The Three Most Interesting Podcast Companies

I did this segment before I took my brief sabbatical last fall, and I thought it came out great, so I’m doing it again. Here, I’d like to quickly highlight the three companies that struck me as the most interesting over the past twelve months. They aren’t necessarily the most successful or the biggest, but rather, they’ve been the most fun to think and/or talk about.

Cadence13. Has anybody looked at their portfolio lately? Consider the fact that Cadence13’s operations currently includes: partnerships with Crooked Media, Vox Media, goop, and Sports Illustrated; shows with James Andrew Miller, Tony Kornheiser, and Brian Koppelman; plus a newly minted deal with Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries. In my mind, Cadence13 looks exactly like what Panoply should have been if that Panoply didn’t end up going down a path that led it to double down on Megaphone and becoming a technology company.

KCRW. Once home to the late great Joe Frank, the Santa Monica public radio station has quietly becoming one of the most interesting publishers of unconventional and surprising independent-spirited podcasts. With an outstanding portfolio that includes Nocturne, Welcome to LA, Bodies, Here Be Monsters, Lost Notes, The Organist, Don’t @ Me with Justin Simien, and Celestial Blood/Sangre Celestial, KCRW appears to be realizing one of the podcasting’s most potent promises: to be used as a technology that gives life to a space for quirky, off-beat projects that simply wouldn’t find a home (or an audience) in most other places.

Audible. Okay, so this one’s a cheat, because Audible is obviously not a podcast company. But the Amazon subsidiary remains acutely relevant to everything that’s going on here in the podcast industry, even after pushing its original programming strategy away from podcast-style productions. Based on this New York Times report from June, Audible’s new original content strategy involves directly pursuing established authors, like Michael Lewis and Curtis Sittenfeld, to get them signed into audiobook-first deals. With this shift, Audible seems to be leaning more heavily into the preexisting nature of its core relationships with book publishing world and the book-buying audience; which is to say, the move plays more directly into the company’s core strengths as it continues down the broader path of taking more power away from the traditional gatekeepers of the book industry.

The question is whether this opens up any opportunities for podcast publishers and independent podcast studios. It remains to be seen whether Audible will be content with simply replicating the feel of basic audio-books around the originals that they acquire, but should their designs eventually expand beyond that… well, that could be quite interesting for this new on-demand audio universe.

Headspin: Panoply, iHeartMedia-HowStuffWorks, Weisberg-Gladwell

Been quite the week, hasn’t it? In case you missed it: last Wednesday, Panoply announced that it was getting out of the content business and, as a result, would be letting go of its entire editorial division — putting more than a few good products out of a job — in favor of focusing solely on its “podcast hosting and ads services business,” i.e. its Megaphone platform. The company is also getting out of direct ad sales — leaving its client base to shop for new sales partners, seemingly abruptly — in favor of its podcast monetization offering that’s rooted in its partnership with Nielsen’s audience segmentation tool. Which is to say: Panoply is essentially shifting into a direct LibSyn and Art19 competitor with an additional monetization edge.

The Panoply news wasn’t an isolated development. That same day, Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg announced that he was leaving to form a new audio company with the author Malcolm Gladwell of contemporary Revisionist History fame. On Thursday, the linear radio giant iHeartMedia acquired HowStuffWorks’ parent company Stuff Media for $55 million (that’s $5 million above what Scripps paid for Midroll, by the way). Capping things off, later that Thursday, the media conglomerate Endeavor began rolling out word of its own podcast division, Endeavor Audio, to the public.

That’s a ton of big news for a two day span. Each story is complicated enough on its own, but the clustering of stories was dramatic enough to inspire questions about what they mean as a collective and what they tell us about the podcast industry. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton strung together the news blitz in a blog post on Thursday, which he closed with a useful framing question: “Is this a classic case of legacy media (iHeart) buying into its digital disruptor (podcasting), à la the investments of companies like Comcast, Hearst, Time Warner investing into digital natives like BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Mic?” he wrote. “Or something less positive, a sign of further shakeouts in an industry that, while far more structured than in its loosey-goosey early days, is still relatively decentralized?”

Both things are probably true at the same time, or somewhere in the middle, and then some. Come, friends. Let’s navel-gaze into oblivion.

I.

In my understanding, the Panoply decision was driven by a cold calculation. Put simply, the company has moved to no longer stretch its resources (and identity) across multiple lines of businesses — content, direct ad sales, technology — and purely restructure itself around the one business that it has identified as having the most differentiation and long-term growth potential in the marketplace. Panoply may have had some high-profile shows over the years, but the business of hit-production is exorbitantly risk-heavy, and when it comes to podcasts, you’re talking about an environment with an infinite competitive horizon that’s already stacked with formidable players. That challenge is further grounded with a more mundane truism: it’s hard to build any business whatsoever, but it’s exponentially harder to build three interrelated businesses from scratch at the same time. Based on the messaging that came out from the restructure, it seems Panoply’s higher-ups determined that it would be more prudent to put all their chips on Megaphone. (It should be noted Steve Lickteig, EP of podcasts at sister company Slate, asserted over Twitter that Panoply’s move has no bearing on their operations. “We are still 100% in the game,” he wrote.)

Some readers wrote in to draw a line between Panoply’s withdrawal from the podcast content business and Audible’s early August move to eliminate a considerable number of roles within its original programming unit, particularly the podcast-style production team led by former NPR exec Eric Nuzum. Some suspected the two stories to be linked by a similar skepticism, perhaps from the company’s respective higher ups, about the prospects of podcasting. I don’t see how that could be the case. If anything, Panoply’s move feels like a doubling down on the industry’s prospects, as the choice to focus on Megaphone is itself a bet that there will be more popular and profitable podcasts to come that would need next-gen technology support.

The Audible situation is a tad messier. As I’ve mentioned previously, I suspect the reshuffling of the company’s original programming division to primarily be linked to the executive turnover that took place last December. A shift in leadership philosophy and internal politics, in other words. In any case, the platform appears to going down its own path on original programming: audiobook-only products, theatrical adaptations, meditation app acquisitions. The Amazon-owned audiobooks giant may not be competing within the infrastructural context of podcasting, but they still very much compete for the relationship with audiences. Those two stories aren’t linked by skepticism about podcasting; rather, they’re linked by a similar move to double-down on their respective ecosystems in pursuit of the same goal: to derive value from capturing the earballs of people everywhere.

Nevertheless, the timing of the Panoply news was suspect, as it took place shortly after the company presented at the IAB Podcast Upfronts where, among other things, it announced a new fiction podcast co-written by The Bright Sessions’ Lauren Shippen and starring Kelly Marie Tran. (The project is still apparently going to roll out in November which… you know, awkward.) I don’t know, exactly, what’s behind the strange timing, but I reckon it has to do at least something with Jacob Weisberg’s decision to head out on his own.

II.

In parallel to the Panoply news on Wednesday, Weisberg announced that, after twenty-two years, he was leaving the Slate Group, which houses both Panoply and sister company Slate, to form a new audio company with Malcolm Gladwell. His departure comes at a moment where Slate, a veteran internet magazine operation, appears to have found some success navigating the choppy digital media waters with the help of a growing podcast business. At the end of 2017, podcasting comprised of 25% of the company’s revenues, up from virtually nothing in 2014. And this year has looked to be a good one so far for Slate Podcasting. Working off the strength of a formidable long-running portfolio that includes the Slate Political Gabfest and The Gist, the company has been rolling out a fleet of new shows, which includes the critically-acclaimed, widely-consumed (its first season reportedly brought in 11 million downloads), and utterly fantastic Slow Burn. More big projects are in the oven: I’ve previously reported that Slate is currently working with another well-known author, Michael Lewis, to develop a podcast series.

Which raises the question: why is Weisberg leaving to form a new audio venture with Gladwell now, instead of keeping things in-house at Slate? I have no special insight into this, and there is likely a ton of backstory we’re not publicly privy to, but I can’t help seeing a possible parallel with the Panoply story here: whatever the overarching circumstances, this could well be a situation where Weisberg and Gladwell want to run where they could previously only walk.

Anyway, specific details about Weisberg and Gladwell’s new venture are still scant, but we do know that it will focus on producing podcasts, audiobooks, and smart speaker content. I find the explicit evocation of audiobooks especially interesting: given Audible’s strategic shift to partnering directly with well-known authors to produce audiobook-only products as means to bypass publishing houses, it’s hard not to imagine the play here. And if Weisberg and Gladwell haven’t already thought about striking up a direct relationship with Audible, they should be.

III.

I’ll admit to not being particularly surprised about iHeartMedia acquiring Stuff Media. I’ve heard rumors about HowStuffWorks slipping on a price tag as far back as June that, when I followed up with the company, were categorically denied. (¯\_(ツ)_/¯). But here we are.

I vibe with Josh Benton’s suggestion that this story is, indeed, one of a legacy media acquiring its way into area knowledge and expertise of its digital disruptor. The move is good for iHeartMedia: up to this point, the liner radio entity had experimented with various ways of interpreting the on-demand audio business, with ambiguous results (as communicated through ambiguous Podtrac ranking analytics) and some minor measurement controversies along the way. In HowStuffWorks, they’ve acquired a humming content factory that already performs well within the context of podcasting. (Endeavor Audio pulled a similar move in its roll-out, striking a partnership with the Parcast network and its lines of genre product.)

On HowStuffWorks’s end, things strike me as a little more mixed.The Atlanta-based podcast giant has been at this for a long time, persisting through early podcast history beneath the umbrella of multiple parent companies before spinning out as an independent entity and raising $15 million in Series A money about a year ago. Since going solo, they’ve made some expansions, struck a few new partnerships, modernized their back-end, and rolled out a few big-swing shows, including Atlanta Monster. That company made the decision to be acquired for $55 million — which feels a little flat, IMHO — instead of staying independent to either (a) further bump that number up or (b) become a bigger business of their own is the sticking point. A year is a really short time for a spin-out and exit, so either they didn’t read their long-term independent prospects positively… or perhaps this was always part of the plan.

Anyway, the Panoply and iHeartMedia-HowStuffWorks stories interact in a really interesting way: prior to the acquisition, HowStuffWorks hosted its podcast portfolio on Megaphone, which I presume is an arrangement that’s pretty lucrative for Panoply. It’s unclear to me whether iHeartMedia will move HowStuffWorks onto another platform — perhaps its own in-house solution? — or whether they’ll keep things as is and build a sales infrastructure to meet it. We’ll see.

IV.

So, taken as a collective, what do all these stories mean? Are they data points contributing to some impending cataclysm, or do they point elsewhere — towards something simultaneously better and worse, something just different?

One way to read this is a story of an industry “maturing.” In the final accounting, we have: a broad multi-purpose podcast company that’s restructured into a pure tech company, one big radio company gobbling up a smaller podcast content company, and one brand new content company. Put another way: you have a company that’s finally decided on what it should be, one big legacy media company buying their way into the medium, and a new audio company built on the foundation of a really popular blue chip podcast (and Broken Record).

Another way to read it: the past few years marked a period of unchecked experimentation on a large scale, where a wide spread of gambits were laid out with ample runway to play. What we’re seeing might now might be the beginning of a turn: the tests have been run, the results have come in, and the time has come to shift resources based on what was found. In other words, as the podcast industry continues down its steady and relatively unsexy path of growth, a collection of players reshuffle their decks in response.

V.

The unfortunate reality, of course, is that the machinations of companies, corporations, and organizations tend to come at the expense (or indifference) of workers. With Panoply’s exit from the content business, a number of talented producers are back out on the job market at the end of the month. I tweeted out earlier that I thought the market for is better now for experienced audio producers that it ever was, given the preponderance of new audio companies and increased need for skilled labor. (Yes, everyone can make a podcast. No, not everyone can make a listenable one.) I do believe this, by the way, but the belief is not without caveat: by a “better” job market, I mean that the current environment is one where producers can more easily get paid gigs compared to, say, five or six years ago. That doesn’t necessarily refer to the ability to get a desirable job at a company that will make good decisions, listen to you, and provide you with a place to grow — that’s a whole other bag of worms. But you can get paid. And that’s the frustrating heart of all this: abundant jobs or no, producers function within a system where the fates of workers are mostly at the relatively unprotected mercy of capital, companies, and their leadership team struggling through their respective problems of identity, vision, and product-market fit.

VI.

One last thing. The framework for thinking through all of this remains the same: demand for time-shifted on-demand audio content continues to increase, and demand for good on-demand audio creators and producers are going up accordingly. The central question we’re grappling with here is how money is made; that story is only partly about how the podcast industry/community figures out its arrangements and business model, and it is also partly about how it deals with opportunities, challenges, and interactions with other systems like audiobooks, music streaming platforms, and whatever else lies around the corner.

Audible, “The Show,” and the Reality of Omni-Directional Trouble

This week, I’m trying something a little different. I’m working to think through and unpack a number of things, including last week’s developments at Audible and Tom Webster’s Growth Manifesto for Podcasting, that I believe speak to each other in interesting ways. The end product is a really long piece — almost 3000 words — and I’ll be frank: I’m not sure it’s completely successful. I don’t have a hard conclusion, but I do have a couple of ideas, insights, and arguments that I’d like to explore and get across. Hopefully, that’s helpful enough for you.

We begin by beginning elsewhere.

I.

Not too long ago, The Ringer, in an emulation of classic magazine form, published one of those massive editorial packages that’s meant to turn heads and paper over conversational lulls for weeks to come: “The 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century.”

Ranking all of television since the turn of the millenium is a ludicrous exercise, of course, for all the reasons that end-of-year “Best Of” lists are ludicrous and arbitrary and subjective and shamefully tethered to the limits of the human individuals composing it. (Sorry for my own contribution to the plague of “Best of” listicles. Also, not sorry at all.)

But The Ringer’s version of exercise also felt utterly refreshing, primarily for the broader enterprise it seemed more interested in carrying out. Aside from actually producing a List and using it to make bold statements — Lost’s “The Constant” swiping the number one spot feels both bizarre… and oh so right — the package was fundamentally about The Process of making the List, which ultimately functioned as a platform to publicly think through what we talk about when we talk about television. Through a series of accompanying posts and podcast episodes, the real delight of the package lay in the meta-discussion that engaged in the search for a common value system that unites a sprawling universe of televisual stuff in the age of Too Much Television: a way to think and talk about the medium that links the sometimes disparate experiences of watching Mad Men, HGTV, and Futurama.

The distinct insight of The List lies in its voracious inclusiveness. It is creatively omnivorous, pitting prestige dramas against talk shows against reality TV against cartoons. It is also structurally omnivorous, pitting linear network television against linear premium cable against various streaming platforms. In mixing different tele-visual cuisines in the same menu, The Ringer’s 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century package underscored two things that feel so obvious as to be easily forgotten: firstly, that all programming providers — from CBS to AMC to PBS to Netflix to Hulu to YouTube Red — compete in the same pool, and secondly, that for audiences, it’s all television, it’s all part of the same conversation.

You can see where I’m going with this.

II.

Earlier this month, SVP of Edison Research and Infinite Dial co-pitchman Tom Webster published a Medium post adapting a keynote he gave at the recent Podcast Movement conference, and as a unit of discourse, it sought to provoke. You should read the 4000~ word piece if you haven’t already, but for those short on time I wrote a quick summary that you can find here. For our purposes today, and at the risk of sanding down the nuances of his argument, I’m going to narrow that summary down even further to just one of several big ideas embedded in the Webster’s post: the fact that exists a lot of people have heard about podcasting but don’t seem to be adequately incentivized to check it out. To Webster, this is a very worrying situation.

This idea is best expressed in this chunk of his post:

The issue isn’t that there are too many  —  the issue is that there isn’t one. Here’s the simple truth  —  Just as it was for HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and any other form of new, online media, the on ramp is the show. And while we need to make listening to the show simpler  —  we also need a SHOW. When people say that “Podcasts just aren’t for them” or that there aren’t topics that they are interested it  —  maybe we should take them at their word? They need a show  —  just one show  —  and we either haven’t led them to it yet, or maybe…just maybe…we haven’t made it yet.

… and this chunk:

There were once was a time when plenty of people didn’t think they had a Netflix app, didn’t know they needed one, and weren’t sure how to watch it without getting discs emailed in those red envelopes. So what did Netflix do? They didn’t spend a bunch of money on a “Got Netflix?” campaign. They spent a lot of money on Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards. What gets people to discover Netflix is curiosity, and what drives curiosity is the show. The killer show.

“The Show” — it’s a great construct. The Show, whose innate draw simplifies, supersedes, or even renders irrelevant the context from which it came. The One Show To Rule Them All. As I noted in last week’s column: technology and gaming enthusiasts can broadly equate this argument with the notion of “killer apps” that move new devices and consoles. In that case, you could boil the sell down to this: you’re going to want this app, and in order to get it you’re going to have to buy into this other, weird, complicated thing. The underlying point remains consistent across those examples: the major barrier to a thing’s adoption is its potential status as a mere curiosity — something you would probably like if only you were the kind of person who likes that kind of stuff. It applies, equally, to podcasting as it does to, say, public radio in its earliest days. (Or even today.)

The solution, as I interpret it from Webster’s post, is to engineer a identity shift away from being a technological curiosity, a niche. And a good chunk of that involves articulating podcasting’s offerings in a way that makes sense within the context of everyday non-podcast literate folks; in part by evoking facsimiles of the things they are already comfortable with — in this case, that facsimile is the product itself, The Show — and in part by aligning the podcast ecosystem’s narrative, as a whole, beneath the banner of one such Show.

There are several possible counter-arguments to deploy here:

  • One could argue, say, that the idea of corralling the marketing identity of the podcast ecosystem behind a single Show is somewhat antithetical to the medium’s open publishing ideal and, in any case, it’s maybe insurmountably hard to fold the narrative of a sprawling and decentralized universe of creation under a single banner.
  • One could also argue, perhaps, that some reference points cited in Webster’s post aren’t natural sources of blueprints for podcasting. Netflix, for example, could rally its narrative behind House of Cards because the streaming service is a closed and tightly-controlled environment whose identity is managed by a singular decision-making executive entity. No such equivalent of an executive body exists for podcasting… nor would that necessarily be a good idea.
  • Finally, one could possibly further argue that there already exists several equivalents of The Show for different kinds of people: This American Life, Serial, Welcome to Night Vale, Pod Save America, WTF with Marc Maron, Bodega Boys, The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Daily, Fresh Air, and so on.

I have time for some of these counter-arguments; others, less so. But none necessarily disputes Webster’s core point: in my reading it, the most important idea he extends is the need for a subtle, but important, shift in emphasis. What should be foregrounded is not the technology, it’s the people. Or more to the point: it’s not the Means of Production, it’s the Product.

That shift in emphasis should open up what we talk about when we talk about podcasting — and, more to the point, the context within which it competes.

III.

It’s been a week since I expanded on NPR’s newscast about the big shakeup at Audible, which saw the audiobook giant eliminate a number of roles within its original programming unit. As a reminder, the role eliminations officially spanned several teams across the unit, but it seemed to have especially struck the team responsible for shorter-form podcast-style programming.

There have been a few updates to that storyline, some of which I’ve already flagged in last Friday’s Insider:

  • On Tuesday, shortly after the newsletter went out, an Audible spokesperson confirmed that The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson and Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel had seasons already in production and that they would, indeed, be released over the Audible platform in the fall. This was in response to a question I raised in this week’s column: “What happens to all the podcast-style Audible Original programs that are still ongoing?”
  • On Thursday, Broadcast, a British weekly magazine covering the radio industry, published an article with the headline: “Amazon’s Audible Plans Podcast Push.” The piece called Audible “Amazon’s audiobook and podcasting arm,” and noted that Kent DePinto, the Director of Content at Audible UK, has “set out her commissioning strategy for the first time, revealing plans to double down on intimate shows such as Where Should We Begin?, which features recordings of couples undergoing counselling with Belgian therapist Esther Perel.” Later in the article, Ronson’s show was also name-checked. “DePinto highlighted Jon Ronson’s porn-inspired seven-parter The Butterfly Effect as an example of the type of podcast that ‘blends creative thinking with data-driven insights,’” the piece wrote.

So, what do we take from this? What, exactly, has become of Audible’s shorter-form podcast-style original programming? And what on earth is up with this business with the UK team?

I sent an inquiry over to Audible, asking whether the “podcast push” was limited to the United Kingdom. “No, it is not limited to the UK,” a spokesperson replied. “We launched a significant podcast program in Germany in the fall that continues to get a lot of attention. In the US, our content focus for Audible originals includes our theater initiative, narrative storytelling ‘written to the form’ (a la Michael Lewis) in addition to short-form programming… shortly we have a big announcement about our fall theater slate.”

A team phased out, and yet a nomenclature retained. I’ll say it: I’m confused as to how Audible’s executive leadership views the internal composition of its original programming unit, but I suspect there may well be a gap between the language being used in the public and the language being used inside. In any case, that’s slightly besides the point now, as I find myself more stuck on the bigger question: how does this restructure — which all but phases out podcast-style content development from the original programming unit within Audible’s Newark headquarters — change the company’s position in the broader audio universe and its relationship with podcasting?

As I’ve written previously, Audible’s original programming machinations have long been a horizontal concern for the podcast industry. When the company first leaned into podcast-style programming, it did so by making a pointed statement: hiring a former NPR executive, Eric Nuzum, to lead the initiative, which ended up building a show portfolio that seemed designed to directly compete with the entire podcast universe. Audible being a closed circuit and all, we’ll probably never truly know what kind of listening numbers those shows are doing, but for what it’s worth, a few of them — like Where Should We Begin?, The Butterfly Effect, and West Cork — have attained some critical acclaim, in case that’s relevant to your estimation of the portfolio’s overall performance.

Now that Nuzum’s team has been phased out, does Audible cease to be a horizontal concern for podcasting? The answer, of course, is no.

Audible is the monopolistic force in audiobooks, and its competitive landscape has long ceased to be limited to other audiobook providers. Today, the platform is best viewed as being up against a full multiverse of Stuff For Your Ears To Enjoyably Pass The Time and tightly situated in digital audio landscape that pits Audible against terrestrial talk radio against public radio against music in all its distributional forms. It’s all audio, right?

What Podcasting brought to this landscape was the introduction of a theoretically infinite horizon of potential competition. Between its relatively low barriers to entry and the sheer abundance of possible podcasting participants that range from basement-amateurs to fully-matured public radio operations to talented experimentalists, the open publishing medium, in theory, vastly complicates the choice matrix for a listener who may have previously defaulted to Audible, Spotify, or just given up and flicked on radio. But as we’ve just discussed in the previous section, podcasting’s category-level advantage has been largely blunted by problems affiliated with non-streamlined onramps: a lack of what Webster calls “The Show,” plus the pervading cage of being perpetually identified as a curiosity meant for other people. (Not to mention all the other fundamental issues it’s grappling with: ensuring that its advertising economy matures, slowly enforcing a trustworthy system of measurements and metric accountability, keeping the lights on, and so on.)

What Audible brings to the party was the fact that its product is, frankly speaking, a derivative, at least initially. Of course, there’s real skill, art, and taste involved in crafting a great audiobook experience — I ride for Jim Dale’s Harry Potter reads — but it’s worth noting that an audiobook company doesn’t initially participate in the difficult business of figuring out how to source, seed, and develop a line of hits or bankable products from scratch. Instead, it leans on the book publishing industry along with its aggregate marketing efforts to run through that wall first. To put it in absurdly reductive terms, Audible was instead in the business of creating the best technical experience that audiobook consumption can be. This isn’t to belittle the achievement, of course. It’s just a different kind of fight, and it also happens to be one that naturally gives the company an orthogonal advantage to everyone else in the audio category.

Perhaps it was always going to be the case that Audible would expand vertically into original audio programming. When the world is fully conquered, where else does one look but to the stars? The question, of course, is how it would do that, and through what advantage?

The company’s gambit with Nuzum and the Direct Podcasting Parallel was always interesting to me for the way it opened up what we could talk about when we talk about Audible. Being an audiobook company inherently pegs your outer limits to the outer limits of the book publishing industry: its talent pool, its infrastructure, its consumer cultures. But by building inroads into the horizontally-located culture of narrative radio, by hiring a person from that world who then brings in creative people just like him into the mix, Audible potentially opened itself up to a whole new set of outer limits. What if Audible wasn’t just the dominant force in audiobooks, but also the dominant force in narrative radio? What if Amazon didn’t just sell books, but also toiletries?

That particular version of the future has been dimmed out, at least for now, given the phasing out of Nuzum’s team and the exporting of their responsibilities to the UK branch. But it seems that Audible has a new tip of the spear as far as its original programming strategy is concerned: doubling down on its long-cultivated book publishing relationships to strike audiobook-only exclusives with known authors, embodied by Michael Lewis’ The Coming Storm and the recently announced audiobook-only Harry Potter project narrated by the actress Natalie Dormer. Again, as in previous weeks, I refer you to this New York Times write-up as a primer on the new strategy, though I would like to additionally highlight this eyebrow-raising line: “[Michael Lewis’] audio originals may be adapted and expanded into print, but Audible will have exclusive rights for several months.”

That business with the rights… it’s eyebrow-raising stuff, I think. For what it’s worth, I really liked The Coming Storm, but as I mentioned in a review for Vulture, I didn’t quite see why it had be an audiobook-only project. There was no interview tape, no archival material, no deployment of music diegetic to the experience that actually used the medium or warrant its immediate lack of a print version. At the end of the day, it felt like a strategy premised on artificial scarcity. (Personally, I find all the theater stuff… a lot more interesting.)

Will that lack of medium-utilization matter to Audible? It depends. Will it matter to current and potential Audible customers, who continue to be flooded with an increasing horizon of audio alternatives? (It’s all audio, it’s all part of the same conversation.) We shall see, but for now, despite the audiobook giant’s reshuffling of its outer limits, it remains in an advantageous position. As podcasting looks for The Show, as broadcast radio squeezes cents out all the reach it has, as the music industry reorganizes its power structure, Audible marches on.

Phew, we’ve apparently solved 97% of the podcast measurement problem — everybody relax

MEASUREMENT BITE. Been a while since we’ve checked back into what is arguably the most important subject in the podcast business. Let’s fix that, shall we?

“The good news for podcasters and buyers is measurement challenges are 97 percent solved,” Midroll Media CRO Lex Friedman said on a podcast panel at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show last week. “What we can report now is more specific than we could before.” You can find the quote in this Inside Radio writeup on the panel.

Be that as it may, there’s still some work left to be done. I reached out to Friedman for his perspective on what constitutes the remaining 3 percent of the challenges left to be solved, and here’s his response (pardon the customary Midroll spin):

In TV today, advertisers would struggle if NBC used Nielsen ratings, and ABC used Nielsen but with a different methodology, and CBS used some other company’s measurement technology.

Today in podcasting, the measurement problem is solved; the remaining 3 percent is getting everyone standardized. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, Midroll loses a show to a competitor. When we sell a show at 450,000 downloads, and the next day the same show and same feed is being sold at 700,000 downloads, that’s a problem.

The IAB’s recommended a 24-hour measurement window, while some folks still advocate for 60 minutes or two hours, and too many vendors continue to sell at 5 minutes, which we universally know is way too liberal a count. That’s unfair and confusing to advertisers, and that’s the piece that needs fixing.

That’s no small 3 percent, in my opinion.

Anyway, if you’re new to the podcast measurement problem, my column from February 2016 — back when a group of public radio stations published a set of guidelines on the best way for podcast companies to measure listenership — still holds up as a solid primer on the topic, if I do say so myself.

Fool’s gold? Something else to note from Inside Radio’s article on the NAB panel: a strong indication, delivered by Triton Digital president of market development John Rosso, that there is increasing demand for programmatic podcast advertising.

Programmatic advertising is a system by which ads are automatically bought and sold through algorithmic processes. In other words, it’s a monetization environment where the facilitation of advertising value exchange is automated away from human interaction. The principal upside that comes with programmatic advertising is efficiency: As an advertiser, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time identifying, contacting, and executing buys, and as a publisher, you theoretically don’t have to spend a lot of time doing those things in the opposite direction. In theory, both sides don’t have to do much more work for a lot more money. But the principal downside is the ensuing experience on listener-side, and all the ramifications that fall from a slide in said experience: Because these transactions are machine-automated, there’s no human consideration governing the aesthetic intentionality of an advertising experience paired with the specific contexts of a given podcast.

Combine this with the core assumptions of what makes podcasting uniquely valuable as a media product — that it engenders deeper experiences of intimacy between creator and listener, that its strength is built on the cultivated simulacra of personal trust between the two parties, that any podcast advertising spot is a heavy act of value extraction from the relationship developed between the two sides — and you have a situation where a digital advertising technology is being considered for a medium to which its value propositions are diametrically opposed.

The underlying problem, put simply: Can you artificially scale up podcasting’s advertising supply without compromising its underlying value proposition? To phrase the problem in another direction: Can you develop a new advertising product that’s able to correspondingly scale up intimacy, trust, and relationship-depth between podcast creator and consumer?

The answer for both things may well be no, and that perhaps the move shouldn’t be to prescribe square pegs for round holes. Or maybe the response we’ll see will sound more like “the way we’re doing things isn’t sustainable, we’re going to have to make more money somehow” with the end result being an identity-collapsing shift in the defining characteristics of this fledgling medium. In which case: Bummer, dude.

Binge-Drop Murphies. Gimlet announced its spring slate last week, and two out of three of them, the audio drama Sandra and the Lynn Levy special The Habitat, will be released in their entirety tomorrow. When asked about the choice to go with the binge-drop, Gimlet president Matt Lieber tells me:

We decided to binge both The Habitat and Sandra because we felt that they were both so engrossing and engaging, so we wanted to give the listener the decision to either power through all the episodes, or sample and consume at their own pace. Sandra is our second scripted fiction series and we know from our first, Homecoming, that a lot of people chose to binge the series after it was out in full. With The Habitat, it’s such a unique and immersive miniseries, and we wanted to give listeners the chance to get lost in the world by listening all at once.

Grab your space suits, fellas.

The beautiful game. The third show in Gimlet’s spring bundle is We Came To Win, the company’s first sports show, which promises to deliver stories on the most memorable soccer matches in history. The press release appears to be playing up the universal angle of the sport: “Soccer is a sport that is about so much more than goals. It’s about continents, countries, characters, and the relationships between them.” (I mean, yeah.)

In an interesting bit of mind-meld, Gimlet’s first foray into sports mirrors WNYC Studios’ own maiden voyage into the world of physical human competition. Sometime this spring, the New York public radio station will roll out its own World Cup-timed narrative podcast, a collaboration with Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett that will look the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team’s journey from its triumphant 1994 World cup appearance to its doomed 1998 campaign. (Yikes.)

Public radio genes run deep.

Peabody nominations. The 2017 nominations were announced last week, and interestingly enough, six out of the eight entries in the Radio/Podcast category are either podcast-only or podcast-first. The nominees are: Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds, Serial Productions’ S-Town, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University’s Scene on Radio: Seeing White, Gimlet’s Uncivil, and Louisville Public Media/Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s “The Pope’s Long Con.

Notes on The Pope’s Long Con. It was an unbelievable story with unthinkable consequences. Produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR) and Louisville Public Media, The Pope’s Long Con was the product of a seven-month long investigation into Dan Johnson, a controversial bishop-turned-Kentucky state representative shrouded in corruption, deceit, and an allegation of sexual assault. KyCIR’s feature went live on December 11, bringing Johnson’s story — and the allegations against him — into the spotlight. The impact was explosive, leading to immediate calls for Johnson to resign. He denied the allegations at a press conference. Two days later, Johnson committed suicide.

It was “any journalist’s nightmare,” as KyCIR’s managing editor Brendan McCarthy told CJR in an article about how the newsroom grappled with the aftermath of its reporting. (Which, by the way, you should absolutely read.)

In light of those circumstances, the podcast’s Peabody nomination feels especially well-deserved. It’s also a remarkable achievement for a public radio station relatively new to podcasting. “The Pope’s Long Con was the first heavy-lift podcast Louisville Public Media had undertaken,” Sean Cannon, a senior digital strategist at the organization and creative director of the podcast, tells me. “It didn’t start out as one though…Audio was planned, but it was a secondary concern. Once we realized the scope and gravity of it all, we knew everything had to be built around the podcast.”

When I asked Cannon how he feels about the nomination, he replied:

Given the situation surrounding the story, it’s still a confusing mix of emotions to see The Pope’s Long Con reach the heights it has. That said, we’re all immensely proud of the work we did. It’s necessary to hold our elected officials accountable.

In the context of the podcast industry, it taught me a lesson that can be easy to forget. I was worried the hierarchy of publishers had become too calcified, rendering it almost impossible for anyone below the top rungs to make serious waves — without a thick wallet, anyway. It’s a topic that comes up regularly in Hot Pod.

While the industry will never purely be a meritocracy, The Pope’s Long Con shattered that perception. It served as a reminder of something that gets glossed over when you’re caught up in the business of it all: If you can create compelling audio, that trumps everything else.

Tip of the hat, Louisville.

Crooked Media expands into film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the media (political activism?) company will be co-producing a new feature documentary on Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke’s bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in the upcoming midterm elections. This extends on Crooked Media’s previous adventures in video, which already involve a series of HBO specials to be taped across the country amidst the run-up to midterms.

A quick nod to Pod Save America’s roots as The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 here: Crooked Media will likely crib from the playbook The Ringer built around the recent Andre the Giant HBO documentary, which was executive produced by Ringer CEO Bill Simmons, where the latter project received copious promotion through The Ringer website and podcast network. What’s especially interesting about that whole situation is the way it is essentially a wholesale execution of what I took as the principal ideas from the analyst Ben Thompson’s 2015 post “Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing.”

I’m not sure if I’d personally watch a Beto O’Rourke doc — the dude has been a particularly vibrant entry into the “blue hope in red country” political media subgenre for a long while now, and I’m tapping out — but Pod Save America listeners most definitely would.

Empire on Blood. My latest for Vulture is a review of the new seven-part Panoply podcast, which I thought was interesting enough as a pulpy doc but deeply frustrating in how the show handles its power and positioning. It’s a weird situation: I really liked host Steve Fishman’s writing, and I really liked the tape gathered, but the two things really shouldn’t have been paired up this way.

The state of true crime podcasts. You know you’re neck-deep in something when you can throw out random words and land close to an actual example of that something: White Wine True Crime, Wine & Crime, Up & Vanished, The Vanished, Real Crime Profile, True Crime Garage, Crimetown, Small Town Murders, and so on. (This is a general observation that goes well beyond true crime pods. Cryptocurrencies: Sumokoin, Dogecoin, PotCoin. Food startups: Plated, Pantry, PlateIQ. Names: Kevin.)

Anyway, I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: True crime is the bloody, bleeding heart of podcasting, a genre that’s proliferating with a velocity so tremendous it could power a dying sun. And in my view, true crime podcasts are also a solid microcosm of the podcast universe as a whole: What happens there, happens everywhere.

When it comes to thinking about true crime podcasts, there are few people whose opinions I trust more than crime author, podcaster, and New Hampshire Public Radio digital director Rebecca Lavoie. As the cohost of the indispensable weekly conversational podcast Crime Writers On… — which began life as Crime Writers On Serial, a companion piece to the breakout 2014 podcast phenomenon — Lavoie consumes and thinks a lot about true crime and true crime podcasts specifically.

I touched base with Lavoie recently to get the latest on what’s been going on in her neck of the woods:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your view, how has the true crime podcast genre evolved over the past four years or so?[/conl]

[conr]Rebecca Lavoie: It’s evolved in a few directions — some great, some…not so much.

On the one hand (and most wonderfully), we have journalism and media outlets who would never have touched the true crime genre a few years ago making true crime podcasts based on the tenets of great reporting and production. And when it comes to the “never would have touched it” part, I know what I’m talking about. Long before I was a podcaster, I was the coauthor of several mass-market true crime books while also working on a public radio show. Until Criminal was released and enjoyed some success, public radio and true crime never crossed streams, to an extent where I would literally avoid discussing my true crime reporting at work — it was looked down upon, frankly.

Today, though, that kind of journalistic snobbery is almost non-existent, and podcasts (especially Criminal and Serial) can claim 100 percent responsibility for that. Shows that exist today as a result of this change include Accused from the Cincinnati Enquirer, West Cork from Audible, Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, In the Dark from APM reports, and the CBC’s recent series Missing & Murdered. (And yes, even the public radio station where I still work — now on the digital side — is developing a true crime podcast!)

Credit is also due to Serial for the way journalism podcasts are being framed as true crime when they wouldn’t have been in a pre-Serial era. Take Slow Burn from Slate, which is the best podcast I’ve heard in the past year or two. While the Watergate story would have been so easy to frame as a straight political scandal, the angles and prose techniques used in Slow Burn have all the hallmarks of a great true crime narrative — and I’m pretty sure the success of that show was, at least in part, a result of that.

Of course, where you have ambitious, high-quality work, you inevitably have ambitious terrible work, right? It’s true, there are very big and very bad true crime podcasts being produced at an astonishing rate right now, and because they have affiliation with established networks, these shows get a lot of promotion. But as much as I might personally love to hate some of these terrible shows (I’m talking to YOU, Atlanta Monster!) I do see some value in their existence.

I think about it the same way I think about movies: Not every successful big budget blockbuster is a good movie, but ultimately, those films can serve to raise the profile and profitability of the movie industry as a whole, and help audiences discover other, higher-quality content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you think are the more troubling trends in how true crime podcasts have evolved?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: One is what I see as a glut of podcasts that are, quite frankly, building audience by boldly recycling the work of others. Sword & Scale is a much-talked-about example of that, but it’s not even the worst I’ve come across. There was a recent incident in which a listener pointed me to a monetized show in which the host simply read, word for word, articles published in magazines and newspapers — and I can’t help but wonder how pervasive that is. My hope is that at some point, the transcription technologies we’re now seeing emerge can somehow be deployed to scan audio for plagiarism, similar to the way YouTube scans videos for copyright infringement.

But there’s another trend that, for me, is even more troubling. There’s been a recent and massive growth of corporate podcast networks that are building their businesses on what I can only compare to the James Patterson book factory model — basically saying to creators, “Hey, if you think you have a story, partner with us and we’ll help you make, distribute, and monetize your podcast — and we’ll even slap our name on it!”

This, unfortunately, seems to be what’s behind a recent spate of shows that, in the hands of a more caring set of producers, could have (maybe?) been good, but ultimately, the podcasts end up being soulless, flat, “why did they make it at all” experiences.

Why is this the most upsetting trend for me? First, because good journalists are sometimes tied to these factory-made shows, and the podcasts aren’t doing them, or their outlets, or the podcast audience as a whole any favors.

The other part of it is that these networks have a lot of marketing pull with podcast platforms that can make or break shows by featuring them at the top of the apps. These marketing relationships with Apple etc. mean factory networks have a tremendous advantage in getting their shows front and center. But ultimately, many of the true crime podcasts getting pushed on podcast apps are very, very bad, and I can’t imagine a world in which a lot of bad content will end up cultivating a smart and sustainable audience.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: In your opinion, what were the most significant true crime podcasts in recent years?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: In the Dark by APM Reports is up there. What I love about that show is that they approached the Jacob Wetterling story with an unusual central question: Why wasn’t this case solved? (Of course, they also caught the incredibly fortunate break of the case actually being solved, but I digress…) Theirs is a FAR more interesting question than, say, “What actually happened to this missing person?” Or “Is this person really guilty?” Of course, In the Dark also had the benefit of access to a talented public media newsroom, and I really enjoyed how they folded data reporting into that story.

I most often tell people that after Serial season one, my favorite true crime podcast of all time is the first season of Accused. Not only do I love that show because it looks at an interesting unsolved case, but I love it because it was made by two women, seasoned newspaper journalists, with no podcasting experience. Amber Hunt is a natural storyteller and did an amazing job injecting a tremendous amount of humanity and badass investigative journalism skills into that story. It’s not perfect, but to me, its imperfections are a big part of what makes it extraordinary.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the shows I mentioned above, including West Cork and Missing & Murdered. But when it comes to significance, Slow Burn is the most understated and excellent audio work I’ve heard in a long time. I loved every minute of it. I think that Slate team has raised the bar on telling historical crime stories, and we’re the better for it.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What do you generally want to see more of from true crime podcasts?[/conl]

[conr]Lavoie: I want to see more new approaches and formal risk-taking, and more integrity, journalistic and otherwise.

One of my favorite podcasts to talk about is Breakdown from the AJC. Bill Rankin is the opposite of a radio reporter — he has a folksy voice and a writing style much more suited to print. But beginning in season one, he’s been very transparent about the challenges he’s faced while making the show. He’s also, as listeners quickly learned, an incredible reporter with incredible values. That show has embraced multiple formats and allowed itself to evolve — and with a couple of exceptions, Bill’s voice and heart have been at the center of it.

I’d also love to see some trends go away, most of all, this idea of podcast host as “Hey, I’m not a podcaster or a journalist or really anyone at all but LET’S DO THIS, GUYS” gung-ho investigator.

Don’t get me wrong, some really good podcasts have started with people without a lot of audio or reporting experience, but they aren’t good because the person making them celebrates sounding like an amateur after making dozens of episodes.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Again, you can find Lavoie on Crime Writers On…, where she is joined every week by: Kevin Flynn, her true crime coauthor (and “former TV reporter husband,” she adds); Toby Ball, a fiction writer; and Lara Bricker, a licensed private investigator and fellow true crime writer. Lavoie also produces a number of other podcast projects, including: …These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast, HGTV & Me, and Married With Podcast for Stitcher Premium.

On a related note: The New York Times’ Jonah Bromwich wrote a quick piece on the Parcast network, described as “one of several new networks saturating the audio market with podcasts whose lurid storylines play out like snackable television.” The article also contains my successful effort at being quoted in ALL CAPS in the Times.

Bites:

  • This year’s Maximum Fun Drive has successfully accrued over 28,000 new and upgrading members. (Twitter) Congrats to the team.
  • WBUR is organizing what it’s calling the “first-ever children’s podcast festival” on April 28 and 29. Called “The Mega Awesome Super Huge Wicked Fun Podcast Playdate” — shouts to whoever came up with that — the festival will be held at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts and will feature shows like Eleanor Amplified, Story Pirates, But Why, and Circle Round, among others. (Website)
  • “Bloomberg expands TicToc to podcasts, newsletters.” For the uninitiated: TicToc is Bloomberg’s live-streaming video news channel that’s principally distributed over Twitter. On the audio side, the expansion appears to include podcast repackages and a smart-speaker experiment. (Axios)
  • American Public Media is leaning on Westwood One to handle advertising for the second season of its hit podcast In The Dark. Interesting choice. The new season drops next week. (AdWeek)
  • I’m keeping an eye on this: Death in Ice Valley, an intriguing collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, debuted yesterday. (BBC)
  • Anchor rolls out a feature that helps its users find…a cohost? Yet another indication that the platform is in the business of building a whole new social media experience as opposed to something that directly relates to podcasting. (TechCrunch)
  • On The New York Times’ marketing campaign for Caliphate: “The Times got some early buzz for the podcast before its launch; 15,000 people have signed up for a newsletter that will notify them when a new episode is ready, twice as many as expected.” (Digiday)
  • “Alexa Is a Revelation for the Blind,” writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

[photocredit]Photo of a tape measure by catd_mitchell used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]

Today, Explained, explained: Vox enters the daily news podcast race with a comma-happy, personality-driven show

Quick preamble: I was working on my taxes yesterday when I realized that last Thursday marked the two-year point since I incorporated Hot Pod Media LLC. To celebrate the occasion, I’m hauling an old Hot Pod feature out of retirement just for this issue: the unnecessary deployment of irrelevant GIFs. Thanks for being a reader, and to those who’ve been reading me for a while now, thanks for sticking around. I really don’t know where all that time went.

Every Day, Explained. Rejoice, news nerds: We now have a name, a release date, and a sound palette for Vox Media’s upcoming entry into the daily news podcast genre. The show will be called Today, Explained — props for keeping it #onbrand — and it will begin publishing next Monday, February 19. A trailer for the podcast went up yesterday, and it sounds…well, quite different from what I would expect from Vox.com, but entirely in keeping what I would expect from host Sean Rameswaram, whose various hijinks I’ve followed intermittently over the years.

I wrote a preview of the podcast for Vulture that came out yesterday, and I spent much of that article trying to contextualize Today, Explained within the current state of the emerging daily news podcast genre. Now, “emerging” is a word I tend to use a lot (more on that in a bit), at times way too cavalierly, but in the context of this story, the use of the term is literal: It’s been a blast watching this species of podcast come into being.

Two things I’d like to emphasize from the preview:

  • The choice to target the evening commute is a really, really smart one. I’ve argued this before, but I think it’s safe to assume that there might be considerable overlap between the audiences of The New York Times and Vox.com. As such, a move to complement The Daily is significantly more prudent than engaging it as a direct competitor. In any case, even if the overlap was small, the evening commute remains untapped by the daily news podcast to begin with — aside from Mike Pesca’s The Gist, of course, which isn’t really playing the same game anyway. It’s a safer, and therefore more reliable, base to build from, and besides, Today, Explained could always expand with an a.m. version at some point in the future. (Same goes with The Daily and a p.m. version, a prospect that it has previously explored with breaking news specials.)
  • In case it fully doesn’t come across in the writeup: I think Today, Explained’s success will mostly hinge on Sean Rameswaram’s personality — more so, I’d argue, than how Michael Barbaro fits into The Daily as a presence. Which is, I suppose, kind of the point when you bring in someone with a specific sense of showmanship like Rameswaram to headline a project.

And two more things I’d like to add to the preview:

  • Here’s Vox.com general manager Andrew Golis, responding to an inquiry about how the podcast fits into the company’s overall business goals: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video. That persistent relationship and trust is a powerful platform for building our business…we believe ‘Today, Explained’ will give us a new way to introduce audiences to a growing network of Vox podcasts as we continue to expand our ambitions and programming.”
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Midroll Media’s involvement in the production. The Scripps-owned podcast company serves as the exclusive advertising partner for Today, Explained, but I’m also told that they provided upfront investment to help assemble the team and build out the production. Chris Bannon, Midroll’s chief content officer, was also involved in the development of the show. “Creatively speaking, I spent a day in D.C. with the Vox team, and together we started sourcing host and staff candidates,” explained Bannon over email. “Right now we’re in the fun part, listening to show drafts and sharing notes. They’re alarmingly well-organized, cheerful, and efficient.” Bannon, by the way, worked with Rameswaram back when he was still at WNYC. (He left for Midroll in early 2015.)

When asked about his perspective on the potential of Today, Explained, Bannon offered an analogy. “I think we want Today, Explained to be All Things Considered to the The Daily’s Morning Edition,” he said. “Except that we will be more like All Things Considered’s smart, funny, well-informed, and streetwise uncle.”

“Streetwise uncle” sounds about right.

On a related note: I heard there’s some big news coming later today on The Daily. Keep your eyes peeled.

What comes next for the Fusion Media Group. Last week, The Onion binge-dropped A Very Fatal Murder, the satirical news site’s first stab at a long-form audio project. The show was designed to parody the wildly popular — and eminently bankable! — true-crime podcast genre, which is an appealing premise right off the bat: indeed, there’s no team I’d love to see interpret the phenomenon more than the brains behind The Onion. A Very Fatal Murder turned out to be enjoyable enough, no more and no less, though I did end up thinking it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing its promise as podcast satire.

But there’s a thing, and then there’s everything around the thing. And despite the minor swing and miss of A Very Fatal Murder, I was nonetheless left quite excited about the prospect of future projects from The Onion, and curious about what’s going on with the audio team at The Onion’s parent company, Fusion Media Group (FMG).

So I checked in with Mandana Mofidi, FMG’s executive director of audio. In case you’re unfamiliar, FMG is the sprawling, multi-tentacled corporation best known in some circles — mine, namely — for absorbing the remains of the Gawker empire post-Terry Bollea lawsuit in the form of the Gizmodo Media Group that spans Gizmodo, io9, Jezebel, and others. A television arm factors in somewhere, as does the city of Miami.

Anyway, Mofidi tells me that since her team kicked off operations about a year ago, they’ve been playing around with a couple of ideas and formats to see what would stick. Weekly interview and chat shows made up the early experiments, which apparently ended up working well for Lifehacker (The Upgrade), Kotaku (Splitscreen), and Deadspin (Deadcast). But following the reception they received for A Very Fatal Murder as well as Containers, Alexis Madrigal’s audio documentary about the sexy, sexy world of international shipping from last year, more plans have to been put in place to build out further narrative projects.

Mofidi’s overarching goal this year, it seems, is to ensure that each of FMG’s properties gets a solid podcast of their own. To that end, they have several projects in various stages of development, including:

  • A six-part narrative series from Gizmodo about “a controversial and charismatic spiritual guru who uses the internet to build her obsessive following.” That show is being developed with Pineapple Street Media, which appears to be really carving out a niche around themes of obsession, charismatic leaders, and the followings they spawn, following Missing Richard Simmons and Heaven’s Gate.
  • A show for Jalopnik called Tempest, which will examine “the funny and at times tragic intersectionality of people and cars.”
  • A series that “explores the connectivity of our DNA” — which evokes memories of Gimlet’s Twice Removed — featuring Grammy Award-winning artist René Pérez, a.k.a. Residente. Gretta Cohn’s Transmitter Media is assisting with this project.
  • A collaboration with The California Endowment that’ll produce stories on young activists “who are using their platforms to promote solidarity between different communities and causes.”

Mofidi also talked about an intent to dig deeper into events. “We recently did a live taping of Deadspin’s Deadcast in St. Paul before the Super Bowl. We were expecting to sell about 200 tickets, but ended up with over 360 people,” she said. The smart speaker category is also of interest, along with figuring out ways to collaborate with FMG’s aforementioned television arm.

I asked Mofidi if she had any dream projects that she’d love to produce in her role. “A daily show,” she wrote back. “It would be ambitious, but with so many passionate voices across our sites it feels like something we could do in a way that was distinct.”

Related reading: Publishers with TV ambitions are pursuing Netflix.

We’re back with this nonsense: “Public media again in bull’s-eye in president’s FY19 plans.” Re-upping my column from the last time we were in this mess, on why it’s bad in ways you already know and in more ways you don’t.

And while I’m linking Current, the public media publication just announced the new host for its podcast, The Pub: Annie Russell, currently an editor at WBEZ.

Pod Save America heads to HBO. Surprise, surprise. Crooked Media’s flagship podcast is heading to the premium cable network with a series of hour-long specials that will follow the Obama bros — that’s former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett, in case you’re unfamiliar with the deep-blue podcast phenomenon — as they host live tapings on the campaign trail for what will most definitely be a spicy midterm election season this fall. This is the latest addition to the newly buzzy trend of podcasts being adapted for film and television, and the deal for this adaptation in particular was handled by WME.

Over at Vulture, I tried to turn a series of dots into a squiggly shape linking this development, the recent debut of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO specials, and HBO’s relationship with Bill Simmons to say something about the premium cable network’s potential strategic opportunities with podcasting. Put simply: Traditional standup comedy programming is getting more expensive due to the pressure of Netflix’s infinitely large war chest, and one could argue that certain types of conversational podcast programming offer HBO an alternative resource to adapt and develop content that can potentially hit the same kind of experience and pleasure beats you’d get from conventional standup TV specials.

But sometimes dots are just dots, and those aren’t really constellations in the sky — just random, meaningless arrangements of stars that are indifferent to your experience of them.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Meanwhile, in the nonprofit world. This one’s pretty interesting: Tiny Spark, the Amy Costello-led independent nonprofit news outfit that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits, has been acquired by Nonprofit Quarterly, which is…well, a much larger independent nonprofit news organization that covers the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. “Amy…has done an exceptional job building the audience for her podcast. We are excited not only to add this new media channel to our organization, but also to collaborate with Amy to expand our reach into public radio,” said Joel Toner, NPQ’s president and chief operating officer.

As part of this arrangement, NPQ owns Tiny Spark’s intellectual property and Amy Costello is brought on as a senior correspondent to lead the organization’s investigative journalism work, podcast development, and public radio outreach. “Tiny Spark’s work fits very well into the topics we cover at NPQ,” said Toner, when asked about the strategic thinking behind the acquisition. “Additionally, our 2017 annual audience survey confirmed that our readers had a significant interest in having us develop a podcast channel.”

I’d like to point out just how much this arrangement reminds me of the one that was struck between USA Today and Robin Amer, which I profiled last week. Speaking of which…

A quick update to last week’s item on The City. In the piece, I talked a little bit about the USA Today Network’s podcast plans for 2018, chiefly drawing information from a summer 2017 press release the organization circulated when they first announced the acquisition of The City. The plans mostly involve launching more podcasts across its properties.

The company reached out to let me know that their thinking has since evolved. “The network already produces dozens of podcasts across its 109-plus sites, but is now focusing on a handful of those shows to support with resources and marketing à la The City,” wrote Liz Nelson, the USA Today Network’s vice president of strategic content development. “At the time [the press release] was written, we did have 60-plus podcasts — most of which bubbled up organically at the local level. We’re closer to 40 now. That number will continue to ebb and flow and we encourage experimentation at the local level, which gives our journalists the space they need to experiment in the medium.”

Nelson added: “But from a network level, we are not putting the same amount of resources we’ve put into The City into every single show. We’re concentrating on a smaller set of shows we believe can have national impact.”

Hold this thought. We’re going to talk about other stuff for a bit, but we’ll get back to this notion of resource focus.

“It amuses me,” wrote Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of audio, in a corporate blog post touting the sport media giant’s podcasting business, “when I read about podcasting in the media with references to it being ‘new’ or ’emerging.'”

Keller continued:

As ESPN has done with other technologies — be it cable TV in 1979, the Internet in the ’90s, HD television or mobile initiatives more recently — we embraced podcasting as soon as we could and ran with it — even if we didn’t always know where we would end up! We launched our first podcast way back in 2005. A head start is often critical in a competitive business environment.

I also chuckle when people refer to podcasting as some mysterious new format to figure out. I’ve spent a career in audio, and I can tell you the key ingredients for compelling audio are constant…

Yeah, I don’t know, dude.

The borderline condescending tone of the post isn’t exactly something I’d want to hear from a company whose public narrative is one of crisis on multiple fronts — from the disruption of its cable-bundle–reliant business model to layoffs to its uneven handling of social media policies to the uncertain future of a gamble on OTT distribution — let alone a podcast publisher whose Podtrac ranking placement (as always, disclaimers of that service here and here) is powered by what is still largely a spray-and-pray strategy, in which 82 shows are deployed to bring in 35 million global unique monthly downloads. For reference, the infinitely smaller PRX team gets 4 million more with less than half that number of shows (34 podcasts), while NPR bags three times more downloads with just 42 podcasts that don’t at all traffic in naturally addictive sports content.

To be clear, I am, very generally speaking, more appreciative of a world with a strong (and better) ESPN in it than one without. And let me also just say that I really like some of its recent moves in on-demand audio, namely the creation of the 30 for 30 Podcast and having Katie Nolan launch her own show.

But I just don’t think very highly of this whole “oh we’ve been doing this for a long time/we were doing this first therefore we are super wise” mindset that either mistakes early sandbox dabblings for meaningful first-mover value creation or simply being first for being noteworthy. To be fair, this isn’t a knock that exclusively applies to Keller’s blog post; that thinking governs an alarming share of press releases and huffy emails that hit my inbox. But here’s the thing: I really don’t think it matters whether you did first. What mostly matters is if you did it right. Which is to say: If you invented Facebook, dammit, you’d have invented Facebook. Furthermore, as it stands, if there’s anything I’m acutely aware of writing this newsletter every week, it’s that, much like everywhere else, nobody really knows anything. It’s just a bunch of people working really hard, trying to figure this whole podcast thing out.

Anyway. I normally try not to be too worked up about anything, but this stuff really bugs me, and goodness, there’s nothing I would love more than to take this mindset, strap it onto the next Falcon Heavy rocket, and launch it straight into the dying sun.

Still, credit should be given where’s credit due: The post goes on to discuss what I think is a really positive development for ESPN’s podcast business:

To get there, we pared our lineup — once numbering in triple digits — to about 35, focusing on the most popular offerings (NFL, MLB, and NBA) and other niche topics where we can “own” the category. It’s a “less is more” strategy, where we can better produce and promote a smaller lineup.

Which reminds me of something…

After spray-and-pray. ESPN’s move to pare down and focus its overflowing podcast portfolio reminds me of another podcast publisher that’s been pretty active since the first podcast boom: NPR.

NPR’s podcast inventory, too, once numbered in the triple digits. In August 2005, its directory housed around 174 programs, 17 of which were NPR originals while others were shows from member stations that the public radio mothership were distributing on their behalf. (That practice has since been terminated.) The show number peaked around 2009, when the directory supported about 390 podcasts.

“Back in those days, podcasts were hard to access and only the really digitally savvy listeners could find and download them,” an NPR spokesperson told me. “We were experimenting and we were excited with the possibility of putting out NPR content on-demand, repackaging content that had aired about specific topics, seeing what the audience would like…It also allowed for additional creativity in programming, podcasts could be a sandbox for piloting new ideas.” Some of those ideas eventually grew into segments and radio shows of their own, but these podcasts mostly ended up being an unruly system of small, quiet, under-the-radar projects.

All that changed with this most recent podcasting boom, which started in the latter half of 2014. Around that time, a focused effort was made to identify and retain shows that fit a certain set of criteria that included having a native podcast experience (and not just recycled segments from existing shows), strong listener communities, an alignment with the organization’s business needs, and so on. The rest were culled. By the end, NPR was left with 25 shows. “Our thinking was that by having a smaller portfolio, we could draw more attention to them, serve them better, cross-promote, bring sponsorship support, create significant reach,” the spokesperson said.

The move felt like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. “While everyone expected our downloads to go down, within two months, downloads were somewhere near 50 million a month,” remembered Audible’s Eric Nuzum, then vice president of programming at NPR. “Within a year, it was over 80.”

That number is now 110 million. The point of this little parable is…well, I don’t think I have to spell it out. You get the picture.

Call Your 2018. There are few teams I admire more than the trio behind Call Your Girlfriend, the podcast for long-distance besties everywhere: journalist Ann Friedman, international woman of mystery Aminatou Sow, and radio producer Gina Delvac. The show has, over its nearly four years of existence, evolved from a fun side project to stay connected into something so much more than that. It is, in equal parts, a platform, a community, and an ever-growing resource. And if the enthusiasm of some friends of mine who consider themselves devout CYG fans are any indicator, Call Your Girlfriend is also damn close to being a full-fledged movement.

Last year was a difficult one for the team, given the political environment, but it was also a call to arms to which they responded with vigor. “Despite the trash-fire that was 2017 in America,” they wrote me, “Better yet, because of it, we wanted CYG to function as a place of refuge for our listeners, and for ourselves.” This translated into an interview schedule that was dense with guests that spoke directly to the moment — including but not limited to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Atwood, and Ellen Pao — as well as a multipart series on women running for office that featured sit-downs with first-time candidates and organizations that support women seeking political office. The team also worked to push the show creatively, producing a special episode on pelvic pain and trauma and occasionally handing the mic over to other podcasting teams, like Who? Weekly’s Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger along with Good Muslim Bad Muslim’s Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

The year was also fruitful for Call Your Girlfriend’s business. Though specific numbers were not disclosed, I’m told that the show’s revenues — which come from a combination of ad sales, live events, and a healthy merchandising arm — far exceeded their original targets. More ambitious goals were set for the new year.

We’re neck-deep into the second month of 2018, so I thought it was a good a time as any to check in with the team about their plans for the coming months, their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and their commitment to being independent. They were kind enough to oblige:

[storybreak]

[conl]Hot Pod: What are y’all hoping to do this year?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: One of our first interviews of the year was with Cameron Esposito, and we loved her answer to everyone who’s told her she’s too loud or too gay: She’s simply getting gayer and louder. Likewise here at CYG, we’re getting more political, more feminist, and more obsessed with the transformative power of friendship.

Editorially, we’re both digging in and branching out. We’ll be featuring more of our sheroes as well as women whose stories you haven’t heard yet. We’re deepening our work with political candidates who will (hopefully) be running our country soon, and the writers, critics, and artists whose interpretive work helps us endure. We have a number of themed episodes in the works.

We’re also each taking on more as individuals: Amina is sharing more of her personal experience with illness and grief, Ann is bringing more of her stellar reporting and editorial strategy evident in her many bylines and newsletter to the podcast, and Gina is stepping in front of the mic to host an upcoming episode about sex.

We’re also hiring our first ever associate producer! Applications just closed, so we’ll be excited to announce the newest member of our coven in the coming weeks.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How has it grown over the years?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: We are very happy that we’ve stayed independent, and we’re working on some more official/structured ways of helping newer, like-minded independent podcasts find their footing as well. We’re also working on ways to leverage our listeners’ incredible political engagement. Our audience — primarily millenial women — drives book sales, ticket sales, merch sales, charitable donations in the tens of thousands and more. Folks on our mailing list are even volunteering to donate their blood for a national drive we’ll be announcing soon.

Part of how we’ve stayed independently owned is through the ads Midroll sells on our behalf. We’ve heard from the partnerships team that our sell-through rates are excellent, and our audience is a highly prized demographic segment. From a pure capitalistic standpoint, there are more advertisers recognizing the buying power in our demo than available ad inventory. We’d like to see more women behind the mic for myriad reasons, including getting paid. We’d also like to see more and better products and services that our audience will enjoy. We’re looking into ways to carve open more space, to bring revenue to great projects and better ads to fit women’s outsized purchasing power. (Weight-loss products need not apply. We love women of all sizes.)[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: How do you see Call Your Girlfriend right now, and how has the vision for the show changed over time?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: When we started, this was a project to stay connected to one another and have fun. We still do that, but we’ve added a number of elements outside the podcast itself along the way. Like the music touring model, that’s mainly meant live events and selling merch. Now and looking into the future, we see Call Your Girlfriend as a great clearinghouse for authentic content for ladies who get it. We’re always thinking about bigger projects in audio, as well as TV, digital, political action, and more.

We’ve talked about engagement, but on a qualitative level our fans respond and show up the way that close friends do. The live shows are a great example. We see friends in cahoots who seem like lifelong besties — and then discover they’ve just met. The number of friends who’ve planned road trips or flown in to be with their long-distance BFF for our shows is astonishing. The community around what we do is really positive and powerful. So we’re interested in adding to that experience as much as possible, that sense of pride and belonging, whether it’s on stage, in your earbuds, on a t-shirt or, perhaps, a screen.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What’s worrying you guys?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: As exciting as it’s been to see the emergence of so many new shows and projects, it seems harder than ever for new self-funded shows to find their footing. In an ad-centric model, it takes a lot of work to build a sizeable audience. Audience support has practical challenges. And while we’re excited about the energy around podcasting from media companies, not everyone has the production and marketing budget to invest to help insure a smash hit.

Discoverability remains a challenge. We’re also interested to see whether the proliferation of connected cars, smart home devices, and other access points to audio make it easier to entice brand new listeners.

Finally, for us and shows like ours, hosted by women who are overtly political, we worry about being overlooked or diminished, particularly when compared with similar endeavors that feature men. We specialize in conversations among politically-savvy women who are running things or will be soon. We blend serious discussion of the policies that dramatically impact women’s lives with a good dose of banter. We hope that audiences and industry watchers see that our delight in friendship is completely in line with the seriousness of our analysis and aims. We’re here for every facet of women’s humanity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: What have you been seeing with the rollout of Apple’s new podcast analytics?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It’s been really interesting to run a weekly show with the emergence of so many serialized and/or seasonal programming, watching which episodes really pop and which ones less so. It’s causing us to think critically about re-engagement, promotion, and leaning into vs expanding our style of content.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Has it been difficult staying independent?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: It hasn’t been hard for us to stay independent — that’s remained one of our core values — but as we each advise fellow podcasters we recognize that these are very different waters to wade into. Listeners are getting really sophisticated, which is great. But, that makes it harder to learn as you go. There’s much less room to fudge things like your show’s editorial framing, ill-considered artwork, or audio quality. And kind of like your inner circle of friends, once you have core besties, you limit how many new intimates you take on, by necessity.[/conr]

[conl]Hot Pod: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?[/conl]

[conr]Call Your Girlfriend: Anyone who has money to burn, talk to us. You’re a fool not to talk to us. We’re killing it.[/conr]

[storybreak]

Bites:

    • This is Love, the limited-run spinoff series from the team behind Radiotopia’s Criminal, is rolling out this week just in time for Valentine’s Day. Should be perfect for those who enjoy a steaming plate of romance with a side of spiders. (Website)
    • WBEZ debuted Making Obama, the Chicago public radio station’s followup to Making Oprah, last week. As previously mentioned, I’m personally psyched for the entire “Making” model, and its Hearken-like potential for local radio stations across the country. Snazzy landing page, too. (Said landing page)
    • FiveThirtyEight’s whiz kid Harry Enten has left the Nate Silver-led statistical analysis site to join CNN. Enten was a fixture on the site’s politics podcast, which I’ve always thought is one of the more entertaining and informative in the genre. Just as a reminder: There’s been some hubbub about FiveThirtyEight possibly being sold off. It’s currently owned by ESPN.
    • However unclear the path forward might be for a reputable public radio station mired in controversy, the show must go on. Last week, WNYC launched Trump, Inc., a collaboration with ProPublica that endeavors to answer basic questions on how the president’s business works — a set of facts that remain quite murky. The fine folks at Nieman Lab have some deets.
    • Speaking of Trump content, NPR’s Embedded is back with another season on the current presidential administration. (Show listing)
    • “Podcasting Is the New Soft Diplomacy.” The underlying premise here isn’t particularly novel, but there are some nice ideas in this Bryan Curtis piece that help illustrate soft power in the age of digitally distributed media intimacy. (The Ringer)
  • TheSkimm, that popular media company whose morning newsletter product reaches more than 6 million largely female readers, has launched its first podcast. (Though, it’s not the company’s first audio product. That would be the Skimm Notes feature that’s packaged into its app.) The show is called Skimm’d from The Couch, and it takes the shape of a career advice vessel in the minor key of Guy Raz’s How I Built This. (Official blog)

[photocredit]Photo of Sean Rameswaram by James Bareham/Vox Media.[/photocredit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Garage Labs starts work at Google this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

*flashes of domain-squatting trauma*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bites

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