“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, S-Town was the Himalayas”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 116, published April 18, 2017.

Midroll formalizes the Stitcher editorial brand. When I wrote up the return of First Day Back for last week’s newsletter, I was mostly thinking out loud when discussing its label as a Stitcher show and how that might’ve hinted towards the spinning out of the podcast app as its own editorial brand. It looks like I was a day early on that, as the company announced last Wednesday that it was indeed firming up the Stitcher branding, and that it was shuffling some Earwolf shows into its purview.

Stitcher will now carry The Longest Shortest Time and the Katie Couric Podcast, both of which were previously categorized as Earwolf shows. The new umbrella will also carry The Sporkful, whose departure from WNYC I covered two weeks ago, and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the Stephen Dubner-led game show previously housed in The New York Times’ audio unit.

The reason for all of this shuffling? In a word: #branding.

Speaking over the phone yesterday, Midroll CEO Erik Diehn explained that, while he ultimately thinks a network’s brand won’t mean very much to a broad audience, he does find that it carries significant weight with its core audience. As such, any programming move has to make sense within the context of that audience’s relationship with the brand. “Every once in a while, a content brand rises above the fray to stand for something more than the individual shows organized within it,” Diehn said, also pointing to Gimlet Media, Barstool Sports, and The Ringer as examples. “There is value there for a certain core audience.”

The company bumped up against this when it initially attempted to broaden the Earwolf network out from its core comedy and comedy-adjacent sensibility; Diehn told me that Stranglers, a true-crime documentary podcast that Midroll published under the Earwolf network, was perceived by some to be a parody in large part due to its association with Earwolf. (It is most certainly not that.) The decision to carve out Stitcher as a separate entity from Earwolf, then, is meant to create a separate audience architecture for the more newsy and serious shows that Midroll hopes to get more involved in.

For what it’s worth, I personally feel that a brand means as much to listeners, audiences, and consumers as it makes itself out to be — which is to say, I tend to believe its effectiveness — and, for that matter, the effectiveness of things like bylines and datelines — is chiefly derived from the amount of work put into making it mean something.

Anyway, when I asked about how Stitcher Premium was doing, Diehn noted that it was “doing quite well,” and that it was “hitting all of its forecasts for the year so far.” He declined to share specific numbers when asked.

Speaking of brands…

“Apple Podcasts.” Last week saw a quiet announcement from Apple’s iTunes teams that nonetheless sent ripples throughout the community: The company is rebranding “iTunes Podcasts” as “Apple Podcasts.” Aside from an updated set of marketing guidelines and visual assets for use by publishers — get those badges and switch up your tags, folks — the announcement was made with little accompanying information that could tell us anything substantial about how (or even whether) Apple is actually fundamentally rethinking its relationship with the growing podcast ecosystem — a possibility that was first hinted back in February’s Recode Media conference when Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services Eddy Cue vaguely noted that the company was “working on new features for podcasts.”

Which is to say, we know nothing new about whether the company plans to: revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticized as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago); provide any further analytics support; allow for external verification of metrics (as in the case of Apple News); increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion on the podcast app; provide additionals pathways for monetization within the Apple podcast ecosystem; or clarifying the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.

On the flipside, it does maintain a status quo that continues to leave unreconciled the larger question about how the space will continue to play out structurally — that is, it holds in place the tension between podcasts-as-blogs contingent and podcasts-as-future-of-radio contingent that seemingly came to a public head last summer. (Here’s the relevant Hot Pod column from that time.) A lot has changed since then; the industry has continued to grow, more hit shows have come to be, more platforms have begun to encroach on Apple’s majority share with experiments in windowing and exclusives, and so on.

There’s a legit story in here somewhere…but this isn’t quite it. Looks like we’ll have to keep being on the lookout.

“If a Serial episode was a mountain peak, then S-Town was the Himalayas.” On Friday, PRX chief technology officer Andrew Kuklewicz published a Medium post discussing the backend of hosting the hit podcast — which, as you probably know by now, opted to drop all of its seven episodes at once as opposed to a recurring drop structure. In case you didn’t know, This American Life hosts all of its podcasts on Dovetail, the CMS platform created by PRX (which also distributes the company’s shows to public radio stations).

I’ve briefly written about Dovetail before, but the platform has kept a relatively low profile compared to its more aggressive competitors, like Art19 and Panoply’s Megaphone, and I suppose you could read this post as the company flexing its muscles somewhat. “After S-Town, we are that much more confident in our technology, both in new ways of using it, and under extreme load,” Kuklewicz wrote. “Plus, the next time someone asks me what Dovetail can do, I have a new graph to show them.”

The post is chock-full of interesting stuff — including some fascinating insights into binge-download behavior — but I’d like to draw your attention to something: Long-time observers of the podcast industry are probably familiar with the conversation around dynamic ad insertion technology, how its proponents argue that it allows for greater advertising inventory and opportunity (by allowing ads to be dynamically switched out according to who is listening), and how the current generation of professionalizing podcast companies have generally integrated the technology by treating the ad slot as the unit that gets dynamically switched out.

According to Kuklewicz’s post, it appears that the S-Town team made a peculiar request: to treat the entire episode as the dynamic unit. This effectively maintains the baked-in nature of the ad-read while still allowing for the fundamental utility of each individual episode being able to serve different ads to different kinds of people. When I asked Kuklewicz about the logic behind this, he said: “They wanted to maximize the flow between show and spots, and allow for music under the end roll. So I understand it to be an aesthetic motivation, and considering the years of time put into the show, and the way the music is practically a character, I can see now why they wanted it just that way.”

Related. BuzzFeed has a chunky feature up on S-Town that should be interesting to fans on two major levels. First, it sheds some additional light on the narrative threads that the podcast ultimately leaves unresolved — which, as we learn from the piece, is purely by design. And second, it serves as a nice companion to host Brian Reed’s interview on Longform. Also, this from The Awl: “Call it Shit Town, because that is its name.”

Call Your LLC. I highly recommend digging into last week’s episode of Call Your Girlfriend, the well-loved conversational podcast by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (produced by Gina Delvac), which features a pretty substantial look at how the team has built out an independent business around the show. No specific figures were disclosed — other than mention that ad slots cost at least four figures and a solid-sounding revenue range — but there’s a lot going on here. The episode touches on the uncertainties involved in working with a network, the general weirdness of the podcast industry, and figuring out a business model that best fits the values of a production. Check it out.

Missing Richard Simmons on TV? The Hollywood Reporter is apparently reporting that First Look Media, which led the production for the podcast, has “begun meeting with would-be buyers for a small screen narrative adaptation of the investigative show searching for the reclusive fitness guru.” Two things on this:

  • It’s yet another data point in the emerging trend that sees the podcast category as another IP pool for TV and film to trawl in for potential adaptations. (Though, it should be noted that real life — or very recent history — remains the IP pool du jour.)
  • Maybe I lack vision, but I can’t for the life of me see how the adaptation could possibly either (a) a good idea, given the myriad of ethical questions surrounding the podcast, or (b) effective or interesting in the same way, probably as a result of those ethical conundrums surrounding the podcast.

But then again, I am but a humble podcast bard, and not a wheelin’ dealin’ TV exec.

Tracking… Looks like CNN en Español recently rolled out a Spanish-language podcast slate, most of which are repackages of existing shows. There’s one original production in there, however: a culture show called Zona Pop. With this rollout, the company steps into a lane whose primary current occupant appears to be the Revolver Podcast network, which has built out a sizable Spanish-language podcast portfolio in addition to its work with music executive Jason Flom on the Wrongful Conviction podcast.

The Outline, daily. I suppose I should start looking for another way to describe the daily news podcast space in terms other than “heating up” — if only to avoid ledes defined by a cliche — but it does seem like the experimental genre is certainly growing more active by the week.
The latest of such experiments comes in the form of World Dispatch, a new daily morning podcast by the digital curiosity known as The Outline. John Lagomarsino, The Outline’s audio director, told me that show is meant to be the closest approximate representation of the publisher’s coverage in the audio format. Episodes are between 8 to 12 minutes, and segments will be a mix of stories that draw from material already on the site and stories produced specifically for the podcast. (“We’ll also be leaning on freelancers a fair amount for more reported-out, strictly audio stories — get at me!” he adds.)

I’m told that the show is the result of some internal experiments with social audio that didn’t go very far. (“Turns out audio still is not particularly shareable,” Lagomarsino quipped.) Those experiments eventually shifted to the social audio app Anchor when it re-launched back in March, and the team ultimately decided to move those efforts over to a daily podcast feed as a natural next step. The resulting podcast is an intriguing artifact: strange, compelling, but ultimately a little confusing — which, given the show’s explicitly conscious sense of style, is probably the point.

Lagomarsino notes that the podcast isn’t exactly meant to be newsy. “The podcast is for curious humans who are not looking for a news rundown that barely goes past headlines,” he said. “These are angled stories, often *about* news, but this is not for the listener who wants the ‘what I need to know today’ thing.” Hmm.

World Dispatch debuted yesterday, with new eps dropping Mondays to Thursdays.

Explainer ambition. In times of confusion, go back to the basics. That was, more or less, the thinking behind Civics 101, the explainer podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio that covers the fundamental institutions, mechanisms, and even concepts that make up the United States. That approach has proven to be pretty successful: Since launching on Inauguration Day, Civics 101 has clocked in about 1.88 million listens, with episodes averaging about 75,000 listens per month. (To be clear: that’s per episode per month, suggesting strong back catalog activity.)

The way Civics 101’s editorial director Maureen McMurray tells it, the podcast was the product of a completely organic process. The show came out of an ideas meeting for the station’s daily show, Word of Mouth, shortly after the elections. “Our producer, Logan Shannon, expressed frustration over the endless ‘hot take’ election coverage and said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want any more analysis. I just want to go six steps back to find out how things work,'” McMurray said. What started out as a segment idea soon broadened out into an accompanying podcast experiment pegged to the first 100 days of the Trump administration. It was all pretty scrappy. “There were some clever titles thrown about, but I insisted on calling it Civics 101,” she said. “Logan made the logo, and we sent a trailer and pilot episode to iTunes.”

“In retrospect, I guess we just did it. There wasn’t a big meeting with executives or anything,” McMurray added.

As the weeks rolled on, the show steadily grew into its own. It consistently dived headfirst into wonky subjects (emoluments, the Office of Scheduling and Advance, gerrymandering) while remaining fundamentally accessible, and the podcast eventually adopted an appealing topical edge (calling your congressperson, impeachment, the nuclear codes) that nonetheless retains a broad, evergreen perspective. Almost three months in, Civics 101 has grown in depth and complexity. And, as I found in a recent email correspondence with McMurray, it has certainly grown in ambition. Here’s our chat:

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[conl]Hot Pod: How has the show evolved over the past four months?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Our editorial vision has shifted a lot, and continues to evolve. Civics 101 was intended to be a short-run series. We planned to drop one episode per week for the first 100 days of the Trump administration. In part, we thought “How many governmental agencies and cabinet positions do people really want to know about?”, but I was also concerned about resources. Our production team is responsible for producing a daily magazine program, Outside/In, the 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast, and a series of live events, among other things.

After iTunes featured Civics 101 in its New and Noteworthy section, everything went to hell in a good way. Our audience numbers shot up and we started to receive unsolicited listener questions. We captured the moment, and began releasing two episodes per week, created a Civics 101 website where listeners could submit questions via Hearken, and started a Civics 101 hotline with Google. A lot of the questions coming in stemmed from current events. For example, when Steve Bannon was appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, there was an uptick in National Security Council-related questions. So, Civics 101 became newsier than I anticipated, but editorially, I wrestle with it. It’s easy to be seduced by the latest scandal, and to bump those questions to the top of the list, but I want Civics 101 to be a meaningful resource for future listeners. What’s timely today may sound dated in six months, and it will certainly sound dated by 2020. For the time being, we’re trying to balance the timely issues with the evergreen questions.

Oh, and a shout out to our producer, Logan Shannon, who created the Civics 101 weekly newsletter, Extra Credit. We’ve seen a lot of audience engagement around it, and it has quizzes and gifs.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Does NHPR have any future plans for Civics 101 — and for its podcast operations more generally?[/conl]

[conr]McMurray: Civics 101 will continue answering listener questions on a biweekly basis. New questions come in everyday, so there’s no shortage of content. Of course, we want to grow and monetize our podcast audience, and that’s where a distributor will come in handy. We’re planning to repackage the podcast content for different platforms. Specifically, we’d like to become a multimedia resource for educators, and hope to create and distribute supplemental materials to teachers and students. That includes anything from videos to lesson plans.

My real dream, though, is to farm Civics 101 out to other stations/production units in time for midterm elections. We cover the national stuff well, but member stations are in a unique position to tackle state and local politics. And, as our yet-to-be-created production guide will show, Civics 101 is a scalable, turnkey format, and a fairly easy lift for smaller teams. In 2018, I’d love to see Civics 101: Louisiana, Civics 101: Albany, Civics 101: Michigan. Heck, you could do Civics 101: Canada, Civics 101: Australia, Civics 101: Brazil. Of course, resources are the elephant in the room. We’re currently working out ways to resource this thing. So check back in with me.

As far as podcast operations go, Civics 101 and Outside/In have been great proofs of concept for NHPR, but weren’t part of a formal, top down strategy. Our first major podcast, Outside/In, was intended to be a weekly, one-hour broadcast. When the show was in development, we found ourselves gravitating to longer stories that involved original reporting, narrative arc, sound design, and (for lack of a better adjective) a “podcasty” tone. Long story short, we put those early experiments into a podcast feed and came to realize those 15-30 minute prototypes were what distinguished Outside/In from other environmental shows and, given the size of our team, producing an hour-long program with those elements would be impossible. At the same time, the Outside/In podcast was developing an audience. So, the question became: is the podcast the show? In a way, our failure to deliver a sustainable, one-hour broadcast model coupled with the success of Outside/In and Civics 101 forced NHPR to consider the value and potential of podcasts. It’s been a learning curve for everyone, from producers to the underwriting department to membership, but we’re starting to develop an infrastructure that supports and leverages podcast creation.

One more really important detail: in order to double down on Civics 101, we had to make an editorial decision to ease up on something. So, we’ve been strategically replaying interviews and stories on our daily magazine program, Fresh Air-Friday style. There are some upcoming changes that will ease our production load, but for the time being, it’s a quick fix.[/conr]

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Bites:

  • Reminder: Edison Research’s Podcast Consumer 2017 report comes out later today. (Edison)
  • The Webby Awards has a pretty broad and interesting set of podcast and digital audio nominations this year. Check it out. (Website)
  • Audible has apparently taken over the billboards at the Rockefeller Center subway stop in New York to promote its original show, Sincerely X, which debuted back in February. (Pictures) Speaking of Audible, it looks like the company has been building another content strategy: creating original programming out of existing IP. (Rolling Stone).

Like it or not, audio is entering the Content Wars. How do we navigate that fight?

“This isn’t about arguing who’s right or wrong,” writes Federico Viticci, a technology blogger who publishes on his own independently operated site, Mac Stories. “It’s about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up where we are right this second in the podcast community. On the one hand, you have a set of professionalizing, ambitious podcast companies pushing for better data analytics, discovery, and revenue opportunities — gripes that should be familiar if you read this column with any frequency — in their pursuit for maturity and considerable growth. And on the other hand, you have a grassroots population which has thus far enjoyed a version of the open internet, one that results from a delicate balance of power facilitated by the medium’s relative niche status up until this point.

At stake in the tension between these two camps is, frankly, the fate of the medium’s future. (How dramatic! How lovely.)

It’s a story as old as content. But let’s start from the beginning.

Over the weekend, The New York Times published a spicy article by John Herrman — a media critic-savant who wrote the excellent “Content Wars” column when he was a staffer at The Awl —  about the relationship between the emerging podcast industry and Apple, which at this point still commands an outsized measure of influence over the space, and how those relationship dynamics define the current state that the professionalizing podcast industry finds itself in.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, obviously, and there are so many nuances baked into the report, but the two key elements I want to focus on to get to the heart of this narrative are the following:

(1) The article paints a picture of a professionalizing and ambitious industry frustrated by the limits of its dependencies on Apple’s infrastructure, which still maintains its outsized influence on the space. The article interprets Apple as an indifferent steward of a podcast ecosystem that exists at the fringes of the company’s operational focus — a state of affairs that may be shifting, by the way, following reports that suggest an increasing shift in focus toward services (see this Wall Street Journal article, and also this Bloomberg article on Apple Music) — and it chiefly illustrates this by exploring how the team that curates the iTunes promotions page, one of the very few reliable drivers for discovery and marketing in the space, is remarkably small and largely managed by one individual. (Hey Steve!)

(2) The heart of the piece is as follows: “The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next,” Herrman writes. “Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.”

The piece is, by and large, consistent with my own reading of the space, and I say this with full awareness that my coverage and focus has always been on the podcast companies, entities, and individuals that are agitating against the status quo for the purposes of growth.

That distinction is notable, because the article drew criticism from the grassroots layer of the ecosystem. The critique principally came from Marco Arment, the creator of the relatively well-known podcasting app Overcast and something of an elder statesman for the older end of the podcast ecosystem. (Arment is also an angel investor in Gimlet, curiously enough.)

Writing on his blog, Arment expresses a deep skepticism of podcast entities advocating for more data and involvement from Apple. He argues that, in their endeavors to further grow their businesses, these agitating companies will end up compelling changes that fundamentally compromise the open nature of the medium. Apple would take control over a previously open ecosystem, and all of this would lead to the creation of a “data economy” that deleteriously commoditizes the entire space. The medium would naturally shift to a state that shuts out independent creators forever. Arment’s critique is, essentially, an argument of the slippery slope variety.

“Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows,” Arment argues. “Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an ‘advancement’ of the medium.”

I’ve been tracking this entire conversation since the very second that the Times piece dropped, and I’m still struggling to find my own position on this. (It’s hard to form a take in such a short period of time, and I imagine my feelings will go through several iterations.)

But frankly, I’m torn.

On the one hand, I am thoroughly invested in seeing podcasts grow, mature, and further professionalize into a Big, Big Industry. I’d like this industry to grow to a point where it can command high and reliable revenue margins and generate high volumes of employment opportunities for creative audio professionals (not everybody can be self-employed and run a small, independent shop). I’d like the industry to wield cultural influence and become capable of tremendous impact. And I simply don’t believe any of that is possible — at least, it’s incredibly difficult, a factor that I’d argue influences the industry’s financial accessibility — without much of what the professionalizing podcast entities are pushing for.

I just don’t buy the notion of retaining the podcast’s RSS 2.0 roots and the black box nature of its knowability… like, I get the romance and nostalgia of it, I just think that’s really regressive.

At the same time, I have my own background concerns over whether the podcast companies that will grow to constitute Big Podcasting — Gimlet, Panoply, Midroll — will collectively drive the ecosystem to a state that reductively commoditizes the form and freezes out independents. (Those ad loads, they keep getting heavier and heavier. I see you.) And I do very much want to retain a relatively open podcast environment (no matter how conditional that openness is) where crazy shit like The Worst Idea Of All Time can still have a shot at an audience, no matter how small the chance of discovery.

Indeed, the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future of radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure… Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?

It’s not a matter of whether we will see audio float into the Content Wars, it’s a matter of how we navigate that fight. Yes, the way forward opens up a universe of potential horrors: atrocious advertising ad experiences, advertising fraud (which already happens, by the way), excessively invasive tracking mechanisms that grossly compromise personal privacy, and so on.

But what the hell: you can’t make an omelet without cracking open a few skulls, and you can’t get the great without running the risk of getting the very, very bad. Things will change — things always change — but there will be new balances of power to find. And maybe it’s naive, but I believe there absolutely can be a future that’s better for every one of us.

Two more quick things:

  • The Times article had a particularly interesting news hook: Late last month, seven “leading podcast professionals” were reportedly invited to Apple to air their grievances for a collection of employees. According to a source who was present, that group was a mix between newer, enterprising Big Podcast companies and folks from what can only be described as the “older guard.” My source also mentioned that there were no representatives from public radio.
  • Some perspective from friend-of-the-newsletter Joseph Fink, who tweeted me the following: “I was interviewed for that article, but guess my response of ‘Yeah I dunno, it’s all pretty much fine’ wasn’t interesting.”

Measured. Time now for someone much smarter than me to weigh in. I recently asked Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX, to talk a bit about his vision for some sort of middle ground in requests for increased data granularity. He writes:

There’s data, and there’s creepy data. I want to know what anonymous people actually play and hopefully hear. We don’t need to fall down the creepy, slippery, slope and get names, blood types, or shoe sizes. We can survive without this, but it’s easier to sell new sponsors on audience numbers that resemble reality rather than shared fictions.

I don’t know what others are asking for, but I’m not looking for Apple to extend their store model to podcasts. Even if they did, I expect and hope it would be one option among many built on podcasting. I also value the openness of podcasting, with its underlying standards, but standards progress when there is competition fueling innovation. As web browsers got better with competition, so did their standards. I want podcasting to do the same — progress made with competition on products and content, but cooperation on open standards, platforms, and measures.

It will be messy, messier than a benevolent monopoly, but I also agree with keeping independence over ceding control to buy simplicity.

One important footnote on data and listening metrics: Doc Searls, the furthest thing from a sell-out when it comes to privacy and people owning their data, has pushed for an idea where people should own their own listening data, and share with whom they choose. Most great ideas are tried a few times before they take off (e.g., “six degrees” before Facebook), maybe six years later we should give Listen Log another go.

Sweet.

Designing an elections podcast for the non-wonk. If you’re launching an elections podcast, man, I don’t envy you. It’s one of the most saturated podcast genres in the market right now, a state of affairs not unrelated to the fact that there’s a U.S. presidential election going on and it’s all been absolute bonkers.

A sample list of elections pods, which has considerably grown since the last time I discussed political pods: the NPR Politics podcast, the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast, Politico’s 2016 Nerdcast, Mic and The Economist’s Special Relationship, Slate’s longtime stalwart Political Gabfest and the topically driven Trumpcast, MTV News’ The Stakes, The New Republic’s “Primary Concerns, Vox’s The Weeds (occasionally; the show largely sticks to policy), The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 (featuring former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, no less), The Huffington Post’s Candidate Confessional, Futuro Media Group’s In the Thick, The Pollsters, and so on.

(For the record: I listen to a bunch of these, largely because…well, it’s my job, for one thing, and also because I’m just a very curious foreign person despite my inability to actually vote. But man, I can’t even begin to imagine how any discerning voter should choose from this pile.)

Into the fray walks No One Knows Anything, a new political podcast from BuzzFeed. No One Knows Anything is the company’s sixth podcast overall, and the last show launched before Jenna Weiss-Berman, BuzzFeed’s director of audio, left the company to launch her own podcast venture. It also has the distinction of being the first in BuzzFeed’s pod roster that actively draws from talent and material from its news desk. Anchored by BuzzFeed politics reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, the show aims to distinguish itself from the gabfest-style horse race roundup pod formats of its competitors, choosing instead to tell larger stories about the election.

I recently talked to Meg Cramer, who produces the show (and who previously worked at APM’s Marketplace), and asked her a bunch of questions about the show’s design, podcast structures more broadly, and miscellaneous production-related things. Here are excerpts from our chat:

On process. “We’re on a weekly production schedule. We do it a little differently every time. We don’t script the show…we have very, very light scripting, and what we do instead is, like, we have a loose structure, we go into the studio, Evan and his guest host will move through the structure and hit every point, riff if they want to, usually beforehand we have the ‘found sound’ audio planned out. So if we know that we have a supercut of people saying “Trump will never get elected,” I’ll be in the studio cuing that up and they’ll react to the cut in real time. And then we put the tracking together with all the interviews in whatever order they happen in, listen to a rough cut of the episode, and then do an edit altogether, and then go back and do pickups.”

On the structure of the show. “There are lots of things that you can refer to when you talk about structure. You can say, ‘every episode we will have this kind of segment,’ or ‘every episode we will do a certain thing.’ And I try really hard to resist that because I think it can be very tempting to give yourself a superstructure when you start a project, and you also learn that your superstructure was maybe a cool idea or a cool concept but it turns out to be very restricting and it doesn’t let you tell certain stories. It winds up being a situation where you’re working for the structure rather than have it work for you.”

On the relationship to the news cycle. “There will be times where we have to speak to the news that’s happening that week, but for the most part, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. Because for the most part, that’s what a lot of other political shows do. And we’re trying not to be like a wrap-up show, and we’re trying to tell stories about things that have already happened because we want as much information as we can get when we tell those stories. We don’t want to predict — this is like an anti-prediction show.”

On the show’s target audience. “We’re trying to serve a general news audience with a show about politics, because there are lots of things that serve the political news audience and we’re trying to reach a broader group of people than that. People who are not necessarily political junkies, but who care about their vote. They’re probably going to vote, but they really care about who the next president is going to be and they want to be thoughtful about how they cast their vote.”

On newsroom integration. “I’m interested to learn what it’s like to get a lot of people in a newsroom involved in podcasting. I think places like Slate have their flagships shows where people get to try out being on a show — being a panelist, being a guest — and they get to see if they’re good at it. I think that one thing that I’m really excited about this project is that it’s not going to just be about me and Evan. I’m excited that other people in the newsroom get to try out having a big voice on this platform.”

You can find the pod here.

Reservations over dynamic ad insertion. I haven’t written about dynamic ad insertion in a while, and I really should, because it’s one of the bigger narratives that’s been driving the technology piece of the space for the past year or so.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, podcast hosting platforms that support dynamic ad insertion would allow publishers to easily swap out ad spots within a given podcast episode. This structurally breaks podcasts away from having “baked-in” ads — where they are one with the episode for the rest of time (or the internet, or until somebody replaces the file) — and drives them to a state where the ad inventory of a given episode is dramatically deepened and the friction of ad serving is drastically reduced. It also sets the conditions for tailored advertising experiences like geotargeting and a programmatic audio advertising business to be built somewhere down the line.

To put it another way: money, money, money for publishers. If they can swing it, of course.

It’s a vision of the future that’s renders the podcast space drastically different in its monetization potential compared to whatever’s come before, one that would make podcasts function like the rest of the internet — for good or for bad, we don’t know yet (see the newsletter’s headline item). I imagine it’s being pitched as a win-win situation; advertisers get to more specifically target listeners, and publishers get to squeeze more value out of a given ad slot.

But some advertisers are not without reservations. Advertisers like Mack Weldon, the fancy bright-colored underwear startup, which now dedicates about a quarter of its monthly ad spend to podcast buys.

I recently traded emails with Collin Willardson, Mack Weldon’s marketing manager, about some of his concerns. He listed out three in particular:

  • Firstly, Willardson argued that the imposition of format requirements for dynamic ad insertion support would end up putting a cap on the creative vitality that can go into the ad read. “Our biggest reservation with dynamic ads is that the ad is capped at thirty seconds,” he wrote. “We have found success when the host is allowed to do the read however long they feel best. They’ll know if they get the message across to their listeners, and sometimes they aren’t able to do that in just thirty seconds or less.” (I imagine the thirty-second cap may differ from platform to platform and from show to show depending on how campaigns are sold, but I take his overall point.)
  • Secondly, Willardson touched upon the arbitrage value being lost when ads are no longer permanent — an appealing feature for some buyers. “Another reservation is knowing that our ad will not be there forever,” he argued. “We want to be associated with the show we have chosen carefully, even if you listen to it five years from now. There is something special about being a part of a show that you can listen to and be entertained by five years later, and we want to be a part of that experience.”
  • Finally, Willardson brings up what may well be the fundamental hurdle presented by the technology: the dissolution of the “intimacy” so associated with the media format. “Dynamic ad insertion disassociates the host from the advertiser, so they care less about the actual product or brand they’re trying to sell. Audiences pick up on that, and quickly tune out. On a medium with a built-in fifteen-second skip button, a thirty-second ad is too easily never heard,” he wrote.

I’ve been hearing variations of these concerns from a few advertisers — all of which are direct response advertisers relatively new to the medium — over the past few weeks. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these reservations are particularly insurmountable or fundamentally detract from the value of dynamic ad insertion technology; rather, my sense that Willardson’s arguments stem from a frustration with the pitches currently being made by podcast publishers.

Bites:

  • The worst kept NPR pod secret is finally out: the Code Switch podcast will launch May 31. In case you’re unfamiliar, Code Switch is NPR’s FABULOUS blog that covers stories on race, ethnicity, and culture. The pod is going to be hosted by Gene Demby (who also hosts the Post-Bourgie pod) and Shereen Marisol Meraji. I, for one, am extremely excited about this.
  • Eleanor Kagan is BuzzFeed’s new director of audio. She produces Another Round, and will continue doing in addition to developing new projects. (Twitter)
  • Katelyn Bogucki, who has until this point headed up the Huffington Post’s podcast operation, is heading over to Gimlet, where she joins the company’s creative team.
  • “From out of nowhere, the U.S. Energy Department launches a great podcast.” (The Verge)

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What should an on-demand news podcast look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, three things to consider:

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

Related bits:

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

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

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