headquarters in Oakland.” What finagling! (Press release)
- “Audible’s pursuit of more audiobook publishing rights could squeeze traditional book publishers in the fastest-growing segment of the market.” (The Wall Street Journal)
- Amazon has acquired Pulse Labs, a startup that aims to help voice app developers “test out new apps on a target audience before publicly launching.” (Recode)
- The Modern Love podcast celebrated its 100th episode last week. I asked the team to list out their favorite entries. (Vulture)
- The Onion binge-dropped a six-part true-crime spoof yesterday, titled “A Very Fatal Murder.” (Website)
- The ever-funny, always-delightful Glen Weldon with “The 6 Eminently Disprovable Rules For Roundtable Podcasting.” (NPR Monkey See)
- Are you reading Caroline Crampton? You absolutely should.
Slate Outlook. This is a tad newsier and more with-the-pack than I generally like to be, but whatever — there’s a bunch of juicy, usable stuff in here.
Slate readers woke up this morning to something big from the 22-year-old online magazine: a total redesign, complete with an overhauled backend to improve the site’s user experience and a new logo to mark its third decade of publication. Accompanying the aesthetic revamp are significant adjustments to the site’s editorial architecture — including, among other things, a reorganization of its content verticals and, of course, a long-overdue push to make its substantial audio output more prominent across its web presence.
“We look at the redesign as a recommitment to the written word and audio,” Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, tells me. She also notes that those renewed commitments are, in part, a reaction to the “pivot to video” gambit employed elsewhere in the digital media ecosystem, increasingly lampooned these days either as folly or a cynical ploy to extract dollars from the unstable hype surrounding digital video. “We’re planning to expand editorial spending on podcasts and articles,” she said. “There are good economic models behind both.”
We’ll stick to the audio portion here, of course, and our primary interest is to get a sense of just how strong that podcast business model is for Slate. Turner dished out some numbers to set the scene:
- Slate enjoyed 100 million downloads in 2017 across its entire podcast network, not counting shows under the Slate Extra banner.
- Podcast downloads are said to be up 42 percent from 2016.
- December proved to be Slate’s biggest podcasting month, driven in good part by Slow Burn (more on that show in a bit), with 3.5 million downloads across the period.
- Slate’s podcast advertising revenues were up 36 percent in 2017 over 2016, and the company expects continued growth this year, or so it is said.
(“We like to share when they’re happy numbers,” Turner said, when I expressed marvel over the volume of information being provided.)
But perhaps the most telling data point is this: In 2014, podcasting made up 0 percent of Slate’s revenue portfolio. By the end of 2017, that number has shot up to 25 percent. Whether that number continues to grow over the next few years will be something to watch. Unsurprisingly, the company expects growth in all key revenue areas — including display advertising and membership dollars in addition to podcast advertising — which, if true, would stabilize the growth of Slate’s podcast advertising dependency. But I do find it compelling to contemplate a future in which Slate primarily operates as a podcast publisher with a significant written web engine that functions as an effective lead-generation tool. (Thereby ultimately adhering to the construct sketched out by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in his November 2015 piece, “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.” Indeed, such a result would create an unexpected homology between Slate and Grantland’s successor, The Ringer, if I’m reading the latter correctly.)
Anyway, depending on how you look at it, one could interpret Slate’s podcasting fortunes either as a product of luck or persistence, maybe both. Slate’s adventures in podcasting began over a decade ago, in 2004, and as Andy Bowers, who joined the company around that time as its OG producer after a twenty-year career in public radio, is fond of telling it, the site’s early audio dabblings involved publishing recordings of him reading articles out loud into a microphone. (Some ideas never really go away.) Those experiments would eventually evolve into shows with more substantial discursive formats, which would then go on to cultivate strong communities over an extended period of time. Digging through the archives and thinking back on that era, one could argue that there was no real reason for the company to continue producing those podcasts beyond simple enjoyment and serving those early communities; hence the notion of luck and persistence. But sticking to the experiment paid off, as that commitment ultimately primed them to be particularly ready for this historical juncture in digital audio publishing.
Nowadays, the Slate podcast network is a sprawling 24-show portfolio that’s spread across various Gabfests (a model that it pioneered across multiple shows and that is widely emulated these days by other online publications dabbling in the medium), some personality-driven shows (The Gist, Dear Prudence, etc.), and an emerging bucket of more ambitious projects. Bowers, after a long tenure as Slate’s EP of podcasts, went on to cofound a podcast-specific sister company, Panoply, in early 2015, and his role has now been passed onto another bald public radio veteran: Steve Lickteig.
2017 proved to be an interesting year for Slate Podcasts. Most prominently, it struck a curious partnership with Studio 360 last summer, taking over coproduction and digital distribution responsibilities from WNYC (where the show had been housed since its launch in 2000) as well as physically bringing the team into its offices. The network also steadily rolled out a suite of new shows, including a Spanish-language Gabfest and a few highly-produced narrative projects.
One such narrative project was Slow Burn, the Leon Neyfakh-led narrative podcast that sought to capture a sense of how it felt to live through Watergate, which I largely enjoyed and reviewed for Vulture last week. It turned out to be a hit for the company — not just as a standalone podcast project, but also as a lead-generation vessel for its membership program, Slate Plus.
Even though the core Slow Burn experience is available for free as a weekly podcast, a Slate Plus membership gives Burn-heads access to bonus episodes and other additional material. The carrot was apparently effective. “We’re seeing conversion at an extraordinary rate,” Turner said, noting that the Slow Burn campaign yielded 2.5× to 3× the daily conversion rates of an average day. “We’re seeing a ton of overlap between audio audiences and Slate Plus,” she adds. Plans are now in place to develop the property further, including an upcoming live event at the Watergate itself and a broader vision to untether the podcast from Watergate and use its conceit as a way to build future seasons around other historical events.
Slow Burn’s success should give Slate some extra confidence for the upcoming shows they’re planning to launch this year. Projects in the development pipeline includes:
- A documentary series led by the author Michael Lewis, of The Big Short and Moneyball fame, about umpires.
- A project built around Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, which I’m told will neither be a chat show nor an interview-show.
One imagines there will be more to come.
The notion of an online magazine entering its third decade is a wild thing to consider. (I’m not too much older than the site itself, which was founded in 1996.) Even wilder is the challenge of continuing to exist — and to fight for relevance — as a digital publication in a notoriously rough industry environment whose narratives are generally oriented around the downswings of the hype cycle these days. In its relative geriatricity, Slate now has the opportunity to contribute to a playbook that few digital publications get the chance to write.
Some odds and ends:
- I’m also told that, as part of the changes surrounding the redesign and internal shifts, Slate will be taking over its own podcast sales from its sister company Panoply, which previously held that responsibility. A spokesperson explained the change as follows: “Since Slate podcasts are separating from the rest of Panoply, the direct response advertisers that Panoply was calling exclusively for the total network — including Slate — will, starting Q2, be called on by Slate sellers for only Slate’s network of shows. Panoply will continue to call on them for Panoply shows. Obviously, Slate very much believes in Panoply. We are creating this structure so that Slate and Panoply can each focus and do what it does best.” This separation is, of course, quite curious for Panoply.
- It is not lost on me that the Slate Political Gabfest, one of the network’s oldest and most prominent shows, is hosted by three people who are no longer full-time Slate employees: David Plotz (now the CEO of Atlas Obscura), Emily Bazelon (now a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and senior research fellow at Yale Law School), and John Dickerson (installed last week as cohost of CBS This Morning). This is both a testament to the legacy that Slate Podcasts has created across its run, and an indication of a potential vulnerability.
- Speaking of Dickerson, Slate’s podcast chief Steve Lickteig confirmed that Dickerson will continue with the Slate Political Gabfest and Whistlestop.
- As part of the editorial restructure, the Double X vertical is being phased out as its previous responsibilities become absorbed by all other verticals (there are now five: News & Politics, Culture, Technology, Business, and Human Interest). But the Double X Podcast will continue to operate, serving as the living connection to the vertical’s legacy.
Panoply loses its kids chief. I’ve confirmed that Emily Shapiro, the director of children’s programming, has left the company. Shapiro was originally hired in January 2017 to lead the emerging division, which is primarily built around the Pinna platform. I wrote about Pinna when it first rolled out last October.
Panoply declined to comment on Shapiro’s departure, citing a strict policy on discussing personnel matters.
Prior to joining Panoply, Shapiro was the cofounder of the New York International Children’s Film Festival — considered by some critics as one of New York’s best film festivals — where she worked for almost two decades. Her departure comes at a particularly hot time for the kids podcast genre, including recently launched pushes from WNYC Studios and Gimlet Media, along with long-running efforts from the Kids Listen community.
WBEZ is working on a follow-up to Making Oprah. But it won’t be about Oprah. Brendan Banaszak, the station’s interim executive producer of content development, confirmed the project over email, and noted that they’re applying the “Making” conceit to another Chicago figure whose identity will be revealed at a later date. (A move not unlike what Slate is hoping to do with Slow Burn.) Jenn White will host once again.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really into the idea of “Making” as a podcast template for local public radio stations across the country in the vein of the Hearken-powered Curious City franchise expansions. I would love a Making-style show for Idaho. (Aaron Paul??)
Science Friday joins the WNYC Studios portfolio. The move was announced last Friday. Here’s what that means:
- WNYC Studios will lead sponsorship sales for the Science Friday podcast along with its spinoff show Undiscovered.
- Starting April 11, WNYC Studios will take over distribution responsibilities for the Science Friday radio broadcast.
- Science Friday remains an independent nonprofit media organization, and will continue production as usual in their current studios and offices.
- WNYC Studios will also assist in the scaling of Science Friday’s audience, along with fielding opportunities for potential future creative collaborations between the two organizations.
This development bears strong resemblance to the August 2015 Snap Judgment move to enter into a coproduction deal with WNYC, the specifics of which you can read in this Current writeup from the time. In this case, however, Science Friday is breaking away from its distribution ties with PRI, with whom they’ve had a relationship since January 2014.
“We love PRI — they’ve been great partners, and our audience is bigger than its ever been” Christian Skotte, codirector and head of digital at Science Friday told me. “For us, as we look forward into the future, WNYC has shown how to launch and market podcasts, and as we think about what our future looks like, we’re thinking beyond just being a radio show and podcast towards being able to create whole new suites of content.”
Science Friday is currently celebrating its 27th year of production.
This week in the revolving door:
- Eleanor Kagan, the director of audio at BuzzFeed, is leaving the company to join Pineapple Street Media. This move comes almost a month after BuzzFeed announced that it was parting ways with Another Round due to “strategic changes” at the company. Worth noting: Pineapple was cofounded by Jenna Weiss-Berman, who originated the podcast team at BuzzFeed.
- Jessica Stahl, who originated The Washington Post’s current audio operations in her role as deputy editor on the audience team, has been promoted to director of audio. In related news, The Washington Post’s audio operations launched seven new podcasts in 2017, including two specifically for smart speaker devices.
- James Green, cofounder of the Postloudness collective and a former producer at Gimlet Media, is joining The Outline to work on its daily show, World Dispatch.
- John Lagomarsino, audio director at The Outline, is moving to Anchor to serve as head of production. It is a newly created role.
Wait, Anchor has a head of production now? Yep. But the gig is more a product role than anything else. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure content on Anchor is high-quality, well-curated, and relevant for creators and listeners,” Lagomarsino tells me through a rep, before going on to describe a role that liaises between Anchor’s userbase and the company’s product, marketing, and content teams.
For the uninitiated, Anchor is a mobile-oriented app that originally rolled out within the “Twitter, but for audio” construct. That initial orientation was defined by a twin focus: ease of creation and ease of sharing. The company was founded in 2015 and, after picking up some initial buzz at SXSW the year after, has persisted to kick about in pursuit of a place within the marginally iterating podcast technology ecosystem. Last fall, Anchor raised $10 million in a Series A round led by Google Ventures. According to a TechCrunch writeup at the time, the company is still not generating revenue.
The current iteration of Anchor further increases its focus on creating the “easiest path to making a podcast” for the biggest number of people (the bulk of which, one imagines, is relatively inexperienced in audio production). This positioning was expressed last July, when Anchor seized on the reported instabilities at SoundCloud — previously the go-to hosting option for first-time and newer podcast publishers — by offering easy hosting transfers. It was a shrewd move, as the two services map nicely for their target demo given that both platforms are free and relatively simple to use.
How Anchor fits into the broader on-demand audio universe remains to be seen. Will the platform continue to be the lord of its own content universe, or will it meaningfully usurp portions of the technology stack that supports the rest of the podcast ecosystem? The answer hinges on whether CEO Mike Mignano’s thesis on the space pans out.
“The reality of the current landscape is that podcasting has remained an artificially small industry, because it’s so hard to contribute to,” Mignano wrote through a rep. He continued:
Between the friction that exists at nearly every step of the content lifecycle, and the antiquated technology that the industry has relied on for years, creators are left with limited data and limited opportunity for monetization, thus capping the potential of the market. We’re well past the breaking point where innovation across the entire stack is absolutely necessary for growth.
With Anchor, we’re focused on creating technology that strengthens the entire ecosystem and unlocks the true potential of the audio landscape. I expect Anchor to have a lot of competition in the coming years, which we’re excited about, because true innovation is ultimately going to come from technology pushing the boundaries of what’s previously been possible.
I happen to agree with the characterization of podcasting as an “artificially small industry.” The question I’ve kept encountering throughout my years writing this newsletter is whether that’s actually a bad thing.
Billboard outside ATL, Georgia. Atlanta Monster, the new true crime series from Atlanta podcast companies HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot, appears to be playing around with OOH advertising local to the Atlanta city area:
— Jason Hoch (@starexplorer) January 11, 2018
“Gimlet is a multimedia storytelling brand, not just a podcast network.” So goes the opening argument from Gimlet’s new chief marketing officer, Jenny Wall, which headlined a quick Fast Company piece last week, as she moves to elevate the company’s profile.
This is, of course, no new revelation for Gimlet, which has pretty explicitly highlighted its formalizing intellectual property pipeline — carved out in large part by Chris Giliberti, its young “head of multiplatform” — as both differentiating factor and exceptionally strong potential growth channel. Nor is it a particularly new revelation for the industry as a whole; as I noted in my 2017 year-in-review column, the adaptation pipeline is one that extends widely across the ecosystem (though with particular concentration within the audio drama category) and offers the industry a significant pathway to gain strength independently from the platform dynamics governed, still, by Apple. Nor is Gimlet the only entity that’s been exceptionally active in ushering podcast-first properties into projects for other mediums; Night Vale Presents has proven to be equally prominent, with the added nuance of not potentially burdened by the demands of venture capital.
But I thought the quote was interesting for three reasons:
- It’s super reminiscent of HBO’s “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” campaign that Wall worked on earlier in her career, which I pointed out last week when writing up her appointment.
- I was wondering when Gimlet would explicitly make the “actually, we’re not just a podcast company” turn in its narrative. It’s a mindset that you could arguably trace back to a point as early as the company’s participation in the summer 2016 Brooklyn NewFronts event, where it sought to gain association with broader digital media brands like Genius, Atlas Obscura, and Lenny Letter. Perhaps you can trace it back even further.
- One potential function for the narrative redraft: to open and grease more paths for acquisition. It’s one thing if you’re a podcast company whose most literal suitors would be a bigger, traditional audio company — see Cadence13 and Entercom — but it’s another thing altogether when your perceived value is non-medium specific. It definitely makes things more interesting for, say, a talent agency, or perhaps even a global advertising agency not unlike the one that chipped in $5 million into Gimlet’s recent investment round.
- Like Slate, This American Life has also undergone a redesign, which includes a new shock-red logo. I think the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri said it best: “Congrats to @ThisAmerLife on its new job as The Economist.” I myself, er, am not a fan. (Website)
- Last Thursday, ESPN Audio rolled out the first episode of a new podcast from Katie Nolan, who joined the sports media giant from Fox Sports in October.
- The Loud Speakers Network is bringing back its brand collaboration with State Farm, Color Full Lives, with Aminatou Sow and Angela Yee in the hosting seats. Interestingly, this will be the branded podcast’s third season. They’re also set to experiment with an accompanying video component. (Apple Podcasts)
- At CES last week, NPR published a new smart speaker study that has some additional data points for your pitch decks. Check it out.
- This is cool: closing out her third season, Flash Forward’s Rose Eveleth graphed the gender ratio and racial diversity of the guests she brings onto her episodes. (Flash Forward)
- This is also cool: Doree Shafrir, author and senior tech writer at BuzzFeed, is independently publishing a podcast called Forever35, which is focused on serving women in their 30s and 40s. This is her second indie podcast project, following Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, which chronicles her and her husband’s experience of conceiving through in-vitro fertilization.
- Meanwhile, on the Beltway: Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has jumped on the politician podcasting train with one of those shows where he talks to people doing stuff he’s likes. He joins senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), along with former U.S. Attorney General Preet Bharara, in the style.
- “Pandora CEO Roger Lynch Wants to Create the Podcast Genome Project.” Okay. (Variety)
- “The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens.” (Pacific Standard)
- “Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You.” (NY Times)
- PodcastOne announces partnership with the Associated Press around a daily audio news product accompanying the Winter Olympics. (Press Release)
- “Whatever it is, I’m not afraid of what happens after death.” Don’t miss this glorious conversation with Terry Gross by Vulture’s David Marchese.
Next week, we’re talking crypto-pods.
Anchor Raises $10M in Series A. So, I would have titled this item as “Another Fundraise,” but I did that the last time, and really there’s no telling how many more there is to come. Not any more at this point, anyhow…
Become a Hot Pod Member to read on.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 110, published March 7, 2017.
A quick note of the sausage-making variety: I had originally planned this issue around the theme of platforms, which, in podcasting and just about everywhere else, seems to be the defining problem of our media-consuming era. However, the piece of news on which I had hoped to hang the week got pushed back for some reason or other, and I thought it would be bad form to break the embargo or perform some interpretative dance around the hole it leaves behind while continuing on with the theme. (The news is scheduled to roll out soon enough, though. You’ll know it when you see it.) Anyway, it’s all good, as this week turned out to have a thread of its own. You’ll figure that out soon enough.
That’s probably way more preamble than necessary. Let’s jump into the week.
Midroll executive producer leaves to start her own venture. Gretta Cohn, the company’s New York-based executive producer of show development, is breaking off to form her own production company. Identifying details of the new venture — including a name, focus, and initial client list — will be rolled out in the coming weeks, but Cohn told me last week that the business will be a production company that’s closer to something like Pineapple Street Media than a straightforward podcast network. “We’ll produce shows for a variety of partners and help brands and individuals create highly produced podcasts, from start to finish,” she said, noting that the company will specialize in highly edited and sound design–rich work. The company will also be producing original work.
The venture, whatever it will be called, is expected to officially launch in April.
Cohn enters the market with substantial experience as an operator in the new podcast industry. Her history with Midroll dates back to December 2014, when she was hired as a founding member of the company’s then-nascent New York office. There, Cohn was responsible for building out much of the company’s production staff, and she led development on several high-profile Earwolf projects, including the fantastic Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People with Chris Gethard, the Katie Couric podcast, and the relaunch of The Longest Shortest Time. She also led the initial programming slate within Howl, the premium subscription service that Midroll launched prior to acquiring Stitcher, which included Fruit, the fiction podcast by Issa Rae. Prior to her time at Midroll, Cohn worked at WNYC, where she served as the associate producer on Freakonomics Radio and Soundcheck. In a previous life, Cohn was a cellist in a rock band.
When asked for comment, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn told me: “She’s dead to me. JUST KIDDING. Gretta is a talented producer whose star is rising, and we were lucky to have her dedicated to Midroll full-time for more than two years…She’s done so much for us for so long that I cannot begrudge her the urge to strike out on her own and become the architect of her own destiny for a while.”
Diehn adds, “And while we’ll miss her, we view her new venture as a positive development overall for the industry. Our business depends on the flourishing of a Hollywood-style ecosystem of producers and production companies working with us on individual projects — much as Pineapple Street did with Missing Richard Simmons. The more talent independent production companies with whom we and others can work, the better.”
March 29 will be Cohn’s last day at Midroll. You can find her website here.
Third Coast Festival announces 2017 dates. Mark your calendars, ye bleeding heart audio documentarians: this year, the Chicago-based international audio festival will take place from November 9 to 11 — slightly earlier in the weekend, from Thursday to Saturday, which the festival’s organizers tell me will make it easier for attendees to travel back to their respective lives on Sunday. This latest conference will mark the second edition of Third Coast since the festival shifted to an annual production. It previously took place every two years.
Maya Goldberg-Safir, the festival’s artistic associate, passed me a few details:
- In addition to the usual run of events, this year’s festival will also feature a three-hour bootcamp for audio production beginners looking for more exposure to the work. That’ll take place on the afternoon of November 9.
- The festival will take place in the same hotel as last year, and the festival will be capped at 700 people./
- Ticket prices will go up slightly this year. Keep an eye out for that.
- Potential session leaders — and sponsors — are encouraged to reach out.
Tickets go on sale August 22.
Anchor 2.0. The Betaworks-incubated social audio app, which caught a fair bit of buzz when it first launched just over year ago, is making another push to establish its value. On Tuesday morning, the app rolled out its second iteration. Among its new features:
- What appears to be an audio equivalent of the “Stories” feature that we see in visual social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. (Has anybody coined a term for the phenomenon where, over the long run, everything on the Internet will ultimately be the same exact thing?)
- New audio creation tools, including the ability to pull in music tracks from Apple Music or Spotify, external audio clips, and pre-made musical fillers. (One imagines that music licensing will be a big part of this conversation.)
- Distribution over voice-first platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, in addition to the usual places like iOS, Android, and that old thing called the web.
According to the press release, the app will also feature content from established publishers like Gizmodo Media Group, IGN, and WNYC, among others. The nature of the content partnerships between Anchor and those publishers remain unclear to me. Further details can be found in the company’s blog post.
The announcement comes with the revelation of a new $2.8 million funding round. It was led by Accel Partners, and includes The Chernin Group, the Omidyar Network, Mick Batyske, and Eniac Ventures, a previous investor.
I try not to make it a habit to write about social audio apps very much, but I do find this news interesting on two levels:
- Anchor’s announcement seems to pit the app directly against Bumpers, the creation-emphasizing social audio app founded by Twitter alums Ian Ownbey and Jacob Thornton. (Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s many co-founders, is an investor in Bumpers.) While it remains to be seen whether an “Instagram” or “Snapchat” or “Twitter” (or “Yo”) for audio is a digital product category that will actually end up being a thing, it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch this sector of the digital audio space work itself out.
- In my head, I’ve come to place Anchor and Bumpers in one bucket, given both these apps’ focus on serving as the mediating space between users and other users, while establishing another bucket specifically for short-form audio app 60dB and the AI-oriented Otto Radio which seems, to me at least, primarily occupied with developing a firm grasp on the interface between professional publishers and listeners.
This week I’m tracking… Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2017 Study that’s due to come out this Thursday.
Going solo. “I dunno if this crossed your radar,” a reader wrote to me last month. “But I would love a Hot Pod interview with the ladies behind Stuff Mom Never Told You.” The reader mentioned that Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the current hosts behind that feminist-oriented HowStuffWorks podcast, had published their last episode at the end of last year, and were moving on to start their own independent media company, Unladylike Media. (Not to be mistaken with the Australian podcast of the same name.) I had heard about the show’s current iteration ending, but I missed the fact that a new venture was coming out of this. So, I reached out to Conger with a few questions, and she obliged with a set of lengthy, fascinating responses.
“We’re much more ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ than…a revenge song title that will probably come to me five minutes after I send this,” Conger insisted, not wanting the story’s angle to mischaracterize the impetus behind Unladylike Media’s formation, or its relationship with HowStuffWorks.
[conl]Nicholas Quah: Could you walk me through the history of Stuff Mom Never Told You?[/conl]
[conr]Cristen Conger: Caroline and I were never “supposed” to be podcast hosts. We were both printed word nerds, met at our college newspaper and hadn’t ever regularly kept in touch. HowStuffWorks (HSW) wasn’t even a podcast network when they hired me as a staff writer in 2008. Unbeknownst to me, Caroline was working as an editor at a mid-size newspaper.
Not long after I started, HSW began dabbling in podcasts as a way to stretch the deeply researched articles we writers and editors were producing each week. Stuff You Should Know [the network’s flagship show] was such an instant juggernaut, the department essentially held an open call for new hosts and show ideas. That’s how Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) happened and eventually launched in February 2009 (first episode: Do men and women have different brains?). Also, credit where credit is due to then-HSW editor-in-chief Conal Byrne for getting that idea off the ground — and while knee-deep in a recession.
By happenstance, Caroline had left the newspaper job, moved back to Atlanta, and gotten in touch with me. We met up at a sports pub of all places, and it’s almost like we never stopped talking. We just had conversational chemistry out of the gate. Unlike my typical “friend dating” anxiety, I wasn’t panicking on the inside that I’d run out of interesting things to say and bring our hangout to an awkwardly silent halt.
So when the original co-host [Molly Edmonds] left [in 2011], Caroline hopped on board. Then in December, after 833 episodes, we hung up our Stuff Mom Never Told You headphones.[/conr]
[conl]Quah: What were the factors that led to your new venture?[/conl]
[conr]Conger: The more success we enjoyed with the show, the more Caroline sensed it was only a matter of time. I was a little more precious about, but then I went to Werk It: A Women’s Podcast Festival at WNYC in June and never looked back. If any of those rad women are reading this, thank you!
SMNTY was a tremendous opportunity, and we miss the fan community we built dearly. But we also want to do better by them, and we couldn’t do that and remain at HSW at the same time, both on principle and practicality.
Speaking exclusively to our situation since we aren’t attempting to speak for anyone currently with the company, there was no incentive to growing the show. We tumbled through two acquisitions [HSW’s current owner is the Seattle-based Bluecora, which bought the company from Discovery Communications in 2014] on scrappiness and inertia. But without IP ownership or revenue shares, the pot at the end of the rainbow was starting to look like fool’s gold. Meanwhile, we were producing two podcasts and as many as four videos each week; our content-ing game was fire, no doubt.
Plus, producing a massive library of more than 800 deeply researched episodes was a crash course in efficiency at the cost of creative growth. The medium had evolved so much during the show’s run that Caroline and I were also itching to break it all down and build something better and smarter, more dynamic and inclusive.
Not to mention we wanted to commit the radical act of women making media and owning it, too. It’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.[/conr]
[conl]Quah: You said that “there was no incentive to growing” SMNTY. Could you talk more about that?[/conl]
[conr]Conger: Personally, I’ve thought about that a lot — what shifted my mindset to it no longer being OK to just Make The Thing and not worry so much about whether I was getting back what my time and talent are worth. When I pitched SMNTY in 2008, IP rights and revenue shares were a moot point. I earned a salary as the HSW staff writer I was hired to be, and that was that.
But in the meantime, the value of podcasting began growing inversely to the cheapening of editorial content, which was the HSW bread and butter — not to mention my own as a word nerd. Throw in the company changing hands a couple of times, and it makes sense that the industry outpaced its podcast model. What then shifted for me was not wanting to wait around for course correction while still not owning or profiting from growing the show. Plus, I’d been there since soon out of college and had just turned 30. It was time to bet on myself.[/conr]
[conl]Quah: And you mentioned that “it’s refreshing when feminism isn’t side-eyed as a liability.” Was that an issue at HSW?[/conl]
[conr]Conger: A feminist podcast about gender, bodies, and sexuality was understandably outside of the HSW core brand’s science/tech/trivia wheelhouse from the get-go. So it speaks highly that we even got the green light to launch. Nor were we ever censored. But when you’re 1) inherently off-brand (in a marketing sense) and 2) that brand ethos is feminism and 3) upper management is predominantly male, it can sometimes feel like an elephant in the room.[/conr]
[conl]Quah: Tell me more about Unladylike Media. What’s the premise, how does the business work right now, and how does it functionally differ from the arrangement with HowStuffWorks?[/conl]
[conr]Conger: At its core, Unladylike is us making the media we want to see in the world and wish existed when we were growing up. It’s also us taking a bet on ourselves, which is re-energizing to remember during this hustle. Neither of us left HSW until we left, so we’ve hit the ground running from the ground floor.
Next spring, Ten Speed Press is publishing Unladylike the book, so we’re currently splitting our time between manuscripting and developing a podcast pilot with Midroll. Women, gender, and feminism are still our holy trinity, but it’s a completely different concept from structure and sound to topics and narratives. It’s exactly the creative challenge that we’ve been pining for.
That means the business is still in development, which is a good thing because we’re taking the time to build a quality foundation instead of throwing spaghetti against the wall. Looking ahead, we envision Unladylike as a multi-platform destination for sisters doin’ it for themselves.[/conr]
Unladylike Media, Congers tells me, which aims to “inform and inspire women, girls and nonbinary folks,” is due to roll out its new website today. And in addition to the Midroll pilot and book deal mentioned in the interview, Conger and Ervin have also been publishing a weekly newsletter.
When reached for comment, HWS chief content officer Jason Hoch said: “We love their work and wish them luck on their new efforts. We respect the confidentiality of our private arrangements with our hosts, although we can say that everyone in our company shares in the company’s success.”
Last week, HowStuffWorks announced its latest podcast, FoodStuff, with Blue Apron as the launch sponsor. It is the network’s thirteenth podcast.
- “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides.” This provides the bigger picture surrounding a development that I’ve previously highlighted — that of Otto Radio establishing a partnership with Uber last October. (TechCrunch)
- Missed this last week: Charley Locke’s latest is on the ethical slipperiness of host-read ads — a long-time concern, to be sure. I don’t think I’m as skeptical as Locke appears to be in her analysis, but I am here for this quote from a communications professor: “When hosts do the ads, advertisers are assuming there’s a parasocial relationship between the host and the listener.” (Wired)
- “Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can’t Say In Church.” (NPR)
- Well this is interesting: “These shiny concept earphones are the latest vessel for Sony’s digital assistant.” (The Verge)
Quick housekeeping note: I’ll be traveling later this week to SXSW, and if you’ll be at there as well, come check out the panel on podcast advertising that I’ll be moderating! Also, come say hi.