Who needs video? Slate is pivoting to audio, and making real money doing it

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:

Neato.

“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.

Bites:

  • 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.

Correction: In the January 2, 2018 edition, I mentioned that Mary Wilson, current producer of Slate’s The Gist, was a former WNYC staffer. She is not. I regret the error!

How can news organizations better prepare the next generation of editors?

The ideological spread of podcasts. It’s been…an interesting election cycle here in the United States, to say the least, one that’s caused me enough anxiety to burrow deeper into the insular, cord-cutting media cocoon I’ve built for myself — an assemblage of ye old newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post, mostly), cable TV (CNN, mostly), broadcast radio (public, mostly), social media (the ideologically self-reinforcing Facebook and Twitter, mostly) and, of course, podcasts — in a bid to find some assurance that everything will…be okay, I suppose, or whatever it is I’m trying to look for when I seek out election news.

Which isn’t a great way of doing things, of course, given that it’s a function of larger problems associated with media fragmentation and selective exposure (see the recent Wall Street Journal interactive feature “Red Feed, Blue Feed”) that’s believed to have exacerbated the country’s political polarization. Frankly, I buy this explanation of the present: the idea that the increasingly abundant, on-demand, and personalized nature of our news media has led to whole swathes of populations creating worlds and realities of their own that don’t have much reason to overlap and interact with each other, until they absolutely must (like, say, during a national election), in which case the result is pure combustion.

There was a Wired article by Charley Locke not too long ago that grabbed my attention — about a five-year-old conservative leaning podcast network called Ricochet — in which Locke characterized the podcast space to be disproportionately liberal. (Whether that refers to actual composition or representation is hard to establish; it’s related to all the ways we complain about the medium’s measurement difficulties.) Using the upper echelons of the iTunes charts as her principal dataset, Locke wrote: “There’s not much ideological diversity in the conversation…Podcasts have proven a viable platform to reach a liberal audience, just as radio talk shows have for conservative listeners. But what does that mean for the Americans in the middle?”

Of course, characterizing some media organization versus others as liberal is sticky business. Locke’s rubric places organizations like NPR, FiveThirtyEight, Vox.com, and Slate in the liberal bucket, a characterization that might be challenged by some of these institutions more so than others. (Indeed, NPR has had a long history of being accused of liberal biasa charge they constantly challenge — while one imagines FiveThirtyEight and Vox would orient themselves more towards analytical impartiality.) However, given Locke’s other more unambiguous examples — former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer’s Keepin’ It 1600 with The Ringer, and David Axelrod’s The Axe Files with CNN, both of which are expressions of that administration’s relative comfort with the medium , recently covered by the Times — her overarching point seems to hold: The podcast charts don’t offer very much in the way ofexplicitly conservative programming, and one could understandably draw a hypothesis about the medium’s larger ideological distribution from that.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions: The iTunes top 100 currently charts a podcast featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial writer and editor for the conservative Breitbart News Network who was recently banned by Twitter for racial harassment, and that show is distributed by PodcastOne. (That company is also home to a few other podcasts hosted by explicitly conservative personalities, like Laura Ingraham and Bill Kristol.) Earlier this year, the similarly conservative Jay Sekulow show broke into the top 3. Sekulow is an attorney and cofounder of the American Center for Law and Justice, a politically conservative activism organization that he cofounded with the often controversial Pat Robertson. But those examples are very few and far between, reinforcing Locke’s observation.

When I talked to Locke last week, she proposed a theory about the ideological spread: The medium’s liberal-lean is largely the result of its early adopters. As she thinks about it, relatively liberal media outlets (or media organizations perceived to be liberal) were among the firsts to develop content using the medium, laying down the foundation of its identity and eventually establishing themselves as the de facto “old guards” of the space. I’m partial to that theory, but I’m also tempted to wonder: Is there something about on-demand audio’s structural traits — and demographic spread, and so on — that uniquely supports liberal programming? (Conversely, do broadcast talk radio’s structural traits uniquely benefit conservative programming?)

“This whole thing ties into something I’ve been wondering about more broadly: Why aren’t there a lot more new media organizations oriented to conservative listeners?” Locke continued. I’m personally curious about where young conservative readers are, and where they look to get news.”

“They probably feel pretty isolated,” she added, wistfully.

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Local spaces. This Wednesday, PRX is holding a party to launch their new Podcast Garage, a recording facility and community space for Boston podcast creators. The space is part of Zone 3, a Harvard-catalyzed initiative developed to “explore experimental programs, events, and retail” along the city’s Western Avenue, which runs alongside the Harvard Business School.

“We want to foster a maker culture, create an environment of openness, and support storytelling,” said Kerri Hoffman, PRX CEO, when we spoke yesterday. “What we’re hoping to do with the garage is to bring all of those values right down to the ground at the local level, and create a physical hub for the Boston podcast community.”

The garage is stocked with studio equipment that’ll be available to the community via paid pre-booked rental arrangements and free studio times, which will be offered at certain times of day. Events will also be organized in the garage to brings podcast makers of all skill levels together, the first of which will be held on August 8 featuring a presentation by PRX Remix curator Josh Swartz.

“We really do think seasoned, local producers will make good use of our service,” Hoffman said. “But our sights are really on people who haven’t made a podcast yet, on the next generation. That’s what I’m really excited about.”

That’s the hook that really catches my eye about this project. Hoffman’s sentiment here echoes ideas that I’ve heard from similar initiatives across the country — ones that are also physically-oriented and locally-minded, like the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, which is run out of the lovely, non-descript Cards Against Humanity offices in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and managed by a great person named Claire Friedman, and the nascent XOXO Audio Studio, which is being developed out of the XOXO Outpost in Portland, Oregon by similarly great person named Tyesha Snow. Both operations involve a sense of bringing more people into the space who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so.

“We want to be a place that makes it easy for anyone to grab some studio space and make some magic,” Snow told me. “We believe that creation of the studio will spur all types of connections for the people…I can’t predict exactly what will happen over the coming year but people are ready and waiting. It’s going to be amazing.”

If there’s any force that would pull us away from any possible over-concentration of the podcast industry — and maybe, the production of media, more broadly — in New York and the coasts, I believe it’s going to be made up of local, physically-oriented spaces like these that makes opportunities more accessible in more places across the country. So if you’re working on an initiative like this, do let me know.

French podcasts. “Mainstream podcasts almost don’t exist in France,” wrote Charlotte Pudlowski, when we traded emails about the country’s on-demand audio landscape a few weeks ago. Pudlowski is an associate editor at Slate France, the French sister company of the American digital magazine, and is the person overseeing its emerging podcast strategy. She tells me that French podcasting mostly consists of repackaged broadcasts from Radio France, the French public radio equivalent, supplemented by some independent podcasts — “mostly talks,” she wrote, referring to conversational podcasts, a lot of which you can find here — and something called Arte Radio, which is reminiscent of a Third Coast-esque documentary directory.

Pudlowski is hoping to buck that trend by introducing longer-form narrative content to the mix. In mid-June, Slate France launched two shows: Transfert and Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses (Titiou, Nadia, and their brats). The former features first-person narratives (or “narrative stories, told by the people who experienced them,” as Pudlowski phrased it to me), while the latter is a parenting show hosted by two Slate France writers which will mix formats on each episode.

Pudlowski was able to secure Audible as a launch sponsor, and it remains Slate France’s only audio advertiser for now. “We have made a deal for one year that corresponds to a number of minutes we have to produce in one year,” she said. “We’ll also look for other advertisers. But the contract with Audible doesn’t give us any fixed number of downloads or impressions we have to achieve, which gives us an amazing freedom of trying new things, taking risks.”

Things are looking pretty good for the two shows since they’ve launched, relatively speaking. Transfert’s first episode garnered 23,000 downloads in its first four weeks, while the second episode saw about 17,000 downloads during the same period. Titiou, Nadia et les sales gosses received about 13,000 downloads for its first episode. “We had not set a precise objective because it’s so new in France we had no possible comparison, but we’re pretty happy about it,” said Pudlowski, further noting that she was pleased with the attention the shows have been getting on social. The shows are hosted on Megaphone, the new CMS by Slate’s other sister company Panoply. (Confusing, ain’t it?)

I was curious about the potential market size for on-demand audio in France — its size, and opportunity. “It’s very hard to know because it is so new,” Pudlowski explained to me, pointing out that podcast listenership in the country isn’t widely measured just yet. “But what we do know is that French people are really into radio.”

Citing a December 2015 report from MediaMetrie, a French audience measurement company, Pudlowski tells me that more than 89 percent of the population listens to the radio every week and almost 82 percent every day, with the average French person consuming about 3 hours of radio on a given weekday and more than 2.5 hours on the weekend. That’s a whole lot, and one imagines that the bet here is that a good chunk of that listenership will carry over into on-demand, which is a transition bound to happen just about anywhere in the world.

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More on editors. Last week, I wrote about Planet Money’s hiring of Bryant Urstadt as the team’s new senior editor, contextualizing the hire within a larger conversation about an editing crisis not just in audio, but also in journalism more broadly. Given that editors more or less serves as the gatekeepers of curated, public information, I found the crisis absolutely fascinating, and it turned out to resonate with Hot Pod readers as well. Many wrote in to express their own thoughts on the matter, and many had the same question I had: how do you train to become an editor in the first place?

Curious, I reached out to Alison MacAdam, a senior editorial specialist with NPR’s editorial training team and the author of the Poynter column that sparked the conversation around the crisis, to explore the question. MacAdam, who was a senior editor on All Things Considered for almost 7 out of 12 years she worked on the program (and a former Nieman Fellow), obviously spend a lot of time thinking about the issue, operating from a place of having worked long hours in the trenches.

We spoke for a while, and I’ll break our conversation out in chunks here.

Clarifying the problem. “There are actually two separate challenges when we talk about the editor shortage and building a pipeline of editors,” MacAdam laid out. “The first is: How do content organizations train editors and create pathways for people to become editors? If you worked in, for example, WNYC or NPR, is there an explicit pathway if you went to your boss and asked to be an editor? Do they have an answer for you, or not?”

The second challenge has to do with the changing nature of what it takes to be an editor in this age where the fundamental structures of media are being increasingly disrupted (forgive the phrase). “What are the skills that editors need? That answer keeps changing because the industry keeps changing,” she said. “And because editing is a comparatively invisible craft, it’s that much harder to get the motivation to sit down and really think about the role: what they need to know now, and what’s timeless.”

When I asked her what, exactly, remained timeless, she replied: “Solid news judgment. Even if styles change there are some ways we distinguish good writing from bad writing. The ability to communicate is also really, really important.”

Identification. “I also think that, fundamentally, no matter what kind of editor you’re talking about, editors need a track record of making stories better. And that’s the conundrum — that’s really hard to identify,” MacAdam said. “That’s something organizations need to think about. How do you identify people you might think has potential, and what are the ways that we can give chances for them to prove themselves?”

MacAdam credits the emergence of on-demand audio with encouraging more unconventional editing approaches, many of which have increased the chances of identifying potential editors. One such approach is group-editing, a technique favored by teams like This American Life, Planet Money, and Gimlet. “It opens up the editing process so more people can take part and see what goes into shaping a story,” she said.

Independent opportunities. I was curious: if you’re not already in a newsroom, are there ways to create opportunities to learn? MacAdam seemed skeptical, but offered that the first thing to do would be to edit a friend’s work. “Though,” she was quick to add. “I think it’s worth noting that it’s really hard to qualify as an editor of stories, if you haven’t made stories yourself. I just don’t think anyone will trust that you know what’s good if you haven’t struggled to make what’s good.”

When I asked if being an editor is really something that could be self-taught, MacAdam seemed soft on that possibility as well. “Editing is about relationships,” she said. “It’s 50 percent story and journalism instincts — how is something structured? what’s the hook? — and the other 50 percent involves social skills. You can have amazing editorial, journalistic instincts, but if you can’t express your thoughts to people, there’s no real impact being made.”

But MacAdam concedes that there are things you can learn on your own, like listening (and reading and watching) closely to pick up on the micro- and macro- elements of story structure. “The macro stuff involves questions at a broad level: At what point in this story was I bored? Confused? Questions like pacing and structure,” she said. “And focusing on the micro is the ability to talk about lines and sound and the use of imagery in specific places, things like that.”

Job postings. “This might be interesting for you: It’s not like nobody is defining what an editor is. You can look at job postings to see how organizations are thinking about things,” she said.

And what are good examples of such postings? MacAdam points to an editor opening at Chicago Public Media, in particular. “I was really impressed by that posting,” she said. “It’s no surprise because that organization is run by someone who is really smart editorially, Ben Calhoun.” (Calhoun is the VP of content and programming at Chicago Public Media/WBEZ and is a former producer at This American Life.)

She also singled out the deputy managing editor for news position posted by Vox.com, pointing to a particular job requirement: “Clear, goals-based management style with proven success metrics,” it read. MacAdam expressed fascination over this. “I don’t get the sense that newsrooms prior to ten years ago had many ways of measuring success metrics. It’s a very new idea, or it’s an idea that come about because of technology,” she said. “Imagine a posting in 1985 for an investigative reporter in The Washington Post talking about success metrics. Hmm.”

  • Digiday has a pretty good writeup of Atlas Obscura’s sponsored podcast, Escape Plan, along with some interesting detail on the shape of the deal between the publication and the sponsor, ZipCar. (Digiday) And be sure to read this profile on Atlas Obscura (Washingtonian) along with this column on sponsored content more broadly. (The New York Times)
  • WNYC is open-sourcing its “audiogram” tool. (Medium, Nieman Lab) FWIW, I’m still pretty meh on the concept of audio clip distribution via social platforms as means of discovery, particularly after reading that 85 percent of Facebook video is consumed without sound — something I’ve understood to be reflective of more basic social media consumption habits. (Digiday) But hey, the point of these things is to break open paradigms, so my fingers are as crossed as ever.
  • NPR will end production of Best of Car Talk show (also known as Zombie Car Talk) as of September 30, 2017, though the show will live on as a podcast after that date. It is reportedly NPR’s third most consumed show, with a weekly audience of 2.6 million, though its existence is somewhat controversial among public media insiders. Current has a comprehensive write-up on the development, and you should check it out.
  • “Canadian podcasters are being drowned out by American offerings. Why?” (Metro Toronto)
  • The BBC’s iPlayer Radio app is now available in the U.S., which lets listeners access the full range of the institution’s radio feeds along with its podcasts and curated selections of past content. (Mac Rumors)
  • Al Jazeera’s Canvas Studio is launching an innovation competition called the “Future of Audio Challenge.” Audio technologists — check it out.

New podcasts, more existential public radio talk, and progress on intern wages

Factsheet. I’m all about those 30,000-foot views. Last week, the Pew Research Center published its respected State of the News Media 2016 report, a dependable resource of material for media nerds to geek out over. Like previous versions, this year’s report comes with a dedicated podcasting section, and for the most part, it does a pretty good job of providing a snapshot of the industry at this point in time. Interested podcast-oriented readers should also pay attention to the section on public broadcasting, which digs into NPR’s current dynamics pretty well and digs up some handy data points to boot. (NPR One adoption is still stronger among iPhone users than among Android users, but not for long you say? Delicious.)

I highly recommend checking both sections out, but I just wanted to make a quick note: This is presumably the report that many newcomers and unfamiliar media analysts will turn to — and the one that future podcast entrepreneurs will cite in pitch decks — for a clean, clear description of the state of the podcast industry in the months to come. It’s important, then, to note the many quirks of the report, including its utilization of Libsyn data to chart out the scale of podcast hosting and downloads — which doesn’t account for the volumes of hosting and downloads that take place on premium platforms like Art19, Megaphone, and whatever public radio stations use — as well as its perpetuation of the ZenithOptimedia $34 million estimate of ad spend for the medium in 2015, the problems of which I discussed in my last column.

Anyway, the Pew report wasn’t the only high-level overview of the podcast industry that came out over the past few weeks. The independent tech analyst Ben Thompson also recently published a very, very solid assessment on his Stratechery blog, which you should absolutely peruse if you haven’t already. His reading of the medium’s history is consistent with my own, and it even comes with an interesting — and possibly very complicated — alternate path for the industry to go down in the months to come.

The new NewFront. “We wanted to make it feel scrappy,” said Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s chief of staff, when we spoke over the phone last week. “There are companies in the digital media world that aren’t just focused on scale — some are also focused on building deep connections with their audiences. Some concentrate on making their artisanal media more premium.”

Giliberti is describing the impetus behind the Brooklyn NewFronts, a new digital media industry event that took place for the first time last Tuesday. This inaugural edition saw Gimlet present its upcoming slate of programming alongside a few other up-and-coming digital media companies: the Lena Dunham-branded publication Lenny, the travel curiosity site Atlas Obscura, the annotation platform Genius, and the Hearst-powered Snapchat channel Sweet. (All five companies contributed to the organization of the event.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event despite the fact it took place in Genius’ offices — a mere ten-minute walk from my apartment/kitchen office — as I’m unexpectedly West Coast-based for the summer, but I’m told that it was a fairly stripped down, focused affair. Politico Media described it as “a sort of lower-budget, smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the Digital Content NewFronts,” which I guess squares with the whispers I’ve been getting. (Interestingly enough, the Digital Content NewFronts can probably also be described as a smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the traditional TV upfronts — though, given the fact that the scale and spectacle of that NewFront seem to be growing year over year, one could expect the prestige hierarchies to flip soon enough.) An upfront, for the uninitiated, is best described as an industry event that typically features publishers presenting their upcoming wares in a move to drum up interest among ad buyers.

It should be noted that Tuesday’s alt-Front isn’t the first upfront event to feature podcast programming. The past twelve months have already seen two other podcast-oriented upfronts: one organized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and another put together by a consortium of public radio organizations (including NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ).

But what Gimlet’s doing here is interesting. Train your focus on what the company is trying to do by grouping itself within Lenny, Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Sweet. By lumping themselves in with these digital media companies working within relatively trusted mediums, Gimlet is effectively taking advantage of a halo effect generated by companies whose buzz and narratives are tied almost solely to their editorial brands and substance, as opposed to their distribution technologies — which is, unfortunately, a narrative burden that still handicaps much of the conversation around most other podcast companies. Instead of drawing overt attention to its nature as a podcast company, Gimlet appears to be focusing the conversation purely on its programming and brand, two areas of focus where the company knows it can win.

It’s a smart move. Hopefully, it pays off.

The new Gimlet shows. So what new podcasts did Gimlet trot out at the dog-and-pony show? Some we already know, others we don’t. Here’s the lineup:

  1. A true crime show developed with the creators of HBO’s The Jinx, Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling;
  2. Twice Removed, a genealogy-oriented show by author A.J. Jacobs — known for books documenting his life experiments, like The Year of Living Biblically — which will explore connections between two disparate people;
  3. Heavyweight, the latest project by Wiretap’s Jonathan Goldstein, which will presumably feature his trademark use of autobiography and literary writing;
  4. Afterwards (a working title), a show that will take a fresh look at the events of the past (not unlike, perhaps, Panoply’s newly launched project with Malcolm Gladwell; and
  5. Science Vs., the science podcast that Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full-court press. Last week was a busy one for Panoply, which rolled out the first episode of Revisionist History, its big-swing project with author and general man-about-town Malcolm Gladwell. The Graham Holdings-owned podcast company appeared to lean hard on Gladwell’s celebrity to establish a strong promotional circuit involving spots on CBS This Morning, CBC’s Q, and the Recode Media podcast. The buzz around Gladwell’s podcast, which pushed it up to the No. 1 spot on the iTunes hotness chart (where it remains at this writing), also scored Panoply a Bloomberg profile. (Disclosure: Panoply is my former day-job employer.)

That Bloomberg profile, by the way, provides some meaty details on Panoply’s internal expectations around the podcast. Note the following quote:

[Matt] Turck [Panoply’s chief revenue officer] predicts that Revisionist History could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode, with Gladwell providing star power and Apple giving support. That would match the best performance of The Message…”I don’t know if there will ever be another Serial, anything that explosive,” said Turck. “But boy we’ve stacked the deck to give it a run for the money.”

Panoply’ll have to set their sights a little further if they really intend to give Serial a run for its money, of course: 500,000 downloads per episode, either as a projected goal or a realized performance, simply won’t put Revisionist History anywhere close to being “the next Serial.” When Serial’s second season was closing up its final week, the team’s community editor Kristen Taylor told me that each episode had consistently enjoyed around three million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

Speaking of Panoply…it looks as if they’re developing a podcast project with First Look Media, the Pierre Omidyar-backed news organization. The project, Politically Re-active, which features comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu — regulars on the public radio circuit and its podcast descendants — will explore basic, fundamental questions pertaining to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

This partnership with Panoply marks First Look Media’s first foray into audio, serving as a continuation of its multibrand, multiplatform strategy that’s included The Intercept, the Glenn Greenwald-fronted national security journalism site, and Reported.ly, its socially-distributed news organization focused on human rights and social justice. First Look Media has also started dabbling in film, acting as a producing partner on the Academy Award-winning Spotlight.

Crisis narrative. Add yet another thread to public radio’s growing existential crisis narrative: the fact that a generation of established talent is steadily aging out, which The Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman observes using the retirement of Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor as the hook.

“Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio,” Gamerman writes, before describing how NPR is grappling with slowing the loss of younger listeners over the radio and how its member station–reliant business model is under threat from the competition generated by emerging podcast companies that complicate its attempts to transition into digital.

If you’re keeping tabs on the growing body of public radio existential-crisis literature, here’s a quick list of the other incidents that have inspired this narrative: (1) NPR CEO’s Jarl Mohn summer 2015 incident during his visit to the organization’s New York bureau, which served as the catalyzing event for Politico’s “Can NPR seize its moment?” article, the first of this genre; (2) the NPR Memo kerfuffle; and (3) WBAA’s (later reversed) decision to stop syndicating This American Life, citing mission-based disagreement over the latter’s partnership with Pandora.

(And speaking of that NPR Memo kerfuffle, Gamerman’s piece contains a detail that sheds a little more light on the thinking behind the policy, highlighted by the infamous memo to hold off on promoting NPR One over broadcast: according to an NPR spokeswoman, Chris Turpin, VP of news programming and operations, “doesn’t want hosts to promote NPR One until all local stations are represented on the app.” Interesting! (Update: Isabel Lara, NPR’s senior director of media relations, emailed me to say that the Journal misquoted her when she relayed Turpin’s point. “He never said that all stations needed to be part of NPR One before we could promote it on the air,” she wrote. “The point that I was trying to make…is that we are encouraging stations to participate because our goal is to make the national/local listener experience better and better.” I’ll follow up next week.)

Meanwhile, NPR appears to be looking for a new product manager to work on podcasts and social. (I had initially thought that this hire would work alongside Mathilde Piard, who had been the organization’s product manager working podcasts but has since evolved into a more general programming role. Fascinating!) And last week also saw the start of the second season of Invisibilia, NPR’s record-breaking podcast that reportedly broke 10 million downloads within its first four weeks of launching last year.

Balance that out however you’d like.

More on branded podcasts. Gamerman’s Garrison Keillor article wasn’t The Wall Street Journal’s only piece on pods last week. One of the paper’s media reporters, Steven Perlberg, pubbed an update on the trend of brand-sponsored podcasts following the launch of eBay’s Open for Business, the first podcast put out by Gimlet Creative, that company’s branded podcast unit.

The juiciest tidbit from that article does not have to do with Gimlet, however. It has to do to with its counterpart over at Panoply. From Perlberg’s article:

The ruling metric of the podcast industry is the “unique download” of an episode. Podcasters are often unclear on how many actually listen after downloading an episode, how long they listened and their demographic makeup.

To deal with that issue, Panoply created landing webpages for each podcast, which it distributes across its social channels and buys ads on places like Facebook. Mr. Hernandez said Panoply guarantees marketers a certain amount of engagement on those webpages, as opposed to being able to guarantee a certain number of listeners.

That’s certainly an interesting way to handle the metrics issue. At the end of the day, brand advertising effectiveness is grounded in however brands can be convinced that their making an impression over their target demographics. Panoply, then, has an advantage here, given that it has control over a platform through which they have the potential to gain some control over the way brands have conversation about advertising efficacy — through the development of new ad measurement features, through potentially partnering with third-party measurement arbiters, and so on.

Also relevant here is the following detail from the previously mentioned Bloomberg profile of Panoply from a few items up:

At the low end, Panoply charges a brand $150,000 to produce and promote a podcast. The biggest productions reach into the seven digits.

Seven digits, eh?

WNYC interns get fair-wage assurances. But will the station follow through? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a petition initiative that’s been floating about urging New York Public Radio to pay its interns more than the $12-a-day stipend they currently get. It looks like the initiative is making some headway.

Mickey Capper, the freelance radio producer who headed up the petition effort, wrote me in an email:

Jennifer Houlihan Roussel [head of the station’s comms team] confirmed that NYPR would start paying interns in fiscal year 2017. Exact wage TBD and most details TBD, but she said that all internships would be paid and they’re currently working on it. It seems Brenda Williams-Butts has been championing this and spearheading it on the inside and deserves oodles of credit.

Williams-Butts, by the way, is NYPR’s vice president of recruitment, diversity, and inclusion. I asked Capper if he thinks whether the organization will follow through. He seemed optimistic. “I believe WNYC will follow through as they’ve been very careful to commit to anything beyond vague statements of intention up to this point,” Capper wrote back.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this. And speaking of WNYC…

Werk It, part two. The station held the second edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, Werk It, late last week. The three-day event, which took place in WNYC’s Greene Space, featured a stellar schedule of panels and presentation from some truly remarkable talent and operators, including PRX’s Julie Shapiro, Another Round’s Tracy Clayton, NPR’s Kelly McEvers, and Radiolab’s Molly Webster, among many, many others. If you didn’t get to attend, don’t worry! You can check out a recording of the festival on its website.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast. PodcastOne has named Jim Berk as the company’s new CEO, according to The Wall Street Journal, replacing founder Norm Pattiz in the position. Pattiz, who also has the distinction of founding American radio network Westwood One, will retain his title as the company’s executive chairman.

Twitter invests in SoundCloud. But I don’t think it changes much as far as the Berlin-based audio distribution platform’s relationship to the podcast space is concerned. In case you’re curious about the details: Last Tuesday, Recode reported that Twitter has invested about $70 million in SoundCloud through its venture arm. The investment apparently took place under the radar earlier this year, and both the deal’s specifics and the strategic thinking behind the move remains unclear to the public at this time.

Whatever the logic may be, however, I think it’s safe to say that however SoundCloud progresses into the future, it will do so with the music streaming business firmly in mind. (Recall that SoundCloud successfully signed a licensing deal with Sony Music, the last of the three major labels with whom the company sorely needed formal relationships with, back in March.

Which is to say, while this investment means that we should expect SoundCloud to be around for a little while longer, we probably shouldn’t cross our fingers for any solid feature developments that’ll cater to non-music audio any time soon.

Bites:

  • Be sure not to miss this interview with E.W. Scripps’ chief digital officer Adam Symson for some insight into how the corporation views podcasting and how it may further its investments in the space in the months to come. (Nieman Lab)
  • Curious about public benefit corporations, the corporate structure of choice for This American Life and RadioPublic? This recent Current column is a pretty good overview. (Current)
  • WBUR is piloting a new, fascinating podcast experiment: The Magic Pill, a 21-day health podcast challenge with each day featuring 10-minute episodes of “new science, big ideas, human stories, quick tips.” The challenge starts September 1, but the pilot episode’s out now. (WBUR)
  • The Amazon Echo slides its tentacles into local news distribution. (Information Week)
  • “‘The British Serial’: Podcast on mysterious murder of Daniel Morgan tops [the U.K.’s] iTunes chart.” (Evening Standard)